by Mark Vernon
Each chapter looks at one of the ancient Greek philosophers, putting them in their historical perspective and pointing out similarities with some modern dilemmas.
In the introduction, the author states that the turbulence of the times in which these people lived gave birth to philosophy, in the same way that people today are questioning and discussing lifestyles and ethics. The times in which we live are equally turbulent in their way, and people are looking for ways to cope with this.
In modern style, the chapters are short enough that they could be made into a series of podcasts, but the author stresses that this would only be an introduction, as it takes a lifetime to study philosophy, and is best done by living the philosophy itself. Podcasts and online learning might take a person from novice to beginner, but for expertise and mastery, the fellowship of risk-taking and trust is required.
Pythagoras is covered, who searched for meaning and found it in mathematics. Sappho, whose love poetry embodies attention to detail and imagery. Plato, who developed the device of the dialogue, a conversational style in which ideas are discussed.
Diogenes the Cynic was the man who lived very simply on the streets, with a barrel for shelter. Diogenes message seems to be that fame is ephemeral and deceptive, while the best way to get a message across is to devote your life to it, which then attracts attention and makes the message newsworthy.
Epicurus was the man famous for his “less is more” philosophy. Epicurus believed, after Democritus, in the atomic model of matter. They reasoned that if matter is infinitely divisible, you would be able to divide and divide until you were left with nothing. Since this is clearly impossible, there must be tiny indivisible units, which they called atoms. They were far ahead of their time, and their ideas were not popular. This reductionist way of thinking led Epicurus to consider what is fundamental for life to exist, and to try to live the simplest way possible. He asked, what is natural and necessary; natural and unnecessary; and what is both unnatural and unnecessary? Worth considering in our modern times!
The psychology of shopping is touched upon, and hedonism, which is found to be a rather shallow philosophy. Other philosophers thought that pleasures should be appreciated and enjoyed, but allowed to pass without yearning.
Cleanthus (the water-carrier) had a clear message for us today: don’t work so hard that you miss what you want.
The final chapter is about Socrates and his ideas about accepting the inevitability of death. Aristotle was keen on logic, and recognised that all humans are mortal. If we can contemplate life as if we are near death, it highlights the present, but also makes death seem less daunting, apparently. It is the truth that sets you free. Socrates talked of separating the soul from the body, which he hoped for in death, and practiced this by contemplating the body while keeping still. In today’s language it sounds very like transcendental meditation. His message was to choose a philosophy and practice it, in order to come to terms with death. Because the contemplation of death leads to life, in the here and now, and the hereafter can take care of itself. Which also sounds like meditative practice.
Altogether, a fascinating introduction to philosophy, which made me want to read more, and I hope I will. Who would have thought that the ancients would have a message for our times? But then, nothing in this world really changes, does it?