Going back in time to get some new ideas

What could I learn over eight lectures about ancient Greek Philosophy that would be of any benefit to life in the early 21st century?

A view of the statues of Socrates in the foreground and Athena on the column in the background, outside the Athens' Academy in the Greek capital

A view of the statues of Socrates in the foreground and Athena on the column in the background, outside the Athens' Academy in the Greek capital

Tue, Apr 9, 2013, 06:00

It started on a whim. I had written an article on Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote . It was about happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking, a fascinating book that takes readers on a whistle-stop tour through stoicism, Buddhism, Mexican death rituals, some psychological theories and a smattering of philosophical thought from Seneca to Rousseau to Thomas Merton.

I’m a graduate of psychology but had virtually no knowledge of the philosophical schools that came before it. I had no idea what Aristotle or Plato or Socrates had to say on matters of life and death, and yet these ancient Greek philosophers continue to influence our culture more than 2,000 years later.

For a few weeks, I toyed with the idea of taking a course in these ancient thinkers, then wondered if instead I should study something more relevant, such as a course in the economics of the current great recession or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab Spring or the politics of food. What could I possibly learn over eight two-hour lectures about ancient Greek philosophy that would be of any benefit to life in the early 21st century?

Well, I phoned the administrator, paid my fee (€155 for an eight-week course) and two hours later was driving to the campus, slightly bemused by the endeavour. As mid-life crises go, if this was it, then really I wouldn’t have much to worry about.

The lecturer was an Italian man with a beard, glasses and a friendly face. His command of English was superb and his interest in philosophical debate insatiable. He outlined the course to the 12 students – nine men and three women – and we took up what would become our chosen seats for the next eight weeks.

A tour of the philosophical foundation of western civilization began with an introduction to the pre-Socratics – philosophers including Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes who lived between 585 and 400 BC. These were names I’d never heard of, with equally baffling theories on physics and cosmology that seem so outdated with even a layperson’s understanding of modern science.

Many of these pre-Socratics were so preoccupied with their own explanations of the physical world that it was only when Socrates came along (469-399 BC) that the Greek philosophers began to show a greater interest in humanity, ethics and politics.

Then there were the philosophical riddles that form the basis of ontological debate. Is it possible that things come from nothing and go to nothing? Is “being” indivisible, changeless and eternal and our daily experience therefore a distortion of the world? Questions and more questions.

But where were the answers?

Our Italian lecturer seemed to enjoy increasing the elasticity of our brains even if it caused confusion. He often reminded us of the difficulties of viewing these ideas through the lens of the 21st century Judea-Christian culture in which most of us are embedded.

Sometimes, it was the asides that I found most interesting – how philosophy was a way of life in ancient Athens and how some philosophers (Pythagoras, for example) gained God-like status. Or how Greek philosophy developed roughly about the same time as Hinduism and Buddhism – all of which pre-date Christianity. And, of course, all of this pre-dates capitalism, which meant that making money from lending money was condemned.

Irony in ancient Greece
We wouldn’t be the first or the last batch of students to see the irony that ancient Greece was the seedbed of our modern democracy and the laws of the land were decided by juries without professional judges and lawyers to interpret the laws.

Instead, the philosophers of the day taught people how to defend themselves. These so-called Sophists weren’t interested in truth or knowledge per se, but rather in the art of persuasion.

Socrates didn’t write down his thoughts because he claimed he had nothing to teach. Believing that knowledge was the highest form of human skill, he spent his time interrogating Athenians in search of clarifications and definitions. And, it is to Socrates we owe that famous expression, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Yet, such was his fame in Athens, that Socrates became a threat to the establishment and was poisoned for “denying the gods of the city”.

It became the job of his student Plato to consolidate Socrates’ teachings. Plato’s dialogues were meant to be read aloud and discussed and continue to be debated by modern Platonists to this day. One of Plato’s most interesting treatises, we learned, was his ideal state based on human nature.

This Platonic state would have rulers and auxiliaries (soldiers, police), neither of whom would have private property or bring up their own children. The workers would do all other tasks and own property and the state would take care of children.

Plato believed that in this ideal state, the various positions people held would embody the four cardinal virtues. The rulers would be wise, soldiers courageous, and workers would exert self-control. Justice would ensue, he believed, because each class was performing its proper function. Of course, now we immediately see the problem with this model was that there was no social movement between each class.

The final section of the course was dedicated to Aristotle. For some reason, my interest began to wane at this point. Had the novelty of the night course worn off? Had I quickly dispensed with the idea of knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Had my whimsical search for universal wisdom failed? Or was I not naturally drawn to Aristotelian thought?

Well, maybe it was his search for rational, scientific answers for philosophical and spiritual questions that continue to tease us to this day. And then, there was that small issue of gender: women were deemed to have lower levels of reason and higher levels of emotionality than men, which was all part of the natural order of society.

Hmm. Maybe ancient Greek philosophy wasn’t the right place to start after all.


Saturday with Socrates – Philosophy, Therapy and Mental Well-Being is on May 4th from 10am-5pm at the United Arts Club, 3 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin 2. More details from Dr Angelo Bottone on email angelo.bottone@ucd.ie