“We are confused about happiness. Almost everyone believes that they want to be happy, which usually means a lasting psychological state of contentment,” writes Edith Hall in Aristotle’s Way, pointing out however that most of our everyday expressions of happiness are ephemeral, if not outright trivial and insubstantial, unsustaining, and eventually even fundamentally disappointing. In this new book, beautifully published by The Bodley Head, complete with a Victorianish mermaid dipping blissfully into sapphire-coloured waters on its cover, Hall sets out on an exuberant journey of discovery, with Aristotle as her guide; her task is to assess and to demarcate the circumstances of our communal and private happiness, and to provide a trail map to that elusive and ever so coveted unicorn-state…

Treatises or manuals on happiness by eminent philosophers have always been the fruits of awesome labour – and have not infrequently caused both elation and trepidations of despair in their less expert readers. One brings to mind the teachings of Plato, the Cynics, Epictetus and the Epicureans, or even Aristippus’ exhortations in praise of a life of unbridled luxury and sensual pleasure, as well as Boethius and his consolations of philosophy, Augustine’s transcendental happiness and Aquinas’ more trenchant and reasoned path; also the more sombre injunctions of Montaigne, or the often unsettling affirmations of Schopenhauer; perhaps too the literary paradigms of, say, Ivan Ilych, Pierre Bezuchov, Stephen Dedalus or Leopold Bloom; the poems of Constantine Cavafy. Hall adds with quiet brilliance her riveting analyses of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian hedonism (which included a “hedonic calculus” calibrated to precisely measure our quotient of bliss), and of John Stuart Mill’s own prudential hedonism, which shifted the emphasis from quantity to quality of pleasure.

Yet all of the above and the many that are fated to remain unmentioned fade into insignificance in this joyously lauding account, before the magnitude and timeless wisdom of one man: Aristotle. “Aristotelian ethics encompass everything modern thinkers associate with subjective happiness: self-realisation, finding a ‘meaning’, and the ‘flow’ of creative involvement with life, or ‘positive emotion’.” Hall tackles everything from physical contentment, personal quibbles or peccadilloes, or more momentous transgressions, to spiritual fulfilment, to the angst of what, if anything, lies beyond our existence. Even the question of whether artificial intelligence can reform our notion of happiness is on her wide-ranging and spellbinding agenda, as it was it would seem for Aristotle himself, who considered the beneficial outcomes of a society where automata would eradicate the need for slave labour. Hall is also an intrepid optimist throughout, which gives her book a breezy impetus, for all its careful scholarship and shrewd exercising of one’s little grey cells: at least for now, “we want to be happy [in real life] and seem to believe that happiness consists of more than just favourable experiences. It requires doing something more sustained, meaningful or constructive.” This ‘something’ is what Aristotle sought to define, and his way of doing so, Hall asserts, can truly change our lives – as it did hers.

Aristotle does not provide an easy straight line to this ultimate goal of human life – there is no royal way to happiness, as both Hall and Aristotle will admit, just as Euclid insisted that there is no royal way to geometry. “Aristotle believed that if you train yourself to be good, by working on your virtues and controlling your vices, you will discover that a happy state of mind comes from habitually doing the right thing.” For Hall, this is a central revelation and a fundamental affirmation of the human potential: happiness is not divinely accorded, but “the result of a [humanly attainable] goodness, along with a learning process and an effort.” It is a demanding process, but one that is fully within our human, mortal powers, and in fact it is this very process that defines us and confirms us as human beings, distinct from all other species in existence.

Hall is thrillingly erudite, yet also playfully conscious that her readers may be distracted in their reading by grumpy in-laws, unruly children, tough bosses, thorny neighbours or lackadaisical cleaning ladies.”

Hall recognises in Aristotle and his philosophy a very particular resonance for the state of our society: Aristotle advocates what few seem to appreciate today, either in the public or in the private sphere, namely that happiness (the fulfilment and realisation of our humanity) is inextricably linked with conscious critical effort, and especially with an effort undertaken without the guarantee of instant gratification, of a quantifiable point of arrival or of a goal to be attained. He tells us that no external factors (economics, genetics, sociohistorical parameters) are of true relevance or can determine the outcome – it is all in the mind, and its powers of deconstructing and reconstructing. It is also a question of active ethics, or an ethics of right action — “not a matter of fanatically applying big rules and principles, but of engaging with the texture of life, in every situation.” Aristotle is a demanding teacher, but he is also “quietly humorous, and observes human foibles with a real twinkle in his eye,” Hall reassures us.

Hall conjures up a fascinating vision of Aristotle as a philosopher, and of his thought as a way of engaging with life and with oneself that defies both temporality and difference. He is, Hall believes, the truly universal mind, the ecumenical teacher, the man who was able to read the fundamentals of every human soul across the ages and across cultures. She is also highly skilled in painting a vivid portrait of Aristotle’s life, tapping on Diogenes Laertius’ surviving biography of the man, of the extraordinary and very challenging times he lived in, of the unique environment in which he was able to cultivate his understanding of human nature and develop his methodology, his own poetics of the eudaimon bios, the truly happy life.

Hall is thrillingly erudite, yet also playfully conscious that her readers may be distracted in their reading by grumpy in-laws, unruly children, tough bosses, thorny neighbours or lackadaisical cleaning ladies. Especially that they may have demons of greater or lesser enormousness to confront. This is a fast-paced, engrossing book, a journey into history, philosophy, the labyrinth of our own society. A descent into the underworld of the human soul and an ascent to the heavens of a secular, vernacular and everyday Elysium.

Aristotle the teacher, the intellectual, the writer, the husband and friend, the social reformer and bon viveur, the unconfessed musician, emerges almost as on a fading, yet highly evocative black-and-white reel of film, his powers of enchantment defying all resistance. Hall also knows to be insightfully critical – this is certainly not a hagiography of the man, or of his time. Aristotle wrote both for the scholarly and for the lay mind, composing texts in different, specifically adapted styles. Both kinds were of equal merit to his mind, and the same summation of both means and purpose may be applied quite happily to Hall herself.

This is both an astutely learned stroll through the philosophy of the good life, and a very personal, at times even confessional account. Aristotle for Hall provided a path out of a critical dead-end in her life, and this is what she seeks to share generously and purposefully with her readers. She has a shrewd sense of how and when to create links with lay reality, or of whether establishing a connection with popular culture and politics will add value to her argument and to our understanding, forging bridges between theory and ordinary factuality without compromising, diluting or obfuscating either. She has a fine sensitivity for revealing to us rare examples of humanity as well as exposing fake friends (and even more fake doctrines, new or old).

Quite early in your peripatos with Hall you will be able to tell whether you are an ethical egotist (Bernard Mandeville), a Utilitarian (Stuart Mill), a Kantian questing for universals and following duties and obligations, or a cultural relativist – in which case you are probably very much in your element in today’s world. By the end of Aristotle’s Way, you will know how to set for yourself the right criteria for happiness; how to define your potential and put it to good use; how to become conscious of the relationality essential in one’s sense of selfhood and individuality, and especially in the attainment of Aristotle’s rule of self-sufficiency. You will be able to make sound decisions, appreciate the art of communicating well, focus on the best intentions; you will be ready to submit the perfect CV and pass the toughest interview (Hall offers an Aristotelian crash-course on both); you will know how to fall in or out of love, how to make or even break friendships, how to “sit and stare”, how to be gentle, kind and generous, how to live well, and also, as Hall aspires, how to die.

If you feel that you still have not fully realised your potential, Hall is happy to bolster up your spirits on that account as well: remember, “Aristotle did not really get going until his fifties, so you almost certainly still have time.” Time, most importantly, to think, and to act upon the thought. This is a layman’s way into Aristotle’s philosophy, but it is certainly a thinking layman’s way and electrifyingly so. Hall’s is a joyous, spirited, mischievous and serious invitation to flex your intellectual muscles, to be startled at the magnitude of trifles and the inconsequence of major phenomena, a reminder of the almost hedonistic pleasure of thought and ethics, of social awareness and of the quiet contemplation of the vigorous activity of the mind and of the soul. As you reach the last page, you will find yourself relishing how to think, how to think well, even if that means tempering egotistical choices and our society’s strongly narcissistic penchant for licence as opposed to freedom.

Hall’s own apologia of the vital necessity of happiness, rightly understood, pursued to the full after Aristotle’s fashion, is itself robust, inspiring, thoroughly engaging and invigorating.”

Hall is a keen, delighted reader of Aristotle, but not so of Christianity, which she often takes to task for what she sees as its delimiting, resisting perspective. She is also slightly less clear or strong on the question of immortality, on Aristotle’s views on the subject, or perhaps on her own perspective of what Aristotle ought to be saying about eschatology. Philosophy pundits may baulk and buckle at her unqualified assertion that “Aristotle himself undoubtedly saw death as final, as most atheists and agnostics do today.” Aristotle’s deliberate obscurity in his treatise on the soul, which raises the crucial question of the soul’s immortality, remains one of the most ardently debated philosophical topics, even after more than two millennia of commentaries and readings. The crucial words in De Anima iii.5, and every side’s battle cry, are athanaton kai aidion – deathless and everlasting. What Hall does stress correctly, and very poignantly, is Aristotle’s refusal to see life as subservient to death, or as being in death’s clutches: “Aristotle’s rebuttal of [Pascal’s chain-gang imagery in Pensées] would have been robust: we are not in chains and we are not forced to spend our whole time watching our fellows die. We have free will, agency, and a potential for great happiness acquired through living in the right way.”

Hall’s own apologia of the vital necessity of happiness, rightly understood, pursued to the full after Aristotle’s fashion, is itself robust, inspiring, thoroughly engaging and invigorating. Her chapter on leisure should be compulsory reading for every minister and secretary of education dreaming of a 12-month-long school year. Aristotle’s analysis of the irreplaceable value of “constructive pastimes” or even of “constructive boredom” will certainly resonate with anyone for whom long (three-month-long) proper summer holidays have been times of the most extraordinary discoveries, bafflement and very real enchantment. Amusingly, she also points out that the etymology of the English word for school is the Greek word for leisure, schole. For Aristotle, schole was the truest school of the creative mind, and a precondition of a life of living well, of ethics and of happiness. Hall’s book is indeed a celebration of such leisure to ponder on the bigger questions of our existence through the minutiae of our daily lives. It requires leisurely, slow reading, and by its end will certainly provide the leisure of a truer understanding of our happiness, its potential and actuality. Aristotle’s Way may well be, like the philosopher’s doctrines, a book that could change your life – to the measure that you wish it and allow it to do. It is quite a gorgeous book, a highly polemic, daring thesis, a literary and philosophical analysis with a particularly rich voice all of its own.

 

Edith_Hall_cropEdith 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. Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life is published in hardback and eBook by The Bodley Head and Vintage Digital.
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Author portrait © Mike Beard

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.

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