Aristotle, Your Therapist: What Can a 2,400-Year-Old Guy Teach Teens Today?

Posted by Emily Nelson, '20 on Jan 22, 2020 10:09:02 PM

When high school senior Emily Nelson was assigned Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics in her Capstone Class, she didn't exactly expect a riveting read. So she was surprised to find compelling nuggets of wisdom for the modern teenager. Here is her reflection.

The best thing a teenager can do according to today’s society is not care. Whether it is school, relationships, conversations, work, or otherwise, we try to keep it commitment-free and not too deep.  We throw emphasis on an event or a person being “chill” as some sort of qualifier, an assurance of no emotional or mental exercise one way or the other. It’s not cool to be passionate about something, to be too driven or excited, or even to be visibly happy with the way life is. 

But the truth is we do care. 

We want to become better people, have better relationships, and lead more fulfilling lives. But when our attempts to override bad habits fail, or when responsibilities become too much, we often have a giant mental and emotional breakdown -- and return to “not caring” until it happens again. 

It’s a vicious cycle. 

We walk around all day laden with insecurities, running on 2 hours of sleep, eating neon-colored chemicals, barely even noticing other people let alone saying hello, and then we go home, slap on some sort of avocado-charcoal-coconut exfoliating face mask, and have the audacity to call it “self-care.” 

We know that we want happiness. We know that we want to flourish, yet we don’t know what those things mean or how to get there. This phenomenon could be blamed on many factors (social media, vices like vaping or drugs, stress from school), but wherever it comes from, this flip-flop attitude between not caring and bursting into pieces is the dominant form of teenage coping. 

Aristotle provides the exact antithesis to this; his whole philosophy is that we should care about how we interact with others, about our education, about our hobbies and passions, about ourselves. In fact, we should care so much that we are constantly working to improve them. 

Here are five insights that Aristotle can offer today’s teen.



Taking Ownership

Many teenagers (and people of all ages, really) are dissatisfied with the way they are living, but keep their old habits and way of life because they feel “stuck” where they are. One of the most wonderful things about human beings, the thing that separates us from every other form of life, is that we are rational; this means that we can make our own informed decisions! According to Aristotle, the first characteristic of happiness is that it is self-sufficient (it cannot depend on anyone else), and it must be actively chosen. This realization, that we have the power to design our lives, is both empowering and liberating. 

Good Soul

According to Aristotle, the best way to live is to achieve eudaimonia, which, roughly translated means happiness or flourishing, but literally translated means “good soul.” So, what are the characteristics of this good soul we’re aiming at? We already know that it is self-sufficient and must be actively chosen. It is also habitual and intrinsic; the things that we do to flourish must become second-nature or part of us.  It requires self-knowledge, and taking pleasure in what is fundamentally good. If we train ourselves to go out of our way to do kind deeds and things that better our souls (elaborated on later) every day, we will find ourselves feeling exponentially more fulfilled and pleasant than picking up our phones just one last time or having ten cookies. If we are striving to flourish, there should be no need to dull the senses - if we are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, we are no longer rational, and therefore we are not truly happy.  

Your Life is an Art 

So what actions can we do to flourish? What can we do to keep us from reaching for our phones, or the TV remote, or that tenth cookie? Through carefully and mindfully practicing Virtue, which is a characteristic involving choice that consists in observing the mean relative to us, defined by a rational principle. Here are the three kinds of virtue we can strive for:

  1. Technical; get good at something! This is knowledge for the sake of making. Take up a fun activity that requires skill and feel the fulfillment of getting better and better at it every day! The activity could be anything: basketball, playing the piano or guitar, cooking, some sort of craft, etc. 
  2. Moral; be kind to others and to yourself! This is knowledge for the sake of doing, and it is the most important virtue that we can (somewhat) easily attain. We will talk more about this in the next chapter. 
  3. Theoretical; Live to learn! This is knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Take more time to observe and appreciate the world around you; ask questions, read a book about your favorite subject, pursue and find the joy in education.

Your Life is a Balance

Many teenagers spend at least part of their high school career worried about what it is they will do in life; doctor, teacher, lawyer, musician, astronaut, the list is endless. But how many people stress about how good of a person they are or want to be? Aristotle argues that the kind of person you are, how you interact with people and the world, defines you much more than your profession or skills. In order to become a better person morally, to practice moral virtue, we must always try to place our behavior in the center of two extremes. For example, when we are faced with an extremely difficult test, we could be overconfident and not study, we could study for 8 hours and agonize about it until we get it back, or we could practice virtue and study for an hour or so, asking thoughtful questions and feeling prepared but not drained. This scale of deficiency vs. excess can be applied to any situation - a fight with a friend or family member, our response to rejection, even what to eat for breakfast in the morning (if one so chooses)! 

Human Interaction (Gasp!) 

In Aristotle’s point of view, friendship encompasses all other virtues.Friendship to Aristotle was a broad term, the definition of which is simply harmony and goodwill (toward all people we encounter)! This is really refreshing in our society - the idea that we are connected to others, we are responsible for our interactions with them, even if they are not considered our closest friends. Living like this will help us become better people, to get closer to flourishing. 

We must find the mean between exploding with emotion and complete apathy, and learn how to navigate challenges with strength and care. Only then, Artistotle argues, can we truly lead a meaningful life. Aristotle is a breath of fresh air to teenagers today, and hopefully, his teachings will help us to realize that the key to flourishing is caring. 


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