Some questions are timeless. And if wise Greek philosophers thought about ways to find happiness 2,000 years ago, why should we reinvent the wheel? Our resident philosopher Anne Wesseling delves into the ancient Greek world and brings us five wise lessons from Aristotle.
“Why would you spend your time studying the ideas of people who have been dead for hundreds of years?” someone once asked me. The answer is simple: because it makes you wiser. Because 2,000 years ago, people wrote sensible things about problems we still encounter every day. Take the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle. He was a student of the other great Greek thinker, Plato, and like his teacher, he had his own school of philosophy in Athens in the fourth century BCE. But their ideas could hardly have been more different.
Plato put his faith in theory, but Aristotle was all about practice, and he studied practically everything that crossed his path. We still have lives to lead and could still use some practical wisdom along the way. So here are five wise lessons from Aristotle.
Everything in nature works toward a goal, and that includes people. An acorn’s goal is to become an oak, and a human being’s goal is to become a successful person. That means expressing your true nature. You want to be part of a political community and try to live a good life, but above all, you want to be the best version of yourself that you have in you. This last goal is the most important when it comes to happiness. Happiness is not a goal in its own right, not an item to check off your list so that you can put up your feet and take it easy. Being happy means trying to do whatever you do as well as you can, so that you can be the best possible you.
The things that give us pleasure are the same things that help us to achieve our goals. You say you have no idea of your purpose in life? Then start by investigating what gives you pleasure, because that will point you toward your life’s goal. Look at children: some of them love making music, others are creative, and still others spend all day building huts.
Aristotle wrote a thick book about ethics and virtues—in other words, about how to live. As always, his basic principle is practical: face up to your own weaknesses and work on them. Virtue lies in the middle. Take money, for example: you don’t want to walk around with hole in your pocket, but you don’t want to be a scrooge either. The happy medium is generosity. Likewise, you don’t want to brag, but false modesty is no good either. The happy medium is truthfulness about yourself—you might call it self-confidence. Finding the happy medium isn’t always easy. Consider the case of anger. You don’t want to lose your temper left and right, but if you never get upset, people may take advantage of you. Aristotle writes, “Anybody can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, and to the right extent, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book II). You never stop learning. Finding the happy medium is a question of trial and error.
Being good isn’t a personality trait; it’s a habit. You don’t do good deeds because you’re a virtuous or excellent person. On the contrary, you have those traits because you do the right things. You become brave by doing brave deeds. You become friendly by acting friendly. You become generous by giving things away. In the early stages, it doesn’t happen automatically but takes some thought. But the longer you keep at it, the easier it becomes, until it’s automatic. Don’t expect that to happen from one day to the next; you can go on improving yourself your whole life long. Keep trying. Don’t be discouraged if you fail sometimes. You can always try again. In short, you don’t have permanent personality traits; you acquire those traits through the things you do. (Hey, Aristotle was the inventor of the mindset!)
You can’t be happy without a little help from your friends. There are friends you have fun with, there are friends who are useful to you, and there are friends you admire for their approach to life. The last kind are the best. They give you something to strive for, and you keep each other alert. What’s true of happiness is also true of friendship—it’s a verb. But unlike love, it’s always reciprocal: you can love someone who doesn’t love you back, but friendship runs both ways. It demands loyalty and initiative. You have to be there for friends in need and let them into your life. How do you make friends? Aristotle says, “Do nice things without being asked—and don’t brag about them afterwards, because then you’re mainly doing them for yourself.” By the way, you don’t need a lot of friends. You only have a few really good friends in your lifetime.
Read the whole article in our issue 21 ‘Practice Peace’
Text: Anne Wesseling
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