Posted by: Joel Britton | January 27, 2009

Eudaimonia and the Cardinal Virtues

Previously, I discussed the concept of Eudaimonia. A concise explanation of Eudaimonia states,

Why do I study ethics? Maybe to get a qualification. I get the qualification to get a good job, and I want a good job because… These are subordinate aims. At some point you stop and say ‘because that would make me happy’ – and this becomes the superior aim. ‘Eudaimonia’ is the end goal or purpose behind everything we do as people, and is desired for its own sake.

Now this concept is crucial for two reasons: everyone searches for it, and no one talks about it. If one thing is true about our culture, it’s that we’re always after something. For some it’s the perfect job. For others it is money, a relationship, sex, leisure, fame, or security. Most people continue the search rabidly, without paying attention to what it is they really want. Aristotle writes,

Let us again return to the good we are seeking, and ask what it can be. It seems different in different actions and arts; it is different in medicine, in strategy, and in the other arts likewise. What then is the good of each? Surely that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else, and in every action and pursuit the end; for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do. Therefore, if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are more than one, these will be the goods achievable by action.

So the argument has by a different course reached the same point; but we must try to state this even more clearly. Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g. wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else.

As is noted by Fractal Ontology, “happiness” is not a particularly apt translation of the term Eudaimonia. Happiness in our terminology is both passive and an emotion — a state of mind that occurs every so often. Eudaimonia is an active and purposeful lifestyle which incorporates the habitual use of virtue. It means not the state of having happiness, but rather being the sort of person from whom just and good actions flow.

Critical to reaching this goal is the practice of the virtues. The Greek word virtu means excellence; for Aristotle it was a method by which one reached one’s end. A good knife cuts well; the virtues by which it reaches this end might include durability, solid construction, a good edge, and so on. A good prosecutor wins cases; virtues he might cultivate to this end are research ability, rhetoric, and knowledge of the law. A good human reaches Eudaimonia. Aiding in this quest are the human virtues of prudence, courage, moderation, and justice. The AquinasBlog offers a solid description of these virtues.

Courage helps us be bold in the attainment of good and helps us overcome fear and despair. It is the spiritual bravery we need to help us act properly in difficult situations, doing what is right, responding rationally to fear (neither under or overdoing it) and forging ahead in an enterprising and persevering manner in the attainment of what we see as our good.

Moderation helps keep our passions from ruling over reason and moderates our passion for goods, eating, drinking and sex. There is nothing wrong with partaking in them as we need them for health and welfare and as appropriate to the situation. The idea is to avoid excessive behavior so that such acts do not dominate or distract from what will make us ultimately most happy.

Prudence is the habit of thinking well about what is to be done. It has nothing to do with being a prude but for Aquinas means actually reflecting on what we are about to do, relating it to the context set by faith, hope and charity, and making the right decision. It is what today we might call the consistent practice of common sense…And how might a medieval view of common sense look? Pretty much like our own, requiring:

  • a good memory of past events
  • insight into the individual case
  • readiness to learn from the experiences of others
  • inventiveness in shrewdly figuring out the best course to follow
  • and soundness of inference from the general to the particular.

More specifically, the virtues correspond to the faculties we exercise as humans; each virtue informs how we use our abilities to best achieve the good life. Our emotions should be governed by courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the acknowledgment and overcoming of it. Emotions are part of what makes us human, but can also destroy us if we are enslaved to them. Courage allows us to recognize passion without either pretending it does not exist or allowing it to dominate us.

Moderation corresponds to our appetites. As Hugh McDonald explains, we desire pleasurable things by nature. Those that are in accord with reason are suitable to us, but an excess is dangerous. Imagine two different men watching TV — the moderate man might watch the latest episode of 24, while the immoderate one spends all his spare time glued to the screen.

Our intellect should use prudence — it is not good enough to simply speculate about generalities, we must make shrewd and clear choices about life, applying what we know to individual scenarios and judging correctly. This means that failings of intellect can prevent us from living well just as much as sins of immoderation or injustice.

Justice is the fourth virtue, and ties the rest of them together. Detailing justice in society, Peter Kreeft writes that it is,

Harmony, cooperation, togetherness, working as one, each doing the thing he can do best for others, for the community, doing your own thing and communalism at once…True justice is social music, harmony.

In the individual, ” Justice is the virtue that puts order into our interactions with others, making sure we render to our fellow humans what is their due, the goal of which is the equitable flourishing of all…This includes justice to society as a whole (e.g., the common good) and justice to individuals in society, including justice between people and the justice of the community to the individual, providing proportionally what is owned in common and sharing equally the burden of the common good.”

In other words, justice is what pushes an individual towards recognizing and taking his proper place in the world. If the just man is skilled at a craft or an art, he will strive to use it well. Without this virtue he might not use his ability out of laziness or false humility, or possibly attempt to ape a skill he did not possess. Being just means taking an unbiased look at who you are, and supporting your weight in society.

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