Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life

Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life

by Edith Hall


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From renowned classicist Edith Hall, ARISTOTLE'S WAY is an examination of one of history's greatest philosophers, showing us how to lead happy, fulfilled, and meaningful lives

Aristotle was the first philosopher to inquire into subjective happiness, and he understood its essence better and more clearly than anyone since. According to Aristotle, happiness is not about well-being, but instead a lasting state of contentment, which should be the ultimate goal of human life. We become happy through finding a purpose, realizing our potential, and modifying our behavior to become the best version of ourselves. With these objectives in mind, Aristotle developed a humane program for becoming a happy person, which has stood the test of time, comprising much of what today we associate with the good life: meaning, creativity, and positivity. Most importantly, Aristotle understood happiness as available to the vast majority us, but only, crucially, if we decide to apply ourselves to its creation—and he led by example. As Hall writes, "If you believe that the goal of human life is to maximize happiness, then you are a budding Aristotelian."

In expert yet vibrant modern language, Hall lays out the crux of Aristotle's thinking, mixing affecting autobiographical anecdotes with a deep wealth of classical learning. For Hall, whose own life has been greatly improved by her understanding of Aristotle, this is an intensely personal subject. She distills his ancient wisdom into ten practical and universal lessons to help us confront life's difficult and crucial moments, summarizing a lifetime of the most rarefied and brilliant scholarship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735220829
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/14/2020
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 135,250
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Edith Hall first encountered Aristotle when she was twenty, and he changed her life forever. Now one of Britain's foremost classicists, and a Professor at King's College London, she is the first woman to have won the Erasmus Medal of the European Academy. In 2017 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Athens University, just a few streets away from Aristotle's own Lyceum. She is the author of several books, including Introducing the Ancient Greeks. She lives with her family in Cambridgeshire.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1




At the beginning of Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle quotes a line of wisdom literature inscribed on an ancient stone on the sacred island of Delos. It proclaimed that the three best things in life are "Justice, Health, and Achieving One's Desires." Aristotle trenchantly disagrees. According to him, the ultimate goal of human life is, simply, happiness, which means finding a purpose in order to realize your potential and working on your behavior to become the best version of yourself. You are your own moral agent, but act in an interconnected world where partnerships with other people are of great significance.


Aristotle's own teacher was Plato, himself the disciple of Socrates who famously said "the unexamined life is not worth living." Aristotle regarded this is as somewhat harsh. He knew that many people-perhaps the majority-live intuitively and often unreflectively, but they enjoy great happiness, on "autopilot" as it were. He would have shifted the emphasis to practical activity and to the future, and his alternative motto might have been: "the unplanned life is unlikely to be fully happy."


Aristotelian ethics put the individual in charge. As Abraham Lincoln saw, "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." Rather than working on autopilot, Aristotelian ethics put you as sole pilot at the full control panel. Other ethical systems place far less emphasis either on your individual moral agency or on your responsibilities toward others. Aristotelian ethics share the starting point of the moral agent with ethical egoism, associated with the early modern philosopher Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), but nothing else. This system recommends that every individual consciously act so as to maximize their own self-interest. Imagine you are hosting a tea party for ten of your neighbors. You know that two are vegans. But vegan sandwiches are three times as expensive as ham sandwiches. If you buy two servings of vegan sandwiches, there will be less food all round for everybody. The egoist would ignore everyone else's needs and choose whether to cater for the vegans depending on her own personal eating habits. If she were not a vegan, then she would certainly not want her helping of ham sandwiches diminished by having to cater for anyone else's different preference. If she were a vegan, then she would ignore the deprivation suffered by all eight carnivores receiving smaller helpings and simply ensure that there was plenty of vegan food available for herself, and order a private extra serving.


Utilitarians, on the other hand, seek to maximize the happiness of the greatest number, thus focusing on consequences of actions: for utilitarians, a result involving eight happy carnivores completely trumps the accompanying problem of two miserable vegans. Utilitarianism gets difficult when the minorities are very large: a tea party with, say, four miserable vegans and only six happy carnivores would begin to feel decidedly unfestive. Followers of Immanuel Kant emphasize duties and obligations, asking whether there should be a universal and fixed law about the proportion of different kinds of sandwiches available at tea parties. Cultural relativists, on the other hand, have insisted that there is no such thing as a universal moral law. Everyone, they say, belongs to a group or groups which do have their own internal laws and customs. Across the planet, there are many cultures and communities which eat no pig products at all; there are others which cannot comprehend vegetarianism or even tea parties.


Aristotle would instead realize that the decision about the sandwiches could not be made abstractly in a vacuum. He would set aside time to think about the problem and make plans. He would look behind catering plans to make his intention conscious-if it is to make all ten neighbors feel welcomed and well fed, because that would make the whole community nicer for everyone to live in, conducing to individual and collective happiness, then his decision would need to maximize the possibility of that intention being fulfilled. There would be little point in offending even a minority of the guests. He would then consult interested persons, including the invitees and the caterers, to test the water on possible reactions. He would think about previous parties he had held or experienced, review precedents and very likely discover a way round the whole problem from looking at the history of tea parties-serving non-dairy cakes which everyone liked, for example, rather than the divisive sandwiches. He would also make sure that he personally enjoyed the types of cake he then chose, because unnecessary self-denial has no place in his philosophy of respect toward self and others.


Aristotle's ethical system is versatile, flexible and practical to implement in daily life. Most of the real-world psychological steps toward increasing contentment outlined by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness: A Practical Guide to Getting the Life You Want (2007) bear a startling resemblance to Aristotle's philosophical recommendations, and she indeed cites him with approval. His leitmotifs are working with the situation you find at hand, forethought, an unrelenting focus on intentions, flexibility, practical common sense, individual autonomy and the importance of consultation with others. The basic premise of Aristotle's notion of happiness is wonderfully simple and democratic: everyone can decide to be happy. After a certain amount of time, acting rightly becomes ingrained as a habit, so you feel good about yourself, and the resulting state of mind is one of eudaimonia, Aristotle's word for happiness.


This Aristotelian pursuit of eudaimonia is often attractive to agnostics and atheists, but is in fact compatible with any religion which emphasizes the individual's moral responsibility for their own actions and does not assume that frequent guidance, reward or punishment come from any external divine being. But since Aristotle himself did not believe that god interfered in the world or was interested in it in any way, his program for achieving happiness was a system in itself. The Aristotelian will not expect to find rules about tea parties in any sacred text. But she will not expect to be hit by god-sent retribution if her tea party goes badly wrong, either. Living in a competent and planned manner is something you elect to do to control your life and destiny. Since this control is traditionally assigned to a god or the gods, there is a sense in which it can make you "godlike."


Eudaimonia, however, is not so simple to explain. The eu- prefix (pronounced like "you") means "well" or "good"; the daimonia element comes from a word with a whole range of meanings-divine being, divine power, guardian spirit, fortune or lot in life. So eudaimonia came to mean well-being or prosperity, which certainly includes contentment. But it is far more active than "contentment." You "do" eudaimonia; it requires positive input. In fact, for Aristotle, happiness is activity (praxis). He points out that if it were an emotional disposition which some people are either born with or not, then it could be possessed by a man who spent his life asleep, "living the life of a vegetable."


Aristotle's definition of happiness is not constituted by material prosperity of any kind either. A century earlier, another northern Greek thinker, Democritus, whom Aristotle admired, had talked about "happiness of the soul," and had insisted that it definitely did not derive from the possession of livestock or gold. When Aristotle uses the word eudaimonia, he likewise means "happiness of the soul," as experienced in the consciousness of the sentient human. According to him, life itself consists of having an active mind. Aristotle was convinced that most people get most of their pleasure from learning things and wondering about and at the world. Indeed, he regarded the attainment of an understanding of the world-not just academic knowledge, but understanding of any aspect of experience-as the actual goal of life itself.


If you believe that the goal of human life is to maximize happiness, then you are a budding Aristotelian. If the goal of human life is happiness, the way to achieve it is by thinking hard about how to Live Well, or being alive in the best way possible. This requires self-conscious habit, which Aristotle does not think other animals are capable of. The deceptively simple adverb "well" can mean "competently" in a practical sense, "morally" in terms of being kind, and "fortunately" or "with felicity" in terms of enjoying happiness and pleasant circumstances.


On 4 July 1776, the brand new United States Congress ratified the text of the Declaration of Independence drawn up by Thomas Jefferson. Its epoch-making first sentence reads: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is well known that the ancient Roman Republic was a model for the Founding Fathers of America, but that telling phrase "the pursuit of Happiness" shows that Jefferson was immersed in the philosophy of Aristotle as well. Four years later the constitution of Massachusetts (1780) followed suit: government is instituted for the common good, "for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people."


Aristotle believed that the way we educate future citizens is crucial to whether they can fulfill their potential both as individuals and in communities. The 1787 Northwest Ordinance could not have sounded more Aristotelian when it stated that schools were necessary to "good government and the happiness of mankind." Everyone in the world who lives in broad agreement with the principles that were espoused in the bright new dawn of American independence is, whether they know it or not, an Aristotelian committed to the project of human happiness.



The most famous statement by Aristotle-so famous that it was (inaccurately) quoted in an exchange between Pope Francis and Donald Trump in February 2016-is that man is a "political animal" (zoon politikon). Aristotle meant that man is distinguished from other animals by naturally tending toward gathering together to live in a large settled community, a polis, or city-state. Aristotle always arrives at definitions by making a series of distinctions, and in his Nicomachean Ethics he asks crucially: what are the distinctive features of the human being? Humans, like animals and plants, partake in the basic activity of living, obtaining nutrients and growing. If other animals and plants live, get nourishment and grow, then this is not distinctive to humanity. Animals, like humans, also have senses with which they discern the world around them and other creatures. So sentient life can't be the distinctive and definitive feature of being human, either. But no other living being shares "the active life of the being that has reason." Humans do things, and are able to think before, during and after these activities. That is the human raison d'tre. If you, as a human being, don't fulfill your ability to act while exercising your rational faculties, then you are not fulfilling your potential.


Exercising your reason to Live Well means cultivating virtues and avoiding vices. Being a good person will make you happier. There is a reason why Frank Capra's feel-good fantasy It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is the most popular Christmas movie of all time: its message resonates so deeply with the generous and cooperative values most humans share. George Bailey, played by James Stewart, is a troubled philanthropic businessman, persecuted by a rapacious capitalist. He is planning suicide on Christmas Eve. A guardian angel, Clarence, arrives from heaven, and through flashbacks shows George episodes from his past life where he has unselfishly helped others; he has been a devoted family member and offered loans allowing the poor to buy their own houses. Clarence persuades George out of suicide by showing him an alternative version of history in which he had never existed, his family had been deprived of him and the poor had to live in slums. George sees that his "wonderful life" had connected him to other people by his efforts to support them. The movie is also Aristotelian in that it presents life as a project, a continuous arc, which is as wonderful as we choose to make it. However cheesy the film may now seem, it strikes an authentic emotional chord.


La Promesse (1996), by Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, eschews all sentimentality, showing how a young person on the brink of adulthood, and full moral agency, learns the gratification of goodness. At the beginning of the film Igor is only fifteen years old, a trainee mechanic, but he faces an extreme ethical challenge and succeeds in establishing moral independence from his unscrupulous father. The plot involves the accidental death of an illegal immigrant and Igor's father's insistence that Igor help to conceal it. Igor comes to moral maturity and a degree of serenity by assisting the bereaved family in the face of an unfeeling father, feelings of guilt, social vulnerability and fear of the law.


The emphasis on the connection between happiness and virtuous action is one of the fundamental differences between Aristotle's recipe for happiness and that of the other philosophies such as egoism, utilitarianism and Kantianism. In his Politics, to illustrate the difficulty of achieving happiness without trying to be a good person, Aristotle offers an extreme caricature of the vice-ridden and consequently miserable person:


Nobody would call a man ideally happy that has not got a particle of courage nor of self-control nor of decency nor sense, but is afraid of the flies that flutter by him, cannot refrain from any of the most outrageous actions in order to gratify a desire to eat or to drink, ruins his dearest friends for the sake of a penny, and also in matters of the intellect, similarly, is as senseless and mistaken as any infant or lunatic.


George Washington put the same virtue/happiness correlation differently in his 1789 inaugural speech, when he told his New York City audience that there is "an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness."


Deciding to pursue happiness by Living Well means practicing "virtue ethics" or more simply "Doing the Right Thing." Aristotle's virtues, likewise, are translated into portentous nouns like "justice," which really just means treating other people fairly and decently. Virtue ethics have always attracted humanists, agnostics, atheists and skeptics precisely because they offer, to people who want to live contented, decent and constructive lives, a considered way in which to do so. Virtue ethics will help you approach decisions, morality, and the "big questions" about life and death, trusting in your own judgment and ability to look after yourself, your friends and your dependants. But the lack of idiomatic translations of the Greek has been one reason why Aristotle's sensible and effective program of pursuing happiness through deciding to Do the Right Thing has not become more widely understood among the general public. If people understood that personal happiness was down to their own conduct, then happiness, he wrote, would become "more common because it would be possible for more people to share it." Aristotle goes so far as to say that, ideally, "all humankind would be seen to be in agreement with the views that will be stated," but, failing that, they should sign up to at least part of the program entailed by virtue ethics, "for everyone has something to contribute."

Table of Contents

Timeline x

Map: Places Where Aristotle Lived xi

Introduction 1

1 Happiness 23

2 Potential 39

3 Decisions 59

4 Communication 77

5 Self-knowledge 99

6 Intentions 127

7 Love 145

8 Community 161

9 Leisure 183

10 Mortality 201

Acknowledgments 233

Glossary 235

Further Reading 237

Notes 243

Index 245

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