Eudaimonia is a Greek word. Eu means “good” and daimon means “spirit.” It is commonly translated as happiness or welfare, but a more accurate definition is “human flourishing.” Eudaimonia is a central concept in Aristotelian ethics and philosophy. To experience eudaimonia was to live the good life.
So what is a good life?
Around 400 BC, the popular belief was that the good life and a life of ethical virtues were very different. A good life was one in which you experience happiness. And a life of virtue could really interfere with happiness. For instance, if cheating someone would result in you having more money then it would make sense to cheat. This is essentially the argument for hedonism.
Then along came Socrates. He took a very different view of the good life. For him the good life was a life of questioning popular opinion and tradition. It meant cultivating the practice of critical thought and self- awareness. It was Socrates who said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The good life, he believed, was a life that questions and thinks about things. It is a life of contemplation, self-examination and open-minded wondering. The good life is an inner life – the life of open inquiry and an ever-expanding mind.
Socrates student Plato also believed in self-examination, but felt the goal was to enter into the realm of the divine. According to Plato, our psyche had three main parts: the intellectual or rational system, a spirited or emotive system, and a basic system of physical appetites. He felt the “highest” part of us is our reason and that this was a divine fragment of God. This is what he felt made us different from other animals. He believed we need to cultivate this divine part of us and use it to control our emotions and physical instincts. In doing so, he felt that we would accomplish eudaimonia or the state of human flourishing.
For Plato this meant examining our values, seeing if they make sense, and trying to ascend to better and better definitions of truth until we get closer to the perfect, absolute and eternal forms of the Good, the True, and the Just, and so on. Plato believed that, just as there exists a realm of pure math where two plus two always equals four, so there must exist an eternal realm of moral values, which philosophers can ascend to. When we have become masters in practical and theoretical philosophy, then we will finally become ‘masters of our selves’. And because he saw humans as vessels for the divine, he believed that ultimately we could reach a state in which our individual ego is lost in ecstatic union with God.
Sound familiar? This idea of the ‘ascent of the soul’ was very influential on the mystic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In fact, eudaimonia is a concept found in all mystic traditions. Buddhists call in “waking up.” Buddhism teaches that humans are endowed with reason; we can use this reason to condition ourselves to eliminate all conflicting and harming state of minds and cultivate positive ones. In a reading I recently heard Reverend Hung Su share, “as soon as you wake up unbiased a being becomes a Buddha.”
The Academy that Plato founded had one primary underlying premise: that man is a soul using a body as an instrument. Its goal was the conversion of the soul to Truth, and use of that knowledge in the service of humanity. The Academy attracted the best and the brightest from all over Greece and its early graduates included many important lawmakers and mathematicians.
One of the students at the Academy was Aristotle. Aristotle believed that the nature of man included both a rational and an irrational system in his psyche. (I recognize that I am using male pronouns but remember these enlightened men hadn’t figured out yet how much women had to teach them.) Aristotle believed that man has a natural drive for knowledge, happiness and God. The Good life, as he defined it, was a life that fulfills these natural drives, and directs them to their highest end. Philosophy was the bridge between human nature in its raw and undeveloped form and human nature at its highest form. This is what Aristotle called eudaimonia, or flourishing.
Socrates believed that virtue alone was all you needed to have a good and happy life. Aristotle thought you needed virtue for a good life, but you also needed a bit of luck.
Living a Good Life
When George C. Boldt emigrated to the US from Prussia in 1864 he was nearly penniless. He got a job as a dishwasher then went to Texas to find other work. He was unsuccessful and returned to New York with even less money to take another dishwashing job. But his attention to service paid off and he was promoted to cashier and then to manager.
On a day near the turn of the century, a couple was making their way to New York. They had traveled all day and they were tired and ready to sleep when they arrived at the hotel and asked for a room, but George, the manager, explained that they had a convention in town and there was no room available. George asked if they wanted him to check on other rooms. They were so tired and weary and they told him they would very much appreciate his checking. But the closest place George could find with an open room was 2 hours away. They thanked him for his efforts and then started walking disheartened and without a plan to the door. George, who was busy trying to think of a solution, called for them to wait. He told them that they could stay in his room and that he and his family would stay in the lobby. The older gentleman refused at first, but George insisted that it was no trouble at all and that they should stay. They agreed.
The next day after a very restful night, the old man told George that one day he would manage the best hotel in the country. Two years later, the old man returned to the hotel and told George that he never properly thanked him. He then took him to lunch in New York. Afterward, he told George that they had an appointment to make and they walked a couple of blocks to a hotel. He said your staff is waiting to meet their new manager. My name is William Waldorf Astor and this is my hotel.
Socrates would point to the George’s values as evidence of a good life. Aristotle would also celebrate his values, but would include his position as the manager of the Waldorf-Astoria in concluding the George was living the good life.
For Aristotle, a good life had it all – all the virtues of justice, courage, a good sense of humor and the ability to drink wine without getting too obnoxious (really!), but it also required all the good fortune of wealth and power and community status plus all the wisdom to appreciate it. The one virtue neither Plato nor Aristotle seemed to embrace was humility! Both held philosophers in the highest regard and apparently themselves as well. We would all do well to remember Socrates warning that, “Thinking one knows what one does not know is the most reprehensible form of ignorance.” For Socrates there was always the need for self-examination.
Which is, of course, what open inquiry is all about. It is not about critiquing and criticizing other points of view. It is about clarifying our own.
To be intentional about self-reflection and growing self-awareness is to listen to others who may not feel or think or believe exactly the way we do. As we ask questions about our identity, we seek a grounding center in which the distinctions we draw between our convictions and those of others become less and less something to divide and separate us and more and more something to raise up and celebrate!
All of us have some kind of history, a lineage of some sort. We are Christian, Jewish, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, Hindu and more. Embracing the good life means we don’t waste our time trying to figure out who the enemy is so we can bond together in a false sense of intimacy. It means that we use information from every source to try to understand more rationally the shadows and cultural pitfalls that all religion and all world views are subject to so that we have a more realistic view of our common work in always reclaiming and reevaluating our own good life and the good life of community.So my friends, welcome to the good life! A life where we will question ourselves more than others. A life where instead of needing others to think the way we do, we will work to see the lens through which we see our own version of the world. A life in which we will seek lessons from everyone we meet and find the answers inside of ourselves. A life in which we will drink wine and we will not be obnoxious!