The Lyceum Gardens Athens the peripatos

Aristotle and Longevity

It is sometimes very profitable to go back to The Greats to crystalise our thinking about something new. This year, in writing about longevity, I have been struck by the paucity of thinking about a philosophical approach to old age.  Gerontologists know a lot about the body as it ages, but we sometimes forget that longevity is as much, perhaps more defined, by our state of mind than our state of body.  Aphorisms we use every day, such as, I lost the will to live, are often used to express exasperation with a process or an individual.  These sayings are a reflection of a truism. Life is enriched by engagement, activity, being and doing something; life is impoverished by inactivity, loneliness and a lack of purpose.   Losing the will to live is another way of saying I was dying of boredom.

Yet as we age, we find it more and more difficult to occupy our minds and to find purpose.  And those who support us and care for us, often forget to sympathise with what might seem like childish, or insignificant needs to have a sing-song, walk about in the street for a while or engage in conversation with a stranger on a park bench.  We have more important things to do.  But for someone whose life has been reduced by disability or frailty, these small activities are gemstones within a day that might be predominated by the dull pebbles of mere existence.

I’m struck by today’s news that people in care homes are still unable to get outside – even for a short walk in the park.  That can’t be right? See article by @BenQuinn75

I’ve been reading about Aristotle recently because it was he who first started thinking about what The Good Life might entail. To envliven my research I watched the first episode of the 70s TV drama The Good Life, (available on Britbox).  Richard Briers, playing Tom Good on his fortieth birthday, decides to seek ‘X’ – something he can’t put his finger on – the missing factor in their lives. His dead-end job, designing plastic toys for cereal packets, might even have been a subtle comment upon the jobs of serial writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, who conceived of the hugely popular series.  Tim and Barbara decide that self-sufficiency will rid them of their 20th century douleur, and salve the pain of the nine-to-five.  In the ensuing four series we follow Tom and Barbara’s trials through tempest, flood and mud, as they try to transform their Surbiton garden into a self-sufficient small-holding.  Through thick and thin they never lose their affection for each other.  Their happy relationship is contrasted with those of neighbours Jerry and Margo Leadbetter, who never seem content with their considerably more advantageous ‘lot’.  Does their surname contain a metaphorical warning against being dragged down by a love of money and social advancement?

Aristotle got there well before Tom Good.  He was a brilliant Macedonian, who had been Alexander the Great’s tutor, before moving to Athens to learn at the feet of Plato.  After Plato died, Aristotle (a foreigner by Athenian standards) was overlooked as his intellectual heir. Eventually, he founded his own school of philosophy in a military training school just outside Athens called The Lyceum.  Here he perfected the habit of walking and talking. He gave lectures while leading his students under the shady arcades of the peripatos, a covered walkway, idealised in Rafael’s famous fresco in the Vatican, but I suspect in reality it was a little more rustic.   Aristotle’s philosophies became known as the peripatetic school of thought and spawned a whole series of ideas about ethics and happiness and their interrelationship.  I wouldn’t wonder that the mode of thinking helped to spawn such attractive ideas. It is impossible to be didactic if you are strolling along with your students.  The heirachies between pupil and master become inevitably become blurred.

Aristotle conceived of the notion of eudaimonia,[i] which is generally translated as the good life, but is perhaps more accurately used to describe human flourishing, prosperity and blessedness.  It is a description of one’s ethics as well as one’s actions. (Just like Tom and Barbara Goods decision to embrace self-sufficiency.)  Aristotle’s Good Life is about doing things to the best of one’s abilities, whatever those abilities happen to be.  And it the idea of life being as good as can be that for me provides an important clue to longevity.

If we are to cultivating a full life as we get older, we need to practice.  We need to learn to enjoy what can be enjoyed, while it can be enjoyed. Social life, independent living, mental stimulation, play, curiosity, travel, memory and change should all be seen as positives.  We can use terms such as self-actualisation or agency, and self-determinisation to define what we mean. Even in old age, these can be found in an enduring ability to pursue novelty and challenge, explore, learn, develop, and grow. [ii]  Aristotle’s mode of thinking, walking and talking, can be enjoyed, even in old age. But loss of independence can be corrosive, if it limits our ability to walk and talk, learn and be curious. It might mean that we live a life that isn’t so neat or clean.  Ageing can be messy, but perhaps that doesn’t matter?

2019 Photo by Frantz Lambolez  Screengrab from Google Maps

[i] Count No One Happy: Eudaimonia and Positive Psychology Robert L. Woolfolk, Rutgers University and Princeton University Rachel H. Wasserman, Princeton University   file:///C:/Users/coffe/Downloads/Count_No_One_Happy_Eudaimonia_and_Positive_Psychol.pdf

[ii] Heintzelman, S. J. (2018). Eudaimonia in the contemporary science of subjective well-being: Psychological well-being, self-determination, and meaning in life. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of well-being. Salt Lake City, UT: DEF Publishers.

Link to Guardian article by Ben Quinn

1 thought on “Aristotle and Longevity”

  1. Thought provoking as ever, especially Aristotle’s thinking, walking and talking. It recalled to me another popular, bygone sit-com, ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. Practically each episode consisted of thinking, walking and talking, and doing a lot of foolish things that generally involving picturesque inclines and novel ways to proceed down them. However, amusing it may have been, it did seem to me all a bit aimless really, just filling in the remaining days with purposeless diversion.
    My preference for a sage view on the life is that of Solomon’s in the book of Ecclesiates. After reflecting on all that can be accomplished in a lifetime and deciding that “everything is futile” Solomon’s conclusion is: “Fear the true God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole obligation of man.” He is touching on what for me is the key thing: purpose. A life filled with achievement but with little consideration as to purpose, misses the point and is ultimately futile, whereas pursuing a purposeful life, while not necessarily providing for a good life is, according to Solomon, the way to the best life.

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