eudaimonia to happiness.
Overview on the concept of happiness in the ancient Greek culture
with a few glimpses on modern time*
that man is happy (eudaimon)
and blessed (olbios) who,
knowing all these rules, goes on with his work guiltless before the
gods... and avoids transgression”
and Days 826-828)
sense is by far the chief part of happiness, and we must not be
impious towards the gods...”
(Sophocles, Antigone 1347-1350)
no matter what our situation is, whether we are rich or poor,
educated or not, of one race, gender, religion or another, we all
desire to be happy”
the common problems that, down through the ages, have puzzled
humanity, from poets and philosophers to ordinary people, one can
certainly include that of happiness.
wish each other happiness in several circumstances of life; to hear
of persons who
they thought they wanted and yet cannot say to be completely happy;
to see persons who have everything we would think able to bring
happiness meet, nonetheless, with all sort of problems – such as
drug and alcohol – problems that the common sense would confine to
the persons struggling with life; all of these are experiences and
thoughts that each of us has had at least once. Ironically, it is
possible that we, after having witness this paradox, nevertheless
have never asked ourselves what happinnes is; or else, if we have,
we have possibly experienced a feeling of uneasiness in trying to
give an answer, that is, a not vague answer bordering in
enough, uneasiness and difficulty in defining happiness are apparent
in the dictionaries of most of modern languages of the Western
Civilization: all definitions appear to be partly tautological,
certainly unsatisfactory, given that recurrent motifs are “the
state of well-being”, “contentment”, “satisfaction”. None of those definitions, for instance, explicitly
tells us of what “the state of well-being” consists. Moreover,
this “state” seems not to really mirror the common view of a
happy person: the one who has everything he thinks he wants, should
be said to be in a state of well-being, yet he might be unhappy.
Does this mean that happiness cannot depend on what is outside an
individual, i.e. material goods and other possible sources of
“well-being” from having the most expensive and
comfortable car to having the job that one most likes? As a matter
of fact, the other recurrent motif is that of “contentment”
which makes more subjective the concept, and sheds light on what
might make difficult to define and understand happiness as a whole.
or, still better, a feeling of uneasiness is apparent in some
definitions a group of undergraduate students has given to the
questions “What is happiness? How to define happiness?” As a
matter of fact, while
some of them could not avoid stating, at the beginning, how
difficult describing happiness is and how subjective a definition
can be, one of them could not avoid to emphasize, at the end of his
definition, that happinness is rare.
to the answers given by the students, happiness can be several
things and something different for everybody. There could also be
several kinds of happiness. Except for one,
each of the interviewed students tends to emphasize an interior
component in being happy. Having your needs and objectives satisfied,
sharing your time with persons you love, accepting what you have and
what you are seem to be a common denominator of their definitions.
What varies is the nature of the needs and objectives; yet, most of
them in the end depend on external agents (being surrounded by
persons that love you and appreaciate you for what you are, health,
good finances, getting the person you love, encountering what is
best for you, etc.). Therefore, although a feeling of
self-acceptance and self-contentment, as being the secret of
happiness, underpins more or less all definitions, it seems that a
self-acceptance and contentment come true only if the external
agents are favorable to you and allow you to satisfy your needs. In
other words, if this does not happen, is everybody condemned to
impression is quite that of a vicious circle, and still a sense of
uneasiness and vagueness in grasping and understanding the concept
of happiness remains.
we have to conclude – as Socrates did with reference to the
definition of “good” (Respublica
505b-507a; Menon 78 d-e)
– it is beyond our power to define, and thus, understand happiness?
Is it really something undefinable - as the philosopher G.E. Moore
would say – to a point to think it is better not to include the
word in the dictionary – as a High School student suggested in a
similar survey carried out in Italy?
that “there is nothing more ancient in
the world than language […] The history of man begins, not with
rude flints, rock temples or pyramids, but with language” ,
it is the purpose of this paper to contribute to the understanding
of such a pervasive, and yet elusive concept on the basis of a
lexical and conceptual analysis of words semantically related to
happiness, words that belong to the language and culture from which
the history of the modern Western Civilization begins, i.e. the
language and the culture of ancient Greeks. Without aiming at a
complete and infallible answer, the proposed analysis and the
subsequent comparison between the ancient and modern results might
at least be a “fertilizer” for other reflections and inquiring
on the topic.
the end, if happiness is leading a life of quality, a possible way
to reach this kind of life – as Socrates teaches us
– is through inquiry.
At The Beginning... Happiness In Greek Antiquity
ancient Greek there is a constellation of words that more or less
can be regarded as related to the ancient concept of happiness,
words like “happy”, “blessed”, “prosperous / prosperity.”
principal word, however, for happiness in ancient Greek is eudaimonia,
and eudaimon is the
adjective for “happy”. The original meaning of these words tells
us a lot about the way in which happiness was conceived. According
to its etymology eudaimonia means “having a well
disposed (eu) divine
power (daimon)” .
In ancient Greek thought happiness is a condition due to divine
favor, and happy is the one who enjoys the favor of daimones,
i.e. of those divine powers who might be hostile.
The visible and tangible manifestation of being “favored by the
divine powers”, i.e., of
“ being free from divine ill-will”, is what is commonly called
“prosperity”, in terms of either material wealth or success. The
ancient Greek word denoting this aspect of being happy is olbos,
which properly means “prosperity granted by the gods”. Thus olbios
is “prosperous, blessed”.
olbos / olbios describe an aspect of eudamonia, starting from Hesiod the two words are mostly used as
interchangeable. This is evident in the modern translations where
the meaning commonly chosen is “happy” or “happiness”.
is important to point out is that in both cases, i.e.,
the being either eudaimon
or olbios, a specific
activity of gods is implied such to a point that human happiness
appear to be a “plaything” of gods. This concept is mostly
evident in the poetry of Pindar (5th cent. BC) and in Greek tragedy.
In Pindar, the two terms are used at times as interchangeable, often
as closely interrelated with each other, always, however, as clear
signal of the gods’ favor, and thus as a gift granted by gods
Suggestive is the following passage from Pythian
a happy lot (eudamonia)
attends you, for the lord of his people, if any man, is viewed with
favour by the great Destiny. But a life free from reverses was the
destiny neither of
of godlike Cadmus. Yet we learn that they attained the highest
happiness (olbos) of all
these words the poet tries to console Hieron, lord of Syracuse,
afflicted by a disease: despite the current suffering, Hieron must
enjoy the happiness granted to him by gods with the awareness of the
fragility of that gift, as the mythic “career” of Peleus and
Cadmus show. Gods apportion to man not exclusively goods;
more importantly, it is easy for them to build up man and then tear
happiness seems thus to be a spiritual force beyond man’s control,
i.e. a “plaything” of
god. This reflects an essential trait characterizing the ancient eudamonia:
its being closely interrelated with tyche,
i.e., luck and good fortune.
A happy man was the one
favored by a good daimon,
and thus eutyches, that is
“a fortunate /lucky man”.
Therefore, to Ancient Greeks, eudaimon
meant also to be lucky, and eudamonia
needed good luck to a certain degree, last but not least since it
was conceived as a gods’ fragile gift exposed to the vicissitudes
of time and vulnerable to external hazards.
concept is central to the outlook of ancient Greeks, mainly in the
Archaic and Classical Age, and such is proven both by the
interesting debate on happiness we find in a passage from Herodotus’
History, and the strong
echoes it has in Greek tragedy.
the first book of his History
Herodotus comes to talk about the meeting between Solon, an Athenian
famous poet and legislator (7th./6th. cent. B.C.) and Croesus, king
of Lydia. The dialogue gravitates around the problem of human
After having given a tour of the treasuries showing his magnificence,
Croesus asked Solon to tell him whom, of the all men he had seen, he
considered the happiest. Croesus asked this thinking himself the
happiest of mortals. But Solon answered him “Tellus of Athens”,
since – as Solon specified – when his country was flourishing
Tellus had sons both beautiful and good, and he himself lived to see
children born to each of them and these children all grew up.
Moreover, Tellus’ end was surpassingly glorious since, coming to
the assistance of his countrymen in a battle against Eleusis, he
died upon the field most gallantly.
satisfied by this answer, Croesus inquired a second time, who after
Tellus seemed to Solon the happiest, expecting that he would be
given at least the second place. But Solon answered “Cleobis and
Biton”. They were fortunate enough for their wants; more
importantly they performed an extraordinary action to allow their
mother to participate in the festival in honor of Hera at Argos. She
needed to be taken there in a car, but the oxen did not come home
from the field in time. Thus, the sons Cleobis and Biton put the
yoke on their own necks, and themselves drew the car in which their
mother rode. The whole assembly of worshippers witnessed this deed,
and - as Solon commented on -“then their life closed in the best
possible way. Herein, too, the god showed forth most evidently, how
much better a thing for man death is than life”.
The mother besought the goddess to bestow on Cleobis and Biton the
highest blessing to which mortals can attain”.
After that, Cleobis and Biton fell asleep in the temple and
never woke up, but so passed from the earth.
in angrily Croesus finally asked what his own happiness then was in
Solon’s opinion, given that he set Croesus’ happiness at nought.
And Solon replied:
Croesus... you asked a question concerning the condition of man, of
one who knows that the god is full of jealousy, and fond of
troubling our lot... Man is wholly accident. For yourself, o Croesus,
I see that you are wonderfully rich, and are king over many men; but
with respect to that whereon you questioned me, I have no answer to
give, until I hear that you have closed your life happily. For
assuredly he who possesses great stores of riches is no nearer
happiness than he who has what suffices for his daily needs, unless
it so hap that luck attend upon him, and so he continue in the
enjoyment of all his good things to the end of life. For many of the
wealthiest men have been unfavoured of fortune, and many whose means
were moderate have had excellent luck. Men of the former class excel those of the latter but in two respects; these last excel the
former in many. The wealthy man is better able to content his
desires, and to bear up against a sudden buffet of calamity. The
other has less ability to withstand these evils ... but he enjoys
all these following blessings: he is whole of limb, a stranger to
disease, free from misfortune, happy in his children, and comely to
look upon. If, in addition to all this, he end his life well, he is
of a truth the man of whom you are in search, the man who may
rightly be termed happy. Call him, however, until he dies, not happy
but fortunate. Scarcely, indeed, can any man unite all these
advantages... No single human being is complete in every respect -
something is always lacking. He who unites the greatest number of
advantages, and, retaining them to the day of his death, then dies
peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to
bear the name of ‘happy’. But in every matter it behoves us to
mark well the end: for oftentimes the god gives men a gleam of
happiness, and then plunges them into ruin”.
Cleobis and Biton were permanently well off since they are dead, and
thus no longer vulnerable to reversals of fortune. Croesus is still
alive and can be exposed to reversal of fortune; he thus cannot yet
be called ‘happy’. In other words, Solon tends to consider
happiness as a condition of a person’s life as a whole.
opinion on human happiness both has remarkable echoes in Greek
and mirrors the core of ancient Greek conception of happiness as
something ephemeral and changeable just like human life, due to the
capricious and envy gods:
nobody is entitled to bear the name ‘happy’ before the day of
his death since very often gods deprive men of the prosperity they
have just given.
I would say a mortal man, while he is watching to see the final day,
can have no happiness till he pass the bound of life, nor be
relieved of pain” (Sophocles, Oedipus
man to the end is fortunate, Happy is none...” (Euripides, Iphigeneia
in Aulis, 161-162)
the basis of the mentioned passages it seems that what is at issue
in defining happiness is not a contrast between material and
spiritual well-being, given that the goods listed by Solon to
describe the happiness of Tellus, Biton and Cleobis were, in the
end, concrete ones, such as health, good descendants, physical
strength. What is at issue is rather a contrast between transitory
and stable well-being, i.e.,
temporary and definite happiness which is in turn regarded as
generations of men, – exclaims the chorus in Sophocles’ Oedipus
Rex (1186-1196) – how close to nothingness I estimate you in
life! What man, what man wins more of happiness (eudamonia)
than just the seeming so, and then to fall away? With your fate (daimon) as example, your fate, unhappy Oedipus, I call no mortal
won well-fated prosperity and has been highest-honored as ruler of
Thebes, but then nobody could be said more miserable than Oedipus,
having his life turned upside-down (ll. 1197-1208).
a matter of fact, “Not even the son of Cronos... has given mortals
a fate free from pain, but brings to all suffering and joy in turn...
For neither spangled Night nor misfortunes nor riches last for
mortals, but joy or loss at once is gone, and then comes back” (Sophocles,
By these words, elsewhere Sophocles points out the alternate cases
of human life, i.e human suffering of reversals at the hands of the
envious gods. Similarly we find in Pindar: “Short is the space of
time in which happiness of mortal men grows up, and even so, it
falls to the ground when stricken down by adverse divine will” (Pythian
are the reasons why one should wait for the end of life to give
somebody the name of ‘happy’. This condition is so dependent on
having a “well-disposed divine power”, and thus on being
“fortunate” that one might conclude with Euripides “No man is
happy (eudaimon). If
prosperity (olbos) come
his way, he might be more fortunate (eutyches)
than other men, but happy - no!” (Medea
sum up, the mentioned passages show that in ancient Greek culture
happiness is a plaything of gods, transitory, changeable and liable
to reversals of fortune, as any human things, because of gods’
will. Men seem not to have any responsibility in being happy or
unhappy. They can be given happiness and soon deprived of it, they
can reach the topmost of any goods only to then fall down.
the same ancient Greek poets testify to another factor that
intervenes to define the conception of happiness in terms of
contradiction with the results we have just found. The contradiction
is due to the fact that men themselves, at times, prove to be
responsible for their falling down from the happiness granted by
This happens when the happiness and prosperity given by gods produce
a feeling of satiety or surfeit (koros),
which, in turn, makes men avaricious. Consequently, the need to
satisfy the excessive desire for having more and more, instead of
enjoying the received gifts, produces over-riding insolence and
outrageous actions (hybris) which lead to moral blindness and complete ruin.
So writes Solon (fr. 6,
(koros) breeds outrage (hybris)
when much prosperity follows those whose mind is not sound”.
other words, men prove to be not able “to digest” the plenty of
happiness gods and fate can give them. By losing their self-control,
i.e., the awareness of
their limitations, they attempt to gain more than they receive,
though they have received a lot, and inevitably they fall down. So
does this happen, for example, to Tantalus and Ixion – mythic
characters able to mirror human behavior and give a lesson.
indeed there was any mortal man who was honoured by the gods of
Olympus – says Pindar – that man was Tantalus; but, alas! he was
not able to digest his great prosperity, and, owing to his surfeit
of good things, he got himself an overpowering curse...” (Olympian
mortal man, was granted by gods the privilege to be admitted to the
gods’ banquet, and to eat of ambrosia and drink nectar – the
gods’ special food and drink – with which gods made him immortal.
But Tantalus could not manage this gift of happiness and dared too
much: he abused Olympian hospitality by stealing the gods’ special
food, the ambrosia, and giving it to mortals. His insatiety has then
been punished by forcing him to experience insatiable desire that is
eternally unsatisfied. Similarly incapable of bearing the happiness he
received was Ixion:
tell us that Ixion ... teaches the lesson that men should repay the
benefactor with fresh tokens of warm gratitude. He learnt that
lesson very well; for though he received the boon of a happy life
among the gracious children of Cronus, he could not be content with
his great prosperity, but with madness of spirit, he become
enamoured of Hera, the allotted partner of the wedded joys of Zeus.
But his insolence drove him into overweening infatuation...” (Pindar,
Pythian 2. 21-30).
passages mentioned seem in a way to undermine the multifaceted
conclusion that for ancient Greeks happiness is something that men
cannot reach by themselves, something given by gods, something
closely connected to good luck and exposed to life’s reversal, in
a word something beyond men’s control since it depends on external
factors. As a matter of fact, a certain degree of human
participation and responsibility at least in being able to keep
whatever happiness has been granted is contemplated in the ancient
mode of thought. Keeping the goods granted by gods means to be
content and to not wish more, by respecting and accepting the limits
which men have been given. “It is ever right to mark the measure
of all things by one’s own station” (Pythian
2. 33-34) – as Pindar comments on the insolence of Ixion –,
which means men must enjoy gods’ gift and seek for what befits
mortal mind, being aware of what estate we are.
“Seek not, my soul, the life of the immortals; but enjoy the full the
resources that are within your reach” (Pindar, Pythian
might ruin happiness is men’s lack of self-restraint which prompts
their transgression, i.e.,
their going beyond human measure. And this is to be irreverent and
disrespectful towards gods whose punishment is inevitable.
lack of self-restraint is what may put at risk the lot of happiness
apportioned by gods along with good luck; self-control and
moderation are what may enable men to keep their happiness, or at
least to not actively determine the loss of happiness. If lack of
self-restraint is a form of folly, self-control and moderation are a
form of wisdom, or, still better, it is “having the good sense to
avoid behaviour that is harmful to oneself”,
once one well knows the basic, ethic principles. And ancient Greek
people well knew that the most harmful behavior is that of hybris, given that their basic, ethic principles are those
summarized by the so-called Delphic wisdom. “Know yourself”, and
“Nothing in excess” were the maxims inscribed on the facade of
Apollo’s temple in Delphi, as a reminder of the necessity to
always be aware of the limits of our fragile human nature in front
of gods’ splendor. To respect these ethical principles is, in a
word, eusebeia, i.e.,
reverence toward gods.
one who has good sense and self-control is able to enjoy the gift
given by gods and to show, in doing so, pious reverence toward them,
without aiming at what is not within his reach because of a foolish
sense of surfeit and avarice. This seems to be the secret of
happiness in the words of Pindar and tragic playwrights.
sense is by far the chief part of happiness, and we must not be
impious towards the gods...” (Sophocles, Antigone 1347-1350)
this words the chorus comments on the demise of the king Creon who
foolisly dared to contrast the gods’ laws for the sake of the
safety of his kingdom, incurring thus in hybris
and moral blindness. Yet he was granted an enviable state by gods,
but – in a way – w as not able to digest it.
be happy, thus, is to be wise, i.e.
to have the good sense to be content with all goods you are granted,
well aware that no person on earth can be wholly eudaimon,
“for any one man to win the prize of happiness complete is
impossible” (Pindar, Nemean
components involved in the ancient concept of happiness are of
different nature and even contradictory, in some way, with each
other. Happiness has proven to be:
a condition characterized by having a well-disposed god, whose
concrete expression is prosperity;
a condition affected by fortune and chance, thus changeable and
transitory (the good disposition of divine power is not guaranteed
– so to say – forever);
a condition relaying on having good sense, that is on being
self-restraint and reverent toward gods. Which means to be content
and to not seek more by going beyond what is within our reach.
light of these results, happiness seems to be both something
independent and dependent on the individual’s will and soul. Can
this implicitly contradictory nature of happiness be the reason, or
one of the reasons, why one experiences difficulty in just
have your needs and wishes satisfied, to have persons that love you,
to do your best in order to feel good, to have your love returned
back, to accept yourself and/or become self-confident, and so forth,
all of these situations can be affected by the chance, that is, they
can be vulnerable to external circumstances that are out of one’s
control. For example, one cannot be happy is the persons she/he
loves die at the wrong time. It thus seems to be implied that you
might be happy if you have the good luck to fully experience those
situations. In order words, several definitions of happiness imply
that it is mostly subject to fortune. In this respect, it might be
not accidental that in most of Indo-European languages, the modern
terms for happiness are closely related to the word “luck” or
To mention a few examples, the modern English term “happiness”
has its root in the early Middle English “happ”, which means
fortune, chance, i.e.,
what “happens” in the world. Likewise, the French “bonheur”
(happiness) and “heureux” (happy) have their root in the Old
French “heur”, which means luck, chance.
The Italian “felicità”, the Spanish “felicidad”, and the
Portuguese “felicidade” come from the Latin “felix” –
fortunate – and “felicitas” – luck, fortune.
happiness is so dependent on luck, why should it be difficult to
describe happiness as being nothing else but “to have good luck”?
But, why, then, those who have good luck may be unhappy?
no idea why Veronika did it” said the woman tearfully. “We’ve
always been loving parents, we sacrificed everything to give her the
best possible upbringing... she’s got a good job, she’s
nice-looking, and yet...” “and yet she tried to kill herself”,
said Dr. Igor “There’s no reason to be surprised; that’s the
way it is. People just can’t
cope with happiness...” (P. Coelho, Veronika decided to die)
situation of the protagonist of Coelho’s novel is not far
different from either that of Tantalus or other situations described
in the poetic passages mentioned above. The unhappy is one who is
not able to deal with the goods granted to him; therefore, the happy
is one who has the good sense both to enjoy what he has and to be
grateful for that, by realizing that – as Pindar said - one cannot
have everything. “A man of wealth you could not rightly call a
happy man; much rightly bears the name happy he who accepts the good
that gods bestow and wisely uses it” (Horace, Carmen
IV. 9, 45-48.).
there is the unpredictability of luck one has to deal with, in which
case having good sense - which is the secret that seems to ensure
happiness and to make it easier to describe - may also mean to
accept that:“Events will take their course, it is no good our
being angry at them; he is happiest who wisely turns them to the
best account” (Euripides, Bellerophon,
frg. 298). Thus, a sensible, sound-minded person is the one who is
able to be flexible and adapt himself to circumstances, minimizing
the effect of misfortune.
the impression these considerations might give as being commonplaces,
if one deeply reflects on them, he can realize that there is a
little difference between the Ancients and us in thinking about
happiness and in experiencing the dilemma of how to ensure happiness
despite what ‘happens’ to each of us. Yet, although the Ancients
gave an answer widely agreed on, still we feel the need to ask
ourself what happiness is, and how to be happy.
this an innate, inescapable need of human beings? Or, are we not
able, in the end, to have the good sense to be content with the
achieved answers? And may the uneasiness we experience in defining
happiness just depend on the fact that, in the end, we have
difficulty to really accept that one cannot be objectively happy in
everything and forever?
SURVEY ON HAPPINESS
not sure how much help I can be. Happiness isn’t something I can
easily put into words; happiness means something different to
everybody. Like beauty, it is often in the eye of the beholder. For
me happiness is getting the ones I love and care about, and being
able to do something I enjoy. I think there are different kinds of
happiness, the happiness I feel getting to spend time with my best
freind and boyfriend Jason, is a different kind of happiness from
what I feel when I get an A on something I worked hard on. I’m not
sure how much sense this makes, but I hope it helps some.
is not having what you want; it's wanting what you have”
can be an overwhelming force in a person's life that will never die
orfade. Happiness, to me, is realizing that, even if you constantly
gain what you want, you may always want more. It's good to reach a
point of complacency and satisfaction; sometimes, something just
need be "good enough."
more than I intended to say, but basically, that's what I understand
from the line.
is difficult to pegdown, but here is my opinion:
is not just about having what you want, it is about knowing what you
want and having the confidence to believe that you are worthy of it,
and capable of achieving it, whether that be love, accomplishments,
or self identiy
to me is when all the aspects of living are in, at least, the
closest possible balance. By that I mean you are comfortable within
yourself and the world around you. You have all of your basic needs
met with a little extra. You have your health and strength, you are
comfortable with your finances, there are people in your life that
love and appreciate you for all that you are and all that you are
not. You are happy when the ones you love have all their needs met
plus all the things I mentioned above in their lives as well.
is difficult to describe. It varies from person to person depending
on what your beliefs are. I think that happiness is being able to
love yourself completely. To bring oneself to a happy state of mind
is the ability to find peace with yourself and love who you are.
is the result of encountering the very best that life has to offer.
that encounter is, and when it takes place, I feel we know the
answers to both, thank God, with the help from others daily.
is jogging with my father early on a Saturday morning, while in the
midst of our run, it begins to rain. Happiness is cooking and
laughing with my mother. Happiness is spending a care-free,
afternoon with someone I love, devoid of fear or anxiety, safe in
the knowledge of their adoration and devotion. Happiness is
completing a goal or project meeting or exceeding the perceived
expection. Yet most of all, happiness is an evolution and happiness
is a physical state more pleasurable than any others. Happiness can
be felt as a result of various perceived gains and successes, but is
most likely nothing more than the subjective feeling caused by
various mixtures and combinations of hormones and other
neurotransmitters. These combinations do
to produce varied states of happiness, ranging from satisfaction/contentment,
to intense euphoria.
some would insist that this is much too grim and austere a picture
of human happiness, one that opens the doors to and invites in
nihilism and meaningless existence, happiness? even as a purely
physical state? strikes me as the most important end in human life.
to those who insist that happiness is simply the absence of sadness,
I am convinced that happiness itself has a sort of positive
existence, as shown by the fact that some who are not sad are also
me happiness is knowing I have done my best for myself and the
people around me that matter most.