One of the paradoxes of modernity is that as living has become easier and more pleasurable, people have become sadder. Depression and loneliness were already major problems in the developed world, and have become even worse with the COVID-19 lockdowns. How is it that people who enjoy so much more freedom and luxury than any generation in the past have less to feel happy about?
Many conservative and religious writers have attributed this modern malaise to the lack of meaning in people’s lives. As culture becomes more secularized and digitized, the activities and beliefs that once supplied this meaning have slowly disappeared. Fewer people attend church, have families, foster close relationships, or even engage with reality on a regular basis. It all makes for an easier life, but also an emptier one.
However, what is seen as a “crisis of meaning” can also be called a crisis of reason. It’s easy to recommend that people infuse their lives with meaning and believe in something beyond the immediate. It’s much more difficult to explain how and why this should happen. To find meaning, and to see its role in enabling true happiness, one must use reason to determine the means and ends of such a quest.
For this reason, the relevance of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics continues to endure as a guide for a happy, fulfilling life. True, one can live such a life without reading Aristotle, just as someone can live a long healthy life without studying medicine. But if a plague hits, whether physical or spiritual, it’s always better to be prepared. Otherwise, whatever remedies proposed (more social welfare programs, loneliness ministries, “safe” spaces) will only worsen the issue.