What does it mean to live a good life? How can we achieve that good life?
These are questions a Greek philosopher explored over 2,000 years ago in his Nicomachean Ethics. My guest today argues that the insights Aristotle uncovered millennia ago are still pertinent to us in the 21st century. Her name is Edith Hall, and she’s a classicist and the author of Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life. Today on the show we discuss what Aristotle thought the good life was and how it’s different from our modern conception of happiness. We then dig into how Aristotle believed the cultivation of virtue was a key part of living a flourishing life and why understanding your unique potential and purpose is also important. Edith then shares insights from Aristotle on how to handle misfortune and become a better decision maker, as well as the importance of relationships to human happiness.
- The relationship, and differences, between Aristotle and Plato
- What was Aristotle trying to do with Ethics?
- How did Aristotle define happiness?
- What is our purpose in life? How do you find it?
- The human qualities that every person should pursue
- How did Aristotle define virtue?
- The times where supposed evils — like lying and even murder — are acceptable to Aristotle
- The role of deliberation in life
- Aristotle’s process of decision making
- Using practical wisdom
- The most important aspect of human life
- How to choose friends and spouses
- The role of fate, according to Aristotle’s philosophy
- Aristotle’s view of death
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- What Plato’s Republic Has to Say About Being a Man
- Hiking With Nietzsche
- Does Stoicism Extinguish the Fire of Life?
- A Primer of Plato: His Life, Works, and Philosophy
- Latin Words and Phrases Every Man Should Know
- On Grand Strategy
- Nicomachean Ethics
- Books So Good I’ve Read Them Twice
- Why Are Modern Debates on Morality So Shrill?
- How to Find Your Life’s Purpose
- Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness
- Immanuel Kant
- How to Get Better at Making Life-Changing Decisions
- Using Mental Models to Make Better Decisions
- Why You Need a Philosophical Survival Kit
- Reviving Practical Wisdom
- Practical Wisdom: The Master Virtue
- Let’s Talk About Death Over Dinner
Connect With Edith
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. What does it mean to live a good life, and how can we achieve that good life? These are questions the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, explored over 2,000 years ago in his Nicomachean Ethics. And my guest today argues that these insights Aristotle uncovered millennia ago, are still pertinent to us in the 21st century. Her name is Edith Hall, she’s a classicist and the author of the book, Aristotle’s Way, How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life.
Today on the show, we discuss what Aristotle thought the good life was, and how it’s different from our modern conception of happiness. We then dig into how Aristotle believed the cultivation of virtue was a key part of living a flourishing life, and why understanding your unique potential and purpose is also important. Edith then shares insights from Aristotle on how to handle misfortune, become a better decision maker, as well as the importance of your relationships to human happiness. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/Aristotle. Edith joins me now via ClearCast.io.
All right, Edith Hall, welcome to the show.
Edith Hall: Thank you so much, I’m delighted to be with you.
Brett McKay: So you are a professor of classics at King’s College in London. And you just wrote a book, it’s called Aristotle’s Way, How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life. So how did you first encounter Aristotle, and what brought you to write this book about how Aristotle, this over 2,000 year old philosopher, can still … has something to say to us here in the 21st century?
Edith Hall: Well, it’s quite a personal story. I first encountered him as an undergraduate, studying classics. I was lucky enough to be told to go off and read him. But I was very much looking, at the time, for a classic, sort of young adult problem of not really knowing what the meaning of life was. And not feeling that I’d got any particular rules to live by. The backstory is that I was brought up in a very, very religious family. My father’s an Anglican minister, he’s still alive, that would be Episcopalian in the US. And at about 13, I just completely stopped believing a word of it. I just could not get in touch with these very strong religious feelings I’d had until then.
But this left a terrible void, because I was always quite an analytical child, and I started … I didn’t know it, but confronting a lot of the major problems in ethical philosophy, like what’s the point in doing … of trying to be virtuous if you’re not punished if you’re not? Or why not just pursue your own self advantage, given that you can’t even prove that anybody else is … sort of actually has any feelings, you can’t get into another person’s consciousness? And this left a terrible void, until … for about seven years, and I had an unusually, even for a teenager, miserable young adult. Young adult who was trying different religions, trying addictive substances, having too many boyfriends, you name it. And it wasn’t until I actually opened a copy of the Nicomachean Ethics when I was about 20 that I realized that there was another way to go at life than religion.
Brett McKay: Okay, and so yeah, and we’re going to talk about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, but before we get into that, talk a little bit Aristotle, because he’s an interesting philosopher. He was a student of Plato, but he was doing something … like it’s different from Plato. Like he talked about the same issues that Plato did, but he is also … talked about other things as well.
Edith Hall: Well he has a much, much wider remit, much bigger interest in the world as a whole than Plato. Plato was not at all interested in what we call the sciences, material science, physics, biology, absolutely not. He was only interested in the broad remit of philosophy, which admittedly covers things like politics and aesthetics. But Aristotle was just as important in the history of science as he is in the history of philosophy. And there is no area of human life that he didn’t think was worth inquiring into.
If you go to university, the foundation texts of many, many disciplines, not just philosophy, are in Aristotle. If you study political science in any sense you have to read his politics. If you study zoology, you have to read his history of animals, and generation of animals. If you read any kind of literature, you have to read his poetics. If you read physics, you have to read his works on cosmology and astronomy. He’s, in a sense, a much more important general intellectual than Plato ever was.
Having said that, going to Plato’s academy for the 20 years of his life between ’17 and ’37 was undoubtedly what turned him into the thinker he was. I mean, he needed that rigorous training and argumentation. I’m not trying to minimize at all his debt to his great teacher, and he wouldn’t want to either.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about his ethics, because this is … the Nicomachean Ethics, and he had some other works too on ethics. Basically his case of how you should live a good life. So what … what was he trying to do with his ethics? Like how did he define the good life?
Edith Hall: Okay. It’s a very sort of complicated system in one sense, in that it’s a lot of interlocking concepts. It’s really a matter of … like a giant spiders web, which little bit do you sort of go into to try to build up a picture. But it’s also like a spider’s web in that actually there is a real pattern underlying it.
So he starts from the premise that man is … humans, homo sapiens, he’s very, very, very centered on what it is to be a human, is an animal. All right? We are all animals. And he was the first person ever to say that in world history. Which is why Darwin liked him so much. So we’re just animals, but we’re advanced from animals in that we’ve got much greater things going on in our brains, like being able to think, and rationalize, and deliberate, and indeed choose between good and evil, and laugh, and remember, and recollect, and predict. All these things that we can do since the cognitive revolution when we started standing up and talking in about 70,000 BCE. So you start with that.
Then the next step is that there is no empirical reason whatsoever to think that there’s any outside force interested in us. He wasn’t actually an atheist, but he absolutely didn’t believe that there was any God that was interested in how we behaved. He felt that was entirely resting on humans’ shoulders. We’ve got to make all our own decisions. Practical religion did not help with ethics. He took God out of your moral life completely.
So we’re an advanced animal, and we’ve got to take responsibility for our own actions. But the plus side of that is that we can actually study how to be happy, which is something that I think all humans desire, how to be happy, with these advanced brains that distinguish us from animals. We can figure out how to be happy, and then put that into action. And it’s the result of that question, how can we work, and behave, and be, and think, and deliberate in order to maximize our chances of being happy? That constitutes the fundamental question of this ethics.
Brett McKay: Okay, so there’s a lot to unpack there, even now.
Edith Hall: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So first off, let’s talk like … how did he define happiness? Because I think when people in the 21st century think happiness, they think, “Oh, I just feel great all the time, I’m smiling, I’m laughing.” Is that what Aristotle was talking about when he was talking about happiness?
Edith Hall: Not at all. In fact, in his happy man though, he does like humor. He’s all for humor and fun. His happy man might very rarely feel sort of ecstasy, or transient joy, or thrill, or physical pleasure that unfortunately I think tends to caught up in us. You can go for a Happy Meal, or you can have a cocktail at Happy Hour, or you have a Happy Birthday, just one day of your life because you’re having fun. Aristotle didn’t think that that was true happiness at all. True happiness is a lifetime project, it’s an activity, it’s a commitment to trying to figure out ways of life and ways of treating other people that will bring the maximum … I prefer the word felicity, actually. Which is the word that Latin scholars used to translate his word for happiness, eudaimonia. Felicity implies something much, much more sustainable and sustained. And also that needs to have some work put into it. It’s a way of life, not a transient state.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the translation that I always liked was flourishing. Like that’s … like human flourishing.
Edith Hall: Yeah. I think it works very well for some aspects of it, but I don’t think it actually is subjective enough. Flourishing, you could say somebody’s flourishing looking at them from the outside, quite objectively. You could say they’re healthy, they’re strong, they seem to be having fun, they’ve got enough money, they’ve got a purpose in life, they’ve got a successful career, right? You can say a family is flourishing because those basic things are happening.
Felicity or eudaimonia to me get more the sense that this is something that you experience inside your psychic and intellectual self, it is more subjective, it’s more personal. You need to have the external flourishing in order to maximally feel [inaudible] and happiness. And we’ll talk about that later with issues like bad luck, and so on. But I prefer felicity, or contentedness, with not content … that implies full satisfaction. I prefer a sense of … you know what, it’s the [inaudible] of being able to look yourself in the mirror every night and think, “I did all right.” It’s this sort of sense of satisfaction with your own performance as a human.
Brett McKay: Okay, so felicity, that’s what we’re going for, that’s what he’s going for. But to understand what felicity is, we can go back to what you said earlier. Aristotle said you have to understand that one, we are animals. But two, we are humans. So like his whole idea’s like okay, to figure out what it means to have felicity as a human being-
Edith Hall: Yeah.
Brett McKay: You’ve got to figure out, okay, what does that look like? So there’s like a … I guess that’s what’s called Aristotelian Teology? Is that what it is?
Edith Hall: Teleology, yes.
Brett McKay: Teleology, yes.
Edith Hall: Your telos is your end, which doesn’t just mean the sort of temporal point at which you end and you die, it means the purpose … as I always say, why you’re on the planet. Why are you here? What is the reason? What it is that you can do for the rest of the human race, and he is very, very outward looking. You can only achieve this form of happiness in interaction with your fellow humans, both those very close to you in your family, and your very close friends, but also fellow citizens, and indeed fellow world citizens.
So it’s something that is interactive and community minded. It’s not like some eastern religion’s sense of a serenity you could achieve on your own on the top of a mountain, concentrating nature. It’s in interaction with other people.
Brett McKay: So how did he figure out the telos of a human? Like was it just observation that he made, that okay, this guy looks like he’s got felicity, he’s happy, so let’s see, like what is he doing that’s making him happy?
Edith Hall: Okay, well, the telos of all humans, we’ve all got a broad DNA inherited species telos, I mean, living a life that is reasonably free of misery, of hunger, of need, and full of good relationships, and gratifying interchanges. We’ve all got that together. However, each one of us has a different package of potentialities, it’s very closely linked to his idea of your potential. Achieving your telos means also fulfilling your potential that you’re born with. And everybody is different. And although some talents do seem to run in families, he’s incredibly clear that every individual’s got a different set of things that they’re good at it. And you will never be fully happy if you don’t identify what it is that you’re good at, and work on that to become the very, very best possible version of yourself.
So if you are born with the talent to be an excellent gardener, if somebody makes you have a career as a chartered accountant, you won’t ever achieve your full potential because you could’ve been a fabulous gardener. The good thing about this though is that he says that there is quite an easy way to spot this in children, it means being incredibly careful with the way we raise and educate our young, and helping them identify their potential. That’s because what people are good at is almost invariably also the thing that gives them the most pleasure. A child who hates maths will never, ever be really good at maths. A child who really doesn’t like babies will probably never be a really good parent. A child who loves cooking, and loves cooking and food more than anything else really has to be sent to chef school, not to become a violinist. And so on.
And he’s very sad about the waste of human potential, both in parts of the world where people are so poor that they can only live subsistent lives, which means they can’t develop their real human potential beyond supplying their basic physical needs and those of their dependents, but also in developed worlds where people try to force the young into molds that their potential … to apply a telos that is not actually the one that is naturally there. And I personally think by far the most important function of education is to help people identify what it is they’re good at through pleasure.
In Britain, we’ve got a very great problem with the fact that the national curriculum is cutting out things like music, and drama, and cookery, and learning musical instruments, and painting, and all these creative things in favor of the core STEM subjects, sort of maths, and English, and science. Which means that vast numbers of peoples’ potential is never getting discovered, which I think is contributing to sort of mass depression.
Brett McKay: No, that’s happening in the United States as well.
Edith Hall: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So okay, there’s a general human telos that we all share because we’re all human.
Edith Hall: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Then there’s like an individual telos for everyone, like there’s a … we all have potential to do something, and in order to figure that out we have to be kind of self aware and experiment when we’re young, and find that thing that brings us pleasure.
Edith Hall: Yeah.
Brett McKay: But then another part of Aristotle’s Ethics on living the good life is that okay, you figure out what your telos is-
Edith Hall: Yeah.
Brett McKay: But then in order to achieve that, you need to exercise, or practice virtue. Now that words in the 21st century is kind of loaded. What did Aristotle mean by virtue?
Edith Hall: He means trying to do the right thing. I prefer that as a modern English translation. In all circumstances, try to do the right thing, which would be the one that would be most sort of ethically and morally applauded, because it’s best for you and for all of those around you. There is general virtue, which is the sort of whole caboodle of doing the right thing. But then he very helpfully actually, in another book, both in Nicomachean Ethics but actually in more detail in his Eudemian Ethics, he actually gives you a sort of questionnaire, where you can go through all the human qualities you can think of, all the human characteristics and attributes, and tick off what ones you think you’re quite good at already. And tick off all the ones that you know need working on.
Now you have to do this with extreme honesty, or it won’t work. If you’re in denial about any of your faults, then his recipe for getting to be happy by being a good person and trying to do the right thing, by others and yourself, or with time, won’t work. So it requires an extraordinary amount of honesty, and it also requires commitment of time. I mean, you actually have to be very analytical about yourself, and commit to taking your decisions very, very self consciously. Weighing up why you’re doing them, and what the different consequences are both for yourself and other people. So it’s not an easy route, but in my experience it is a highly effective one.
Brett McKay: And he actually did single out, he lays out specific virtues as sort of examples.
Edith Hall: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah, what are some of the virtues that he highlights?
Edith Hall: Okay, so, this whole range is often … is courage. Or lack of it. There’s your attitude to money. There’s kindness, there’s politeness, there’s generosity, there’s self control with physical desires, anger, or mildness, or whatever the opposite would be, apathy, he thinks it’s apathy. Revenge, how much do you … is your life spent actually trying to get even with people, affection for your children, there’s a whole list of about 20 basic human qualities which haven’t, to be honest, changed at all. They’re still highly relevant to human life today.
And he also uses this questionnaire, which when I first did it, it was … I really did try, because I was in a very bad place, I was trying things very seriously. I’d had a very, very bad early adulthood, and I discovered, I think pretty clearly, what my own worst faults were, as well as helping to identify my potential because I realized there were things I was good at, I was good at making people laugh, I was good at feel good factor, I’m good at cheering people up, and I have communication skills. So it’s good to identify the ones you think are going okay already, right? I don’t suffer from the opposite of those, like extreme shyness, or muddled thinking, or being a gloomy person who depresses everybody and you have to work in the same office as them. But, I do have many, many faults, and for me the worst one’s actually wild emotional extremes. I’m a very a passionate person, I had to learn. Highly precipitant, that is I rush into decisions, I’m very impetuous. I loved risk, as a young person I was actually quite addicted to risk taking, unnecessary and selfish risk taking. And in particular, I’m highly vindictive, I’ve struggled all my life with desire to get revenge. Which is a happiness wrecker if ever there was one.
And by being very honest with myself about those, I have very definitely improved my own happiness. Now everybody’s bunch of good qualities and bad qualities will be different, right? The trick is to be highly honest with yourself, and you do need to have got a little bit of living under your belt before you can do that. I don’t think I could’ve done that at 14.
Brett McKay: And the other interesting thing about Aristotle’s idea of virtue, it’s … what the right thing to do is going to be different in every situation. Like a courageous act is … in one situation it might be courageous, another situation it might be too timid, in another situation it might be reckless.
Edith Hall: Context is everything. And this is why some philosophers call him a moral particularist, that is a phrase that is used of him, because it’s the particulars of each situation that throw into relief what the right thing is to do. There’s a philosopher called Immanuel Kant who came from exactly the opposite direction, which is that you can actually discover universal laws of human behavior, which you can sort of categorically apply. And Aristotle said maybe this is very, very rare, we’ve always got to start with the individual circumstances.
He doesn’t see every virtue as simply having an opposite vice. That is … it’s not a binary structure, there’s not anger on the one hand which is bad, which for most Christians there would be, and then there’s mildness, and gentleness, and kindness on the other. That is not how Aristotle goes at it. It’s a triple system. It’s a triad where the right amount of anger is in the middle, the virtuous anger, and it’s got two corresponding vices of either deficiency, not enough, or excess. And this is because we are animals, we have got strong feelings, and instincts, and drives, and desires.
So, if you take anger, he says not having enough means you cannot be an effective moral agent. You will not look after your dependents. If somebody bullies your child, you will not get into the headmaster’s office to find out what’s going on. If somebody crashes into your car and breaks your legs, you will not take them to court to get proper restitution and public acknowledgement of the damage that has been done to you. So not anger is actually a real fault.
On the other hand of course, excessive anger, which means anger all the time, or with the wrong people, so taking it out on your children if your boss is being a jerk, or uncontrollable, or anger that never subsides, or can’t be dealt with, that is obviously a vice, and we all know people with too much anger, just as we all know people who are apathetic. So the right amount of anger, if channeled properly, is what gets you off your butt when injustice has been done to you, or your dependents, to seek acknowledgement and correction of it. It’s not, in itself, a bad thing at all.
Now for somebody passionate like me, I found this far more helpful than just being told that feeling angry was wrong. Far more helpful. And same goes for all the other ones.
Brett McKay: Did he have like any things where like he said like, you should never do? It’s like, okay … there’s like no right way to murder, or there’s no right way … is there a spectrum or murder, or a spectrum of adultery, or a spectrum of stealing in Aristotle? Or is his Ethics more about … more … I don’t know.
Edith Hall: No.
Brett McKay: It’s about just how to be a … like live your whole human potential.
Edith Hall: There’s practically no categories around the edge that are absolute. So murder is an emotive term. If we say take someone else’s life, for Aristotle, if somebody else is going to take the life of your child if you don’t take their life, then you clearly take their life. All right?
Lying. He’s wonderful about lying, instead of the truth being just a transcendent thing out there, he develops … he thinks that the default position should be truth telling, because that means that you’re an authentic person who’s consistent with yourself, right, so there’s only one truth about yourself. So it’s a good idea. Also people who really love you can’t help you if you feed them false information. And I very much try to knock this into my own children’s head, that I can’t help them if I don’t have the full picture.
So it is always to be rewarded to tell me the truth, however troublesome that truth. We can do more with it. But, there are times when you absolutely have to lie. And bringing children up, and telling them at three or five, punishing them for lying, is the incorrect response. What you need to do is sit them down and talk to them about when it’s okay to lie, and that is when someone is trying to damage you. All right? If somebody says, “Get into my car,” and you say, “No, I can’t, because my mother’s just around the corner,” when you know she isn’t, that is fine. That is absolutely fine. You have to train children to learn when you lie for self preservation, and for the good of yourselves, your loved ones, and your community, and when you don’t. And it’s actually far too simplistic just to say truth, good, fiction, bad.
Brett McKay: Well that’s going back to Kant. I remember when I took ethics in college, they always give that example of okay, you are in Nazi Germany and you are hiding Jews, and the Nazis appear asking, “Are there any … are you hiding Jews?” And Kant would say, “Yes. Yes, I am.” Because you’re supposed to tell the truth, and maybe you give the Jewish people you’re hiding a head start. But Aristotle would say, “No, there’s no one here,” that’s actually the right thing to do in that situation.
Edith Hall: Of course it is. I mean, and that … very extreme examples are good because they get us in touch with our common sense. But we’re not, most of us, living under Nazi Germany, and things may not be as clear as that. But I gave a couple of examples in the book of when I have very deliberately lied for the … actually, it was for the good of my children in a particular bureaucratic setting. And I would do it again every single time, because my intentions were good. And the idea of intention as a litmus test of all moral action is very, very, very important to Aristotle. So he’s much more interested in why someone did something which might appear, on the surface, or by stereotypical moral thinking to be culpable, he’s much more interested in asking not about the results, but the intention.
So if you believe that you’re killing someone to save your child, if you genuinely believe that, even if it turns out that they weren’t … that you were mistaken, that doesn’t take away from the fact that you made that right decision. Right? You might suffer all kinds of remorse and problems if you discover you’ve made that mistake, but you will know, deep inside, that you were trying to be a good person, and that will comfort you.
Brett McKay: So how does Aristotle think we figure this stuff out? Like how does he say … how do you figure out what the right thing to do in these different situations you’ll be placed in?
Edith Hall: So that’s where deliberation comes in, and I think … I love the way you’re doing this interview, because you know this is a complicated jigsaw.
Brett McKay: Right.
Edith Hall: It does all fit together, but there are also about 20 really important separate pieces. So the concept of deliberation, and we hardly use that word deliberation in our society, which just shows how unimportant it is to us. The Founding Fathers in America did use it in various of their documents about counsels, and democratic parliaments, and different places for deliberation, for bringing about the possibilities as a pursuit of happiness. You do have it in your culture, but it tends to get forgotten. It’s a particular word in Greek, called … the verb is [foreign language 00:27:22], which comes from the same root as the Greek word even today for a parliament, the modern Greek, [foreign language 00:27:29], and he thought it through, just as Aristotle always does, he says, “We can think about the science of decision making. Just as we can think about the science of happiness, or the science of virtue, or the science of fulfilling potential.” And he comes up with a sort of eight point plan for making any decision.
Now, of course if you’re just trying to decide whether to have a peanut butter cookie or a chocolate cookie, you don’t bring in this entire apparatus with eight points every time. But if, for example, you’re trying to decide whether to leave the European Union as a nation, right, or leave your husband, then you certainly do. And if you don’t bring in the full apparatus of eight … I mean there are eight to making the right decision, then you’re jeopardizing your chance of the best outcome, and therefore, happiness.
Much of the book, as you know, is how to make a decision, where I pull all this together from his different ethical work. So the very first thing, the very, very first thing is to verify all information. That sounds so simple, right? So am I going to leave my husband? Somebody’s told me he’s been having an affair, do I bother to find out whether that’s true, right, before I kick off? Yes, of course I do. If I’m going to leave the European Union, do I bother to find out exactly how much money my nation is paying to Europe and how much we’re getting in subsidies from it before I vote? Well, ideally, of course. But in fact none of us did that in that decision.
So just step number one means getting … you may have to take a couple of days to put a lot of effort into verifying all information. And in a world run by spin doctors who have no respect for facts, and the truth, this has got even more difficult.
Brett McKay: So yeah, verifying facts is a part of it. And as you-
Edith Hall: Number one.
Brett McKay: This whole … this skill of making decisions, like that is a virtue in and of itself, according to Aristotle.
Edith Hall: Yes. Being a good deliberator, yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think he calls it phronesis, or practical wisdom. It’s like that’s what allows you to figure out like what is the right thing, like what’s the courageous thing to do in this instance?
Edith Hall: Yeah, phronesis is the … thank you for saying that, it’s the cover word for … which is usually translated practical wisdom, which is for being able to figure out what’s the right thing to do in all circumstances. It might be a big decision, it might simply be how you … if you’re a teacher, deal with a difficult kid in the classroom very instantaneously. And it requires experience, that’s one of the problems, is that you can’t just implant … you can’t load up a phronesis hard drive into an 18 year old’s head. They have to figure out partly through experience how the world works. I could never have written this book as a younger woman. I’ve got … I’m 60 years old, I got … I’ve been bereaved, I’ve been divorced, I’ve raised children, I’ve been sacked, I’ve fallen out with friends, I’ve also had a fantastic career, many wonderful opportunities, lots of great things have happened to me. But I have been in a very many particular situations where I, or others, have had to make important decisions. And the practical wisdom such as I’ve acquired, I’m by no means there, but all the examples in the book are real. I may have changed the names or the genders, or tiny details, but they’re all real dilemmas that I or my friends have faced, and through them you develop a sense.
And the really important point, to bring in another term, is that once you’ve done this enough, it starts to be a bit less of a conscious thing and more unconscious. It’s like driving a car, you don’t have gear sticks, we have gear sticks, and we always use this metaphor, when you’re first driving you have to think, “Do I go up into second gear? Do I go up into third gear? What gear do I take that bend in?” After a year or two of driving, you never think about that anymore. And that’s the sort of analogy I use. It becomes a hexis, a habit. You can actually ingrain virtuous action. Another example there is that I decided when I had children, because my parents had been very strict 1950s and 60s parents, who didn’t smile at me, they didn’t smile when you went to ask them for help. So I … and I hated this, I was terrified of going to see them. And so I decided I was always going to smile at my children. And of course, the first few years you’re doing it deeply consciously, like they’re coming and you’re fixing your face into this rictus, “Hello darling, what do you want?” But in fact, it did become completely habitual, to the extent that my children tease me about it.
Brett McKay: So that’s another point to bring about Aristotle is … and I think you hit on it a little bit, is that he is very action oriented, right?
Edith Hall: Yes.
Brett McKay: You actually have to do this stuff to learn it, you can’t just read about it, or talk about it.
Edith Hall: No, it’s a verb. It’s a verb, not a set of ideas. It’s a do thing, you do happiness.
Brett McKay: Right. But then there’s also this idea that … in Aristotle, he’s also … but he’s also … there is a role for contemplation in Aristotle’s Ethics, like he doesn’t completely disregard it, but he says there needs to be a balance with praxis.
Edith Hall: Yes. So you both reflect, and think about it, and if you’re that way inclined, that it absolutely fascinates you, then maybe that’s what your telos is, is actually to be a philosopher and do it full time. And a small proportion of the population should be doing exactly that. But for most of us it’s a combination of just taking time to think, maybe reading some Aristotle, or reading some guides to him because his texts are quite difficult and complicated, and putting it into practical action. And then, doing post mortems on your action. How did that decision work out? And you’ll be able to learn from that practical experience, you’ll add your practical wisdom.
So it’s … to me, it’s just advanced common sense. I think an awful lot of what I’m saying, people say, “Yes, but I do that anyway.” And Aristotle actually said there were people who were, by nature, just good people. That they were sort of born able to do this. And they just sort of … almost automatically took the right decisions, or they were born in very happy families, where they learnt like imitation without having to reflect on it very consciously, ways of behavior that would maximize their achievement of their potential, and therefore their happiness and good relationships. And we all see people like that out there. But for the vast majority of us, it does require an awful lot more work and self consciousness.
Brett McKay: Well that brings up an interesting point about the role of luck or fate in-
Edith Hall: Yeah.
Brett McKay: In the good life. So some people are just … they’re born into a family that has great habits, and virtues in their kids. But some, a lot of people, aren’t. And sometimes people are born into poverty, or cancer, they get cancer when they’re … or their kid gets cancer. What does Aristotle say about that? Is it possible to have a good life even when you’re faced with tragedy or setbacks in your life?
Edith Hall: Well the answer is ultimately, yes. But he, having said that, one of the things I found very refreshing about him as a highly cynical 20 year old, very well aware of the terrible disadvantages that lots of people live under in the world, was that he was terribly honest about luck. He didn’t like the word fate, because fate implies that … because he did really believe in free will and your ability to control and take responsibility for your happiness, fate implies something predestined and unshakeable. But he did believe in just sheer, random bad luck. And as you quite rightly say, you can actually … this affects the hand of cards you’re born with, right? So you might be born very good looking, or you might be born very ugly. You might be born very poor, you might be born into lots of money. You might be born with an extraordinary talent, to be a world famous concert pianist, you might be born with very few obvious talents.
So there’s that. And then from day one when you’re actually on the planet, you’re faced with possibility of terrible accidents, or illness, or bereavement, or bankruptcy, or war, right? And that is just part of taking decisions, you’ve got calibrate risk. You’ve got to figure out, “If I’m going to leave my husband, what will happen if I get diagnosed with cancer in one week and I’ve taken the children with me?” Right, you have to think that through. You’ve got to put the possibility of bad luck into your thinking.
If you then actually suffer from bad luck, he does think that even for the most appallingly unlucky people, his favorite example is Priam of Troy, who of course was kind of a famously happy and prosperous nation with 50 sons who lost every single one of them in the Trojan War, and lost his own life, and all the women were enslaved. But Aristotle actually said had he survived, he could have just about got over that, because if he knew that his own intentions had always been good, then he would at least be at peace with himself, right, he wouldn’t be suffering from remorse, and guilt, and feeling dirty, and he would … if he worked hard enough on it, be able to get some kind of happiness back, and live a reasonably fulfilled life.
So that’s actually very inspiring. He is very sanguine about death as well, and I spent the whole last chapter talking about that. He thinks we should all prepare ourselves for it, and think quite hard about it, because it would help us lead a better life. Whatever time we’ve actually got, if we’re trying very hard to live well, then that will help us die well, make a proper will, look after our loved ones and the projects that will go on after our deaths.
So there’s no magic wand, he’s not offering you immortality, he’s not offering you any kind of immunity against getting a nasty disease. He himself died at 62, when in fact people who lived that long very often lived til 80 or 90 in ancient Greece. And he got cut off in his prime, probably of stomach cancer. But his will that he left shows the incredible thought he put in, both to looking after his family and he freed all his slaves, for example. And he also invested a lot of though in how his lyceum, his university, was going to continue operating effectively.
So he actually set his own example to us, he suffered some terrible bad luck in his own life, he was bereaved at the age of 13 of both his parents. But still managed to achieve what he was born with, which was the power, the dunamis, the potential to achieve his telos of being the greatest intellectual the world had ever seen.
Brett McKay: Okay, well let’s think about … let’s talk about our relationship with other humans, because this is another part of Aristotle’s Ethics, that a lot of times when people talk about philosophy, or how to live a good life, it’s very self centered, it’s like how can I take care of myself? It’s just like … how can I control my emotions? But Aristotle also though about no, in order to live a good life, you have to have relationships, or friendships, with other people. So talk about that a bit.
Edith Hall: Well he actually regarded relationships as the most important aspects of human life. He was interested in the difference between animals and humans in our capacity to make very, very strong bonds with non kin, for example. And our city building abilities, that is building large communities where there are people who we don’t know personally but whom are our friends, because they’re our fellow citizens, and our good depends on their good, right?
So it’s entirely relational, entirely relational. And he regarded his four or five very close friendships, including with his young colleague, younger colleague, Theophrastus, who was the inventor of botany, as the most important things in his life. But the trouble is, they take a lot of work and investment. And the most important thing is trust. So whether it’s with your wife, your best friend, your colleague at work, your fellow citizen, or even with the people in another country on another part of the world, trust is what is absolutely indispensable to a good relationship, and the good relationship is indispensable for happiness.
Misery only ever results from breaking trust, that’s actually one reason … when I said that there were not categorical imperatives in his thinking, he actually says adultery … which is very strange for an ancient Greek male who had many opportunities to commit adultery, and wasn’t really blamed for it, right? He was free to have sex outside [inaudible 00:41:25], he hates adultery. And the reason he hates it is not because you’re sort of cheating on someone in the sense that we see it, but because the primary relationship, which is your life partner, the person that you have sex with, is the building block of all of society for him. Society starts with that partnership, right? And then there are more partnerships in the household. If you compromise that partnership by breaking trust, he says basically the foundations of your whole civilization are placed on crumbling stones.
Now that really appeals to me as an intellectual argument. And I’ve personally found it very helpful. If you go and sleep with someone else, you’re not just cheating on your husband, you’re actually taking out a foundation stone of … in my case, a family, an extended family, and a community of people who will all be affected by it, because the trust is gone. So you can affect happiness by far more than just one person. And I’ve thought about this one very, very hard. He does say that one slip doesn’t matter. I do wonder whether he didn’t just once slip. But that he’s committed to the principle of absolute honesty, and trust, and fidelity to his woman.
Brett McKay: Did Aristotle have any tips on like how to pick a good spouse, or how to pick good friends?
Edith Hall: Yes. Well, he had several very, very, very good friends who were other philosophers mostly, especially Theophrastus. Theophrastus was 17 years younger than him, but he trained him, and Theophrastus took over the lyceum from him with Aristotle died. But he married, at the age of 37, a princess of a philosopher king in a Greek city in what’s now Turkey, he married his daughter, and it seems to have been a huge love match, but unfortunately she died very quickly, probably in childbirth, leaving him a daughter, who he adored. And after that, he made a relationship but didn’t marry, and we don’t know why, it could possibly have been that she was married to someone else and left him, or it could be that she was of slave status. But from his old hometown, he married what seems to have been a childhood sweetheart, called Herpyllis, and he had his son, Nicomachus, with her, who he recognized as fully legitimate, and how he dedicated his greatest work on ethics too.
And what’s very moving for me is that in his will, he takes very, very special care of this woman even though she wasn’t his actual wife. And he says she’s to choose her own house, either his mother’s old house in southern Greece, or his father’s old house in northern Greece. And she is to choose her own internal decor, he says, because she has been good to me. And I find this incredibly touching, because he used as his executor the most powerful man in Greece at the time, in the Macedonian ruler of Greece, he meant business, his will was going to be enforced, nobody was going to muck around with it. But actually puts in that my woman does not want generals choosing her furniture, please would you … she had said to him, “Aristotle, please can you just put that clause in your will.” And he did. How great is that?
Brett McKay: No, it is great. And so I imagine Aristotle would say, “Find somebody that helps you live a good life,” is that what it is, or is it just love, or what would he say?
Edith Hall: You have to sit down and decide what you want to do with your life with them. And so many couples don’t do this, they don’t even ask each other whether they both want children before they get hitched. These basic, basic things. Where they want to live, what professions they want to pursue, what are their main goals in life? And he’s got absolutely clear that the mutual goals, especially when it comes to raising progeny, or whatever it is you want to contribute, are far more important than the transient pleasures of say sexual attraction as young people. So his advice would be long conversations, and if you’re goals don’t match then it’s not going to work.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s like advice you get from a 21st century relationship therapist.
Edith Hall: Obviously. And I find it … because I’m a university teacher, so I’m dealing all the time with people quite apart from my own children who are now young adults, but I’m dealing all the time professionally with 18 to 25 year olds, undergraduates, and doctoral students. And I am appalled by the bases on which they enter long term relationships sometimes. But they have to learn through their own mistakes.
Brett McKay: Yeah, they’ve got to develop that phronesis.
Edith Hall: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So another part too about relationships is that Aristotle thought in order to live a flourishing life, that you had to be active, an active participant in your community.
Edith Hall: Well, you didn’t have to be. That’s a little bit strong, the difference is that many ancient philosophies like Epicureanism, and the Cynic School, and up to a point Platonism, suggested withdrawing completely from the affairs of the city. Aristotle, I think if somebody said they actually really wanted to live quite a quiet life as a farmer up in the hills, that’s fine. But what he didn’t like was the idea that being a civic person, or running a business, or getting into politics, or being an actor, that any of these was actually sort of tawdry, or likely to coarsen you, which is the position of a lot of other ancient philosophers, that you should try and sort of somehow remove yourself from society. He saw the human arena of city state, politics, education, business, all of that, as the place where you go and exercise your virtues, and you make your relationships, and you jolly well contribute to the community if you’ve got something to offer.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s what’s interesting about the virtues that you talk about, in order to exercise them it requires other people.
Edith Hall: Yes.
Brett McKay: Oftentimes.
Edith Hall: Absolutely. He even discusses that with some humor actually in terms of sort of finances. Like we only need money because we’ve got to have a sort of abstract way of dealing with each other over services. But if … a man living alone on a mountain doesn’t even need money, money is not inherently an evil, it’s a matter of how we deal with it between each other.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, I mean like anger, like whenever you get angry it’s with other people, typically.
Edith Hall: Yeah.
Brett McKay: You don’t angry at cows who get in the way or whatever. It’s the cow, it doesn’t know what it’s doing. Well yeah, let’s talk about like the role of emotions in Aristotle’s philosophy. So you mentioned the stoics, they’re all about okay, whatever happens to you, it upsets you because you want it … because you say it upsets you. Aristotle, it sounds like, would say, “No, emotions are a part of our nature as human beings, because we’re animals. The trick is, is just learning how to manage them and exercising those emotions in the right way.”
Edith Hall: Yes, it is, but not even … the more … he’s very sanguine about friendship, he says the more you invest, if you invest 30, 40 years in a really wonderful, trusting friendship with someone, when you die you lose it. You both lose it. It’s incredibly painful, and it’s completely [inaudible] and denying the pain of that, which a stoic would do, and say that a proper masculine man doesn’t show any pain when he loses a friend. Because the cosmos isn’t dictated by fate and all the rest of it.
And he would actually laugh at that, I think. If something is really, really worth having then it’s going to hurt losing it.
Brett McKay: Well Edith, this has been a great conversation. Is there someplace people can go to learn more about your work?
Edith Hall: Well, I have a personal website, which is www dot … and then it’s Edith Hall, all one word. Edith Hall with two Hs in the middle. Dot CO dot UK. And all my information about my book’s publication, public lectures, broadcasting, bits on YouTube, that kind of thing are available there.
Brett McKay: Well fantastic. Edith Hall, thanks so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Edith Hall: Thank you so much.
Brett McKay: My guest there was Edith Hall, she’s the author of the book Aristotle’s Way, it’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about her work at her website, EdithHall.co.uk. Also check out our show notes at AOM.IS/Aristotle, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast, check out our website, ArtofManliness.com where you can find our podcast archives, there’s over 500 episodes there, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about philosophy, if this Aristotle topic interested you. But as well as practical things about physical fitness, personal finance, how to be a better husband, better father. And if you’d like to hear ad free episodes of the Art of Manliness, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Go to StitcherPremium.com and use promo code manliness, you’ll get a free month of Stitcher Premium. Once you sign up at StitcherPremium.com, just download the Stitcher app for iOS or Android, and you start enjoying ad free Art of Manliness episodes.
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