Tom Hodgkinson: 'Give me suffering over self-esteem'

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The Independent Online

ne of the most popular lessons at the Idler Academy is ancient Greek philosophy. The author and former priest Dr Mark Vernon, who I met at Alain de Botton's Platonic school in Bloomsbury, gives the classes, and I assist.

The life of the city of Athens was a remarkable period in culture: the two or three centuries around the life and death of Socrates (469-399BC) gave us Socrates himself, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, the Sceptics, the Cynics and the Eclectics, all of whose approaches to life persist today.

The most outstanding of these philosophers was Aristotle, who lived from 384BC to 322BC. He was a pupil of Plato, who himself was a pupil of Socrates. He taught Alexander the Great for a short period, and later founded the Lyceum, a school in Athens. It is worth remembering too that the Greek word "scholia", which turned into our word for school, meant leisure, but a dynamic leisure used for self-education and the development of self-knowledge.

Aristotle was concerned with how to live well, and he used the word "eudaimonia" to describe the goal of life. This is usually translated as "happiness", but it actually has a more subtle meaning, and Dr Vernon says it should be translated as something like "flourishing" or "fulfilment". Aristotle rejects the Epicurean position which says that life should be about pleasure and the avoidance of stress. Instead, the fulfilled person should take responsibility for their own actions and contribute to society.

Misfortune and disaster, he says, are an inevitable part of life. Indeed, they are absolutely necessary, as scholar Anders Piltz puts it, "if a human being [is] to become truly human – persevering, unselfish, sympathetic, and humble – and as valuable opportunities to practise the habit of moral virtue".

I've thought about this last point a great deal and I see it as not only comforting but very sensible. Suffering is, in fact, central to life and cannot be removed. The "happiness" industry, with its bland panaceas both literary and chemical, does not get this. Without suffering, we would become deeply unpleasant people. And that is perhaps the mistake of the progressive schooling system: by concentrating on "'happiness" and "self-esteem", which I see as synonyms for "smugness" and "pride", it runs the risk of producing young people with lots of attitude but little humility.

Aristotle taught that "vita contemplativa, the contemplative life, was the best. Not for him money-getting in the market, or chasing fame in political life, or seeking pleasure. It was contemplation and the use of the mind that was important, as Piltz puts it: "It is not pleasure but intellectual speculation which is most in harmony with human nature, which more than anything else make a human being human." Aristotle was hugely influential on the intellectual life of the Middle Ages, which gave birth to the university, free schooling and the cathedrals.

What I think is particularly criminal, though, is that this elementary stuff is not taught in schools, and that includes the posh schools. Take my own education. My aspiring parents, funded by two Fleet Street salaries in the glory days before Wapping, sent my brother and me to private schools. I went to Westminster and then studied English at Cambridge. It was, pretty much, the best education that money could buy. But did I study a whit of Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans? Did I emerge from this powerhouse with even a passing knowledge of Plato's Republic? No, I did not. That sort of material had become a minor specialism, and was only taught to Classics students.

Now this is particularly ridiculous when you consider that the poets I studied, from Chaucer to Pope and Keats to Yeats, would have all been well schooled in the greats. Shelley did his own translation of Plato's "Symposium" from the Greek. In fact, I sold a copy in our shop the other day. It's a real hoot.

And the thing is, this is not difficult stuff. I spent many painful hours in the university library with The Order of Things by Michel Foucault and Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida, as these philosophers were fashionable then. I recently ploughed through Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre. It is admittedly a great book, but does it really add much to Aristotle in its insistence on personal responsibility? Well, I now believe that the fashionable philosophers should be read in your spare time, and that the job of school and university should be to give students a proper grounding and foundation in the basics, upon which the airy stuff can be placed later. My education was all icing and no cake. But Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and the rest can be read with great ease by anybody, and they are just as relevant today as they were 2,300 years ago.