Since you're now 60-plus, you must
be beginning to think about what it means to be old. I don't mean
you are old, or that you should think you are. Most of you look
remarkably healthy to me. I hope you feel healthy. I'm about 10
years older than most of you, and I do.
But some things change when you get
to be our age. In your case you may be thinking about retiring, or
maybe you already have. Either way, there's likely to be a problem.
What are you going to do for the rest of your lives? Assuming that
so far you've led successful lives -- we are, in fact, an
extraordinarily fortunate generation as fortune is thought of
nowadays -- you have now to face the biggest challenge of all. Not,
"How shall I make a living?" but, "How shall I live a really good
life?"-- a life that I can look back on with deep satisfaction, a
life that, in old Aristotle's meaning of the word, I can call
Some of you read with me 40 years
ago a portion of Aristotle's Ethics, a
selection of passages that describe his idea of happiness. You may
not remember too well. I remember better, because, despite the
abrupt caesura in my academic career that occurred in 1959, I have
gone on teaching the humanities almost continually to students of
all kinds and ages. In case you don't remember, then, I remind you
that according to Aristotle happiness is not a feeling or sensation
but instead is the quality of a whole life. The emphasis is on
"whole," a life from beginning to end. Especially the end. The last
part, the part you're now approaching, was for Aristotle the most
important for happiness. It makes sense, doesn't it?
Aristotle also said something else.
Happiness, he said, is made up of a lot of different things: having
good habits, both moral and intellectual, and enjoying the things
you and all human beings really need, like a good family and good
friends and a good city to live in, like good health and a decent
education, like a modest but sufficient competence, like the time
to experience good art and do some serious thinking. And one more
thing: good fortune.
stories that are so true they can never happen.
Many people don't pay much attention
to this last of the genuine goods that add up to a good life. I
asked a seminar the other day what proportion of a happy life they
thought good fortune represented. We'd been talking about moral and
intellectual virtues and that sort of thing, and the highest
proportion anyone suggested for good fortune was 50
They asked me what I thought, and I
said 99 percent. They were shocked, silent for a while. Then one of
them gulped and said, "Yeah. You may be right."
In a sense it's a ridiculous
question. Statistics don't apply to individuals. Having this or
that chance of enjoying or suffering this or that fortune, good or
bad, means absolutely nothing about what will happen to you or me.
Even so, we can't not pay attention to probabilities.
The probability that we'll die is
100 percent for all of us. Having said that, let's forget it. Other
probabilities are more interesting, in the sense that it's possible
for us to do something about them. Something, not everything; none
of us can control life and time completely.
I don't have time, even if I could,
to spell out all the things you can actually do in this upcoming
last third of your sojourn on Earth to try to make the whole of
your life thoughtful, fruitful, balanced -- happy.... One is
suggested to me by Virgil. We may have talked about it 40 years
ago. Even if we did, we probably didn't understand it then. I know
I didn't.In the sixth book of the Aeneid,
which we read together -- I hope -- Aeneas decides to take the
greatest of all risks. His father has died, but now he needs his
advice. So Aeneas goes to the Sibyl and asks for help. She
noctes atque dies patet atri
sed revocare gradum superasque
evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor
The way downward is easy from
Black Dis's door stands open night
But to retrace your steps to
There is the trouble, there is the
The Sibyl tells Aeneas that in order
to make the fearful and fated journey down and up again he must
find a Golden Bough that awaits him in the dark forest surrounding
Lake Avernus, "where no birds sing." He finds the bough and
completes the journey, in the course of which he encounters three
shades that affect him deeply. One is the shade of his father, who
gives him good advice and foretells the future of the city Aeneas
will found on the banks of the River Tiber. A second is the shade
of Dido, the woman, the queen of Carthage who loved him and whom he
seduced and then abandoned. She turns her back and won't speak to
him. The third is Phlegyas, whom Aeneas comes upon in the Valley of
His is not a household name, and you
may not recognize it. Phlegyas was a son of Ares, god of war; he
had a daughter whom he loved. Her name was Coronis, and she was
seduced by Apollo and gave birth to Asclepius, the god of
Phlegyas, in his fury at the
heartless seduction of his daughter, burned down the temple of
Apollo at Delphi. Apollo, in turn, threw him down into Hades, where
Aeneas found him crying out, over and over, over and over,
Discite iustitiam moniti et non
Study justice, and do not scorn the
Is that good advice for all of us
seeking to live really good lives? I think so. Of course to study
justice is difficult, for we may all understand it differently; and
what does it mean to "scorn" the gods?
Probably scorning the gods means
believing or acting as if they don't exist. But they do exist.
They're the powers that surround our life and in whose grasp we
enjoy only a little freedom. They have many names, English or Greek
or Latin or Norse or Aborigine or Ojibway, but despite the
difference of names they're pretty much the same everywhere, and
always have been.
Apollo was -- is -- the handsome
stranger with a smile on his face who promises us whatever we
desire and then betrays us. He withholds the thing we desire the
most because we desire it the most. A liar and deceiver, he demands
only one thing, that we love him despite his faults. If we don't,
he punishes us. We can't blame him; it's his way.
Humans might think Phlegyas was
justified in taking revenge on his daughter's seducer, who left her
with a careless smile. But Apollo's way is beyond our justice.
Apollo's justice isn't fair; that's why we have to study
None of us can take Aeneas's
journey, nor, in fact, did he. The story of his descent into the
Underworld and his return to the brightness of the sun is a myth,
and myths are stories that are so true they can never happen.
Something like his journey may happen to anyone. The human name for
it may be despair.
Despair -- the Sickness Unto Death,
Kierkegaard called it. As we enter this last part of our time we
mustn't forget that bad things can happen. The failure of hopes,
the death of friends, the venality of politicians, the manifest
cruelty that stalks the world -- these may tempt us to descend from
Avernus into that dark place where safety seems to lie. But then we
scorn the gods. This great line is from Paul Valéry's "Le
Le vent se lève; il faut
tenter de vivre!
The wind's rising; we have to try to