How to live a life that is fulfilling and meaningful is a question asked probably for eons. Ancient Greek philosophers were one of the first to answer this question in their writings. Their writings passed down for a couple thousand years remain relevant today on how to live a flourishing life.
What the Greek philosophers called a flourishing life was called eudaemonia– a branch of ethics in philosophy that deals with well-being as the ultimate good for people. It is mistakenly referred to as the study of happiness in philosophy.
But the Greek philosophers had a very different concept of what is “happiness” than what we popularly refer to today. Today, happiness is portrayed as a state of mind at any given moment, and it is subjective. We attribute happiness to pleasures and the absence of pain.
Many Greek philosophers disagreed with that notion. They saw happiness not merely as a transient state of mind. Instead, it is well-being broadened out throughout life. In essence, eudaimonia is a life well lived. The Athenian Solon said, “Call no man happy till he is dead,” suggesting that happiness pertains, in its broadest sense, to the full course of one’s life.
Two of the most important ancient Greek philosophers were Plato and Aristotle. Their writings from 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.
Plato was born in 427 B.C. He was a student of Socrates. Later on, Plato would go on to be the teacher of Aristotle. Although many people called Socrates “the first great philosopher,” he 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 by moral thought and actions by possessing virtue. The Greeks called virtue “aretê”- roughly translated to meaning excellence. In other words, a person who has developed skills of excellence in his actions, and acts in a way that is good will achieve eudaemonia.
To Plato, well-being does not depend on external goods, but how we use these external goods (whether wisely or unwisely). Individuals who aspired for great wealth, fame, and power for its own sake were misguided. Virtue and happiness were inextricably linked, such that it would be impossible to have one without the other.
How does one become more virtuous 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 always questions everything? Socrates replied famously 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 gets up in the morning, goes to work, comes home watches TV, goes to bed, all without reflecting on his day will not live a good life.
Because humans were given a brain that could reason, we are all designed with the ability reflect upon what we believe, to seek the truth, so we could either defend or disregard our beliefs. In turn, we would become wiser allowing us to live a good 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 bad when he discards reason becoming overcome by unchecked desires. By mastering our use of reason, a person will obtain harmony, calm, and self-control. Similarly as said in the Apology, Socrates’ call to live examined lives allowed our reasoning abilities to direct our thoughts and actions instead of relying on our impulses. Therefore we would make wiser choices. Plato concluded that ultimately by controlling our stubborn appetites through reason and acting accordingly for the good of the community helps achieve eudaimonia.
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 must be well educated and knowledgeable. But an ideal guardian would not be an obnoxious know it all. Although a legitimate criticism of the Republic’s “ruling class” is that it can be a set up for tyranny, Socrates warned in the Republic that 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.
According to the Republic, courage is a cardinal virtue because a harmonious society is a just society, and justice requires communities to have courageous individuals who stand up or speak up for what is right when there is opposition or 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.”
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. Aristotle concluded 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?
Aristotle 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). There were two types of knowledge according to Aristotle: fundamental truths or principles of nature, and knowledge from applying these principles.
“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.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”– Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics)
Aristotle said that intellectual virtues could be taught, but the virtue of character required an individual to act it out to make it a habit. If you do the right things over and over, you will develop and possess these virtuous traits. They become an ingrained part of your character.
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 the 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 its people 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.