Edith Hall: “if you can’t be a proper moral agent, then you’re never going to be truly happy”

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Edith Hall is one of our greatest experts on the vanished universe of Aristotle and Aristophanes, author of 30 plus books, and frequent television and radio contributor. Yet she still lives very firmly in our own world, as she campaigns tirelessly for a just Classics bereft of the classism that has long plagued the discipline. Profile initially spoke to Edith about her bestselling book, Aristotle’s Way.  It was mesmeric to hear Aristotelian wisdom freed from dusty, leather-bound volumes to be so emphatically applied to our every-day experience.  Her every sentence was buttressed by decades of study and life experience, and I could not help but imagine myself as a disciple in the old master’s Lyceum more than two thousand years ago. 

For Edith, Aristotle’s philosophy is uniquely suited to helping with modern life because “[He was] the first philosopher who tried to produce an ethics and ethical system that would be conducive to happiness without any reference to religion whatsoever” therefore “it’s incredibly suited to a society, which is usually traced to the 1960s that people, very few people, certainly in Britain and in a lot of the world, find it very difficult to get a moral system that they really believe in and can put into action, out of religion. Religion has lost its ability not, of course, among all communities, but for the large number of people who don’t believe in a providential deity that you will punish them if they don’t obey a rule book. 

“I think the other incredible positive of it, well, there’s many, but I would actually say there are two others. One is that you do it for yourself it’s not dependent on anybody else. Only you can think about how to become the best possible version of yourself, and you can do that even in really dark times. It can help you to find meaning and things without the need for other people, it’s a very internal kind of process. The third thing is I think he does not see the psyche as split into reason on the one side and emotion on the other, or the spirit, and then there’s the body and they’re separate.  So he doesn’t say emotion bad, reason good, which is pretty much the Platonic position and the Stoic position and the Christian position.  He says that it’s all a continuum, and this is where the idea of the (golden) mean is so important, that it’s not a matter of saying being angry is bad, right? Because in fact, he says, if you never get angry, you can’t be a proper moral agent. And if you can’t be a proper moral agent, then you’re never going to be fully happy”.

“Only you can think about how to become the best possible version of yourself, and you can do that even in really dark times”

Aristotle’s philosophy prizes realising one’s telos.  This is usually translated as our purpose, but in its original Greek, it is a quasi-spiritual concept of reaching the supreme end of the human experience, nothing less than the meaning of life.  Very few students have even a semblance of their telos in the spiralling tumult of university life.  Edith believes that we find this “by listening to yourselves, not all the adults around you, trying to pressurize you in lots of different directions”.  She adds, “do not rush, do not let people pressurize you to going off earning large amounts of money. You know, you worry about that later when you’ve got responsibilities. 

“Most undergraduates are incredibly fortunate and they’re free to right to risk precarity until they find out what they really want to do.  I did loads different things. I did not start my doctorate till I was nearly 27. And everybody said, oh, it’s too late, you’ll never have an academic career. It’s rubbish. Complete rubbish. It took me that long to decide what to do with my life. And then, of course, I did it very quickly and got into my first job at 31. In the first two or three [years after graduation] it is crucial that you don’t rush into things. That is when you’re really finding yourself.  Do not rush and listen to your own heart”.

This concept of telos for Edith “means thinking about your deathbed all the time. Now that sounds really gloomy, but I’ve read a lot of books in order to write Aristotle’s way about people who do end of life care and the dying people never, ever regret having tried something and failed”.  She explains, “I’ve tried and failed many, many things in my life. But that’s so much better than wondering what would have happened if I just had the bottle? So deathbed thinking in a thoroughly positive way,  how can I maximize my chances of a psychologically easy death knowing that I tried everything, gave it a shot? And therefore, it was bad luck, or it was out of my hands if I didn’t get what I wanted, but if it was in your hands and you didn’t get it, you only have yourself to blame”.

Her own telos is to expand access to potentially transformative classics through initiatives like ACE (Advocating Classics Education) and tackling exclusionary practices in universities.  While the direction of travel is generally positive, “there are elite institutions the world over that seem to want to hang on to a very old-fashioned image of Classics and erect all sorts of barriers, in particular knowledge of the languages, which in Britain is just ridiculous because you can only get them a private school. I mean, it’s just nonsensical. 93 percent of all kids go to state school. So, are we going to say that they have no right to learn about the ancient Greeks and Romans?”. 

Her A People’s History of Classics, exploring classical reception among working-class and marginalised communities, aims to dissipate elitist perceptions of Classics, and “give us a back story that I hope will make people realize it belongs to all of us, not just to that ghastly, privileged few of whom all, sadly our prime minister is one of such a prime representative. The Etonian Classicist, who drops Latin tags to prove how clever he is, horrible”.

Throughout her rise to become one of Britain’s leading public intellectuals, Edith was very conscious that she was breaking the mould as to what a Classicist was expected to be, namely a male, bespectacled, tweed-clad aristocrat.  Her humour, Aristotle hoodie, and daily commute by bus could not be further from this stuffy convention.  Yet, she is aware that her path within the discipline is not complete. “My power is what’s called soft power. Nobody in institutional Classics might want to give me a promotion or give me a chair at Oxford or Cambridge. Or put me on a big grant giving body like the human trust or the HRC. None of those people can actually stop the BBC asking me on to radio shows. I just write a lot and people like it, so the publishers ask for more. But I actually haven’t got, as I say, executive power, and that is so dominantly still in the hands of, I’m afraid those tweedy men. It really is.

“I simply don’t know what too like an actress meant, but I was too like an actress to be taken seriously”

She recalled her last really big rejection, “the rejection letter actually said, ‘you’re not what we’re looking for’. They actually used that verb. ‘Look’. They actually used that verb. So they were looking for something. I think male and less funny. I was once interviewed for a job at Harvard, I didn’t even know I was being interviewed, they invited lots of us over. We didn’t know we were being interviewed and I was told that no, she won’t do was because she is too like an actress. What does that mean? What does like an actress mean? Too charismatic? Too good at communication? Maybe too sexy when I was younger? You know, I simply don’t know what too like an actress meant, but I was too like an actress to be taken seriously, despite my first-class degrees and my prize-winning first book, as a member of faculty at Harvard.”

Edith returned to Durham as Professor of Classics this term, and she glowed with enthusiasm for her ‘homecoming’.  She revels in Karen O’Brien’s “vision for widening access rights and for the idea of a community university which extends its roots into its region”.  Her former employer King’s College London, “didn’t seem to be supporting my Advocating Classics Education campaign to get classical civilisation and ancient history into British state schools. They just weren’t. At that very point, this opportunity opened up at Durham, so it was a no brainer, actually”. She also cherishes returning to a corner of the world where bus drivers call you flower and buskers are applauded in Market Square. I think that it is fair to say that King’s College’s loss is our gain. 

Edith is giving a public lecture titled: ‘Anything to do with Goat Sacrifice? A New Perspective on the Etymology of Tragedy as Billy Goat Song.’, in Newcastle University on 23rd March. It is also available to attend on Zoom.  Additionally, she is appearing on BBC Radio Four’s  ‘In Our Time’ to discuss Sophocles’ Antigone next month.

Image: Orinta Gerikaite

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