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Plato & Aristotle: The Role of the Emotions in the Pursuit of Eudaimonia

Updated on June 7, 2010

Plato & Aristotle


In the Greek term, ‘happiness’ is translated as eudaimonia. Within our own context, happiness is to be understood as a psychological state of feeling. On the other hand, eudaimonia for the Greeks was to be understood in a more objective way than that of a psychological state of feeling. It gave a greater contrast between the condition of feeling happy, and the state of being genuinely happy in relation to the wider connotations of ‘well-being’ or ‘flourishing’. In a rich conception of happiness, Aristotle shares with Plato the claim that happiness is the ultimate end of human action. Although like Plato, Aristotle accepts the view that happiness cannot be separated from pleasure and the emotions, and that the person who is happy will necessarily find pleasure in their way of life. In the Nicomachean Ethics he states that: ‘Verbally there is a very general agreement’[1] in the view that happiness is the highest good. Here he tells us that everyone agrees that eudaimonia means the same as living and faring well. Later on he states: ‘to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude.’[2] From this point, there is an assertion in thinking that the ultimate end of an action is in its state of well-being. This leads Richard Norman to the conclusion that human actions are to be understood in terms of ends and means.

In terms of its ends and means, is happiness the dominant or the inclusive? What do all actions and goods aim at? What can be said of this is that Aristotle wasn’t exactly clear about the relation between happiness and the ends. Although, he doesn’t say that happiness is in itself an end, and that all human beings desire things as a means to happiness, but more so, he states that: ‘Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else.’[3] Aristotle would also say that honour; pleasure, intelligence and the virtues should not only be pursued as ends in themselves, but are to be pursued for the sake of happiness. Although, on an individual level, none of these goods can solely constitute happiness in terms of eudaimonia. In order for this to be effective, these goods must harmonise with each other. He further states, that it is when all these goods are combined as a whole, and coincide with their pleasures that they can be considered as eudaimonian.

The Human Function

In showing that happiness only consists through the human action, which coincides in accordance with reason, Aristotle states that in determining the good life, one must firstly look for the ‘function’ of a human being. As an example of this, he further states: ‘for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the “well” is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function.’[4]

For many people, including Richard Norman, the analogies of Aristotle fail to convince. The reason for this is that his conclusions don’t follow their premises, e.g., milk becomes intrinsic because of its taste, but when it is taken because of its nutritional values, it loses its taste. Another example of this can be seen in his analogy of women and slaves. He ascribes that rationality is distinctive of all human beings. The function of all women is to obey men, and those who are natural born slaves must obey those who are by nature, their masters. This leads Aristotle to the conclusion that the fully lived human life can only be lived by the free-born male citizens. Although, Norman does not commit Aristotle to such a view. More so, he states that Aristotle may have conceived the view that women and slaves were human beings with distinctive human capacities. He may also have held the idea that people live with the inability to make full use of their distinctive human capacities, thus resulting them to live in a state of impoverishment. With this, Norman concludes that the concept of the fully human life coincides with the Platonic and Aristotelian concept of genuine happiness.

Reason and Intellect

In the role of reason and intellect, it cannot be argued that every way leads to eudaimonia. For Aristotle, pleasure was to be sought in the fulfillment of an action. He held the view that Ethics was not part of the philosophical tradition. The perfect life for the real philosopher is that which is associated with the intellect. On the other hand, Aristotle believed that moral virtue was the second best state of life, whereas reason is that which is the divine element within a man. The more we live a life of pure reason, the more like God we will become. In his theory of forms, Plato presents us with a tripartite model of the human soul. This theory was composed of three components: reason, spirit and appetite. In his own view, he believed that reason is always superior to the appetites, and therefore, must appease them in every sense if eudaimonia is to be achieved. For Plato, reason in the exclusion of the emotions, held a primary role in the quest of truth happiness. Although, Aristotle renounced the Platonic theory of forms, he states that our experience of every day life has little to teach us because our every day experience gives us a distorted image of the truth.

The Doctrine of the Mean

Having looked at Aristotle’s previous arguments, it is now time to analyse the traditional virtues. Otherwise known as courage and moderation, which also act in accordance with reason, this will complete Aristotle’s attempt to show that the life of the traditional virtues is the best kind of life.[5] For Aristotle, living according to the mean could not be accomplished by avoiding any emotional extremes, but more so, by responding within an emotional context that was substantially suitable to a given situation, e.g., in the case of an illness, it is appropriate to feel sympathy for the person who is sick. How, then, are we to know when it is appropriate to show these feelings? In view of this, Aristotle states that: ‘Excellence, then is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.’[6] He later states: ‘Excellence, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual excellence owes both its birth and its growth to teaching, while moral excellence comes about as a result of habit.’[7]

In Plato’s later writings, especially in the Phaedrus, Martha Nussbaum informs us that in his tripartite model of the soul, Plato’s active oppression against the emotions gradually begins to change. He states that the non-intellectual elements have a more dominant role in that of the emotions. From the point of view of the Phaedrus, Nussbaum supports Plato’s model of the soul by stating that: ‘the non-intellectual elements are necessary sources of motivational energy.’[8] They motivate the whole person towards the good and in return, inform the person to the whereabouts of beauty and goodness. In the state of passionate love, the lover who falls in love with someone who is good and beautiful is in a state of passionate inspiration.[9] From this view, Nussbaum concludes that sense and emotions are guides towards the good and beauty of this inspiration.

It is through the life of reason that Aristotle presents to us an image of how knowledge is to acquired in order to pursue eudaimonia for the higher good. For him, this was the golden rule in the actualisation of excellence. Although, Norman states that it is solely in ‘the rational emotional life’, or the life guided by phronesis, that the highest happiness will consist in the activity of intellectual contemplation.[10] In philosophy, the life of moral virtues is the potential of all human life. It is solely for this reason that Aristotle invested himself into pursuing and attaining it. It can also be said that the emotions in relation to Aristotle and Plato, play a necessary role in the pursuit of eudaimonia. In their accounts on what constitutes happiness, they both produce a unique image of the eudaemonic person.

[1] Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. I 1095a 17.

[2] Ibid. 1097b 22.

[3] Ibid. 1097b 1-2.

[4] Ibid. 25-9.

[5] Richard Norman, The Moral Philosophers, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.35.

[6] Nicomachean Ethics, bk. II, 1106b 35-

[7] Ibid. 1103a 14-17.

[8] Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. (Cambridge University Press, 1986.) p.214.

[9] Ibid. p. 215.

[10] Richard Norman, The Moral Philosophers. P.40. Phronesis: wisdom, good sense, good judgement, prudence.

© Niall Markey 2010


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