HOW TO FLOURISH: An Ancient Guide to Living Well - Aristotle

Susan S. Meyer

Princeton (2023) h/b 302pp £14.99 (ISBN 9780691238623)

HOW TO DO THE RIGHT THING: An Ancient Guide to Treating People Fairly – Seneca

Robert A. Kaster

Princeton (2023) h/b 266pp £14.99 (ISBN 9780691238654)

These two volumes are the 30th and 31st in the Princeton ‘Ancient Guide to ...’ series, published in volumes with the Latin or Greek on the left-hand side and translation on the right, marginally bigger than Loebs but much easier to read with far fewer words to the page. This series is dominated by Cicero (eight volumes); with these volumes there are now five Senecas and three Aristotles.

The Aristotle selection is the work of Susan Sauvé Meyer, professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. There are 8 chapters, each one representing a book or books of his extremely important Nicomachean Ethics (NE), a treatise on what makes us happy. M. analyses the topic under the headings of the Goal of Life; Building Character; Taking Responsibility; Virtue and Vice in Action; Virtues for a Thinking Person; Losing Control; Friendship and the Good Life; and How We Flourish. M. regrets she has been unable to do no more than briefly summarise the long section on Justice, but the book is probably fat enough already. What it is not, however, is forbidding. M. is to be congratulated on a superb achievement.

Here Aristotle is discussing whether man is responsible for his own actions or not, and says that it is all up to his personal hexis (root meaning ‘possession’, from ἔχω ‘I have’) i.e. ‘character/qualities/mentality/values’ (‘disposition’ as M. translates it), and that disposition is formed by a man’s behaviour: it is a matter of practice. He goes on:

εἰ δέ τις λέγοι ὅτι πάντες ἐφίενται τοῦ φαινομένου ἀγαθοῦ, τῆς δὲ φαντασίας οὐ κύριοι, ἀλλ᾽ ὁποῖός ποθ᾽ ἕκαστός ἐστι, τοιοῦτο καὶ τὸ τέλος φαίνεται αὐτῷ: εἰ μὲν οὖν ἕκαστος ἑαυτῷ τῆς ἕξεώς ἐστί πως αἴτιος, καὶ τῆς φαντασίας ἔσται πως αὐτὸς αἴτιος …

There it is, in all its objective, male, 3rd person singular glory. But note how S. translates it:

‘Suppose someone objects that we all pursue what appears to us to be good, but are not in control of the experience—that the sort of person you are determines how the goal appears to you. Well, if we are responsible in a way for forming our dispositions, we are responsible in a way for how the good appears to us’. 

Farewell, male third persons; welcome you, we and us—wherever possible.

The result—as approachable, humane and personal an Aristotle as one could hope for—is a triumph and, combined with a judicious selection of passages that sustain and clarify the argument without getting bogged down in detail, makes this translation of passages from NE a very great success.

But however clearly translated, Aristotle still requires close attention. M. not only ensures continuity of argument by summarising at each stage what has had to be left out, but also supplies en route clear definitions of important Aristotelian words and ideas, which she collects and relates together at the back of the book. For example, instead of translating eudaimonia as ‘flourishing’, which most people now do, she reverts to ‘happiness’, explaining that ‘flourishing’ is the outcome of happiness. The great man has never been made more comprehensible, though whether we will agree with his conclusion is a good question: ‘The result is that the activity of god, exceptional in its blessedness, is theoretical thinking [roughly, deduction] and the human activity most akin to it will make us happiest’. But he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Robert Kaster, emeritus professor of classics and Kennedy Foundation Emeritus Professor of Latin at Princeton, has done an equally admirable job with Seneca’s guide to treating people fairly. His challenge is not so much following a complicated argument as choosing the most relevant passages out of Seneca’s vast body of often rather indigestible work. It is hard to think of anyone better equipped for the job.

In his introduction, K. describes how, for the Stoic philosopher, human beings are ‘exceptional in two ways: they alone have a share in the Divine Reason that governs the universe, and because of that share they alone cannot consider physical well-being to be their final good. For human beings, the final good is virtue’ [defined as] ‘the mind’s consistent and unceasing exercise of reason as it makes true judgements and right choices in every circumstance’. As K. insists, this does not come naturally but demands work in the shape of cultivating a ‘large mind’ (magnus animus cf. ‘magnanimity’), which he defines as ‘the quality that ensures (among other things) that they always give others exactly what they deserve ... and are therefore always fair’.

Here is a sample from his text and translation:

Doceat me quam sacra res sit iustitia alienum bonum spectans, nihil ex se petens nisi usum sui. Nihil sit illi cum ambitione famaque: sibi placeat. Hoc ante omnia sibi quisque persuadeat: me iustum esse gratis oportet. Parum est. Adhuc illud persuadeat sibi: me in hanc pulcherrimam virtutem ultro etiam inpendere iuvet; tota cogitatio a privatis commodis quam longissime aversa sit. Non est quod spectes quod sit iustae rei praemium: maius in iusto est. 

‘Teach me what a sacred thing is the fairness that looks to another’s good, seeking only to be of service, having no truck with ambition and fame, content with itself. Let us each be convinced of this above all: it is right to be fair without reward. But that is too little: let us each be further persuaded even to take pleasure in this most beautiful virtue at a cost to ourselves, with all our thoughts removed as far as possible from personal advantage. There is no reason to consider what a fair reward for fair behaviour might be: the greater reward lies in fairness itself.’

Drawing widely on Seneca’s Dialogues (i.e. essays) and his 120 Moral Epistles (to Lucilius), he discusses the question of fairness under five headings, each with a brief introduction, connecting passages between the selections to maintain the flow of the argument, and technical explanations where necessary: Striving for Magnanimity; Being Calm, Thinking Clearly; Judging Yourself Fairly; Doing Right By Others; and Being Merciful. It is all beautifully elucidated.

This last section is the most controversial. As a Stoic, Seneca makes ‘mercy’ the opposite of ‘cruelty’ and offers a broad definitions: ‘mercy is moderation that diminishes a due and deserved punishment to some degree’. But he also declares that mercy ‘has no time for pity or forgiveness’: forgiveness runs the risk of giving people nothing of what they deserve, while pity (which ‘looks only at the state a person is in, not its cause’) is an emotion (Stoics mistrusted emotions) ‘which is the fault of a paltry spirit’ arising from muddled thought, and does no one any good. What the Stoic will do, Seneca argues, is not to weep with those that weep but to take positive action to relieve their sufferings.

A brief review can only scrape the surface of these Guides. In this reviewer’s opinion, they are both outstanding productions.

Peter Jones