fbpx

Bringing Ancient Greek Philosophy Back to Life

One of the goals of the Plato’s Academy Centre is to bring ancient Greek philosophy and literature to a wider audience by making it more relevant to modern life. This Prada advert directed by Ridley Scott shows one creative way that an ancient text can be brought to life:

The words are from Thunder, the Perfect Mind, a 3rd century Gnostic mystical text, discovered in Egypt and written in the Coptic language, but believed to have originally been composed in Greek.

In the video below, Akira the Don, has put the words of the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations, to music.

I think that there’s plenty of opportunity for other ancient Greek texts to be utilized creatively in ways that potentially introduce them to a new audience.

The lord whose is the oracle at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals his meaning, but shows it by a sign.

Heraclitus

Translators can play a crucial role in this, though, by working with artists to create new translations, or even paraphrases, of ancient texts, which are both faithful to the original but also complemented by the music. There are many ways we can, and should, continue to work with ancient texts to keep them alive by making them more accessible and relevant to a wider modern audience.

Aphorisms like the sayings of Heraclitus or poems like Empedocles’ On Nature or the work of the same name by Parmenides, perhaps lend themselves to creative modern presentations like those above.

It is all one to me where I begin; for I shall come back again there.

Parmenides

Street Art

Another interesting opportunity for keeping Greek philosophy alive and reaching a new audience is through street art, such as the large portrait of Solon, one of the Seven Sages, found in Metaxourgeio in Athens.

Images of Greek thinkers are great but it would be nice to combine these with some of their words. There’s a backstreet in Kypseli, Athens, where artists have covered the walls with quotes from ancient Greek literature.

The Plato’s Academy Centre could, for instance, organize events to raise funds for street art projects to celebrate Greek philosophy.

Feel free to comment below if you have any suggestions for ways in which music or artwork could be used to bring Greek philosophy to a wider audience. You may also want to check out our forthcoming virtual event: Ancient Philosophy Comes Alive!

From Wise Up by Karen Duffy

Wise Up by Karen Duffy

This is an excerpt from Wise Up: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who’s Been Through It reproduced by kind permission of the author, Karen Duffy, and her publisher, Seal Press.


Stoicism is a good and faithful companion. When you’re alone, it offers good company. When you’re ambitious, it inspires self-discipline. When you’re lazy, it motivates action. When you’re fortunate, it reminds you to be grateful and moderate. When you’re suffering, it teaches you to dig deep and be resilient. When you are anxious and fearful, it gives you the knowledge that you have the guts to carry on.

Anxiety and fear want to protect you from harm. In keeping you from engaging the tests you face, they also keep you from the good things in life.

Karen Duffy

Donald Robertson, the best-selling author and noted Stoic philosopher, has a particularly sharp insight: “Worry is a horror story we tell ourselves where we exaggerate the probability, imminence, and severity of a perceived threat and minimize our ability to cope with it.” Anxiety and fear want to protect you from harm. In keeping you from engaging the tests you face, they also keep you from the good things in life.

Wise Up by Karen Duffy
Wise Up by Karen Duffy

Courage is not a limited resource. In a pinch, you can borrow it. Be inspired by others. Borrow a philosopher’s courage, or your mother’s. You can borrow courage from the wisdom of Epictetus or the valor of Theodore Roosevelt. Your father or your friends can all lend you courage. They’ve all been tested. They’ve all faced huge obstacles. You can borrow courage from your teammates, who are prepared to mix it up with the other guys to protect their goalie. You can repay the loan by letting others borrow from you.

Don’t confuse borrowing courage with giving up your belief in your own decisions. You can try to avoid tough challenges by allowing other people to tell you what to do. Coaches, parents, teachers, and friends all have wisdom to share. Do not lose sight of your own wisdom. Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Look well into yourself, there is a source of strength which will always spring up if you will look.” Courage is thinking for yourself.


This is an excerpt from Wise Up: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who’s Been Through It reproduced by kind permission of the author, Karen Duffy, and her publisher, Seal Press.

From Plato’s Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book by Angie Hobbs

Plato's Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book

This is an excerpt from Plato’s Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book reproduced by kind permission of the author, Prof. Angie Hobbs, and her publisher, Penguin.

GIVEAWAY: We’re currently giving away five copies of Plato’s Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book. To enter the giveaway just register for our forthcoming virtual conference before 1st May 2022, and Tweet @platoacademycen to let us know you’re coming!

Philosophers, sophists, and alternative facts

Plato's Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book

Why is Plato so committed to the existence of knowledge? Why is he not prepared to countenance the possibility that humans might have to withhold judgement?

The answer partly lies in his distrust and dislike of the sophists, the professional teachers of skills in public speaking and debate (such as Thrasymachus). Throughout his work, Plato is particularly opposed to those who teach their students how to make the weaker argument appear the stronger, peddling tricks in argumentation for argument’s sake rather than making an honest and collaborative effort to search for the truth. He is also alarmed by the claim of one of the most famous sophists, Protagoras, that there is no such thing as objective truth and that each human simply creates his own subjective version of what is and what is not – that each ‘human is the measure’ of all things. Questioning and examining purported ‘facts’ is fine and good and what a philosopher should do, but doing away with any possibility of agreed reality is, Plato believes, both wrong and dangerous.

In his view such sophists give philosophy a bad name, and philosophy and sophistry need to be clearly distinguished. Commitment to the objective – indeed absolute – truth of the Forms and to knowledge of the Forms is the way to do this. […]

Plato's Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book
The philosopher seeking truth beyond the world of flux.

The Simile of the Cave

The contrast between the mortal world of shifting phenomena and the intelligible and divine realm of perfect and unchanging Forms is illustrated by the powerful Simile of the Cave. We are bound by the legs and neck in a dark cave, facing a wall; behind us is a fire and between the fire and our backs runs a curtain-wall above which puppets are mysteriously moved.

Although at first we will be dazzled, we will in time adjust to the true objects there and eventually be able to gaze at the sun itself…

Angie Hobbs

All we can see on the wall in front of us are the shadows of puppets, which we mistake for real objects, both animate and inanimate. But if we are painfully released from our shackles and forced up a tunnel into the bright world above, although at first we will be dazzled, we will in time adjust to the true objects there and eventually be able to gaze at the sun itself, and realize that before we were prisoners in a world of deceptive shadows. And those few who do get to look upon the sun are compelled to return to the cave and use their knowledge to improve the lives of those who dwell there. […]

The implications of the simile for education are profound. The task of the teacher is to turn the mind’s eye of the pupil in the direction of the light; the acquisition of knowledge has to be an active and internal process which the pupil undertakes for her- or himself.


GIVEAWAY: We’re currently giving away five copies of Plato’s Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book. To enter the giveaway just register for our forthcoming virtual conference before 1st May 2022, and Tweet @platoacademycen to let us know you’re coming!

Announcing: Plato’s Academy Centre Virtual Conference

Virtual Conference: Ancient Philosophy Comes Alive

Ancient Philosophy Comes Alive

Virtual Conference on Greek Philosophy and the Good Life

If you’re interested in how Greek philosophy can help us live better lives today, this is the online event for you!

Tickets now available on EventBrite. Payment is by donation, an amount of your choosing, and all proceeds go toward the Plato’s Academy Centre nonprofit. Not available or in a different time zone? Don’t worry as recordings will be available afterwards to everyone booking tickets in advance.

What’s it all about?

We bring together a special program of world-class philosophers and renowned authors for an exclusive online event that you absolutely won’t want to miss.

Each speaker will share with you their knowledge and captivating insights into the most famous ancient philosophers, including effective and practical advice and strategies to help understand and manage the challenges of our uncertain and complex daily lives.

Speakers

  • Prof. Angie Hobbs, University of Sheffield; author of Plato’s Republic: A Ladybird Expert Book
  • Prof. Voula Tsouna, University of California, Santa Barbara; author of Plato’s Charmides: An Interpretative Commentary
  • Prof. Nancy Sherman, Georgetown University; author of Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience
  • Prof. Chloe Balla, University of Crete; author of Platonic Persuasion: From the Art of the Orator to the Art of the Statesman
  • Dr John Sellars, Royal Holloway, University of London; author of Hellenistic Philosophy and The Pocket Epicurean
  • Robin Waterfield, classicist and translator of Plato and Xenophon
  • Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

NB: Presentation titles will be added shortly. Details may be subject to change without prior notification.

Who will be hosting?

Our hosts will be Donald Robertson, the president of the Plato’s Academy Centre, and Anya Leonard, the founder and director of the Classical Wisdom website.

About Plato’s Academy Centre

The Plato’s Academy Centre is a new nonprofit, based in Greece, run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers from around the world. Our mission is to make ancient Greek philosophy more accessible to a wider international audience and to celebrate the legacy of Plato’s Academy in Athens. Everyone is welcome to join us.

FAQ

  1. Will recordings be available? Yes, everyone who orders a ticket in advance will automatically have access after the event to recordings of all presentations. So don’t worry if you’re unavailable at these times or located in another time zone.
  2. Will it be too academic for me? While many of our speakers are notable academics, the sessions are aimed at a nonacademic audience.
  3. How much does it cost? We’re making this event payment by donation, amount of your choosing, so it’s available to the widest possible audience. As a rough guide, tickets for a physical conference like this might cost €150. Your generosity helps support our nonprofit’s work and allows us to reach more people through future events.
  4. Why this date? 21st May is the approximate date of the Platoneia, on which Plato’s birthday is traditionally celebrated. The event begins at 12pm EST.
  5. Where can I get updates? Follow our Facebook Event page and our Twitter account for updates on this event.

Thanks

We’re grateful to our board of advisors, Orange Grove incubator, Classical Wisdom, and the Aurelius Foundation, for their support in bringing you this event. Special thanks to Phil Yanov, Gabriel Fleming, and Kasey Robertson for their help organizing the event.

Mick Mulroy: A Stoic Stand and the Fight for Ukraine

Vitaly Skakun Volodymyrovych

He who does not prevent a crime, when he can, encourages it.

Seneca

The British historian and politician Thomas Macaulay wrote a collection of poems in 1842 called Lays of Ancient Rome. These recount heroic episodes that go beyond the emperors, generals, and senators, to highlight the actions of ordinary footsoldiers, who otherwise would be lost to history.

One of the poems, called Horatius, is about Publius Horatius and two fellow soldiers who were assigned to hold the Sublician Bridge over the Tiber river from the Etruscan Army. These three elected to go forward and fight the enemy, allowing their fellow soldiers the opportunity to dismantle the bridge behind them, sacrificing their lives in the process.

From their President on down, Ukrainians have proven that courage and tenacity, though intangible factors, can have an exponential impact on the battlefield.

Mick Mulroy

This is such a moving poem that many, including Winston Churchhill, memorized every verse. But this type of heroism is not confined to ancient times. It is happening right now in Ukraine. From their President on down, Ukrainians have proven that courage and tenacity, though intangible factors, can have an exponential impact on the battlefield.

Going into battle takes courage. Many of my closest friends and I have done so on many occasions. We always went, though, with overwhelming force on our side. The courage to go into battle wholly outnumbered is of another kind. I believe it exemplifies the type of fortitude that the ancient Stoics held as one of their fundamental principles and cardinal virtues. It is courage in the face of oppression, in defense of liberty, even if death is the most likely outcome.

On February 25, 2022, the Ukrainian government issued a statement that Vitaly Volodymyrovych Skakun, a Ukrainian Marine combat engineer, had voluntarily undertaken a mission to mine the Genichesky Bridge near Kyiv before Russian forces could cross it. Vitaly did not have time to flee the blast zone before detonating the explosives. He informed his battalion, by text message, that he would be blowing it up regardless. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the Gold Star by Ukrainian President President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He became, through his actions, a modern-day Horatius.

To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Then facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.

Haul down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now, who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?

This type of heroism needs to leave behind more than a poem; it should inspire action. Ukraine is a young democratic country fighting to hold on to its freedom. Vitaly’s courage, his Stoic stand, is what the free world must remember to ensure that we do not return to the past.

About the author

Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is a retired U.S. Marine, a retired paramilitary operations officer in the CIA’s Special Activities Center, and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. He is now a national security and defense analyst for ABC News, a senior fellow for national security and defense policy with the Middle East Institute, a co-founder of the Lobo Institute, and on the board of advisors for Plato’s Academy Centre.

Join our Facebook Discussion Group

Our Facebook discussion group has grown very rapidly since it was launched just a few weeks ago. We already have nearly two thousand members. You’re welcome to come and join us to discuss ancient philosophy and its relevance for modern living. Please also share the link with your friends and communities.

If you are tech savvy, you can scan the QR code below to join immediately!

Facebook Group QR Code

You can also follow @platoacademycen on Twitter using the QR code below:

Mick Mulroy: The Stoic’s Mirror

A Case for Self Assessment

The four main principles of Stoicism — wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance — are best used to conduct self-assessments, not to “preach” to others. Stoics should therefore not insist that Stoicism is superior to other philosophies. Instead, these principles should be employed as personal markers to improve continually. 

With the hope of being helpful to others, the remainder of this writing details some things I have done and the standards that I try and hold to that help me do that. No matter where you are on your personal development, everyone is better off if we are all trying to better ourselves. Being a self-assessing Stoic will also help prevent you from becoming what may be the worst — a hypocrite

Wisdom

grayscale photo of human hand
Photo by Amine M’Siouri on Pexels.com

Wisdom is not just knowing lots of information. Artificial intelligence and Google are making that ability less and less important. Instead, true wisdom is all about the ability to be creative and innovative. To be creative and innovative, you have to be able to admit when you are wrong and adjust as you receive new information. 

Being adaptable is becoming a rare skill in today’s world, where people have developed immutable beliefs based on information pushed for political or self-serving reasons. If you cannot admit you are wrong, you will essentially never be innovative, especially when circumstances change. When was the last time you admitted you were wrong to someone?

Courage

Courage is knowingly deciding to act for the good of others regardless of the consequences to yourself — even if those consequences could be dire. I have seen courage in traditional settings (e.g., in the military and on the battlefield). But courageousness is found in many other capacities every day. 

Do you walk past the person being bullied or attacked on the street? Do you look the other way when someone is wrongfully discriminated against or do you stand up for them — even if it means those discriminating turn on you? Do you pull someone out of a burning car on the highway or do you standby watching it burn? Every day is a test, whether you like it or not. 

The true pursuit of justice should be for others regardless of whether they are like you or not. 

Mick Mulroy

Justice

Look at justice and your pursuit of it. What are you doing for others? Yes, you should fight for your rights and the rights of those like you. But, that is basically righteous self-interest. The true pursuit of justice should be for others regardless of whether they are like you or not. 

Human rights after all should be, by definition, universal. We should strive to promote human rights for others regardless of whether we personally benefit. This is what it means to be a true proponent of justice, to be a humanitarian. When is the last time you took a stand for something that did not benefit you for someone that wasn’t like you?

Temperance

As an Irish-American myself, I have a theory on the Irish. During the famine and the troubles in Ireland, many families had to send some of their children to the “New World” to try and make enough to survive for the whole family. 

Yet, the United States was not very receptive to the Irish. In fact, they it was in many ways hostile. Most Irish chosen to be sent across the ocean were selected based on their tenacity and boldness (there are other names I could use but I am trying to be polite). They weren’t necessarily sent abroad for their temperance.     

Whether this theory is true, I have always viewed temperance as the most challenging. Aristotle may have said moderation in all things, but that is easier said than done for many people, Irish or not. 

I have found that the best way to improve in this category is to well, cheat. If you eat and drink too much at night, go to bed early. If you turn hostile every time you talk politics with your parents or a certain friend, even after you tried to have a civil discussion, talk about something else. But a person’s temper may not be in their total control. 

Deciding to go into situations that trigger your temper is in your control. To be blunt, if it is your choice to avoid, then the consequences of not avoiding it are your fault. When was the last time you were the one that walked away from an unproductive argument?

Integrity

These principles are the building blocks that make up a more complicated whole — your integrity. Your integrity is the only thing that can’t be taken from you and is, therefore, the only thing you truly own. Self-assessment, if done honestly, is an investment in your integrity. 

Like climbing a mountain, there will be hardships, there will be peaks and valleys, and there may even be some false summits, but it is worth the effort for you and everyone you know. 

Whether you agree with or use what I utilize for self-assessment is not what’s important.  What is important is looking carefully at yourself in the Stoic’s mirror. Many people are their own greatest fans. Be your own harshest critic.  

Mick Mulroy, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, retired CIA officer, and U.S. Marine, on the board of advisors for the Plato’s Academy Centre.

Sir John Templeton on Stoicism

Sir John Templeton (1912 – 2008), an American by birth who later became naturalised as a UK citizen, was an extremely successful investor and fund manager.  He was also one of the 20th century’s most notable philanthropists, reputedly giving away over a billion dollars to charity.  In 1987, he founded The Templeton Foundation, describing its goal as follows:

We are trying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.

John Templeton

Templeton was a lifelong member of the Presbyterian Church.  He had a very diverse interest, though, in spiritual and philosophical classics from other traditions.  His writings are full of quotes from famous Stoics such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  He also quotes frequently from Cicero, an orator and Academic philosopher who was himself heavily influenced by Stoicism.  Templeton also liked to refer to Socrates, the most famous Greek philosopher of all, who preceded and greatly influenced the Stoic school. 

I counted about 22 references to Stoicism in Worldwide Laws of Life, his most popular book on Amazon.  To save me repeating “Templeton quotes xyz as saying”, incidentally, bear in mind that every one of the quotations below is used by Templeton in this book.   

John Templeton, Worldwide Laws of Life
John Templeton, Worldwide Laws of Life

Templeton derived two major themes from his reading of the Stoics, which run throughout his writings:

  1. Our own thoughts shape our character and emotions
  2. Our happiness depends upon having self-discipline, and living consistently in accord with our true values

We’ll explore each of these in turn before discussing a third Stoic theme, death reflection, which Templeton only touches upon indirectly.

1. “Your life becomes what you think.”

Templeton uses this quote from Marcus Aurelius as the title of one of his Worldwide Laws of Life. He also includes another quote, which better explains its meaning: “Such as are thy habitual thoughts,” says Marcus, “such also will be the character of thy soul—for the soul is dyed by thy thoughts.” Marcus is also quoted as saying:

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thought: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus was steeped in the teachings of Epictetus, an earlier Stoic philosopher, whose most famous saying was:

Men are disturbed not by things that happen but by their opinion of the things that happen.  

Epictetus

Templeton quoted Epictetus because he understood that our emotional life depends much more on our opinions than we normally tend to realise.  Our spiritual progress requires taking responsibility for our own thinking, and bringing our actions more into alignment with the goal of living wisely and virtuously. 

Recalling that we can always view events differently helps us to cope with setbacks in a wiser, more constructive manner.  Epictetus is quoted as saying, “On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.”  One who has mastered this ability has overcome fortune.  

Happy is the man who can endure the highest and the lowest fortune. He who has endured such vicissitudes with equanimity has deprived misfortune of its power.

Seneca

Templeton also quoted with approval Epictetus’ remark:

Appearances to the mind are of four kinds. Things are either what they appear to be; or they neither are, nor appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Rightly to aim in all these cases is the wise man’s task.

Epictetus

We are unlikely to be deceived when things are as they appear to be. However, often the contrary is true. Something might be healthy, on the one hand, without appearing to be so. On the other, something may appear to be healthy, without, in fact, being so.  Appearances, in short, are distinct from reality, and can therefore be quite misleading. This might seem obvious but we’re naturally inclined to forget the distinction between appearance and reality. Philosophers like Epictetus want us to be more mindful of this distinction throughout our daily lives, as a safeguard against being deceived by superficial impressions.

We have to make a commitment to the truth as it requires intelligence and effort to see clearly, without letting our feelings get in the way. 

The great teacher Seneca said, “Eyes will not see when the heart wishes them to be blind.”

John Templeton

He also quotes Seneca saying “Live among men as if God beheld you; speak to God as if men were listening.”

The Pythia, or Delphic Oracle
The Pythia, or Delphic Oracle

Socrates, the godfather of Stoicism, as it were, was the first to really emphasize that we need to question our own thinking very deeply, every day, if we want to achieve wisdom and learn to see life clearly.  Templeton relates the famous story of the Delphic Oracle, or priestess of Apollo, also known as the Pythia. She once, controversially, announced that Socrates was the wisest of all men.  This prompted Socrates to respond by insisting that he was only wise because he realized that he knew nothing, at least nothing certain about things of great importance.  “Surely,” writes Templeton, “these are the words of a teachable man.” 

Socrates reputedly said at his trial “The unexamined life is not worth living”, words which Templeton also notes approvingly.  After the Delphic Oracle’s remarkable proclamation of Socrates’ wisdom, the Athenian philosopher dedicated his life to following the most famous prescription engraved outside her shrine. It consisted of two simple words: Know thyself.  For Templeton this was emblematic of Socrates’ mission to urged Athenians “to live noble lives, to think critically and logically, and to have probing minds”, although as we’ll see it also has another meaning.

2. “No man is free who is not master of himself.”

Templeton used this quote from Epictetus as another of his Worldwide Laws of Life. Philosophy, philosophia in Greek, literally means “love of wisdom”, including the wisdom that comes from studying our own nature.  Striving to truly know ourselves, following the maxim of the Delphic Oracle, is the essence of Socratic philosophy, and of Stoicism.  It means realizing that our minds shape our emotions and that our happiness therefore depends, fundamentally, upon our thinking, our beliefs, and our overall philosophy of life.  Knowing yourself is the key to your freedom, in other words.  Templeton quotes Seneca on this: “A good mind is lord of a kingdom.”  That’s because self-knowledge leads to self-control, which we need in order to free ourselves from our own unhealthy desires and emotions.  “No man is free”, according to Epictetus, “who is not master of himself.”

Ancient philosophy, particularly Stoicism, was not an abstract bookish or “academic” diversion but a whole way of life, similar in some ways to a religion such as Buddhism.  Templeton knew this and used the words of another Stoic to illustrate the point.

Wisdom does not show itself so much in precept as in life—in firmness of mind and mastery of appetite. It teaches us to do as well as to talk; and to make our words and action all of a color.

Seneca

Of course this requires an unusual degree of dedication to the goal of living wisely.  “No man”, says Epictetus, “is able to make progress when he is wavering between opposite things.”  We all too easily risk wasting our time otherwise.  “Part of our time is snatched from us,” as Seneca puts it, “part is gently subtracted, and part slides insensibly away.” Yet when we focus ourselves on our fundamental goal in life, the goal of attaining wisdom and virtue, we can achieve a great deal.  “Better to do a little well,” says Socrates, “than a great deal badly.”  Templeton also liked to quote Cicero, who was influenced by the Stoics, in this regard:

Diligence is to be particularly cultivated by us, it is to be constantly exerted; it is capable of effecting almost everything.

Cicero

The secret to achieving this level of diligence and focus lies in self-knowledge, though, and the realization that we already have an overriding goal in life: the goal of wisdom.  For Socrates and the Stoics, wisdom and virtue are the same.  The supreme goal in life is to become wise and good, or to improve and ultimately perfect ourselves.  Nature gave us the capacity for reason and self-awareness, and left us to finish her work by using these faculties well throughout life.  “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature”, as Seneca put it.  We’re constantly tempted to stray from the path, though, by endless diversions in life.  “No longer talk at all about the kind of man a good man ought to be,” says Marcus Aurelius therefore, “but be such.”  We know we’re on the right track when we can look back on our life and feel that we’ve actually spent our precious time well.  “The life given us by nature is short,” said Cicero, “but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal.” 

The goal of life is to act consistently in accord with our fundamental goal, of seeking wisdom and virtue.  The Stoics doubted whether any mortal had ever achieved perfection but they still thought it was a goal worth aspiring toward, although we should be grateful for making even small steps in the right direction.  Templeton quotes a stunning passage from Seneca on this:

The greatest man is he who chooses right with the most invincible resolution; who resists the sorest temptation from within and without; who bears the heaviest burdens cheerfully; who is calmest in storms, and most fearless under menaces and frowns; whose reliance on truth, on virtue, and on god is most unfaltering.

Seneca

This is the famous “Sage” or Sophos of the Stoic philosophical tradition: their knowingly idealistic definition of the potential for greatness implicit in human nature.  

Templeton and the Stoics on Death

As we’ve seen, the words “Know thyself” were engraved at the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, near Athens. Inside was seated the Pythia, who not only spoke on behalf of her patron god, but channelled his very presence, so it was believed, through a form of possession. Those standing outside the temple were reminded, therefore, to show humility because they were about enter the presence of an immortal being, the god Apollo himself. In other words, the inscription “Know yourself” originally meant “Know your place” or “Remember that you are a mortal.”

Here’s a quote from the ancient Stoics, which you don’t find inTempleton’s books:

Those whom you love and those whom you despise will both be made equal in the same ashes. This is the meaning of that command, “Know thyself”, which is written on the shrine of the Pythian oracle. — Seneca, Moral Letters, 11

“What is man?”, asks Seneca. Nothing more than a potter’s vase, which can be shattered into pieces by the slightest knock.

You were born a mortal, and you have given birth to mortals: yourself a weak and fragile body, liable to all diseases, can you have hoped to produce anything strong and lasting from such unstable material? — Moral Letters, 11

Contemplation of our own mortality is a major theme in Stoicism.  It was known in Greek as melete thanatou, or training for death, following a saying of Socrates.  It’s better-known today, perhaps, by the Latin phrase memento mori meaning “remember thou must die”.  This phrase, as Epictetus noted, was one of several traditionally whispered in the ears of victorious Roman generals and emperors, by attendant slaves, in order to protect them against delusions of immortality and godhood.  The Stoics believed that by contemplating our own mortality on a daily basis, in the right way, we could overcome our fear of death, and this would liberate us from many other unhealthy desires and emotions in life.  

We can choose to flow gracefully or to resist and become immobilized in fear.

John Templeton

John Templeton does, in fact, describe a similar practice.  “Many people have a fear of change”, he says.  He therefore advises his readers that, in the form of a spiritual practice, they may come to accept change and loss, without upset, by learning to view such things as part of nature.  We should remember that “nature’s great scheme involves change”, as Templeton puts it.  This sounds just like Stoicism as does Templeton’s remark: “We can choose to flow gracefully or to resist and become immobilized in fear.”  In part, this comes from accepting change as natural and inevitable, as the Stoics say.  Our suffering can also be helped, according to Templeton, by viewing every ending as also a beginning.  

We generally like beginnings—we celebrate the new. On the other hand, many people resist endings and attempt to delay them. Much of our resistance to endings stems from our unawareness, or inability, to realize that we are one with nature. Often we don’t feel the joy of an ending, perhaps because we forget that in each ending are the seeds of beginning. Although endings can be painful, they are less so if, instead of resisting them, we look at time as a natural process of nature: as leaves budding in the spring, coming to full leaf in the summer, turning red and gold in autumn, and dropping from the trees in winter. It can be comforting to comprehend that we are an integral part of the great scheme of nature.

John Templeton

This leads to Templeton’s sage advice with regard to losses we experience in the course of life: “The more we allow ourselves to trust that every ending is a new beginning, the less likely we are to resist letting go of old ideas and attitudes.”  His own Christian faith, however, meant that he also viewed death as a new beginning, because he had faith, personally, in an afterlife.  He compares human life to the existence of a lowly caterpillar, and death to our soul’s emergence from a spiritual cocoon, into a more resplendent life in Heaven.

Yet, if you are willing to trust, as caterpillars seem able to do, the end of your life as an earthbound worm may be the beginning of your life as a beautiful winged creature of the sky.

John Templeton

Death is not something to be feared, therefore, because we may be reborn as beings of pure spirit, living on in a better place. 

We can see each ending as a tragedy and lament and resist it, or we can see each ending as a new beginning and a new birth into greater opportunities. What the caterpillar sees as the tragedy of death, the butterfly sees as the miracle of birth.

John Templeton

That belief is not as widely held today, though, at least in those countries where agnosticism and atheism are common.    

In the ancient world, perhaps surprisingly, a somewhat more agnostic attitude toward death was also quite common.  Socrates, in Plato’s Apology, expresses belief in the gods and hope that he will enjoy a happy existence in the afterlife.  However, he admits his uncertainty about such things, and adopts a philosophical attitude, preparing himself for the possibility that death may, instead, resemble an endless sleep, a state of total nonexistence or oblivion.   

Many people share Templeton’s interest in using “the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities”. They don’t all share his Christian faith in spiritual life after death, though. Some of these individuals would struggle to interpret their own death as the “seeds of beginning” an afterlife in Heaven. I think this is an area where the Stoic position could arguably serve Templeton’s overall aim of a rational and “scientific” investigation of spirituality better.

As we saw earlier, Templeton used perhaps the most widely quoted of all passages from the Stoics… Epictetus says that it is our own opinions, ultimately, that disturb us. In the next sentence, though, Epictetus applied this insight to the fear of death, using the example of Socrates, because he considered this the most important fear of all to overcome.

Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing.

Epictetus, Handbook 5

It’s easier for some non-Christians, especially the atheists and agnostics, to accept uncertainty about life after death. The guidance they’re usually seeking from ancient spiritual traditions today is more about maintaining their values while coming to terms with that very uncertainty, and adopting a philosophical attitude toward their own mortality, such as the one exemplified by Socrates and the Stoics.

Get our Free Email Course on the Socratic Method

Within a week of launching, over two thousand people signed up for our free email course on the Socratic Method.

You can join them right now just by entering your email address below, and you’ll also receive notifications and updates about The Plato’s Academy Centre.

Course Content

You’ll receive a new email in your inbox each week, for six weeks. The emails cover six topics:

  1. Who was Socrates?
  2. Socrates and Civility
  3. The Socratic Method
  4. Socratic Questioning Today
  5. Spotting Common Fallacies
  6. What next?

This course is suitable for everyone, and you’re all welcome to enroll. You can also join our online community to discuss some of the ideas in the course, via our Facebook discussion group.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Regards,

Donald Robertson
President of the Plato’s Academy Centre

News: Plato’s Academy Centre Virtual Community Reaches a Thousand Members

We’re delighted to announce that the Plato’s Academy Centre’s virtual community has already reached over one thousand members, within two weeks of launching. We’ve been astounded at the support we’ve received. Thanks everyone!

At the moment, the platform we’ve chosen is Facebook where our community is hosted in a Facebook discussion group. However, we have been considering alternative options for those who don’t use Facebook.

The community is posting news and articles for now. Soon, though, we’ll be introducing trained moderators who will be facilitating tolerant and constructive discussion about philosophy, in the spirit of the original Platonic Academy!

You can also follow our other social media accounts or subscribe to our blog or newsletter for updates and announcements regarding the project.