What is the best way to keep up with the world running full steam ahead? How to not give in to the constant influx of marketing prods. And how to resist that extra piece of cake to make ourselves feel better? We tend to look for the best advice on all of the above by looking at popular publications in psychology or taking a coaching session. Yet, it seems that some of the wisest and surprisingly relevant recipes for a balanced life can in fact be found in ancient philosophical treatises.
For most of us philosophy is associated with an amalgamation of complex logical constructions that have little to do with our everyday life. But having a deeper dive into some of the writings of these ancient thinkers suddenly makes them not all that abstract. On the contrary, they seem to be so tangibly practical that with a bit of dusting off their essential relevance is still there.
Despite facing a completely different reality in the 21st century, we maintain the same human essence as in the times of Aristotle. We can therefore safely rely on some of the ancient wisdom today.
Aristotle and self-work
“Now virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success.”
Aristotle’s famous treatise The Nicomachean Ethics, which looks at the nature of happiness, attributes a lot of attention to the concept of a golden mean, or an intermediate. In the same way that excessive inactivity and too much effort is harmful to the body, categorical black-and-white thinking is harmful for our soul.
In his mind, those that embrace all kinds of hedonism get lost, but those that avoid it at all cost can also suffer from the loss of feeling. Those that avoid worries no matter what and are afraid of everything will never develop the virtue of courage. The opposite extreme - a reckless pursuit of risks - can, however, be equally harmful to our spirit.
Aristotle would be the last person to judge you for that extra piece of cake.
There is only one logical solution to this, according to Aristotle. Rather than try and extinguish our vices in an effort to reach our ideal virtuous state, it is instead a question of pursuing reasonable balance in every situation. Aristotle would be the last to judge you for that extra piece of cake or an insufficiently productive working day. His advice would be to find a learning in whatever happened and try to understand the nature of our mistakes. He would probably remind us too that even if you are dieting, treat yourself from time to time, and that it is impossible to be productive day in, day out.
Epicurus and wants
“If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.”
Who has not been found guilty of a single item trip to IKEA only to end up with a trolley full of cute accessories at the till? Or was tempted by that 70% off sale on a dress you liked? Let us not even mention that extra glass of wine at a party that you told were definitely not planning to have. Seeing as everyone seems to be prone to succumbing to these moments of weakness at one point or another, let us not blame clever marketing tricks and our lack of willpower, but turn instead to Epicurus.
His philosophy is often associated with hedonism and giving in to one’s wants, but this is not entirely accurate. It is true that the ancient Greek thinker considered pleasure a good in itself. However, he insisted that there be a distinction between pleasures and recommended prioritising only those pleasures that do not result in adversity. Indeed, his advice was to consciously limit one’s desires for the sake of future benefit.
Epicurus recommended prioritising only those pleasures that do not result in adversity.
To put it simply, gluttony is common, but overeating can result in serious stomach issues. Likewise, excessive drinking is bound to end up in a hangover the next day. Therefore, moderation in both is best.
A mindless pursuit of our unlimited wants, reiterates Epicurus, often only ends up in suffering. According to him, happiness is not a matter of satisfying all of our desires, but rather in a reasonable assessment of the causes of our preferences. If your want is not a natural need but an outcome of a successful marketing campaign, you will likely not get true satisfaction from achieving it.
Democritus on work/life balance
“Life without celebrations is a long road without inns.”
Whether it is getting the latest professional qualifications, learning about art or baking, the amount of available online courses is growing exponentially. On the one hand, our desire to learn and seek the best tutors is a great investment of our time. On the other, we could all benefit from just doing nothing at all.
The modern culture of hyper productivity seriously underestimates rest. The result is a rapidly declining average sleep duration around the world. Meanwhile, the time we allow ourselves with those work notifications turned off to truly let ourselves go is almost non-existent.
As much as we would like to be productive 24/7, we really do need those periods of total idleness.
This is exactly what the Ancient Greek philosopher Democritus had in mind. According to him, excessive focus on such strong passions as what productivity has become in our modern lives can really backfire. It takes away from living our best lives. Making ambitious goals is useful in itself, but the constant pursuit of them no matter what can result in an emotional breakdown. In addition to that, excessive effort do not always pay off.
The secret to a good life for Democritus is in what he calls “euthymia”, an emotional neutrality and overall good spirits. Even the most passion driven excessive efforts can lead to burnout. So as much as we would like to be productive 24/7, we really do need those periods of total idleness.
Seneca and time-management
“Make yourself believe the truth of my words - that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness.”
Another million-dollar question is that of time-management. It is naïve to think that there was ever a time when life was slow, where constant rush is a symptom of our times. Already at the beginning of the 1st century Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca contemplated the idea of lack of time.
His conclusions on this matter are in fact still relevant today. “Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested,” was his stance. In his view, we use time much too wastefully by worrying about the future, regretting the past and obsessing over the things we have no control over. We let it seep through our fingers by prioritising others’ interests, clinging on to stale relationships and reading dull books.
We use time much too wastefully by worrying about the future, regretting the past and obsessing over the things we have no control over.
“Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time”, writes Seneca to his friend. A great wake-up call to stop mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or binge watching that Netflix series at the expense of everything else that life has to offer.
Of the three great resources - money, energy and time - it is only the latter that cannot be replenished. All the more reason to give it more attention, prioritise it and not neglect those things that are truly important for “life is long enough”.