What do Victoria Osteen and Aristotle have in common?: Eudaimonia

“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy ….”[1]

aristotleThis is the quote, and gist of what Joel Osteen’s wife, Victoria Osteen has come under scrutiny for, at large, by many within the Christian community, especially from the evangelical Christian community (and especially via social media). Here is a transcript of what she said more fully, done by my friend, Steven Nemes:

When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God. I mean, that’s one way to look at it. We’re doing it for ourselves. Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy; that’s the thing that gets him the greatest joy this morning. So I want you to know this morning: just do good for your own self, do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God really; you’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.[2]

It is no secret that for the Osteen’s ‘happiness’ and living “Your Best Life Now” (the title of one of Joel’s more bestselling books) is of a premium; in fact I would like to suggest, especially in light of Victoria’s recent comments that happiness, personal happiness and self actualization as a person (even if she claims that this is what God wants for us, and what makes him happy) represents her personal philosophy of life.

In light of this, if the pursuit of happiness (a very American virtue isn’t it?) can be someone’s philosophy of life, then I would like to further suggest that this theory of life flows from a certain philosophy of what the highest good is for a human being; apparently it is, for Victoria Osteen, to be self-fulfilled (which comes for the Osteen’s through wealth, health, and a variety of other ‘goods’). In light of all this, I would like to further suggest that what Victoria Osteen is proposing as the philosophy of life fits very well, no, not with Christianity, but with classical philosopher, Aristotle’s idea of life which he too believed was ‘happiness,’ or in the Greek eudaimonia. Read what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to communicate about Aristotle’s philosophy of life as eudaimonia (at length):

Aristotle thinks everyone will agree that the terms “eudaimonia” (“happiness”) and “eu zên” (“living well”) designate such an end. The Greek term “eudaimon” is composed of two parts: “eu” means “well” and “daimon” means “divinity” or “spirit.” To be eudaimon is therefore to be living in a way that is well-favored by a god. But Aristotle never calls attention to this etymology in his ethical writings, and it seems to have little influence on his thinking. He regards “eudaimon” as a mere substitute for eu zên (“living well”). These terms play an evaluative role, and are not simply descriptions of someone’s state of mind.

No one tries to live well for the sake of some further goal; rather, being eudaimon is the highest end, and all subordinate goals—health, wealth, and other such resources—are sought because they promote well-being, not because they are what well-being consists in. But unless we can determine which good or goods happiness consists in, it is of little use to acknowledge that it is the highest end. To resolve this issue, Aristotle asks what the ergon (“function,” “task,” “work”) of a human being is, and argues that it consists in activity of the rational part of the soul in accordance with virtue (1097b22–1098a20). One important component of this argument is expressed in terms of distinctions he makes in his psychological and biological works. The soul is analyzed into a connected series of capacities: the nutritive soul is responsible for growth and reproduction, the locomotive soul for motion, the perceptive soul for perception, and so on. The biological fact Aristotle makes use of is that human beings are the only species that has not only these lower capacities but a rational soul as well. The good of a human being must have something to do with being human; and what sets humanity off from other species, giving us the potential to live a better life, is our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason. If we use reason well, we live well as human beings; or, to be more precise, using reason well over the course of a full life is what happiness consists in. Doing anything well requires virtue or excellence, and therefore living well consists in activities caused by the rational soul in accordance with virtue or excellence.

Aristotle’s conclusion about the nature of happiness is in a sense uniquely his own. No other writer or thinker had said precisely what he says about what it is to live well. But at the same time his view is not too distant from a common idea. As he himself points out, one traditional conception of happiness identifies it with virtue (1098b30–1). Aristotle’s theory should be construed as a refinement of this position. He says, not that happiness is virtue, but that it is virtuous activity. Living well consists in doing something, not just being in a certain state or condition. It consists in those lifelong activities that actualize the virtues of the rational part of the soul.

At the same time, Aristotle makes it clear that in order to be happy one must possess others goods as well—such goods as friends, wealth, and power. And one’s happiness is endangered if one is severely lacking in certain advantages—if, for example, one is extremely ugly, or has lost children or good friends through death (1099a31-b6). But why so? If one’s ultimate end should simply be virtuous activity, then why should it make any difference to one’s happiness whether one has or lacks these other types of good? Aristotle’s reply is that one’s virtuous activity will be to some extent diminished or defective, if one lacks an adequate supply of other goods (1153b17–19). Someone who is friendless, childless, powerless, weak, and ugly will simply not be able to find many opportunities for virtuous activity over a long period of time, and what little he can accomplish will not be of great merit. To some extent, then, living well requires good fortune; happenstance can rob even the most excellent human beings of happiness. Nonetheless, Aristotle insists, the highest good, virtuous activity, is not something that comes to us by chance. Although we must be fortunate enough to have parents and fellow citizens who help us become virtuous, we ourselves share much of the responsibility for acquiring and exercising the virtues.[3]

For Aristotle, if the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy can be trusted as a trustworthy resource, eudaimonia or happiness was the highest good, of which other subordinate goods helped to provide (like health, wealth, friends, etc.) the grounds for living in this highest virtue of what it truly means to live.

Based upon this brief comparison, I would submit that what Victoria Osteen is offering as the end and highest good of life fits better with Aristotle’s philosophy of life of eudaimonia versus the Christian end and highest good of life which is to participate in the cruciform (i.e. cross-shaped) life of God.


[1] Taken from this online article, http://christiannews.net/2014/08/28/do-good-for-your-own-self-osteen-says-obedience-worship-not-for-god-video/ , accessed 09-01-2014.

[2] Taken from this blog post by Steven Nemes,  http://thecrucifiedgod.blogspot.com/2014/09/victoria-olsteen-and-heresy-hunters.html , accessed 09-01-2014.

[3] Taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/ , accessed 09-01-2014.

This entry was posted in American Evangelicalism, Aristotle, Cultural Christianity, Ethics, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What do Victoria Osteen and Aristotle have in common?: Eudaimonia

  1. Arjen says:

    Hi Bobby,

    I like this one. It seems right on target. The pursuit of happiness is quite something different than the Gospel is, though finding Christ makes one incredibly happy. So, yes I’m glad you do continue blogging, although you were tired of it.



  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Arjen,

    Thanks. Yeah, I need to blog, at the very least it is therapeutic for me, but it is more, it is really an act of worship as I think about God. Thanks, brother.



Comments are closed.