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Festival of Ideas

Ancient Wisdom for a Sceptical Age Edith Hall and Antonia Macaro

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Can the ancient philosophies offer any guidance for life in the twenty-first century? Edith Hall and Antonia Macaro believe they can.

Hall advocates Aristotle’s Way, a path to human flourishing built on evidence-based reason. Macaro also draws on ideas in Buddhism and classical Stoicism, which have strikingly similar ideas about a life of unattachment to worldly goods.

In discussion with Julian Baggini, Hall and Macaro draw out the lessons to be learned as well as asking if there are some out-of-date ideas that need to be ditched. Can and should we pick and mix or do we have to accept or reject Aristotelianism, Buddhism or Stoicism lock, stock and barrel?

Audience Member Review

Written by Laura Gallagher

Antonia Macaro and Edith Hall are in themselves excellent advertisements for their respective philosophies.

Representing Aristotle, that “most cheery” of ancient philosophers, Hall is likely to have converted a good proportion of the audience to Aristotle’s Way with her irrepressible exuberance, while Macaro, lucid and unflappable, will have netted the rest with the promise of achieving More Than Happiness with a little Stoic and early Buddhist help.

Both Hall’s Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life and Macaro’s More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age signpost pathways to a happiness that is more than just a pleasurable sensation. Aristotle’s secular ethics, which recognise that humans are animals – albeit very special moral animals who can plan ahead as well as “activate deliberate recollection” – do not ask us to give up our worldly attachments, the pleasures of the flesh or even emotions like anger, but only to seek the right balance in all things. For example, a person entirely without anger is, in Hall’s words, “a dud moral agent”, while too much anger is detrimental to relationships. And “the whole of life”, wrote Aristotle, is “with loved ones.”

Aristotelian happiness, or eudaimonia, involves not only well-being but well-doing. Or, more precisely, true well-being is impossible without well-doing. Striving to be the best version of oneself, to fulfil one’s potential and develop virtue, is key. One of the highest goods is a good friendship – but in order to be able to enjoy a true friendship one must be able to trust, and one can only trust if one is trustworthy. (How can we believe that others are motivated by altruism unless we are motivated by it ourselves?) Cultivating the habit of “Doing The Right Thing”, therefore, is essential for eudaimonia. It’s also essential for society: if everyone practised virtue ethics we would all be better off. Systems of power should be regularly revised, says Aristotle, and the inequality in wealth should never be greater than 5:1, or misery and rebellion will result.

It was difficult, in the face of Hall’s enthusiasm, not to agree that Aristotle was the “most cheery” of the philosophers up for consideration. Macaro, with Buddhists and Stoics, starts from the position that life is suffering. She quotes the Buddha:

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering.

While she may not actually believe in the Buddhist notion of Nirvana in a metaphysical sense, Macaro does think that both Buddhism and Stoicism can help us to suffer less. The daily practice of meditation, for instance; trying not to be too attached to the material things or fleeting prizes we may lose; achieving Buddhist “equanimity”, or the Stoic “smooth flow of life.” Here too, living ethically is key: in Stoic philosophy, “life in accordance with virtue.”

At base, says Macaro, she is also “an Aristotelian” and therefore cannot disagree with much of what Hall has to say; Hall, however, doesn’t hesitate to disagree quite vociferously with much of what Macaro offers. She rejects the notion that there is anything admirable in facing death – our own, or that of loved ones – with detachment or equanimity: “Aristotle thinks death is terrible”, and to pretend otherwise is a disservice to life and love. The loss of loved ones is terrible: the best we can do is visit them in the archives of recollection. The prospect of our own death is terrible: the best we can do is “think constructively about our lives” as “projects”. In place of equanimity she preaches Aristotle’s “magnanimity”: the aim is not to be indifferent to suffering but to embrace humanity, suffering and all.

In fairness to Macaro, she also parts ways with Buddhism and Stoicism when it comes to human relationships. “Complete equanimity requires a degree of detachment from the things of the world – including people – of which I’m not really capable,” she confesses. And, a psychotherapist, she does not exactly recommend the suppression of emotion to the degree idealised by Stoics, who condone only “calm emotions.” And “what they call ‘calm emotions’ are not really emotions”, she adds. Nevertheless, she believes that we can “extricate the good things, the things we can use” from their writings, without having to adopt what is “outmoded” or uncongenial.

She may be right; I don’t deny that elements of Buddhist and Stoic thought, which in Macaro’s words diagnose the human condition like a disease, may help people to manage the symptoms of suffering. But I remain wary of philosophies based on the rejection of this life. Don’t they, like the major religions, teach a kind of contempt of human life? What do Buddhism and Stoicism have to say about the glory of this life, and this world?

“Seeds of divinity are scattered in human bodies”, Seneca said; “if a good gardener takes them in hand, the seedlings resemble their source and grow up equal to the parent plant.” A beautiful turn of phrase, and it does sound encouraging, as though there might be something worthwhile in humanity after all; but when growing up equal to the parent plant involves renouncing all but the calmest of emotions, what, actually, is left of humanity?

At one point I found myself wondering if the problem with Stoicism and Buddhism isn’t that, rather like the Remain campaign, they build their case on the avoidance of what is undesirable, rather than on the attainment of what is desirable – and realisable. Don’t get attached because attachment is painful; don’t be ambitious because failure is painful: these are negative rather than positive aims, idealising an escape from the human condition rather than the shaping of it.

And yet, the latest models of Buddhism and Stoicism are popular. Mindfulness is all the rage – much more so than Aristotle’s way. Could this be because the latter offers no quick fixes to pain and no universally applicable set of rules for making value judgments? As Hall puts it, Aristotelian thought teaches that “each situation and dilemma requires detailed engagement with its nitty-gritty particulars”. It takes more effort to work out how much anger is appropriate in a given situation than to accept the rule that anger is always wrong. It is harder to analyse and navigate for oneself the difficult emotions that arise from attachment to others than to dismiss them as the painful folly that arises from attachment to others.

There are other reasons that Aristotle isn’t everyone’s favourite philosopher. He did think that enslaving other (in his opinion less-civilised) peoples was just, and that “the relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled” (Politics I). Hall, in Aristotle’s defence, points out that “there is not a single surviving voice” from antiquity that rails against slavery, so “picking on him” for this is disingenuous. She also argues that he holds maternal love to be the model of altruism, and that if he spent five minutes with Macaro and her he’d revise his ideas about women and appoint them heads of the Lyceum.

But if we are to be wary of philosophies based on the contempt of all that is human, we cannot blithely embrace philosophies based on the contempt of some humans. Aristotle is too comfortable with relations of dominance and subordination for my liking. And yet, once it is accepted that other peoples and women are every bit as endowed with humanity as were the wealthy, educated men of Ancient Greece, we do have a system of thought that allows for the celebration of the human animal, and that strives for greater flourishing and justice in this life. If we must turn to ancients for wisdom, we could do worse. Alternatively, we could put in a little more effort and work it out for ourselves; Aristotle would probably have approved of that.

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