British professor Edith Hall is inspired by the ideas of Aristotle. In the fourth century BC, this Greek philosopher was already studying themes such as happiness and friendship.
In your book Aristotle’s way you refer to the Greek philosopher as our new happiness guru. What is happiness according to Aristotle?
“First of all, we do tend to use the word ‘happy’ a great deal. In the common understanding, it’s often used to mean a very temporary thing, that lasts for a few hours. You feel happy because something nice has happened, like you buy a Happy Meal or you go out for a few hours and feel happy. In ancient Greek, there were also words for that feeling, but they were more like pleasure, ecstasy or bliss. And then there’s also the important difference between subjective and objective happiness. When people are looking at you from the outside, they might say you’ve lived a happy life. That means that, for instance, you didn’t have any bad accidents, financial problems or poverty. I often use the example of Queen Victoria: She lived to be 90 years old, all her children outlived her, she did a good job at what she was doing. But she may have been subjectively absolutely miserable.”
So what kind of happiness is Aristotle talking about?
“Aristotle was the first philosopher to enquire into subjective happiness — not short-term, subjective happiness, like pleasure, but happiness in the long term. His project was: How to achieve true inner peace and purpose, which is self-generated and not dependent on any outside factors. He developed a sophisticated, humane program for becoming a happy person, and it remains valid to this day. Aristotelian ethics encompass everything modern thinkers associate with subjective happiness: self-realization, finding ‘a meaning’, and the ‘flow’ of creative involvement with life, or ‘positive emotion’. Becoming subjectively happy as an individual, Aristotle insisted, is your unique and momentous responsibility. It is also a great gift; it is within most people’s power, regardless of their circumstances, to decide to become happier. And the way that you do that is by deciding to become the best possible version of yourself, giving that there will always be limitations. You accept that and you may have bad luck. But you have to make every bit of difference you can make to be the best possible version of yourself.”
- Read the full interview with Edith Hall in issue 32.
Text Sjoukje van de Kolk Illustration Valesca van Waveren