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Virtue and Eudaimonism*

  • Julia Annas (a1)


The two most important and central concepts in ancient ethical theory are those of virtue (aretē) and happiness (eudaimonia). This is well-known by now, as is the way that many scholars and philosophers have in recent years investigated the structure of ancient ethical theories, at least partly in the hope that this would help us in our modern ethical thinking by introducing us to developed theories which escape the problems that have led to so much frustration with deontological and consequentialist approaches. And there has indeed been considerable interest in developing modern forms of ethics which draw inspiration, to a greater or lesser extent, from the ancient theories. However, there is an asymmetry here. Modern theories which take their inspiration from Aristotle and other ancient theorists are standardly called virtue ethics, not happiness ethics. We have rediscovered the appeal of aretē, but eudaimonia is still, it appears, problematic for us. This has an important consequence for us, for in ancient theories virtue is not discussed in isolation; it is seen as part of a larger structure in which the overarching concept is happiness. If we focus on virtue alone and ignore its relation to happiness, we are missing a large part of the interest that study of the ancient theories can offer.



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1 Both of these approaches have been increasingly criticized for unrealistic and abstract approaches to moral questions, and for their inability to give a convincing account of moral character and the role in individuals' moral thinking of a conception of their life as a whole.

2 Not the only such examples; the role of virtue in eighteenth-century writers such as Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith is also receiving more attention, and it would be good to have informed comparisons of such theories with the ancient ones.

3 Clarke, S. G. and Simpson, E., eds., Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Conservatism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989), contains many papers which put forward this viewpoint. A forthcoming book by Michele Svatos on the structure of virtue ethics builds on and contributes to more theoretically ambitious types of virtue ethics.

4 These features include a bias in favor of science or mathematics as proffering the right structure for an ethical theory, emphasis on formalization, and readiness to discard those aspects of ethical experience which do not lend themselves to economical and elegant structuring. In my The Morality of Happiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), I argue against taking the antitheoretical urge to be central to a concern with virtue ethics.

5 George, 04/05 1996.

6 The people asked tended to pick worthy figures from their own area of competence: an actor picked an actor, a singer a singer, a bureaucrat a bureaucrat, a black activist a black activist. Otherwise, the candidates were people who ran social programs, or had overcome handicaps, or provided good role models. Among those with a favorable attitude toward virtue, the minimal content of the idea seemed to be that virtue is something other-directed, involving some sacrifice on the agent's part, and worthy of praise.

7 This is how it was viewed in the associated essay by Joe Queenan: “[A]t heart, almost all of the virtue books emanate from the right….” Queenan presents focus on virtue as a smug conservative attempt to justify ignoring the needs of others, thus linking it with social attitudes such as attacks on welfare. He never explains why virtue should be conceived as egoistic and self-satisfied.

8 Watterson, Bill, There's Treasure Everywhere: A Calvin and Hobbes Collection (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1996), p. 96. In the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, widely syndicated in the United States from the early eighties to 1996, Calvin is a small boy and Hobbes his tiger (a toy tiger to others, Hobbes shares an imaginative world with Calvin, in which one of the people they interact with is Susie, the girl next door).

9 Aretē does have a broad sense in which it covers the nonmoral excellence of various things, but ancient philosophical writers are clear that the relevant sense in ethics is what we would call moral virtue; see Annas, , The Morality of Happiness, pp. 129–31.

10 Annas, , The Morality of Happiness (supra note 4).

11 Bentham dismisses the idea of virtue's sufficiency for happiness as self-contradictory nonsense; see Bentham, Jeremy, Deontology, Together with A Table of the Springs of Action, and the Article on Utilitarianism, ed. Goldworth, Amnon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 300. Bentham gives no reason for this other than the fact that he finds the idea absurd. It may be that he located the problem in the relevant notion of happiness, rather than in virtue, given that he devotes a chapter to dismissing the summum bonum as “consummate nonsense.”

12 I am grateful to L. W. Sumner for presenting this issue in a forceful and well-argued way which has greatly clarified my own thinking on the matter.

13 See Slote, Michael, From Morality to Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

14 Plato, , Euthydemus, 278d282e. The argument is couched in terms of “doing well” or eu prattein, but it is clear from 280b6 that this is regarded as synonymous with “being happy” or eudaimonein. (See also Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a18–20.)

15 See Vlastos, Gregory, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), ch. 6; and my article “Virtue as the Use of Other Goods,” in Irwin, Terence and Nussbaum, Martha C., eds., Virtue, Love, and Form: Essays in Memory of Gregory Vlastos (Edmonton: Academic Printing and Publishing, 1993), pp. 5366.

16 Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a17–22. Cf. the later passage at 1097b22–24, where Aristotle says that it is a platitude to say that the final good is happiness, and we seek further specification of it.

17 It may be that unreflective egoism plays a role in some people's ready assent to the idea that happiness is our final end, and that if egoism is rejected the assent is not nearly so ready. But what matters here is simply that at the intuitive level the assent is pretty ready.

18 Plato, , Philebus, 20b23b.

19 Unlike the surrounding material, which is methodologically among the most baffling in Plato.

20 Plato, , Philebus, 11d4–6. Note the references to the lives of pleasure, etc., in the argument, as at 20el–2, 21d8–9; and at 20d, it is said that everything strives for the good. These points are reminiscent of Aristotle's discussion of happiness. It remains odd that, although the Philebus is about the issues discussed in other dialogues in terms of virtue and happiness, these terms are mentioned very seldom in the dialogue, which focuses rather on pleasure and reason as factors in a human life.

21 At Philebus, 20d, the good is said to be complete or teleon, and sufficient or hikanon; at 22a9–b8, it is said that the lives of pleasure and reason on their own do not contain the good (that makes human lives happy), since if they did, they would have been sufficient, complete, and choiceworthy by all. Here even the terminology suggests Aristotle's establishment of the points that our final end must be complete and self-sufficient.

22 At Philebus, 33b, the life of reason without pleasure or pain is said to be most godlike; but this of course disqualifies it from being a good candidate for the human good.

23 I am ignoring all versions of the “Socratic problem” here, since they do not affect my point. I take it that there is a coherent position in Plato's Socratic dialogues which can be attributed to early Plato, using Socrates as the figure who holds (and embodies) this view.

24 Plato, , Crito, 48d, in The Last Days of Socrates, trans. Tredennick, Hugh and Tarrant, Harold (London: Penguin, 1993).

25 Plato, , Apology, 28b, in The Last Days of Socrates.

26 Indeed, Vlastos finds the silence so deafening that he takes the problem to be an indication that Socrates does not in fact hold that virtue is sufficient for happiness.

27 These doctrines include not just the sufficiency of virtue for happiness, but the theory of preferred indifferents and the account of right actions.

28 Moreover, this change in perspective affects our view of what the virtuous and vicious person can be said to accomplish. James Griffin has made the point that Wagner, not a good person, nonetheless could be said to have led a great life because of his many accomplishments. Ancient philosophers, however (at any rate those in the Socratic-Stoic tradition), would not regard Wagner's accomplishments as something neutrally assessable (perhaps to be weighed against his admitted defects). Rather, our view of what he accomplished would already be affected by our view of the place of these accomplishments in his life. In the Gorgias, Socrates is represented as uncompromisingly unimpressed by the Parthenon and the other Acropolis buildings that we admire so much; rather than letting their aesthetic qualities be weighed against the problematic way they were financed, he insists on discussing them in their context of imperialistic and demagogic policy.

29 Does this also require a revisionist view of virtue (a point raised by Fred Miller)? It certainly requires something very different from modern views of virtue. Yet a person in the ancient world might not be wrong about what virtue is (she might think of it as a disposition to do the right thing for the right reason, and this is correct in outline) but might nonetheless have a radically wrong view of the place and role of virtue in life. Aristotle, in Rhetoric, Book I, ch. 5, retails ordinary views of happiness which give virtue rather low priority; they are defective in their grasp of the relation between virtue and other things, not in their view of what virtue is (just as they are wrong in their view of the importance of wealth, not in their view of what wealth is).

30 Plato, , Menexenus, 246d247a.

31 Sumner, L. W., “Happiness Now and Then,” a Taft Lecture delivered as part of a conference on eudaimonia and well-being at the University of Cincinnati, May 1996.

32 See Kraut, Richard, “Two Conceptions of Happiness,” Philosophical Review, vol. 88, no. 2 (1979), pp. 167–97.

33 There is a range of cases here; I suspect that we might accept that someone was not really happy whose previous values were self-defeating or masochistic or in some obvious way defective; but it is harder to make the case for a change of values where the ones adopted depend on acceptance of a theory and are controverted by other theories. Would we be happy to say that the Emperor Charles V was never happy until he retired to a monastery?

34 This is a point I stress in The Morality of Happiness, ch. 22.

35 Despite the differences between eudaimonia and happiness which I have explored in this essay, and which are striking to philosophers reflecting on virtue and happiness, “happiness” is clearly the correct translation for eudaimonia in ancient literature of all kinds, and it would be a mistake to conclude that we should translate eudaimonia by some other term.

36 I owe this point to Dr. Emidio Spinelli.

37 Arius Didymus ap. Stobaeus, Eclogae, II, 52.13–14. The passage goes on to list euestō as one of the ways Democrirus characterizes eudaimonia, along with more subjective ones such as euthumia (cheerfulness) and ataraxia (tranquillity). However, later accounts of Democritean moral theory stress happiness and its more subjective characterizations, particularly cheerfulness, not euestō.

* I have written on this topic partly because of a most fruitful exchange with L. W. Sumner at the University of Cincinnati conference on eudaimonia and well-being in May 1996, where we both read papers on ancient and modern approaches to happiness and virtue.


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