Can an ancient Greek sceptic be eudaimôn (or happy)? And what difference does the answer make to us?


  • Richard Bett Johns Hopkins University



The paper explores how far the ancient Greek sceptics in fact accept, and how far they should accept, the central Greek ethical notion of eudaimonia, usually translated "happiness" - and what, if anything, the answers may tell us today. The first section shows that sceptics of both the Academic and Pyrrhonist traditions frequently employ the notion of eudaimonia, apparently without discomfort. The second section draws attention to a contrast within the relevant works of Sextus Empiricus - one of them being willing to speak of the sceptic's eudaimonia and the other entirely avoiding this - and considers some possible reasons why, at some point in his life, Sextus might have found the notion problematic. The answers suggested are, first, that the term eudaimonia, at least as normally used by non-sceptical philosophers, presupposes that it is possible to rank human lives objectively in terms of their levels of well-being, and second, that the term standardly carries with it a commitment to a certain kind of long-term structure in one's life; there is at least a serious question whether either of these is consistent with sceptical suspension of judgement. The third section examines how far a sceptic could aspire to happiness, where this is not assumed to be equivalent to eudaimonia, and touches on several modern philosophers who have focused on happiness or, more generally, on wellbeing. The conclusions are that the notions of happiness and eudaimonia are closer in their presuppositions than one might have expected; that a sceptic would be well advised to avoid either one; and that this constitutes a sobering lesson for anyone today who regards values as in some sense subjective, but who aims to construct a satisfactory conception of happiness.


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How to Cite

Bett, R. (2012). Can an ancient Greek sceptic be eudaimôn (or happy)? And what difference does the answer make to us?. Journal of Ancient Philosophy, 6(1), 1-26.