/Leon Kass on Human Flourishing, Living Well, and Aristotle

Leon Kass on Human Flourishing, Living Well, and Aristotle


Intro. [Recording date: February 16th, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is February 16th, 2021, and before introducing today’s guest, I want to share the results of our poll of your favorite episodes of 2020. I want to thank everyone for listening. I especially appreciate your kind comments about what EconTalk means to you. I’m so lucky to be able to do this. I’m grateful to Liberty Fund, Shalem College and the Hoover Institution for the support to let me do this and the incredible team behind the scenes of Rich Goyette, Amy Willis, Les Cook, and Katie D’Amour.

Here are your Top 10 Episodes of 2020.

First, two honorable mentions: L.A. Paul on Vampires, Life Choices and Transformation, and Vinay Prasad on Cancer Drugs, Medical Ethics and Malignant. They would have been in the top 10 if we had limited voting to people who had heard every episode.

Now, the Top 10.

Number 10, a tie between Yuval Levin on A Time to Build and Tyler Cowen on the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Number 9: Michael Blastland on The Hidden Half.

Number 8: Jay Bhattacharya on the Pandemic.

Number 7: Michael Munger on the Future of Higher Education.

Number 6: Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the Pandemic.

Now, the Top Five.

Number 5, Virginia Postrel on Textiles and the Fabric of Civilization.

Number 4, Glenn Loury on Race, Inequality, and America.

Number 3, Matt Ridley on How Innovation Works.

[Number 2 and Number 1:] And your favorite episodes of 2020–I’m honoring two episodes this year as your favorites, kind of cheating:

Steven Levitt on Freakonomics and the State of Economics, and Dwayne Betts on Reading, Prison and the Million Book Project.

11 episodes got the most votes. But, among people who heard every episode, Dwayne Betts was by far the biggest vote-getter. That split doesn’t usually happen. So, this year, we’re listing your favorite as a tie.


Russ Roberts: Now, for today’s guest, author Leon Kass. Leon is Professor Emeritus at the Committee for Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and the recently named Dean of Faculty at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel. He’s authored many books, including his latest, Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus.

Our topic for today is The Life Well-Lived. We will draw on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and an essay of Leon’s on the topic, “Human Flourishing and Human Excellence: The Truths of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.” This is an essay from an essay collection of Leon’s, titled Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times. Leon, welcome to EconTalk.

Leon Kass: Thanks. Pleasure to be with you, Russ.

Russ Roberts: Where does the name Nicomachean Ethics come from? It’s a daunting title for non-Greek speakers, I think. What does that mean? Why does Aristotle call it that?

Leon Kass: Nicomachus happens to be the name both of Aristotle’s father and of his son. And, he has other works on ethics. This is the most famous. I don’t know that he had in mind that this was somehow doing honor to his father, and giving his instruction to his son, but it does have that echo attached to a teaching which otherwise doesn’t look particularly closely into family life.

Russ Roberts: Aristotle casts a very long shadow over Western thought. When did he live? And, say a little bit about his influence. We’ve talked in an episode with Mary Hirschfeld on Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages. He had a big rebirth and influence. So, he’s kind of an important guy.

Leon Kass: Well, very. Used to be known in the Middle Ages as the master of those who know or as The Philosopher, Thomas Aquinas referred to him–not even by name. Aristotle was born in Macedonia in 384 BC; died, I think, 322, 321 BC. He lived half of his life in Athens. He was a student of Plato’s; and unlike Plato, who was a student of Socrates and Socrates wrote nothing, Plato wrote nothing in his own name, but wrote Socratic dialogues.

Aristotle wrote what are thought to be treatises in his own name, on just about every conceivable subject: the history and the parts of animals, his logic, his rhetoric, his ethics, his physics, his metaphysics, and there are lots of his works that are lost. He really undertook to give an account of just about everything that was humanly thinkable.

His influence was, as you say, widely felt in the Middle Ages, not only Thomas Aquinas but also the Muslim thinkers, Al-Farabi and [inaudible 00:05:22] and in Jewish thought, Maimonides, picked up Aristotle and tried to produce syntheses between his thinking and that of their own scripture. And, he remains influential. I think his work on ethics, the one we’re going to discuss, is probably the most famous work on ethics in the tradition, and people still read it now for what it has to offer.

Russ Roberts: What was he trying to achieve? What was his goal in this book?

Leon Kass: The goal in this book is–he’s partly silently in controversy with his teacher, Plato, who addresses some of the same questions in The Republic, but that doesn’t need to concern us here. He’s basically taking up the large question. It’s not asked straight up, but the large question is, how to live, and how to live in order to live well, or if you want to translate this, what’s a good human life? What’s an especially good human life? What might be the best human life? A subject that should be of interest to us. And, if we could lay out something about this subject, it might help the readers live better.

Russ Roberts: But, isn’t it kind of strange for a modern reader to think that somebody 2,500 years ago, approximately, had something useful to say on this? I mean, really, come on, Leon. He lived in a time–first of all, he wore a toga, I bet. What the heck? Why is he someone we should turn to, in search of the meaning of life, or how to live well?

Leon Kass: Well, look, you begin by raising at least one of the obstacles that anybody would have today. I’m thinking that a dead white Greek–

Russ Roberts: Slave holder, I think, too?

Leon Kass: I don’t know that he was a slave holder. He has, in the politics a defense of the natural slave, widely misunderstood. The natural slave might be such a category to call into question all conventional slavery. But, that’s for another book and another time.

Here, slavery doesn’t enter into this discussion. But, I think part of the argument would be look, times have changed, circumstances change, but there’s certain fundamental things about human nature that might remain the same. The obstacles to living well, in terms of the passions that enslave us from within, are still with us. Whether it’s fear, or excessive lust, or miserliness, or anger, or curmudgeonliness, these things are permanent possibilities of human beings, and he has something to say about how to deal with them.

And he has something to say about what some of the peaks of our humanity might be, in terms of fine character, in terms of friendship, in terms of the joys of learning and understanding.

And, I think the proof of the pudding as to whether this has something to say to us is to sit down and live with it for a while, take it seriously, talk about it with your friends, or talk about it in class, as I’ve done, or did for 20 weeks, four hours a week, probably a dozen times with undergraduate and graduate students.

They had to pretend that they were going to learn something from this at the beginning. But, all of them–I won’t say all, but almost all of them found something really of value from studying this book and thinking about their own lives. I hope I can persuade your skeptical self of that in the time we have remaining.

Russ Roberts: Well, I have to confess I’ve never read any Aristotle. I did downloaded a Kindle sample of the Nicomachean Ethics, which I will turn to after this conversation if you convince me. But, right now, my full knowledge of Aristotle comes from EconTalk guest Mike Munger who likes to allude to him and your essay–which is quite beautiful. It does open me up to the possibility that I might learn something from Aristotle.


Russ Roberts: Now, we talk a lot on this program about human flourishing. That’s a word that has a lot of potential interpretation. It’s a little bit like happiness. It’s what Marvin Minsky called a suitcase word–you can stuff a lot into it. Different people stuff different things into it. What did Aristotle mean by human flourishing?

Leon Kass: Well, this is, in a way, what is unfolded in this account. The term, and I use the term in reading the Ethics and in translating the Greek term, is eudaimonia. Made up of three parts: ‘e-u’ means well, ‘daimon’ is some kind of demon or deity, and the suffix ‘i-a’, ness. So, well demon-ness. Aristotle inherits this word from people who would say, ‘Oh, a happy person is a person upon whom the gods treat well.’ It’s a person who prospers, because the gods smile on him and treat him well.

Aristotle takes this term, and Plato before him took this term, and tried to treat it really as the object of human aspiration. What do we all want? We all want to live a eudaimon life: we want to reach this form of flourishing.

I prefer flourishing to happiness, because in modern lingo, happiness cashes out to contentment, and it means having a good feeling about yourself and your life. Whereas in Aristotle’s account, it’s filled out as something much deeper and much richer. It is somehow the blossoming of the deepest aspects of our humanity in excellent form.

He gets at this by saying, ‘Look, everybody says what they want out of life is to be happy, or to flourish.’ But, it turns out, just as we now would treat it as a suitcase in which different people will fill it differently, Aristotle says people mean different things by it. And, you check the opinions of people, and they’re all over the map.

But, if you don’t want to just listen to the opinions, but you look at how they live their lives and discern from the lives that they lead, what they think human flourishing is, it turns out that basically, there are three or four lives.

And, this is in a way where–the point of departure is he begins by saying, ‘Look, what’s the good at which we all aim? Everybody says it’s eudaimonia, it’s happiness or flourishing. But, the many in the wise don’t give the same account.’ If you look at the lives that they lead, most people think happiness is having fun or indulging yourself in certain kinds of ordinary pleasures. The more refined people, the ambitious people, they say, from the way they live, it looks like they think life is gaining recognition or gaining honor, including honor in the sense of office.

And then there are some small group of people–we’ll talk about them later–they think happiness is learning or understanding or becoming wise. And, ‘Oh, by the way,’ he says, ‘there’s a fourth kind of life. It’s rather prominent. It’s the life devoted to money-making. But,’ he says, sort of tongue-in-cheek, ‘that can’t be the good life because money is just a means. It’s a means to more enjoyment. It’s a means to advancing your–getting more honor; or it takes care of the necessities of life, so you can enjoy your intellectual or artistic pursuits.’

So, they’re basically according to Aristotle. There’s three or four basic lives, and those sort of distinguish human beings according what the dominant passion in their soul is.


Russ Roberts: So, I’m going to review those. There’s four–let me see if I can get it right. There’s four types of people, four types of ways you might pursue well-being, happiness, flourishing. They are, 1. Fun, contentment, good feeling, good experiences, happy times, good stuff.

Russ Roberts: 2.–

Leon Kass: Honor, distinction, recognition, victory.

Russ Roberts: Right. So, this is the Adam Smith idea that man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely. Loved, meaning respected, honored, thought well of by people in your social circle, people you respect. This is clearly one of the drivers of human action: human activity in the world is to earn the respect of those around you.

Number 3. is learning, which is a rich term in and of itself, it doesn’t just mean I think book–I assume it just doesn’t assume book learning. It would include learning about oneself and one’s place in the world.

And 4th is, we’ll call it greed, lust, appetite–but for money, mostly in this case, right?

Leon Kass: There are appetites involved in all of them. They’re all manifestations of desires. And, people are really distinguished by: What are the ruling desires of their souls? The desire for–the love of gain and the accumulation of wealth is a common life, not only in the ancient world that we had–

Russ Roberts: It hasn’t changed, yeah.

Russ Roberts: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. But, we recently were talking, I was recently talking with Don Boudreaux and Michael Munger in recent episodes, about the fact that economists take preferences as given. As you say, we have actually urges for all those things–most of us do, all four of those things.

The economist tends to say, ‘Well, this is the kind of person you are and you’ll pursue this, and this is the kind of person you are, you’ll pursue that.’ But, I think what I was talking about with Don Boudreaux about James Buchanan, the economist’s idea, and with Mike Munger about Aristotle and other related points is that: to some extent we choose our desires. We can decide. We can habituate ourselves to following certain goals and paths. We might have a natural desire for something; we might work at tempering it; we might work it resisting it.

So, of those four where we’ve got fun–I’m going to parody it a little bit here, sorry, simplify a little bit–fun, respect, learning, money. Whatever floats your boat. Whatever–just go out there and pick one of those and just do it well. That’s not Aristotle’s position, though.

And I assume he’s going to encourage me to emphasize some over others. Why? Why shouldn’t I just pursue in particular, the one that comes easiest to most of us, is that fun one. Don’t I want to just have fun? Wouldn’t that be good? Isn’t that a good life? What’s wrong with that?

Leon Kass: Aristotle is not a moralist. So, he’s not going to condemn the life that you choose. But, he’s inviting people into this book and saying, ‘Look, do you want to live the richest–I don’t mean, financially the richest–do you want to live the humanly richest life, a life that will exercise your capacities as a human being to the fullest? Do you want to know the best and the most complete life? Pay attention.’

And, at the beginning, he says, ‘Look, this book isn’t for everybody. It really–‘ In fact, he begins really by posing the great challenge to anybody offering any kind of teaching about what’s better or worse. He says, ‘Look, the noble and the just things vary from place to place so widely that people think they don’t exist by nature, but just by arbitrary human agreement. So, basically, do as you please. And, in fact, the only thing that’s common is that people love their pleasures. So, live the life of pleasure, high and low.’

But, he says, ‘Look, young people are not fit here, as for this subject: they’re led by their passions, they don’t have much experience.’ In order to be a good student of this class, this book, you got to be well brought up and already know that somehow the noble and adjust things are pretty good. You don’t know why. ‘Stick around, I’m going to show you why, and I’m going to show you why they’re conducive to a really flourishing life, rather than a life that is of a lower level of contentment.’ It’s not an argument against the other. It’s a demonstration, if you follow me along, you’ll see that the teachings here–and he’s going to give you a grounding of it very early on in human nature–the things that he’s talking about, the excellences that he wants to cultivate, really release the greatest possibilities of human fulfillment in doing and making, in loving and befriending, in thinking and understanding that go to the core of who we are.


Russ Roberts: That’s lovely. He says that happiness is activity, which is not a modern conception of happiness. What does he mean by that?

Leon Kass: Yeah. There’s a chapter in which he tries to–he leaves the opinions aside and he says, ‘Let’s start in our own name, to say what happiness is.’ He begins with an account that the human being has certain vegetative activities of nourishment and growth, and then there are the capacities to sense and to feel things. But, the thing that distinguishes the human being primarily has to do with things of the mind, and he doesn’t mean just book learning.

In fact, there’s almost nothing that human beings do, that isn’t somehow suffused with the fact that we have reason and speech. Our very life is informed by opinions, our relations with people are informed by certain forms of understanding. So, somehow to live a human life means a life in which the human part is exercised and exercised well. And he reasons himself to this kind of formulation: the human good is an activity of the soul in accordance with excellence.

And that means being at work: not just having a virtue and not exercising it, but to human well–to human excellently using the deepest powers of our humanity fully–it’s not enough just to have this kind of capacity, but it’s got to be at work when you flourish. A basketball player flourishes only during the game. A scientist flourishes when he’s doing his experiments, or writing his papers or thinking his thoughts.

It’s in activity that we somehow realize who we are, and the contentment follows upon it, and the contentment is somehow colored by the activity. No one would want the contentment of listening to music without hearing the music. No one would want the contentment of friendship and never see your friend. You don’t want the pleasure out of the bottle, you want the activity and the pleasure follows along. I think that’s really one of the deepest truths of this book: To flourish is to be at work, who you are.

Russ Roberts: That phrase, ‘at work,’ is tricky, because I was reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ line, I think I have it right, ‘I am my work for that I came.’ Which, I don’t think he meant it the way Aristotle meant it; he may have. But, a lot of people think that the narrower sense of work, what I “accomplish”–the number of sales I make, the houses I build, if I’m a builder, the money I accumulate as a measure of what I’ve done, if I’m an actor in the commercial space–these are the things we draw our satisfaction from. We feel pride in our work.

And it’s this kind of argument that causes me and others to worry about the idea of a Universal Basic Income [UBI], this idea that people would be able to be taken care of materially without contributing anything, without worrying about how their skills might serve other people. Right? There’s a lot of different aspects to work, the modern sense of the word ‘work,’ in how we draw our satisfaction from it.

So, it’s accomplishment, it’s the use of our time, it’s the serving of others. But, I’m getting from you that Aristotle sense the word is richer. It includes my inner work, my inner life, as someone absorbing ideas, and coming to understanding, and synthesizing things I’ve learned. Is that correct?

Leon Kass: Yeah, that’s correct. The word that we translate into English ‘activity’ is, in Greek, energeia. It’s a word Aristotle made up in order to–really made up in order to say what he wanted to say. Greek didn’t have it. I don’t want to be a pedant, but in energeia, the central part is E-R-G, erg, like in energy–to be in your work. Not your work as a tailor, although there is the activity of making clothes, which is satisfying, at least to people who do this as a craft. Anything in which you are fully engaged as who you are, whether it’s in the arts, or in learning, or in parenting, or in befriending, where you are somehow expressing the deepest part of your being is a manifestation of yourself at work, not in the sense of toil, not in the sense of money-making. Those other things that we talk about, we take as external manifestations of the success of our work.

But, the satisfaction–if we’re lucky; not everybody can be so lucky–but, if we’re lucky, in the things that we love to do, the things that we really love to do, we find ourselves expressed to the work and the secondary gains, and the rewards that come afterwards, are really just secondary. The work itself is what’s fulfilling for people who have the opportunity to express themselves.

And it’s not just in what they make a living at, but they can express themselves in parenting, in love, in friendship. These are where we are, where our humanity is manifested actively.

Russ Roberts: That’s really beautiful. I’m reminded of the episode with Azra Raza, where we talked about the art of dying: that people who know–we’re all dying–but people who know that their end is near and face that with courage, and a sense of self, a sense of connecting with other people in that time, would be an example of the kind of work you’re talking about that would be the non-obvious energeia kind of thing.

Leon Kass: Yeah. Aristotle is looking for the peaks in his book. He doesn’t say very much about parenting and baking cakes and making meals and so on. In more democratic times, we could expand his term about activity, and its satisfactions to include the small things of everyday life, in which we do express our humanity in very rich ways. He’s rather blind to that in this book. It’s a shortcoming.

But, the idea of: To flourish is to be active, and not just busy and distracting yourself, but to be in those activities that express your character, your nature, your possibilities in a full and rich, and for him very important, beautiful way.


Russ Roberts: One phrase in English that captures a bit of that, but I think it’s a bit paradoxical, is the praise ‘to be in the zone’–to bring your artistry as, say, a basketball player, or a dancer, a performer in a musical, those are the obvious ways that we can feel that someone has literally lost an awareness of, they have a lack of consciousness in a beautiful way about what they’re achieving. They’ve fully channeled their gifts or their essence.

When somebody performs on stage and exposes their vulnerability as a human being, even though–it’s ironic–they’re using the lines of an author, but they’ve thrown their essence into that character and revealed it to us, the audience, there’s something extremely beautiful about that.

And at the same time, one would think that unconsciously doing that is not the full measure of bringing yourself–that at the same time, we might fail to bring our full self to a conversation because we’re distracted, and we need to be, not in the zone–not oblivious–but rather focused on the sense of bringing ourselves. I think that’s a real challenging conversation and an art. I don’t have much more to say about it. What would you–

Leon Kass: Well, look, that’s really lovely. I think the fullness of activity, when it goes swimmingly well–in fact, Aristotle would present, I think, this account, to be at work without impediment. To be at work without impediment, without distraction, without feeling obstacles to the full expression of one’s soul. Those are things in which the activity and the agent are united. There’s a line–I think it’s Yeats:

O body swayed to music,
O brightening glance,
How can one tell the dancer from the dance?

In a really good conversation, time stands still. One is wrapped up in the thought of one’s own, of one’s partner, and one feels alive in a very, very rich way.

And, there are other activities that he will speak about. But, this is what it really means to be at work fully yourself without impediment. And the pleasure just follows. If you’re thinking about the pleasure, you don’t get it. If you give yourself over to the activity, that activity lights itself up in consciousness as it’s going swimmingly. [More to come, 30:42]

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