The Ancient Greeks, it seems to me, knew stuff.
Lots of stuff.
Especially the sort of stuff that goes on inside human heads. In fact, thousands of years ago, they had sorted out more stuff than I can even imagine (and, as Han Solo once said to Luke Skywalker, I can imagine a quite a bit).
And they also had words for things to explain just how well they understood stuff — amazing words like eudaimonia. Sure, it might be a bit of mouthful to the average English speaking Joe or Jai, but when I discovered the word (this morning, straight after the courier delivered a parcel of books to my front door), I felt those teeny tiny hairs on the back of my neck rise. In a good way, people.
Eudaimonia translates as “human flourishing”, and was used in ancient Greece to describe the highest degree of happiness, a state of being characterised by not only by happiness itself, but also by health and prosperity. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
But it’s the etymology of the word that gives my inner geek the tingles: it comes from the Greek words eu, meaning ‘good’ and daimon, meaning ‘guardian spirit’. And the exciting part, as Elizabeth Gilbert explains in her book Big Magic, is that when you put those words together you get “well-daemoned”, or “nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide”. (And, yes, you now have to imagine me delivering my best Molly Meldrum impression when I tell you to do yourself a favour and get a copy of Big Magic…it’s an absorbing read).
But, as usual, I digress — let’s get back to eudaimonia. The idea that creative inspiration is something external to one’s self is not unique to the Greeks. The Romans, those other giants of the ancient world, also externalised the concept. As Gilbert says:
The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius — your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.
In this ego-driven twenty-first century world, the ancient perspective is remarkably refreshing: that creativity is bestowed, by a genius the artist might be obliged to thank for the inspiration. Or, conversely, should the artist’s work be found somehow lacking, the same genius could be called upon to take some of the blame. Takes the pressure off, doesn’t it, creative types? Pesky old ego is removed from the equation…and, in Gilbert’s words once again, the artist is protected: “Protected from the corrupting influence of praise. Protected from the corrosive effects of shame.”
But there is a catch.
(You know there always is).
In order to get close to anything resembling eudaimonia, this highest level of human happiness, you have to do the hard yards too. It’s not as simple as having some Jiminy Cricket-like muse sitting on your shoulder telling you what to do — there’s not much point in having an external creative spirit guiding your creative pursuits if you don’t actively pursue them. Not surprisingly, human flourishing doesn’t just happen: it demands that we show up, that we find time, that we live authentically — in alignment with those things that make us our best selves.
Anyone who creates regularly and deliberately will tell you that yes, there are those fabled golden moments when whatever you are creating flows from you effortlessly. They are magical moments, and I do mean that literally. But the point is you have to be there, already creating, for those moments to happen. And no one can do that for you. You have to have the courage to do it for yourself.
It’s about following your passion, in whatever small moments are available to you. It’s about discovering, as Aristotle suggested, where the needs of the world and your talents intersect, and finding your vocation. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not advocating chucking in your job, leaving your family or withdrawing from society to pursue the creative: my strong suspicion is that you can’t get close to eudaimonia unless you’re actively involved in all those things, and in whatever you are inspired to create.
So find the time, if you can, to do what makes your soul sing.
Listen to that funny little guardian spirit — the one who has either been waiting patiently for you, or has been yammering away at you to do something for so long that it might just fall off your shoulder in shock when you finally pick up that paintbrush, or write that poem, or sew that dress.
Let’s honour creativity and make it an essential part of our lives — for our happiness, health and prosperity.
Let’s be more than humans being.
Let’s become humans flourishing.
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