Wisdom from the Ancient Greeks

When the oracle at Delphi told Socrates that he was the wisest man in Greece, Socrates concluded that the only reason he could be deemed wise is because he was the only person who realized that he knew nothing. He questioned everything as he sought Truth, but the truth, he realized, was elusive. Although Socrates was humble, the ancient Greeks, along with people from almost all of the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, created a legacy that profoundly shaped today’s world. In one sense, from today’s perspective, the Greeks did not know much, but in another sense, our art, architecture, laws, form of government, philosophy, literature, mathematics, and even scientific thought were born in those European, Arabic, and African countries about 2,500 or more years ago. One contemporary philosopher, I believe it was Alfred North Whitehead, once said, all of philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. Those ancients, like Plato, who lived by the sea, lacked most of the technologies we have today, but they had a passion for thinking, talking, learning, and discovering. They had a passion for living life. They did not seclude themselves in their rooms to think; they taught and argued in the marketplace. They drank. The wealthy engaged in sensual pleasures. They appreciated art, theater, music, and literature. They traveled at a time when moving around was challenging. They engaged in sport, and they fought wars as well.

The Greeks thought a great deal about what constituted the “good life.” If you defined those words clearly from a Western perspective, I suspect I could find someone from that time period who shared a similar perspective. The thinkers from those days covered quite a bit of territory. Although the Ancient Greeks did not know what a light bulb is, they well understood what it meant to be a human, perhaps better than we do today. They did not have all the modern distractions we have. They kept it at 100%.

So, the question the trio of Ancient Greeks (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) asked, that has been repeated for centuries ever since, is how should one live one’s life? To what end? They did not arrve at a definitive answer, although Socrates searched high and low. The passage of time has not given us greater insights into why we are here. That great philosopher of today, Dr. Phil, doesn’t know either. But, the ancients gave us some principles. Socrates told us that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Plato said: “he was a wise man who invented beer.” Aristotle argued, “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” These three maxims can be used as premises to draw a conclusion certain to inspire us today: “to be wise, make it a habit to drink the best beer available, but only do so in moderation.” This is why you often see unemployed but happy philosophy majors, sitting in bars, drinking craft beer, and talking about the meaning of life, without arriving at any answers. In their defense, at least they know the right questions to ask, the same ones asked 2,500 years ago.

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