Are Virtuous People Happy? Why The Ancients’ Views Are Still Sensible by Rafael R Pereira

We know that the relationship between morality and happiness constitutes a major difference between ancient and modern moral theories. It seems evident to many of us that these orders of consideration are distinctive: a person can be unhappy by acting morally. However, a basic premise of eudaimonist ethics involves the thesis that the virtues make us happy, constitutively or instrumentally. This essay will discuss how this view can still make sense. To this end, we will attempt to apprehend eudaimonia first from the standpoint of considerations about who we are, our identity or true nature, and second from the way we relate to the world. As we will observe, this second aspect is related to the ancient concept of fortune or tuké.

Ancient authors, particularly Aristotle and the Stoics, understood eudaimonia as the best possible life for the specific kind of creatures humanity represents. We are fundamentally rational agents; hence, the good life is one in which we can best develop and exercise our rational capacities. The conception of eudaimonia, therefore, connects the good life to considerations of identity and interprets it teleologically: what we really are is not the inception; it is a point of arrival, something we must strive to become (Robertson 2013: 31).

It makes perfect sense within this conceptual framework to cognize that our lives will be better if we are virtuous because, in precise terms, virtues entail the updating of our rational capacities. The good life is one in which we flourish as rational agents, becoming excellent human beings. Evidently, this inference is vastly different from the way we comprehend happiness in modernity: as a pleasant emotional state or a subjective sense of well-being. The incongruity of the thesis that virtues contribute to happiness appears attributable, therefore, to conceptual confusion or to a translation error if we so prefer. The definition posited by the ancient philosophersis simply not what we now signify by the term happiness.

I will try to demonstrate in this essay that it is still reasonable for us to believe that virtuous people are happier. Ancient and modern views are not so divergent after all. The first important point to note is that both eudaimonia and modern happiness encompass certain objective and subjective elements. This thesis is defended by Richard Kraut in his paper “Two Conceptions of Happiness”. According to Kraut, both ancients and moderns understand happiness as a positive attitude toward living when such a life satisfies certain standards that are considered to be good. In other words, happiness is vested in a life that embodies something valued by the individual. The ancient and modern conceptions are different merely in their emphasis. Such values ​​are independent of our individual preferences in the former notion: we should desire them. In the modern version of the idea, the individual is free to choose a personal tenet of a good life. In both cases, our lives must meet certain standards, objective in eudaimonistic conceptions and subjective in modern terms (Kraut 1979: 168).

 That eudaimonia contains subjective elements can be illustrated by recalling Aristotle’s belief that a virtuous person takes pleasure in acting virtuously (NE 1099a15). That the modern conception of a good life incorporates objective elements can be elucidated by the known example of a woman who believes she has a perfect family and then discovers her husband has another family elsewhere. In this instance, the woman’s life is not good according to the pattern she has set for herself. Thus, happiness cannot solely be subjectively understood in modernity. If it could, we would have to maintain that the woman led a happy life even though she was deceived.

We can thus say that the eudaimonia of the ancients is a type of moderate objectivism, whereas modern happiness represents moderate subjectivism. If the two conceptions are not so different, as Kraut maintains, then the thesis that virtue is a constitutive element of happiness must still somehow be reasonable. This essay focuses on fortune or tuché, a concept crucial to eudaimonist conceptions, to demonstrate this point.

Both Aristotle and the Stoics sought to distance themselves from the position commonly associated with Solon, who stated in a famous passage by Herodotus that fortune was the principal component of eudaimonia, and that is why a person’s happiness could only be asserted after death (Herodotus, H. I-32). Aristotle and the Stoics rejected this view, possibly because they thought that a life subjected to tuché would be akin to the existence of leaves in the wind and would not do justice to our nature as rational agents. In opposition, both the Stoics and Aristotle postulated a notion that would minimize the effects of fortune or even eliminate them altogether, as will be discussed later in the paper. Their strategy was to make what we do, and not what happens to us, the key element of a good life. Eudaimonia, in fact, is often described as a kind of activity rather than as a state. Aristotle illustrated this point by defining eudaimonia as the “activity (energeia) of the soul according to virtue” (NE 1098a-17). Explaining the stoic position, Julia Annas comments that our telos is not happiness; rather, it is “to be happy.” Hence, it is something we do, not a state of affairs (Annas 1993: 396; Cf. Didymus, 77.16–27). Understood in this manner, happiness becomes something fundamentally dependent on ourselves and cannot be easily taken away from us. Fortune’s role is thus minimized.

 In this sense, our flourishing as rational agents transforms the way we relate to the world. Ancient philosophers generally believed, as do many moderns, that our nature incorporates two dimensions: one active, associated with reason; another passive, associated with emotions or pathé. We are simultaneously agents and subjects of experiences. This point can be illustrated by the etymology of pathos, which derives from the Greek verb páskho (to suffer, to be affected by). The same occurs with the terms afeto in Portuguese and “affection” in English, derived from affectus, the participle of the Latin verb afficio, “to affect.” Thus, we are subjects of experiences, in large part through our emotions. Passions are how the world affects us, and we consequently relate to the world in two ways: we act on it through reason, and we are affected by it through our passions.

 We must learn to handle the world in a more rational way to become good rational agents, which entails becoming more active and less passive. However, our condition as subjects of experiences is not eliminated in the process. We will always be affected by fortune, but this dimension can also be rationalized. It has been noted that the world works on us through our passions. Both Aristotle and the Stoics distinguished between irrational and rational emotions, although they disagreed on their significations. We all have emotional reactions that could be considered irrational, for instance, a fear of cockroaches, anger at the television remote control, or an affinity toward people who treat us badly. There are situations, however, in which our emotional reactions can be rationally justified. This rationalization is possible because, unlike the moderns, the ancients conceived of emotions in a cognitive manner, associating or identifying feelings with beliefs about values ​​or about reality (Nussbaum, 369–72). We can thus conform to reason the ways in which the world affects us.

 Aristotle and the Stoics, however, disagreed on how this validation was accomplished. Aristotle defended a position that could be labeled the stance of harmonization, in which affections must be educated to listen (akouo) to reason. The Stoics, on the other hand, considered emotions linked to false value judgments (pathé) as fundamentally different from rational emotions (eupatheiai). The false adjudications thus disappear during the acquisition of the virtues. This divergence between the two ancient schools in the manner in which our affective existence should be rationalized can cause dissimilarities about the emotions that may be considered rational. In the Aristotelian view, certain emotions such as envy are never rational (NE 1107a11), but there may be good reasons to feel anger, fear, or sadness. In the Stoical conception, such emotions are always irrational (unless they are treated as proto-passions or involuntary physiological reactions occurring before the value judgment that generates the passions; Cf. Seneca: Ep. 99.15–6).

Stoicism may be apprehended as the radicalization of certain Aristotelian premises. As observed above, both positions consider virtue as the main component of a good life and minimize the role of fortune. Aristotle, however, thought that the latter could not be completely eliminated: virtue is necessary for eudaimonia and it is not possible to be happy without it, but it is not sufficient in itself. External and bodily goods such as health and wealth also contribute, albeit in a secondary role, to happiness (NE 1099a32). The Stoics, on the other hand, held that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. There are several ways to understand this divergence. I prefer Irwin’s elucidation: the thesis of necessity implied the premise of sufficiency for the Stoics; thus, the Aristotelian position is inconsistent (Irwin 1986: 213). When we recognize that virtue is a different type of value that is incommensurable with the worth of other goods, as implied in the thesis that virtue is a pre-condition of happiness, we cannot avoid the rationale that it also becomes the only relevant good for eudaimonia. If we allow virtue to mix with other types of values for the composition of a good life, there is no way to guarantee that it will always prevail in cases of conflict. Inevitably, some amount of external goods will become more important for happiness than virtue. Thus, the passive facet of our nature, our condition as agents of experiences, will outweigh our active dimension as rational agents. The Stoics would thus maintain the necessity of making virtue the only component of a good life to guarantee the special status of virtue as a value incommensurable with other goods. Obviously, our condition as subjects of experiences is not eliminated; that would be impossible. The world continues to act on us, but this aspect is irrelevant in itself for a good life, according to the Stoics. Happiness is not primarily vested in what we do and less consigned in what happens to us, as Aristotle claims. It consists only in what we do.

We are now in a better position to understand the continuing validity of the view that virtuous people are happy. This point is sometimes based, as in Kraut’s paper, on Aristotle’s position that acting virtuously is pleasurable. However, Aristotle’s stance is not an efficacious means of apprehending the relationship between virtue and happiness. First, it appears to work best on hedonistic conceptions, and Aristotle was not himself a hedonist. Second, as was common in the ancient world (including the Stoics), this thesis is based on an analogy between moral deliberation and the model of skills or technai, and that is not how happiness is usually understood today. However, as contended in this essay, the relationship between virtue and happiness is also related to the role discharged by fortune in a good life, and this method is more promising as a means of making the virtue-happiness relationship intelligible for contemporary views. This essay attempts this task based on an association between suffering and what we will call “psychic vulnerability”.

 It is easily contemplated that relating to the world more rationally would make us less psychologically vulnerable to events. Ancient doctrines have already made this point, which is particularly clearly enunciated by the Stoics, who emphasize the peace of mind or the tranquility (ataraxia) of virtuous people in handling misfortunes. We place ourselves in a fragile position when we are passive; we become more subject to suffering and find it difficult to cope with circumstances. Being rational and active makes us mentally and emotionally stronger. This aspect forms the base of the recent congruence posited between Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) by authors such as Donald Robertson (Robertson 2010). This approximation is possible because CBT shares the ancient cognitivist view of emotions. Much of our psychic suffering results from emotions generated by false beliefs. Our flourishing as rational agents makes us mentally and emotionally healthier and better equipped to deal with the setbacks in our lives.

Therefore, the thesis that virtuous people are happy is still sensible. The virtuous are less prone to the suffering caused by psychic vulnerability.As Kraut elucidated, this connection is possible because eudaimonia and what we identify as happiness are not so different after all. Both have subjective and objective components. Thus far, we have discussed the subjective facet of ancient conceptions such as the Stoic notion of ataraxia, but the objectivity contained in modern happiness is also a crucial point. It enables us to explain, for instance, why a person whose state of tranquility was achieved through drugs or medication would not be considered to be happy: the usage of medications compromises our rational agency and the way we connect to the world. The notion of ​​flourishing, the view that happiness is comprised of a life that is apt and good for the type of creature we represent, continues to make sense in modernity, albeit in a weakened version of the robustness the rationale offered to the ancient philosophers.

Nevertheless, it is important to attend to the limits of this approximation. As previously noted, a difference in emphasis certainly prevails between the modern and ancient viewpoints. This distinction should not be underestimated. It has been iterated above that eudaimonistic conceptionsare grounded in moderate objectivism, whereas modern happiness is founded on moderate subjectivism. To ascertain the relevance of this divergence, we may reflect that a type of moral realism founds the eudaimonia of the ancients: objective and true goods exist independently of our personal preferences; these must be incorporated into our existence if we want our lives to be worthy. The subjective element of these conceptiosn is denoted by the fact that we must be educated to appreciate such values (Aristotle NE 1104b10-7). In this essay we postulate that freedom (eleuteria, libertas) is the most important of these goods, both for Aristotle and the Stoics. The preservation of our integrity as rational agents is what really matters to our existence. To be passive is to be controlled by external events and to become a slave to fortune. The Stoics highlighted this issue clearly (Seneca Ep. 66.14-7, 92.2; Epictetus Disc. I-25.23; III-20.8; III-24.60; IV-1.36), as did Aristotle, for whom autarkes was the most important component of eudaimonia, even though it was not the only one. If the good life is vested in our flourishing as rational agents, it is perfectly comprehensible that freedom in the sense of a kind of autonomy or rational integrity is the central component. The subjective dimension of these conceptions thus occupies a subordinate place. Just as the pleasure of virtuous actions is a secondary feature of Aristotle’s non-hedonistic ethics, the stoic perspective of ataraxia must be interpreted as the state of mind of the free person. Freedom is the crucial value.

 If taken seriously, the recent revival of eudaimonist conceptions, particularly Stoicism, should not merely be construed as a means toward more happiness in the modern sense. Eudaimonia and modern happiness are different. The point of being rational cannot be reduced to a matter of becoming resilient or to the more tranquil conduct of our lives. The resumption of ancient notions should rather be viewed as a mandate to modify our conception of happiness. It should then lead to a more refined reflection on the definition of a good life and result in the particular contemplation of the place of freedom and integrity in such an existence. However, such reflection is facilitated once we understand that the distance between the ancient and modern notions of happiness is not so big. The stance that virtuous people are happy remains current and intelligible.


  • Annas, Julia. 1993. The Morality of Happiness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Aristotle. 1984a. “Nicomachean Ethics” (NE). In The Complete Works of Aristotle, volume 2, Edited by Jonathan Barnes, 1729–1867. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Didymus, Arius. 1999. Epitome of Stoic Ethics. Edited and translated by Arthur J. Pomeroy. Atlanta-GA: Society of Biblical Literature.
  • Epictetus. 1956. The Discourses (Disc). Translated by W. A. Oldfather. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Herodotus. 1987. The History (H). Translated by David Grene. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Irwin, Terence. 1986. “Stoic and Aristotelian Conceptions of Happiness.” In Schofield, Malcolm. & Striker, Gisela. The Norms of Nature: Studies in Hellenistic Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kraut, Richard. 1979. “Two Conceptions of Happiness.” In: The Philosophical Review, 88, no 2.
  • Nussbaum, Martha. 1994. The Therapy of Desire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Robertson, Donald. 2013. Stoicism and the Art of Happiness. London: Hodder & Soughton.
  • Robertson, Donald. 2010. The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). London: Karnac Books ltda.
  • Seneca. 1969. Letters from a Stoic (Ep). Translated by Robin Campbell. London: Penguin Books.

Rafael Rodrigues Pereira is a philosophy professor at the Federal University of Goias (Ufg), Brazil. He has published many papers about Stoicism and contemporary virtue ethics. He is also a member of the GT Epictetus in Brazil with Aldo Dinucci, a group related to the National Association of Philosophy Students (Anpof), and dedicated to studies about Stoicism.

This article was produced with the support of the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (Cnpq), Brazil.

6 thoughts on Are Virtuous People Happy? Why The Ancients’ Views Are Still Sensible by Rafael R Pereira

  1. Michael Kalish says:

    Echos of Spinoza

  2. Pat Kennedy says:

    If one acting morally is unhappy with this stance then one must be immoral, but resists the urges, which by extrapolation not a stoic.

  3. Ian Faulkner says:

    Just wondering.
    If there is a purpose to human existence (that is debatable itself), what is the argument that it is happiness or eudamonia?
    Yes, they arise as byproducts while applying objective virtues aspirationally via our evolved reasoning capacity, in order to overcome our primal emotional programming. But suffering has some positive components – we wouldn’t know eudamonia could exist without experiencing suffering, and suffering can motivate a human.
    I really liked the concept of reason acting on the world and passions reacting to it. Stoicism is a method to improve the mix of reason versus passion in our lives. My final question is – if a person was to achieve a high mix of reason over passion, are they still the human as defined for the last 100,000 years (i.e. primarily driven by passion with reason applied to post justify the emotional response), or are they something else?

    • Pat Kennedy says:

      It would seem sadness would not be something one would pursue, or a bland uneventful no heartstrings pulled type of life seems that also wouldn’t be a pursuit unless proverbially squashed like a bug at some time in the past and have become a cynic of sorts.

    • Rafael Rodrigues Pereira says:

      Dear Mr Faulkner,
      I think your comment is related to the divergence between Aristotle and the stoics. For Aristotle suffering can be a rational way to respond to events. Sometimes we have good reasons to feel sadness, anger and fear. The stoics disagree. I think Aristotle’s position is if we eliminate all suffering this would impair the way we interact with we world. So, there would be a loss, in terms of the human condition, in becoming a stoic sage whose state of mind is always ataraxia. If we understand flourishing as a process of improvement of our condition as humans, then this ideal has an ambivalent relationship with our evolutionary heritage: we must move away from it, while still remaining humans. So Aristotle and the stoics have different views about what our flourishing as human rational agents means. The stoics position would take us further away from our evolutionary biases. I believe Aristotle’s position, that this could impair the way we relate do the world, is very reasonable.

  4. Can Deception Produce Happiness? Bracketing out issues such as a doctor deceiving a patient for their own good, what of the example of the woman who believed that she was leading an idyllic married life, only to discover that her husband had another family. Was she happy before this discovery? I would say that she at least felt happy and is there a difference between feeling happy and being happy? One aspect of this is that happiness (or unhappiness) comes and goes, one is not happy all of the time or unhappy all of the time. So the question, it seems, becomes that of a finding what sort of behavior will lead to a greater proportion of happiness and this, in part, ties into the link to fortune. The psychologist Richard Wiseman published a book, The Luck Factor, reporting on his studies of people who considered them selves lucky or unlucky. He identified four principles that were exemplified by lucky people. One of the tests he did was, for me, quite telling. He gave people in his study a newspaper and asked them to count the number of photographs it contained. The (self-evaluated) unlucky group took 5 minutes or so and gave the answer. Members of the lucky group answered as soon as they turned the front page and saw, written in a large box at the top of the second page, “Stop counting, there are 43 photographs in this paper.” People with a narrow focus of attention tend to miss random opportunities that appear in their surroundings. Often, narrowly focused attention is a result of stress, either conscious or unconscious. That suggests that behavior that minimizes stress in life is at last one aspect of luck/fortune. The woman who believed that she was in a happy marriage perhaps missed, or intentionally ignored indications that this was a false belief, engaging in self-deception in order to support her felt happiness. She was buying a feeling of happiness, comfort, satisfaction at the cost of later catastrophe. But within her fantasy, she was behaving virtuously and believed she was happy. Jacob Bronowski makes the point that there are two sides to morality (virtue): the first is a sense of human community and human love, the second is a clear understanding of situations, without any trace of self-deception. Maintaining ones deceptions requires effort (the old saying that if one always tells the truth then there is no problem of remembering what lies were told). The connection to Stoic philosophy is obvious, but some people can maintain a state of self-deception for years. To finish, a limerick from a book I’ll publish this year on stages of spiritual development:
    Those things for which we spent time vying
    Lose value when we see we’re dying.
    It’s when we get old
    We find the real gold’s
    The One we’ve become in the trying.

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