Philosophy q&a: happiness, virtue, or tranquillity — what is the ultimate end of life?

[image: by Nina Uhlíková from Pexels; this is essay #251 in my “Philosophy as a Way of Life” series]

G. writes: I have a question that puzzles me regarding Stoicism and eudaimonia, after reading Aristotle. He says in the Nicomachean Ethics Book I that happiness is the absolute end, since it is not the mean towards another end. Seneca says something similar about virtue in “On the Happy Life.” It’s rather confusing for me to regard eudaimonia as an end in itself. Isn’t it the case that someone who lives virtuously, does so in order to gain a source of happiness that is unshaken by Fortune? The virtuous person, by performing virtuous acts, is content in itself. This means that it can be happy, simply by acting virtuously. He does not need anything external. In some sense, isn’t it a source of deep pleasure? Isn’t it what he strives for?

Later in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes between the virtuous and the self-controlled person. The virtuous person not only acts righteously but also actually desires to act this way, whereas the self-controlled person does the right thing but it is not something he really wants or desires. You can see it also in a different manner: the virtuous person (say Socrates or Cato) prefers to sacrifice himself, because not doing so would be unbearable to him. In a sense he would experience virtuous pain by escaping death, which is more painful to him than simply dying. Doesn’t everything, then, get back to pleasure and pain, or rather happiness and sorrow? Isn’t ataraxia the end of virtue? Being content with yourself even in the midst of thunderous storms?

Lots of interrelated topics and questions, so let’s try to unpack the whole bit by bit and see if it makes sense. Aristotle says that eudaimonia is an end in itself, and he is right. If we loosely translate eudaimonia as “happiness” (generally not a good idea, but let’s start there for now) then by definition it is what everyone wants. It doesn’t make any sense to ask someone “would you prefer to be unhappy?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary the etymology of the word means “good fortune,” and who would want to have bad fortune in life?

The difference between the Stoics and Aristotle is that they had a different concept of eudaimonia. And so did the Cynics, the Cyrenaics, the Epicureans, and all the other schools. Indeed, we can make quite a bit of headway in understanding the differences among the various Hellenistic philosophies by making explicit what they meant by eudaimonia. Here is my version of such an analysis:

The table should help see why, for instance, Aristotelians think that virtue is necessary but not sufficient for eudaimonia: if we want to flourish, we also need some externals, like health, wealth, education, and even a bit of good looks, Aristotle says. The Cynics went to the opposite extreme and thought that eudaimonia only requires virtue, and that moreover externals get in the way of it. Hence their minimalist lifestyle: no property, no relationships, just itinerant begging while practicing virtue.

The Stoics struck a compromise between Aristotelians and Cynics: on the one hand, they agreed with the Cynics that virtue is sufficient for eudaimonia. On the other hand, they agreed with the Aristotelians that externals — while not necessary — have value. Hence the famous notion that some externals are “preferred indifferents,” meaning that they are indifferent to the pursuit of eudaimonia, but are preferred if they don’t get in the way of it.

This has huge practical import. For the Aristotelian, many people’s lives are not eudaimon because of bad luck. If you are born poor, or are sick, or unattractive, you’re screwed. For the Stoic, everyone can be eudaimon, regardless of external circumstances. All that is required is to work on your character. If Nelson Mandela had died in prison he not have been eudaimon for Aristotle. But he would have been for the Stoics: despite pain and suffering, his life was very much worth living because he was fighting for a good cause and giving the example.

The Stoic does not live virtuously so to be independent of Fortune. That’s just a bonus. And she is not virtuous because it is pleasant. Though that’s another bonus. We live virtuously (meaning rationally and pro-socially) because that is the only life that is worth living for a human being. Seneca says:

“The matter can be imparted quickly and in very few words: ‘Virtue is the only good; at any rate there is no good without virtue; and virtue itself is situated in our nobler part, that is, the rational part.’ And what will this virtue be? A true and never-swerving judgment.” (Letters LXXI.32)

Then you ask whether everything doesn’t come down to pain and pleasure. For the Epicureans, yes. Not for the Stoics. Cato did not commit suicide in order to avoid the pain of being used by Caesar for political gain. He committed suicide because he judged that that was the right thing to do for the human cosmopolis. The same goes for Socrates. We are told in detail, in Plato’s Phaedo, why he allowed himself to be executed by the Athenian state instead of taking an easy route of escape laid out by his friends. Again, pain and pleasure have nothing to do with it, it comes down to what he thought was right. (Incidentally, since neither Socrates nor certainly Cato were sages, their judgment might have been wrong. But their motivations are clear.)

And no, ataraxia isn’t the ultimate end, except, again, for the Epicureans. Stoics do not aim at ataraxia at all, and even the related state of apatheia, freedom from the passions, is a byproduct of living virtuously, not the direct goal. Epictetus says:

“Speaking for myself, I hope death overtakes me when I’m occupied solely with the care of my character, in an effort to make it passionless, free, unrestricted and unrestrained.” (Discourses III, 5.7)

Where “passionless” doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care about anything, but that his reason is not overrun by one or another of the pathe, the unhealthy emotions, such as fear, anger, or hatred. Notice that the only thing Epictetus strives to care for, even to the point of death, is his character. Why? Because that’s where his virtue, his judgment, springs from. Caring for one’s character means acting more virtuously and arriving at better judgments, which is the whole point of Epictetus’ training of his students.

You are correct, though, when at the end of your letter you say that a Stoic should be content with herself regardless of circumstances. That’s because externals are, at best, preferred or dispreferred, but they are indifferent to our character, virtue, and judgment (three words that can actually be used interchangeably, within Stoic philosophy). Seneca is pretty explicit about this:

“Wise persons are sufficient unto themselves for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For they need many helps towards mere existence; but for a happy existence they need only a sound and upright soul, one that despises Fortune.” (Letters IX.13)
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