It’s easy to look down on self-help books, but believe it or not the genre is as old as Athens.
The word “therapy” comes from therapeia, the ancient Greek word for “healing.” It treated both the body and the soul, meaning therapy was a job not only for physicians, but also for philosophers. Plato, Aristotle and many others promised to teach their students how to lead lives that were happy, in accordance with human nature, and, above all, lives that were good.
Philosophy and therapy have now largely come apart, though the classicist Edith Hall, in “Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life,” is on a mission to put them back together again. It’s instructive to compare her book with another recent self-help title by “the Angry Therapist” John Kim, “I Used to Be a Miserable F*ck: An Everyman’s Guide to a Meaningful Life.” They reveal subtle but profound differences between modern therapy and ancient wisdom.
Kim directs his advice to men who are having trouble maturing into self-sufficient, responsible adults. He knows their problems firsthand. Once a club owner and aspiring screenwriter, he chased money, fame and pleasure. Kim fills his book with funny and cringe-worthy anecdotes from these years, especially from his marriage.
Unsurprisingly, he got divorced and his screenwriting career went nowhere. Nearly broke, Kim took a counseling job at a residential treatment center for teens. “The irony was that I was teaching teenagers how to take responsibility for their lives, but I was also learning the same lessons myself,” he admits. “Things like accountability. Taking ownership. Putting in work. Accepting who you are and building from that.”
Those who follow Kim’s advice may become less of a jerk. But should we follow his advice? There’s a tension in Kim’s book, as in much of the self-help genre, between the no-nonsense directions and the constant encouragement to “become the best version of yourself” and “start by listening to your truth.” What if “your truth” is to remain immature and needy? The young Kim, or anyone else, might decide that the best version of himself lived for nothing but his own pleasure. Unfortunately, people can and do succeed in American society by acting selfishly, irresponsibly and by chasing fame and glory without giving a second thought to who gets hurt along the way. How could Kim, or any therapist, say that those qualities are bad when they might get you in the White House?
Modern self-help can bring you “closer to your truth and potential,” however you define that, but it has trouble establishing the difference between your best life and a good one. This is because, as the critic Philip Rieff observed in the late 1960s, in America’s therapeutic culture there is no higher court of appeal than the individual, no “end beyond an intensely private sense of well-being.”
Kim’s problems were nothing new, of course. In fact they would have been familiar to Aristotle. Hall’s book presents his solutions, “Aristotle’s time-honored ethics in contemporary language.”
In the 4th century BC, Aristotle was running a school for rich, young Athenian men, who could have spent their days vying for public honors or indulging their every desire. Against conventional opinions about happiness, Aristotle wanted to know “how to Live Well, or [be] alive in the best way possible,” writes Hall. Not your best life, but the best life.
The best life for human beings, Aristotle thought, had to be uniquely human, based on something that sets us apart from other species. That something is our intellect. “No other living being,” writes Hall, reasons as we do. “Humans do things, and are able to think before, during, and after these activities. That is the human raison d’être.” Aristotle also thought that a truly happy life should be self-sufficient and immune, as much as possible, to reversals of fortune and unhappy accidents.
If Aristotle is right, then pleasure and fame cannot lead to true happiness.
Even though he approved of pleasure in moderation, Aristotle also thought that “if you, as a human being, don’t fulfill your ability to act while exercising your rational faculties, then you are not fulfilling your potential,” Hall writes. Those who make physical satisfaction their highest aim are living like house pets, or maybe even houseplants. And fame depends too much on the opinions of others, undermining one’s self-sufficiency.
Instead, Aristotle defines real happiness as using your intellect to achieve virtue. For Aristotle, virtue can mean moral action, and he certainly wanted his students to think every day about how to act courageously, or just. But it could also mean excellence in a given field. So a carpenter’s virtue consists in the skillful construction of beautiful yet durable cabinets. A screenwriter’s virtue consists in weaving clever plots and painting unforgettable characters. These skills must be acquired through conscious dedication to a craft, and so happiness for Aristotle turns out to be a lifelong project, requiring daily effort. Here the ancient sage and the modern therapist agree. Happiness and maturity require “work: reflection, pain, courage,” Kim writes. “It is a process that never ends. There is no completion.”
Because almost everyone has the capacity for moral virtue, and all jobs require a degree of skill, Hall declares that “Aristotle’s notion of happiness is wonderfully simple and democratic: everyone can decide to be happy.” Just apply your intellect to everyday moral and professional problems, and happiness will follow. At times she sounds like the quintessential motivational speaker: “Have you identified and actualized your unique potential?”
Hall downplays the elitist implications of Aristotle’s theories. True, manual laborers can exercise their intellects, become more skillful workers, and therefore lead happy lives. But if intellect defines humanity, then the more intellectual a life is, the worthier it will be. To quote Aristotle directly, “Happiness then, extends as far as contemplation, and the more contemplation there is in one’s life, the happier one is.” The best life of all is (surprise!) the philosopher’s.
Perhaps modern self-help and ancient wisdom both have something to offer. Rieff found America’s therapeutic culture vapid, but it’s also open-minded and even egalitarian. There are innumerable roads to happiness, no one better than another, so choose your own adventure. And ancient philosophy offers an important caveat: There might be a difference between “your best life” and a truly good and happy one.
Penguin Press: 272 pp., $27
HarperOne: 240 pp., $24.99
Paul W. Gleason is an instructor in the University of Southern California’s religion department and a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s “emerging critic” award.