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Happiness and How we Achieve it, According to Aristotle

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(Photo by Eurokinissi, file)

If there is one thing I am certain of, it is that the Greeks – I mean, of course, the ancient Greeks – will always be the school of humanity.

What prompted my statement is the recent publication of a book that has become a success on a subject that is always timely.

The title is: Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life, by Dr. Edith Hall's, published by Penguin Press.

So many books have been written about Aristotle, but this may the first entirely devoted to one of the great human questions: What is Happiness and how can we live a happier life?

The author is a professor of Classical Studies at King's College in London.

For her book – she has written more than 10 books on the subject of the ancients – Dr. Hall relied heavily on Aristotle's monumental work, the Nichomachean Ethics, which he named in honor of his son, Nicomachos.

If you can read it, I urge you to do so.

For Aristotle, according to Dr. Hall, the foundation for the happy life consists in two well-known statements: In the μέτρον άριστον – moderation is best, and the γνώθι σαυτόν – know thyself.

Aristotle does not equate happiness with wealth, pleasure, or fame. For him, writes Dr. Hall, happiness is an inner spiritual state. A state of mind that we can achieve by living our lives in the best possible way.

Aristotle lived in the palace of King Phillip, the father of Alexander the Great. He saw at first hand the unscrupulous, despicable king who was addicted to a life of conspicuous consumption and led his family and associates to murder one another. Aristotle drew the conclusion that the members of the elite who were theoretically the luckiest members of society were actually the most unhappy.

And while they might have known the right thing to do, they were too weak or lazy to do it.

True happiness, Aristotle believed, Dr. Hull argues, stems from the constant effort to become the best we can become.

And like Plato, he believed in the ancient message carved in stone in the precincts of the Oracle of Delphi: know thyself.

It's not easy, but it is worth trying to get to know ourselves as well and as deeply as possible.

Aristotle analyzed a great number of the features that shape a happy character, including sexual desire, anger, and the way we treat other people.

Happiness, he concluded, comes from cultivating each of them to the right degree, to the “mean” in ways that promote virtue rather than vice.

It is this golden mean or golden middle way that separates Aristotle’s philosophy from other ancient systems of happiness.

For example, the responsible way to manage economic affairs is the virtuous middle way between stinginess – which Aristotle detested, especially in the rich – and the irresponsible, wasteful spending of money.

Those two epigrams describe, in short, the basic elements, which, if we manage them successfully, lead, says Aristotle, to happiness.

But we must engage in a long struggle with ourselves in order to succeed. Until those values and principles becomes an integral part of ourselves, of our spiritual disposition.

Until that philosophy becomes an automatic way of thinking and activing.

So, if the purpose of our life is happiness, in the sense that Aristotle describes, then it is really worth it to try to implement his ideas.

Do not forget that this is the one and only life that each one of us has.

Note: Dr. Hull’s article about her book was published in the Wall Street Journal.