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On this day, I’d like to defend the concept of eudaimonia. In some Epicurean circles there appears to be a war against this word, and the corresponding word happiness in the insistence that the end is pleasure, as if they were somehow mutually exclusive. The truth is that:
- Epicurus himself used the word εὐδαιμονίαν (eudaimonian),
- The choice of words by the founders of EP was always very intentional and careful, and
- Eudaimonia is a particularly important concept for therapeutic Hellenistic philosophy which relates to the health of the soul.
Concerning my first point, I will cite from the Monadnock translation of the Letter to Menoikos by Peter Saint-Andre, which shows the Greek original next to the English translation. In this epistle–which summarizes the entire ethical doctrine of Epicurus and which should be studied time and again by sincere students–Epicurus opens with an appeal to people of all ages to study philosophy, saying:
ὁ δὲ λέγων ἢ μήπω τοῦ φιλοσοφεῖν ὑπάρχειν ὥραν ἢ παρεληλυθέναι τὴν ὥραν, ὅμοιός ἐστιν τῷ λέγοντι πρὸς εὐδαιμονίαν ἢ μὴ παρεῖναι τὴν ὥραν ἢ μηκέτι εἶναι.
For it is never too early or too late for the health of the soul. Someone who says that the time to love and practice wisdom has not yet come or has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or has passed.
I highlighted the word εὐδαιμονίαν, eudaimonian, in the original. Again in the same paragraph, he says:
Reflect on what brings happiness (μελετᾶν οὖν χρὴ τὰ ποιοῦντα τὴν εὐδαιμονίαν), because if you have that you have everything, but if not you will do everything to attain it.
Later, Epicurus discusses the natural and necessary desires saying:
that among the necessary desires some are necessary for happiness (πρὸς εὐδαιμονίαν)…
Here he classifies happiness (eudaimonia) together with health and life itself as being among the natural and necessary desires that help to make life worth living.
Notice that he did not choose the word pleasure (hedone) here. Concerning my second point, Epicurus’ sermon against empty words makes plain that the choice of words by the founders of EP was always very intentional and careful. It was never frivolous or unintended, and in fact ancient Epicureans were known for their clear, concise, direct speech, which was a fresh departure from the rhetorical games of many other philosophers. This is one of the opening remarks in Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus:
But first of all, Herodotus, before we begin the investigation of our opinions, we must firmly grasp the ideas that are attached to our words, so that we can refer to them as we proceed. Unless we have a firm grasp of the meaning of each word, we leave everything uncertain, and we go on to infinity using empty words that are devoid of meaning. Thus it is essential that we rely on the first mental image associated with each word, without need of explanation, if we are to have a firm standard to which to refer as we proceed in our study.
Let’s follow this advice with eudaimonia. Concerning my third point, eudaimonia is defined in this manner:
eudemonia is a Greek word commonly translated as happiness or welfare; however, “human flourishing or prosperity” and “blessedness” have been proposed as more accurate translations.
Etymologically, it consists of the words “eu” (“good”) and “daimōn” (“spirit”).
The word eudaimonia reminds me of the expression “being in good spirits”, which implies a cheerful or happy disposition. The Christians appropriated the daimon portion, and today demon has come to mean a supposedly evil spirit, but from the way it was used by ancient philosophers it is clear that “the idea attached to the word” originally was sentient being, animated being, and that the word eu-daimonia (literally, good-spirited-ness) implies existential health.
It denotes the idea not only of being happy, but specifically of having a healthy spirit, of being morally and psychologically healthy–just as having a good body implies not necessary that one is the most beautiful or strongest person, but that one at least enjoys a natural measure of health, of physical well-being. It’s in this sense that the word is closely tied to therapeutic Hellenistic philosophy, which in the words of Epicurus must “heal the soul” just as true medicine must heal the body.
Now, we may argue whether happiness is the best translation for eudaimonia, or whether “healthy spirit” is a better translation. But clearly, this word is distinct from both pleasure, and blessedness (for which the Greek word is makarion). This is not to disparage neither pleasure nor blessedness. Both of these words are also found in the original texts in specific contexts, and deserve to be studied separately. My intention is to rescue this word from any undue connotations, and also to remind students of philosophy that it has been argued that both Schools of pleasure ethics (the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans) were eudaimonic in their ethics, and that eudaimonism and hedonism (properly understood) are not, in any way, mutually contradictory. Here is a passage on Aristippus’ ethics from the book review of Kurt Lampe’s The Birth of Hedonism:
Lampe thinks that Cyrenaics are eudaimonics (believed in happiness as the end, not just pleasure), but most scholars disagree. It’s likely that a variety of views existed within the school regarding the end. One of the key arguments for hedonism (i.e. pleasure as the end) in its inception had to do with how pleasure is not the same thing as happiness. Pleasure is an instance, happiness is a collection of pleasures, and as such happiness is therefore an abstraction, a platonized alternative to the real experience of pleasure. This argument is interesting, and still generates debate and various opinions today.
I hope I have provided enough context for future discussions on these terms, including what Epicurean sources have to say about eudaimonia. While there may exist some controversies related to the word’s meaning and English translation, it has never been controversial to say that Epicureanism is eudaimonic: a philosophy of happiness, friendship, and self-sufficiency.
We were recently made aware in our Spanish group of this introduction to the Epicurean canon, which I believe is worth reading (through google translate or some other translator, if necessary) by any beginning student of Epicurus. When things are explained in a different language, sometimes new perspectives emerge which illuminate some aspect of an investigation. The essay explains the faculty of anticipations by saying that, while sensations tell us that something IS or exists, it does not tell us WHAT it is. For THAT cognitive process, we must rely in a faculty tied to both language and memory. After having been exposed to objects time and again and having understood what those objects are (people, horses, dogs, trees, books), we immediately recognize (anticipate) them when our senses present impressions of them again.
In the video Ancient answers to modern questions, Marc Nelson introduces Epicurus in a TED Talk. our friend Alex reacts:
The video ends fine if you listen to the end, but if not, you could end up believing that Epicurus advocated poverty, or servitude. Just in case you did not watch till the end…
Epicurus did not advocate poverty. Epicurus did not live as a poor man. Epicurus did not die a poor man.
He secured his present and future happiness. He was well known, owned property, had a home, had a school, saved his friends from a famine, lived near a city, left inheritence, wrote many books. He lived “as a god among men”.
Other Epicureans such as Metrodorus, Diógenes of Oenoanda, Lucretius, Torquatus, Philodemus were far from poor.
LIFE IS EASY is a book review of Catherine Wilson’s book The Pleasure Principle: Epicureanism: A Philosophy for Modern Living. This author was also featured in the Big Think podcast, in an episode titled The Epicurean cure for what ails ya, and has a video-lecture titled How To Be an Epicurean.