In recent decades, self-help has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry, including endless books offering ways for us to improve ourselves—diets, exercise programs, helpful habits, new ways of thinking. While many of these approaches don’t seem promising, author and professor Edith Hall offers an intriguing angle to self-help in her new book, Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life. Rather than offering a new fad, Hall applies her expert knowledge of Aristotle’s ancient writings to our modern context and argues that adopting his philosophy will lead us to happiness.
Hall begins with the assumption that we all seek happiness but that we may not rightly understand what it is or how to achieve it. Though some would say happiness is based on physical well-being or experiencing pleasure, she suggests—drawing from Aristotle—that happiness is a psychological state that involves a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction about our lives. We achieve this state of happiness through virtue. She writes, “Aristotle believed that if you train yourself to be good, by working on your virtues and controlling your vices, you will discover that a happy state of mind comes from habitually doing the right thing” (6).
Individuals in Charge
Happiness is of central importance to Hall’s book and her understanding of Aristotle’s teaching. “According to him,” she writes, “the ultimate goal of human life is, simply, happiness” (23). There are innumerable ways people may seek happiness, but Hall’s drawn to Aristotle’s focus on individual agency.
Hall, the daughter of an ordained Anglican priest, explains that at age 13 she “lost [her] religion” as she struggled with “worshiping entities invisible and inaudible to [her] senses” (20). Leaving a worldview that put God in charge, she embraced Aristotle’s teaching, which “put[s] the individual in charge” (23). She observes that in a way, this approach makes the individual godlike.
That’s the crux of the appeal of Aristotle’s teaching and Hall’s application of it—since the garden of Eden, we’ve wanted to be like God; we’ve wanted to be God. So we’re drawn to books like Hall’s that advocate being true to ourselves, relying on ourselves, and loving ourselves. We like the idea that we can create our own happiness, that we can determine our own experience.
Since the garden of Eden, we’ve wanted to be like God; we’ve wanted to be God. So we’re drawn to books like Hall’s that advocate being true to ourselves, relying on ourselves, and loving ourselves.
Except when we can’t. With intellectual honesty, Hall discusses bad luck as a great threat to her approach. Removing God from her worldview means that “life is unfair and fate is not providential” (62). The individual is in charge to a degree, but there are forces of nature that the individual can’t control. So the primary hope of Hall’s approach is the premise that everyone can decide to be happy by acting virtuously, even in the face of bad luck.
Hall carefully explains the philosophical framework for Aristotle’s approach to living well by pursuing happiness, but she also stresses the importance of action. She applies his teaching to numerous aspects of daily life. She considers decision-making, communication, relationships, leisure, and even death, among other topics.
In this process, Hall spends a lot of time dealing with questions of what and how. What does happiness really mean? How can we achieve it? But largely absent is a meaningful engagement with why. She deals a bit with why virtue leads to happiness, but more foundational is the question: Why should we make happiness the goal of life? And why should we accept Aristotle’s teaching as authoritative?
We are, in fact, created to be happy and virtuous. We reflect God’s image and are the truest versions of ourselves when we’re both holy and happy.
She’s suggesting that we orient our entire lives (and our understanding of death) around a man and his teachings without explaining why he is worthy of such trust. If Hall is right, and this life is all there is, then it would be nice to have more than her word (expert though it is) telling us that Aristotle’s approach to life is the best one. And if Hall is wrong, and there is, in fact, life after death, there’s even more reason to get this right. There seems to be an implied respect for Aristotle because he’s largely regarded as wise, and his writings have stood the test of time. But to align our lives to his teaching in the way Hall does elevates him to godlike status, a status he didn’t claim.
Many of Aristotle’s teachings are wise, however, and we can see common grace woven through. Consider his focus on happiness and virtue. Question 22 of First Catechism, which we use with our children, asks, “In what condition did God make Adam and Eve?” Answer: “He made them holy and happy.” We are, in fact, created to be happy and virtuous. We reflect God’s image and are the truest versions of ourselves when we’re both holy and happy. Where Aristotle and Hall go wrong is in how we achieve this status. Hall devotes an entire chapter to self-knowledge and yet misses this crucial point—if we truly, honestly look into ourselves, we’ll find that our capacity for evil is much more pervasive than our capacity for good.
Though happiness and virtue are, indeed, meant to be foundational to our lives, we can’t achieve them on our own. We can’t make ourselves good. We must be made good by the God who is perfectly good. And he, not our goodness, will make us happy.
Hall tells us that ancient wisdom can change our lives, and she’s right. But there’s a wisdom much more ancient than Aristotle’s. We can follow a much wiser Teacher whose writings have stood the test of time and who did claim to be God. Aristotle’s way is one way among many that have been offered by human philosophers. Jesus is the Way.