By Janae Jean and Spencer Schluter
For this month’s interview and podcast, we spoke with renowned author and lecturer, Edith Hall. Edith is a Professor in the Department of Classics and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College in London, England. While she originally specialized in ancient Greek Literature, her work has expanded to include ancient Greek and Roman history, society and thought. She has published over 20 books. Her most recent book is Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life, in which she explains how studying Aristotle’s ancient philosophy can help all of us live more fulfilling lives in the modern world.
When Edith is not writing or teaching, she frequently broadcasts on radio and television, consults with professional theaters and lectures internationally. She publishes in academic and mainstream magazines, publications and newspapers. You may follow or contact her via Twitter @EdithMayHall. Visit www.edithhall.co.uk.
The following is a brief excerpt of our in-depth conversation. To find out more about relationships, parenting, happiness, grit, and why it’s not too late to start achieving your dreams, listen to the entire interview at www.ConsciousCommunityMagazine.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. All 35 episodes of the Conscious Community Podcast are available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, TuneIn, Player. FM, YouTube and other popular podcatchers.
Janae: How did you discover Aristotle? Was that at the university?
Edith: Yes. I was at Oxford studying classics and had to write a paper about making decisions in Greek tragedy. My great tutor told me to read the third book of Nicomachean Ethics series. It blew me away. For the first time in my life, I heard a voice that seemed to be describing exactly how I felt about moral dilemmas and my position in the world relative to other people, animals, ethics and everything. So, I got very excited and started to read the rest of this great mind. I was so amazed at how he developed a whole system of thinking; he’s actually the father of logic. It isn’t just about your personal life—your subjective self—everything interconnects. He’s very encouraging; the whole thing is written as if you apply this to your life, you will get happier. It’s a system of secular ethics. There is no god in it, but that doesn’t mean that he was an Atheist. He thought it was completely up to humans to create their own happiness. This spoke to me at that age in a very powerful way, because I had been very lost since I was about 13.
JJ: Your father was an Anglican priest, and growing up you were interested in astrology, Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation. How does Aristotle fit into all of that?
EH: For me, he was the non-mystical answer. He’s very modern. He doesn’t think you will ever be happy if you act out of accordance with your emotions. You’ve got to find a way for reason and emotion to go together at all times. It’s all part of the same system. He’s very holistic. This, for me, was extremely liberating.
JJ: In your writing, you talk about the importance of planning and how planning can lead us to happiness yet many people would think it’s the opposite.
SS: We have a very “instant gratification” society when it comes to self-improvement.
EH: It’s really about how you define “happiness.” Aristotelian happiness is not a passing mood that can be brought on by a “happy meal” or “happy hour.” It can only come from within yourself. It comes from that feeling of being able to look in the mirror and know that you have tried to do your best. If you’ve tried to be the best possible you, worked on your not-so-nice characteristics, recognized what you are really good at, and recognized your strong personal qualities and enhanced those further, then you get a really firm, really Teflon, sense of contentment, even if you have unbelievably bad luck. Aristotle says that he sees that people who are ‘bad’ are almost always really unhappy.
The other thing is Aristotle thinks that everybody is good at something, and that’s absolutely true. It may be parenting, gardening, making other people happy, cracking jokes, violin playing, Ancient Greek literature; it may be (you) discussing deep issues that make them accessible to the public. Happiness is being the best version of you and exercising it, and that’s what you want to do with your whole life. It’s a verb, not a noun. It is a way of doing everything with an approach.
SS: I heard a discussion on public radio about IQ and success. They said that most successful people have high IQs but having a high IQ does not mean you will be successful. The difference between somebody who is successful and one who is not is grit or determination.
EH: The crucial thing here, and this is why I think Aristotle is so helpful if you are a parent or in a job that has parental aspects, is helping the young discover what it is they are very good at. There is no greater gift than someone taking that seriously and talking about that with you. The key to it, if you are an Aristotelian, is what gives them the most pleasure.
SS: But, not in the Hedonistic sense?
EH: No. What I tried to do with my kids was to let them do what they wanted, but I exposed them to as many things as I possibly could. For example, my youngest has just gone to university to study Japanese, and there’s no study of Oriental languages in my family. I thought, “Where on Earth did she get that from?” She told me, “Mummy, don’t you remember you took me to see that manga film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, when I was eight?” I had completely forgotten that. But she said that was a moment she realized she loved everything about it. When she said that, it really moved me.
This is where I can get a little bit mystical. One of the wonders of the human race is that we seem to have been given such a diverse range of abilities. There is nothing better for me than watching someone who is really excellent at something; anything from cooking to parenting to driving a car well, seeing them enjoying being excellent at what they do. That is where Aristotle says you are getting nearest to God because this is what animals can’t do. Animals are driven by their instincts.
Aristotle invented the idea of the “Hive Mind,” which is why he thought democracy was the best system. He said it’s like a public feast where everybody brought the dish they were best at. He said that’s what an ideal society should be. I think it is miraculous what diverse things excite people. I genuinely get excited by going to a library and reading some old Greek book. Weird, isn’t it? But I do. I’m very lucky that I get to do that for money. Getting to do what you’re really good at is the happiest you can possibly be as a human.
Janae Jean serves as editor, social media manager, recipe columnist and podcaster for Conscious Community Magazine. Visit www.janaejean.com or www.perennialmusicandarts.com for details about her other projects.
Spencer Schluter serves as an advertising account manager, social media manager and podcaster for Conscious Community Magazine. Visit www.yggstudios.com for more about his freelance design and consulting work. He is also a master level Reiki and traditional Chinese Qigong practitioner.