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Happiness and Pleasure in European Thought

The Hellenistic Era, The Medieval View, Modern Views On Happiness, Act Utilitarianism, Rule Utilitarianism

Most contemporary understandings of happiness are hedonic: happiness is a state of feeling most precisely defined by the subject of the feeling. Happiness in this sense is subjective and can be of brief duration. Ancient discussions of happiness, however, revolve around the Greek term eudaimonia, and while this word is commonly translated as "happiness," it has a different meaning and scope than hedonic understandings of happiness.

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) gives the earliest complete discussion of eudaimonia in the Nicomachean Ethics where he says eudaimonia is the one final overall good we aim at. Eudaimonia is complete, self-sufficient, and most choice-worthy; it applies to the life as a whole, not to a transitory and subjective sensory state, and so functions like a "life plan." The specification of eudaimonia as the final end for an individual is necessarily thin in Aristotle, corresponding to a general notion of one's life going well. Aristotle—while recognizing disagreement about what constitutes living well—adds substance to eudaimonia by stating in Nicomachean Ethics 1.7 that this highest human good is an "activity of the soul in conformity with virtue," thus linking eudaimonia with his theory of the virtues. Eudaimonia, then, is ultimately located in the bios theoretikos ("contemplative life") and hence highly dependent on a teleological biology.

Linking eudaimonia with an individual's final end produced two broad categories of commentary on the eudaimonistic tradition. Some critics argue that eudaimonistic focus on the bios theoretikos divorces one's own happiness from broader ethical or moral considerations, and so conclude that the eudaimonistic tradition had no conception of genuine moral virtues. Most current readers of the eudaimonistic tradition, however, see no conflict between the pursuit of individual happiness and external considerations, hence eudaimonism can encompass ethical and altruistic components.

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