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Eudaimonia, Ancient Female Teachers and Positive Psychology

Douglas focuses on Spiritual Counselling. He has degrees in Psychology, Science and Humanities (and perhaps will add a PhD in the future).

Eudaimonia (Wellbeing) and Ancient Philosophy

When the concept of 'eudaimonia' is raised, some students of philosophy think of Aristotle (c. 384 BCE - c. 322 BCE). They might even recognize that he is said to have acknowledged it to be the 'highest human good' – along with some of his contemporaries. After all, from the traditional English translations of "Ἠθικὰ Νικομάχεια" (a title usually read as "Nicomachean Ethics"), we have the following quote:

Verbally there is a 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 faring well with being happy; but with regard to what [eudaimonia] is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing like pleasure, wealth or honour.

Later, as it happens, Aristotle (again, according to the traditional translations) identifies that a life filled with eudaimonia involved:

... virtuous activity in accordance with reason.

The value of standing by traditional translations, of course, may be marginal – and that is why first-year university students – in the Classics (at the very least) – are told to go and read the earliest standardized texts in the original languages using then-contemporary definitions. Sometimes interesting observations can emerge by applying that basic academic rigor – like recognizing that "Ἠθικὰ Νικομάχεια" may be read as a maxim, namely:

Of – or pertaining to – the moral nature and character of victory, success and the fruits of victory or advantage, they include: battle; combat; quarrel; strife; dispute; contests; games; battlefields; contradictions; and inconsistencies.

Fortunately, Aristotle wrote another work addressing the matter of wellbeing from a different perspective – "Ἠθικὰ Εὐδήμεια." That title, too, may be read a little differently than simply a dedication to Aristotle's pupil, Eudemus of Rhodes, namely:

Of – or pertaining to – the moral nature and character of the people who are good, content, prudent, wise, well-advised and thus, 'well.'

An ancient illustration said to depict Neoptolemus murdering Polites in front of Priam (the father of Polites).

An ancient illustration said to depict Neoptolemus murdering Polites in front of Priam (the father of Polites).

What Is Said of Female Teachers of Eudamonia in Antiquity

Depending on the sources that are read – and the definitions that are applied – it seems that many philosophers from Antiquity advanced the commentaries of Aristotle (and his contemporaries) concerning 'eudaimonia.'

As noted by Strabo (c. 64 BCE - c. 24 CE), the term was the basis of the name of a region in Arabia that brought together 'kingdoms' of warriors, farmers, those who engaged in the mechanical arts and those involved in the production of myrrh, frankincense, cassia, cinnamon and nard. Trade through the region extended into Europe, Africa and beyond India to the Far East (including China) – much conducted through Eudaemon (the principal port which is thought to be the modern port of Aden).

Greek and Latin sources even write about a woman who taught on the subject – her approach being summarized thus:

... be in flow; be loving towards others (and oneself) in a way that is pure and unconditional; be soothing, courteous and pleasant; and maintain an attitude that is joyful and fun (like a contented pup) while acknowledging the genuine discomforts associated with the harsh realities of life and the intrinsic rewards linked to fruitful effort freed from the grind of being a harbinger of doom to others (whether they are trying to do their best or otherwise).

At face value, such an approach is reminiscent of Buddhist rhetoric – and one of the terms applied to her is vocalized in a manner that is rendered as "伊薩" in Traditional Chinese ("That one is a bodhisattva"). Another epithet applied to her is columbae (which is rendered as "鸽子" in Traditional Chinese ["dove" or "dove child"]).

As for how she has been dealt with by traditional history – including Christian dogma – it is probably fair to say that those with alternative vested interests maligned her while stealing her ideas and blundering some parts of the Christian religion out of her messages in a way that has since been controlled by a patriarchy (it follows the path of many early Christian teachings).

Termed "Messalina holding Britannicus" - a title that is said to be questionable as Messalina's figures are thought to have been destroyed after her damnatio memoria - this marble dates to c. 45 AD.

Termed "Messalina holding Britannicus" - a title that is said to be questionable as Messalina's figures are thought to have been destroyed after her damnatio memoria - this marble dates to c. 45 AD.

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Modern Positive Psychology

Some relatively unfiltered views of her approach can still be read from English translations of early Latin text (in this case, via Traditional Chinese: "爾會想如果有問題爾會談論迎個"):

Energetic, enthusiastic, abundant and luxuriant rhythms, relationships, potentials and thoughts think about, desire and miss having the appearance, state and characteristic of being complete, real and true and – like fruit, berries and nuts – generative and abundant. Greetings, concern for others, interrogations and holding others to account are like a small bowl, a headline or a theme (namely, questions, quizzes and problems). Your rhythms, relationships, potentials and thoughts want to talk, discuss, converse, praise, reason, evaluate, recount, theorize and speak directly to the point …welcome, greet and receive that.

In respect of the position of modern psychological theory, practice and research, the Client-Centered approach associated with Carl Rogers (1902-1987) seems to reflect the extension of a therapeutic space that is filled with unconditional positive regard of the type endorsed by those teachings from Antiquity. Such approaches are also reflected in the theory and research related to the Positive Psychology movement and in that respect, the following summary of Edaimonic Well-Being (EWB) (Waterman, et al. 2010, p. 41) – could be helpful to consider:

… quality of life derived from the development of a person’s best potential and their application in the fulfillment of personally expressive, self-concordant goals.

The dimensions on the ‘Questionnaire for Eudaimonic Well-Being’ (Waterman, et al. 2010, p, 41) may also provide a good framework for a discussion of the current scientific orientation on the issue:

  • self-discovery;
  • perceived development of one’s best potentials;
  • a sense of purpose and meaning in life;
  • intense involvement in activities;
  • investment of significant effort; and
  • enjoyment of activities as personally expressive.
"The Fountain of Youth" by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472 – 1553).

"The Fountain of Youth" by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472 – 1553).

Other Perspectives

It may also be fruitful to consider alternative readings of terms like Ikigai (生き甲斐 [大辞林 [Daijirin] 2006]) – traditionally, that is translated as “a motivating force” or “something or someone that gives a person a sense of purpose or a reason for living” (Oxford English Dictionary 2021), but it could also be read as “natural disposition towards the highest grace.” (For those so interested, the Traditional Chinese character 氣 [‘Qi’, ‘vital energy,’ ‘life force,’ ‘quality,’ ‘character,’ ‘morale’ and ‘spirit’] may be substituted for the Japanese character き – such a substitution may then give rise to a Buddhist interpretation of ‘生氣甲斐’ as “to be reincarnated with a life force that is most graceful.”) The features of ‘grace’ – from the Latin gratia – include being thankful, influential, pleasurable and friendly (Lewis & Short 1879).

In closing and by way of returning to the intellectually disrespectful treatment of an otherwise greatly influential female philosopher from Antiquity, it is worth remembering that the real disrespect – to ourselves and others – exists in doing other than living in accord with the principles of eudaimonia.

"Issa and the Skull of the Giant" by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947).

"Issa and the Skull of the Giant" by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947).

References

大辞林 (Daijirin) 2006, Third Edition, Sanseido, Tokyo.

Lewis, CT & Short, C 1879, A Latin Dictionary, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Oxford English Dictionary 2021, Online Edition, Oxford University Press, accessed 11 November 2021, https://www.oed.com/public.

Waterman, AS, Schwartz, SJ, Zamboanga BL, Ravert, RD, Williams, MK, Agocha, VB, Kim, SY & Donnellan MB 2010, ‘The Questionnaire for Eudaimonic Well-Being: Psychometric properties, demographic comparisons, and evidence of validity’. Journal of Positive Psychology, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 41-61.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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