Aristotle was a student of Plato’s at the Academy in Athens, who then became a tutor to Alexander the Great, before returning to Athens to set up his own philosophy school, called the Lyceum. Aristotle had an incredibly broad and curious mind, and wrote definitive works on physics, biology, ethics and psychology, politics, rhetoric and literary criticism – and those are just the works that survive. He was the greatest biologist of the ancient world (perhaps the greatest of all time). He would get the army of Alexander to send him back any interesting animal and plant specimens they encountered on their campaigns for him to dissect. What you find in his philosophy is a theory of everything: he builds his ethical and political philosophies on the foundation of a biological and psychological understanding of human nature and a physical and spiritual theory of the cosmos.
What is Aristotle’s theory of human nature?
According to Aristotle, each species has its particular nature, and the good life for that species is one that fulfills its nature. So he begins his ethical inquiry, in the Nichomachean Ethics, by asking what is the nature of man. He decides man has both a rational and an irrational system in his psyche, and that human nature also has a natural drive for human society (‘man is a political animal’), for knowledge, for happiness, and for God. The good life is a life that fulfils these natural drives, and directs them to their highest end. That’s what philosophy does: it uses our rational mind to guide the natural desires of our psyche to their highest fulfillment, which Aristotle calls eudaimonia, or flourishing. Philosophy, then, is the bridge between human nature in its raw and undeveloped form to human nature at its highest.
How exactly does philosophy cultivate our nature and lead us to eudaimonia?
It takes practice. Philosophy helps us to develop virtues, by which Aristotle means the right way to act in different situations. He didn’t think, as Plato did, that the virtues exist in some eternal and unchanging form in the divine realm. Rather, he thinks virtues exist in a ‘golden mean’ between excesses. So the virtue of courage, for example, exists in the golden mean between recklessness and timidity. The virtue of good humour exists in the golden mean between excessive solemnity and excessive buffoonery. Working out what the appropriate virtue is in different situations takes some theory, but it mainly takes a lot of practice, until your ethical philosophy has become habituated, and you naturally do the right thing at the right time. Aristotle compares this process to learning a musical instrument: initially it’s a lot of hard work to learn the scales and practice the finger-work, but eventually it becomes second nature. He suggests that, just as we can become musical virtuosos through practice, so too we can become virtuosos in living, through philosophy.
So all you need to achieve happiness and the good life is to know how to practice the virtues?
Aristotle certainly believed that the practice of the virtues is a very important part of the good life. But he differs from the Stoics and Socrates, who thought that virtue was entirely sufficient for the good and happy life (the Stoics even claimed that the wise man could be happy while being tortured, as long as he was virtuous). Aristotle thought you needed virtue for a good life, but you also needed a bit of luck. The good life consists not just in inner virtue, but also in certain external conditions, like good health, a loving family, a fulfilling career and a free society. If one is suddenly deprived of those things, it might become impossible to follow a good and happy life. His vision of the good life is more dependent on chance and fortune than the Stoics, who try to make themselves invulnerable to changes in fortune.
If I understand you right, the good life for the individual depends on the existence of the good society?
Yes, his vision of the good life is much more social and political than the vision of other ancient philosophers. Really, we should read his Ethics and his Politics as one continuous work, as the good life for the individual finds its fulfilment in political engagement. In both works, he argues that the good society will be one in which the citizens are enabled to achieve eudaimonia, or flourishing. Aristotle explored many different constitutional models, and their advantages and disadvantages for this over-arching goal of spiritual flourishing, and he decided the best constitution is democracy. In a democratic society, citizens are free to join together, to reason together, and to fulfill their rational, social and political natures.
There are moments of idealism in Aristotle, when he imagines a society joined together in friendship and in a sense of the common good. In such a society, the whole citizenship would be educated in philosophy, and joined together in philosophical practice and discussion. In some ways it’s an inspiring vision, although it’s also very interventionist: the state educates us all in a vision of the good life, then we all join together in this vision. But what if you disagree with the state’s vision of the good life? What if you don’t want your government to educate your children in their official definition of spiritual fulfilment? You can see how an Aristotelian society could be quite illiberal – and we shouldn’t forget that he thought only well-off Greek men should be considered citizens.
Just to go back a bit – we’ve talked about how Aristotle’s ethics and politics are built on the foundation of a biological and psychological theory.
Yes, that’s right.
So Aristotle builds the Ought of his ethics on the Is of his psychological theory?
Exactly. That’s the basic idea of virtue ethics: that the virtuous life ‘fits’ our nature and guides it to fulfillment or eudaimonia.
OK. So is there any modern scientific support for his psychological theories?
There is some. Firstly, there’s scientific support for the Socratic tradition in general from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT supports the ‘four steps’ of the Socratic tradition: we can know ourselves, we can change ourselves, we can create new habits of thinking, feeling and acting, and we can use philosophy to create more flourishing lives. Aristotle, like the other philosophers in the Socratic tradition, follows all those four steps.
More specifically, there is support for Aristotle’s theory of eudaimonia in the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) developed by two American psychologists, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Deci and Ryan illustrated, through a series of ingenious experiments, that humans are not necessarily as profit-motivated or pleasure-seeking as classical economists would have us believe, and that we are in fact often driven by the desire for meaning, engagement, mastery and transcendence. Their theories have since been taken up and brought to a wider audience by writers like Clay Shirky and Daniel Pink. They identify Aristotle as one of the progenitors of SDT.
Aristotle is also a clear influence on Positive Psychology, which developed out of CBT. Martin Seligman told me in an interview he was seeking to promote ‘what the Greeks called eudaimonia’. He has also said that Positive Psychology is “the social science equivalent of virtue ethics’. It’s an attempt to put Aristotle’s virtue ethics on a firm empirical foundation, so you can prove scientifically what ways of living lead to eudaimonia.
Positive Psychology has of course been hugely popular and successful…
Indeed. It’s attracted a great deal of media attention. And it’s also been taken up by governments, as I explore in the book. The US government, for example, paid Seligman $125 million to develop a resilience-training course for the US Army. The British government has also piloted Seligman’s resilience classes in UK schools. And the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, even sent a book on Positive Psychology to 200 world leaders, calling for them to make well-being their main policy goal in 2012! We’re also seeing governments all over the world start to measure ‘national well-being’ in an attempt to use the ‘science of well-being’ to guide public policy. So the ‘politics of well-being’ is becoming a major political phenomenon, with governments all over the world trying to enhance the well-being and flourishing of their citizens, just as Aristotle suggested.
What do you think of that?
I think we should be aware what we’re getting into. We’re going beyond liberalism, beyond the liberal idea that everyone should be free to pursue ‘our own good in our own way’, as John Stuart Mill put it in On Liberty. We’re moving instead to the idea that some ‘experts’ know best what well-being is, because they have proven, scientifically, what the good life is, and therefore governments have an obligation to impart this scientific knowledge to the masses, and to usher them down the path to mental, emotional and spiritual fulfillment. This is going beyond liberalism to something closer to Medieval Christianity (the last time Christian Aristotelianism was the dominant philosophy in Europe) but with the Medieval cleric replaced by the clipboard-wielding psychologist.
But your book suggests that aspects of Socratic philosophy have been ‘proven’, or at least supported, by evidence from psychotherapy. So shouldn’t governments impart that wisdom?
Yes, but we need to be careful about how much we claim has been proven by science, and how much governments can impose on their citizens without their consent.
In the book, I argue that there are four steps to the Socratic tradition. Step 1: We can know ourselves. Step 2: We can change ourselves. Step 3: We can create new habits of thinking, feeling and acting. Step 4: We can use philosophy to create more flourishing lives. I suggest that there is good evidence from CBT and other parts of psychology for Steps 1, 2 and 3. These steps really teach ‘thinking skills’ rather than moral values. They teach us how to drive our minds. I don’t have a problem with governments teaching these skills in schools or elsewhere – in fact, I think they should.
Step 4 is a bit more complicated, when you try and define exactly what makes a life ‘flourishing’, and what ‘well-being’ is. The philosophies of the Socratic tradition, including Aristotle’s philosophy, all take Step 4, but they all take it in a different direction. They have different theories of what constitutes the good life, what the meaning of life is, and what constitutes the good society. I don’t think science can prove that one particular version of Step 4 is objectively true, so if governments teach Step 4 (as I think they should) then they should teach the different directions that you can take Step 4, then let people decide for themselves what the meaning of their life is.
But doesn’t Positive Psychology also teach a pluralist model of well-being?
In theory, yes. In practice, if you look at how Positive Psychology is rolled out in schools or in the US Army, it’s very prescriptive and reductive. It makes far too bold claims for its empirical methods, like its insistence that it can scientifically measure a person’s ‘spiritual fitness’ by asking them a few questions in a questionnaire (as is claimed in the US Army’s resilience training programme). It tries to fit people into one automated technocratic model of well-being, and leaves no room for practical or ethical reasoning, or autonomy, or choice – which is a really important part of Aristotle’s ethical theory. Furthermore, some atheist soldiers have objected to being given a low score on their ‘spiritual fitness’, just because they’re not traditionally spiritual (see the ‘spiritual fitness score card’ above). Shouldn’t we be free to make up our own minds about the meaning of life, rather than being forced down a particular path?
So what’s the solution?
The solution, I think, is to try to find a balance between the Greeks’ idea of the good life, with liberalism’s insistence that we be free to choose our own version of the good. I’ve tried to show in the book how the Socratic Tradition offers some common values and ideas, while also offering several different visions of the good life, some of them theistic, others atheistic, some of them libertarian, others quite collectivist. I suggest that, if we want to teach or explore the good life, we explore and debate the different approaches to it, rather than trying to fit an entire country into one particular philosophy of the good life (which is a recipe for tyranny).
I suggest we combine a social scientific approach with a more humanities-driven approach, as I have tried to do in the book. That means teaching the evidence-based techniques for well-being, but also allowing room for reflection and open debate about values and goals. That’s what I try and do in the book, and what I think should be taught in schools, universities and beyond.
That’s all very well, but what has any of this to do with you walking the Camino?
Well, I start off the Aristotle chapter by talking about my experience walking the Camino de Santiago in 2010, and how it made me think of the Middle Ages, when Europe was united by one single philosophy – Christian Aristotelianism. There’s a part of us (well, of me anyway) that wonders what it would be like to live in a community where everyone shared the same values and the same idea of the goal of life, where we were all joined together in friendship. An idealistic vision of course, and a dangerous one politically.
But when I walked the Camino, I got a brief sense of such a life from walking with my fellow pilgrims, sharing a way of life with them for a month, and having the common geographical destination of Santiago de Compostela. It was a wonderful experience, anyway. I recommend it. It broke me out of my liberal isolation, briefly, and made me feel connected again. We miss that, all of us, that sense of connection. Liberalism has successfully walled the individual off from the interference of church and state, but the cost of that victory has been terrible loneliness.
OK…and how did you come to meet Jean Vanier?
Well, on the first night of walking the Camino, I met an Irish guy called Ciaran, who told me that, after finishing the pilgrimage, he was going to live and work in a community run by a man called Jean Vanier. Jean had once been an academic – in fact he wrote his dissertation on Aristotle – but had left academia to set up a community with two mentally handicapped men. And that led to more and more such communities being set up around the world – they’re called L’Arche or ‘Ark’ communities. Volunteers live with mentally disabled people, help them, and also learn from them – learn what it is to be human, to be vulnerable, to be loved. After I finished the Camino, I went to interview Jean (thanks to Ciaran who set it up).
Vanier made me realise what can be missing from the Socratic Tradition – that it over-emphasises self-sufficiency, and strength, and rationality. All of that is important, but so is love, and charity, and compassion, and admitting that we need other people. And he also made me realise that true flourishing can’t be achieved by some sort of mass automated national well-being programme. Philosophy is best practiced in small groups of people living together, helping each other, caring for each other. That’s what he’s built. You can watch the interview here.