How to seek eudaimonia like an Italian

Updated: Sep 7, 2019

If you really want to embrace la dolce vita, the best thing you can do is try to live more aligned with Aristotle’s ethical universe. I know, it sounds pretentious and scary, but it’s really not. I promise you don’t have to become a philosopher or anything.

But, just in case, please indulge me while I sew some elbow patches onto my tweed jacket and dig out my pair of horn-rimmed glasses...

Here’s the deal: we Americans tend to live in a dualistic universe. Yes or no. Good or bad. In other words, we live in a universe of extremes. This moral dualism in the Western world actually has its roots in Christian theology. If you do good, you go to Heaven. If you do bad, you go to Hell. And if something is good, then its opposite must be bad. If lust is sinful, then chastity is virtuous. If communism is wicked, then capitalism must be righteous. If freedom is sacred, then any restriction on freedom is blasphemous. If gluten is bad for you, then gluten-free products must be good for you (and, if gluten is bad, you must never let gluten pass your lips again). Whether or not you share this black-and-white worldview, it’s nonetheless intrinsic to the sociological framework of America.

Italy, on the other hand, thrives in the gray area. Despite the highest Catholic command flanking Rome (or because of this), most Italians I know tolerate the Catholic church without actually adhering to any of its ideology. The other Italians I know vehemently despise the Catholic Church. (And this animosity does have historical roots. After all, Italy was created by attacking and defeating the Papacy. On September 20 in 1870, a day commemorated in every small town in Italy, national troops forced the Catholic Church to relinquish its territories and the Pope to flee in exile, thus establishing the modern Italian state. Not until Mussolini came into power would the Church be welcomed again on Italian soil.

Ceremony at Guidonia, November 1937. In the forefront: Monsignor Bartolomasi, General Giuseppe Bottai, General Giuseppe Valle, Benito Mussolini
Not until Mussolini’s Fascist Party took over Italy were Catholic leaders allowed to participate in national affairs. [L’Illustazione Italiana (Nov 7, 1937), vol. 45]

All this being said, a shocking amount of Italian customs and ideologies go back to Italy’s pagan days, including the aspiration for moderation. Which brings me back to the most badass Greek philosopher, Aristotle.

Unlike Catholic dogma, Aristotle argued that moralism is not dualistic, but rather spectral, and that virtue exists in the middle. Then, like everything Aristotle wrote, the Roman philosophers copied the idea and canonized it in their own culture. Some early Christian theologians, like Thomas Aquinas, really dug Aristotle’s definition of virtue as the attainment of moderation, and kept it going. Others, not so much. But then Renaissance writers were totally into it, and brought it back in full force. Nick Macchiavelli, the OG ends-justify-the-means, wrote entire treatises around it. Dante, the father of the Italian language, designed his literal Hell around it. That’s right: the Inferno is actually based on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Just like Aristotle, what makes something sinful in Dante’s Inferno is not the act itself but its degree of “incontinence.” Impulses in themselves cannot be sinful: they just are. The sin lies in seeking those impulses too much, or not enough. Vice is a condition of extremism.

For example, Dante condemns the Scrooge McDucks of the 14th-century papal state for their avarice. Those stingy cardinals that never gave a dime to the poor spend an eternity getting bashed with heavy weights under the watchful eyes of some bizarre Satan-worshipping wolf-man hybrid (and yes, Dante is a total LSD mind trip). But those who gave away all their earthly possessions aren’t laughing from their heavenly thrones: they’re right alongside them, getting just as brutally beaten. Hoarding your ducats is an unforgivable sin. Greed. But so is giving away all your money to the poor and saving none for yourself. Prodigality. That’s why the greedy and the prodigal spend eternity hitting each other while asking “Why do you hoard?” and “Why to you squander?”

So to be a rescued soul in Dante’s universe, you need to find that sweet spot between excess and deficiency. Even love is only virtuous when applied temperately. Too much love? Lust. Too little? Sloth. Of course, a perfect balance is impossible to achieve, but you must nevertheless constantly strive for it. That’s what it means to be the best person you can be.

Of course, this can also lead to some pretty devious moral shirking. For example, take honesty. A dualistic moral framework would say honesty is a virtue, and lying is a sin. But in Aristotle's ethical universe, indiscriminate honesty is just as sinful as incessant lying, which means that it’s up to you to figure out when telling the truth is moral or immoral. This means not being honest when it would only cause pain, yet telling the truth when it needs to be told. So you shouldn’t tell grandma her cookies taste like dried cow dung, but you should tell her that it was you who broke her favorite vase, not the dogwalker. But it’s a pretty slippery slope, as you can imagine. Does the government really need to know my actually income? And does my wife really need to know about that weekend in Sardinia?

The lack of moral polarity can lead to some pretty duplicitous moral justifying. When the moral world isn’t black-and-white, some cunning bastard will always find a way to game the system to his advantage. (But, let’s be honest, he probably would anyway, regardless of normative ethics.)

On the other hand, the golden mean can also be your one-way ticket to profound happiness and fulfillment. And, subconsciously or not, Italians embrace the concept of virtuous moderation in everything they do. They would never go out in a wrinkled T-shirt and baseball cap, but they don’t tend to show up with full-on hair, nails and makeup either. They occasionally indulge in pizza and creamy gelato, but they don’t have supersized portions or excessive toppings. They work 40-hour weeks, but they also take month-long vacations and real lunch breaks.

Another really interesting way virtue ethics influences Italian culture is that “average” isn't a negative word here, like it tends to be in the United States. If someone asks you how you did on the exam, and you say that you received the average score, the response usually is, “Good job!” While I've never heard "typical" used with a positive connotation in the US, restaurants here proudly promote themselves “cucina tipica,” or “typical cuisine,” meaning that they serve the standard dishes of the region in the standard way.

Italians don’t see the moderate path as somehow defective. They see it as exemplary. Because somehow, over two thousand years later, the golden mean still hasn’t corroded. It truly is a noble virtue.

... Okay, when I debase myself to chemistry jokes, it means it’s time to stop writing...

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