The Arcadian or Pastoral State, by Thomas Cole (1834)

Aristotle vs the Stoics: What Does Happiness Require?

Does living a good, happy life depend in part on external circumstances? Or is the quality of our lives entirely up to us?

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  June 2024


Both Aristotle and the Stoics think the ultimate aim in life is eudaimonia, which is usually translated as happiness, flourishing, or fulfillment.

Furthermore, both agree that achieving eudaimonia is less about chasing pleasure (a fleeting by-product of the good life), and more about developing an excellent or virtuous character.

In this sense, for both Aristotle and the Stoics, happiness is understood not as a feeling, but as a kind of condition, whereby we continually fulfill our potential for excellence as rational beings.

Aristotle argues we should foster virtue according to the ‘golden mean’; the Stoics suggest the cultivation of four cardinal virtues.

While both champion the nurturing of excellence, however, there is a crucial difference between Aristotle and the Stoics’ conceptions of the good life.

Aristotle acknowledges the contribution of so-called ‘external goods’ like upbringing, access to resources, friendship, health, and so on.

As Aristotle puts it in the Nicomachean Ethics (which features in my reading list of Aristotle’s best books):

It seems clear that happiness needs the addition of external goods, as we have said; for it is difficult if not impossible to do fine deeds without any resources. Many can be done as it were by instruments — by the help of friends, or wealth, or political influence.

Importantly, Aristotle doesn’t think such goods make us happy; only excellent character and activity makes us happy.

It is more that, if we don’t have things like education, resources, friendship, health, and so on, Aristotle thinks it becomes difficult or even impossible to develop or express excellence.

For Aristotle, a lack of ‘external goods’ thus forms a block on the road to excellence, diminishing our chances of achieving eudaimonia.

The Stoics: externals have no impact on the good life

The Stoics, meanwhile, think circumstances don’t matter: the value of our existence and the extent of our happiness depend only on the quality of our characters.

So, while Aristotle thinks excellence is necessary but not sufficient for the good life, the Stoics think excellence alone is sufficient.

This means that even if you are entirely destitute, friendless, and live in a war zone, happiness is within your power, say the Stoics, for the good life depends only on forming and expressing excellent character.

Live virtuously, live in accordance with your rational nature, practice amor fati and the dichotomy of control, and — regardless of everything else — you will have lived a good life.

Preferred indifferents

Perhaps we might object to the Stoics that it is clearly better to be healthy than sick, and better to have access to resources than live in degrading poverty. As Aristotle points out, a person who suffers endless misfortune will likely not be happy.

The Stoics tackle this concern by introducing the terminology of so-called ‘preferred indifferents’.

Sure, we might prefer to be healthy rather than sick, educated rather than ignorant — but these make no difference to our ability to be good people or live lives of moral integrity, say the Stoics.

Health and wealth are thus preferred indifferents. They may be nice on their own terms — i.e. we may ‘prefer’ them to their opposites — but they are in a different category altogether to virtue.

Someone who wins a million dollars doesn’t suddenly become a good person; someone whose health suffers doesn’t suddenly lack virtue.

Externals make no difference to the control we have over our characters (save perhaps the extreme case of a brain-debilitating illness) — and it is the quality of our characters, the Stoics say, that determines our happiness.

Even if we go through a challenging period, that doesn’t give us license to let our characters slip: indeed, the quality of our characters should not depend on the quality of our circumstances.

As Epictetus puts it in the Enchiridion (which appears in my reading list of Stoicism’s best books):

Working within our sphere of control, we are naturally free, independent, and strong. Beyond that sphere, we are weak, limited, and dependent. If you pin your hopes on things outside your control, taking upon yourself things which rightfully belong to others, you are liable to stumble, fall, suffer, and blame both gods and men. But if you focus your attention only on what is truly your own concern, and leave to others what concerns them, then you will be in charge of your interior life. No one will be able to harm or hinder you. You will blame no one, and have no enemies. If you wish to have peace and contentment, release your attachment to all things outside your control. This is the path of freedom and happiness.

The key difference between Aristotle and the Stoics

The Stoics thus think happiness is available to all — and that it lies wholly within our power. Live in accordance with your rational nature, demonstrate the excellence of your character whatever your circumstances, and happiness — knowing you’ve done the best you can — will be yours.

As Epictetus puts it:

I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment?

Aristotle, on the other hand, thinks it’s just obvious that if your life is filled with tragedy, misfortune, and hardship, happiness will likely be tricky to come by. The development and expression of excellence is available only to those blessed with health, education, friendship, some level of resources, good fortune, and so on.

For Aristotle, then, the happy person possesses not just excellent character, but excellent luck.

Perhaps we might find Aristotle’s view a more realistic conception of the good life.

Or perhaps we might agree with the implied Stoic response: that the value of someone’s life — and the limits of their happiness — should not be judged or imposed according to circumstances outside their control.

What do you think? Do you side with Aristotle or the Stoics?

  • To what extent does the good life depend on externals?
  • By denying happiness to those without access to certain external goods, could Aristotle’s view be described as elitist?
  • Is the development of good Stoic character really possible without a certain level of ‘external’ guidance, education, or good health?
  • Where could we draw the line between what counts as ‘internal’ and what counts as ‘external’?
  • Do you think Aristotle underestimates people’s potential for excellence and happiness in the face of external hardship, or do the Stoics overestimate it?

Learn more about Aristotle and the Stoics’ approaches to the good life

If you’re interested in learning more about Aristotle, the Stoics, and five other major philosophical approaches to the good life — including Buddhism, Confucianism, and Existentialism — you might like my How to Live a Good Life guide.

You might also enjoy the following related reads:

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About the Author

Jack Maden

Jack MadenFounder
Philosophy Break

Having received great value from studying philosophy for 15+ years (picking up a master’s degree along the way), I founded Philosophy Break in 2018 as an online social enterprise dedicated to making the subject’s wisdom accessible to all. Learn more about me and the project here.

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