Aristotle comtemplating a bust of Homer by Rembrandt

How Aristotle can change your life

The Ancient philosopher has much to teach us today
August 20, 2018

It was Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life which started the publishing trend for taking a famous author and mining their work for wisdom. While this approach can seem contrived with some authors, with Edith Hall’s subject, Aristotle, the form is a perfect fit. The Ancient Greek philosopher, the student of Plato and tutor of Alexander the Great, continually returned to the idea that the cultivation of a practical ethical life was the surest route to happiness or Eudaimonia.

But as Hall, a classics professor at King’s College, London, shows us, Eudaimonia isn’t something passive: “it requires positive input,” and the development of self-conscious habit. Split into 10 chapters, whose subjects range from decision-making to community living to coping with mortality, Hall’s book is an entertaining and instructive look at what a modern Aristotelian life might look like. Although hugely influential on Muslim and Christian philosophers, his strictures go beyond religion and don’t require any belief in the afterlife. And while he thought women were defective versions of men and defended slavery, as nearly all men of his age and class did at the time, if alive today, says Hall, he would be open to persuasion that he was wrong on both counts.

His basic principle is to approach each moral decision in a pragmatic rather than a utopian frame of mind: ideals are less important than results. His down-to-earth attitude was also evinced by his work on the natural world, where he prized observation above theory. (Hall says if Aristotle were alive today, he would be presenting nature programmes in the mould of David Attenborough.) Hall’s book draws examples from popular culture (she has a fondness for films from the 1980s) and draws in real-life examples from her own and her friends’ lives. This lends a conversational tone that suits her subject—recreating the congenial atmosphere of an Athenian symposium.

Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life by Edith Hall (Bodley Head, £20)