For centuries, the brightest people in Western societies have looked to Aristotle for guidance on how to lead a good life and how to create a good society. Now James O'Toole--the Mortimer J. Adler Senior Fellow of the Aspen Institute--translates that classical philosophical framework into practical, comprehensible terms to help professionals and business people apply it to their own lives and work. His book helps thoughtful readers address some of the profound questions they are currently struggling with in planning their futures:
• How do I find meaning and satisfaction?
• How much money do I need in order to be happy?
• What is the right balance between work, family, and leisure?
• What are my responsibilities to my community?
• How can I create a good society in my own company?
Bridging philosophy and self-help, O'Toole's book shows how happiness ultimately is attainable no matter one's level of income, if one uses Aristotle's practical exercises to ask the right questions and to discipline oneself to pursue things that are "good for us." The book is the basis for O'Toole's new "Good Life" seminar, where thoughtful men and women gather to create robust and satisfying life plans.
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THE BASIC CONCEPTS UNDERLYING ARISTOTLE'S PHILOSOPHY
ARISTOTLE'S LIFE AND WAY OF THINKING
I THINK ACTUALLY THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE OCCURRED WHEN I DEALT WITH THE PROSTATE CANCER [AT AGE 55]. THAT WAS THE FIRST TIME THAT REQUIRED ME TO SAY, "I AM GOING TO DIE. NOT NECESSARILY OF CANCER, BUT I AM GONNA DIE." SO YOU REALIZE YOU'D BETTER DO SOMETHING WITH YOUR LIFE THAT MAKES YOU HAPPY WITH YOURSELF. I DECIDED POLITICS WAS NOT MY ENTIRE LIFE.
SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE THAT NATURE MAKES PEOPLE GOOD, OTHERS SAY THAT IT IS HABIT, AND STILL OTHERS SAY THAT IT IS TEACHING. EXPERIENCE SHOWS THAT LOGICAL ARGUMENTS AND TEACHING ARE NOT EFFECTIVE IN MOST CASES. THE SOUL OF THE STUDENT MUST FIRST HAVE BEEN CONDITIONED BY GOOD HABITS JUST AS LAND MUST BE CULTIVATED TO NURTURE SEED. FOR A PERSON WHOSE LIFE IS GUIDED BY EMOTION WILL NOT LISTEN TO A RATIONAL ARGUMENT, NOR WILL HE UNDERSTAND IT.
Aristotle says that mature men and women, if they search diligently, may find the opportunity of a lifetime awaiting them. Sometime around their fifties, thoughtful people may discover the perspective needed to make sense of their accumulated experience and the wisdom needed to identify what will bring them true happiness in their remaining years. And if they are more fortunate than Rudolph Giuliani, they will make this discovery without the trauma of a life-threatening disease, the disintegration of a marriage, or the tragic destruction of a great city.
Yet, in truth, embarking on a new life course requires hard work. Since the time of Aristotle, experience demonstrates that the only way mature people can become truly happy is to abandon their youthful fantasies and pursue more appropriate ends. This process of finally growing up is ultimately rewarding, but it is no easy task, as shown in the classic writings of great philosophers, poets, and playwrights, and buttressed by the modern writings of psychologists and social scientists. More viscerally, we can feel the pain of men and women we know personally when, at midlife, they realize they must finally start doing something to make themselves happy or risk failing to fulfill the promise of the one life they have.
Yet most of us equivocate, resist, and backtrack when it comes to actually changing the way we lead our lives. Giuliani, after overcoming a spate of self-defeating personal behavior in his early fifties to become our generation's leadership poster boy, continued to demonstrate recidivist adolescent tendencies. He may have declared, "Politics was not my entire life," but soon after his post--September 11 adrenaline rush wore off, he attempted to subvert the constitution of the state of New York by proposing to run for a third mayoral term. After all, what other high could fill the void of lost power and the limelight of worldwide publicity?
In more private and less flamboyant ways than Giuliani, most men and women in their fifties struggle with the question of what to do with the rest of their lives in order to find the fulfillment that has eluded them. I reluctantly joined their ranks when I was forced to recognize what should have been obvious to me for years: The Good Fairy was never going to grant my most fervent youthful wish.
Toward the end of the year 2000, I reluctantly admitted I wasn't finding happiness on the life path I had been following for three decades. I had begun the year, my fifty-fifth, filled with millennially grand expectations. A book I had written had just been published, and I was convinced that this one, my twelfth, would bring the recognition I desired, the acknowledgment that I felt my work had long deserved but, for this twist of fate and that stroke of bad timing, the earlier works had been denied. And it was definitely respect I was after. Sure, I wanted more money; but in my gut, I hungered for America's most sought-after prize: fame, renown, a name. I felt certain my new book was the vehicle aboard which I was bound for glory. In my considered opinion, it had all the requisites for success in the ultracompetitive business book market: I could visualize reviews praising the volume's "originality, wit, and practicality." Soon I would reap the long-desired ego boost associated with bestsellerdom, the miracle cure that would appease my pathetic craving for respect and approval.
Alas, as the year dwindled, I eventually had to accept that my precious volume had vanished into the black hole of obscurity that had devoured my previous literary efforts. In light of this, I needed to decide whether to continue my conventional pursuit of the goddess of success and, in the process, risk never finding happiness, or seek contentment chasing a different muse, one whose favor I was more likely to obtain. For the first time in my life, I found myself entertaining a troubling question: Even if I were to obtain the one thing I wanted more than anything else, would I find happiness in its embrace?
Turning to Aristotle's Ethics for guidance, I was encouraged by his belief that almost everyone can find happiness if they are willing to ask themselves tough questions, create a new life plan, and then have the discipline to carry it through. In particular, he believes that mature men and women find happiness when they abandon youthful fantasies about money, power, and fame and devote their time to realizing their untapped capacities to learn new things.
In our fifties, we are ready to take up the challenge of fulfilling our natural potential if we can accept that happiness means something other than being a movie star, president of the United States, founder of a successful software company, bestselling author, or whatever one's youthful fantasy still may be. Then we might actually realize the opportunity of a lifetime, the capacity to lead "the good life." If Aristotle is correct, the decades-long process of narrowing aspirations and trimming expectations is reversible. We probably won't achieve the Hollywood version of bliss that seemed so enticing in our youth; instead, we may find mature satisfaction in becoming a complete human being; we might achieve "excellence" in Aristotle's terms.
In light of the marketplace failure of my book, I began to understand the simple, practical, and personal significance of his philosophic message: I was unhappy because I was chasing the wrong ends and doing the wrong things. In particular, I was emulating the wrong role models: famous management gurus. In an Aristotelian view, those folks probably weren't any happier than I was, and even if they were, copying their behavior wouldn't work for me.
On gaining this insight, I was at first full of resolve to change my goals, role models, and how I spent the time of my life. But, damn it, over the next months, the process of taking Aristotle's message to heart and trying to put it into action did nothing so much as reveal my frailty, weakness, and vanity. I soon realized I wasn't ready to change course. I found I was comfortable with the conditions I had created for myself, even if they were less than satisfying. At my age, who wants to do the hard work involved in learning new behavior? Worse, I was afraid to change because the alternatives all seemed risky.
And on second thought, weren't those famous gurus the very people the world called successful? How the hell was I going to find happiness if I ended up being a nobody . . . and an impoverished one at that? Ergo, I concluded that Aristotle must have been wrong. And everything I read in magazines and watched on television argued against Aristotle's conclusions. According to conventional wisdom, happiness is found, variously, by way of
a new job
a new house
a new city
a new mate
an adventure in faraway climes
The most attractive of these alternatives to me was the Geographic Solution. When a close friend limned his fantasy about circumnavigating Africa in a sailboat, visiting the exotic islands that float in the warm seas surrounding the continent, I could feel the ocean spray on my face and taste the promised spices (and vices) on my lips. (According to David Denby, the female version of this fantasy is Tuscany, "a primal paradise of sunshine, sex, love, terra-cotta tiles, and huge salads with real tomatoes.") In contrast, Aristotle said I needed to grow up and to use my time in more productive ways. He said it was virtue that would make me happy, and virtue started with disciplining myself to do things that contributed to my long-term development. Clearly, Aristotle must have been wrong! So I resisted. As Ogden Nash said, "You are only young once, but you can stay immature indefinitely."
I had prided myself on being flexible and open-minded, but in my fifties, I discovered I actually was a master of rigidity and resistant to unfamiliar ideas. When I looked at myself honestly, I saw a man capable of creating imaginative rationales for continuing his self-defeating behavior. My first line of defense was skepticism. I devised sound reasons to resist going where Aristotle's teaching ineluctably led. I concluded that his ideas were:
elitist and politically incorrect
prescriptive, naive, and impractical
hard to understand and translate into action
Who needs better reasons than those to reject the ideas of a defunct philosopher? Indeed, if you are as skeptical as I am, you, too, will want to examine Aristotle's credentials and check his character references before committing to a full course of study of his ideas. Before delving into his philosophy, it seems sensible to inquire about him personally, about the kinds of followers he attracted, and about his track record. Here's a brief summary of Aristotle's life, the foundations of his thought, and why his thinking has generated critics over the centuries. When I did this background check, it never occurred to me I was stalling!
THE SAGE'S C.V.
Although Aristotle lived two and a half millennia ago, I was able to discover a good deal about his career: In addition to his own writings, observations about him by contemporaries survive, and, miraculously, a copy of his will has come down through the ages. Nonetheless, I also found enormous gaps in knowledge about his personal life and motivations. After all, he lived in an era in which autobiography was self-indulgent. But from what we know as fact and what we can reasonably surmise, it would appear Aristotle was more like people today than one might expect, considering the enormous gulf in time separating antiquity from the 21st century. Of course, he wasn't exactly like us; he never heard of a PC, a BMW, a VCR, or an IRA, and he was definitely not P.C. But he was surprisingly like us in terms of his interpersonal relationships and the life and career challenges he faced. He wrote about the concerns of practical men and women as opposed to the more esoteric issues that preoccupy academics, and his political and ethical teachings were intended for the leadership class of his society. "The Ancient," as I think of him, was a teacher of bright, educated generalists in government and commerce as opposed to scholars and specialists.
Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. in a Greek colony in Macedonia. His father, Nicomachus, was court physician to the king of Macedonia, Alexander the Great's grandfather. Nicomachus died when Aristotle was 17, and he was then sent to the Athenian Academy, where he studied under Plato until he was 37. (He was either a slow learner or a precursor of the modern graduate student.) Like everyone, Aristotle had his shortcomings, weaknesses, and even vices. He was a bit of a dandy in his youth, sporting the latest designer fashions in cloaks and sandals, and was said to have worn ostentatious rings. He engaged in conspicuous consumption: He had the finest collection of books in Athens; his teacher, Plato, was said to be envious. As a student, he occasionally was arrogant: He would sit in Plato's class at the Academy and point out errors in his teacher's logic. Plato was not necessarily paying him a compliment in dubbing him "the mind." There is reason to believe he was smugly ambitious in midlife. When Plato died, Aristotle assumed he was the obvious candidate to succeed as head of the Academy. But it was not to be. Apparently, Aristotle's arrogance had alienated so many members of the faculty that he was passed over in favor of his best friend. He left Athens hurt, if not in a huff.
On the rebound from the disappointments of his academic career, Aristotle moved back to Macedonia, where he became tutor to Alexander from the time the prince was 13 until he was 16 years old. Significantly, Aristotle did not attempt to turn Alexander into an intellectual: "It is not merely unnecessary for a king to become a philosopher, it even may be a disadvantage," Aristotle wrote. "Instead, a king should take the advice of true philosophers. Then he would fill his reign with good deeds, not good words." Alas, it must have seemed to Aristotle that Alexander suffered from attention deficit disorder during his tutorials, because there is little evidence that the teacher had any more than a slight influence on his student's behavior then or later.
Nonetheless, we have reason to believe that Aristotle's home life in Macedonia was richer and emotionally more rewarding than his work life was with Alexander. After the career setback in Athens, Aristotle married an 18- year-old noblewoman, Pythias. They soon had a daughter, whom they also named Pythias. Based on what he wrote, Aristotle was deeply in love with his bride: "As for adultery, let it be held disgraceful for any man or woman to be found in any way unfaithful once they are married and call each other husband and wife." Sadly, the young wife died before the prime of her life. Aristotle never remarried but spent the rest of his days with a mistress, Herpyllis, who bore him a son, Nicomachus.
During the 13 years he was away from Athens, we may surmise that Aristotle gained wisdom and, perhaps, humility. Clearly, he sought to become self- aware. He worked to discover the unconscious appetites that had derailed his career. Abandoning those inappropriate desires, he disciplined himself to aim, instead, for "goods" that would make him truly virtuous and happy. To develop his potential, he read everything he could get his hands on and seriously studied all subjects imaginable. He made friends among others similarly inclined, and together they spent days and months discussing scientific and philosophical questions, challenging each other when one of them offered a facile answer to a complex question. In addition, Aristotle applied his growing store of learning, wisdom, and understanding to the practical problems that beset his community.