Does Aristotle think that happiness is the end of all human actions?
If so, what does he mean by that?
If not, what does he think about the relationship between happiness and the end of human action?


I need to begin with the observation that the English word "happiness" is not an adequate translation for the Greek word that Aristotle in fact uses -- "eudaimonia".  Aristotle's term "eudaimonia", which has usually been translated into English as "happiness," means much more than what we normally associate with the English word.  In Aristotle's lexicon, eudaimonia means "living well and faring well." (NE 1.4)  This is quite different from the subjective feeling of well-being that we think of as when employing the concept denoted by the English language word "happiness".  The English language concept of "happiness" is a state of mind -- a subjective assessment of the quality of one's life.  Whereas Aristotle is quite clear that "eudaimonia" is to be understood as an activity -- the living of an objectively desirable life.  For this reason, more recent translations of Aristotle have employed the phrase "human flourishing" instead, or have left eudaimonia untranslated.

Given this difference in meaning between "happiness" and "eudaimonia", the essay's main title question can be seen to be somewhat ambiguous as to its intended meaning.  Is the essay's title question focussed on the English notion of "happiness" and inquiring whether Aristotle thinks that "happiness" is the end of all human action?  Or is the essay's title question focussed on the Greek notion of "eudaimonia" by way of a rather poor English translation, and inquiring whether Aristotle thinks that "eudaimonia" is the end of all human action?  Aristotle, of course, did not think in terms of the English concept of "happiness".  So the essay's title questions would not appear to make any sense from that point of view.  Therefore, for the remainder of this essay, I will adopt the premise that the essay's title questions are directed towards the Greek notion of eudaimonia. 

Eudaimonia as the End of all Human Actions

The answer, in brief, is that of course Aristotle does think that eudaimonia is the end of all human actions.  He is very clear about that in the opening pages of his Nicomachean Ethics.  Just what he means by eudaimonia, however, is a more complex question, since he does not provide a specific definition of the term.  Rather, he relies on his audience's familiarity of the then common usage of the word.

Aristotle begins the Nicomachean Ethics with a statement of the fundamental teleological premise that underlies his entire treatise - that all human actions are directed towards the achievement of some goal -- some "good" specific to the action. 

"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim." (NE 1.1)

There are two things to note about this passage:  (i) Aristotle begins his explorations in the Nicomachean Ethics by explicitly adopting the common usages of his fellow Greeks of that time.  Hence he is here not asserting that it his opinion that all human actions are directed towards some good, he is documenting the observation that it is commonly accepted by his fellow Athenians that such is the case;  and (ii) this passage has sometimes been misinterpreted as Aristotle fallaciously arguing from the premise that each action has an aim, to the conclusion that there is a single thing that is the common aim of all actions.  But this incorrect, for Aristotle immediately proceeds to argue that the individual aims of individual actions can be ranked in a hierarchy of aims.  And further, that there will be a top to this hierarchy. 

"If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good." (NE 1.2)

Aristotle then draws upon the common linguistic usage "of men and people of superior refinement" to label the top of his hierarchy of goods "eudaimonia".  (In keeping with the clarification I made in the preamble to this essay, in the following quote I have corrected the translation of the original text, replacing "happiness" with "[eudaimonia]".)

" . . . in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is [eudaimonia], and identify living well and doing well with being [eudaimon] . . ." (NE 1.4)

"Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.  Now such a thing [eudaimonia], above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else,"  (NE 1.7)

From the contents of Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, one must therefore conclude that Aristotle does indeed think that happiness(eudaimonia) is the end of all human action. 

Now he does not mean by this that each individual action is specifically directed towards the goal of eudaimonia.  Rather he argues that the particular goals of individual actions can be arranged in a hierarchy where the lower goals are contributory or substantive of the higher goals, with eudaimonia being the top of the pyramid. 

Eudaimonia, as employed by Aristotle and other Greek writers of that age, refers to an "objectively desirable life"(1).  Aristotle in particular viewed an "objectively desirable life" in a very social context -- fulfilling with excellence the various roles that one has to play within the family and the polis.  Hence, events that would not normally be thought to contribute to one's happiness (perhaps because you are not aware of them, or perhaps because you take a mistaken view of them), might be seen by objective observers to contribute to one's eudaimonia.  According to Aristotle's usage in the Nicomachean Ethics, contributing to the eudaimonia of someone might be such things as choosing and acting virtuously, being loved, and having good friends.  These are objective judgments about the quality of a person's life, not a subjective measurement of the emotional state of happiness.  Also he is clear that the judgement of whether someone has lived a life of eudaimonia can be made after a person is dead.  Such things as the success of children, or the quality of one's post-mortem reputation are contributors to one's eudaimonia.  (So, for example, it can sometimes be to the benefit of one's eudaimonia to die for a cause -- say, protecting the success of one's family and friends, or one's reputation.)

It is Aristotle's argument that rationality is the differentiating characteristic of human beings.  Hence the proper function (ergon) of a human being is to exercise this rational capacity to the highest degree.  For Aristotle, then, eudaimonia is the supervening result of activity that exhibits excellence (aretē) in accordance with reason.  Note again the emphasis on the activity, and not on the state.  It is not sufficient for a man to be disposed to behave in certain ways, or to have certain character traits.  Aristotle maintains that to live in accordance with reason, to fulfil one's function (ergon), means actually displaying excellence (aretē) in its use.  Performing any function well necessarily entails exhibiting certain excellences.  And, of course, developing the ability to display an excellence in any field is a matter of proper training, focussed effort, and lots of practice.  So too, then, when it comes to the display of aretē in the fulfillment of one's  ergon.  When it comes to performing the proper function of Man well, these excellences are also called "virtues."  (This is a linguistic equivalence - the Greek "aretē" being translatable into English as either "excellence" or "virtue".)

From this it follows that eudaimonia consists in activities exercising the rational part of the soul in accordance with the virtues or excellences of reason [NE 1.7].  Throughout the remainder of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle develops the details of this claim that best life for man is the life of excellence(aretē) in accordance with reason.  And because Aristotle thinks of the proper roles of man in a social context, the standards of excellence that he applies throughout his discussions of the various "virtues" are particularly socialized standards.  Aristotle's list of the virtues consists of a list of those social behaviours that, in the commonly held opinion of his fellow Athenians, would make a man well thought of and respected within the polis.

So Aristotle does indeed think that happiness(eudaimonia) is the end of all human actions.  And what he means by this is that happiness(eudaimonia) is the supervening consequence of fulfilling one's proper function (ergon) within the polis with excellence (aretē) according to the commonly accepted standards of praiseworthy and respectable behaviour of a citizen of the city.



(1)  "Eudaimonism"  New World Encyclopedia. 17 Nov 2008, 14:25 UTC. 24 Jul 2010, 16:50 .


Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Translated and introduced by David Ross, revised by J.L. Ackrill and J.O. Urmson;  Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 1980.  ISBN 0-19-283407-x  (referred to in the text with chapter and section numbers as "NE n.n")

Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics: Books I, II, and VIII (Clarendon Aristotle Series). Translated by Michael Woods; Oxford University Press, USA; 2 edition; 1992. ISBN 978-0198240204

Kraut, Richard, "Aristotle's Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

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