Philosophy of Happiness

Wolterstorff (2008) claims that the eudaimonist theory holds that the definitive and comprehensive goal of a human being is to live a life worth living; a well-lived life is by definition the eudaimon or happy life. Aristotle claims that every wise person should be able to distinguish between what is good and what is convenient in his own life without being driven by a drive to be strong in life but rather the drive to live a good life. Everyone wants to live a good life; therefore contents of a good life or a happy life are as important as the good life itself. This essay uses extensive literature review to probe more into eudaimonia and elucidate the objectives and activities that amount to a happy life.


Aristotle points out that eudaimonia entails activity and it exhibits fineness in accordance with reason. Aristotle thinks that prudence is atypical for human beings and therefore the role of a human being is involving his logical capacity to the greatest heights. The fundamental idea is that eudaimonia is achieved when a human being develops his rational ability appropriately and that reason is within reach for all human beings. He states that disposition is opposed to eudaimonia and is not sufficient; for eudaimonia, behavior has to go hand in hand with action and not nature. However, Aristotle clearly points out that nature is inevitable and therefore it is not wrong to exercise one’s nature as long as the capacities of reason are utilized.

Aristotle goes on to point out that action continues to apply even in building of one’s character; he insists that living in harmony with reason means conquering excellence in its utilization. Though some philosophers believe that normal human beings will not apply rational power beyond a particular degree, Aristotle thinks that is inadequate. He thinks that when performing a task well, one has to portray great excellence in that particular task. Consequently, Aristotle states that eudaimonia or living and doing good come from activities that use the rational part of the soul in harmony with excellences of reason.

With regard to good life, Aristotle claims that the best life that a human being would live is a life that exhibits excellence compliant with reason. He believes that reason is not only hypothetical but also of empirical value as well; he uses much effort trying to explain excellences of character which facilitate exercise of empirical wisdom in a way that relate wisdom to action. The Aristotelian eudaimonist theory depends on virtue but Aristotle has a view that virtue is not a necessity for eudaimonia (Prior 2001). Aristotle also takes a realistic point of view when he talks about external goods with reference to eudaimonia; he agrees that friends, wealth and power have much to do with happiness and would go a long way in bringing happiness as long as the rational aspect is respected. 

Some philosophers argue that eudaimonism is an approach that aims at offering secure and warranted happiness while failing to consider the contingencies of this world. For this reason, these philosophers argue that eudaimonism fails to see the fact that human happiness cannot be separated from effects of possibility and therefore eudaimonism is not in a position to deliver what it promises. This type of criticism fails to acknowledge the real Aristotelian approach to the issue of contingency and happiness; Skeptics, Epicureans, Platonists and Stoics have already identified their interpretation of happiness, good life and the pattern to achieve a happy life. This setback behind eudaimonism cannot be blamed exclusively on the critics of eudaimonism; the conformist interpretations of Aristotle’s ethics do not reflect the true worth of Aristotle’s standpoint since they undermine the method that Aristotle adopts. Accordingly, the distinctiveness of Aristotle’s approach of eudaimonism to contingency has been largely misconstrued. Aristotle does not identify any particular notion of the good life as a blueprint for achieving happiness. Instead, his chief aim is to reconcile the contradictory intuitions that the good life is attainable, self-contained and that all human beings are subject to unforeseen event in life.

Aristotle’s solution to this conflict is to reveal that the problematic inkling that good lives are self-reliant can only be comprehended as human autonomy and thus the actual objective of eudaimonistic morality is not invulnerability to contingency. Aristotle claims that the collective conviction that happiness is self-contained is appropriately understood as human self-sufficiency because the questions that philosophical inquiry is supposed to help us to answer are questions concerning us. In view of the fact that it is a truth about us that, as physical and societal beings, our happiness necessarily relies, partially, on things beyond our control, the questions we pose when engaging in an ethical inquisition obligate us to give answers in terms of the kind of happiness we think can be achievable for physical and societal beings. Aristotle touches on this fact by claiming that the problems with which eudaimonists thrash about are as a result of failure to be familiar with the moral theory of happiness; people ought to be concerned with the kind of happiness which human beings aim and not what they believe is achievable. Therefore, according to Aristotelian theory of morals, there is no contradiction in aiming for happiness and recognizing that human life cannot be made impervious to contingency, since the happiness we aim for must be comprehended in terms of happiness that human beings can attain, and this, is certainly not liberty from contingency.

Clarifying the real significance of Aristotelian theory of eudaimonism requires re-examination of Aristotle’s ethics in the light of the methodology described by Aristotle as essential for investigating pragmatic questions about one’s life. A re-examination of Aristotle’s ethics exhibits a particularistic approach to the concept of eudaimonia which is liberated from conformist, intellectualist or neo-Platonic approach of Aristotle’s theory. Rather than reading Aristotle’s ethics as being resultant from a functionalist account of humans as reasoning creatures, Aristotle’s main worry should be understood in terms of the creation of a particularistic understanding of eudaimonia sufficient for particular agents’ practical discussions about how they should go about their own lives (Carson, 1981). Since the concept of eudaimonia necessarily includes independence and the possibility of its achievability, the only way to accomplish a satisfactory understanding of the basic eudaimonistic concept is to frame moral questions in terms of the particular situation and context of the representative asking the question. The result of this approach is then not an instruction for emancipating oneself from the contingencies of life, but rather an account of eudaimonia that allows us to think about the pragmatic questions of living one’s life in the light of existing limits and prospects of doing so.

Contingency is no doubt a major issue in eudaimonia; to understand Aristotle’s approach to contingency and happiness, it will be of much help if some of the critiques were analyzed. In this regard, Plato’s rejection of the particular and conservative theory would be a good one among other examples. Plato’s ethical theory can be interpreted as being driven by an elemental methodological concern originating from the fact that there is noteworthy disagreement about morality. Plato’s view is that moral disagreement is exceptional because for all other disputes about excellence there is already a well-known and widely accepted method of resolution. Non-moral disagreements are correctly resolved by a petition to the rules and standards established by the relevant craft. Socrates dialogues ascertain that if a system has no established and accepted standards, disagreements cannot be solved by appealing to conventional regulations and norms. Plato and other critics use a transcendental standard which bring agreement between disagreeing parties but this is merely a coincidence. A genuine ruling must be accountable to the collective understanding upon which all factual disagreements are based.

It is common understanding necessarily entailed from a true discrepancy from which Aristotle begins his inquiry. He wants to know what the uppermost good for human beings; the uppermost good is commonly agreed to be eudaimonia. On the other hand, eudaimonia is synonymous to happiness and is agreed to be living life well. At this point, that is where the agreement ends; how to live well and fair well in life is where the disagreements among philosophers start. If these facts were known, then the components of human good would be known with even greater precision. If the good was really known, then how to live well and fare well would certainly not be a problem; as a result, all the reasonable disagreement would come to an end. For this reason, a transcendental answer is recommended; Aristotle reflects on this approach and offers several arguments against Plato’s predisposition. He offers several opinions though not conclusively; he does it only as fears for adoption of metaphysics as the sole judge for the human good. Haybron (2003) claims that Aristotle is of the opinion that it is reasonable to presume that the good we seek is not some metaphysical concept because it is the good of individuals at which we endeavor and such a metaphysical notion is not what individuals can achieve.

The interpretation of the Aristotle’s claim that eudaimonia must include all virtue raises a heated debate among many philosophers. It has often been said that this kind of rationalization of the inclusivist interpretation done by Ackrill makes Aristotle’s position ridiculous. Ackrill is of the opinion that interpreting eudaimonia in the sense of complete would mean that for life to be satisfactory there would be no other choice apart from having everything in the world within your reach which is impossible. Ackrill illustrates this claim by giving an example of a sumptuous breakfast; he claims that for it to be the best, it would have to include not only eggs, bacon and tomatoes, but also other innumerable ingredients and above all have all the eggs and bacons in the world; this is ridiculous and impossible.

White comes to Aristotle’s rescue by separating inclusive eudaimonia from comprehensive eudaimonia. Inclusive eudaimonia takes reflection to be an element of happiness but not all-inclusive of all of the goods. According to White lacking in nothing does not necessarily mean being entire in the sense of including all the goods but it means not being deficient in any way. This implies that perfection is of great concern in eudaimonia rather than the sense of being complete. The inclusivist was generated by the requisite that eudaimonia is completely coupled with the fact that there is a plurality of desirable qualities. If the entirety of eudaimonia is simply non-deficiency, then there is definitely at least room for the likelihood that one virtue may make life lacking in nothing, even with the existence of plurality of virtues.

This likelihood creates room for the second interpretation of eudaimonia which is called the intellectualist interpretation. Intellectualists hold that the termination of the function argument also claims that in case there are multiple virtues, it is activity according to the best and is most complete. Intellectualist interpretation points its claim to Aristotle’s argument where he states that contemplation is in fact the best and most complete desirable quality. For that reason, the fact that eudaimonia has to posses the sense of perfectness if it is to avoid the absurdity alleged about Aristotle’s view means that Ackrill’s approach is fulfilled by contemplation and contemplation only. A life of moral good worth is just eudaimon in a secondary sense. That which makes life to be short of nothing, and therefore self-contained, can only be the uppermost of virtues which is contemplation. The intellectualist approach therefore asserts that the ultimate conclusion of the function argument is that the uppermost good for human being is contemplation. However, this does not imply that Aristotle dumps the other virtues as good; this only means that their position or place should be decided by their association with the highest good.

According to Patrone (2005) Richard Kraut says that when Aristotle defends his theory, he does not forget the psychosomatic and normative assumptions he has made throughout his ethical inquiry. He continues to hold onto the opinion that many types of human ends in addition to contemplation are enviable in themselves and he makes an assumption that the philosopher need them to some degree in order to be able to carry out his duties of devotion in theoretical activity for a long period of time. Therefore, contemplation does not amount to other goods such as virtue, ethics, pleasure and alliance that are really valued in Aristotle’s eudaimonist theory. Contemplation is rather a way of arranging those secondary ends into a coherent system: the best quantity of lower goods to have, from one’s reasoning is the quantity that most entirely contributes to one’s end. Of every other good apart from contemplation, there can be so much or so little for one’s benefit or good. Aristotle says that by aiming at this final end, we have a mark that assists us determine the limits of what can be too much or too little.

Kraut’s stance is aimed at cutting off one face if the intellectualist interpretation; if eudaimonia consists of just contemplation, then it would be unattainable since there are other commitments that conflict with capitalizing on contemplation. We have commitments to our families, friends, neighbors and the society at large. If eudaimonia is a component of contemplation, and contemplation is taken as the highest and the only true good, then we would be justified in doing, if it is not an obligation, an immense amount of harm to ourselves and other people in the stab to optimize the good. In this regard, Aristotle’s commitment to a pecking order of goods with contemplation at the pinnacle should not be taken to mean a commitment to intellectual insensitivity. What contemplation gives us is the code to steer our decisions in life in order to determine what amount and what degree of these other goods we will try to attain.

The same point is put differently by Irwin who points out that there is a distinction between the ingredients of happiness and the circumstances for a happy life. He stresses out that problems result when people are unable to distinguish between the two items. Though he agrees that contemplation is the only requirement of eudaimonia, he states that a eudaimon life entails more than just contemplation. Life in itself has requirements that it present that are so immense and they may clash with contemplation; at this point, one may be forced to chase the second kind of life: life of good virtue. Life of god virtue differs from that of eudaimonia in that eudaimonia consists of the highest desirable qualities and therefore moral virtue should be pursued in a way that permits contemplation.

Albeit there are many disagreements regarding contingencies and eudaimonia, it is agreed that the goal of the process of individuality formation should be to be aware of one’s best potentials and choose purposes in living a life that is reliable on those potentials. Aristotle insists that when individuals engage in activities which involve development of their potentials at their best and if they pursue goals related to their potential, they are likely to experience eudaimonia as opposed to instances in which they engage in other unrelated activities (Heinaman 2003).


Aristotle’s eudaimonistic theory states that experiences of happiness go hand in hand with a life lived well. Eudaimona is characterized by feelings of rightness, competence, strength of purpose and personal expressiveness. However, to be happy, one has to engage in activity, maximize on one’s potential besides optimally engaging one’s rational capacity; in addition to these facts, Aristotle agrees that external goods also matter in living a happy life.

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