Aristotle on Fulfillment

by Peter Saint-Andre


The more deeply I ponder Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia (usually translated as "happiness" or more recently sometimes as "flourishing"), the more radical it seems.

For instance, we are perfectly comfortable saying things like "that basil plant is much happier since we moved it to the windowsill" or "their daughter is really flourishing in her new school"; by contrast, Aristotle refused to attribute eudaimonia to plants or animals or even to children.


Well, it's complicated, but to simplify matters somewhat I'll say that it's bound up with his views on actualizing potential (or activating capacities) and what it means to achieve fulfillment, since he sees important differences here between humans and non-human animals, and between mature and immature humans.

The first level of fulfillment for a living being consists of the natural capacities to engage in the activities that comprise the way of life for beings of that kind (e.g., the power of sight, which is made possible by having eyes). The second level of fulfillment consists of activating and exercising those capacities (e.g., actually using the eyes to see). In his works on zoology, Aristotle calls the biological affordances for action (e.g., eyes or hands) organs, and in Greek organ means tool; thus the second level of fulfillment consists in a being's using its natural tools for living.

Life is more sophisticated for human beings because we have what Aristotle calls a kind of second nature: our character. It's true that further levels of fulfillment are open to human beings because we possess further powers such as reason, speech, imagination, culture, social learning, forethought, planning, goals, purposes, and deliberation. But those powers are volitional: human fulfillment is a matter of choice, commitment, and deliberate self-development.

Here again Aristotle focuses on two varieties of fulfillment: capacities and their activation. Thus the third level of fulfillment consists of the acquired dispositions that comprise the virtues of thought and character, and the fourth level consists of the active application of those virtues to the practices of living well, i.e., reliably choosing to act and feel in ways that are beautifully right in the many and various situations that one faces in life. It is this fourth level of fulfillment that Aristotle refers to as eudaimonia: not merely living, but living well.

Although a non-human animal can objectively flourish and experience some of the simpler pleasures of existence, according to Aristotle it does not achieve the highest level of fulfillment because its psyche is not suffused with (to put it briefly) thought and purpose and meaning. Similarly, although a child is on the way to being capable of the highest level of fulfillment, completely activating that capacity takes many years of learning, practice, reflection, and the kinds of choices and commitments that build up the mature self as the achievement of a lifetime.

Even this condensed summary indicates that the biological and anthropological foundations of Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia establish a meaning that goes far deeper than our superficial notion of happiness as positive feeling, subjective well-being, or utilitarian pleasure. We moderns think we know it all, but old Aristotle still has a great deal to teach us about human fulfillment.

(Cross-posted at


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