Hall, a professor of classics at King’s College London and the author of “Introducing the Ancient Greeks,” is not the first contemporary theorist to claim that philosophy — particularly ancient Greek philosophy — can change, and even save, a life. Twenty-five years ago the French classicist Pierre Hadot argued that the Greeks never intended the love of wisdom to end up as the most arcane of intellectual disciplines. Instead, according to Hadot, “philosophy appears as a remedy for human worries, anguish and misery.”
In the last decade, the ancient Stoicism articulated by the Roman ruler Marcus Aurelius in the second century has re-emerged as self-help for the smart set — a way of regulating our passions, doing our duties and resigning ourselves to the things we cannot change. The Stoics are wildly popular among readers (predominantly men) who want to train their stiff upper lips. Silicon Valley moguls, N.F.L. stars and Olympians flock to “Stoicon,” an annual conference of modern-day Stoics who spend a week attempting to “think like a Roman emperor.” There are probably worse ways to spend one’s time, but according to Hall’s Aristotle there are also far better ways to approach life.
In the end, according to Hall, Stoicism “is a rather pessimistic and grim affair. … It recommends the resigned acceptance of misfortune rather than active, practical engagement with the fascinating fine-grained business of everyday living and problem solving.” In short, an Aristotelian life is not solely about bearing the inevitable, but about identifying the particular talents or natural proclivities that each of us has, and then pursuing a path, consistently and deliberately, over the course of a life. This will make one deeply happy. In Hall’s assessment, “Stoicism does not encourage the same joie de vivre as Aristotle’s ethics.”
As one who is perhaps not overly predisposed to dwell on the joys of life, I was skeptical. Cold showers have their virtues: They prepare an adult for the unavoidable tortures and small indignities of the day. But Hall’s treatment of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” reveals that true virtue, the inner core of human happiness, is a matter of living in accord with “the ancient Greek proverb inscribed on the Delphic Temple, ‘nothing in excess.’” According to Aristotle, the first Western theorist to develop a moral system tethered to this principle, “character traits and emotions are almost all acceptable — indeed necessary to a healthy psyche — provided that they are present in the right amounts. He calls the right amount the ‘middle’ or ‘mean’ amount, the meson.”
Hall suggests that her adult reader aim for this Golden Mean by first asking a number of diagnostic questions: What sort of moral being am I right now? Am I prone to envy or revenge, rage or lust, overblown confidence or secretive cowardice? Do I find acute pleasure in precisely the things that stand in the way of my long-term happiness? If you are unable or unwilling to answer these thorny questions, Hall writes, “you might as well stop reading here.” Hall excels when she is at her most frank. For Aristotle, there is latitude when it comes to which endeavors merit our pursuit, but authenticity and self-knowledge are nonnegotiable.
Self-reflection may be a private affair, but being virtuous never is. “Project Happiness,” as Hall puts it, cannot be accomplished by oneself, but depends on the kind of relationships we foster or neglect. Togetherness is the testing ground of Aristotelian virtue. In “Love” and “Community,” two of the strongest chapters of the book, Hall explains how we can fail each other and, in turn, fail ourselves. In Aristotle’s day, and our own, friendship is often reduced to its pleasure or utility, and there is nothing particularly wrong with friendships of this kind save that, in Hall’s words, “they are vulnerable to early closure.” These relationships, Aristotle writes, “are easily broken off. … When the motive of friendship has passed away, the friendship itself is dissolved.” Ideally, in contrast, he maintained that lasting connections — intimate, civil and political — are based on a mutual respect for the virtues each participant holds dear. True friends, true lovers, true citizens want the best for one another. What is “best”? Happiness, of course, defined by the pursuit of excellence (arête) or living up to one’s fullest potential.