Happiness is Thinking…About Things Aristotle Didn’t Say

Ah, on Psychology Today you can learn that Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” It will probably not come as a great surprise that Aristotle did not say this particular thing, even though it is in the range of the kinds of things he might say in a parallel universe.

fake aristotle


While Reddit is probably right that this is a riffing on the Nicomachean Ethics. (Unlike some other fake Aristotle quotes, this one does not have a very storied history: it seems to have started circulating around 10 years ago). The problem is that part of the point of the Nicomachean Ethics is that people don’t agree on what happiness is and therefore it is almost useless to make such anodyne statements as “the meaning of life is the pursuit of happiness”.

And Aristotle says as much when he concedes, after defining haponnes as “the goal of all actions” (πρακτῶν οὖσα τέλος), “perhaps saying that happiness is best seems to be [merely saying] something which is already agreed” (Ἀλλ᾿ ἴσως τὴν μὲν εὐδαιμονίαν τὸ ἄριστον λέγειν ὁμολογούμενόν τι φαίνεται, 1097b 22). So, he continues to explore the definition from the question of what a human being is for (εἰ ληφθείη τὸ ἔργον τοῦ ἀνθρώπου).

If we translate Greek eudaimonia as “happiness”, which many do, Aristotle says some things that are easily alterable for different cultural contexts. For example, “Hence, happiness is the best, most beautiful, and sweetest thing…” (ἄριστον ἄρα καὶ κάλλιστον καὶ ἥδιστον ἡ εὐδαιμονία, 1099a25)

There are many problems with even this translation. What does it mean for thing to be “best”? “Most beautiful” could also be “noblest” and, in close pairing with ariston, it could actually be a gloss on kalos k’agathos, an aristocratic statement of values that may be devoid of any meaningful content for the study of modern happiness.

Near the end of the Nicomachean Ethics (1176b5 vii) Aristotle concludes,

“But if happiness is intentional action in line with virtue, it is a good argument to say that it is so in accordance with the most potent virtue. This would be from the best part. Whether this is from the mind or any other thing which seems to govern and lead us according to our nature, and also to have understanding of beautiful and divine matters and whether that is also divine itself or is the most divine thing we possess, it is intentional activity in line with this nature particular to human beings which is the perfect happiness.

And this is, what we have said before, the process of contemplation. This conclusion would seem to agree both with what we have said previously and the truth. For [the act of contemplation] is the most powerful intentional activity because the mind is also the most powerful thing we possess along with the things which can be known, the matters of the mind.”

Εἰ δ᾿ ἐστὶν ἡ εὐδαιμονία κατ᾿ ἀρετὴν ἐνέργεια, εὔλογον κατὰ τὴν κρατίστην· αὕτη δ᾿ ἂν εἴη τοῦ ἀρίστου. εἴτε δὴ νοῦς τοῦτο εἴτε ἄλλο τι, ὃ δὴ κατὰ φύσιν δοκεῖ ἄρχειν καὶ ἡγεῖσθαι καὶ ἔννοιαν15 ἔχειν περὶ καλῶν καὶ θείων, εἴτε θεῖον ὂν καὶ αὐτὸ εἴτε τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν τὸ θειότατον, ἡ τούτου ἐνέργεια κατὰ τὴν οἰκείαν ἀρετὴν εἴη ἂν ἡ τελεία εὐδαιμονία· 2ὅτι δ᾿ ἐστὶ θεωρητική, εἴρηται. ὁμολογούμενον δὲ τοῦτ᾿ ἂν δόξειεν εἶναι καὶ τοῖς πρότερον καὶ τῷ ἀληθεῖ. κρατίστη τε γὰρ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐνέργεια (καὶ γὰρ ὁ νοῦς τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ τῶν γνωστῶν, περὶ ἃ ὁ νοῦς)·

Let’s be honest: “The meaning of life is happiness, and happiness is thinking real hard” does not make for a great motivational poster.

On the way to this, he argues that pleasure and other things are not the goals of happiness. My translation has issues of course. Based on the arguments of the Nicomachean Ethics, I have translated ἐνέργεια (energeia) as “intentional action”); as with most translations of Aristotle, we also have the challenge of aretê which here is “virtue” but can also be translated as “excellence”.

Even in English the difference between the two can be daunting: one seems innate (especially from a Christian perspective) while the other seems achieved (which would be temporary). In Aristotle, the notion of “intentional activity in accordance with virtue” is, I think, about pursuing a line of action that is guided by an externally extant ideal. For this reason, I have tried to emphasize process over product in this translation, which, I think, is part of the point of the Nicomachean Ethics.

In an earlier post, I created an already problematic rating system for fake quotes. (Yes, most quotes don’t fit easily into one category; the point of the struct categorization is to make us think about the nature of each quotation anew.)

Here it is again. I think this one is a Cylon-Helen.

    1. The Real Deal: A quotation from an ancient text which is extant.
    2. Aegis Real: Like the head of the Gorgon Medusa, these quotations have been decontextualized and passed down embedded in some other ancient author. They have been attributed to the same author for a long time, but who really knows.
    3. Delphian Graffiti: A quote of real antiquity, but whose attribution has been shifted for different valence in modern contexts (e.g., “know thyself” has been attributed to almost everyone)
    4. Rhetorica ad Fictum Fake: (with thanks to Hannah Čulík-Baird) Aristotle and Quintilian think it is just fine to make up quotations for persuasive reasons. This actually undermines many of the attributions we have from antiquity. So, this is the kind of fake that is really old and may just be too good to be true.
    5. Cylon-Helen: Just as Herodotus and Stesichorus report that ‘real’ Helen was replaced with a near-exact copy for the ten years of the Trojan War, so too some quotations are transformed through translation (Latin into Greek, Greek into Latin; or into Modern languages). The intervention of an outside force changes the cultural status of the words.
    6. Peisistratos Fake: A quote that is not misattributed or transformed, but merely just dressed up and falsely claimed as antique for political reasons (the tyrant Peisistratos pulled some pretty crazy stunts to get into power). These quotations have no sources in antiquity and are used to enforce modern points of view.
    7. Racist Fake: Quotations of the Peisistratus type but with the particular intention of enforcing a racist world view.

A new inspirational poster for you.

Cat Philosopher

And if you want to read more fake Aristotle, I have a page for that



Ridiculous Etymologies: New York Times Edition

Folk etymology is a long-lived tradition empowering writers to fabricate etymological explanations to suit their current interpretive and argumentative needs.

Procrastinate: To be In favor of Being Out of Control from the New York Times, March 25, 2019.


Here’s what those joyless pedants of the Oxford English Dictionary have to say about it:

Procras OED


Just in case you were wondering, the ancient Romans and Greeks did have the concept of procrastination. Here are some passages I collected about it.

But where would we be without hermeneutically adventurous lexicography? Plato makes it a centerpiece of his Cratylus! And we have dictionaries dedicated to it:

“Lipless Achilles” Kallierges, Etymologicum Magnum 182

“Akhilleus: [this name comes from] lessening grief, for Achilles was a doctor. Or it is because of the woe, which is pain, he brought to his mother and the Trojans. Or it is from not touching his lips to food [khilê]. For he had no serving of milk at all, but was fed with stag-marrow by Kheiron. This is why he was hailed by the Myrmidons in the following way, according to Euphoriôn:

He came to Phthia without ever tasting any food
This is why the Myrmidons named him Achilles.”

᾿Αχιλλεύς: Παρὰ τὸ ἄχος λύειν· ἰατρὸς γὰρ ἦν. ῍Η διὰ τὸ ἄχος (ὅ ἐστι λύπην) ἐπενεγκεῖν τῇ μητρὶ καὶ τοῖς ᾿Ιλιεῦσιν. ῍Η διὰ τὸ μὴ θίγειν χείλεσι χιλῆς, ὅ ἐστι τροφῆς· ὅλως γὰρ οὐ μετέσχε γάλακτος, ἀλλὰ μυελοῖς ἐλάφων ἐτράφη ὑπὸ Χείρωνος. ῞Οτι ὑπὸ Μυρμιδόνων ἐκλήθη, καθά φησιν Εὐφορίων,

᾿Ες Φθίην χιλοῖο κατήϊε πάμπαν ἄπαστος.
τοὔνεκα Μυρμιδόνες μιν ᾿Αχιλέα φημίξαντο.

Odysseus Was Born on the Road in the Rain: Kallierges, Etymologicum Magnum 615

“The name Odysseus has been explained through the following story. For they claim that when Antikleia, Odysseus’ mother, was pregnant she was travelling [hodeuousan] on Mt. Neritos in Ithaka, and it began to rain [husantos] terribly Because of her labor and fear she collapsed and gave birth to Odysseus there. So, he obtained is name in this way, since Zeus, on the road [hodon] rained [hûsen].”

᾿Οδυσσεύς: Εἴρηται ἀπὸ ἱστορίας. ᾿Αντίκλειαν γάρ φασι τὴν ᾿Οδυσσέως μητέρα ἐγκύμονα ὁδεύουσαν τὸ Νήριτον τῆς ᾿Ιθάκης ὄρος, ὕσαντος πολὺ τοῦ Διὸς, ὑπὸ ἀγωνίας τε καὶ φόβου καταπεσοῦσαν ἀποτεκεῖν τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα. Οὕτω ταύτης τῆς ὀνομασίας ἔτυχεν, ἐπειδὴ κατὰ τὴν ὁδὸν ὗσεν ὁ Ζεύς.

It is more typical to derive Odysseus’ name from the verb odussomai, which means something like “being hateful, being hated”.  Autolykos, Odysseus’ maternal grandfather, is reported to have named him in the Odyssey (19.407–409).

“I have come to this point hated [odussamenos] by many—
Both men and women over the man-nourishing earth.
So let his name be Ody[s]seus…”

πολλοῖσιν γὰρ ἐγώ γε ὀδυσσάμενος τόδ’ ἱκάνω,
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξὶν ἀνὰ χθόνα βωτιάνειραν·
τῷ δ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς ὄνομ’ ἔστω ἐπώνυμον…

A New Musical Papyrus

The discovery of a new and substantial musical papyrus lifts the heart even as it raises the eyebrows.  The papyrus under discussion first came to light in California in the 1930s but seems mirabile dictu to have attracted no notice since then; this brief editio princeps, it is hoped, will serve as a stimulus to the learned readership of Sententiae Antiquae in the elucidation of the papyrus’ history and its place in the fields of ancient religion and music.

The text, I claim, preserves the transcript of a magical ceremony, one that has few outright parallels but many mysterious connections to those attested in Greek Macaronical Papyri.  The ceremony seems to involve an officiant performing an unusual baptism upon a layman, whom the officiant addresses throughout (λῇς ‘you desire’ 4, 8, 19; λαικέ ‘layman’ 5, 6, πάσσ’ ‘sprinkle’ 13-16) with particularly hydrological phrasing (σεῖν ‘piss’ 2, τέγγ’ ‘drench’ 4, 8, 9, 19, βρέχομαι ‘I’m getting wet’ 12, ἅμας ‘water-buckets’ 14, 16).  Syncretism is of course to be expected in a magical document of this sort, but the combination of Egyptian proper nouns (Neith 3, Ailou 15) with Pythagoreanism (καλὰ δέκα ‘the beautiful ten’, 18) and cryptic references to the sacred chickens of Roman divination (5, 7) bespeaks a wider spectrum of cultural borrowing than usual.

Perhaps most mysterious of all is the single line of Latin text (17).  Bilingual papyri are “very rare”;[1] the present example, however, seems to be unique in preserving, via a second language, not a simple translation of another part of the text but a comment from the text’s author on the nature of the text itself.  (Peculiar as the ceremony seems, there is no easy way to include the material of this line within the narrative of the baptismal events.)   Here the anonymous author proudly proclaims to his readership the excellence of his text and, in coining a maxim on the topic of wasted effort (cf. γλαῦκ’ εἰς Ἀθήνας, “coals to Newcastle”, vendre des coquilles à ceux qui viennent de Saint-Michel), he defies anyone to improve upon it.

What to make of the brief notation in line 20?  Unless the digamma—in other words, two gammas—is some sort of code by which to identify the composer of the music (though I do not know of any such use of initials in ancient papyri), perhaps it is best, as the following translation assumes, simply to interpret it as a vocalized comment on the nature of the papyrus itself.

I suggest that the four brief lines preserved at the bottom edge of the papyrus are a sort of index, providing the incipits of other magical ceremonies, perhaps even ones with music written by the same unknown composer of the music under discussion.  But whether any papyri preserving these other ceremonies will ever be discovered, only time or more heuretic papyrologists can tell.[2]

I have said that this papyrus preserves musical notation throughout the text—and so it does; for certain technical reasons, however, I have been unable to reproduce the notation in this edition.  Even so, those who take the time to speak the Greek text out loud may find themselves uncannily able to reproduce the original music on their own.

P.Hollywood.inv.2019 H x W = 29 x 22 cm California, ca. 1937 CE

ἰούσῃ ίθ’ ἦρ, ἀν’ αἴσῃ αἰθήρ
ἰοὺ σεῖν ίθ’ ἦρ, ἀν’ αἴσῃ ναὶ θήρ
ίθ’ ἦρ, αἰθήρ, Νηὶθ ἦρ, ναὶ θήρ
λῇς καλὰ θεῷ τέγγ’ ὄφ
ἰοὺ λαικὲ ποτητὼ ἄναι λαικέ ποτ’ ἄτω                                               5
ἰοὺ λαικὲ τομὴ θῶ; ἄναι λαικὲ τομὰ θῶ;
ποτητώ ποτ’ ἄτω τομὴ θῶ; τομὰ θῶ;
λῇς καλὰ θεῷ τέγγ’ ὄφ
βάτω ἰφύι καλὰ θεῷ τέγγ’ ὀφθὲν
νοῦ ἱμάς τε πάρ τε                                                                                 10
ἀνδῶ ἰφύι ἐφ’ ἧπαρ τεθὲν
θάττομαί τε βρέχομαι ἄρτε
σὼ ἶφι ἰοὺ λαικὲ πάσσ’ ἡμᾶς
ἄναι λαικὲ πάσσ’ ἅμας
Αἴλου ἦρ πάσσ’ ἡμᾶς                                                                              15
ἦν γ’ ἔφα πάσσ’ ἅμας
βῆτα καλὰ δέκα λίγγ’ ὂφ ὄφ
λῇς καλὰ θεῷ τέγγ’ ὄφ
Ϝ                                                                                                                  20
ἰδεῖν Νέσσος ᾖρ’· ἐλεήσω;
ἀλλά, Φύσι, τοὺς τῇ
ὦ αἶγά τε πλήν τι ἄνα τήν
ᾤμην ἔρριφα


Go, spring, for the lady who goes; heaven is upon destiny.
Whoopie! Piss! Go, spring! Yes, a wild animal is upon destiny!
Go, spring, heaven! Neith, spring, yes, a wild animal!
You desire beautiful things for the god; drench, ah!

Whoopie, layman! Two birds (fulfillments, layman!) were finally insatiate!
Whoopie, layman! Cutting; shall I set (it)? Fulfillments, layman! Shall I set sharp things?
Two birds were finally insatiate! Cutting; shall I set it? Shall I set sharp things?
You desire beautiful things for the god; drench, ah!

Let beautiful things go to the eyebrow; drench for the god what was seen;
both the mind-strap and together
Let me bind on the eyebrow what was put on the liver,
and I sit for myself; I’m getting wet, bread!

Your pair with strength: whoopie, layman! Besprinkle us!
Fulfillments, layman! Besprinkle the water-buckets!
The spring in Ailou; besprinkle us!
I said, he/she said, “Besprinkle the water-buckets.”
I speak via strength! I know! You would add some egg to the nests!
B, the beautiful ten, twang, ah, ah!


Nessus denied that he had seen (it); shall I pity (him)?
But, Nature, those (in) the
Oh, both the goat, only something along the
I thought, I have thrown

[1] Idunno, Oracles, Curses, and Risk among the Ancient Greeks (2007) 45.

[2] See Zeitschrift für papyrologische Enttaüschungen 36 (1979) 75-76.

File:Organist and horn player, the gladiator mosaic at the Roman villa in Nennig, Germany (9291661708).jpg
Organist and horn player, the gladiator mosaic at the Roman villa in Nennig, Germany

N.B. The papyrus under discussion may not be real.  This post is brought to you by Christopher Brunelle (@BrunelleMN), who taught Classics for decades and prefers Ovid to Vergil. Don’t you?

“Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down” in Ancient Greek

A student recently asked me how to say “don’t let the bastards grind you down” in Greek (and in my head I changed it to the ‘variant’ “wear you down”). I think the request stems either from the rather famous fake Latin illegitimi non carborundum or the appearance of the only slightly less problematic. Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum in Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Whatever the provenance of this question, it distracted me.

There are various Greek verbs and constructions one could use: prohibitive subjunctive or 2nd person imperative; third person imperative; impersonal constructions of obligation (δεῖ/χρή). The verbal adjective (to imitate the fake Latin Passive periphrastic seems unwieldy.

Someone also suggested a future wish construction:

1. I got hooked on the idea of bastards being burdensome, so here are some prohibitives and imperatives plurals playing with the root akhthos:

ἄγε δὴ μὴ ἄχθῃ νόθοις
ἄγετε δὴ μὴ ἄχθησθε νόθοις

ἄγε δὴ μὴ ἄχθῃ νόθοις
ἄγετε δὴ μὴ ἄχθεσθε νόθοις

2. Some third person imperatives

μὴ νόθοι ὑμῶν ἄχθοι ἔστων

I used the genitive here based on the usage in the Iliad: ἀλλ’ ἧμαι παρὰ νηυσὶν ἐτώσιον ἄχθος ἀρούρης, 18;104.

Here are some other verbs which might work:

μὴ νόθοι ὑμᾶς λυπέντων
μὴ νόθοι ὑμᾶς ἐπιτριβέντων
μὴ νόθοι ὑμᾶς δακνόντων
μὴ νόθοι ὑμᾶς ὁχλέντων

Another fine suggestion from twitter was to use ἐπιτρίβειν (as I did above). I think we could use the verb ἐάω + infinitive, but that construction is not as common, I think, as prohibitives and third person imperatives.

μὴ ἐᾶτε νόθους ὑμᾶς ἐπιτρίβειν

3. Impersonal/obligative constructions

οὐ δεῖ/ χρὴ τοὺς νόθους ὑμᾶς λυπεῖν
οὐ δεῖ/ χρὴ τοὺς νόθους ὑμᾶς ἐπιτρίβειν
οὐ δεῖ/ χρὴ τοὺς νόθους ὑμᾶς δάκνειν
οὐ δεῖ/ χρὴ τοὺς νόθους ὑμᾶς ὀχλεῖν

4. Wish

εἴθε μὴ οἱ νόθοι ὑμᾶς ἐπιτριβεῖεν* [ἐπιτριβοῖεν]

*this form occurs in Lucian


And a variant from the ever ready Armand D’Angour (in iambic trimeter, no less)

An object clause of effort variant:

5. Another idiom I like

μὴ νόθους χάλεπως φέρετε
μὴ νόθους χάλεπως φέρητε

A few grammatical notes:

Tense: for the imperatives and infinitives I have stayed with the present tense forms to express a durative or progressive ongoing resistance against bastards getting one down. I do think that the aorist could be substituted gnomically to express the timeless truth of the necessity of avoiding the burden of bastards.

Number: I have also mostly used the 2nd person plural in Greek. Although I think that if this were actually an archaic Greek sentiment it would likely use the second person singular to express something of an intimacy with the recipient, I wanted to keep it plural for general applicability in English.

Particles: Most of the statements above have insufficient flavoring for Ancient Greek. I kept the common ἄγε δή for strengthening commands, but I think there is probably more I could do.

There has been some uncertainty about my obsession with the ancient nothos (“bastard”) and some fine suggestions for other nouns. Beyond the fact that I like the Greek word, nothos does function metaphorically in ancient Greek as “spurious” or “illegitimate”.

Image result for medieval manuscript bastards
A royal bastard