Happiness in Ancient Greece




Happiness happens when good things come. Pleasure often results. Happiness certainly comes when one tastes the fruits of ones labors as described by Homer, Odyssey, 7.112:

“But without the courtyard, hard by the door, is a great orchard of four acres, and a hedge runs about it on either side. Therein grow trees, tall and luxuriant, [115] pears and pomegranates and apple-trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs, and luxuriant olives. Of these the fruit perishes not nor fails in winter or in summer, but lasts throughout the year; and ever does the west wind, as it blows, quicken to life some fruits, and ripen others; [120] pear upon pear waxes ripe, apple upon apple, cluster upon cluster, and fig upon fig. There, too, is his fruitful vineyard planted, one part of which, a warm spot on level ground, is being dried in the sun, while other grapes men are gathering, [125] and others, too, they are treading; but in front are unripe grapes that are shedding the blossom, and others that are turning purple. There again, by the last row of the vines, grow trim garden beds of every sort, blooming the year through, and therein are two springs, one of which sends its water throughout all the garden, [130] while the other, over against it, flows beneath the threshold of the court toward the high house; from this the townsfolk drew their water. Such were the glorious gifts of the gods in the palace of Alcinous.”

Hesiod states that (Works and Days, line 157). “…when earth had covered this generation also, Zeus the son of Cronos made yet another, the fourth, upon the fruitful earth,” and then he states (line 170), “And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep-swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom [173] the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year,” The suggestion here is that these happy heroes were happy because “the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year”. This is similar to the values in the previous description of the palace of Alcinous.

Hesiod also points out that Man ust work hard to obtain the happiness of the garden when he says (Works and Days, line 157): “For the gods keep hidden from men the means of life. Else you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working; [45] soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste.



In ancient Greece the principle of moderation was believed to be the basis of happiness.

Pausanias Description of Greece, 10.24.1: “In the fore-temple at Delphi are written maxims useful for the life of men, inscribed by those whom the Greeks say were sages. These were: from Ionia, Thales of Miletus and Bias of Priene; of the Aeolians in Lesbos, Pittacus of Mitylene; of the Dorians in Asia, Cleobulus of Lindus; Solon of Athens and Chilon of Sparta; the seventh sage, according to the list of Plato,1 the son of Ariston, is not Periander, the son of Cypselus, but Myson of Chenae, a village on Mount Oeta. These sages, then, came to Delphi and dedicated to Apollo the celebrated maxims, “Know thyself,” and “Nothing in excess.”

The phrase “Nothing in excess” was a statement of this moderation. Aeschylus is more direct in the following:

Aeschylus, Eumenides line 526, “Do not approve of a lawless life or one subject to a tyrant. The god grants power to moderation in every form, but he oversees other matters in different ways. I have a timely word of advice: arrogance is truly the child of impiety, but from health of soul comes happiness, dear to all, much prayed for.”

In the following Euripides states that moderation is especially important when dealin with the realm of Aphrodite

Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis, line 543, “Happy are they who find the goddess come in moderate might, sharing with self-restraint [545] in Aphrodite’s gift of marriage and enjoying calm and rest from frenzied passions, where the Love-god, golden-haired, stretches his charmed bow with twin arrows, and one is aimed at happiness, the other at life’s confusion.”

Euripides, Medea line 630 “If Aphrodite comes in moderation, no other goddess brings such happiness.”


The Happiness of Women

In Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae line 216, Praxagora agrues that women should be in charge of the government as follows: First of all they(women) wash all their wool in warm water, according to the ancient practice; you will never see them changing their method. Ah! if Athens only acted thus, [220] if it did not take delight in ceaseless innovations, would not its happiness be assured? Then the women sit down to cook, just as they always did; they carry things on their head just as they always did; they keep the Thesmophoria, just as they always did; they knead their cakes just as they always did; they make their husbands angry just as they always did; [225] they receive their lovers in their houses just as they always did; they buy dainties just as they always did; they love unmixed wine just as they always did; they delight in being loved just as they always did. Let us therefore hand Athens over to them [230] without endless discussions, without bothering ourselves about what they will do; let us simply hand them over the power, remembering that they are mothers and will therefore spare the blood of our soldiers; besides, [235] who will know better than a mother how to forward provisions to the front? Woman is adept at getting money for herself and will not easily let herself be deceived; she understands deceit too well herself. I omit a thousand other advantages. [240] Take my advice and you will live in perfect happiness.”

It would be hard for Praxagora to suggest this unless the women were happy doing what they were doing. Following the logic of Aristotle the asumption is that these must be good actions taken with virtue and wisdom.


Virtue as a Source of Happiness

Isocrates, On the Peace, 8.32, “….nothing in the world can contribute so powerfully to material gain, to good repute, to right action, in a word, to happiness, as virtue and the qualities of virtue.”

Aristotle, Politics, 7.1323b.20, “Let us then take it as agreed between us that to each man there falls just so large a measure of happiness as he achieves of virtue and wisdom and of virtuous and wise action: in evidence of this we have the case of God, who is happy and blessed, but is so on account of no external goods, but on account of himself, and by being of a certain quality in his nature; since it is also for this reason that prosperity is necessarily different from happiness—for the cause of goods external to the soul is the spontaneous and fortune, but nobody is just or temperate as a result of or owing to the action of fortune. And connected is a truth requiring the same arguments to prove it, that it is also the best state, and the one that does well, that is happy. But to do well is impossible save for those who do good actions, and there is no good action either of a man or of a state without virtue and wisdom; and courage, justice and wisdom belonging to a state have the same meaning and form as have those virtues whose possession bestows the titles of just and wise and temperate on an individual human being.”


Wealth and Children as a Source of Happiness

Euripides, Ion line 472 “For it is an immoveable security of overpowering happiness for mortals, [475] when the youthful strength of children, who will bear fruit in their turn, shines in the father’s halls, and they will have inherited wealth from their fathers [480] in the form of other children. For it brings a cure in ills, pleasure in good fortune, a saving defense with the spear for one’s native land. For me the careful nurture of dear children [485] would be beyond wealth and a king’s palace. I hate the childless life, and I blame the one to whom it seems good; [490] may I have a life blessed with children and moderate wealth.”


Tranquility, Justice, and Attention to One’s Own Affairs as a Source of Happiness

Isocrates, On the Peace 25, “…how we shall devise, not merely a postponement, but some means of permanent deliverance from our present ills. Isocrates,] But no such thing can come to pass until you are persuaded that tranquillity is more advantageous and more profitable than meddlesomeness, justice than injustice, and attention to one’s own affairs than covetousness of the possessions of others. This is a theme on which none of the orators has ever made bold to address you. I, however, shall devote most of my discourse to this very subject. For I observe that happiness is to be found in these ways of life and not in those which we now follow.”


Emulate Those who have made the best use of the Power they Posses to Gain Happiness

Isocrates, To Nicocles, 2,26, “Emulate, not those who have most widely extended their dominion, but those who have made best use of the power they already possess; and believe that you will enjoy the utmost happiness, not if you rule over the whole world at the price of fears and dangers and baseness, but rather if, being the man you should be, and continuing to act as at the present moment, you set your heart on moderate achievements and fail in none of them.”


Subservience to the Laws brings Happiness

Plato, Letters, 337c, On the one hand, if the victors prove themselves subservient to the laws more than [337d] the vanquished, then all things will abound in safety and happiness, and all evils will be avoided; but should it prove otherwise, neither I nor anyone else should be called in to take part in helping the man who refuses to obey our present injunctions”


Philosopy as the Guide to Happiness

Plato says that Socrates believed that philosopy was the source of good for a person and he believed that pursuing philosophy meant examining the statements of the people around you. The following quote suggests this:

Plato, Apology, 29d, “I shall never give up philosophy or stop exhorting you and pointing out the truth to any one of you whom I may meet, saying in my accustomed way: ‘Most excellent man, are you who are a citizen of Athens, the greatest of cities and the most famous for wisdom and power, not ashamed to care for the acquisition of wealth[29e] and for reputation and honor, when you neither care nor take thought for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?’ And if any of you argues the point, and says he does care, I shall not let him go at once, nor shall I go away, but I shall question and examine and cross-examine him, and if I find that he does not possess virtue, but says he does, I shall rebuke him for scorningthe things that are of most importance and caring more for what is of less worth.”

Socrates suggests that wisdom gained from philosophy is the source of many virtues:

Plato, Phaedo, 69b, “courage and self-restraint and justice and, in short, true virtue exist only with wisdom.,” (said by Socrates)

Socrates states that not only will philosophy bring about good in this life but also in the life after death:

Plato, Phaedo, 63e,” I think a man who has really spent his life in philosophy is naturally of good courage[64a] when he is to die, and has strong hopes that when he is dead he will attain the greatest blessings in that other land.” (said by Socrates)

In the following Plato states that the examinations that Socrates encourages are helpful because they determine what is harmonious and what is not in the statements of our associates. Socrates is trying to find a set of consistent statements to guide us in our philosophies.

Plato, Timaeus, 90c, “And the way of tendance of every part by every man is one—namely, to supply each with its own congenial food and motion; and for the divine part within us the congenial motions are the intellections and revolutions of the Universe. These each one of us should follow, rectifying the revolutions within our head, which were distorted at our birth, by learning the harmonies and revolutions of the Universe, and thereby making the part that thinks like unto the object of its thought, in accordance with its original nature, and having achieved this likeness attain finally to that goal of life which is set before men by the gods as the most good both for the present and for the time to come.”

Plato reinforces the Socratic search for truth by focusing on harmonies of the Universe but he does not go to the Socratic examination of acquaintances. But a person can go beyond Socratic examination and form statements about personal observations. An examination of personal statements about observations can be as valuable as an examination of the statements of acquaintances. In addition some observations can be more valuable than others. Socrates seems to focus on topics of importance of his acquaintences without separately considering what might be important and whether what is important might be better investigated by examining acquaintances or by examining statements of personal observations.


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