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Aristotle and Human Flourishing

by Elliott Dacher

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle gave a series of lectures in Athens that became know as the Nicomachean Ethics. There he introduced the word eudaimonia, now translated to mean “human flourishing” – the innate potential of each individual to live a life of enduring happiness, penetrating wisdom, optimal well being, and authentic love and compassion. Of course Aristotle was not alone in this view of the promise of the human condition. Wise women and men through time and across cultures have spoken of these very same possibilities while also pointing out the veils of mental misunderstandings and emotional disturbances that must be surmounted before this potential can be realized.

In his Parable of the Cave, Plato describes this noble dance between the goal of human flourishing and the challenges to achieving it. He speaks about both our enslavement to tenacious conditioning and the miracle of breakthrough to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Eastern spiritual traditions describe this same dilemma in parables. They say it’s as if we are born and live on a gem-encrusted island and yet, blinded by our confusion and ignorance, are unable to see the riches that lie beneath our feet and leave our island-home at the end of life empty-handed.

So if this natural treasure of happiness, wisdom, and love resides in each of us, why can’t we see or experience it? Why does it seem so scarce and inaccessible? Why do we exert so much energy scavenging in the outer world for a facsimile called pleasure, which at best is transient and at worst a suffering-in-disguise? Why don’t we go directly to the source, to the center of our being, where our wealth is natural, permanent, and brilliantly present? The answer is deceptively simple: Out of habit we learned to search for the good life in the wrong places. That is why we never feel like we’ve arrived regardless of the effort and persistence we bring to our search.

We learned this powerful and unsatisfying mental habit, this reaching outside of our self for happiness and serenity, wisdom and compassion, health and healing, wholeness and love, a long time ago. This tendency is so deeply ingrained that it feels like a natural instinct. Even when our outer gaze fails to satisfy our longing, we automatically, without reflection, respond with greater striving and effort because we don’t know what else to do. We rarely question our learned dependence on the outer world. We have an intractable faith that it will give us what we need, if we only try hard enough. It is this intractable habit that denies us access to the authentic qualities of human flourishing that are already and have always been seamlessly interwoven within our authentic self.

Fortunately, the wise ones who came before us showed us the way to move beyond “normal” life to a noble life that fulfills our evolutionary destiny. They left us practical guidelines for the attainment of human flourishing that reflect the universal teachings of all wise philosophies and religions throughout time and across diverse cultures.

The question for each of us is how to start this journey and who to rely on as a trustworthy guide. With so many workshops, seminars, books, and “experts,” this is not an easy choice. Some reflect authentic wisdom while others do not. Some teachers are well-trained and “walk the talk” while others rely on appearances. The inner path and spiritual guide you choose may be the most important decision you have ever made, so take your time. Once you decide, you will have started the adventure of a lifetime, a journey of body, mind, and spirit to the last frontier to be explored by humankind. Pack your bags with enthusiasm, perseverance, and devotion.

In my next blog I will look at meditation, the central instrument of inner development that leads to human flourishing. This is not meditation as it is generally presented in the West—as a tool for relaxation or mindfulness. In its traditional form, when properly and precisely understood and used, meditation frees the mind and heart as a foundation for living a larger life.

Dacher’s upcoming Transformative Learning Weekend Workshop, “Human Flourishing: Enduring Happiness, Optimal Well-Being and Serenity in Modern Times,” will be held at the IONS Retreat Center in Petaluma, CA, July 23-24, 2010. For more information, go here ( or contact Claudia Holt: 707.779.8202 /

  • 1 Comment
  • Anonymous Icon

    DawnFrostt Aug 19, 2013

    Start the journey by listening to your self. (Inner) Wisdom whispers and we need to be quiet enough and still enough to hear it. Get rid of all the 21st Century distractions; then, and only then will you be focused enough, and awake enough to look inwards and listen. At first it may be difficult and scary, but all great paths are born this way. When I get stuck, I read great minds like Aristotle, Dali Lama or Nietzsche, to help stimulate my mind towards the right path or thought, and often I find that they echo my thoughts and springboard off of them.

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