College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

Full Title of Thesis or Dissertation

Aristotle and the Cynics on happiness and misfortune

Graduation Date

6-2016

Document Type

Dissertation

College/Department Conferring Degree

Philosophy

Keywords

Aristotle, Diogenes of Sinope, ancient cynicism, eudaimonia, virtue ethics

Abstract

The fundamental concern of ancient ethics is the question concerning happiness. As Aristotle famously poses it in EN I, that everyone is concerned with happiness is given but as to what it is there is much dispute. My dissertation project takes up the question of happiness and considers its relation to fortune, and in particular, misfortune, as it is treated in both Aristotle and his contemporaries, the ancient Cynics. It is my thesis that fortune has a problematic status in relation to happiness in Aristotle’s ethical and political thought: Aristotle’s consideration of Solon’s dictum ‘Look to the end’ in NE I.10 reveals two problems for Aristotle’s attempt to establish that happiness is essentially virtuous activity plus external goods. First, since external goods result from fortune, and happiness requires external goods, happiness depends on fortune, something Aristotle is at pains to at the very least minimize if not deny outright. Second, fortune as causal principle for external goods threatens to permanently unsettle one of Aristotle’s essential criteria for happiness: durability. Aristotle’s attempt to harmonize his accounts of happiness as virtuous activity with the workings of fortune is at odds with his attempt to ground his ethical and political theory within his more encompassing natural philosophy. It is my contention that there are resources in Aristotle’s own thought, hitherto not sufficiently considered in this context that can be deployed to respond to, if not resolve, these tensions. I bring these Aristotelian resources to bear on the tensions within a more orthodox reading of Aristotle by situating Aristotle’s ethical and political thought alongside that of his contemporaries and rivals, the ancient Cynics. My objective is to trace Aristotle’s account of happiness vis-à-vis misfortune from the fundamental aporia in NE I, that happiness is both virtuous activity plus external goods and that happiness is almost impossible within our lifetimes because we are all subject to catastrophic reversals of fortune up to the moment of our death, through his attempts to ‘shore up’ the durability of happiness via the elaboration of the two basic trajectories by which we can achieve it: political and contemplative ways of life. The Cynics offer an instructive contrast that brings out the problematic treatment of the status of fortune in Aristotle’s account of happiness. Following my treatments of Aristotle’s accounts, then, I offer related, contrasting treatments of the Cynic responses to each Aristotelian moment. To Aristotle’s worry that is never fully resolved in NE I, that happiness might be dictated by fortune, the Cynics are seen to reply as follows: Rather than accept the inscrutability of fortune or relegate it to mere accident, that which cannot be foreseen but which nevertheless is rare enough that we need not worry overmuch about it, fortune and our responses to it are fundamental to the achievement of happiness. Faced with the danger that one’s happiness can be undermined at any moment by the destabilizing force of fortune the Cynics articulate a distinctive response to the threat of reversals. In some sense one must take on this variability of fortune by making oneself variable. If fortune prevails over one then one can return the favor by making oneself plastic, elusive enough to slip through its crushing grasp at every turn.

Available for download on Tuesday, June 30, 2026

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