Philosophy 158 - 8.4.5 Eudaimonia (Human Flourishing)

Philosophers sometimes use the word eudaimonia, the ancient Greek term for “happiness” or “human flourishing,” to describe well-being. Eudaimonia is a hard word to translate. People often associate the word happiness with a fleeting moment of elation or personal satisfaction rather than a state of overall well-being. However, eudaimonia is not a mere feeling or temporary high. It describes one’s life as a whole, not just how one feels, which is why the term flourishing is used more often. Flourishing also has the sense of thriving according to one’s nature. We add human to flourishing to specify that we mean excelling in the things that are proper to a human life.

Ancient Greek View of Eudaimonia

Eudaimonia is derived from the words for “good” (eu) and “spirit” (daimon). A daimon was a guardian spirit that would help someone through life and guide them to the underworld. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates claimed his daimon told him to philosophize so he could awaken the Athenian people. Eudaimonia is more than a temporary feeling of joy or elation. It is having a good spirit through life, or—to put in more modern terms—having a flourishing life, full of all the good things a life can provide.

For Plato and Aristotle, eudaimonia is related to the virtue or excellence of something (arête). Virtue or excellence is determined by the nature and purpose of something. For humans, one simply needs to determine the virtues that are proper to human nature and practice them to flourish in life. Moreover, flourishing in life gives an indication that one is acting well or virtuously. For Aristotle, virtue alone was not sufficient for flourishing. After all, someone could be very virtuous and suffer a grave misfortune. Suffering seems antithetical to flourishing. However, ancient Stoics believed that virtue was sufficient for flourishing and that tragic circumstances could not rob someone of their flourishing, because it could not take away their virtue. These debates in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy help us to think about whether an individual cultivates flourishing through their own agency alone or whether circumstances determine flourishing, or whether perhaps both are true.

G. E. M. Anscombe and Modern Eudaimonism

The British philosopher Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe (1919–2001), known as G. E. M. Anscombe, critiqued Aristotle’s ethics and eudaimonism in her 1958 article “Modern Moral Philosophy.” For Anscombe, Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonism is too vague to be useful to moral philosophy, and many of the virtues he describes in Nicomachean Ethics do not fit within a moral framework.

At the same time that Anscombe critiqued ancient Greek eudaimonism as a principle for moral philosophy, she denied that modern philosophy had provided any better alternatives. For Anscombe, modern moral philosophies, such as Kantian ethics and utilitarianism, use “oughts” that have no firm foundation. She argues that an “ought” implies a command or law, which requires a legislator. This concept of morality works well within a theistic framework where God serves as a legislator, but modern moral philosophy presents itself as secular, not religious. Anscombe’s contemporaries took up the challenge of describing human flourishing and virtues in a more rigorous manner that could form the foundation for modern moral philosophy.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax