Life advice from Aristotle

A new book by Philosophy’s Susan Sauvé Meyer gives tips from the philosopher’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ on how to live well in any age.

The title “How to Flourish” sounds like any other self-help book—until you see the subtitle, “An Ancient Guide to Living Well.” The bright yellow book turns out to be an abridged version of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” translated by and with additional commentary by School of Arts & Sciences philosophy professor Susan Sauvé Meyer.

Left: Susan Sauvé Meyer; right: book cover for “How to Flourish”
Image: Courtesy of OMNIA

What can a dead man from ancient Greece tell us about how to live well in a world with the internet, nuclear weapons, climate threats, and fast food? Sections within the book with headings like “Justice,” “Fun and Games,” “Personal Finance,” “Anger Management,” and so on, show that Aristotle does indeed have something to say about issues we currently face.

“‘Flourish’ is a big buzzword now, and it’s how some translate eudaimonia, the key term in Aristotle’s ‘Ethics,’” says Meyer. “The big question in ethics, with Aristotle and before him Plato, is what is happiness? What do we want to do? We want to live well, so ethics is all about the question, ‘What is it to live well?’”

Aristotle was born in what is now Macedonia in 384 B.C.E. When he was 17, he went to Athens, the center of culture and intellect in the Western world at that time, and spent 20 years at Plato’s Academy. He wrote about ethics, politics, poetics, literary criticism, rhetoric, logic, zoology. “He was an intellectual omnivore,” says Meyer.

Unfortunately, the writing that Aristotle published during his lifetime is lost, and what we do have is the work he didn’t polish for publication, possibly notes for lectures, Meyer says. “We know his writings were well regarded in antiquity. Even Cicero thought he had a ‘golden flow’ of words. But what remains are terse and often crabbed in style. So only a philosopher can love reading Aristotle.” Ethics is also very long, and of course, in ancient Greek.

Enter the Princeton University Press’s Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers book series, which produces public-facing translations aimed at the general reader. During the pandemic, a Press editor called up Meyer to discuss the project. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll talk to anybody, I’m bored out of my skull here,’” she recalls. “I thought the chance to translate Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” it’s sort of like a chance to play in Carnegie Hall. I’ve done a lot of my own work on the “Nicomachean Ethics.” I’ve taught it a lot. I know it.”

Of course, any translation is about making the work accessible. “You read it, you figure it out, and then you have to communicate, render it in English,” says Meyer. “Then you decide, what do you preserve?”

Read more at OMNIA.