And the critical difference between relaxation and leisure.

In Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle outlines the nature of happiness, which, he reminds us, is the “end of living” or purpose of life. Happiness, he says, is not a disposition but an activity, or else it might belong to someone who slept through his whole life, or to someone suffering the greatest misfortunes.

Some activities, he continues, are chosen for the sake of something else, while others are chosen for their own sake. And it is among the latter that happiness is to be found, for happiness is not in want of anything. Activities that are chosen for their own sake are those from which nothing more is sought than the activity itself, and it is also of this kind that virtuous actions are thought to be.

It would be strange if happiness lay in amusement rather than in virtuous activity, for then man would toil and trouble all his life for the sake of nothing more than amusement. In truth, he amuses himself only so that he may exert himself. Amusement is a sort of relaxation, necessary only because of the impossibility of continuous activity.

Any chance person, even a slave, can enjoy the bodily pleasures no less than the best man; but no one assigns to a slave a share in happiness—unless he assigns to him also a share in human life. For happiness, as has been said, does not reside in sensual pleasure, but in virtuous activity.

Philosophic contemplation

Having established that happiness consists in activity that is chosen for its own sake, and especially in virtue, Aristotle argues that, of all such activities, it is philosophic contemplation that leads to the highest happiness.

The pleasures of philosophy, he says, are marvelous both for their purity and their enduringness. Man, more than anything, is distinguished by reason, and the life of reason is the most self-sufficient, the most pleasant, the happiest, best, and most godlike of all.

Indeed, the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must surely be contemplative. All life aims at God and eternity: plants and animals participate in the eternal through reproduction, but man comes nearer through philosophic contemplation. Contemplation and, therefore, happiness are the fruits of leisure, for we are busy that we may have leisure, and make war that we may live in peace.

To be happy, one does not need many or great things, and the life of virtue and contemplation can be practiced, indeed, more easily practiced, with but moderate means. The happy person is bound to seem strange, since the many and miserable only perceive, and judge by, external possessions.

Leisure in Politics

Aristotle returns to the subject of leisure in Politics. The state, he says, should aim at something more than mere survival or self-sufficiency:

Men must be able to engage in business and go to war, but leisure and peace are better; they must do what is necessary and indeed what is useful, but what is honourable is better … If it be disgraceful in men not to be able to use the goods of life, it is peculiarly disgraceful not to be able to use them in time of leisure—to show excellent qualities in action and war, and when they have peace and leisure to be no better than slaves.

To make time for leisure, virtue, and contemplation, Athenian citizens should have no part in agriculture or manufacturing—which are to be left in the care of slaves.

Discussion and relevance today

Anyone who loves his or her work, and who does it for its own sake, will agree with Aristotle: performing this activity, whether it be a job or a hobby, is a source of bliss. And if this activity can help or touch others, then our happiness is all the more complete.

But the most complete happiness comes from reflecting on the preferred activity, its purpose, and its meaning. For instance, it is a great thing to love gardening, but it is an even greater thing to understand why we love gardening, because it tells us something eternal and universal about what it is to be a human being, and connects us with everyone else who loves, has loved, or will love gardening.

Insightful and illuminating is the distinction drawn between time spent in amusement and relaxation, necessary because of the impossibility of continuous activity, and time spent in leisure, that is, in contemplation, friendship, and other virtuous activities.

Economic imperatives have led us to associate free time exclusively with amusement and relaxation, so that many people who retire, and no longer need to flop on a beach or in front of a screen, find themselves at a loss—essentially, because they have never been schooled in leisure (in fact, the Greek word for “leisure”—schole— is the root of our word “school”). But by conflating relaxation and leisure, we risk losing out on the fruits of peace and civilization, and, so, on the highest happiness.

As a moral philosophy, Aristotelian ethics, also called virtue ethics, is astonishingly modern, even futuristic, with people poised to have much more free time as robots take over from slaves and workers.

So much has changed since the time of Aristotle, and yet so little.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle

His students Plato and Xenophon described Socrates as ugly and made much out of this. But his supposed repulsiveness did not prevent Socrates from leading a rich and remarkable love life. So how ugly was Socrates, and might Plato and Xenophon have had good reasons for inventing or exaggerating their teacher’s ugliness?

Socrates was remarkably full-blooded for an ascetic philosopher. In Xenophon’s Symposium, he says, “For myself I cannot name the time at which I have not been in love with someone.” By all accounts, Socrates’ greatest love was with the famously handsome Alcibiades, who was by some twenty years his junior.

In 432 BCE, Socrates and Alcibiades fought together at the Battle of Potidaea, where the middle-aged plebeian and the young aristocrat became unlikely tent-mates. In his Life of Alcibiades, Plutarch relates that “all were amazed to see [Alcibiades] eating, exercising, and tenting with Socrates, while he was harsh and stubborn with the rest of his lovers.” In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea and, after that, let him keep the prize for valour.

At the end of Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades confesses that he tried several times to tempt Socrates with his good looks, but each time without success. Finally, he turned the tables round and began to chase the older man, inviting him to dinner and on one occasion persuading him to stay the night. He then lay beside him and put it to him that, of all his lovers, he was the only one worthy of him, and he would be a fool to refuse him any favours if only he could make him into a better man.

Socrates replied in his usual, ironical manner:

Alcibiades, my friend, you have indeed an elevated aim if what you say is true, and if there really is in me any power by which you may become better; truly you must see in me some rare beauty of a kind infinitely higher than any which I see in you. And therefore, if you mean to share with me and to exchange beauty for beauty, you will have greatly the advantage of me; you will gain true beauty in return for appearance—like Diomedes, gold in exchange for brass.

After this, Alcibiades crept under the older man’s threadbare cloak and held him all night in his arms—but in the morning arose “as from the couch of a father or an elder brother.”

Other lovers

Socrates also had several women in his life, the earliest, perhaps, being Aspasia of Miletus, who is mostly remembered for her relationship with Pericles, the architect of the Athenian Golden Age.

In Plato’s Menexenus, Socrates says that he learnt the art of rhetoric from Aspasia, “an excellent mistress … who has made so many good speakers [including] the best among the Hellenes—Pericles, the son of Xanthippus.” Socrates agrees to recite a funeral oration that Aspasia recently wrote and taught to him. He tells Menexenus that he ought to remember the speech since, each time he forgot the words, Aspasia threatened to slap him! The speech that Socrates delivers resembles, and satirizes, the famous funeral oration delivered by Pericles and preserved for posterity by the historian Thucydides. When Socrates is done reciting, Menexenus marvels that such a fine speech could have been written by a woman.

Late in life, Socrates married the much younger Xanthippe, with whom he had three sons. That their eldest son, Lamprocles, was named after Xanthippe’s father suggests that he was the more eminent of the child’s two grandfathers.

In Plato’s Phaedo, when his friends come to visit Socrates in the state prison, they find Xanthippe sitting beside him with a babe in arms. Socrates is not long to drink of the deadly hemlock, and Xanthippe is in such a state, “crying out and beating herself,” that Socrates asks a friend to have her taken home.

Xanthippe is not otherwise mentioned in Plato, but in Xenophon’s Symposium it transpires that she had quite the temper. When a friend asks him why he does not tutor his own wife “instead of letting her remain, of all the wives that are … the most shrewish,” Socrates compares himself to an expert horseman with a fondness for spirited horses, and claims that it is precisely for her temperament that he married Xanthippe [Greek, “Yellow Horse”]—for “if I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every other human being.”

There is much confusion and contradiction in later sources as to whether Socrates married twice, and as to whether Myrto, the daughter of Lysimachus, was his first wife, second wife, concurrent wife, mistress, ward, or lodger.

Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1861).

His appearance

In Plato’s Theaetetus, the geometer Theodorus describes the young Theatetus to Socrates as “very like you, for he has a snub nose, and projecting eyes, although these features are not so marked in him as in you.”

In Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates himself says that he has protruding eyes, a snub nose, thick lips, and a paunch. He jokes that these features are to his advantage, his eyes, for instance, enabling him to “squint sideways and command the flanks.” Since Xenophon’s Symposium is set in 422 BCE, Socrates is describing himself at the age of around 48.

But despite his supposed repulsiveness, Socrates seems to have formed profound romantic attachments, including with the much younger Alcibiades, who would have topped any Golden Age list of most eligible bachelors, and the famously attractive and accomplished Aspasia, from whom he learnt the art of rhetoric.

Parallels with the mythological satyr Silenus, who hid his inner beauty, may have led later writers, starting with Plato and Xenophon, to exaggerate his aberrant features. But if Socrates really did look like a satyr, why did the comedian Aristophanes, who knew him, and satirized him on the stage, not pick up on his physical appearance?

Socrates was condemned to death in part for “corrupting the youth”, and the story of Alcibiades trying and failing hard to seduce him may have been invented by Plato to help rehabilitate his reputation. In this context, making him as ugly as possible served to diminish any threat that he might have posed. It also created a golden opportunity to present wisdom, even in the ugliest of bodies, as infinitely more beautiful than the most beautiful of bodies.

Socrates, while not handsome, may not have been all that ugly. But even if he was very ugly, he, like most of us, would have been more attractive, or less repulsive, in his younger days, as a fit battle-ready hoplite.​

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.

In Book 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics (c. 330 BCE), Aristotle argues that moral virtues are developed by habit. Unlike sight and hearing, which are given to us at birth, virtue is not in our nature. But neither is it contrary to our nature, which is adapted to receive it. Just as a sculptor became a sculptor by sculpting, so the virtuous became virtuous by exercising virtue.

One cannot define virtue with any precision because the goodness of a feeling or action is highly person- and context-dependent. All that can be said is that virtue, like strength, is undermined by a lack or excess of training. For instance, he who flees from everything becomes a coward, while he who runs headlong into every danger becomes rash. Courage, in contrast, is given by the mean.

Moral excellence is intimately related to pleasure and pain. It is in the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain that bad deeds are committed, and good deeds omitted. Hence, it is by pleasure and pain that bad people are bad.

There are three objects of choice, the noble, the advantageous, and the pleasant, and three objects of avoidance which are their contraries, the base, the injurious, and the painful. The good tend to go right about these, whereas the bad tend to go wrong. This is especially true of pleasure, which is common to the animals, and also contained in the advantageous and the noble. The good feel pleasure from the most beautiful, noble [kalos] actions, but the bad or not-good are often confused about what might be most pleasant. It is harder to fight with pleasure than with anger, but virtue, like art, is concerned with what is harder, and the good is better when it is harder.

A person may perform an apparently virtuous action by chance or under duress. An action is only virtuous if it is recognized as being virtuous and performed for that sake by a person with a set, unvarying character. In sum, an action is only virtuous if it is such as a virtuous person would perform.

The Golden Mean

Three things are found in the soul: passions, faculties, and dispositions [hexeis]. As virtues are neither feelings nor faculties, they must be dispositions: dispositions to aim at the intermediate, or mean, between deficiency and excess.

Hitting this mark is a form of success and worthy of praise. While it is possible to fail in many ways, it is possible to succeed in one way only, which is why the one is easy and the other is difficult. By the same token, men may be bad in many ways, but good in one way only.

So far so good, except that not every passion or action admits of a mean: for instance, not envy or murder. It is never a question of murdering the right person, at the right time, in the right way, for murder is neither a deficiency nor an excess, but always and intrinsically vicious.

The principal virtues along with their corresponding vices are listed in the table below.

Copyright Neel Burton

In some cases, one vice can be closer to the virtue than the contrary vice. For instance, rashness is closer to courage than cowardice, and prodigality is closer to liberality than meanness. This is partly because the contrary vice, whether cowardice or meanness, is more common. Hence, people oppose not rashness but cowardice to courage, and not prodigality but meanness to liberality.

It is no easy task to be good. To increase the likelihood of hitting the mark, we should do three things:

  • Avoid the vice that is furthest from the virtue or mean
  • Consider our vices and drag ourselves toward their contrary extremes
  • Be wary of pleasure and pain

To quote Aristotle:

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle… anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

Sometimes, we may somewhat miss the mark, for instance, get angry too soon or not enough, yet still be praiseworthy. It is only when we deviate more markedly from the mean that we become blameworthy.

We help others by being virtuous, but we also help ourselves, for virtue is a disposition to happiness, and happiness is the exercise of virtue.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.​