The Excellence of Happiness

This guest post has been contributed by Richard Baron.

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Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics (often just called the Ethics) in Ancient Greece, a society that was very different from ours. So booksellers think it only belongs in the academic philosophy section. It does belong there, but it should also be found in the self-help section. It does not offer any magical slogans that will advance your career or improve your love life. But it is one of the finest self-help books ever written.

The reason is that its basic approach is not to tell you what to do in specific circumstances, but to set out the qualities it is good to have, so that you will act well in good times and in bad. These qualities are the virtues, but one of the best features of the book is that “virtue” (arete in Greek) has a wider meaning than is normal today. It covers all sorts of excellence, both moral and intellectual, including courage, liberality, technical skill and wisdom. This broad meaning frees our minds from the tradition that sees poverty and humility as admirable. But the precise and detailed nature of Aristotle’s comments on virtues saves us from the flabby modern alternative of “Look at me, I’m awesome!”

And what is the goal? Aristotle calls it eudaimonia, often carelessly translated as “happiness”, but better rendered as “flourishing”. We should seek to exercise our specifically human talents to the full. It is no surprise that he concludes that the best life is one like his, the life of a philosopher. But we can admire his inspirational message even if we do not agree with him on that point. And we can admire it even more because it is conveyed in plain and sober prose, without any flights of fancy.

We need to make allowances when reading a book from so long ago. We no longer accept slavery, or the subordination of women to men. But the Ethics remains one of the most influential books on how to live that has ever been written. Read it, and be influenced.

Richard Baron is a philosopher who works in London.