How To Be Happy: The Question Answered 2000 years ago
Updated: Jan 30
by Gerardo Cuestas
In this modern age, where work will inevitably take over our lives, a period can come where we question our very purpose. A state of futility or a sense of purposelessness brought about by the endless possibilities of careers and problems to try and solve. I have recently seen one of my modules come under disapproval by fellow course-mates, concerning the study of ethics. Some condemn it for its possible subjectivity while others do so for its apparent lack of pragmatism. However, even the least pragmatic of ethical theories (in my opinion, virtue ethics) finds a way to be the most useful to an anxious mind. Of course, these feelings of being lost are natural and should be taken as learning tools. But to those of us who wish to be productive while retaining our emotional sanity, I believe the archaic works of the Greeks can help greatly.
I will bring forth this case of recognition and appraisal for the Greeks through the works of several literates and their applications of Hellenistic thought in their works.
“Consider your origins: you were not made to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” -Dante Alighieri
Aristotle placed much importance on virtues in order to achieve ‘eudaimonia’ (the Greek word for human flourishing). These virtues are seen as pinnacles of human nature, actions which are desirable and bring merit to those around us and to ourselves. To be prudent and just, to be strong and courageous, to be confident and open minded, to be forgiving and temperate. But to not just be these to achieve some egoistic goal, but for the very sake of trying to improve as a person. Aristotle also proposes that these virtues are not something we are born with, but rather something we learn from others and the experiences we encounter with that new-found knowledge. These habits we form gradually transform us into the apex of a man we were given the capacity to become.
“It is better to rise from life as from a banquet - neither thirsty nor drunken.” -Aristotle
In the studies of ethics, many criticize the guides put forth as they may seem too extreme to the everyday person. It may feel as if they require what is only seen from friars or monks in history and media. However, virtue ethics is unique, as it finds a way to provide a balance between pleasure and the ability to improve through self-demand. Unlike his predecessors, Aristotle does not believe in the platonic way of getting rid of all pleasures, as he sees value in a balance. An ethical “mean”, he calls it, which ensures the management of the many concurrent problems and dilemmas we have to deal with in our day to day lives. Trying to find what is best for the individual and society, trying to find what is best in the long and short term. Because, as cliche as it may sound, there is no way for us to understand something until we see both sides of the same coin. The issue is, we often tend to have lopsided tendencies, and always favor the easier path which brings to shorter, faster experiences of pleasure.
“Thought is the blossom; language the bud; action the fruit behind it.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
This is when I invite you, the reader, to follow in the steps of the stoics and lovers of knowledge. To seek self-improvement. This is something easier said than done. However, I would like to humbly suggest a possible solution. Simply: to think. To go back to basics. To remember the inception of the inspiration for studying whichever degree you are pursuing. Find the qualities, the virtues you admired as a child in those who practice the degree you wanted, the qualities and virtues you wanted to acquire when you grew up. This will refresh your sense of purpose and introduce a neoteric form of motivation.
“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it's impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”- Niccolo Machiavelli
Now, I know there will be several sceptics calling this reading romantic and/or too idealistic. But this can also be a pragmatic way of thinking. It is apparent to forget how many acclaimed leaders have followed in the steps of the Stoics or used the Greeks as their inspiration for living life and have brought great change to the world. The tale of Marcus Aurelius and Avidius Cassius comes to mind when detailing the stoics. The Roman emperor’s close companion and fellow general had betrayed him and taken present day Syria for himself. Avidius was killed by someone loyal to the emperor. Despite the clear rage Aurelius must have felt he kept his composure, visited the formerly usurped land and forgave his general’s supporters, which led to the Empire keeping the territory and flourishing instead of dealing with unnecessary bloodshed. This is but one of many examples of historical figures who chose to follow the ways of virtue and stoicism rather than those of short-term pleasure and hedonism and prospered for doing so. This is not to say that all these leaders had a sudden change of heart for the sake of morality (as even for an essay about ethics, that is too optimistic). However, even if these icons had used the value of the stoics and the ways of virtue without true belief in them, their successes speak to the functional nature of virtue ethics. When at a low point (or at any point really), what harm does it cause to have a change of strategy?
“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” -Edmund Burke
While we may not necessarily be emperors or conquerors, we all have our challenges. These challenges offer a crucible for those willing to brave it, a place to refine our intelligence, body and soul and come out stronger from it. Even a minimal change goes a long way to improve our life. If we could see the clear rewards that our hard work would bring, we would be further motivated to work that much more vigorously. So instead of looking at only the newest materialistic gains as our inspiration for hard work, look at the person you want to become through that heavy work as your endgame instead. To avoid redundant preaching, I refuse to advocate for any extremes, as I do not presuppose that is a necessary step in reformation, as even Aristotle advocated for a sense of balance in one’s life to awaken virtue. But we often forget to counterbalance the pleasures we give ourselves with long term development. Whenever someone brings up philosophy as impractical, remember this.