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EUDAIMONIA (and St George in Retirement)


You asked me if I had written anything about Eudaimonia, which I must have mentioned recently in some context that I now forget.


No, I’m afraid I haven’t, but maybe I should. In doing so, I find myself straying into related territory – what an Australian called St George in Retirement.


It all goes back to Aristotle (and probably before him) and his Nicomachean Ethics, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read – probably heavy-going if those of his works that I have dipped into are anything to go by.


What does the word mean? The simplest definition is “happiness” but this misses the point. What after all is happiness?


What I understand by the word is more profound, which sounds rather pompous, but is not – and is sufficiently straightforward and important to be worth exploring. It means the happiness derived from feeling good about oneself, self-worth; and most importantly, having a purpose in life, a sense of achievement.


The distinction between happiness in the sense of enjoying Wein, Weib und Gesang (Wine, Women and Song) and the kind of life recommended by more serious folk is epitomized in the ancient legend of the Choice of Hercules. This again goes back to the Greeks, specifically the Memorabilia of Xenophon (another work that I’m afraid I’ve not read), which is discussed in a book you recommended to me years ago, The Choice of Hercules by the modern British philosopher A C Grayling. Hercules is presented with the choice between two women, one sexy with “plunging décolletage” (to quote Grayling), the other more soberly dressed and offering a worthy life of toil and achievement. The ancient philosophers don’t seem to be quite clear about which way Hercules jumped.


Bringing all this rather dramatically up-to-date, I remember a conversation I had some years ago with someone in her forties, who was complaining light-heartedly that people were being annoyingly critical of her life-style: “Why shouldn’t I enjoy myself? I’m not doing anyone else any harm”. I was not unsympathetic to this, although I did think to myself that, although this happy approach might work for someone in her thirties or even forties, it might not play quite so well later in life. But looking back on it now, I think I missed the point. The real point is the one spotted by old Aristotle. A hedonistic life-style may not be a good way ultimately of causing one to feel good about oneself. It may make one ask, later on: “What have I done with my life? What have I achieved?”


This need, as recommended by Aristotle, to find a purpose in life can, of course, be a tough call. Think of people who are not lucky enough to be in high-flying, intellectually demanding jobs; who do not have careers that give them a sense of achievement; people who are bored with where they find themselves; maybe with broken families, or with no families at all; with no children or children who are more worry than help. This, of course, is not a new problem. But there is one aspect of it that is relatively new. In times gone by, religion – certainly Christianity - did a good job in supplying an answer: don’t worry about this world; you can be saved; believe in the Redeemer; all may be well. This no longer has the resonance it used to. Now we are faced with the reality of the world around us.


This is where I start rambling into related aspects, but putting it crudely: Aristotle may have been right; and many centuries after him, Christianity provided a support towards his ideal of Eudaimonia. But now, as religion plays a small, or even non-existent part in our lives, we are on our own. And to continue my rambling – I find this links in with one of my other preoccupations.


Let me explain. I find myself surprised, even amazed at how readily people latch onto causes that seem to me curious and often quite illogical and stupid. An Australian political philosopher called Kenneth Minogue has spotted this and written about it. He calls it the “St George in Retirement syndrome”. St George has killed the dragon: what does he do now?


Minogue says that (to quote him at length rather than trying to summarise) “the story of liberalism, as liberals tell it, is rather like the legend of St. George and the dragon. After many centuries of hopelessness and superstition, St. George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century. The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance. These battles won, he rested for a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence. But, unlike St. George, he did not know when to retire. The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes—the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped. As an ageing warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons—for the big dragons were now harder to come by”.


Forgive me for such a long quote, but he makes an interesting point that seems to link into what I was saying about people’s need to feel good about themselves. They need dragons and those they can find are getting smaller and smaller. We can all think of examples. I can think of many. The most obvious these days are those associated with slavery. No one now approves of slavery. It has been abolished in the civilised world. (I don’t see it much referred to, but we Brits should be proud of the fact that it was we who led the way, against much opposition, particularly from our continental neighbours.) People looking for dragons are reduced to absurd campaigns to take down statues and to desecrate others. And otherwise sensible people are persuaded to “take the knee” in support of an organisation that has objectives going way beyond the praiseworthy one of supporting racial minorities.


Another example is women’s rights – although women can hardly be classed a minority and, dare I say, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to portray them as oppressed when the head of the EU, the leader of its largest member state and the US vice-president are all women. Those who might have been feminists a hundred years ago look around for something else to fight for. And some have found a bizarre substitute: the rights of transgender people. They are certainly a minority and should be respected. But the amazing fact is that the more extreme aspects of their campaigns have been so successful. So successful that major organisations have felt the need to respond to their demands, even in the face of hostility by non-transgender women. Truly a tiny dragon, but one that attracts a surprising amount of attention.


People seem to struggle to find ways to feel good about themselves – to achieve Eudaimonia - and resort to the most extraordinary methods.


G K Chesterton had an interesting comment many years ago: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they become capable of believing in anything”.



Tony Herbert

3 February 2021



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