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Making Aristotle Your Life Coach
Notes on meaningful living and conduct from Great thinkers that can be a mainstay for life
Happiness is both an aspiration and a commodity. For all the smartphones, cars, clothes and real estate our money can buy, we still yearn for our happy place, that somewhere beyond the rainbow.
We all want to be happy, but, happiness, at the best of times, proves to be woefully short-lived, and at the worst of times, wholly elusive. While modern psychiatry sometimes reduces happiness to chemicals—we’d be happy only if we had the right amount of oxytocin and serotonin coursing through our brain—pills, we know, can make us feel good, but they do little to repair heartbreak and hardship.
On the surface, our problems seem specific to the times in which we live,but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that human beings have been asking variants of the same questions for centuries, if not millennia. What does it mean to be good? What should be our life’s goal—happiness or contentment? Do I need others to feel fulfilled? Can people actually change? How can I be the best version of myself?
Before motivational speakers and self-help gurus, these lines of enquiry were once the mainstay of the world’s philosophers. Someone like Aristotle, for instance, believed it was your “responsibility” to flourish, to be “happy”. Sadly, however, today we mostly remember only biographical detail about the Greek thinker—he was teacher to Alexander the Great—not so much his interrogation of the good life. For the most part, Aristotle and other Western philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius, Michel De Montaigne, Friedrich Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir are dismissed as being highbrow or complex.
The philosophies of such thinkers are, in truth, a defence against everyday and extraordinary adversity. At a time when we’re faced with looming questions about mortality and morality, we can find comfort and consolation in stoicism and existentialism, in Montaigne’s light-heartedness and Nietzsche’s sincerity. Thankfully, for us, we don’t need to pore over our dusty editions of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations or Sartre’s Modern Times in order to distil their lessons or life advice. Others have done that for us.
Deep thinkers are slowly infiltrating the self-help shelves of our bookstores.Tucked between Robin Sharma and Deepak Chopra, you are likely to find Edith Hall’s Aristotle’s Way: Ten Ways Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life (2019). In her book, Hall argues,“Wherever you are in life, Aristotle’s ideas can make you happier.” Psychotherapist Antonia Macaro’s, similarly,soothes our inner turmoil with More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age (2018).Together with philosopher Julian Baggini, she’s also written The Shrink and the Sage: A Guide to Living (2012) and Life: A User’s Manual (2020), a book that offers philosophical guidance for(almost) any eventuality.When put together, books like John Sellars’ Lessons in Stoicism: What Ancient Philosophers Teach Us About Howto Live (2020) and Gordon Marino’s The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an In authentic Age (2018) help tick the usual check boxes. They help you navigate anxiety,depression and love, but other titles like What Would Nietzsche do: How the Greatest Philosophers Would Solve Your Everyday Problems do something more still. They bring philosophy to dilemmas even our therapists belittle as banal. Is it, for instance, “okay to believe in homeopathy?”
One finds in this bourgeoning genre of ‘cerebral self-help’ an array of possible solutions. They tell you what you ought to do when you encounter a bear in the forest, but you will equally find advice on what to do if two of your guests turn out to be vegan. (Turns out Aristotle would opt for dairy-free cake for everyone.) As entertaining as they are wise, these books make accessible great philosophers and their philosophies. Reading them, you’ll learn how to make happiness last, and, also, how to live.
Illustration: Siddhant Jumde
ARISTOTLE AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
If you were to sidle up next to Aristotle and complain you weren’t happy,chances are he would do that annoying thing college professors sometimes do—he would ask you to define‘happy’. Even though the philosopher considered happiness life’s ultimate goal, he never equated it with things like riches or even a long life. For Aristotle, happiness had more to do with contentment than gratification.As Edith Hall writes in Aristotle’s Way, his was a happiness that “can be described, not measured”.
Aristotle, it must be clarified, had nothing against sex, food and wine.Enjoyed constructively, all these things could make you joyful. The only trouble, he suggests, is that none of these things can keep you happy.While Aristotle doesn’t ridicule the pursuit of pleasure, wealth or fame, he does point out that all these goals are governed by chance. If one stroke of ill-luck can make you lose the money you have earned, it is, perhaps, best that you don’t put all your happiness eggs in the basket of your wealth.
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,” writes Hall. In the Aristotelian world-view, happiness cannot come without effort. You will only be happy if you try to be good, and you will only be good if you keep trying to do right by others. Rather than tangle himself in the jargon of authenticity, Aristotle preaches perseverance: “We become builders by building, and lyre-players by playing the lyre. So too we become just by doing just actions, temperate by temperate actions, and courageous by courageous actions.” Virtues like kindness, he teaches us, can be practiced. You are more likely to be happy, he claims, if others around you are, too.
According to Hall, “Aristotle was convinced that most people get most of their pleasure from learning things and wondering about and at the world.” Though we might now be too engaged with the world in order to step back and understand it, it might help if we pay heed to Aristotle’s prescriptions and take timeout for mental pleasures alongside our physical ones. Even if we hit the gym every day, it might help if we visit an art gallery once a month. Forcing ourselves to hold a book might, for once, bring us more enjoyment than holding our phone. Like our bodies,our minds also need nourishment.
In The Shrink and the Sage, Atonia Macaro and Julian Baggini remind us that only we can make choices for ourselves: “What we need, and what Aristotle provides, is not a set of prescriptions that diminishes our responsibility to make our own choices, but a philosophy of life that provides a framework for making better ones.” Hearing you moan about unhappiness, Aristotle, it is likely,would go on about how you never did decide to be happy. He was born in 384 BC. He is allowed a lecture.
MARCUS AURELIUS AND THE NATURE OF THINGS
Stoics have a problem with emotions.For them, all emotions are judgements,and all judgements are, essentially,deluded because ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are nothing but constructs we invent. The only thing that’s ‘real’, they would argue, is virtue. It is for this reason that stoicism has, over time, developed a reputation of being an unfeeling philosophy. Stoics, however, knew that there was no running away from feelings. The trick was learning how to control them better. In Mind Over Happiness, her book on Buddhist and Stoic thought, Macaro writes, “The Stoic reasoning is that since emotions are judgements, we’re capable of controlling and altering them, and are ultimately responsible for them.”
Emperors, one would think, are too busy with their banquets and bayonets in order to make time for philosophy.The Roman emperor (from 161 to 180AD) Marcus Aurelius, though, made time for his people and for some pondering. His Meditations, a set of note she wrote to cope with the everyday, is today a bedrock of Stoic philosophy.As Eric Weiner writes in The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers (2020), “To read Meditations is to witness an act of philosophy in real time.” Marcus, says Weiner, is “live-streaming his thoughts,uncensored.” He is not exaggerating.
Marcus once wrote, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself:the people you deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, jealous and surly.” A thought this grim might keep us in bed until after noon, but in Life: A User’s Manual, Macaro and Baggini posit a cheerier interpretation: “Taking a dim view of others can be the road not to misanthropy but to sympathy and fellow feeling.” We’re all flawed. We are all in this together. As Marcus says, “I have to go to work—as a human being!”
For Marcus, everything was always in flux. “You too,” he said, “will alter in the whirl and perish, and the world as well.” Looking at it from the outside,one can dismiss Marcus’ prescriptions as being too pessimistic or melancholic,but as Macaro tells us, “In fact his notes to himself were simply reminders to face the inevitable facts of life in the right spirit.” Marcus wanted us to seethe transience of things, he wanted us to know the “noble vintage” we drink is just “grape juice”, the meat we savour is dead animals and that human lives are“yesterday, a blob of semen” and “tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.”In Lessons in Stoicism, John Sellars says that Marcus did something extraordinary—he “looked outwards to contemplate the vastness of what we cannot”. To look at ourselves as tiny specks in the universe, as subjects of nature, suggested Marcus, had several advantages. For one, it made us look at our worldly concerns in perspective:“Is it your reputation that is bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten.” Two, it also makes us humble: “Nature gives all and takes all back. To her the man educated into humility says: ‘Give what you will; take back what you will.’ And he says this in no spirit of defiance, but simply as her loyal subject.” Wonder, says Marcus, is a step towards wisdom.
MONTAIGNE AND THE IMPORTANCE OF BFFs
Michel de Montaigne, it is said,had great love for the Stoics, but for Cicero, the 2nd-century philosopher and Skeptic, he held a special kind of scorn. “There is no occupation so sweet as scholarship,” said Cicero, for whom reason was a divine tool that afforded mastery over all things, Enraged by this pedantry, Montaigne had written, “In practice, thousands of little women in their villages have lived more gentle,more equable and more constant lives than [Cicero].
”Nothing upset Montaigne more than pompous and conceited thinkers.Even though he spent much time writing his Essays on the top-floor of a secluded red-roofed tower, he was irked by those who philosophized from the top-down vantage point of ivory towers. Montaigne wrote for everyone, and he wrote about everything—clothes,cruelty, coaches and cats. One of the more memorable questions he posed still needs a satisfactorily answer: Do you play with your cat or does your cat play with you?
Alain de Botton, in his book The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), best sums up Montaigne’s philosophy of the ordinary: “Montaigne had outlined anew kind of philosophy, one which acknowledged how far we were from the rational, serene creatures whom most of the ancient thinkers had taken us to be. We were for most part hysterical and demented, gross and agitated souls beside whom animals were in many respects paragons of health and virtue.” Rather than bemoan our imperfections, however, Montaigne celebrated them. Though life was messy,it deserved to be loved.
Rather than write long prescriptions for happiness, Montaigne asks us to value the joys that simple friendship and camaraderie can offer. He writes,“In my judgment the sweetness of well matched and compatible fellowship can never cost too dear. O! a friend!”In his friendship with Étienne de LaBoétie, for instance, Montaigne invests himself fully. Friends, he argues,should be more than acquaintances.Friendship ought to exceed familiarity.The “souls” of friends must “mingle”and “support each other.”
Boétie was only 32 when, in August 1563, he died after suffering severe stomach cramps. Even though Montaigne was devastated (“Since that day when I lost him, I merely drag wearily on …”) he grew accustomed to death.Only one of his six children, for instance, survived infancy. Montaigne himself had a near-death experience in 1569 when he was thrown off his horse. Strangely, these experiences did not defeat Montaigne. He didn’t go into a funk when he thought of mortality, he advocated facing death head-on.“Let us rid it of its strangeness, come to know of it, get used to it.” Rather than keep death at arm’s length, avoiding its morbidity, Montaigne says we must defang it by first befriending it.
Montaigne was of the belief that death should not be looked at as a“catastrophe”, but should rather be viewed as something “inevitable”instead. And for those of us who fuss about “dying” more than “death”,Montaigne had some words of comfort:“If you do not know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately.”Given his gentle optimism and large-heartedness, Weiner says with good reason, “[He] is the philosopher I most want to have a beer with.”
NIETZSCHE AND THE ART OF COOL
Something about Eric Weiner’s casualness makes his Socrates Express a joy to read. Calling Friedrich Nietzsche“the bad boy of Western philosophy,”he then adds, “He was, and is, the most seductive, the most inevitable, of philosophers.” Weiner reminds us that Nietzsche believed philosophy should be fun: “Some philosophers shock. Many argue. A few inspire. Only Nietzsche danced.” There is nothing he wants to prove. Nietzsche “simply wants you to see the world, and yourself, differently If you ever spend time asking questions like ‘But who am I?’, you can bet your last dollar that Nietzsche would not dismiss your worries as idle or indulgent. He would, instead, be emphatic, euphoric even: “The man who does not want to remain in the general mass, has only to stop ‘taking things easy’. He needs to follow his conscience, which cries out: ‘Be yourself!The way you behave and think and desire at the moment—this is not you!”Existence, Nietzsche firmly held, could never be random or pointless.
In Life Lessons from Nietzsche(2013), John Armstrong makes the case that in Nietzschean philosophy,our desire to “be cooler” is, essentially,a good thing. “Because what it does is bring us closer to the sense that we too have it in our power to reach after great things.” What Nietzsche would have us do is concentrate our efforts, gradually accumulate relevant insights and then painstakingly sort out of “what is crucial from what is misleading, by practice and repetition”. This sounds like too much work, yes, but Nietzsche is quick to remind us that the paths to success are paved with suffering.Nietzsche knew a thing or two about suffering.
His father died horribly early. At 20, he had a crisis of faith.He was rejected by his lover. He lost much of his eyesight with age. Marcus Weeks, in What Would Nietzsche Do?,points out that “despite these tragedies, he found a way to turn them into a positive philosophy”. According to Nietzsche, we will all have to endure some misery in our lives, but he sees in this opportunity, not a setback. As Weeks writes, “The things we strive to do, if they are worth doing, involve the risk of failure, and the suffering that they bring helps us to appreciate our achievements all the more.” Nietzsche himself said, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”
Happiness never ranked high on Nietzsche’s list of priorities. He had famously declared, “Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does.” Nietzsche never did look at happiness as life’s goal. He thought it was a consequence of our actions. His disdain for the English, of course, had much to do with his rejection of capitalism. The German Nietzsche was not a man for industry. He preferred rest:“Even now one is ashamed of resting and prolonged reflection almost gives one a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in one’s hand, even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news on the stock market; one lives as if one always ‘might miss out on something.’” As Patrick West says in Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times(2017), it’s like he was writing today.
BEAUVOIR AND THE IMPOSTOR SYNDROME
Though we drop often the words ‘existential crisis’, not many of us know what ‘existentialism’ really means.Simone de Beauvoir, perhaps the existentialist philosopher,had once offered up an explanation, albeit inadvertently. “My life would be a beautiful story come true,” she said as a young woman, “a story I would makeup as I went along.” In his Socrates Express, Eric Weiner points out, “This is existentialism. There is no script to follow, no stage directions. We are author, director, and actor of our own life story.” You’ll always have a choice—that is existentialism in a pithy nutshell.
The existentialism that gets taught in today’s philosophy courses was, in large part, thought up by Beauvoir and her lifelong partner and accomplice, Jean-Paul Sartre. As they spent their time drinking coffee and cocktails in Parisian cafes, they discussed human responsibility and authenticity. Beauvoir, however, suffered bouts of ‘impostor syndrome’: “Day after day, and all day long I set myself up against Sartre, and in our discussions, I was simply not in his class.”Not one to be intimidated, Beauvoir persevered. “My curiosity was greater than my pride,” she said. “I preferred learning to showing off.”Years after Beauvoir’s death in 1986, scholars have begun to argue that Beauvoir was more than Sartre’s disciple; she was his superior. As Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini write in Life: A User’s Manual, “Sartre never managed to articulate an ethics based on his existentialist philosophy.In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir does a better job of articulating the ethical dimension of the existentialist philosophy of freedom.” Beauvoir, at all times, seemed to know how to do the right thing.
In The Second Sex (1949), her seminal feminist work, Beauvoir argues that the pressure a woman feels to look a certain way, can, in effect, lead her to treat herself as an object that was designed to please men. “Fashion does not serve to fulfil her projects but on the contrary to thwart them,” she writes. Having laid bare oppressive social structures, Beauvoir did not give into either outrage or despair. As Sarah Bakewell tells us in At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails (2016), she instead “encouraged women to raise their consciousness,question received ideas and routines,and seize control of their existence.
”For Beauvoir, change was always yours to make and it was important that we constantly strive to enrich our lives. She insisted that our past should be marked by abundance: “If the world behind us were bare we would hardly be able to see anything but a gloomy desert.” Strangely, however, Beauvoir was a creature of habit. She spent her days doing much the same things: having tea, writing, reading, listening to music and lunching with friends. She once wrote, “In their rhythm, in the way I fill them, and in the people I see,my days resemble one another. Yet my life does not seem at all stagnant to me.” What is true for Beauvoir is perhaps true for all philosophers: Their observations travel time while they,ostensibly, sit in one place.