Philosophers in search of happiness – The 3 best-known virtue ethics at a glance

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ETHICS EXPLAINED – PART 4

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THINGS TO KNOW How do we find the path to happiness? Should we follow our desire? Or should we rather seek “stoic tranquillity”? The philosophers of antiquity answered these questions in many different ways. Their answers can be found in the so-called “virtue ethics”.

What do we live for if not for a fulfilled, happy life? Ancient philosophers like Seneca, Epicurus or Aristotle already recognised this. They all strove for eudaimonia (eudaemonia = good spirit), i.e. “bliss”, a “good life” or the “highest good”. Eudaimonia was considered the goal of human life. It was all-encompassing and was pursued only for its own sake. There were various theories on how to achieve eudaemonia, and I will present them in more detail below.

Concept of virtue

In antiquity, the search for happiness was understood as a search for the right way of life that suited human beings. The ancient philosophers propagated a way of life that was oriented towards virtues. A virtue generally referred to the ideal of (self-)education to become a morally exemplary personality.

Plato (427 – 347 B.C.) listed four (particularly important) “cardinal virtues”: Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Wisdom; which were extended by Christianity to include Faith, Hope and Love. Opposite them are the seven “vices” (deadly sins), such as envy and anger. In addition, there are the so-called “secondary virtues” such as diligence or discipline. The way to happiness lay in the practice of such virtues, which is why the ancient concept of happiness is also called virtue ethics.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

Virtues of man according to Aristotle.

Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.) distinguished between an irrational and a rational part of man. The former included the vegetative part of life (food, sleep, etc.), the latter was “logos”, i.e. reason itself. In between, there was the sensual striving, which contained both rational parts and those without reason. For Aristotle, however, the actual function of man was reason. In order to achieve eudaemonia, one had to use the intellect and follow its purpose, i.e. practise the virtue that suited the intellect best. In doing so, the philosopher designated two types of virtues:

  • dianoetic virtues/virtues of the intellect: These include wisdom and prudence. They are recognisable by instruction through the intellect.
  • ethical/moral virtues: These virtues include sensual striving and reason at the same time and are to be acquired through habituation. The so-called “mesotes doctrine” (which is greek for “doctrine of the middle”) states that our actions should be determined by the “habitus of choosing the right middle”. This makes a virtue, in Aristotle’s eyes, a behaviour of choice determined by deliberation. Example: Instead of being cowardly or foolhardy, one should display an appropriate degree of bravery. Too much meekness is just as bad as too little meekness, etc.

In short: Use your mind to find “the right middle” for your actions.

The Hedonism of Epicurus (Epicureanism)

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Epicurus, founder of epicureanism. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Epikur_Statue.jpg

Epicureanism is the current of hedonism (hedoné = pleasure) founded by Epicurus (341 – 270 BC). While the original hedonism, founded by Aristippos of Cyrene (435 -355 BC), aimed at momentary pleasure as an end in itself (short-lived pleasure), Epicureanism acts towards lasting pleasure in the form of “perfect peace of mind” (ataraxia) (a state between pain and actual pleasure).

According to Epicurus, pleasure does not refer to sensual pleasures such as fun, but rather to the absence of physical and mental pain. Pleasure is considered the beginning and end of the blissful life. In order to achieve it, one must cast aside one’s fear of gods, pain, unfulfillable desires and death.

Epicurus lived a secluded life full of self-sufficiency and moderation and did not like to be in the limelight. He cultivated friendships, made use of reason and freed himself from passions. To others who wanted to achieve the same “calm of the soul“, the philosopher advised:

“For all this, the beginning and the greatest good is insight. That is why insight is even more valuable than philosophy. From it spring all the other virtues, teaching that a life full of pleasure is not possible without a life full of insight, beauty and justice, nor a life full of insight, beauty and justice without a life full of pleasure. For the virtues are naturally connected with the lustful life, and the lustful life is inseparable from them.” (translated from www.epikur-journal.at)

In short: Discover the “lust of life” in the absence of all restlessness and pain.

Stoicism

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Massimo Pigliucci-Stoa of Attalos. The teachings of the Stoics are said to have once been taught in such halls. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Massimo_Pigliucci-Stoa_of_Attalos.jpg

Probably the best-known ancient virtue ethic is Stoicism or the expression “Stoic tranquillity”. Stoics also strove for eudaemonia, which in their case meant a certain inner peace or tranquillity of mind. They believed in a primordial force (or a god) that determined the entire world, or in other words, they believed in fate and that the soul lives on after death. Accordingly, man had freedom of will, but this essentially served to transform what was determined by fate into what was carried voluntarily.

This group of philosophers, to which Seneca (died 65 AD) and Marcus Aurelius (died 180 AD) belonged, also saw reason as the function of man. With its help, one should now live in harmony with nature, i.e. be a rational being without passion, guided by logos (an inner power, reason) and brought to its predetermined place.

In addition to Stoic virtues such as prudence and fairness, the Stoics practised autarky (self-sufficiency), apathy (dispassion, freedom from affects) and ataraxia (imperturbability in the face of adversities of existence). The prerequisite for this was autonomy, i.e. independence from all external constraints and needs. Thus, the exemplary Stoic was a citizen of the world who – with reason and without passions – engaged in politics and accepted every kind of suffering.

In short: Free yourself from all external influences and follow your destiny.

What you can take away from this

All these theories originated more than two thousand years ago and are therefore anything but up-to-date. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take anything away from them. I myself see incentives in every single virtue ethic that can also be applied to our search for happiness today.

  • For example, when I think about virtuous action, I always think of Aristotle’s doctrine of the middle. After all, what do we have our minds for if we don’t use them to display the right amount of kindness? Sure, a little unreasonableness is good sometimes, too, and a little fun never hurt anyone – provided the silliness stays within a certain limit.
  • You can also take a leaf out of Stoicism‘s book. While I don’t believe in fate and am convinced that one shouldn’t accept every suffering without a fight, on the other hand, there are also situations in which I wish for the preached “stoic calm”. There are so many things over which we have no control. How much nicer would life be if we could accept such events more easily?
  • Sometimes I feel the inner contentment that Epicurus called “ataraxia”. I don’t need any great sensual pleasures for that, just the knowledge that even small things can make life so much more pleasant. These are moments when I realise that I am healthy and have so many people around me who love me.

These are just personal thoughts on virtue ethics and you don’t have to agree with me at all. I just want to make you think … Maybe you too can find inspiration for your path to happiness.

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What does “happiness” mean for you?

More on ETHICS EXPLAINED

  • Part 1: An overview of epistemologies
  • Part 2: Moral principles explained
  • Part 3: Is there a god?

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