27 April 2006

Can Atomists Be Happy?

The following occurred to me when teaching Nic. Eth. 10.7-8 today, in connection with my previous post on Aristotelian monotheism.

Prove: An atomist cannot be happy.


  1. Happiness is activity in accordance with the virtue of sophia (1177a12).
  2. Thus, no one who lacks sophia can be happy.
  3. Sophia is knowledge of first causes (1141a19-20).
  4. No one who has false beliefs, and lacks true beliefs, in that respect has knowledge (1139b20-21).
  5. Thus, no one who has false beliefs, and lacks true beliefs, about first causes, has knowledge of first causes.
  6. Atomists have false beliefs, and lack true beliefs, about first causes.
  7. Thus, no atomist has sophia.
  8. Thus, no atomist can be happy.


'Atomist' of course stands proxy for that class of people who, on Aristotle's terms, lack knowledge of first causes.

We might grant that there are some philosophers who lacked sophia, but who nonetheless approached happiness in some way, because their beliefs were insightful approximations to the truth (e.g. Plato on the Good, Anaxagoras on Mind).

What the above argument does, is to raise a question about the importance of truth for happiness. Does happiness require that we attain to truth about the most fundamental things? Aristotle's remarks in the opening of the Metaphysics, and his definition of sophia as knowledge, would suggest that it does. If 'all men by nature desire to know', then those who fail, fundamentally, to know, will have failed to attain a 'natural good'--and 'a happy person has all the natural goods' (NE 1169b19).

The argument also takes seriously the fact that happiness is objective, not subjective, for Aristotle. A person can think he is happy, and not be so (see Kraut, "Two Conceptions of Happiness"). Similarly, a person who thinks he has wisdom, but does not, may think he is happy, but is not. (And note the Socratic resonances in this.)


Anonymous said...

Surely part of the problem here arises from the old mistake of translating EUDAIMON as “happy”. General audiences are inevitably mislead by this translation, and perhaps scholars too. EUDAEMONIA is a carefully defined, technical notion in the context of NE I ( esp vii ) and X. Our pursuit of EUDAEMONIA is the pursuit of the most complete and self-sufficient end at which all our actions (should) aim.
Call it “flourishing.” Call it by any other term of art you wish. But “happiness” is really poor choice.
Atomists whose speculations fail to achieve SOPHIA or THEORIA of true first principles and the ultimate telos do not “flourish” according to the account of NE 1 and X. Fine. No doubt they think the same of the Aristotelians. But the air of paradox vanishes when we understand the substance of the charges they are exchanging.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks very much for your comment.

It's true that I wanted my post to have the air of paradox. One needs to spice things up on a blog; that goes with the medium.

But I didn't wish, really, to raise a question about what eudaimonia amounts to, so much as whether it mattered that one 'got it right' as regards the virtue of sophia.

I may be wrong in what I take to be the common estimation. But I think it's the case that people presume that, in the context of Nic. Eth., to have sophia is to ponder deep things. Whether one thinks that 'all things were together in the beginning', or 'everything came from night', or any other such thing which Aristotle derides, makes no difference.

And I wanted to suggest, in contrast, that maybe there was something of the savor of gnosticism in Aristotle--that he thought that whether we achieved the purpose for which we came into existence (as one might gloss eudaimonia) hinged on whether we actually succeeded in attaining to the truth in these 'deep matters'.

That, it seems, you had a relativistic moment when confronted with this possibility ('No doubt they thought the same of the Aristotelians'), confirms, I think, my suspicion that such an outlook is alien to us, and difficult to enter into.