Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.38

Lawrence J. Jost, Roger A. Shiner, Eudaimonia and Well-Being: Ancient and Modern Conceptions.   Kelowna, BC:  Academic Printing and Publishing, 2003.  Pp. xxxiii, 198.  ISBN 0-920980-79-1.  $24.95 (pb).  

Contributors: Julia Annas, David Hahm, Thomas Hurka, Brad Inwood, Lawrence J. Jost, Glenn Lesses, Phillip Mitsis, David Sobel, L.W. Sumner, Stephen A. White

Reviewed by Thornton Lockwood, Assumption College (
Word count: 2488 words

What is at stake in determining how to translate the central term of Greek ethical philosophy, that of eudaimonia? The volume Eudaimonia and Well-Being (a collection of ten papers presented at a conference at the University of Cincinnati in 1993) shows that English terms such as happiness, well-being, and flourishing can have significantly different connotations which complicate our understanding of the Greek term. The volume's contributors work in both ancient Greek ethics and Anglophone contemporary moral philosophy, and although not all the papers bridged the divide between classics and philosophy, on the whole the volume succeeds in elucidating the different meanings "happiness" has for both contemporary and ancient Greek philosophers. The ten papers address five topics, in each case with one author presenting a thesis and another responding as discussant. Most of the papers were revised for publication, and many of the discussants' papers can stand as independent contributions. Additionally, the editor (who was a participant at the conference) provides a helpful introduction which underscores key themes addressed by many of the papers. The topics examined were whether virtue is sufficient and necessary for happiness (Annas and Sumner); the relationship between fear of death and happiness in Epicurean philosophy (Mitsis and Lesses); the development of the concept of happiness amongst peripatoi in the Hellenistic Lyceum (White and Inwood); the nature of the ethical philosophizing in the sixth book of Polybius' Histories (Hahm and Jost); and the neo-Aristotelian "capabilities" social philosophy espoused by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen. The volume includes an index locurum, but no comprehensive bibliography. Let me first summarize the debate on the individual topics and then speak to a couple general themes. Given the richness of the papers, space constrains me to restate only the main arguments.

In "Should Virtue Make You Happy?," Julia Annas, whose Morality of Happiness1 was a central inspiration for the conference, examines Socrates' claim that virtue is sufficient and necessary for happiness in order to consider whether his notion of happiness is akin to what contemporary moral philosophers mean by that term today. Although Socrates' claim that virtue is the only thing which is good (e.g., Euthydemus 278-82) was sufficiently outrageous in his own time (consider Aristotle's rejection at EN 1153b19-21), Annas argues that such claims "are barely intelligible for reduced and negative modern conceptions of virtue" (9). For moderns, happiness seems to be an extremely flexible concept, one which means different things for different people and is based primarily on desire-satisfaction (14). Whereas the modern notion of happiness consists in the fulfillment of an individual's desires, the ancient notion was much more concerned with the transformation that virtue effects upon one's desires. Thus, Annas concludes, "the subjectivity of modern theories of happiness as desire-satisfaction is the key to deep differences between ancients and moderns" (16). In "Happiness Now and Then," Annas' respondent, L.W. Sumner, picks up on just that point and argues that the ancient link between eudaimonia and virtue seems paradoxical and "even perverse" if eudaimonia is understood as "happiness," although the claim is more plausible (but ultimately false for him) if eudaimonia is understood as well-being (22-23). For moderns, "happiness" is ultimately a deeply subjective concept consisting primarily of having a positive attitude towards one's life. In this sense of the term, Sumner thinks it is absurd to claim that a bad person could not be happy: the hit man's contentedness with his place in the mob pecking order seems to be an example of happiness. Although "well being," as used by contemporary moralists, includes an element of self-satisfaction with one's life, it also includes a notion of "a good or worthwhile life" (35). Thus, Sumner argues that whereas a work like Aristotle's Ethics appears silly or absurd if one understands eudaimonia as happiness, if one understands the term as "well-being," it is a work worthy of serious philosophical argument.

In "Happiness and Death in Epicurean Ethics," Philip Mitsis argues that the Epicurean concern about the fear of death is hardly an eccentricity of that school but rather just another way of understanding the Socratic claim that virtue is sufficient for happiness. The famous claim of the Apology -- that "a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death" (Apol 41d) -- serves as an inspiration to Epicurean philosophy, which sought to buttress the claim that the Epicurean sage had no reason to fear being harmed by death because of his understanding of personal identity and the proper ordering of desires. Mitsis tries to meet the criticisms of Bernard Williams2 that the Epicurean is wrong to claim that there is nothing detrimental to one's happiness if a life is cut short, before the "prizes of life" (praemia vitae, cf. De Rerum Natura III.894-903) can be obtained, on the grounds that Williams' juxtaposition of a very short life and that of one lived until a ripe age is a false comparison. But I think that here it is his respondent, Glenn Lesses, in his "Happiness, Completeness, and Indifference to Death in Epicurean Ethical Theory," who articulates the clearest response to Williams. The Epicurean distinguishes between kinetic pleasures, such as those involved with the removal of want or pain (e.g., the pleasure brought to a parched throat by a cool glass of water), and katastemic pleasures, such as those which are complete and involve no removal of pain (e.g., the pleasures of "freedom of disturbance" [ataraxia] or "lack of bodily pain" [aponia]). According to the Epicurean, happiness rightly understood consists in the latter pleasures, which can be obtained in a finite, and indeed, even a short time. Thus, a young Epicurean sage who died an early death "is not threatened with any loss of goods by a shorter life. A life containing katastemic pleasures meets the constraints of an adequate conception of eudaimonia -- viz., finality and self-sufficiency" (67).

In "Happiness in the Hellenistic Lyceum," Stephen A. White seeks to rehabilitate the legacy of the peripatetic ethical philosophers between Theophrastus and Antiochus of Ascalon (approximately the period 288-120 BCE). White argues that Antiochus sought to highlight his own ethical philosophy through the construction of a discreditable peripatetic tradition which appeared to be inconsistent and eclectic. Thus, the strategy of Antiochus' spokesman in Cicero's On Ends (V.13-14, 19-21) highlights the disagreement within the Hellenistic Lyceum and "does not inspire trust. The strategy is ingenious and rhetorically devastating. Exposing its internal conflict makes the Hellenistic Lyceum look ethically bankrupt, which supports Antiochus' blanket criticisms of philosophy after Aristotle and his call for a return to what he styled the 'Old Academy'" (73). But, whereas Antiochus' depiction of the peripatoi made them appear inconsistent and eclectic, White argues that one can find in their apparent diversity of opinions an attempt "to shore up Aristotelian Ethics by turning Stoic ingredients to the Lyceum's advantage" (76). Thus, according to Smith, in the 3rd century Lycon and Hieronymus articulated accounts of eudaimonia that incorporated the best elements of Stoic "dispassion" (eupatheia), and in the 2nd century Critolaus incorporated the best elements of Stoic "being reasonable" (eulogistein) in his account of eudaimonia (81-2, 85). White bases his argument in large part on linguistic parallels between these peripatetic accounts of eudaimonia and those found in Stoic accounts, and it is here that his respondent, Brad Inwood, attacks his argument. Although Inwood grants that White might have a reliable case for the rehabilitation of Critolaus, in the cases of Lycon and Hieronymus many of the terms which White claims to isolate as "Stoic" (such as "joy" [chara] or "absence of disturbance" [aochlesia]) are not distinctively Stoic, and so no proof that 3rd century peripatoi were incorporating into their accounts of eudaimonia implicit critiques of the Stoics.

In "From Platonism to Pragmatism," David E. Hahm argues that, in the account of constitutional change presented in the sixth book of his Histories, Polybius articulates a "subjectivist-utilitarian theory" of eudaimonia. Hahm's argument has two supports. First, he claims that Polybius obliquely attributes the theory of constitutional change to Philopoemen, but Philopoemen was a likely student of students of Arcesilaus, the head of the Academy who turned it to thorough skepticism in the 3rd century. Thus Polybius' theory, Hahm claims, is predicated on an epistemological skepticism about knowing unchanging moral Forms (107, 109). Secondly, Hahn claims that Polybius' theory of constitutional change -- which is itself a quasi Kulturgeschichte about the evolution of society and norms -- implies that virtuous actions are analyzed in terms of the benefits they have for individuals but that the moral concepts which we base on such benefits are ultimately just an instance of "a derivative, subjective entity, existing in the minds of members of a culturally bonded community" rather than any sort of Platonic Form or Ideal (113-14). Jost, in his "Was Polybius a Meta-ethical Theorist of a Skeptical or Subjectivist Stripe," raises a number of problems for Hahm's account. He first argues that there is no evidence for influence of Arcesilaus upon Philopoemen. Second, he points out that elsewhere in his Histories Polybius shows little toleration for epistemological skepticism and that, indeed, Polybius fits quite well in the moralizing tradition of other Greek historians. The very notion of a cyclical, recurring pattern of constitutional change based on nature is directly at odds with the skeptical epochê, which sought to live only within appearances. Indeed, Polybius' description of the origins of moral terms may be nothing other than a description of concept formation rather than any sort of meta-ethical claim about the reality of moral concepts.

Whereas the first four sets of papers are concerned primarily with the interpretation of classical texts, the final set evaluates two modern social philosophers, Nussbaum and Sen, who have sought to incorporate ancient objectivist accounts of eudaimonia into their accounts of justice. In his "Capability, Functioning, and Perfectionism," Thomas Hurka takes Sen and Nussbaum to task for a number of the features of their "capabilities approach" to political philosophy.3 His central criticisms are that their account of good human functioning is unsatisfactory because it includes too many goods that are trivial and omits others that seem necessary to a perfectionist's account of the good; that the theory's focus upon capabilities rather than achieved functioning elevates freedom or choice over all other goods; and that the structural egalitarianism of their theory is not suited to a perfectionist account of objective goods (160-61). Those familiar with the literature on Nussbaum and Sen will recognize these as cogent, but not necessarily novel criticisms. What does seem both new and interesting, though, is Hurka's speculation about the cause of the uneasy fit of perfectionism and egalitarianism that runs throughout the work of Nussbaum and Sen. Hurka points out that Sen's initial presentation of his position, "Equality of What?" was a contribution to the critique of maximum egalitarianism found in John Rawls' Theory of Justice.4 Sen quite reasonably pointed out that Rawls' account of primary goods privileged instrumental goods such as wealth, and had little place for human capacities and abilities. Thus, "in devising the capability theory, Sen took over the structural egalitarianism and focus on opportunity of the post-Rawlsian literature on justice. He and especially Nussbaum also noticed the plausibility of some objective or perfectionist claims about value and tried to combine then with the Rawlsian structure" (161). In his "The Moral Importance of the Capability to Achieve Elementary Functionings," the respondent, David Sobel, grants that Hurka's criticisms appear to be valid against Nussbaum, but he argues that one can separate Sen's account from Nussbaum's, and that Sen's independent account can defend itself against Hurka's criticisms.

I wish to close my review with the consideration of two problems that run through several of these papers. Both problems concern the central issue of whether the ancient notion of eudaimonia has any place in contemporary moral and political debates. Liberalism famously makes the claim that "the right is prior to the good," namely it preserves for individuals their right to set their own life plans with almost no regard for how bad those plans might be (e.g., except in cases where they are harmful to others or unambiguously self-destructive).5 Within such a framework, the notion of a "best way of life" makes no sense, and so the ancient quest for eudaimonia, which sought an answer to the question "how ought one best live?" seems hopeless or absurd. Sen and Nussbaum of course struggle with this problem, but so too do those of the volume's contributors who want to see not just what the ancients say but what they can teach us.

The first problem I wish to articulate concerns the translation of the term eudaimonia. The engagement of moral philosophers and people working on ancient Greek ethics in this volume is especially fruitful because it elucidates several working assumptions that the two different camps hold. Sumner is quite right to point out that what happiness means for contemporary theorists is radically different from what, say, Aristotle is discussing in his Nicomachean Ethics, and in exchanges with contemporary moralists it is very helpful to know this. But although within his own subjectivist framework it would appear absurd to seek to give an account of the best way of life, it does not follow that it is so. Are ancient perfectionist accounts of eudaimonia at odds with modern liberal notions? Of course. Does that entail that modern liberal notions therefore trump ancient eudaimonistic accounts? Hardly, or at least not without a lot more argument.

The second problem turns on a related assertion, again one made by Sumner but evident in the other papers insofar as they struggle with the modern liberal framework. Sumner insists that there is something equally absurd about arguing that bad people cannot be happy. Within his theoretical framework, he asserts this because happiness means primarily desire-satisfaction or contentedness with one's life plan, and he believes that nasty people -- corporate embezzlers, cheating spouses, greedy dictators -- can arrive at such a state. Here I believe the problem is not one of ancient versus modern, or even one of thin versus thick notions of happiness. The ancients were also well aware that to a Thrasymachus or Callicles it looked as though the tyrant's life of absolute power was the best way to live and that therefore justice was ultimately "another's good" (Rep 343c, cf. EN V.1.1130a4). There will always be those who believe that crime pays or that bad men and women can be happy, because there will always be people who suffer from pleonexia or desire for more. What I do find surprising in our age of almost historically unprecedented medical knowledge and rampant obesity, material prosperity and ennui, unequalled access to education and the pop culture wasteland is the notion that there is no objective measure of good and bad desires. As Aristotle puts it in the Politics, much justice and moderation are especially needed by those deemed very prosperous and who enjoy all the things counted as blessings (Pol VII.15.1334a28-30).


1.   Julia Annas, Morality of Happiness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Annas' analysis of virtue and happiness in the Platonic dialogues in this essay supplements her 1993 work, in which she chose to omit analysis of Plato due to problems posed by the structure of his dialogues.
2.   Bernard Williams, "The Markopolous case: Reflections on the tedium of immortality," in his Problems of the Self (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 82-100.
3.   See, among their many publications on the topic, Martha Nussbaum, "Nature, Function, and Capability: Aristotle on Political Distribution," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 1 (1988), 145-84; and Amartya Sen, "Capability and Well-Being," in Nussbaum and Sen, eds., The Quality of Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 30-53.
4.   John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971); A. Sen, "Equality of What?" in S.M. McMurrin, ed., Tanner Lectures on Human Values, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 195-220.
5.   See, for instance, C. Larmore, "The Right and the Good," in his The Morals of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 19-40.

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