In the Western world, only since the mid-18th century has it been possible to discuss ethical questions publicly without referring to Christianity. Modern thinking about morality, which assumes that gods do not exist, or at least do not intervene, is in its infancy. But the ancient Greeks and Romans elaborated robust philosophical schools of ethical thought for more than a millennium, from the first professed agnostics such as Protagoras (fifth century BCE) to the last pagan thinkers. The Platonists’ Academy at Athens was not finally closed down until 529 CE, by the Emperor Justinian.
That longstanding tradition of moral philosophy is an invaluable legacy of ancient Mediterranean civilisation. It has prompted several contemporary secular thinkers, faced with the moral vacuum left by the decline of Christianity since the late 1960s, to revive ancient schools of thought. Stoicism, founded in Athens by the Cypriot Zeno in about 300 BCE, has advocates. Self-styled Stoic organisations on both sides of the Atlantic offer courses, publish books and blogposts, and even run an annual Stoic Week. Some Stoic principles underlay Dale Carnegie’s self-help classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948). He recommended Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to its readers. But authentic ancient Stoicism was pessimistic and grim. It denounced pleasure. It required the suppression of emotions and physical appetites. It recommended the resigned acceptance of misfortune, rather than active engagement with the fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving. It left little room for hope, human agency or constructive repudiation of suffering.
Less familiar is the recipe for happiness (eudaimonia) advocated by Aristotle, yet it has much to be said for it. Outside of philosophy departments, where neo-Aristotelian thinkers such as Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse have championed his virtue ethics as an alternative to utilitarianism and Kantian approaches, it is not as well known as it should be. At his Lyceum in Athens, Aristotle developed a model for the maximisation of happiness that could be implemented by individuals and whole societies, and is still relevant today. It became known as ‘peripatetic philosophy’ because Aristotle conducted philosophical debates while strolling in company with his interlocutors.
The fundamental tenet of peripatetic philosophy is this: the goal of life is to maximise happiness by living virtuously, fulfilling your own potential as a human, and engaging with others – family, friends and fellow citizens – in mutually beneficial activities. Humans are animals, and therefore pleasure in responsible fulfilment of physical needs (eating, sex) is a guide to living well. But since humans are advanced animals, naturally inclining to live together in settled communities (poleis), we are ‘political animals’ (zoa politika). Humans must take responsibility for their own happiness since ‘god’ is a remote entity, the ‘unmoved mover’ who might maintain the universe’s motion but has neither any interest in human welfare, nor any providential function in rewarding virtue or punishing immorality. Yet purposively imagining a better, happier life is feasible since humans have inborn abilities that allow them to promote individual and collective flourishing. These include the inclinations to ask questions about the world, to deliberate about action, and to activate conscious recollection. [Continue reading…]