Eudemonia Redemption

A self-described “ordinary—yet unique—man,” the unnamed narrator of Matar’s (Counselors Beyond Knowledge, 2013) first work of fiction, shares his perspective on living a happy life.

For more than 24 centuries, citizens in the nation of Eudemonia—an Aristotelian term meaning “happiness” or “human flourishing”—have made unprecedented cultural, political, and technological achievements thanks in part to their joy of living, which they are said to have inherited from ancient ancestors. Present-day Eudemonians, however, have lost that joie de vivre. As a result, birth rates are declining, making Eudemonia’s extinction imminent within the next 30 years. To prevent ceding the nation’s independence to nearby Humnesia in exchange for help repopulating, Eudemonia’s president, Sarah, has 10 days to rediscover what made previous Eudemonians so contented. She joins forces with a history of philosophy professor named Adam, who unearthed an ancient manuscript suggesting that a few people in every generation are capable of realizing the same secrets of happiness known by the ancient Eudemonians. This manuscript leads the duo to Matar’s narrator, who responds to Sarah and Adam’s myriad questions—“What makes you happy?”; “How many times have you failed in the past?”—by clarifying his stance on happiness. In the three-way dialogue that makes up the bulk of Matar’s novel, the narrator reiterates his core philosophy: happiness depends on distinguishing between illusions (concepts like ownership and freedom), which lead to misery, and truth, which leads to happiness. Some of his philosophy—that life is a free gift, that success loses meaning without failure—will strike a familiar chord with self-help readers. Other opinions are more provocative, such as the suggestion that humans only truly help one another unintentionally, because acts of charity come with the expectation (and illusion) of self-satisfaction. Though the novel has a fair share of intriguing ideas, Matar never anchors them in a compelling character. Ultimately, the book favors generalizations and platitudes—romantic love, like a vampire, “cannot survive as soon as it is exposed to the light of true love”—over intriguing yet too-brief glimpses into the narrator’s past: “My most happy moments occurred when I was living in a war-torn country.” A compelling premise hindered by a lack of new insights and too little character.


Pub Date: Feb. 20, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5058-1508-5

Page Count: 106

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Aug. 12, 2015

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.


A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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