In section ten of the first book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle acknowledges the seeming contradiction between eudaimonia as something that takes place within a person as an “activity of the soul” and as something that is best thought of as an objective, external evaluation of a life as a whole — a sort of posthumous (or even post-posthumous) summing up of how successful a life it was.
What if you’ve lived a good life and it seems like your
eudaimonia has been well-secured, but then, after you’re
dead, your reputation is slandered and your family comes to ruin? Can you
even suffer harm to your eudaimonia after you’re six feet
Aristotle says there has to be a middle ground between seeing
eudaimonia as utterly transient and dependent on fortune on
the one hand, and seeing it as unattainable in life but only assignable in
retrospect on the other.
Nobility, greatness of soul, virtue — these things are durable.
They lead to an enduring eudaimonia less susceptible to the
whims of fate, and also allow their bearers to better adjust to whatever
fortune throws their way. If your character is such that you’ll try to make
the best of whatever life presents you with, at least you’ll never be
miserable, though perhaps you’ll never be blessed.
That seems like sensible enough advice, though not particularly enlightening.
One way I can interpret it is to think of nobility and greatness of soul and
virtue as being a sort of riches that are less vulnerable to being lost by
But even Job, though he
“was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil,” when the devil
threw misfortune after misfortune at him, came to curse the day he was born
and concluded “I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only
turmoil.” Someone asked him what happened to the optimistic good advice he
ladled out back in his days of wine and roses: “Should not your piety be your
confidence and your blameless ways your hope?” No, he replies: I’m miserable
and I see the wicked flourishing all around me and my piety and virtue are no
comfort to me. So his companions are reduced to asserting that if Job
redoubles his efforts to be pure and upright, God will of course restore him
to health and prosperity, and eventually get around to smiting the wicked:
virtue apparently is not its own reward after all. (God’s eventual answer to
Job is pretty pathetic, and reminds me mostly of the bluster of “The Great
and Powerful Oz” before Dorothy and her crew.)
But certainly if you love virtue and behave virtuously, voila!
at least to that extent you’re richer and more eudaimon
as a result of your action. But that’s not much to go on. If you love
music, and sing aloud, to some extent you’re richer for doing so. Virtue is
nothing special in this regard (or if it is, Aristotle hasn’t told us why
yet). Indeed, if you love vice and behave viciously, you seem to reap an
equivalent reward, by this logic.
In section eleven Aristotle spends a little more time talking about how posthumous events can effect the eudaimonia of the dead.
I didn’t get much more out of that, except more confirmation that “happiness” is an absolutely inadequate translation for what Aristotle meant by eudaimonia.
Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics