Creating the Good Life: A Book review by Bob Morris

Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness
James O’Toole
Rodale Books (2005)

A contemporary as well as classical guide to happiness

Perhaps you’re now asking the same question I once did: “Given the fact that he lived almost 2,400 years ago, what could Aristotle possibly have to say that is directly relevant to me?” In fact, a great deal. So many of us today — especially those at mid-life — are engaged in a search to find meaning and happiness. We often ask, as Peggy Lee once did, “Is that all there is?” The purpose of this book is show how Aristotle is an effective guide on that search, and how he can help each of us find our own practical answer to a critically important question, “What’s next?”

In an interview that appeared in Chamber Executive magazine, O’Toole observes that “Aristotle was the most practical of all great philosophers. His audience was the business and political leadership of his day. He offered them wisdom they could apply in their own lives — practical advice on matters ranging from ethical business practices to effective philanthropy. Aristotle even describes ‘virtuous non-retirement’ — the lifelong commitment to engage in leisure work that is characterized by pursuit of the ‘highest good’ of individual excellence and the ‘complete good’ of community service. He offers practical tests to help us determine how much wealth we need to support us while we engage in those activities.”

O’Toole goes on to say, “So my challenge was not making Aristotle relevant to today’s successful professionals and managers; instead, I faced the nearly impossible task of making his difficult language clear to modern readers without dumbing it down. I had to find a way to explore the depth and complexity of Aristotle in a way that makes sense in an age of sound bites and blogs. After all, who ever heard of a serious self-help book? But that’s what I set out to write.”

As O’Toole explains in this book, Aristotle struggled with many of the same difficult circumstances (more than two centuries ago) which most of us face in 2005: “…in his career as a teacher and a consultant to leaders of ancient Athens, Aristotle thought long and hard about what it means to live a good life and how much it takes to finance it. His thoughts on this matter are particularly applicable today, given the baby boom generation’s anxiety over insufficient retirement savings and shaky investments: Aristotle shows how we can find happiness at almost any level of income. Moreover, he argues that the ability to find true contentment correlates only tangentially with the amount of money one has cached away. Unlike so many of today’s `life advisors,’ Aristotle integrates financial planning with the broader task of life planning.”

Throughout human history, there has been a constant challenge to get lifestyle and quality of life in appropriate balance. As O’Toole notes, “Aristotelian ethics concern moral decisions related to how we should allocate the limited time of our lives. We must each plan how we will allocate our energies among such activities as earning, learning, playing, being with friends and family, and participating in the community. As we make these choices, Aristotle warns, we will fail to achieve ‘the chief good’ — that is, we will fail to be happy — if we pursue the wrong ends.”

If the pursuit of philosophy is to serve as a practical guide to action, and I believe it is, then the wisdom which Aristotle gained from his own experiences will guide and inform our own pursuit and achievement of “the chief good”: personal happiness. In the Foreword to one of O’Toole’s previously published books, The Executive’s Compass, Lodwrick M. Cook (former chairman and CEO of Atlantic Richfield Company) explains O’Toole’s use of the central metaphor: “The beauty of the compass is that it provides a framework for the executive to create order out of the growing chaos of cultural diversity and conflict of values. Like a real compass, [O’Toole’s ‘value compass’] helps us to find where we are, where others are, where we want to go, and how to get there. Like the Aspen experience itself, O’Toole’s compass is aimed at developing executive judgment by expanding our understanding of the interrelationships of fundamental values.”<

Cook’s comments are also relevant to Creating the Good Life. For those now struggling to define and then create the good life for themselves, whatever their current circumstances may be, Aristotle’s wisdom can indeed serve as a “compass.” In this volume, O’Toole prepares his reader to use it effectively.


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1 Comment

  1. Frankie Nippe on February 22, 2012 at 1:18 am

    I have many of the same views you have pointed out in your article. Your writing style gives readers many things to think about and consider. This is truly a great informative article. Thank you.

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