BMCR 2024.06.05

The life worth living in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy

, The life worth living in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. 260. ISBN 9781009257879.



The primary ethical question of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy was how to specify and secure eudaimonia. Flourishing, success, happiness – these, especially the last, are standard translations of the word. The prospects of happiness in early Greek literature tend to be viewed so negatively, owing to life’s vicissitudes, that “the first choice is not to be born” (Sophocles, OC 1225). Ancient philosophy, broadly speaking, reversed this pessimism by proposing that happiness depends on our characters and actions rather than the way the world treats us; but the cost of this autonomy was to make eudaimonia largely or entirely dependent on exceptional moral and intellectual achievement. Such philosophical treatments of happiness invite the charge of being both unduly elitist in their requirements and remote from the interests and aptitudes of ordinary people, whose lives may be reasonably satisfactory according to less demanding criteria.

In this ambitious and original book David Machek undertakes to explore the ancient philosophical notion of what he calls a life that, if not happy, is at least worth living, compared with being dead or never having come into life. “Not worth living”, he proposes, could be rendered by ou biôtos, which Socrates in Plato’s Apology applies to the “unexamined life”. Machek acknowledges that the ancient philosophers were hardly explicit in theorizing “the life worth living” as an ethical category distinct from eudaimonia, but he shows that they raised such relevant issues as the legitimacy of suicide, the value of mere living, and the appropriate balance of benefit and harm for a life to qualify as worthwhile, irrespective of its meeting the criteria for philosophical happiness.

Starting with Plato and ending with Plotinus, Machek structures his six main chapters around numbered sections with such titles as “unhappy lives worth living”, “life worth continuing”, “life worth beginning”, and “lives not worth living”. In a lengthy introduction he proposes that a life worth living means (his italics) a life that is just barely good enough . . . or a life that is better than that. He calls the first condition “the threshold”, meaning that the good things in it prevail over the bad things, and that the life is worth living for the person who is living it. Whether lives worth living also need to be subjectively or objectively meaningful are ancillary topics that he also investigates, as where Seneca (Ep. 104.5) remarks that his wife’s concern for his well-being motivates his own continuing care for himself.

Without reference to Pyrrhonism, which he unaccountably omits altogether, Machek highlights relevant commonalities and differences of the individual philosophies. He is most informative in his chapter on Stoicism. Unlike Plato, Aristotle and the Epicureans, the Stoics, so he argues, categorically sever the “threshold” from the “contents” of eudaimonia. While virtue is the necessary and sufficient condition of Stoic happiness, these philosophers measured the value of a life to its owner not by virtue but by the extent to which the “natural” advantages of health, material, and familial prosperity predominate over their opposites. While these things were deemed to be completely indifferent to the contents of Stoic happiness, an unfavorable balance of “preferred indifferents” provided the school a prima facie reason for suicide, with virtue on its own not taken to be a sufficient reason for a virtuous Stoic to go on living. This Stoic doctrine seems bizarre on first acquaintance, but it is not only logically defensible but also basic to the practicality of Stoicism for people in general. We can live adequately without achieving wisdom if we obtain a sufficiency of the things naturally conducive to a life worth living.

Machek is less convincing in his treatment of the Epicureans, whom he represents as having an absolutist notion of ataraxia, such that “no life is worth living without philosophy”. He could have modified this stark claim by attending to details of Epicurean therapeutics (cf. M. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire, a work absent from this book’s bibliography).

In his introductory and concluding pages Machek gives his project a contemporary relevance by reference to modern discussions of such topics as bioethics and the ethics of procreation. I find the distinctions he often likes to draw “between non-instrumental, intrinsic value and contributive value” difficult to apply to the ancient texts, and his book would have benefited from improvements to its style and literacy. In general, however, it is strongly to be commended for the freshness of the questions it poses and for the author’s intelligent approach to answering them.