So Aristotle and the Stoics have competing versions of the Good Life, which I want to discuss, to show that they’re both incomplete, but sort of work together.
Aristotle says that the Good Life involves the inner state of contemplating truth and attaining the virtues; and certain external states as well: having health, friends, a family, property and citizenship of a free state. Because the Good Life involves external things, that means it is hostage to fortune. Bad luck can mean your family dies, you’re exiled from your friends, your house burns down, your state is conquered, and so on. That’s just the way it is, says Aristotle. The Good Life is fragile, and vulnerable to tragedy. If shit happens, well, sucks to be you, there’s nothing you can do about it, you’re simply miserable and incomplete – not a person so much as a shadow.
You’d be amazed how many modern people accept this Aristotelian version of the Good Life: Martha Nussbaum, Jonathan Haidt, Martin Seligman, and many other Neo-Aristotelians. But to me, it’s a pretty miserable and even nihilist position. If the Good Life is completely hostage to Fortune, then that means, in effect, that we don’t live in a good universe, where good people can live good lives even in terrible conditions. It means we live in a universe closer to that of King Lear, where the gods care nothing for us, where we’re at the mercy of fickle fortune, and all we can hope for is that we have the good fortune to get through life unscathed. It’s a philosophy that, to me, is completely inadequate to the rough and tumble of life – because the chances are that we are going to go through some shit in this life. For example, we might find ourselves a refugee, deprived of citizenship of a free country. How do we live, under such adverse circumstances? Aristotle is saying that it’s impossible for a refugee to live a Good Life. A refugee doesn’t really exist. They’re not a person, they’re a shadow. That’s obviously nonsense, isn’t it? One could still be a good refugee or a bad refugee. Virtue does not depend on a free state. You can still be virtuous even if your state has collapsed.
Basically, Aristotle only has a Plan A – what’s the perfect life. But he has no Plan B – what to do if life turns bad and fortune treats you roughly. The Stoics, of course, are very good on Plan B. In some ways, their whole philosophy is a preparation for those moments when fortune turns against you, and robs you of the externals you hold dear. They prepare for the worst by saying to themselves: ‘Because fortune can at any moment rob me of my external goods, I am not going to become attached to them. I will instead focus fully on what is in my control – my moral choice. That means that I can lead a Good Life even amid the most dire conditions – even in prison, or exile, or on the sick bed.’
Now many modern commentators have found this ridiculous. How could you possibly call being imprisoned or exiled or sick a Good Life? How could you aspire to be free of attachments and aversions, when modern psychology tells us that it is attachments that make us healthy and happy?
But history is full of examples of people who have been in truly dire situations, and who have nevertheless turned them to some good, by focusing on their moral choice, and preserving their dignity and moral freedom even when surrounded by evil. Think of Viktor Frankl in Auschwitz, or James Stockdale in the Hanoi Hilton, or Nelson Mandela in prison in apartheid South Africa. These people managed to preserve their moral freedom even amid adverse conditions. And they might even tell you that they were at their moral peak when in the worst circumstances. That’s what the Stoics mean when they say that the wise man can be happy even on the rack – because the moments when you are most under the cosh can be the moments when you most assert your spiritual freedom and moral power.
I think there is something to be said for trying to live by a combination of Aristotle and the Stoics’ philosophy. You follow Plan A – you try to be healthy, to have a loving family, to be well off, to live in a free society and to engage politically in that society. But you also train for Plan B, in the knowledge that fortune can turn against you and you may find yourself in evil times. And if that happens, you can still try to live the good life. It may not the the perfect life, it may not be a fortunate life, but it can still be a good life. Anyway, how good can a life really be, if everything is going your way? It’s when life is not going easily that you really see what virtues a person possesses.
Thanks to Dean Kakridas for the conversation yesterday, by the way, where we discussed some of these ideas.