The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (detail).

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (d. 322 BCE) tries to discover what is ‘the supreme good for man’, that is, what is the best way to lead our life and give it meaning.

For Aristotle, a thing is most clearly and easily understood by looking at its end, purpose, or goal. For example, the purpose of a knife is to cut, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what a knife is; the goal of medicine is good health, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what medicine is, or, at least, ought to be.

Now, if one persists with this, it soon becomes apparent that some goals are subordinate to other goals, which are themselves subordinate to yet other goals. For example, a medical student’s goal may be to qualify as a doctor, but this goal is subordinate to her goal to heal the sick, which is itself subordinate to her goal to make a living by doing something useful. This could go on and on, but unless the medical student has a goal that is an end-in-itself, nothing that she does is actually worth doing.

What, asks Aristotle, is this goal that is an end-in-itself? What, in other words, is the final purpose of everything that we do?

The answer, says Aristotle, is happiness.

And of this nature happiness is mostly thought to be, for this we choose always for its own sake, and never with a view to anything further: whereas honour, pleasure, intellect, in fact every excellence we choose for their own sakes, it is true, but we choose them also with a view to happiness, conceiving that through their instrumentality we shall be happy: but no man chooses happiness with a view to them, nor in fact with a view to any other thing whatsoever.

Why did we get dressed this morning? Why do we go to the dentist? Why do we go on a diet? Why am I writing this article? Why are you reading it? Because we want to be happy, simple as that.

That the meaning of life is happiness may seem moot, but it is something that most of us forget somewhere along the way. Oxford and Cambridge are infamous for their fiendish admission interviews, and one question that is sometimes asked is, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ So, when I prepare prospective doctors for their medical school interviews, I frequently put this question to them. When they flounder, as invariably they do, I ask them, ‘Well, tell me, why are you here?’

Our exchange might go something like this:

“What do you mean, why am I here?”

“Well, why are you sitting here with me, prepping for your interviews, when you could be outside enjoying the sunshine?”

“Because I want to do well in my interviews.”

“Why do you want to do well in your interviews?”

“Because I want to get into medical school.”

“Why do you want to get into medical school?”

“Because I want to become a doctor.”

“Why do you want to put yourself through all that trouble?”

And so on. 

But the one thing that the students never tell me is the truth, which is:

“I am sitting here, putting myself through all this, because I want to be happy, and this is the best way I have found of becoming or remaining so.”

Somewhere along the road, the students lost the wood for the trees, even though they are only at the beginning of their journey. With the passing of the years, their short-sightedness will only get worse—unless, of course, they read and remember their Aristotle.

Books save lives.

Coincidentally, my new book, The Art of Failure, is out today!

The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Caravaggio (1603).

According to the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855), a person can, deep down, lead one of three lives: the esthetic life, the ethical life, or the religious life.

A person leading the æsthetic life aims solely at satisfying her desires. If, for example, it is heroin that she craves, she will do whatever it takes to get hold of her next fix. If heroin happens to be cheap and legal, this need not involve any illegal or immoral behaviour on her part. But if  heroin happens to be expensive or illegal, as is generally the case, she may have to resort to lying, stealing, and much worse. To satisfy her desires, which, by definition, she insists upon doing, the æsthete constantly has to adapt to the circumstances in which she finds herself, and, as a result, cannot lay claim to a consistent, coherent self.

The person leading the ethical life, in complete contrast to the æsthete, behaves according to categorical and immutable moral principles such as ‘do not lie’ and ‘do not steal’, regardless of the circumstances, however attenuating, in which she happens to find herself. Because the moralist has a consistent, coherent self, she leads a higher type of life than that of the æsthete.

But the highest type of life is the religious life, which has something in common with both the ethical life and the æsthetic life. Like the ethical life, the religious life recognizes and respects the authority of moral principles; but like the æsthetic life, it is sensitive to the circumstances. In acquiescing to universal moral principles yet attending to particularities, the religious life opens the door to moral indeterminacy, that is, to ambiguity, uncertainty, and anxiety. Anxiety, says Kierkegaard, is the dizziness of freedom.

A paradigm of the religious life is that of the biblical patriarch Abraham, as epitomized by the episode of the Sacrifice of Isaac.

According to Genesis 22, God said unto Abraham:

Take now thy son, thine only only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

Unlike the æsthete, Abraham is acutely aware of, and attentive to, moral principles such as, ‘Thou shalt not kill’—which is, of course, one of the ten commandments. But unlike the moralist, he is also willing or able to look beyond these moral principles, and in the end resigns himself to obeying God’s command.

But as he is about to slay his sole heir, born of a miracle, an angel appears and stays his hand:

Abraham, Abraham … Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

At this moment, a ram appears in a thicket, and Abraham seizes it and sacrifices it in Isaac’s stead. He then names the place of the sacrifice Jehovahjireh, which translates from the Hebrew as, ‘The Lord will provide.’

The teaching of the Sacrifice of Isaac is that the conquest of doubt and anxiety, and hence the exercise of freedom, requires something of a leap of faith. It is in making this leap, not only once but over and over again, that a person, in the words of Kierkegaard, ‘relates himself to himself’ and is able to rise into a thinking, deciding, living being.

In the Milgram experiment, conducted in 1961 during the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann [one of the major organizers of the Holocaust], an experimenter ordered a ‘teacher’, the test subject, to deliver what the latter believed to be painful shocks to a ‘learner’. The experimenter informed the teacher and learner that they would be participating in a study on learning and memory in different situations, and asked them to draw lots to determine their roles, with the lots rigged so that the test subject invariably ended up as the teacher.

The teacher and the learner were entered into adjacent rooms from which they could hear but not see each other. The teacher was instructed to deliver a shock to the learner for every wrong answer that he gave, and, after each wrong answer, to increase the intensity of the shock by 15 volts, from 15 to 450 volts. The shock button, instead of delivering a shock, activated a tape recording of increasingly alarmed and alarming reactions from the learner. After a certain number of shocks, the learner began to bang on the wall and, eventually, fell silent.

If the teacher indicated that he wanted to end the experiment, the experimenter gave him up to four increasingly stern verbal prods. If, after the fourth prod, the teacher still wanted to end the experiment, the experiment was terminated. Otherwise, the experiment ran until the teacher had delivered the maximum shock of 450 volts three times in succession.

In the first set of experiments, 26 out of 40 test subjects delivered the massive 450-volt shock, and all 40 test subjects delivered shocks of at least 300 volts.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt called this propensity to do evil without oneself being evil ‘the banality of evil’. Being Jewish, Arendt fled Germany in the wake of Hitler’s rise. Some thirty years later, she witnessed and reported on Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. In the resulting book, she remarks that Eichmann, though lacking in empathy, did not come across as a fanatic or psychopath, but as a ‘terrifyingly normal’ person, a bland bureaucrat who lacked skills and education and an ability to think for himself. Eichmann had simply been pursuing his idea of success, diligently climbing the rungs of the Nazi hierarchy. From his perspective, he had done no more than ‘obey orders’, even, ‘obey the law’—not unlike Kierkegaard’s unquestioning moralist.

Eichmann was a ‘joiner’ who, all his life, had joined, or sought to join, various outfits and organizations in a bid to be a part of something bigger than himself, to define himself, to belong. But then he got swept up by history and landed where he landed.

Arendt’s thesis has attracted no small measure of criticism and controversy. Although she never sought to excuse or exonerate Eichmann, she may have been mistaken or misled about his character and motives. Regardless, in the final analysis, Eichmann’s values, his careerism, his nationalism, his antisemitism, were not truly his own as a self-determining being, but borrowed from the movements and society from which he arose, even though he and millions of others paid the ultimate price for them.

Whenever you’re about to engage in something with an ethical dimension, always ask yourself, “Is this who I wanted to be on the best day of my life?”

Neel Burton is author of The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide


  • Kierkegaard, S (1843), Fear and Trembling.
  • Kierkegaard, S (1849), Sickness unto Death.
  • Milgram, S (1963): Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67(4):371–8.
  • Arendt, H (1963), Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

There is an old Japanese story about a monk and a samurai. 

One day, a Zen monk was going from temple to temple, following the shaded path along a babbling brook, when he fell upon a bedraggled and badly bruised samurai.

‘Whatever happened to you?’ asked the monk.

‘We were conveying our lord’s treasure when we were set upon by bandits. But I played dead and was the only one of my company to survive. As I lay on the ground with my eyes shut, a question kept turning in my mind. Tell me, little monk, what is the difference between heaven and hell?’

‘What samurai plays dead while his companions are slain! Shame on you! You ought to have fought to the death. Look at the sight of you, a disgrace to your class, your master, and every one of your ancestors. You are not worthy of the food that you eat or the air that you breathe, let alone of my hard-won wisdom!’

At all this, the samurai puffed up with rage and appeared to double in size as he drew out his sword, swung it over his head, and brought it down onto the monk.

But just before being struck, the monk changed his tone and composure, and calmly said, ‘This is hell.’

The samurai dropped his sword. Filled with shame and remorse, he fell to his knees with a clatter of armour: ‘Thank you for risking your life simply to teach a stranger a lesson’ he said, his eyes wet with tears. ‘Please, if you could, forgive me for threatening you.’

‘And that’ said the monk, ‘is heaven.’

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions

Southbank Centre/Wikicommons cc-by 2.0

Confidence derives from the Latin fidere, “to trust.” To be confident is to trust and have faith in the world. To be self-confident is to trust and have faith in oneself, and, in particular, in one’s ability to engage successfully or at least adequately with the world. A self-confident person is able to act on opportunities, take on new challenges, rise to difficult situations, engage with constructive criticism, and shoulder responsibility if and when things go wrong.

Self-confidence and self-esteem often go hand in hand, but they aren’t one and the same thing. In particular, it is possible to be highly self-confident and yet to have profoundly low self-esteem, as is the case, for example, with many performers and celebrities, who are able to play to studios and galleries but then struggle behind the scenes. Esteem derives from the Latin aestimare [to appraise, value, rate, weigh, estimate], and self-esteem is our cognitive and, above all, emotional appraisal of our own worth. More than that, it is the matrix through which we think, feel, and act, and reflects and determines our relation to our self, to others, and to the world.

People with healthy self-esteem do not need to prop themselves up with externals such as income, status, or notoriety, or lean on crutches such as alcohol, drugs, or sex (when these things are a crutch). On the contrary, they treat themselves with respect and look after their health, community, and environment. They are able to invest themselves completely in projects and people because they have no fear of failure or rejection. Of course, like everybody, they suffer hurt and disappointment, but their setbacks neither damage nor diminish them. Owing to their resilience, they are open to people and possibilities, tolerant of risk, quick to joy and delight, and accepting and forgiving of others and themselves.

So what’s the secret to self-esteem? As I argue in Heaven and Hell, a book on the psychology of the emotions, many people find it easier to build their self-confidence than their self-esteem, and, conflating one with the other, end up with a long list of talents and achievements. Rather than facing up to the real issues, they hide, often their whole life long, behind their certificates and prizes. But as anyone who has been to university knows, a long list of talents and achievements is no substitute for healthy self-esteem. While these people work on their list in the hope that it might one day be long enough, they try to fill the emptiness inside them with externals such as status, income, possessions, and so on. Undermine their standing, criticize their home or car, and observe in their reaction that it is them that you undermine and criticize.

Similarly, it is no use trying to pump up the self-esteem of children (and, increasingly, adults) with empty, undeserved praise. The children are unlikely to be fooled, but may instead be held back from the sort of endeavour by which real self-esteem can grow. And what sort of endeavour is that? Whenever we live up to our dreams and promises, we can feel ourselves growing. Whenever we fail but know that we have given it our best, we can feel ourselves growing. Whenever we stand up for our values and face the consequences, we can feel ourselves growing. This is what growth depends on. Growth depends on living up to our ideals, not our parents’ ambitions for us, or the targets of the company we work for, or anything else that is not truly our own but, instead, a betrayal of ourselves.

Orson Welles tells reporters that no one connected with the broadcast had any idea that it would cause panic. (October 31, 1938). Source: Acme News Photos/Wikicommons (public domain)

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles broadcast an episode of the radio drama Mercury Theatre on the Air. This episode, entitled The War of the Worlds and based on a novel by HG Wells, suggested to listeners that a Martian invasion was taking place. In the charged atmosphere of the days leading up to World War II, many people missed or ignored the opening credits and mistook the radio drama for a news broadcast. Panic ensued and people began to flee, with some even reporting flashes of light and a smell of poison gas. This panic, a form of mass hysteria, is one of the many forms that anxiety can take.

Mass hysteria can befall us at almost any time. In 1989, 150 children took part in a summer programme at a youth centre in Florida. Each day at noon, the children gathered in the dining hall to be served pre-packed lunches. One day, a girl complained that her sandwich did not taste right. She felt nauseated, went to the toilet, and returned saying that she had vomited. Almost immediately, other children began experiencing symptoms such as nausea, abdominal cramps, and tingling in the hands and feet. With that, the supervisor announced that the food may be poisoned and that the children should stop eating. Within 40 minutes, 63 children were sick and more than 25 had vomited.

The children were promptly dispatched to one of three hospitals, but every test performed on them was negative. Meal samples were analyzed but no bacteria or poisons could be found. Food processing and storage standards had been scrupulously maintained and no illness had been reported from any of the other 68 sites at which the pre-packed lunches had been served.

However, there had been in the group an atmosphere of tension, created by the release two days earlier of a newspaper article reporting on management and financial problems at the youth centre. The children had no doubt picked up on the staff’s anxiety, and this had made them particularly suggestible to the first girl’s complaints. Once the figure of authority had announced that the food may be poisoned, the situation simply spiralled out of control. 

Mass hysteria is relatively uncommon, but it does provide an alarming insight into the human mind and the ease with which it might be influenced and even manipulated. It also points to our propensity to somatize, that is, to convert anxiety and distress into more concrete physical symptoms. Somatization, which can be thought of as an ego defence, is an unconscious process, and people who somatize are, almost by definition, unaware of the psychological origins of their physical symptoms.

As I discuss in The Meaning of Madness, psychological stressors can lead to physical symptoms not only by somatization, which is a psychic process, but also by physical processes involving the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. For example, one study found that the first 24 hours of bereavement are associated with a staggering 21-fold increased risk of heart attack. Since Robert Ader’s early experiments in the 1970s, the field of psychoneuroimmunology has blossomed, uncovering a large body of evidence that has gradually led to the mainstream recognition of the adverse effects of psychological stressors on health, recovery, and ageing, and, inversely, of the protective effects of positive emotions such as happiness, belonging, and a sense of purpose or meaning.

Here, again, modern science has barely caught up with the wisdom of the Ancients, who were well aware of the close relationship between psychological and physical well-being. In Plato’s Charmides, Socrates tells the young Charmides, who has been suffering from headaches, about a charm for headaches that he learnt from one of the mystical physicians to the King of Thrace. However, this great physician cautioned that it is best to cure the soul before curing the body, since health and happiness ultimately depend on the state of the soul: 

He said all things, both good and bad, in the body and in the whole man, originated in the soul and spread from there… One ought, then, to treat the soul first and foremost, if the head and the rest of the body were to be be well. He said the soul was treated with certain charms, my dear Charmides, and that these charms were beautiful words. As a result of such words self-control came into being in souls. When it came into being and was present in them, it was then easy to secure health both for the head and for the rest of the body. 

Mental health is not just mental health. It is also physical health.