02 November 2006

Against "Flourishing"

I give six reasons why Aristotelian eudaimonia is not well captured by "flourishing". These deficiencies are so great that, in my view, that rendering should be avoided--it is better simply to transliterate or to re-educate as to one possible (and perhaps the preferable) use of "happiness".

(Understand always below: eudaimonia as used by Aristotle.)

1. Eudaimonia is an absolute term, "flourishing" is relative. There is a single standard of eudaimonia in the universe, and what human beings can achieve counts as eudaimonia to the extent that they approximate to this. In contrast, "flourishing" is species-relative: each species flourishes, if at all, in its own way, without any species serving as the standard for all others.

Broadie in a sense agrees: "it would be a mistake to propose "flourishing" as the preferred translation for eudaimonia in general. The world excellently captures the narrower idea of human eudaimonia, but -- as Aristotle does not allow us to forget -- eudaimonia was ascribed to the gods as well as to the best and most successful humans." But it's too weak to say that Aristotle merely "ascribes" eudaimonia to the gods as well: he takes the gods to provide the true case of it.
2. Eudaimonia has a double function, which "flourishing" does not admit. Sometimes it is said that Aristotle 'equivocates' in his use of eudaimonia: he uses it to characterize both (i) a life as a whole and (ii) a distinct sort of activity (sc. the actualization of the virtue of sophia). But it's probably better to hold that the word can intelligibly be used in these related senses. Note that we do have words in English that function in a similar way. Think of "success": it's intelligible to say both that someone's life as a whole is a "success", and that some of his distinct achievements count as a "success". And we would naturally say that his life was a success because of the presence of success within it. But "flourishing" cannot coherently be used in this way.

3. "Flourishing" does not match correctly the connotations of eudaimonia deriving from its etymology. Eudaimonia is variously taken to signify in its origin either (i) "favored by a divinity" or (ii) "having a favored divinity (sc. spirit within)". (i) connotes that someone has been given something as a gift, or has been favored by good fortune, whereas flourishing, even if it suggests fragility, as Broadie says, connotes neither of these things. (ii) connotes that something special within us or somehow set apart is well off. This is connected with the notion of an absolute standard for eudaimonia, which, as we have seen, "flourishing" fails to capture.

4. "Flourishing" has connotations which would be inaccurately imputed to eudaimonia. Because it is involves basically a vegetable metaphor, "flourishing" suggests the manifestation and unfolding of something already contained within. (Note that it does not, itself, even suggest fruitfulness.) But Aristotle does not conceive of eudaimonia in this way (it's rather something like an achievement), nor is eudaimonia, pace Irwin, a matter of 'self-actualization' or 'self-realization'.

5. We cannot "flourish" except at the height of our physical powers, but eudaimonia has no such restriction. When Thomas Reid, 75 years old and nearly enfeebled, retired from lecturing at the University of Glasgow and had leisure at last to write out his lectures (which became his treatises on the Intellectual Powers and Active Powers), we might have been justified in ascribing eudaimonia to him, but it would have been an abuse of English to say that he was flourishing.

6. Eudaimonia is related to "blessedness", which cannot be construed as "flourishing". We must look to the adjectives as well as the substantives: Aristotle frequently pairs eudaimon with makarios, as if these were equivalent or very similar, and yet I should think it is clear that makarios does not mean "flourishing".

In any other case of a proposed rendering into English of a Greek term, if the rendering were similarly beset by difficulties of comparable seriousness, we would either reject it entirely or regard it as extremely unsatisfactory. That is why I find Broadie's talk of "the great Aristotelian idea of human flourishing" to be so puzzling--since "flourishing" is not Aristotle's idea and doesn't capture his idea.

But why do people so commonly say that eudaimonia is best rendered as "flourishing"? Not, I think, because "flourishing" suggests vulnerability (which Broadie stresses), but rather because people look for a term that indicates something which meets objective standards, is common for a species, and which is non-transient.


Anonymous said...

You might also add that fourishing, in its modern usage, has a sense of victim in it. For example, it's the word we used (back home in the backwoods) with regard to the mentally handicapped children if they happened to be doing well in a regular classroom.

I don't think Aristotle has this in mind. 

Posted by Richard Avramenko

Macuquinas d' Oro said...

I can not disagree with any of the points you make against “flourishing”, and I think you rightly diagnose our unfortunate attraction to the word as something (we hope) connotes a state that is objective, non-transient, and common to at least all (normal adult male?) member of Homo sapiens. NE 1. iv. is also unhelpful when it seems to endorse the popular equivalence of eudaimonia and to eu zen. We slide very easily in English from living well to flourishing.

The problem is that for these same reasons and others “happiness” is an even worse rendering of eudaimonia. English really seems to offer no good choices here. Too bad we do have not a term in English more like “success”, because eudaimonia is clearly the highest kind of success ( to eu prattein ) for us.

The programme of trying to re-educate people’s usage with respect to a word like “happiness” troubles me and puts me in mind of the translator as Humpty Dumpty. Recall his rant about words meaning what he says they will mean, not what everyone else thinks they mean. When you use “happiness” with general audiences, they inevitably and invariably think you are talking about a some sort of pleasant, self-ascribed psychological state. They then take the NE to be a proto-psychology: a hunt for the best goals and best way of life to be “happy”.

Please don’t misunderstand me: this is not a faute de mieux defense of “flourishing.” I think the translator is really forced to transliteration with a concept like eudaimonia, which apparently is so alien to ordinary language.

Cristian Ducu said...

Sorry to disappoint you. All the problems that seem to trouble you regarding the use of eudaimon-makarios (eudaimonia-makaria) are the result of not reading correctly the Aristotelian Greek text. Using his method (see Topics) you will be able to understand why the pair eudaimon-makarios is being used (he refers to a general understanding of the topic) - see for example EN I.7, the conclusion of the famous "argument of the human ergon". As a matter a fact, in the very first steps, for Aristotle both Greek terms reflect the meaning of what others think to eu zen is and he takes them as endoxa, i.e. only as a starting point, and then to show exactly what he thinks about them and propose his own point. And his point is that makaria is not the same thing with eudaimonia, because the first represents the happiness of a person that doesn't have control of his life (either the enkrateia or the divine or heroic disposition) - and this is why it is better rendered with "blessed" -, while eudaimonia is a more complex term referring to three possible answers for the question "what does it mean to have a eu zen?". And in this, eudaimonia will be better translated with "happiness" in general. One of the three answers he proposed is rejected as being incosistent - eudaimonia consists in pleasure (hedone). The second, eudaimonia consists in virtue and if there are more virtues, in that that it is teleia. Now, it either can be all the virtues as the political men should have, but eudaimonia will be in a second sense - eudaimonia consisting in the ethical virtues -, or the highest virtue, i.e. sophia, and eudaimonia will consist in the activity related to this highest virtue - theoria (contemplation). So, the two other meanings of eudaimonia are: 1) the happiness of those that restrict their moral actions to the ethica virtues and 2) the happiness of philosophers, a happiness consisting in theoria and being /teleia eudaimonia/.
Only this interpretation does justice to both Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics and is consistent with what Aristotle says in other places (like Topics, Categories, Metaphysics, the biological writings and De Anima).

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Christian,

I admit that makarios has a difference in meaning of the sort that you indicate. But wouldn't my point 6. still hold, since that different meaning isn't well connected with 'flourishing'?