Three years ago, I reached the age of 65, and I started to seriously consider life after work. What would be the best possible way to live, given the time remaining? When I become free of the need to earn a living, what activities would give me the most satisfaction? The Greek philosophers regarded this as the question of eudaimonia – usually translated as ‘the good life’ – and it is a key theme in works of Plato, Epicurus and above all, Aristotle. I prefer to think of it as the question of ‘the best possible life’ or ‘the art of living well’.
Eudaimonia is often mistranslated by the amorphous word ‘happiness’, or by the awkward jargon term ‘flourishing’, which no one uses outside of psychology. ‘Happiness’ suggests a reliably pleasant life; ‘flourishing’ suggests a life of grand achievement. Neither relate well to the concept of eudaimonia as the Greeks understood it. In particular, our modern understanding of the word ‘happiness’ has reduced it to a state of mind, and stripped out its traditional meaning of well-being, success and good fortune.
Greek society was intensely competitive, from the Olympics to poetry contests. It believed in the value of ‘good strife’ to bring out the best in people. Even philosophic discussion, which usually occurred in the marketplace and the gymnasia, had the aspect of a verbal, open-air, face-to-face sport. Socrates was so competitive that he would rather die than lose an argument, which in fact he chose to do. He wasn’t going to back down even if it killed him!
A Greek man of leisure was expected to strive for excellence (arete, or in Roman, virtu) in everything he did by challenging himself if not others. Thus the question ‘What is the good life?’ should really be framed in terms of achieving excellence: ‘What is the best possible activity or way of life for a free man?’ While the ultimate goals were important (more about those later), the development of character and a mature, social identity came first.
Aristotle said that eudaimonia (the good life) was not a passive possession; it was a kind of action, a settled disposition to behave in certain ways. One aspect of this was the continuous practice of the character traits or ‘virtues’, that the Greeks and Romans admired: self-control; inner balance; good judgement in situations of everyday uncertainty; fairness (or ‘justice’); and courage (literally ‘manliness’, or the appetite for persistent effort).
For hundreds of years, the philosophic schools focused on these character strengths as the basis for a successful, and admirable, life. Their students were mostly rich young men who would later go into politics or civil service. Through the competitive banter of the schools, they were taught how to think and speak clearly, on these issues and others, based on a habit of critical self-observation. As Antisthenes said: “Philosophy has taught me how to have a dialogue (i.e. a two-way argument) with myself.”
Many philosophers admitted that character training was not easy. Just take ‘self-control’. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight or stop smoking, you’ll know how difficult it can be. As Aristotle says: “It is easy to perform a good act, but not easy to acquire an established habit of such actions.” However Aristotle is also optimistic about the likelihood of success. He knew that the secret of acquiring any skill is surprisingly simple. Sufficient repetition will do it, and scoring more hits than misses over time.
Our personal efforts at self-discipline and training always hang over the abyss of failure, but they can still be immensely enjoyable. Once we give up trying to take shortcuts, we can, as Aristotle put it: “Do what is right, and (eventually) habit will make it easy and even pleasant.” Epicurus was even more insistent that learning has to be fundamentally pleasant: “Even the virtues are to be cultivated for the immediate pleasure they give, not for some vain and disturbing expectation of future reward.”
Aristotle believed completely in the transformative power of lifelong learning. As the greatest polymath of the ancient world, that I doubt if he was ever out of that studious groove. Although eudaimonia translates well as ‘a successful goal-directed life’, he more frequently describes as a particular style of daily activity, or a way of living. This means that eudaimonia can also be translated as ‘the unobstructed use of one’s best skills and abilities over time’ or, to use the Greek jargon, ‘a life spent actualising one’s potential both as a human being and as an individual.’
The continuous, conscious pursuit of goals give positive shape and intrinsic pleasure to anyone’s day and to any life, whether those goals are fully achieved or not. Modern psychology recognises this kind of person as having an autotelic (‘self-directed’), or self-actualising character. It is the opposite of a passive, ‘externally-directed’ character, who prefers to ‘go with the flow’. A goal-directed person is more likely to stay focused on what he wants. This in turn makes him more likely to avoid peripheral temptations and so enjoy success. He will also feel satisfied with what he does and feel in control of his life, as much as is possible in the circumstances.
For Socrates, character training alone was sufficient for eudaimonia. He argued that a man of virtue, one who had ‘a good soul’, would always be happy, regardless of circumstances, even if he was somewhat ignorant and had achieved nothing in his life. This naive and somewhat arrogant idea that a noble mind can always float free from the difficulties of the material world had great longevity throughout Stoicism and even Christianity. Aristotle ticked it off as rubbish. He said that even a wise man can’t be happy in extreme misfortune, and eudaimonia requires some degree of success, security and leisure. Aristotle also commented that Socrates’ three sons turned out to be rather stupid nobodies – so much for the ‘virtue is all you need’ approach.
For Aristotle, success mattered, or at least progress in the right direction. Eudaimonia was a life of goal-directed activity. “Man is a goal-seeking animal. His life only has meaning if he is striving for his goals. He breeds actions like he breeds children.” The urge to physically move and do something, anything at all, has that kind of biological compulsion even in infants. We can even say that we don’t even choose our goals. Most of them, such as our instincts for wealth, relationships and pleasure are born with us. We can only choose how we prioritise and pursue them.
Aristotle said that even plants and animals have what he called a soul, or animating force (anima). The soul is the life-force, or élan vital, or the sum total of biological process that sustain health in any organism. It is the inner regulating form of both the body and the mind, and each of us has our own individual soul. Above all, the soul is teleological or goal-directed. The seed seeks to be the biggest, most fruitful tree it can, and a man is similarly ambitious with his different capacities. Aristotle coined the terms ‘potentiality’ and ‘actuality’ to describe this process.
We are all born with countless potentialities, which we can think of as roughly equivalent to genes. Some are bound to be expressed: we all grow up and learn to talk, for example. Many of the rest won’t make it to the light, but others, through foresight, good decisions, supporting circumstances and just plain luck, will be partly or fully actualised over time. The expression of those once dormant genes will emerge as success of some kind, or strength of character, or both. Conversely, if we don’t fulfil our potential to at least some degree, we are likely to feel a failure: not a eudaimonic life at all.
So whether we ever think about it or not, a good life depends on fulfilling certain internal goals, not to mention the external ones. We want to grow up, find a partner, make a living, and all the while enjoy what we are doing (or we won’t do it at all). Essential as these are, Aristotle says that this simply satisfies the animal part of our souls. We even use language and reason, which are the distinctively human aspects of our souls, to satisfy these largely animal goals. For the very best possible life however, we should try to fulfil the highest, and most distinctive, potential of the human mind, which is the capacity for reason.
For Aristotle, this meant using reason in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. “Man by nature desires to know”. Our restless curiosity, lust for novelty, our passion for thought and expressing opinions, is as natural to us as breathing. Aristotle gave a charming example. He said that even when a man at the marketplace has absolutely nothing to gain by it, he will still look randomly at all things with delight.
Aristotle also said that the drive to know can be strong or weak in any particular person. It can be wasted through scatter, or be immensely productive. Every child can walk and run, for example, but only a few will develop the excellence of an athlete. The same applies to reason and the pursuit of knowledge. We can use the divine gift of reason to understand the works of the universe, or we could spend our lives arguing with strangers on Facebook, or gossiping about celebrities.
Aristotle thought that the best possible life would be the uninterrupted contemplation of Nature and mankind. This endless pursuit has no practical use that he could imagine, but that was part of its attraction for him. It is knowledge for the sheer love of it, and there is no question he did find it immensely enjoyable. This contemplation is what he and other philosophers imagined as the boundless and anxiety-free activity of the gods. In fact, most of us have to attend to humbler goals as well. As Socrates said: “the wise man limits his desires to those that can be satisfied.”
“All pleasures are good,” said Epicurus, “but some are more trouble than they are worth.” Similarly some goals are bound to be more rewarding than others. Aristotle’s question, ‘What is the best possible life?’ was addressed to rich young men who were free to do anything they liked. However, his question applied equally well to me at age 65 as I considered the freedom that would come after thirty years of work.
So I went through Aristotle’s list of options and added a few of my own. The pursuit of wealth is immensely important if you are poor, as I had been, but how much money did you need? (‘Very little’ said Epicurus. ‘Almost nothing’ said Diogenes.) Similarly, for relationships. As status-conscious social animals, we all seek some kind of recognition through love, fame or respect but how much did I still need to pursue that? Nor did I want to linger on as an elder statesman of the Perth mindfulness scene. The pursuit of pleasure is also a worthwhile goal. An inability to enjoy being alive is a recipe for a miserable dys-daimonic life. I could certainly spend more time, as Epicurus recommends, deliberately combating the last shreds of anxiety and enhancing my capacity for enjoyment.
Other valid goals for older people are the usual cliched suspects: better health, learning some skill, pursuing one-off bucket-list achievements, and of course, travel! However, one thing became abundantly clear. I would never sort out the question “What is the best possible way of life for me?” if I continued to work as much as I was.
Fortunately it eventually became easy to abandon a huge chunk of my work. My working life had always been divided equally between teaching and writing. I had produced 15 editions of 7 books over the previous 25 years. Despite its personal rewards, writing books and bringing them through to publication is an immense grind. When my last, and best, book came out in New York last year, it was the perfect time to get off the treadmill.
I still love writing, but it is time to at least take a long sabbatical from writing books. Nonetheless, I can’t entirely let go the habit of writing itself: it is how I organise my thoughts. I am still writing, but for a new audience: myself. So I am partly addressing the question of eudaimonia – what is the best possible way to live – by writing about it.