A Comparison of Plato's and Aristotle's Views of Eudaimonia
By Chloe Berger
Aristotle and Plato, though largely in agreement about the nature of the soul, have radically different views of its happiness.
In their respective works, Plato and Aristotle examine man’s ability to attain εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia), or, a thriving life. Plato argues that a well-ordered soul is the key, while Aristotle analyzes the aspects of an ethical soul. Though both philosophers agree on many aspects of eudaimonia, they have one fundamental difference: Aristotle believes eudaimonia is partially external, but Plato argues that it is entirely internal. Both arguments have merit, and the differences between the two lend a new depth to the topic of eudaimonia.
Aristotle’s perspective is largely shaped by the ancient Greek idea of fate and the approval of the gods. He says that “if the gods have any care for human affairs … it would only be reasonable for them to delight in what is best …. and to reward with kindness those who love it” (Nichomachean Ethics X). Men who have gained the gods’ favor have pleasant circumstances, while those who have not experience pain and suffering. This is a vital part of Aristotle’s understanding of eudaimonia, because he assumes that this favor is necessary for man’s flourishing. He “[does] not say that [a man] will be fortunate if he meets such chances of life as Priam” (XI). Priam, the father of Hector in the Iliad, suffers much hardship, including the deaths of his sons. He is a just man, but Aristotle argues that because of his external pain, he cannot truly thrive. A just soul is not enough. Unless man has a fortunate life and pleasant circumstances, eudaimonia is unattainable.
Plato’s view is entirely different. He argues that circumstances have no effect whatsoever on the state of a well-ordered soul. He compares the soul to a city, in which “the whole State will grow up in a noble order, and the several classes will receive the proportion of happiness” (Republic IV). The citizens of the state are happiest and most prosperous when they have good leadership; similarly, when a man is self-controlled and well-governed, he can attain a truly thriving life. Plato clarifies his position by using the example of the perfectly just and unjust men. The just man, who has a well-ordered soul, is treated badly and suffers. The other man, a liar and a criminal, has a prosperous life. When asked which man will have greater flourishing, Plato replies, “What shall [the unjust man] profit, if his injustice be … unpunished? He … only gets worse, whereas [the just man]’s whole soul is perfected and ennobled by the acquirement of justice and temperance and wisdom” (IX). This is exactly the opposite of Aristotle’s argument. Plato believes that no matter how pleasurable man’s circumstances may be, he can never attain true satisfaction unless he is just. Without an orderly soul, he has no foundation for eudaimonia. But if a man has acquired eudaimonia, his flourishing soul can withstand any external difficulty.
Ultimately, the controversy between Aristotle and Plato stems from their beliefs about the physical and the spiritual. Aristotle’s approach characterizes the physical world—circumstances, possessions, and happiness—as a vital part of man’s mental or spiritual well-being. But Plato disregards the physical, placing eudaimonia firmly within man’s soul alone. Aristotle’s philosophy excludes the suffering from a thriving life, while Plato’s view offers a flourishing untouched by external suffering. Though they do not ultimately agree, a careful reading of both views brings a new dimension to the understanding of the soul.
Chloe Berger lives in Nebraska, and enjoys reading and playing with her German Shepherd. She is considering studying either literature or theology, after which she plans to go into child advocacy law; Boyce College, the University of Nebraska, and Liberty University are her top school choices.
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