Aristotelian and Stoic Happiness by Gabriele Galluzzo and Chris Gill

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by Chris Gill and Gabriele Galluzo, summarizing the workshop they provided at the conference – G. Sadler, Editor

Introduction – Chris Gill

We all want to live happily – but what is happiness? In modern terms, ‘happiness’ tends to mean being in a cheerful mood or having enjoyable experiences. People often think that being happy depends on factors largely outside our control, such as being healthy or well-off, or finding the right life-partner or a stable family life. Ancient philosophers also thought that happiness included, or brought with it, enjoyment or positive emotions. But they believed that happiness (in Greek, eudaimonia) is a way of living or a form of activity, and that if you live in the right way enjoyable emotions will necessarily follow. In other words, they stressed much more the idea that happiness (the happy life) is something that is up to us, and that depends on our agency, our understanding and our character. This is true of both Aristotle and the Stoics; the main difference between them is that the Stoics emphasize the role of our agency even more than Aristotle and also stress the idea that our happiness is therefore independent of circumstances. But both theories share the belief that happiness depends essentially on our agency.

Here is Aristotle’s first definition of happiness: ‘activity of the mind consistent with virtue, and if there are more virtues than one, with the best and most perfect one’ (Nicomachean Ethics (NE) 1.7), though he adds some qualifications later (NE 1.8-10).

Here is a typical Stoic definition: ‘living according to virtue, living consistently, and again (which is the same) living according to nature’ (Stobaeus 6e).

Both definitions need more explaining. But they both convey the idea that happiness consists in something you do (your activity, or living in a certain way), and that this depends largely on your own efforts and personal qualities. Both definitions stress the idea that virtue or the virtues are crucial for happiness: these virtues are qualities of understanding and character, such as wisdom, courage, justice and self-control.

Both theories also hold that whether or not we develop the virtues depends to a large extent on us (the Stoics again stress this even more than Aristotle). In addition, both Aristotle and the Stoics see happiness as a matter of living the best possible human life (the Stoics also see it as a life in accordance with nature as a whole). The virtues, then, are those qualities that enable you to live the best possible human life, and living that kind of life is what it means to live happily. Again, living that kind of life will bring with it enjoyment or positive emotions; but having those emotions is a by-product; the core of happiness is living a good human life, which means living according to the virtues.

Aristotle on Happiness, Key themes – Gabriele Galluzzo

Aristotle identifies happiness as the basic and ultimate aspiration of all human beings, and so as the highest good (NE 1.4-5; 1.7). Since happiness is the highest good, it must be the kind of thing that is pursued for its own sake. Happiness, in other words, is the final end of human life and not a means to something else (NE 1.7).

Besides, Aristotle believes that happiness must be, at least in some sense, self-sufficient (NE 1.7). Once we have happiness, there is nothing else that we require to fulfill the purpose of our life, for happiness is indeed such a purpose. This is, of course, a very general and abstract characterization of happiness, which does not say much about what happiness is in specific terms. But, within this general framework, Aristotle introduces several themes which help us to give more content to happiness conceived as the ultimate goal of our life.   

One idea is that, in defining happiness, we need to reflect on what is unique or distinctive about human beings, considered in comparison to all other creatures. This line of thought leads to the conclusion that happiness consists mainly in the possession and exercise of the virtues. The argument by which he reaches this conclusion is interesting. We establish what happiness is by investigating the proper function of human beings, to use Aristotle’s terminology (NE 1.7). It is only by considering what makes human beings uniquely human and thus what distinguishes them from all other living things that we can reach sound conclusions about what makes human beings happy.

For Aristotle, as for many other Greek philosophers, the proper function of a human being (his or her distinctive characteristic) is the use of reason: while we share the function of being alive with plants and the function of perception with non-human animals, the possession and use of reason is distinctive to us as human beings.  The final step in the argument is the claim that the exercise of the virtues is the full expression of human rationality. This step is not surprising if we think that the Greek term for virtue (aretē) means ‘excellence’ or doing something well.

Thus, for Aristotle the exercise of the virtues constitutes excellence in the expression of human nature, and this is what human beings are uniquely equipped to do. The conclusion is that happiness is an activity of our mind that is in accordance with, or is expressive of, virtue (or the highest virtue – an idea explored further later in the Nicomachean Ethics, 10.7-8).

A second interesting theme in Aristotle is his celebrated idea that human beings are by nature political or social animals (NE 1.7, Politics 1.2). This means that interpersonal and communal relationships form an essential part of a natural human life. But if this is true, then one fundamental strand of human happiness will concern interpersonal and communal relationships. Not surprisingly given this view, Aristotle emphasizes the importance of the ethical virtues, that is, the virtues that we mainly exercise in our dealings with other people, such a courage, justice and generosity. 

Similarly, Aristotle puts weight on the importance of friendship, and ‘friendship’, in Aristotle, is a general term that covers all kinds of relationship, including family relationships, involving affection and reciprocity (NE 8.3-5, 8.7-9; 9.4, 9.8-9). This theme of sociability is common to Aristotle and the Stoics; but, while Aristotle believes that the social nature of human beings mainly manifests itself in relatively small communities such as the Greek city-states, the Stoics extend this idea to cover the whole of humankind.

One final theme rather complicates this picture. Aristotle distinguishes between the ethical virtues (by which he means virtues of character, in Greek ēthos) and intellectual virtues, which are purely rational. He also draws a distinction between practical wisdom (phronēsis) and intellectual or reflective wisdom (sophia). Practical wisdom, as its name suggests, is used in the context of practical activities, including the conduct of our social relationships. To exercise the ethical virtues properly, we need also to apply practical wisdom in the decisions we make. Theoretical wisdom is exercised in the context of philosophical activities of all kinds.

As well as distinguishing between practical and theoretical wisdom, Aristotle also draws a distinction between the practical life and theoretical life, by which he means lives which are focused, ultimately, on either practical or theoretical uses of wisdom. Towards the end of the Nicomachean Ethics (10.7-8), Aristotle asks not just what happiness is but what the highest form of happiness is, that is, the form of life that expresses the highest kind of virtue. Although he recognizes the importance of practical wisdom and ethical virtues in a human life (indeed, in every human life), he argues that a life focused on intellectual activities, above all philosophy, represents the highest form of happiness. In fact, he characterizes the intellectual life as ‘divine’ or ‘god-like’, compared with the practical life, which is only ‘human’.

Despite this characterization, Aristotle reaches this conclusion partly because the ability to engage in philosophical activity is unique to human beings, and in this sense it forms a distinctively human form of happiness. This view has aroused much debate among modern scholars, who tend to think Aristotle should have favoured the practical life or at least have regarded both activities as equally important parts of the best human life. However, Aristotle’s view reflects the high valuation of the intellectual life that is also maintained by his teacher Plato and other thinkers in the ancient world – though not the Stoics.

The Stoics on Happiness, Key Themes – Chris Gill

The Stoics put forward their own, independently conceived, framework for thinking about happiness and do not refer explicitly to Aristotle’s ideas on this subject; however their thinking has much in common with Aristotle’s, except on the last point. They conceive happiness as living ‘naturally’ or according to nature; and this means, living in line with human nature (as it does for Aristotle) but also living in line with nature as a whole (the world or universe of which human beings form an integral part).

The Stoics see human nature as marked by a combination of rationality and sociability (again this view is close to Aristotle’s). So living a happy life is living the best possible human life, as a rational and sociable animal; and the way to do this is to develop and exercise the virtues, especially the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control). They see these virtues as forming a matched and interdependent set of qualities which together enable us to lead the best possible human life.

Also, since human beings (like all living things) form an integral part of nature as a whole (the world, universe or cosmos), living happily means embodying the best qualities of nature as a whole. The Stoics see the universe as marked especially by two sets of qualities: structure, order and wholeness (which add up to coherence and consistency); and exercising providential care (oversight and concern) for everything in the universe. So we, human beings, will live the best possible life (the ‘natural’ life) if we embody these qualities in the way that human beings can.

If we develop the virtues, we will give our characters structure, order, and wholeness (or integrity) and we will also give the same qualities to our lives. Also, if we do this, we will be doing all we can to exercise a kind of ‘providential’ care for ourselves (we will look after ourselves to the greatest possible extent) and we will internalize nature’s providential care for us. And we will also exercise this care for others of our kind (other human beings), especially our family and community, but also human beings in general who form a kind of universal family or community, and in this way too we will internalize nature’s care for us. So the idea, broadly speaking, is that these qualities (order and providential care) are built into the workings of nature as a whole, and the best human life, the ‘life according to nature’ is one in which we express these qualities in our actions and lives. Here is one well-known Stoic quotation that brings out some of these points:

… therefore, living in agreement with nature comes to be the goal, which is in accordance with the nature of oneself [human nature] and that of the whole [universal nature]… the virtue of the happy person and his good flow of life [happiness] are just this: always doing everything on the basis of the harmony of each person’s guardian spirit with the will of the administrator of the whole. (The Stoic thinker, Chrysippus, quoted by Diogenes Laertius 7.88)

The Stoic view of happiness differs from the Aristotelian in bringing in this broader, cosmic dimension, as well as referring to human nature, and by integrating these ideas. Also the Stoics do not distinguish between the practical and contemplative lives as Aristotle does; they see practical and contemplative activities as equally spheres of activity in which we can exercise wisdom and the other virtues. Any life which is shaped by the virtues is happy, whether it is theoretical or practical in focus or a combination of the two kinds of activity.

Points of Disagreement between Aristotle and the Stoics – Gabriele Galluzzo

The main point of contention between Aristotelian and Stoics is the issue of whether virtue is sufficient for happiness (Aristotle, NE 1.8-10, Cicero, On Ends Books 3-5). Both Aristotle and Stoics claim that virtue is an essential component of happiness. But while Aristotle sees happiness as dependent on a combination of virtue and bodily goods (for instance, health) and external goods (for instance, money, power and friends), for the Stoics happiness depends solely on virtue. Thus, for Aristotle virtue is necessary for happiness, but not sufficient, whereas for the Stoics it is both necessary and sufficient. The following passage shows that for Aristotle it is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain happiness without the addition of at least some external goods:

It seems clear that happiness needs the addition of external goods, as we have said; for it is difficult if not impossible to do fine deeds without any resources. Many can be done as it were by instruments – by the help of friends, or wealth, or political influence (NE 1.8).

The Stoics, by contrast, believe that both bodily and external goods are a matter of indifference, that is, they do not make the difference between happiness and unhappiness, whereas virtue does. Thus, for the Stoics, it is possible, at least in principle, to be happy without possessing bodily and external goods, and virtue is the only basis for happiness (just as vice or moral defectiveness is the only source of unhappiness), as the following passage from Diogenes Laertius clearly shows:

‘Indifferent’ is used of things which contribute neither to happiness nor to unhappiness, as is the case with wealth, reputation, health, strength and the like. For it is possible to be happy even without these things. (Diogenes Laertius 7.104).

Of course, Aristotle’s position is not that virtue and external goods are on a par when it comes to happiness. Virtue remains, in his conception as well, the main contributing factor in happiness, while bodily and external goods only provide the material conditions without which the exercise of virtue is difficult or impossible. For Aristotle, for instance, it is implausible to think that someone could exercise the virtues fully and so live a happy life if he has no resources or no friends. Besides, Aristotle only claims that one needs some or a certain amount of external goods, and not that obtaining external goods should become an aim or pursuit in its own right. The fact remains, however, that on Aristotle’s view external goods make a decisive contribution to happiness. For the Stoics, by contrast, external goods do not determine one’s happiness, though some of them do have positive value, as we see shortly.

One attractive aspect of Aristotle’s position, which is often emphasized by supporters, is that it appears to be more realistic: how can we really live well without at least some external goods? Is it conceivable that we can do without them completely and still live a happy life? Moreover, Aristotle’s view seems to be rather sophisticated, in that bodily and external goods are just a prerequisite for happiness, while the possession and exercise of the virtues remains the main contributing factor.

On the other hand, critics often stress that Aristotle’s position risks being incoherent, since exercising virtue and obtaining external goods can come into conflict since they are separate and independent sources of wellbeing.  Critics also insist that Aristotle’s position is elitist, because only a limited number of people can have access to the right amount of external goods and thus achieve happiness. The Stoic position, by contrast, is seen by supporters as more unified and coherent, since there is only one basis for happiness, namely virtue. It is also more egalitarian, since for the Stoics everybody can be happy, irrespective of their wealth or social status or all other external conditions. Followers of Aristotle, of course, often found the Stoic view incomplete, since it does not recognize the importance of certain areas of life, and unrealistic, that is, fine in theory, but unattainable in practice.

Supporting Arguments for the Stoic Position – Chris Gill

The Stoic position may seem incomplete and extreme but it is supported by three aspects of their thinking.

(a) The distinction between virtue and indifferents. Stoics recognize that things such as health, wealth, and reputation have a positive value and constitute grounds for action: hence they call them ‘preferred’ or ‘preferable’ indifferents rather than ‘dispreferred’. The reason that the Stoics call them ‘indifferents’ (instead of bodily and external goods, which is what Aristotle calls them) is that these factors do not make the difference between being happy or not, that is, between leading a good human life or not, whereas the virtues do. You can lead a good human life without wealth, or reputation or even health, but you cannot be happy if you do not live ‘well’, that is by exercising the virtues.

Remember that for the Stoics the virtues are all seen as forms of knowledge or expertise in living. The virtues express our knowledge of how to live a life with the characteristics of happiness noted earlier, that is, a combination of being rational and sociable, of having an ordered and structured life and taking ‘providential’ care of yourself and others. The virtues are also seen as forms of expertise in selecting between indifferents, that is, in choosing what things we really need to lead a life with the characteristics just described. The Stoic view, understood in this way, is quite complex, but not therefore incredible; arguably, it answers to many of our intuitions about what makes a life worth living, if we examine this question in some depth.

(b) The Stoics have a theory of ethical development and also emotional development that makes their view about happiness and indifferents more psychologically plausible. They believe that, as people develop ethically and acquire the virtues, their emotional life also changes, and they experience ‘good emotions’ rather than bad (misguided) ones. The bad emotions or ‘passions’ are based on the mistaken view that things such as wealth, reputation and health make you happy (that is, that they enable you, by themselves, to lead a good human life). Emotions of this kind are also often intense, overpowering and sometimes internally conflicted (think of a jealous lover).

The good emotions reflect the fact that you have the virtues and that the virtues enable you to live a good human life, whereas the indifferents do not. The good emotions are also calm, moderate and consistent with each other and with your beliefs about what is valuable. Examples of good emotions are wish (rather than passionate desire), caution (rather than fear), and joy (rather than intense pleasure). So, for the Stoics too, as for most modern thinkers, the happy life is also marked by a certain emotional quality. But the positive emotional quality does not depend on acquiring wealth, reputation and so on, but from recognizing that our happiness does not depend on these things but on developing the virtues.

(c) Some Stoic thinkers (especially Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) also stress that we can accept (what are normally seen as) ‘bad’ aspects of life – such as our own death or those of our loved ones – if we see them as part of a larger series of events which are providentially shaped and are in this sense ‘good’. Stoics see not only the universe as a whole but also the series of events that occur within the universe as providentially shaped. They also see these events as fated, at least in the sense that they form part of an interconnected causal web and not as random and fortuitous events, which is the competing Epicurean view.

However, this does not mean that Fate excludes human agency; the scope for human beings to exercise choice in their actions also forms part of this causal web. The acceptance of seemingly bad events as providentially shaped is sometimes seen by Stoic thinkers as promoting peace of mind and in this sense contributes to the emotional dimension of leading a good and happy human life. This parallels the idea noted earlier that leading a good (virtuous) life is a matter of living in accordance with nature as a whole.

The final passage in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations illustrates the last two points. Marcus contemplates his own approaching death calmly and even with a kind of joy:

My friend, you have been a citizen of this great city [the universe]. What difference does it make if you live in it for five years or a hundred? For what is laid down in its laws is equitable for all. Where is the hardship, then, if it is no tyrant or unjust judge who sends you our of the city, but nature who brought you into it? … the one who determines when it is complete [that is, nature] is he who arranged for your composition and now arranges for your dissolution, while you for your part are responsible for neither. So make your departure with a good grace, as he who is releasing you shows a good grace. (12.36, translated by Robin Hard)


As we have tried to bring out, both Aristotle and the Stoics offer well-conceived and profound theories of human happiness, which still have much to offer to modern audiences. Their theories have some features in common and some marked differences; but both of them take us to the heart of serious questions about how to lead a good human life.

Further Reading:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, especially books 1 and 10 (many good translations).

Anthony A. Long and David N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge, 1987, especially sections 54 (the Stoic providential world-view), 63 (happiness), and 65 (passions).

Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness, Oxford, 1993, especially chs. 1-2, on goals in life and virtue, chs. 18-19 on Aristotelian and Stoic ideas of happiness.

Daniel C. Russell, Happiness for Humans, Oxford 2012, a sustained debate about the rival merits of Aristotelian and Stoic ideas of the happy life.

John Sellars, Stoicism, Berkeley, 2006, ch. 5, an overview of Stoic ethics, including discussion of virtue and happiness.

See also in the ‘Stoicism Today’ blog archive two debates between Chris Gill and Tim LeBon on virtue and indifferents.

Gabriele Galluzzo is a Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter. His main areas of research are Aristotle’s metaphysics and its medieval reception, but he is equally interested in how ancient philosophy has come to shape contemporary thought and ideas. His books include: The Medieval Reception of Aristotle’s MetaphysicsBook Zeta and Universals in Ancient Philosophy. Read more about Gabriele’s work here.

Chris Gillis Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

4 thoughts on Aristotelian and Stoic Happiness by Gabriele Galluzzo and Chris Gill

  1. Scott Perry says:

    This is a brilliant piece. Chris Gill is the man I hope to be when I grow up. Thank you for sharing this wisdom!

  2. Warren S Wright says:

    This is an excellent article. I expect I come down more on the side of Aristotle. I believe it is a necessity to have a minimum amount of resources (food, clothing, shelter, and health), to live well/content (I prefer the term content rather than happiness). If one has to again explain or redefine a word that has already been defined i.e., “living according to nature,” (especially in philosophy), then something is wrong. Living according to nature is not a particularly useful term.

  3. This essay is a model of clarity and wisdom (sophia and phronēsis)–many thanks to Chris and Gabriele!
    Ron Pies

  4. Papa o says:

    Am seeing life from another critical perspective, true virtues happy lifeP

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