Tuesday, 3 January 2017

On The Translation of Aristotelian Eudaimonia

The many think it is something palpable and obvious, for example pleasure or wealth or honor. Some think it’s one thing and others think its another – and often the same person thinks it’s different things. When he is sick he thinks eudaimonia is health, but when he is poor he thinks it is wealth.” ~ (Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics)

What does Aristotle mean by Eudaimonia?

In The Perfectionist Turn (Chapter: “Individualistic Perfectionism”), Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen have proposed “human flourishing” as the translation of eudaimonia.  They write that eudaimonia is the “ultimate good or telos (end) for human beings; and living in a particularly wise and virtuous manner is the primary obligation dictated by that end.”

They point out that "we are tempted to confuse eudaimonia and fulfilment with contentment, but they are not the same." Flourishing is perhaps a better translation because the term subsumes the idea of activity. “The achievement of our telos is a form of activity, not a state of being content, feeling fulfilled, or reflecting on a litany of accomplishments or an achievement.”

The Aristotelian account of human flourishing, or eudaimonia, is characterized by six interrelated and interpenetrating features: (1) objectivity; (2) inclusivity; (3) individuality; (4) agent-relativity; (5) self-directedness; (6) sociality. Den Uyl and Rasmussen have conducted an interesting analysis of each of these six features. What they are offering is a neo-Aristotelian account, but they are not trying to do a textual exegesis of Aristotle.

In A Companion to Aristotle (Edited by Georgios Anagnostopoulos), Gabriel Richardson Lear develops a different position on eudaimonia in the chapter, “Happiness and The Structure of Ends.”

She says that the word “flourishing” is being preferred because “the most common meaning of “happiness” is a certain feeling of either contentment or euphoria. Eudaimonia does not mean that.”  She says that eudaimonia cannot be regarded as pleasure.

“A hedonist would make this very claim and Aristotle himself argues that one particular pleasant activity – excellent rational action – is the best. Rather, the point is that this is a claim for which one must argue. Just on its own, eudaimonia does not refer to a feeling.” This is the reason, she explains, why people sometimes prefer to translate eudaimonia as flourishing.

She regards “flourishing” as too organic or biological a notion to be a good translation. The act of flourishing is not confined only to human beings; the trees and the animals also flourish, and this flies in face of Aristotle’s view that eudaimonia is possible only to Gods and human beings.

Lear says that “In Aristotle’s view, human beings are distinguished from the rest of the natural world by the fact that their flourishing is a matter of being eudaimôn.” She reflects that if "success" can be regarded as an intuitive translation of eudaimonia. After all, the eudaimôn person is like an Olympic victor; his life is successful and well worth living.

But even “success” is not the right translation for eudaimonia. Lear points out that people can achieve success in certain areas of life and they may fail in other areas, and if we have to think of eudaimonia as success, then we must be clear that it is success that applies to life as a whole. Also, what we regard as success should be an objective matter; it should not depend on what society regards as success.

Finally Lear reaches the conclusion that we should stick with the traditional translation of eudaimonia, “happiness.”

The position on Aristotelian eudaimonia that Den Uyl and Rasmussen have taken in The Perfectionist Turn is a shade different from the position that Gabriel Richardson Lear has taken in his chapter in A Companion to Aristotle.

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