Eudaimonia Or Nirvana: Which Do You Prefer?

Have you ever heard the word, eudaimonia?

I hadn’t heard the word until I listened to Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama for about the third time. During this summer, I am making my way through the 13 tapes of the recording of the book by Daniel Goleman.

When Owen Flanagan, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, gave his presentation of the western views on destructive emotions from the philosophical perspective, I recognized the word and decided I would investigate it at a later date.

Frankly, I did not expect to come across the word again so soon! I thought it sounded like a word for a password! No one would guess it. Don’t worry, I’m not using it!

Eudaimonia is a Greek word used in Aristotelian ethics. It means roughly, “human flourishing.”

In Aristotle’s time, eudaimonia was used to express the highest human good. Contemplating and experiencing it were thought to be the goal of practical philosophy, ethics and politics.

By being virtuous and ethical one can achieve eudiamonia.

Eudiamonia Or Nirvana

According to Lisa Dale Miller, a mindfulness based psychotherapist in Los Gatos, California,


Nirvana | By Bhikkhu Samahita

…eudiamonia…as an equivalent to nirvana and makes a clear distinction between happiness and flourishing/liberation. For Aristotle, eudaimonia emerges from reasonable, virtuous action and does not have happiness as a pre-condition. From his perspective, flourishing has more to do with skillful response to conditions than the achievement of pleasure.

She contrasts this with

It is analogous to viewing nirvana as symptom reduction (less suffering) rather than rooting out the source of the illness (primordial ignorance) itself. I think the Buddha was pointing at liberation as more than just less suffering.

She concludes with

We can see the parallels between eudaimonia and liberation in that each requires a specific container for skillfulness—eudaimonia requires virtue and reason; liberation requires resolution, tranquility, and wisdom. However, it seems to me that the Buddha is envisioning flourishing as something beyond skillful responsiveness. This liberation is described as signlessness, desirelessness, and emptiness all of which result from direct experience of the unconditioned, deathless, non-conceptual ground of being. This is primordial wisdom, the recognition of the true nature of reality; a liberation that is beyond all concepts, including samsara and nirvana.

Having been in a few classes with Lisa Miller, I think she is clear, concise and insightful. She teaches in the tradition of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center for Phillip Moffitt from time to time and I happened to be present at her talks.

Her arguments that differentiate nirvana from eudiamonia are sound and I agree with her. I also think that human flourishing will appeal to more people and could be used as a model for the emotional and social education of children and adults alike.

Which Do You Prefer?

As a practical matter, I think that the concept of human flourishing is a laudable and achievable approach to making our society more just and ethical. In this way, we can teach our children to be more compassionate, loving, and caring for their families and friends.

If you have any thoughts or questions about human flourishing, please share them below.

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