At a time when we are scrambling to figure out the right way to live, engulfed by cascading crises, ancient philosophers offer us formidable tools to rethink what we want our personal and collective lives to look like. This essay asks how Aristotle’s idea of the best life—paradoxically a life devoted to “useless” work—helps us to address the prospect of an artificial intelligence revolution and the challenge of sustainability.
Can we learn something from ancient philosophy? Yes, a great deal, especially in times of crisis. If we boarded a time machine to take a tour of ancient Athens, all the philosophers we would meet there would try to lure us into their schools by advertising their philosophy as the gateway to eudaimonia: a happy and flourishing life. “Sign me up!” you will exclaim. Who does not want to be happy and to flourish? But once the old bearded men in tunics start lecturing, we are in for a shock. They turn everything we believe about happiness and flourishing on its head. Good looks, cool friends, romance, sizzling sex, Instagram-ready children, wealth, status, fame, an Ivy league degree, a stellar career? None of this matters, they contend.
Credits: yuriz / istockphoto.com
From Socrates to the Skeptics the ancients shake us out of our complacency with an avalanche of uncomfortable questions: about our upbringing; our career ambitions; our views on morality and politics; our ideas of friendship, love, and family; our role in society. Yet they cannot do their job unless we first dig them out from under a heap of misrepresentations. They catch dust as pillars of Western civilization, are peddled as self-help gurus, or are canceled as “dead white dudes” responsible for racism, colonialism, sexism, and Western civilization’s other sins. That is a travesty, however. They are really Western civilization’s sharpest critics from within!
What is the point of confronting these uncomfortable questions? Since the Soviet Bloc crumbled, more people than ever are free to live as they please. We can kneel in church, but also dance the night away or stand on our head in yoga class. We can celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, or Gay pride. But even in a perfect liberal world in which we have freedom, a fair share of resources, and equal opportunities, we still need to learn how to convert these assets into good lives. What liberal societies fail to give us is tools to deliberate and make good use of all that choice.
Why is that a problem? The last few years have thrown us into ever-growing confusion: extreme weather, populist upheaval, billionaires buzzing through space while capsized migrant dinghies wash up on shores, war in Europe, and much more. In liberal societies—communities of equals—we cannot point fingers at kings, popes, or tyrants for the way things go. We are the sovereign. When the world comes apart, we are jointly to blame.
The ancients can help us fix the mess. For centuries they wrestled with Socrates’ question: How should we live? They meticulously thought through every detail of life: what to eat, how to manage our desires, how to face loss and sorrow, which policies to endorse, where we fit into the universe. Taken together their contributions form history’s most vigorous discussion yet about what defines the good life.
In what follows I examine one particular definition of the good life—that of Aristotle—and ask how it can help us contend with two key problems of our time: the prospect of an artificial intelligence (AI) revolution and the challenge of sustainability.
As parents it is hard not to feel dread these days: are we preparing our children for a future that will not exist? I recently watched a documentary with my thirteen-year-old daughter about the jobs, from truck drivers to radiologists, that apostles of the AI revolution predict will soon disappear. “I hope,” she said, matter-of-factly, “that judges won’t be replaced in my life-time” (currently her favorite career). “Or else novelists” (number two on her list). Meanwhile the climate apocalypse she and her classmates conjure up on colorful banners, when they skip school to join Fridays for Future demonstrations, edges closer and closer. One day, friends from Vancouver report about life under a “heat dome.” Another day, my brother in Germany grimly jokes about putting his daughters, aged five and one, to sleep in floaties after floods engulfed entire towns near where he lives. How long, I wonder, until we will watch our own car float down the street or come home to a house in flames.
Can Aristotle help? The best life, he argues, is one of leisure. It also has a moderate ecological footprint. Aristotelians would welcome AI and robots to the extent they free us from menial work. And the lifestyle they champion does not require unsustainable economic growth. Yet making a case for Aristotle’s life of leisure turns out to be surprisingly hard.
Consider the thought-experiment Aristotle proposes in his Exhortation to Philosophy: one day you are transported to the Isles of the Blessed, a place where all your material needs—hunger, shelter, healthcare, etc.—are provided for, so you do not have to worry about a thing. Is the freedom you would enjoy there a blessing or a curse? What would you do all day long? Hang out idly on the beach? Drink and party? Is not a life without purpose a nightmare even if it comes with material comfort?
As the debate about an unconditional basic income (UBI) goes mainstream, Aristotle’s question becomes an existential one for all of us. What happens if work runs out and the state puts money into our pocket with no strings attached? Andrew Yang, the hapless candidate for the Democratic party’s nomination in the 2020 US presidential election and for New York mayor in 2021, made UBI his signature policy proposal. Robots and AI are coming for our jobs, he argued in his 2018 book, The War on Normal People. The Great Displacement will lead to fear, misery, and social unrest, which, in turn, will give rise to autocrats. Donald Trump was just a first glimpse into that dystopian future. But UBI, Yang believes, can still nip it in the bud.
Yang’s argument is based on fear. He wants UBI to save us from upheaval. Others, like Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, see the formula of AI plus UBI as a springboard to utopia. But even in the best-case scenario, in which a combination of technological innovation and humane social policies gets us a life along the lines of Aristotle’s Isles of the Blessed, the question of what we would do there remains.
For Aristotle leisure is a blessing. It does not doom us to a meaningless life but sets us free to do what really matters: read books, produce art, discuss politics, study science and philosophy. The less we must toil to earn a living, the more time we have to develop our creative, moral, and intellectual capabilities. The Isles of the Blessed, where we can enjoy this kind of life, is Aristotle’s idea of paradise. Is this an attractive vision? Many are reluctant to sign on.
To start with, take the Protestant work ethic. It considers hard-earned wealth proof of God’s grace. The self-satisfaction you see radiating from Rembrandt’s portraits of seventeenth century Calvinist merchants does not just come from the riches they have amassed, but also from their confidence that they are going to heaven. Connecting prosperity to salvation in this way, as the sociologist Max Weber noted, provides a powerful incentive to work. For Weber it gave rise to capitalism. On this view spending time on pursuits that do not increase wealth is not the gate to paradise—it paves the way to hell.
But UBI also conflicts with something more fundamental in a free-market society: its fundamental principle of distributive justice. The basic idea is this: what we do with our lives is up to us—how much we learn, how hard we work, whether we make apple pie or software programs, teach math in school or perform brain surgery, sit behind the supermarket checkout or head a multinational corporation. But when it comes to rewards—money and status—we get what we deserve: proportional to the value of our contribution. Critics of meritocracy focus on the many ways in which access to opportunities is not really equal (the millionaire’s child has much better chances to advance than the janitor’s). Or they ask if it is fair to reward certain types of work more than others. But it is the logic of meritocracy itself that turns compensation without contribution into a contradiction in terms.
The anthropologist James Suzman argues in his 2020 book, Work: A Deep History from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, that our fixation on productivity has even deeper cultural roots. It goes all the way back to the Neolithic revolution, 12,000 years ago, when agriculture replaced hunting and gathering. Hunter-gatherers, according to Suzman, trusted that nature provides abundantly for them. Wild animals and plants easily satisfied their needs. And thanks to a social ethic that discouraged competing and hoarding, they could rely on solidarity as well. To sustain their lifestyle they only had to work about fifteen hours per week. The rest of the time they enjoyed leisure. Farmers, by contrast, always worry that floods, droughts, or insects will wipe out the few crops they depend on. This puts pressure on them to stock up on food in case of a famine. As the farmer’s fear of scarcity supplants the forager’s trust in nature, the modern drive to work takes shape. This drive became so deeply ingrained, Suzman argues, that we still feel compelled to be productive even though scarcity in our time has long ceased to be a threat. Rather than enjoying leisure like our hunter-gatherer forebears, we make up artificial needs whose satisfaction keeps us busy. These artificial needs, in turn, fuel unsustainable economic growth. To break the vicious circle, Suzman concludes, we must rehabilitate leisure.
There is a silver lining in all these explanations: if our approach to work is grounded in culture, it is not written in stone. Cultural attitudes can change. But the desire to work also seems to have deeper roots in our nature. Many of us go to work for less shallow reasons than money or fear of starving: our jobs are tied so deeply to our identity and sense of purpose that a life in which we are no longer needed as nurses, educators, engineers, judges, carpenters, or pilots looks horribly empty. As G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx noted, when we bake bread, build houses or heal patients we are not just satisfying needs, but also developing our natural abilities. Without work we cannot realize ourselves.
Aristotle, of course, values these kinds of labor. After all, we live in the real world, not on the Isles of the Blessed. We cannot focus on poetry or philosophy if we are freezing, hungry, sick, fearful of burglars or of a tyrant’s henchmen. To satisfy our needs we need masons, farmers, doctors, policemen, lawmakers, and so on. But Aristotle also argues that our highest capabilities are those we exercise when we pursue the life of the mind. The more time we dedicate to it, the better. No longer having to bring in the harvest, build houses, see patients, fly airplanes, and so on liberates us to do things that, for Aristotle, are even more worthwhile. The choice for him is not between working and being idle, but between different kinds of work—ergon in Greek. The activities that make up the life of the mind are the noblest form of ergon. Aristotle concedes that this ergon is “useless” if judged by its practical benefits (unlike the ergon of farmers, engineers, nurses, or pilots). Yet it is indispensable for living up to our full potential. A life in which we do not develop our creative, moral, and intellectual capabilities is crippled for Aristotle. It wastes the finest things nature has given us. Far from pushing us into a life without purpose, leisure thus enables us to flourish by realizing the telos (end) of our nature.
Yes, in its Aristotelian form that ideal is outrageously elitist, confined to Greek men. To find time to read, study, and discuss, Aristotle argues, Greek men need slaves to do the menial work (cleaning, cooking etc.) and a wife to take care of the household. The arguments he offers in this regard are among his most appalling, both racist and sexist. They include the division of humankind into Greeks and Barbarians, the case for “natural” slavery, and the claim that women are intellectually inferior to men.
The good news is that we do not need to “cancel” Aristotle. We can just throw out that unsavory framework and democratize his ideal. If the key commodity is leisure, UBI would allow everyone to cultivate the mind without the need for slaves or housewives. Already in 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes claimed that his grandchildren would not need to work more than fifteen hours per week. The extraordinary increase of productivity in the modern age, Keynes argued, would gradually liberate us from wage labor. He likewise observed how technological innovation steadily cut down the load of menial tasks. Thanks to automation and washing machines, then, we could all inhabit the Isles of the Blessed! Why did Keynes’ prediction not come true? The actual productivity gains since 1930, James Suzman stresses, in fact exceed Keynes’s expectations. It is the work compulsion Suzman traces back to the Stone Age, and the artificial needs it generates today, that prevent us from taking a break.
There is a parallel to UBI on the left where theorists like Aaron Bastani try to revive Marx’s utopian vision of a post-work society. In 2019, Bastani published a manifesto for what he calls Fully Automated Luxury Communism. While advocates of UBI want to tax corporations to generate the required revenue, Bastani wants to expropriate them and divide up profits equitably among the citizens. But the less and the more radical version converge on making leisure available to all.
Putting money into people’s pockets of course is not enough. We would also need to turn education and culture into public goods—schools, colleges, libraries, museums, theatres—so we can make productive use of our free time to realize what Aristotle takes to be the human telos. The question, however, is no longer whether this is feasible, but whether we can muster the political will to do it.
But is not it frivolous to pursue the life of the mind given the many pressing problems—climate change, poverty, racism, war—we should be taking on? Many feel that fighting for righteous causes is the nobler choice. Yet when we are trying to eradicate these problems, are we not aiming at a sustainable, just, and peaceful society with ample leisure? Arguably, then, we are aiming to create the conditions for a life in which we could, without feeling guilty, cultivate the mind. We might not prioritize it in the present, but we would still choose to fight now, so we can write poetry and discuss philosophy later.
And is the life of the mind as “useless” as Aristotle makes it appear? Or could it be part of the solution? Its greatest economic advantage is that it is never in short supply. Unlike the scarce resources we fight over—wealth, power, fame—it is a non-scarce good that in principle can be enjoyed by everyone. It does not matter whether ten or ten billion people grasp that two plus two is four: when it comes to the insights of science and philosophy, we never need to scrimp. The same is true for novels, art, and music. No matter how many people read Anna Karenina or see the Mona Lisa, they will not deplete them.
In a society centered on the life of the mind, as Aristotle envisages it, citizens would be most passionate about a non-scarce good. At the same time, Aristotle notes, they would only desire a “moderate” amount of material goods—not because they would be forced to be frugal or because they would want to share from the goodness of their heart. They would be moderate for purely egoistic reasons: why waste time on earning money beyond of what we need to sustain our cultural and intellectual interests? Given the choice, Aristotelians prefer to spend time on poetry and philosophy, not on working to be able to afford more expensive cars or bigger houses.
Such a society, then, would not destroy nature for the sake of conspicuous consumption. It also would not initiate wars over economic resources or be plagued by huge economic divides. Are these not pretty robust social benefits? The elegance of Aristotle’s solution lies in that it does not preach renunciation. It is not about limiting our desires but about redirecting them towards goods that, at least by Aristotle’s standard, are more valuable anyway. We are better off realizing our creative, moral, and intellectual capabilities than working for stuff that does not satisfy genuine needs.
There is a catch, though. Aristotle was not drawn to the life of the mind just because it is key to living up to our full potential, but also because it connects us to the divine. The more we cultivate our mind, the more we become like the Divine Mind—the god of the philosophers, a pure intelligence that supposedly is the source of the universe’s rational order. That is Aristotle’s standard to measure the quality of life: the more godlike, the better. Even if we agree with Aristotle that the life of the mind realizes capabilities grounded in our nature, that is not a sufficient reason to prioritize it. Someone might still say that, rather than writing poetry or discussing philosophy, he prefers to have lots of sex, boss people around, delight in his neighbor’s envy by showing off his brand-new Porsche, relax in a luxury beach resort, and so on. He may well acknowledge his ability to learn math and physics, but show no interest in developing it. Aristotle thought he could prove his point by appealing to an objective standard of excellence: God. But unless we are prepared to argue that some form of divine intelligence governs the universe (which I am not!), this argument for the life of the mind is in trouble.
Can we come up with alternative arguments? We all know from experience the pleasure of “useless” activities—listening to music, reading novels, discussing politics and philosophy, understanding the natural and social worlds we live in. Can we do more than appeal to pleasure to explain their value? Recognizing the cultural grounds of the unsustainable productivity paradigm is one important step towards rehabilitating leisure. This does not mean that we need to look down on workaholics. We only need to expand the concept of work to include—and ideally give pride of place to—the kind of ergon Aristotle calls “useless.” Getting excited about “useless” work will not just protect us from despair if more and more “useful” work is taken over by machines. It is also a question of survival as economic growth moves us closer to self-destruction. Whether we find the prospect of a sustainable society with less traditional work appealing arguably hinges on our willingness to embrace “useless” work. Aristotle makes a powerful, though not conclusive, case for that.
Carlos Fraenkel is James McGill Professor at McGill University, Montreal, with a joint appointment in philosophy and Jewish studies. He was a guest at the IWM in 2022.