Apr 3rd, 2008, 11:26 AM
Eudaemonia versus happiness
I was reading someone's profile online, and she included a line like "I try to be happy all the time, because I don't see the point in trying to be anything else." She did seem to be fairly intelligent and interested, if not versed, in philosophy. So, that got me thinking back to my classical training.
In Ancient Greece, you can distinguish all kinds of different strains of types of thought depending on what you're talking about. The one that stands out the most is Platonic Rationalism, the idea that anything should be figured out by just thinking about it for a long time, versus Aristotelian Empiricism which says that you should figure things out by analyzing them directly in as many perspectives as possible. The dichotomy that came to mind, however, was the Greek ideals of seeing the pursuit of happiness as the greatest good (Epicureanism) or whether the greatest good is the pursuit of meaningful fulfillment. This latter idea is embodied with a Greek word transliterated as eudaimonia which really doesn't have any direct English translation.
My problem is that I'm not skilled in Greek enough to read these works in their original yet, so I can't say for sure when Aristotle talks about happiness and when he talks about eudaimonia in works like his Nicomachean Ethics. This is a pain because Aristotle's references to happiness and eudaimonia are often BOTH translated as just "happiness" out of convenience, even though this is very wrong.
Eudaimonia is often translated as "the good life" as well, but that's more of a euphemism. I personally would translate it as "the proper spirit". Classically, it refers to the pursuit of being a positive force in the world through virtue. Its proponents say that it's far more important to be a good person, even from your own perspective, than to simply achieve pleasure. In short, no matter how miserable you feel virtue will give you a more complete and aesthetically sound reward.
Although Epicureanism has always enjoyed some amount of popularity through history, mainstream philosophy has usually been of the attitude that eudaimonia is more mature and legitimate. A lot of people like Aristotle say that happiness is good if you have it, like a cake with extra icing, but it's not something that you should worry about all that much. Later folk like Boethius and Marcus Aurelius actually argued that happiness is bad and destructive because it's a cheap imitation for eudaimonia, and it is ALWAYS fleeting.
Despite the fact that modern philosophy very often talks about how counteractive and destructive the Christianization of classical philosophy was, nobody can really deny that it's what got us to the lens through which we view philosophical questions today. Folks like Augustine and Aquinas generally tried to sidestep the question of whether happiness of eudaimonia was more important by linking them together theologically. Their basic idea is that if we live for the pursuit of eudaimonia, God will reward us with happiness if we need it. If we DON'T need it, as John of the Cross explored, we might suffer but this suffering will ultimately make us better people.
With the advent of post-Christian philosophy, at least in the popular realm of understanding, this eudaimonia thing was treated as if it were a God fixation from the Christians and should thus be ignored. It was seen as a uselessly long road to the more important end of happiness, I guess.
Even in secular philosophical circles that nominally reject Epicureanism, I've never seen the idea of eudaimonia taken seriously even though it's very often discussed. Modern philosophy invented terms like "aretology" to talk about it, yet this seems to always been in a deconstructivist historical context.
In my life, I've always had a physiological or emotional block from happiness. i have no memory ever in my life of thinking I was happy. By high school, even though I never heard the term "eudaimonia" I had acquired an indirect understanding of it through many different paths and thought that it was much more rewarding. In early college I still held this view, but it was really really pissing me off that I wasn't happy anyways.
In the past few months, my chronic depression mysteriously disappeared. It was so subtle that I barely noticed until long after it was gone. I can't honestly say that I'm happy or that I'm not, because i can't honestly make that judgment call from the perspective I'm at right now. The problem is that I'm getting mad at myself now for not having more interest in eudaimonia as I always have, as if by not being terminally miserable I've become a worse individual. So, I need to find a way to balance the two, I guess.
Oh shit, I made a philosophical post in the conspiracy theory/news-of-the-weird forum. Sorry.