Conversations with Dan: eudaimonia, Stoicism, and “the good life”

Monty Python Meaning of LifeWhat does it mean to live the good life? I’m positive Donald Trump, or Jeff Bezos, would give you very different answers from the one you’d get from me. But they are wrong and I’m right. After all, they are just rich and powerful people, I’m a philosopher…

Okay, kidding aside, “what is the meaning of life?” is the quintessential philosophical question, though one that these days is more likely to be satisfactorily answered by Monty Python than in the halls of a philosophy department (please make sure you get to the very end of the song). That is part of the reason why my friend Dan Kaufman and I do our occasional Sophia video series. The latest installment takes the question on directly by exploring the various meanings of the Ancient Greek word eudaimonia, often translated into English as happiness (which is not, really), or flourishing (close, but not quite). Modern psychologists have apparently given up translating it altogether, using eudaimonia to mean a generally positive and meaningful life.

Dan and I figured that different Hellenistic schools of philosophy could actually be classified according to their own conception of eudaimonia, which in turn informed their specific recipes for the life worth living (see diagram in this post). Our discussion proceeds with an inquiry into who can really claim to have lived a satisfying life, and according to which criteria. We then move to consider the influence the Stoics had on Kant, particularly his emphasis on duty (as distinct from, say, the influence that the Epicureans had on John Stuart Mill, leading him to make his famous distinction between low and high pleasures — in which he compares a satisfied pig with a dissatisfied Socrates).

Dan considers himself a neo-Aristotelian, so we had a lively back and forth about whether a life worth living can be one deprived of external goods, so long as one does the right thing regardless of circumstances (as the Stoics maintained), or whether some external goods are necessary (as Aristotle thought). It will be crystal clear, and hopefully informative, on which side each of us comes down and why.

We then finish with an examination of the extent to which building moral character requires interaction with society (here the Stoics and Aristotelians actually agreed, though with different emphases), and ask ourselves whether modern philosophy is going “corporate” and whether that’s a good thing (the short answers: unfortunately yes, absolutely not). Here is the full video:

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31 thoughts on “Conversations with Dan: eudaimonia, Stoicism, and “the good life”

  1. Massimo Post author

    Labnut,

    It is not really possible to answer your question other than with an “it depends.” Specifically, it depends on the specific Hellenistic schools.

    Still, broadly speaking yes, the pursuit (as Alan points out) of virtue is a necessary component of eudaimonia (for the Stoics and Cynics it is also sufficient, for the Aristotelians and the Epicureans it isn’t).

    The reason for that is because human beings are inherently pro-social animals capable of reason, and that’s, ultimately, what virtue is: applying reason to improve society.

    The Stoics in particular had an elaborate “cradle argument” (see here: http://tinyurl.com/yafvlw4m) for further justifying this conclusion on philosophical grounds.

    Synred,

    It isn’t “back to nature,” but rather “live according to nature,” where that means, as I wrote to Labnut just above, live reasonably and pro-socially. More here: http://tinyurl.com/y8kymlcj

    “Some Stoics on line [a] seem rather self-absorbed with more emphasis on their own eudaimonia then on anything else. I don’t think that is the road to eudaimonia.”

    You mean some modern Stoics. Yes, I’m concerned about that, especially the popularity of a distorted view of Stoicism among the “men’s rights” crowd. I say distorted because they focus on one of the four virtues, courage (as in “manly”), but forget the others, especially justice. More here: http://tinyurl.com/ybluy23r

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