Having lived in Cyprus for the last decade, I’ve invested an incredible amount of time into learning to speak Greek–with, I am sad to report, only modest success. All those hours conjugating verbs and wondering why one language could possibly need 12 versions of “the” definitely helps me communicate with friends, family, and supermarket checkout clerks. But I sometimes wonder, given there are only 12 million Greek speakers in the world and the fact that I have a business to run, was this really the best use of so much of my energy and time?
Linguists and psychologists insist that learning foreign terms broadens the array of words we can use to describe the world around us and our reactions to it. Which isn’t just handy for communication. Being able to more accurately describe your feelings and experiences actually helps you understand and control your emotions. A richer vocabulary leads to more emotional and practical smarts.
In English we lean heavily on the word “happiness” when we want to convey an overall sense of contentment. But psychologists say the word is problematic; there are several different types of happiness. There is the momentary joy of pleasant sensations–the kind of happiness you get from eating a slice of cake. And then there is the overall feeling of accomplishment that comes from a life well lived, which researchers–if not laypeople–generally distinguish by using the term “life satisfaction.”
This might be a distinction everyday English struggles to express, but ancient Greek provided a word to convey the larger sense of overall life satisfaction. “Eudaimonia is regularly translated as happiness or welfare; however, ‘human flourishing or prosperity’ and ‘blessedness’ have been proposed as more accurate translations. In Aristotle’s works, eudaimonia was used as the term for the highest human good,” explains Classical Wisdom.
Having a word that conveys the idea of this higher happiness — the sum total of a life well lived and the peace and satisfaction it brings — and reminds us of the sacrifices it generally takes to achieve could help us all navigate the complex tradeoffs of modern life.
“Arete in its basic sense, means ‘excellence of any kind.’ The term may also mean ‘moral virtue.’ In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential,” explains Classical Wisdom.
Why might this be a useful word to know even if you’re not planning to translate Homer anytime soon? People throughout the ages have wondered what to chase in life. Many today strive to be “successful.” But how do you measure success? Usually by looking at whether you’re doing better than your neighbor or work rival. And there is always someone with a bigger bank balance or fancier title than you. You can never get off the treadmill, and the constant running makes a lot of people miserable.
I don’t think I’m going to have to say a lot to convince you that aidos is a concept the modern world is in desperate need of.
Aidos is “that feeling of reverence or shame which restrains men and women from wrong. It also encompassed the emotion that a rich person might feel in the presence of the impoverished, that their disparity of wealth, whether a matter of luck or merit, was ultimately undeserved. Ancient and Christian humility have some common points, they are both the rejection of egotism and self-centeredness, arrogance and excessive pride, and is a recognition of human limitations. Aristotle defined it as a middle ground between vanity and cowardice,” says Classical Wisdom.
Less ego and a greater appreciation for the role of luck in success would make for a more pleasant and compassionate society. But even if you’re not interested in a kinder world (and you really should be), intellectual humility helps you learn faster, listen better, and be smarter. Aidos, which encompasses both the precariousness of good fortune and the possibility of error, is a quality that’s in conspiculously short supply in our divided society.
If you’re fascinated by these ancient Greek concepts and how they illuminate modern life, check out Classical Wisdom for many more.