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Lessons for modern Greece from ancients
Matt Pickles | 08 Jun 12
Can the leaders of modern Greece – and of other countries suffering in the current economic crisis – learn useful lessons from the ancient Greeks? In the first of a series, Lessons from history, we asked Dr Armand D’Angour of the Classics Faculty to distil the wisdom of some select ancient characters.
Lesson 1 – Be as adaptable as Zeus
When Zeus, chief of the gods, wanted to get his way with women, he transformed himself into a form that would help him achieve his goals. ‘In Greek myth Zeus became a bull to seduce Europa, and then swam off with her,’ says Dr D’Angour. 'That was how the contintent of Europe was said to have got its name.
'And when Danae was sealed up in a tower by her father, Zeus entered the room in the form of a golden shower, giving rise to ancient jokes about the power of gold to seduce. The lesson one might derive from these myths is that gold is desirable, but to transform the world one must first transform oneself.’
Lesson 2 - Emulate the endurance of Odysseus
Faced with his final challenge after his long journey home from Troy neared its end, Odysseus consoles himself (in Homer's Odyssey) by saying 'Hold fast, my heart, you have endured worse suffering'.
Dr D’Angour comments: 'Odysseus battled hostile elements and terrifying monsters, and at the end came up against a host of human adversaries. His words are a reminder that, however dispiriting the current situation may be, even harder challenges have in the past been faced and overcome.'
Lesson 3 – Do the right thing regardless of popularity
When Athens was faced with revolution in the early 6th century BC as a result of debt, social division and inequity, Solon introduced a programme of reforms which balanced the interests of rich and poor.
'His measures were attacked by all sides,’ says Dr D'Angour, ‘but they were adopted, and paved the way for the eventual creation of democracy by Cleisthenes. Great statesmen must have the courage to implement unpopular compromises for the sake of justice and stability.'
Lesson 4 – Look to the past for 'new' ideas
Best known today for his mathematical theorem, Pythagoras of Samos believed that numbers underlie everything in the universe and that cosmic events recur identically over a cycle of 10,800 years. 'Everything comes round again, so nothing is completely new', are his reported words.
Dr D’Angour comments: ‘Every experience, idea or product can be seen to have some earlier source, counterpart or precedent. The new builds on the old. The young man with a laptop on a Greek vase from 470 BC – a writing-tablet in fact - seems to prove that there’s nothing new under the sun.'
Lesson 5 – Don’t try to guess the future, act well in the present
Ancient Delphi was the site of Apollo's oracle, the Pythia, who was believed to forecast the future. ‘Her utterances were unintelligible, and her priests turned them into ambiguous prophecies,’ explains Dr D’Angour.
‘So asked 'Should Greece leave the Euro?’, the response may have emerged as 'Greece should abandon the Euro if the Euro has abandoned Greece' – leaving proponents and opponents of 'Grexit' to try and work out what that means. He adds: 'Wiser advice was to be found in the mottoes inscribed on the face of Apollo's temple at Delphi - Know Yourself, Nothing in Excess.'
Lesson 6 – Look for the stable markers
The philosopher Heraclitus (early 5th century) said 'you can't step into the same river twice' - the ceaseless flow of water makes it a different river each time you step into it. 'But though change is constant, different things change at different rates,' notes Dr D'Angour.
'In an environment of ceaseless flux, it’s necessary to identify stable markers and to hold fast to them.'
Lesson 7 - Face the facts and take your medicine
Western medicine goes back to Hippocrates (late 5th century BC), whose oath doctors still swear today. Ancient Greek medicine is notable for the honest observations of how patients fared under treatment.
'What is exceptional is the clear-sighted recognition that doctors must observe accurately and record truthfully, even if a patient dies in the process,' says Dr D'Angour. 'Magical or wishful thinking cannot bring a cure. Only exhaustive empirical observation can hope to reveal what works and what doesn’t.'
Lesson 8 – There are no easy answers
'The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being,' said Socrates, whose constant scrutiny of Athenians' political and moral convictions contributed to his execution in 399 BC.
'Socrates became a martyr to free thought and moral inquiry,' says Dr D'Angour, 'thereby bequeathing to humanity a duty to keep on thinking with tireless integrity, particularly when definite answers are unlikely to be found.'
Lesson 9 - Choose the right leaders
The comic playwright Aristophanes was known for mocking contemporary Athenian politicians of every stripe. 'Scholarly debate still rages over whether one can take anything in his comedies seriously,' Dr D'Angour observes.
'But in one case, his Frogs of 405 BC, it was clear to all that he had heartfelt and unambiguous advice for his politically fickle fellow citizens: choose good leaders, or you will be stuck with bad ones.’
Lesson 10 – Take a bath
Stuck over how to determine whether a crown was made of pure gold, the story goes that Archimedes took a bath and, seeing the water rise up the side as he stepped in, realised that an object's volume could be measured by the water it displaced. He allegedly jumped out of the bath and ran naked through Syracuse shouting 'Eureka!' (‘Got it!’) 'Finding the solution to a knotty problem requires hard thinking,’ says Dr D’Angour, ‘but the answer often comes only when you switch off, relax, and take a bath.'
Dr D'Angour has written more on lessons from the ancients on BBC News Online.
Top image: A Greek vase from 470BC; bottom image: Delphi Valley, where the Oracle was said to reside (credit: Klone123)