“Aristotle made a crucial distinction between two forms of happiness: Hedonia and Eudaimonia” (1). Hedonia is a transient state of happiness brought about by pleasurable stimuli. Eudaimonia, literally, means the satisfaction of living in harmony with our guardian spirit (daimon in ancient Greek). We can think of it in a similar way, varied according to our specific beliefs and commitments. We can also frame it in terms of fulfilling our true nature, or, more simply, as living with a sense of meaning, purpose and integrity. In any of these senses, eudaimonia allows us to flourish even in the face of adversity. We have made ourselves present to something greater than our own limited existence. I see my contemplative inquiry as a eudaimonic process.
Carolyn Baker (2) says: “Meaning-making is far more than parroting glib slogans like ‘everything happens for a reason’ , or ‘God moves in mysterious ways’. It is the sense that meaning making is not just something I do but is, in fact, part of who I am, and that life is asking me to commit to the task, particularly with regard to all my unwanted and uninvited life experiences”. I began working with Carolyn Baker’s book at the same time as I was reading a novel that, for me, offers a powerful evocation of eudaimonia, beyond conceptual formalism.
In her semi-autobiographical novel Alberta Alone (3) Cora Sandel describes her heroine’s discovery of her vocation as a writer, and of the values that will drive her. Alberta is a young woman who has left her native Norway to live independently in the Paris of the early twentieth century, eking out an existence as an artist’s model and occasional contributor to Norwegian journals on the subject of life in Paris. She lives precariously on the fringes of the creative arts community, without material resources or confidence in her own capacity. She reaches the point of giving up, when on a lonely late winter’s day, she sees unexpected possibilities in some writing she’d played around with but not taken seriously. The moment then comes when, holding “her bundle of papers”, she rests her head on the window sill, beginning to relax in a warm gleam of unexpected February sunshine.
“And something dawned on her. All the pain, all the vain longing, all the disappointed hope, all the anxiety and privation, the sudden numbing blows that result in years going by before one understands what has happened – all this was knowledge of life. Bitter and difficult, exhausting to live through, but the only way to knowledge of herself and others. Success breeds arrogance, adversity understanding. After all misfortune perhaps there always comes a day when one thinks: It was painful, but a kind of liberation all the same; a rent in my ignorance, a membrane split before my eyes. In a kind of mild ecstasy Alberta suddenly whispered up to the sun: Do what you will with me life, but give me understanding, insight and perception”.
(1) Jeremy Lent The Web of Meaning London: Profile Books, 2021 (Cited by Carolyn Baker in Undaunted, below)
(2) Carolyn Baker Undaunted: Living Fiercely into Climate Meltdown in an Authoritarian World Hannacroix, NY: Apocryphile Press, 2022
(3) Cora Sandel Alberta and Freedom London: Peter Owen, 2008 (Peter Owen Modern Classics edition, with a forward by Tracy Chevalier. First English edition 1963. Translated from the Norwegian Alberta og Friheten by Elizabeth Rokken. Original Norwegian publication in 1931.)