Who would’ve thought I’d be seeking the advice of a 2,400-year-old guy during a New Zealand lockdown.
Maybe you’re thinking I’m trying to make sense of the situation Down Under.
We’re the country some are laughing at. Certainly, our Aussie cousins are.
We shut down an entire country after finding a single case of Delta. Even 700 kilometres away on a separate island to the South, we couldn’t visit a dying loved one.
Neither could a Northland man step on the grounds of a cemetery to farewell his deceased wife. Northland has no community cases. He could go to the supermarket though.
No this isn’t about that. Our loss of humanity is for another day.
No, this is about something much closer to home. It’s about a word you may not have heard before “eudaimonia”.
It just so happens this word actually answers the humanity question anyhow.
It all began with my children. One in particular. My eldest. The only girl in a household of three younger brothers.
I’m thankful there’s another girl with me during lockdown. We’ve had to stick together, my daughter and I. We don’t do noise and we don’t kick balls inside 24/7. We don’t scream and yell. We need to get out together to escape sometimes.
It was on one of those trips out, this time a driving lesson to the supermarket. Lockdown’s silver lining… quiet roads and perfect conditions for learning to drive.
“I’m going to make you proud of me one day mum,” my daughter announced.
“But I am proud of you,” I responded. “No you aren’t, not yet.”
“You’re a good soul,” I said. It wasn’t enough.
And here’s where the 2,400 year-old guy came in.
His name is Aristotle and he turned up just when I needed him. I know he’s been cancelled because he’s sexist, white, male, racist and promotes slavery of course.
Inwardly I was praising my own father, a former Classical Studies teacher. All those years going on about ancient Greek philosophers was actually paying off.
I just thought it was all about the end of year Greek semi-clothed toga parties we had at home where we danced around the pool and threw each other in. My dad’s teenage students told me his classes had changed them. I was only 11 and didn’t understand.
But eudaimonia I do remember and have pondered on it over the years.
Like my dad, Aristotle used the Greek word eudaimonia a bit. Sometimes I wonder who came first, my dad or Aristotle.
I’ve heard a few different translations. It’s commonly translated into happiness but there’s way more to this word.
It means “good soul” or “good spirit”.
Unlike the everyday concept of happiness, eudaimonia is neither a state of mind, nor is it simply a feeling or experience.
According to this ancient Greek and his mates Socrates and Plato, it is a standard of happiness based on what it means to live life well.
And it has everything to do with another word “virtue”, not a word you hear a lot. Practicing virtue is how you get to the goal of eudaimonia.
My teenager’s angst at not feeling worthy yet because she’s not yet “accomplished” is not new. Her feelings of not having anything to be proud of is fairly common. In fact, it’s rife. If teenagers felt worthy and good about themselves, then our over-run mental health system would be redundant. Medicated teens are at an all-time high.
So what does this old guy have to teach teenagers?
Aristotle takes virtue to be central to a well-lived life, especially specific virtues like justice, courage, prudence(wisdom) and temperance. Sometimes we call them the cardinal or hinge virtues; well we used to.
Aristotle rejected Plato’s idea that to be completely virtuous one must train in sciences, mathematics and philosophy to find out what goodness was. No amount of education, money or success will make one happy and nor will it make me proud if you’re a mean spirited snitch or, dare I say, Karen (sorry Karen).
Virtue must be acquired by practising it. You can’t be made to live well, you can’t just aim for happiness — it’s a byproduct. Your character is the working harmony of all the virtues. It’s a decision and it’s work. It certainly isn’t going to be accomplished through fear or a sense of worthlessness. It’s about reaching out to objective truths, not looking inward.
Virtues have a moral base like our Maori word Mana.
Mana describes a great deal more than the commonly used word self-esteem. Self-esteem is purely psychological, whereas Mana has elements that recall heritage.
Sadly Aristotles’ eudaimonia and focus on courage has been replaced with words given a modern spin; self-determination, inclusion, and self-esteem. I don’t see these replacements helping teens.
The clincher is this. Aristotle said, “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external gods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.”
Courage, not safety, was the mother of all virtues. All the others depended on it according to the old Greek guy.
“So my girl, I’ve seen your courage, work on it. I’m proud of you. How this 2,400 year-old guy of courage relates to lockdowns and keeping loved ones separate, you work it out.”
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