How to live a life that is fulfilling and meaningful? A question asked probably for eons. Ancient Greek philosophers were one of the earliest thinkers to answer this question. Their writings passed down for a couple thousand years remain relevant today for living a flourishing life.
Two of the most important ancient Greek philosophers were Plato and Aristotle. What they wrote over 2,400 years ago have radically shaped western civilization into what it is today. So whether you know or don’t know their philosophies, there is no doubt that these two great thinkers have had a significant impact on our way of life even today.
The Greek philosophers called a flourishing life eudaemonia– a branch of ethics in philosophy that deals with well-being as the ultimate good for people. It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the study of happiness.
I say mistakenly because these Greek philosophers had a very different concept of what is happiness than our modern viewpoint. Today, happiness is portrayed as a state of mind at any given moment, more or less a subjective mindset. We largely have a utilitarian view of happiness–maximizing pleasures while minimizing pain.
To Aristotle and Plato, they equated happiness with a more a objective mindset–not merely as a transient state of mind. Happiness is a result of human flourishing. In other words, eudaemonia is our well-being broadened out throughout life in which we live to our full capacity. In essence, a life well lived.
The Athenian Solon said, “Call no man happy until he is dead,” suggesting that happiness pertains, in its broadest sense, to the full course of one’s life.
Plato was a student of the great philosopher, Socrates. Although many people called Socrates “the first great philosopher,” he actually left no writings.
After Socrates was put to death by the state for corrupting the youth of Athens and committing blasphemy against the gods, Plato became his successor. Plato wrote many books in philosophy, and he used Socrates as the main character of his dialogues.
Plato believed all human beings naturally desired eudaemonia through moral thought and actions by way of virtue. The Greeks called virtue “aretê”- roughly translated to meaning excellence. Virtue and happiness were inextricably linked, such that it would be impossible to have one without the other. In other words, a person who has developed skills of excellence in thought and their actions would achieve eudaemonia.
To Plato, well-being did not depend on external goods, but how we use these external goods (whether wisely or unwisely). Individuals who simply aspire for great wealth, fame, and power for its own sake were misguided. To Plato, a life well lived was achieved by the pursuit of higher knowledge and man’s social obligation to the common good.
How does one develop “aretê” or virtue according to Plato?
“the unexamined life is not worth living,”– Socrates in Plato’s Apology
Plato wrote in the book Apology that when Socrates was on trial, he was asked why he questions everything? Socrates replied very simply, because “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Socrates taught his students to examine everything that you hold of value. Don’t simply take something of value as the truth until you examine it or question it through rigorous reason. To Plato, the person who lives his days without reflecting on his life or his surroundings will not live a flourishing life.
As humans we have a brain that can reason. We are all designed with the ability reflect upon what we believe, to seek the truth, so we could either defend or disregard commonly held beliefs. In turn, we become wiser and more likely to live a flourishing and meaningful life.
Self-mastery of reason over desires.
In Plato’s Republic, man is good when he uses reason to control his actions and turns bad when he discards reason. A man that ignores reason will become overcome by unchecked desires that can have detrimental consequences. By mastering our use of reason, we can better obtain harmony and self-control. Similarly as said in the Apology, Socrates’ call to live examined lives allows our reasoning abilities to direct our thoughts and actions instead of relying simply on our impulses which can often lead us astray. Instead, by controlling our stubborn appetites through reason and acting accordingly for the common good, one would obtain eudaemonia.
Live by four cardinal virtues
In Plato’s Republic, four virtues lead to harmony in an ideal society. These four cardinal virtues were: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Although in the Republic, the cardinal virtues are known more as a political philosophy, these virtues are also applicable for individuals to possess.
In the Republic, Plato argued that wisdom of the state should reside in the class of rulers which he called the “guardians”. The guardians rule by counseling the other classes and themselves. To have wise rulers, the guardians should be well-educated thinkers. But an ideal guardian would not be an obnoxious know it all. To Plato, a sage person has great humility in admitting “I know nothing at all”.
Individuals can possess the virtue of wisdom by pursuing a life of learning fueled by curiosity. Being a lifelong learner allows you to possess new skills and develop more in-depth knowledge. In turn, this allows the higher potential for efficacy and self-mastery leading to a more fulfilling life.
Courage is a cardinal virtue because a harmonious society is a just society, and justice requires communities to have courageous individuals who stand up for what is right and to take a stance against oppression. Being brave is also essential for individuals when facing challenges. As Socrates said, “It is better to make a mistake with full force of your being than to carefully avoid mistakes with a trembling spirit.”
Temperance (self-restraint) is essential in society because it protects against corruption and chaos. States that fail to place rulers with temperant virtues will risk a country that end ups in turmoil. A lack of temperance in a leader is a set up for rampant corruption and a lack of cooperation. Similarly, in individuals, those who lack self-restraint will not achieve a flourishing life because their excesses and lack of self-regulation will lead to a life full of vice and chaos. It is no surprise that modern psychology research finds that people who lack temperance have worse academic performance, more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, are more likely to have mental illnesses, and have more conflicts in relationships.
Aristotle was born in 384 B.C., and by age 18 he became a student in Plato’s Academy in Athens. Aristotle would also ponder his thoughts on a flourishing life, and he argued that Eudaimonia is the highest good for human beings.
Aristotle reasoned everything in this world has a function. A knife has a function to cut. A flower has a function to grow and pollinate. An animal has a function to grow and breed.
Although humans like animals are also meant to grow and breed, Aristotle reasoned that what separates humans from animals is that we have a “human essence”. That is we are a rational and social animal, so living a good human life means seeking to know and acting rightly with others.
How does one become more virtuous according to Aristotle?
Don’t just seek knowledge, apply it
Aristotle, like Plato, claimed that one function humans have is that through reason we seek knowledge about the world which we live in. He called this an “intellectual virtue” because humans flourish by gaining new knowledge (e.g., through scientific discovery).
However, Aristotle made an important distinction in the pursuit of knowledge and human flourishing.
There are two types of knowledge: One being theoretical or the nature of principles. The other is practical knowledge–that is knowledge of applying these principles.
So by learning about the nature of things, we can learn to manipulate nature to improve our lot in life. In our modern times, this is the basis of scientific discovery and the application of scientific knowledge to improve the human condition. As an oncologist, I know learning about the nature of cancer is important, but I contribute to a patient’s well-being by applying my learned knowledge. In life, knowledge is important, but it is the actual doing that leads to human flourishing.
“Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.”
Develop a good character
The second virtue of the good life is the virtue of character. Aristotle reasoned in his book Nichomachean Ethics that possessing intellectual virtues alone were not enough to achieve eudaimonia. The good life requires one not to just think about what is good, but to act rightly. And we act rightly by developing a virtuous character. Therefore the virtue of character is a skill that we learn by doing, not just by reading about it. Going back to the chemotherapy example, you can guess that just because a doctor has the intellectual knowledge and know how for giving chemotherapy, he must also act rightly when giving it. A good doctor would not give these drugs to those he doesn’t know if it will help (eg, the side effects of chemotherapy can cause great harm). This virtue is in fact a first principle taught to doctors in training: “first do no harm”.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”– Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics)
Aristotle believed that individuals who achieve eudaimonia would possess eleven virtue traits. These virtuous traits would fall within what he called “the golden mean” between the vices of excess and deficiency. For example, in a situation of fear, the virtuous person would not act excessively by rashness (i.e., moving recklessly) or deficiently by cowardice. Instead, the virtuous person would respond with courage doing what is right.
Another example would be in a conversation with someone. The virtuous person would possess wit but not so much that he looks like a buffoon. Alternatively, he would not come off as boorish or rude.
In essence, by possessing and acting out on our intellectual virtues and moral virtues, a person would achieve eudaimonia.
Like Plato, Aristotle too rejected the notion that external goods in of itself–having material wealth, honor, or having good looks– would lead to a good life.
Nevertheless, he said that having these external goods are important. For example, one who is born in the right state that is not oppressive with resources for its people will make it easier to achieve eudaimonia. Aristotle believed that by being born in the right state, they would have laws that help improve the characters of individuals.
Aristotle’s political philosophy for the good life also differed from that of Plato. Aristotle believed that leaders should have the intellectual virtue and moral virtue so that they could help direct their citizens into doing what is right. These leaders should have the knowledge and skill on how to develop an individual’s character. Leaders should understand that most people acting wrongly either though viciousness or weakness, or they act to satisfy misguided impulses.
The goal of the state is to pass laws that help develop good habits, and in turn, people will become more virtuous. Therefore, an individual will not only want to do what is right, but does it because they will derive pleasure and happiness from those actions. Aristotle political philosophy brings up an interesting point for social justice regarding those who are less fortunate so they too can live a good life. What obligations does that state have and what laws does it need to pass so people can live a good life? As many of us know, this question is still being argued and debated today in our modern society.