#464 Aristotle’s “Happiness”

Isn’t Quite What You Think

Aristotle was born in Greece on the border of Macedonia in 384 BC. His father was the court physician to the Macedonian king. At the age of seventeen, he went to Athens where he studied with Plato in his Academy for TWENTY years until Plato’s death.

Shortly thereafter, he was summoned to Macedonia by the king and became the tutor of the young Alexander the Great. (Aristotle was forty-one. Alexander was thirteen.)

Then Aristotle went back to Athens where he created his Lyceum and, essentially, spent the rest of his life studying and mastering every imaginable subject—from logic, ethics, history and politics to anatomy, biology and zoology. And, of course, psychology and philosophy.

His insights have shaped our world. (And, did you know that his Lyceum survived for an astonishing five hundred (!) years after his death?)

Today we’re going to focus on his views on ethics. Specifically, those views shared in his classic treatise The Nicomachean Ethics. (Which, btw, is named after his son who essentially edited Aristotle’s lecture notes.)

Even more specifically, we’re going to focus on his take on “happiness.”

You may know that the central theme of Aristotle’s Ethics is the fact that there’s really only one reason we do ANYTHING (and EVERYTHING)—it’s to experience happiness. That’s the ultimate aim. Tal Ben-Shahar calls it the “ultimate currency.” It’s the summum bonum. The “highest good.”

The word we use for that is “happiness.”

But, that’s a REALLY (!) weak translation of the word Aristotle used. You know what he used?


We’ve talked about it before but it’s important that we talk about it again. This time, we’re going to bring in Jonathan Barnes, the author of the Introduction to the Penguin Classic edition on which I created our Note.

In his Introduction to this great work, Barnes goes to great lengths to establish the fact that Aristotle’s sense of “eudaimonic happiness” is VERY different than our modern take on “happiness.”

Here’s how Professor Barnes puts it: “To call a man eudaimōn is to say something about how he lives and what he does. The notion of eudaimonia is closely tied, in a way in which the notion of happiness is not, to success: the eudaimōn is someone who makes a success of his life and actions, who realizes his aims and ambitions as a man, who fulfills himself.”

In other words, the ultimate aim of life is not “happiness” as we know it, but more of a sense of ACTUALIZATION.

True happiness, in the Aristotelian sense, MUST include the successful actualization of our potentialities. THAT is the ultimate purpose of life. The highest good. The summum bonum.

Which leads us back to Barnes and another one of his brilliant points: “It will not do to replace ‘happiness’ by ‘success’ or ‘fulfilment’ as a translation of eudaimonia; the matter is too complicated for any such simple remedy, and in what follows I shall continue to employ the word ‘happiness’, guarding it with a pair of inverted commas. But it is worth considering Aristotle’s recipe for eudaimonia with the notion of success in mind. The Ethics, we are thus supposing, is not telling us how to be morally good men, or even how to be humanly happy: it is telling us how to live successful human lives, how to fulfill ourselves as men.”

THAT is the type of “happiness” we’re after—a deep sense of fulfilling ourselves and leading our best, most successful lives.

Which, of course, is why we do all we do together.

Optimizing. Actualizing.

Tomorrow we’re going to chat about Aristotle’s take on HOW to experience eudaimonia.

For now: Recall that the LITERAL meaning of eudaimonia is “good soul.”

Today’s +1? Please go high five your inner daimon for me, will ya? 🤓 🙌

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