Scott Samuelson: The Deep Mystery of Being Alive

Scott Samuelson, winner of the 2015 Hiett Prize in the Humanities, is the author of The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone (University of Chicago Press, 2014) and has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philosopher’s Magazine, and Christian Century. His article “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers” in The Atlantic has been widely circulated. He’s been interviewed on NPR and given various public lectures and talks, including a TEDx talk “How Philosophy Can Save Your Life.”

Prof. Samuelson also teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City, Iowa as well as at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, a.k.a. Oakdale Prison. He draws on his prison teaching in his second book, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering: What Philosophy Can Tell Us about the Hardest Mystery of All. His upcoming book, Rome as a Guide to the Good Life, is slated to release in the Spring of 2023.

For more information, please visit https://scottsamuelsonauthor.com/.

How did you become interested in this area?

When I was sixteen, I noticed a book in the Iowa City Public Library about philosophy. I knew nothing about the subject, but I was intrigued and started flipping through it. One section was entitled “Five Proofs of God”—by someone named Thomas Aquinas. That there could even be one proof of God was mind-blowing enough—but five!? Since the section wasn’t all that long, I sat down and read it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the proofs. Strangely, they insinuated doubt into my mind about God’s existence.

If we can do things like prove God, I wondered, doesn’t that mean we’re also capable of inventing God? Nevertheless, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that whatever Thomas Aquinas was doing was the greatest thing a human being could do. I wanted in. I wanted to be a philosopher, even though I had no clue what philosophy was. I started reading other philosophers (the existentialists at first) and have never looked back. There are probably several good ways of navigating life but let me stand up for heading down an alluring path with no idea where you’re going.

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

Socrates famously suggests that the unexamined life is not worth living. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but I consider it my mission as a teacher and writer to show the beauty of living the examined life. My first book The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone is my most concerted attempt to get this point across. What does the examined life involve? Among other things, paying loving attention to the world, reading widely, listening to people, trying to understand what they’re doing and why, thinking clearly and honestly about what matters most, being willing to face suffering and tragedy, adjusting your beliefs in light of experience, and reminding yourself that the truth is always bigger than what you think it is.

There are two great impediments to the examined life. The first is the belief that you’re already in possession of what gives meaning and value to life, and anyone who disagrees with you is wrong. The second is the view that nothing gives meaning and value to life, so everyone is equally right. Both of these positions, admittedly, contain an element of truth. The dogmatist is right that there’s something real to understand, and the relativist is right that it’s hubristic to believe any one person is in full possession of it. But I take the essence of philosophy to be (as its etymology suggests) the love of wisdom: not the possession of wisdom but the desire for wisdom that you don’t yet—and may never fully—possess.

If all we do is war against suffering and death, we miss out on the deep mystery of being alive.

Scott Samuelson

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

In a sense, it’s a variation on the old adage memento mori. In my book Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering, I make the case that it’s worthwhile to remember our mortality—and our vulnerability more generally. We’re used to trying to fix suffering and death (for instance, with medicine) and trying to forget about suffering and death (for instance, by distracting ourselves). But I argue that we should also face suffering and death. The arts can be especially helpful here, as can religion. I think philosophy at its finest—for instance, Stoicism—is particularly good at it.

If all we do is war against suffering and death, we miss out on the deep mystery of being alive. So, my piece of practical advice is that the good life involves the paradox of simultaneously opposing and accepting suffering and death. My metaphor for this is the martial arts. Martial artists fight as hard as they can against their opponents, but they always bow to their opponents before and after sparring. Likewise, we should try to minimize the misery in the world and prolong our lives up to a point, but we should also bow before the tragic mysteries—not just because they’re inevitable and intrinsic to life itself, but because doing so enhances the quality of our lives.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

I’m quite fond of Paul Valéry’s observation: “You can’t get drunk with the labels on the bottles.” In my view, people waste far too much time trying to get drunk on labels like Buddhism, evangelicalism, liberalism, Platonism, surrealism . . . Though I’m not opposed to labels, I prefer the wine.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

Here’s another good quotation from a poet, this time from Randall Jarrell: “Read at whim!” I would also recommend looking at whim, conversing at whim, and thinking at whim—at least if you want to learn more about the kind of philosophy I do.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens. 

I’d feel honored—but also intimidated. I’d imagine Plato’s great teacher cornering me with his withering irony, “Rare friend, how much you must know to feel qualified to speak in this illustrious place! Let me become your disciple so that I may walk away from our conversation enriched by your great wisdom. Surely you will not mind, since I am an ignorant man, if I ask you a few questions first . . .”

Christopher Phillips: The Socrates Café Movement

Christopher Phillips

Christopher Phillips, PhD, is founder of the global Socrates Café movement, dedicated to making ours a more understanding, connected and participatory world through rigorous, methodical yet accessible philosophical questions. Hundreds of ongoing Socrates Cafés and kindred groups have been established, including in Saudi Arabia, with people of many ages and walks of life at venues including community and cultural centers, libraries, universities and schools, coffee houses, hospitals, prisons, as well as via virtual platforms.

In addition to many scholarly essays, he has authored an array of general interest books translated into many languages, including the acclaimed international bestsellers, Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy, Six Questions of Socrates, as well as Socrates in Love, A Child at Heart and the upcoming Soul of Goodness. His various popular philosophical children’s books includes Philosophers’ Club and Day of Why.

Christopher has been Network Ethics Fellow at Harvard University, Senior Research and Writing Fellow at University of Pennsylvania, the first-ever senior education fellow at the National Constitution Center, and was recipient of the Distinguish American Leadership Award. Christopher’s newest book is Soul of Goodness: Transform Grievous Hurt, Betrayal and Setback into Love, Joy and Compassion. You can find out more about his work at ChristopherPhillips.com.

How did you become interested in this area (Philosophy)?

I had little choice but to become interested. As I write in my newest book, Soul of Goodness, when I was quite young my Greek grandmother, or Yaya, Calliope Kavazarakis Phillips, began to instill me with philosophical teachings that she herself had learned from her own parents. She was the oldest of eight, and as such in that matrilineal society (the oldest female sibling received and all inheritances, per tradition), she was a forbidding, astute, loving, incredibly intelligent and passionate person. Though I was raised in the Tidewater region of Virginia, I spent all my childhood and adolescent summers in Tampa, Florida, under my Yaya’s wing and tutelage. So while my friends back in Virginia were enjoying a leisurely break from the formal school year, I was being schooled by my Yaya, who took advantage of this time to instill me in all things bright and beautiful about my Greek heritage.

After immigrating (not once, but twice) from the tiny volcanic island of Nisyros, in the South Aegean, to the U.S. through Ellis Island and eventually settling in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, my yaya Calliope (named after the ancient Greek muse of wisdom and poetry) put out her shingle as a teacher of Greek language and culture. I believe she’s the very first one to have done that in Tampa.

As a youngster, I learned from my Yaya her unique take or slant on (what follows is notes I took when I was 11):

  • eudaimonia – Guarantor of human flourishing, wellness, prosperity, blessedness. Spirit of joy obtained through suffering and agony, when your heart is in another. “The one who lives well”—for arete—is blessed, prosperous and joyful.— Socrates, Plato’s Republic, Book 1
  • and atopos – Spirit of a wanderer rooted at home, apart from yet connected, out of place yet belonging, strange yet familiar, marvelous and distasteful – “This is a custom of [Socrates]: . . . he stands apart wherever he happens to be.”
  • and daimon – Divine voice of conscience, reflection, self-awareness, goodness
  • and sophrosyne – Spirit of a sound and healthy (good and just) mind and soul. Conductor of the spirit orchestra. Teaches you when to restrain and when to let loose, when to go it alone and when to team up. Socrates, Plato’s Republic, Book 4: “Sophrosyne . . . stretches through the whole, from top to bottom of the entire scale, making the weaker, the stronger, and those in the middle . . . sing the same chant together.”

As I write in Soul of Goodness, this is in essence “the chant of arete, a Hellenic Greek term for all-around excellence in all life’s dimensions. A siren song with sophia-scored notes, compelling you to lead a life outside common hours, marching to your own drummer. It does not lead one to set out to achieve the comparatively puny goals of happiness or the good life—goals commonly and scandalously misattributed to Socrates himself—but leads one to reach for kinds of excellence and joyousness on the other side of (or more likely, along with) suffering, agony, despair.

Even though I have since gone on to earn lots of lots of degrees, including three masters degrees and.a PhD, philosophy has remained earthy and down to earth for me, thanks to my Yaya Calliope, but in ways that inspire me forever to push outwards the bounds of creating, sculpting human ways of being

So I also learned about these rich concepts in ways that differ quite markedly from how they’re typically bandied about these days in academia and elsewhere. I try to set the record straight about them in Soul of Goodness, not as an end in itself but so readers can learn how to channel these concepts, which are also kinds of ‘spirits,’ I maintain, that can help get us through the most trying times.

I also was schooled by my Yaya Calliope about the pre-Socratics, about Zeno of Citium, to whom she took a particular shine; but her heart and soul was with Socrates. She gave me a collection of Plato’s Socratic dialogues when I was about 10, and I had but little choice to pour over it. Thankfully Plato, a poet and dramatist of the life of reason, was an engaging writer, and most of what he wrote wasn’t as over my head as I worried it might be. I became smitten with the Socrates he adumbrated – not just the historical version but latter versions that Plato featured and that also to me had an integrity and imaginative vision and intellectual honesty, even if that particular ‘iteration’ of Socrates didn’t exist in real life.

But these were not by any means mere didactic teachings. For her, the life of excellence and virtue hinged on cultivating what she referred to as the ‘Socratic spirit,’ a curious, fascinating amalgam of forces and practices and knowledge traditions that could see you through the most difficult times. I never really realized, until my father’s devastating unexpected death, how critical these teachings and practices of hers were in enabling me to see my way through all the terrifying ugliness that ensued in the wake of my father’s passing, and about which I write in Soul of Goodness – and not just as a memoir, but as a guide or path of sorts for others who themselves are experiencing grievous or extreme setbacks, reversals, loss, in their personal and private lives.

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

That’s a challenging question for me, in part, because I don’t consider myself a teacher (probably why I feel atopos in the academic cloister 🙂 – more of a ‘modeler.’ I consider myself an ‘openist’ (which is different that a ‘pluralist’), and by that I mean I try to be open to new discoveries, ‘surprises,’ paradigm shifts in knowing and creating, and to model and sculpt a type of persona, sensibility, ethos in which to live a life of conscience, excellence, integrity, boundless childlike curiosity.

Be that as it may, there are key Hellenic Greek concepts by which I live and do try to impart whenever given the opportunity. I sport a heart-shaped tattoo on my forearms with the Greek lettering for the concepts of arete and meraki. These are words I was brought up with on how to live. The one I would choose above all the others, since you have asked for one, is arete. As the great Greek scholar H.D.F. Kitto put it, arete is about being an excellent all-rounder, but with an ethos imbued, in which duty to self and to others goes hand in glove.

Christopher Phillips Tattoo

By the lofty benchmark of arete, we should, each in our singular way, strive to be excellent doers, thinkers, makers, strive to learn between and above and beyond any specific discipline or knowledge category, and strive for a kind axiological and existential way of being in which we never try to advance by self-aggrandizement, at the expense of others, but rather to immerse ourselves in this world in ways in which we’re always trying to make conditions more fertile for all our other fellow humans to be all to ‘be all they can be,’ always while cultivating a keener social conscience, sculpting ideas and ideals (and maybe imagining, discovering and realizing new ones along the way) that make our mortal moment one in which those who came before us would be most proud.

The concept of meraki (as well as others) is entwined (I say this as someone with dual Greek-U.S. citizenship) with this unique Greek way of living out loud, with passion, and commitment and joy, soulfully, rather Zorba-like – probably the towering public intellectual and philosopher Cornel West, my dear friend, a great Socratic thinker and unswerving supporter, would call it living a life of jazz, guided by an existential ‘Coltrane-ian’ ethos and pathos. In this way, you live with ‘Socratic spirit,’ with poetry and passion and commitment and unwavering discipline and stick-to-it-ive-ness that not only is about living an engaged present, spending yourself in a way that does justice to those who came before you (many if not most of whom had no opportunity to articulate much less realize) their more sublime aspirations, those present with you know, maybe starting with your own family and forever expanding outward the circle of inclusion from there, and those still to come, not just in the next immediate generations, but for hundreds of generations hence. I believe we’re largely lacking that kind of imaginative and empathic vision today in the age of woke and cancel culture and extraordinary polarization that can lead us to be isolated even from ourselves. All the more reason to try to model and example of how to live rightly and righteously, not in a one size fits all prescriptive way, but in a way that inspires others to find and chart their own unique path that always takes into account arete and meraki.

I have this tattooed on my forearms not so much as a reminder but an impetus that these are at the core of how I live. Socrates said in Plato’s Republic that all questions we examine should ultimately lead to greater insight into that question of questions, namely how one should live. But I think we need to cultivate concomitantly the spirits of arete, meraki, atopos, eudaimonia, sophrosyne, as we explore these questions – indeed, it’s sort of a ‘feedback loop,’ the spirits driving the Socratic method, and the method driving the spirits.

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

I’m not very practical by today’s benchmarks. Probably my most important piece of impractical advice is: you never know when your time is up, so give every day everything you have, take sublime risks if you have the opportunity, and try to do some good. Nietzsche said something to the effect that we shouldn’t requite evil with evil, but show those who have deliberately acted upon us and others in an evil way how they did us some good. But that can be too self-centered. I think we should, instead, when we are the victims of betrayal, loss, setback, and worse, because of the deliberate actions of others who may be filled with malignance, maliciousness, malevolence in this increasingly Age of Rage, that we should strive more than ever not to show how it did US some good per se, but how it drives us, more than ever, to DO GOOD, period. My own beloved father’s mysterious and untimely death certainly has, and all the ugly events that continue to swirl around it, more than anything else has made me even more driven to do what I can, while I can, to make ours a more heart-shaped world.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’

That question has always resonated with me. I believe he posed that question at a high school discourse in 1967, as part of his speech’s overarching “What is your life’s blueprint?” theme. I never was called upon, by any legal statute (like conscription) to serve my country or world, yet for me it was incumbent to do so. I don’t really preach to others, but try to live by example. Here I am, nearly 63, and continuing to live on a wing and prayer, even though I have a family (a young one!) to provide for. It’s more important than ever to try to make ours a more connected and understanding world. One of our longtime Socrates Cafe organizers in San Antonio, Texas (we have over 500 Socrates Cafe ongoing gatherings around the globe – go to SocratesCafe.com to learn more), a wonderful retired educator named Marta Amezquita, recently wrote me to tell me, “I truly don’t know another person whose intent is to create community whose sole purpose is to deliberately make participants feel seen & be heard. It is the epitome of love.” I was deeply moved by Marta’s kind words to me, which I hope describe to the core all that I’ve sought to do this last quarter century (and more, really).

I relate in Soul of Goodness my formative experiences, living just outside of Washington, D.C. There I witnessed the aftermath of the riots after Dr. King’s assassination, bearing witness to ‘Resurrection City,’ a vast but temporary encampment that was a key part of the great people’s anti-poverty campaign in the Mall area of Washington, D.C. This drew tens of thousands from across the U.S. to give voice to the voiceless and address the glaring inequalities in society. I write in my new book about the serendipitous experience helping an overwhelmed single mother there that surely laid the foundation for everything I have done since. My grand aim in life is to make sure everyone not just has a voice, but the opportunity to develop, discover, contribute their voice as participatory co-creators of this world.

“No one recognized the linkage between, and drilled down into, Plato’s conception of a healthy soul and Shakespeare’s “soul of goodness” like the American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is the only writer and thinker I’ve ever come across to link the two conceptions. In “Character,” Emerson tells us that “a healthy soul stands united with the Just and the True, as the magnet arranges itself with the pole; so that he stands to all beholders like a transparent object betwixt them and the sun, and whoso journeys towards the sun, journeys towards that person. He is thus the medium of the highest influence to all who are not on the same level. Thus, men of character are the conscience of the society to which they belong. Such a soul is the epitome of autonomy and social conscience, which aren’t at opposite ends of a continuum but inseparable.

from Soul of Goodness

Emerson then goes on to say that one with a soul of goodness escapes from any set of circumstances; whilst prosperity belongs to a certain mind, and will introduce that power and victory which is its natural fruit, into any order of events.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

First, I’d encourage them to take part in a Socrates Cafe. There are gatherings everywhere, and I also preside over them virtually by Zoom, so they are welcome to write me so I can let them know when our next ones are taking place. (If you can’t find a gathering near you, we have a guide on our SocratesCafe.com website on how to start and facilitate a Socrates Cafe) One other way to learn about me is to dip or dive into my books, from my first ones, Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy and Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery through World Philosophy, to my latest, by far my most intimate and personal work, Soul of Goodness: Transform Grievous Hurt, Betrayal, and Setback Into Love, Joy, and Compassion.

In part, they might want to accompany me on the journey to sculpt a soul of goodness – and they can do that in part by using the complementary/complimentary guide that my wife and life partner Ceci (whom I met at a Socrates Cafe! she was the only one who attended that magical evening, as I write in ‘Socrates Cafe’) lovingly put together.

We also have a Socrates Cafe Youtube channel, which features everything from mini Socrates Cafes with my daughters to exchanges with luminaries like Cornel West,
author of the class ‘Race Matters’ .

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy. How would you feel about that?

I would be thrilled out of my mind. (And the prominent Greek publisher Livanis, which sponsored my Greek citizenship application – it flew through in record time –
is publishing my newest book in Greek, so all the more reason to venture there, as well as also pay a visit the island from which my forebears came to the U.S. and where I visit whenever possible. My last visit to Nisyros starts off my Soul of Goodness – nowhere else on this universe to I feel more connected to myself, my family, and the immensity
itself, then Nisyros.

If I gave a talk or workshop, it’d likely center around, ‘How to question like Socrates?’ The artful framing, and answering, of meaningful questions, as timely as they are timeless, has in large measure been lost, I lament. A method of questioning, from scientific to Socratic (they are kindred – and I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the Socratic Method) without an ethos of heartfelt listening with all one’s being, is bereft of something critical. It would be interactive, and so I’d model it by actually having participants such a questioning love-in. I’d certainly touch on key influences in my decision to commit my life to spreading Socratic inquiry far and wide – starting with Socrates, but also including Hannah Arendt, Walter Kaufmann, Justus Buchler, and ever so many others.

When you learn to truly question like Socrates – not as a Socrates imitator or emulator, but as someone who understands that the best methods of questioning evolve over time – you learn better to ‘do’ like Socrates, because you become ever more imbued with the Socratic spirits about which I write in in Soul of Goodness – because make no mistake, daimon, sophrosyne, atopos, daimon, even arete and meraki, are comprised of spirits among other things.

In fact, I have held Socrates Cafes in the very agora area where Socrates once held court in Athens, and I lead off with that in my Six Questions of Socrates. I’d have at it in really immersive inquiry, guiding it with the Socrates Cafe method that I’ve sculpted and evolved over these past 25 years. I’m something of an accidental scholar and academic, and never dreamed I’d have three masters degrees (in the humanities, in education with an unheard-of specialty in Teaching Philosophy for Children), and in the natural sciences (with a specialty in DNA science), and then earning a PhD in Communications from an amazing university in Perth, Australia, long after graduating in 1981 from the College of William & Mary with a BA in Government. But through a serendipitous chain of circumstances, I did become a lifelong learner who straddles the informal and formal teaching and learning and doing disciplines, and I believe I’m a better human being for it. I’ve never aimed or sought to be a full-time prof, but I simply love to learn about things that give me more of a poetic-metaphorical approach to live and living, not as an end in and of itself, but that helps me discover more about what I can and must do to make life more worth living – and perhaps more worth dying for – for one and all.

My aim in large measure is always this: We simply must counteract the pervasive predisposition to think in black and white terms. We have to go back to thinking in nuance, to thinking in a dazzling array of colors in ways that lead us to continually reflect and to challenge ourselves, to explore the lapses and loopholes in any given way of seeing things, especially our own. There is a lot of preaching and proselytism these days, but not even of the kind of introspection that can lead us to mordantly yet gently examine whether our own ideas and ideals are all they are cracked up to be. The ongoing Socrates Cafe gatherings – hundreds of them now, the world over (I never dreamed it would become a global phenomenon, much less that it would have such staying power and even momentum after all this time) – are places and spaces where listen to one another with all our being, with all our might and mind, where we use philosophical questions as the springboard and platform to further discover uncommon common ground and forge meaningful connections, even or especially with those with whom don’t see eye to eye, but are my fellow beloved human beings.

Soul of Goodness

Olga Perdikouri: Hellas Revival

Olga Perdikouri

Olga is the Founder and Managing Director of Hellas Revival, a company organizing workshops, educational programs, and events based on ancient Greek themes, for visitors to Athens and students from schools and universities. She was born in Greece, lives in Athens, is the mother of a teenager, holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics and MBA in Tourism Management, and is a huge fan of ancient Greek history!

Democracy event on Pnyx Hill.
Democracy event on Pnyx Hill in Athens

How did you become so interested in Greek history?

My mother used to work for the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and before that for the Salamis Museum as a guard. I was able to go with her to excavations in Salamis island and also I used to visit her at the National Museum very often. Although her position did not require any historical knowledge, she learned lots of history by listening to the tour guides who were explaining the sites and their history to the visitors. She would come home and tell me everything with much enthusiasm. I think she passed this enthusiasm to me over the years, and I am grateful for that.

Tell us about Hellas Revival. How did the company begin and what sort of workshops and activities do you organize?

Hellas Revival is a dream which came true. First, it was my love for ancient Greek history. Then, during my MBA studies in Tourism Management, our professors insisted that Events and Activities are the future of tourism. They were absolutely right and imagine that this advice came almost 20 years ago!

Moreover, when I became a mother, I realized that my son was learning much faster (and with less resistance) when we were doing things instead of reading them in the books. I used to perform historical facts for him and he was joining with pleasure. At the same time, he was bored during schools’ walking tours in historical sites and forgetting everything he heard after a day or two – I must admit the same for myself.

It really felt like we had become ancient Greeks philosophizing at the original ground of Plato’s school.

Finally, in 2011, I participated in a Philosophy workshop at Plato’s Academy Park. It was more of a lecture, but in the end, there was about 20 minutes for questions and answers. It was the most emotional part of the workshop, it really felt like we had become ancient Greeks philosophizing at the original ground of Plato’s school.

Then it hit me! People need to feel it, to do it, instead of just listen to it! I searched a lot to find events and activities based on ancient Greek history, philosophy, theater etc. There was absolutely none, except for pottery. So, I started organizing such myself, for parents and other associations, but back then it was more like a hobby than an occupation.

In 2019 I decided to create a professional organization, and this is how Hellas Revival began. It was not easy, not at all. Although I found hundreds of people with relevant university degrees and teaching experience, almost none of them could understand the interaction part. History and philosophy were seen as a lesson, or as many lessons, so my idea of making it possible for people with no previous knowledge to DO IT for a just a couple of hours, and have fun at the same time, sound kind of weird.

Eventually I found the right people and now we are able to offer interactive sessions of history, philosophy, theater, games and more. Plus, we do it in the most authentic way, with the original teaching methods, the original materials and of course at the original location.
This year we are organizing:

  • Experiential philosophy workshop at Plato’s Academy Park and Digital Museum
  • Self-enlightening journey with Aristotle’s guidance at his Lyceum
  • Experiential democracy workshop at Pnyx
  • Ancient Greek family games
  • Ancient Greek pottery hands-on experience
  • Ancient Greek theatre workshop

Depending on the program, besides adults, teenagers and kids can also participate. The Democracy Workshop is actually the only one in the entire historical center of Athens which is approved as educational program by the Greek Ministry of Culture. This allows us to bring bigger groups of students from schools and universities. And this is not our only achievement. We have been awarded as Unique Experience in 2021 and as Learning Experience of the Year 2022, for Attica region, by the Travel & Hospitality Awards.

What do you think is the most important thing that people can gain from your events?

Feeling like ancient Greeks! The best way to learn about the ancient Greek culture is to do yourself what these incredible guys were doing. People can combine their visit to significant archaeological sites with a fun and educational experience. We have open discussions, case studies, role plays, team games and much more. And believe me when I say, they learn a lot from it, and, most important, they remember it forever!

Just an example, during our democracy program, participants take roles from the ancient Athens social classes. A case study is given to them and then they have to think, speak and vote according to their role. Their speaking time is counted by a replica of an ancient greek timer (klepsydra), while their votes are carved on real ostracons (pieces of pottery). All of this while standing next to the ancient speaker’s platform, at the very same location where the Citizens’ Assembly (Ekklesia tou Dimoy) took place 2500 years ago!

Do you have any favorite quotes from Greek history or philosophy?

If you want to make someone wealth, do not give him money, take away his desires.


How many religions and life coaches are teaching this!?

From history, I always liked the story (we know it from Lysias speech) of the disabled man who tried to convince the juries that he deserved the state’s pension, against the accusation that he could still work despite his disability. Most people do not realize (and schools do not teach this) that most ancient Greek men had some kind of disability, simply because they were participating in battles very often (philosophers included). 2,500 years ago, the state was taking care of them, provided that they could not work. That says something about the culture of the society.

What sort of events have you organized at the Akadimia Platonos park? What’s the significance of this location for you?

As mentioned before, the idea of Hellas Revival was born at this inspired place. Furthermore, it is the place where we organize Plato’s Philosophy Workshop, which was the first program of Hellas Revival. In antiquity, this idyllic grove right outside the city center, was the ideal place for philosophers and their followers, since it was nearby one of the city’s Gymnasiums (place for training). Many philosophers used to gather there, so that they spread their teachings and theories amongst the youngsters. We know that Plato built his school there, although archeologists have not found the exact building ruins yet. Doing Plato’s philosophy at the place where this great mind used to teach, is a blessing, and –in my opinion– a duty.

Unfortunately, the Park needs lots of improvements, and only recently the municipality started organizing philosophy events. I am a member of the neighborhood cultural association ‘’Ηεκαδεμεια’’, which, since 2013, has pushed the state to develop the area according to its significance. Another goal is to create the Academy of Nations, this was the dream of Mr. Aristofron, the person whose money and will brought the archeologists here in the first place, 100 years ago. Even today excavations use his fund.

I was very glad to hear about Plato’s Academy Centre. Your efforts are crucial for the development of the place. We all need to raise awareness and your Center does this internationally. We hope that during the next years, both private and public sector will see the potential of the place and make it more accessible, more famous, and more interactive for the visitors.

I believe that each little step is important. For example, we encourage the participants of Plato’s workshop to put a public review, not only for the workshop, but for the site as well. A good review for the site is promoting the place. But even a bad review is good, it points that the place needs improvement, which is true (hopefully the municipality people will notice it).

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Hellas Revival and what you do?

They can visit our Hellas Revival website for information about our mission, our team and of course to view our programs. We are also on Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube. Besides promoting our programs, we post interesting information about ancient Greek history. However, the only way for someone to fully understand what we do, is to join one of our programs. We keep our rates reasonable and we have special prices for groups up to 5 people, which are attractive to families (usually with teenage kids) and to youngsters visiting Athens – and this is our goal, to be easily accessible and be able to spread the knowledge around!

Trent Codd: Socrates and CBT

Trent Codd
Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors

R. Trent Codd, III, Ed.S., is the Executive Director of CBT Counseling Centers, a multi-disciplinary practice specializing in evidence-based mental health care with several locations across North Carolina. Trent completed his graduate work at the University of Florida and has extensive post-graduate training in several empirically-supported treatments. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.

Trent has authored and co-authored several peer reviewed publications and books including Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors: Learn How to Think and Intervene like a Cognitive Behavior Therapist. He can be found online at trentcodd.com.

How did you become interested in cognitive-behavioural therapy?

I developed a strong interest in behaviorism as a young graduate student, which led me to the writings of B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists. Consuming this literature led to my developing, among other things, a strong appreciation for philosophy. I am a psychotherapist and early in my clinical training the confluence of my interests in psychotherapy, behaviorism, and philosophy resulted in an admiration of the clinical applications of behavioral psychology.

Since most of the applied behavior analytic literature focused on the problems experienced by individuals with developmental disabilities, the literature pertaining to clinical problems seen in the psychotherapy clinic was immature. This is still the case today. Consequently, I gravitated to the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies where I encountered the writings of Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, both of whom articulated the Stoic underpinnings of their psychotherapies. This literature is where I first contacted Stoicism. Subsequently, I became particularly interested in Socratic dialogue because it was so central to Beck’s Cognitive Therapy. I was also influenced by Massimo Pigliucci and Donald Robertson’s work on Stoicism.

It is important to take the time to determine which ideas are truly problematic…

Trent Codd

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

The most important concept that I teach people is that of identifying truly meaningful targets. By this I mean it is important to take the time to determine which ideas are truly problematic and play a central role in a client’s maladaptive emotional and behavioral patterns; it is easy for a clinician to be distracted by a range of problematic thoughts reported by a client that on their face appear to be clinically significant. This may lead to premature and ineffective intervention. For example, many troubling thoughts reported by a client are fleeting and will resolve given the simple passage of time.

Furthermore, not all ideas contribute equally to the distress a client experiences. A more sophisticated clinical approach is characterized by a clinician who is patient and resists the temptation to intervene until they are confident they have identified a thought or belief, in collaboration with the client, that truly matters to the difficulty of interest. That is, they have identified a clinically meaningful cognitive target. Analogously, an individual working with their distressing thoughts on their own would similarly be wise to learn to identify the key ideas that are central to their challenges.

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

Don’t believe everything you think. This phrase did not originate with me, but I think it perfectly captures the essence of the most important advice I have to offer.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.


The modern version –

If I know anything, it is that I don’t know everything and neither does anyone else

M.P. Lynch

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

I would recommend pursuing reading in the area, such as our book Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors. I would also recommend pursuing experiential learning methods. One option in this regard is the workbook Mind over Mood.

I would also consider working with a good cognitive-behavioral therapist who is skillful in these methods. An effective way to identify this type of clinician is the international therapist listing maintained by the Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy. How would you feel about that?

An opportunity such as this would be an absolute honor.

Martha C. Beck: Spiritual Humanism

Dr. Martha C. Beck is Professor of Philosophy at Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas. She’s the author of fourteen books and over fifty book chapters and articles on Plato and Carl Jung, Plato and Greek tragedy, Aristotle and Greek tragedy, Aristotle and the United Nations’ Capabilities model for human development, Aristotle and Systems thinking, Aristotle and Environmental philosophy, Aristotle and feminist theory, the goddesses of Greece and feminist Jungian psychology, and her experiences growing up as a liberal.

Her articles have been published in journals in the United States, Greece, The Russian Republic, the Czech Republic, Australia, and China. She’s also delivered papers in Athens, Olympia, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Beijing, Shang Hai, Prague, and Ascea, Italy.

She received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach Western Thought at an Islamic State University in 2012 and received an Indonesia-funded grant to teach Environmental Ethics at the Islamic State University in Jakarta in 2017. She welcomes opportunities to teach abroad and hosts a YouTube channel, Dr. Martha Catherine Beck, Greek Philosophy that contains seventy-six videos and ten Playlists, all focused on the theme, “The Legacy of Ancient Greek Civilization in the Era of Globalization”.

How did you become interested in Greek philosophy?

My mother was an Art History teacher at the local state university. When I was eight, we went to England. She showed us all the cathedrals, museums, monuments, etc. I began to wonder, “What makes great art great?” That question has stuck with me.

When I was 10, my father, a Methodist minister, marched with Martin Luther King, jr. in Selma, Alabama. I remember it well. People called us and swore at him over the phone, so I knew that people disagreed about justice and injustice, virtue, and vice. I was also amid social unrest connected to the Vietnam War, attending high school from ’69-‘71. Greed fueled the war and in the name of “making the world safe from Communism”, we were engaged in building an empire. My father preached on these things, as well as the need for environmental conservation and sustainable living. All of this got me thinking even more about justice and virtue. Over time, I began to ruminate over more questions like whether the universe is created or eternal, and why that matters in terms of environmental sustainability.

It was in high school that I began intensely reflecting on my surroundings, and my past experiences with social unrest, injustice, the future of the environment, and my father’s ministries. I wasn’t aware there was entire subject based on this existential practice of questioning all that is, “Philosophy”.  So, in my second semester of my junior year in college, I declared it my major.

In my studies, I felt Plato’s story was my story. It felt as I was reading my own mind. Plato stole all my best ideas! I thought that I made those ideas up, but I found out Plato already did a much better job of it than I did. So, I wanted to be a Plato scholar because his works resonated so much with me. Plato’s dialogues are, to me, a huge map of the whole and all the parts, good and evil, with an image of a human being managing to live by the power of his mind (nous) throughout it all. What is piety? (Euthyphro), What is art? (Ion)… I asked these same questions throughout my life.

I describe Greek philosophy and culture as “Spiritual Humanism”. Aristotle’s virtues and Socrates’ way of life are a paradigm of how to live that can be applied to Jesus (Sermon on the Mount), Buddha, Muhammad, Confucius, Gandhi, and so many others. I use the word “spiritual” to mean the daimonic as Socrates describes it in the Symposium, but as is implicit throughout Greek myths, tragedy, Homer, Hesiod and so on. We are born to understand the patterns in the world, both in the universe and in human affairs. The way we understand these things always leads to a way of life.

Greek humanism appeals to our common humanity, making it very relevant today. Greek myths and stories can resonate with anyone with any walk of life. The patterns are everywhere and this is becoming more and more obvious. As the world is moving away from free and open societies and toward more authoritarianism, Plato’s dialogues are more relevant than ever. I’ve delivered my lecture on “The Rise and Fall of Athenian Democracy” worldwide to a receptive audience that understood my point well.

All of the aforementioned is only a small fraction of why I feel Greek philosophy and culture are vital and pertinent. My publications tie Aristotle to Greek tragedy, Plato, the United Nations Capabilities model of development, environmental protection and the formation of sustainable societies, the habituation of children for moderation and sustainability, and the place of the arts in developing a flourishing society.

We must be engaged citizens, to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

Dr. Martha Catherine Beck

What is the most important concept that you teach people?

Perhaps it is the model of liberal arts education and the liberal arts educator. This model is disappearing for many reasons. One is overspecialization and the model of higher education as the university model rather than the model of small, liberal arts colleges, like Plato’s Academy. My entire undergraduate, graduate, and professional life has been spent in liberal arts colleges. I get to know my students well and they know my character also. Faculty evaluations include engagement in the life of the college and in volunteer activities beyond it. We must be engaged citizens, to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

Lyon College’s catalog contains five characteristics of a liberally-minded adult which I have outside my office, which I tell my students that I structure my classes around, to model and I ask them to follow:

  1. Commitment to truth, understanding that one has to examine what “truth” is or what the word means
  2. Intellectual honesty (don’t think you know when you don’t know)
  3. Fairness to opposing points of view (avoid polarization and stereotyping)
  4. Patience with complexity and ambiguity (the problems we need to solve collectively are very difficult, so accept it and don’t look for simple solutions or believe political leaders that claim to have them);
  5. Tolerance of reasoned dissent

I ask students on the first day of class if they like the polarization they are living. In short, they don’t. So, I tell them that the only way to cease this is for them to decide to end it right here, in this classroom, while we’re discussing this incredibly relevant material. Then each student presents what they thought of the reading and then other students ask follow-up questions. I tell them that for their own sake they should decide not to polarize. They will have to lead the nation in twenty years, and they do not want to have to lead a severely divided society. So, now is the time that they should begin to create a better future. This idea sets the tone for the semester.

What is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

I would quote from Seneca’s On Tranquility of Mind, where he talks about how Socrates lived. Before the 30 Tyrants took over, Socrates was getting up every morning, talking to Athenians, trying to make them transparent about how they use their freedom and accountable for abusing it. Preserving a democracy requires people to render an account of how they live and why this way of life promotes flourishing. After he failed, during the reign of the 30 Tyrants, Socrates still went out and tried to comfort and encourage those who were grieving about the loss of their democracy, reproach those who had brought this about through their greed and ignorance, and set an example of how to live in the face of repression.

Socrates did not allow fear to control him. I have argued that Socrates is the paradigm example of Aristotle’s person with practical and theoretical wisdom. He exercises all the activities of soul in accordance with virtue in a complete life that Aristotle talks about.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

You are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?

Socrates, Apology

What advice would you give someone who wanted to know more about what you do?

Visit my YouTube channel, Dr. Martha Catherine Beck, Greek Philosophy. I have 76 video and 10 playlists all focused on the theme, “The Legacy of Ancient Greek Civilization in the Era of Globalization.” Then contact me for a follow-up conversation. I agree with Plato that the written word is not worth much. People project themselves into it and make it into whatever they want or need it to be. The real dialogue is in one’s soul, triggered through conversations with other minds. The light of the mind is triggered by two minds engaged in dialogue.

Suppose you were to give a talk or workshop at the original Plato’s Academy in Athens.

This is why I hope the Center has extensive opportunities for conversation in the summers. I spent 16 summers in Greece, just letting my mind be free to think about Plato and Greek culture in the way that was driving me crazy. When I read other scholarship, I hated it, so I had to figure out what I thought was true that made me think all of this was so bad. Gradually, I figured out my own mind. I decided that for 2800 years people have been coming to Greece to remember the culture and to be inspired in ways they could take home and inspire others and improve the quality of life where they lived. They are still doing this.

I am hoping that at least some of the people at the Center are also going out into the public and that we can meet in the summers and talk about our experiences. We should tell our own stories of the kinds of encounters we have and then we should make analogies with something in Plato or an application of something in Aristotle or some other ancient texts. Then we can talk about whether we think the analogy is good, but mostly how to add to it.

I want scholarship that is always tied not only to a model of a way of life, but to how we are all actually living. I wish we could meet every summer and meet long enough to create friendship bonds and a long history of working together on creating more flourishing societies wherever we live in the world.

David Fideler: Why Ancient Philosophy Matters Today

In our highly polarized world, ancient philosophers continue to remind us of unity, harmony, and the importance of human community.

David Fideler has worked as a college professor, editor and publisher, and the director of a humanities center. He studied ancient Greek philosophy and Mediterranean religions at the University of Pennsylvania and holds a PhD in philosophy.

Born in the United States, he currently lives in Sarajevo with his wife and son. He is the editor of the Stoic Insights website and an advisor to the Plato’s Academy Center in Athens.

David was recently interviewed by Michael Nevradakis, for the Greek magazine Orthos Logos, about “Why Ancient Philosophy Matters Today.” This is a version of the interview in English.

Michael Nevradakis: You’ve had an interesting life journey, making your way to Bosnia and specifically to Sarajevo, from Western Michigan. Tell us about that life path and what brought you to this part of the world.

David Fideler: That is an interesting question, and there are several dimensions to it. One part is that my wife is from here. But another reason I came here was because of the long history of spiritual pluralism in Sarajevo, where we live. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many came here, and we have one of the largest, ancient Jewish cemeteries in all of Europe. They liked life in Sarajevo and called it “Little Jerusalem” and “the Jerusalem of Europe.” And they lived side by side with Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Catholics.

The amazing thing to us today is that all these religious groups got along and lived in harmony, in Sarajevo, for around 500 years, until the Bosnian war in the 1990s. For example, the main mosque is practically across the street from an old synagogue. And both of those buildings are about a three-minute walk from the Old Orthodox Church and the Catholic Cathedral. So you have this very small area in which all these religious buildings from different faiths are located.

Sarajevo is also amazing because it’s the meeting point of so many different cultures, which you can see reflected in the architecture. It’s the southern boundary of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the northern boundary of the Ottoman Empire, the eastern boundary of the Catholic Church, and the western boundary of the Orthodox Church. One moment you can be walking through a section with Austro-Hungarian architecture and suddenly be walking in a section with Ottoman architecture.

MN: What first motivated you to dedicate yourself, in this day and age, to ancient Greek philosophy and the works of Plato and the Stoics?

DF: When I was a teenager, I became interested in Plato and the Pythagoreans. So I started reading those kinds of writings, including Plato’s dialogues, when I was a teenager. I was also interested in ancient Greek religions, including the mystery religions and how they influenced the development of Christianity. Over the years, I worked my way through many different areas and topics relating to ancient philosophies and religions, and my interest never died out, even though it expanded into other areas. For example, I’ve also studied the history of science and the rediscovery of classical knowledge in the Italian Renaissance.

MN: What is Stoicism and Stoic philosophy all about?

DF: Stoicism is a philosophical school that originated in Athens around 300 BC. It was founded by Zeno of Citium, who spoke in the Stoa Poikilē, or “Painted Stoa”, in the agora. Unfortunately, Zeno and his followers in Athens produced dozens or even hundreds of writings, but none of those have come down in complete form. And the Painted Stoa today is just an unattractive ruin.

That said, there are many reports about what the Stoics thought, and they were heavily influenced by Socrates. Some ancient writers even called the early Stoics “Socratics”.

The Stoics followed Socrates in believing that “virtue is the only true good.” By that, they meant that people should develop an excellent inner character. So then, everything we do can be informed by excellence.

They also believed that nature was permeated by logos or rationality. Zeno said that if human beings want to find happiness or eudaimonia, we should “Live in agreement with nature.” This means that human beings should develop their own rational nature or the spark of logos we have within. That would allow us to accept the laws of nature and lead happy, tranquil lives.

While the early Greek Stoics focused on the study of nature (physics), logic, and ethics, the later Roman Stoics focused more on ethics—how to live a good and happy life.

The Stoics believed that some things are “up to us”, especially developing a good character, while most other things are not entirely up to us. They also believed that many kinds of emotions are based on mental opinions. A very famous Stoic line is, “It’s not things that upset us, but our opinions about things.” Today this is called the cognitive theory of emotion, which the Stoics discovered, and it forms the basis of modern-day cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

MN: Stoicism is said to have been the most influential philosophy of the Roman Empire. How did it impact the world during and after that era in history?

Figure 1. The three main Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

DF: The three most famous Roman Stoics were Seneca (c. 4 BC–AD 65), Epictetus (c. AD 50–135), and Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–180). And unlike the earlier Greek Stoics, most of their writings have come down to us.

Seneca’s writings cover hundreds of pages, and are the most comprehensive account of Stoic philosophy that we have in any surviving work. Epictetus was a Greek slave, who became freed, and started his own school of Stoic philosophy in Rome, after the death of Seneca. And Marcus Aurelius, of course, was both a student of Stoic philosophy and a Roman emperor. His Meditations sells well over 100,000 copies per year in English today. In terms of the influence of Stoicism, we can see that it was embraced by people ranging from a slave to a Roman emperor. And its influence continues today.

Stoicism went into decline after Marcus Aurelius, but it was quite influential during the Italian Renaissance. In fact, Petrarch, the founder of Renaissance humanism, read a bit of Seneca each day, which is a habit I developed too.

Over the past decade or so, there has been a huge revival of interest in Stoicism in the English-speaking world. I think that’s because our time closely resembles the Hellenistic period and the early Roman Empire. In other words, our world feels increasingly out of control. It felt that way before Covid and before the Ukraine war, and feels even more out of control now. One of the appeals of Stoicism, I think, is that it teaches people how to live good, worthwhile, and tranquil lives regardless of what is going on in the world at large. Another thing that is appealing about Stoicism is that some people see it as resembling a Western form of Buddhism.

The growing interest in Stoicism, though, isn’t just limited to the English-speaking world. My book Breakfast with Seneca, which is a guide to Seneca’s ideas for a general audience, is being published in sixteen languages worldwide.

MN: You are also regarded as an expert on the Pythagorean school and Pythagoreanism. What does this philosophy and this school of thought teach us today?

DF: According to ancient accounts, Pythagoras was the first person to call himself a philosopher or “a lover of wisdom.” He also was the first to call the universe a kosmos, “a beautiful order.” While we don’t have any first-hand writings from Pythagoras himself, I do think we have access to the most important Pythagorean ideas, which we find in Plato and other writers, relating to number, kosmos, and harmony.

The Pythagoreans believed that the world has a mathematical structure. Today, we can see this in the mathematical proportions of nature and living things, and the mathematical laws we discover in nature. Pythagoras said that the universe is a kosmos or beautiful order, but the reason why it is beautiful is because of mathematical harmony and proportion. The parts of a living creature, or a well-designed building, harmonize with one another to create the beauty of the overall structure. 

MN: How is such philosophical thought relevant and applicable in the present day, both individually and collectively?

DF: Harmony means “fitting together,” and the world itself, and living creatures, consist of whole/part relationships. Harmony gives rise to beauty. But without harmony, life itself wouldn’t exist, because life depends on these kinds of relationships. That makes the principle of harmony quite relevant.

Harmony is also essential for creating beautiful things, like buildings. The Greeks and Romans were very aware of these principles, which were rediscovered in the Renaissance. We can use harmony to understand many things about the workings of nature. But we can also use harmony, like they did in the Renaissance, to create a world that is beautiful, satisfying, and really worth living in. The Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti understood harmony very well, and he described it in this way: “I define beauty to be a harmony of all the parts . . . fitted together with such proportion and connection that nothing could be added, diminished, or altered, but for the worse.”

Figure 2. Harmony means “fitting together,” and the world itself, and living creatures, consist of whole/part relationships. Harmony gives rise to beauty.

MN: What is your view on the meaning of life?

DF: I think the meaning of life is not a theory or a concept, but an experience, when our lives feel meaningful. And people’s lives feel meaningful when they sense a deep connection to a reality that goes beyond our limited selves. This could be your family or other people. It could be society. It could be found in the act of helping others. It could be nature. It could be the universe as a whole. For religious people, it could be God or the spiritual dimension of reality. Or it could be all of these things.

To feel meaning, we need to feel a connection to a larger reality that goes beyond our limited selves, because if we are isolated, we don’t feel meaning—we feel loneliness. This sense of meaning depends on a kind of harmony, too. As Seneca said, “Friendship creates between us a partnership in all things. . . . You must live for another if you would live for yourself.”

MN: Tell us about philosophy as an art of living, as explained in your most recent book, titled Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living.

DF: I started reading Seneca about twelve years ago and developed a little ritual of reading one of his letters every morning at breakfast. That’s where the title of the book came from.

The idea of philosophy as an art of living goes back to Socrates, and Seneca is very much part of this tradition. Today, philosophy has become hyper-specialized, very intellectual, and very detached from everyday life. Seneca, on the other hand, focuses on the practical side of philosophy, or how philosophy can help us deal with the important issues of day-to-day life: how to overcome negative emotions like worry, anxiety, and anger; how to develop a better personal character; how to deal with setbacks and adversity; how to understand yourself and live with authenticity; and many other topics.

Seneca was not only a philosopher, but he was a kind of proto-psychologist who wrote about things that didn’t even have names until fifty years ago, so he was very far ahead of his time. He also believed in the power of friendship and person-to-person relationships, to help us become better people and to make progress in life and philosophy. You can see how important this was to Seneca, because every one of his philosophical writings was addressed to a person—either to a friend or a family member.

MN: What does classic thought and practice regarding politics, such as Plato’s Republic, provide to us as far as solutions to the challenges the world faces today?

DF: One of the goals of Plato’s Republic was to define the nature of justice, which exists both within us and in society. In the Republic, Plato discusses the other cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, and moderation. These four virtues were essential to the Stoics, too. If we could really understand these four virtues and put them into practice, I’m sure that we’d be living in a better world. Plato’s goal in starting the Academy was the same goal of the Renaissance humanists. They both wanted to create more virtuous leaders to improve society.

MN: You have also previously written, “In the ancient world, Stoic ideas about human equality and fellowship contributed to the early Christian idea of the universal brotherhood of humanity.” Tell us about this universal brotherhood of humanity and the extent to which something like it is feasible.

DF: The Stoics believed that all human beings possess the faculty of reason or logos. The idea that we are rational creatures is even reflected in the term homo sapiens. Because of this spark of reason we all possess, we are born equal to one another, and we are brothers and sisters of one another. This means that we are all members of a cosmopolis or “world community.”

Of course, if you believe that other human beings are your brothers or sisters, you will treat them well, with love and respect. This is closely related to the Latin word humanitas, which simultaneously means humanity, kindness, benevolence, civilization, and learning.

Can this be applied in the real world? Of course it can. But we need to identify as human beings first, before we identify with any other kind of group, tribe, or nationality. Before we start thinking about differences, we need to first understand that we are part of a common humanity that unites us with others.

MN: A few years ago you organized a symposium about the future of education and the humanities in Athens, and you visited the site of Plato’s Academy. What was it like to walk in Plato’s footsteps and to contemplate and discuss ideas in such a setting?

DF: It was fantastic to finally get there because a long time ago, in 1996, I was hired by the Ross School to write a history of Plato’s Academy and the other schools that developed from it. This is something that most philosophers never even think about: Why did Plato set up the Academy and what actually went on there? If you really want to understand Plato, I think those questions are essential.

One reason I became so interested in Plato’s Academy is because it was so ignored. The other reason is that I’m very interested in the philosophy of education, and I’ve always been very dissatisfied with the kind of educational system we have today. So I wanted to go back to the very beginning of education in the Western world and to understand what Plato was trying to accomplish by establishing his school. Maybe, I thought, we could learn something valuable from it to improve education today.

MN: From what I understand, you, as well as other Stoics and philosophers, including Donald Robertson (who we had the opportunity to speak with last year), are involved in the recently launched Plato’s Academy Centre project. What is this about and what inspired this project?

DF: It’s actually something of a miracle, but the Academus Park in Athens, where Plato founded his school, has survived for well over 2,000 years. It’s surrounded by a neighborhood, but it’s a historical miracle that it’s still a park, and no one built houses over it in the course of 230 centuries.

I had long dreamt about offering a workshop in Athens on the ancient philosophical schools there, starting with Plato’s Academy. But then Donald Robertson moved to Athens, and he came up with this great idea of creating a conference center near the site of Plato’s Academy, which made the possibility of doing things there much more feasible.

Figure 3. The shady pathways in the Academy Park, which still exist today, were described as being “famous” by writers two-thousand years ago.

The goal of the Plato’s Academy Centre is not to reestablish Plato’s Academy. Of course, we’d need a Plato for that. The idea is to create a small conference center next to the Park Academus, which will host events relating to ancient philosophy. There are also plans to create a center there on Socratic questioning and dialogue, which was the main educational method used at Plato’s Academy. In addition to putting Plato’s Academy “back on the map”, as they say, people associated with the project want to preserve the park and its archaeological sites and improve the economy of the surrounding neighborhood in Athens.

OL: Do you think we can use these ideas from ancient philosophy to help solve the conflicts in our highly polarized world today?

DF: Yes, absolutely. There’s no denying that people are different in many ways, which the ancient philosophers recognized: we are a mixture of sameness and difference. But at the deepest level, we are all human beings, with the same human needs. We all want to have good lives and live in a world where justice and fairness is superior to corruption.

In the thought of the Pythagoreans, Plato, and the Stoics, there was an incredible emphasis on the idea of unity as a cosmic principle—and also on the kinds of things that bind us together in unity, as human beings, like the idea of the cosmopolis. So we should always think about our common humanity first and try to engage in dialogue with people who think differently—not necessarily to change their minds, but for the sake of mutual understanding.

Unfortunately, I think that a lot of social and political polarization today is driven by the news media, and social media, because that kind of polarization is very profitable, even if it is extremely harmful. The people who encourage that kind of polarization often appeal to the worst aspects of human nature, so I want to do the opposite and explore our common humanity. I’m convinced that overcoming polarization and realizing the ideal of human unity and equality—human brotherhood—is one of the most urgent social tasks of our time. As Seneca said, “Remove fellowship and you will tear apart the unity of the human race on which our life depends.”

For Further Reading

Photo credits: Photos in the article copyright by David Fideler. All rights reserved. Photo of the Erechtheum from Depositphotos.

Scott Waltman: Revising the Framework of Socratic Questioning

Scott Waltmann

Dr. Scott Waltman, PsyD, ABPP, is a clinician, international trainer, and practice-based researcher. His interests include evidence-based psychotherapy practice, training, and implementation in systems that provide care to underserved populations. He is certified as a qualified Cognitive Therapist and Trainer/Consultant by the Academy of Cognitive & Behavioral Therapies. He also is board certified in Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology. He is a board member for the International Association of Cognitive Psychotherapy.

More recently, Dr. Waltman, worked as a CBT trainer for one of Dr. Aaron Beck’s CBT implementation teams in the Philadelphia public mental health system. He is the first author of the book Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors: Learn How to Think and Intervene like a Cognitive Behavior Therapist. Clinically, Dr. Waltman strives to flexibly and compassionately apply cognitive and behavioral interventions to help people overcome the barriers in their lives, to facilitate building meaningful lives that are guided by passion and values.

How did you become interested in philosophy?

I first became interested in this area when I read the first edition of Donald Robertson’s The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapies. I had always leaned toward the thinking of Albert Ellis in regard to cognitive therapy and learning more about the Stoic philosophy lit a fire within me. I went on to become a trainer for therapists who were learning Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).

As a CBT trainer I found that clinicians had a hard time learning to use good Socratic dialogue strategies. They had a strong tendency to focus on telling people what to think instead of teaching them how to think. This is something we demonstrated empirically, which caused us to rethink how we taught the skill and we created a revised framework teaching Socratic questioning skills to therapists and counselors. Our book Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors: Learn How to Think and Intervene Like a Cognitive Behavior Therapist is currently being translated into several different languages and has been really well received. Therapists around the world are excited about learning how to apply principles of Stoicism to their clinical practice!

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people? 

The most important concept that I teach people is known as “Collaborative Empiricism” or “Collaborative Curiosity”. This is the idea is that it is the job of the therapist to collaboratively work with the client to help them mentally take a step back, identify what they are thinking, how that is affecting them, and then to jointly evaluate the situation in more accurate and balanced terms. Therapists often want a list of questions to challenge or disprove the target thought, but our goal is joint curiosity instead of being adversarial.

The most important piece of practical advice from my work is to first focus on trying to see if from their point of view instead of trying to show them why you think they’re wrong.

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

The most important piece of practical advice from my work is to first focus on trying to see if from their point of view instead of trying to show them why you think they’re wrong. If people believe you’re in earnest trying to see it how they see it, they’ll be more willing to explore their blind spots.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by their opinions about those things.”

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, 5

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

The best way to learn is experientially and with the help of a good guide. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is the foundation to build on. For clinicians who are looking to improve their use of the Socratic Method, I would encourage you to check out our book Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors: Learn How to Think and Intervene Like a Cognitive Behavior Therapist.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens. 

I would jump at that. I have loved watching the process of the Academy be re-established and that way I could get my copy of Verissimus autographed!

Darren Kelsey: Storytelling and Collective Psychology

Darren Kelsey is Reader in Media and Collective Psychology at Newcastle University’s School of Arts and Cultures. Darren’s teaching, research and publications have focused on storytelling, psychology and mythology in media, politics and popular culture. Darren currently lives in County Durham with his wife and daughter.

Darren’s forthcoming book, Storytelling and Collective Psychology: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Life and the Work of Derren Brown, is available for pre-order and will be published in the Spring.

How did you become interested in this area?

Serendipitously! Back in 2018, I was receiving Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for anxiety. CBT hadn’t really clicked for me straight away and I was still adapting to this unfamiliar world of counselling and therapy, which I had never been open to in the past. 

It was then by chance that I stumbled across the magician and psychological illusionist, Derren Brown talking about Stoicism and ancient philosophy on a couple of podcasts. The connections Brown drew between CBT and Stoicism really intrigued me. So I read Brown’s book, Happy

After learning more about Stoicism and understanding how it formed the foundations of CBT, Happy became a recurring talking point with my therapist. I found countless similarities between my thought patterns and Brown’s examples of the stories we tell ourselves and how deeply our stories affect us.

Brown’s work nudged me into a reading marathon on Stoic philosophy: I had soon read the works of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus followed by more recent Stoic endorsements from the likes of Massimo Pigliucci, Donald Robertson, William Irvine and Ryan Holiday. Reflecting on this experience, I wrote a book about Stoicism and Derren Brown in relation to storytelling and collective psychology – showing how Brown’s writing and other performances offer us personal and societal wisdom for modern life and wellbeing.

“Street philosophy” is for everyone – it should help us live well and be taught beyond the corridors of academia.

Darren Kelsey

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

Drawing on what Socrates established prior to the Stoics, I share the principle that “street philosophy” is for everyone – it should help us live well and be taught beyond the corridors of academia. In terms of Stoicism, my teaching shows how philosophy can help us tell better stories for our collective psychology. 

For example, the Stoics teach us to focus on the things that are within our control rather than worrying about what’s beyond our control – seemingly simple, but tricky in practice – give it a try! They also teach us that events themselves do not disturb us, but rather our perception of those events and how we interpret them. 

These things all relate back to the stories we tell ourselves in order to make sense of the noise and confusion of daily life. Derren Brown describes the “infinite data source” that we are constantly bombarded by, and the only way to make sense of anything is through neatly packaged and well edited stories. 

Those stories can cause us problems. The habits we form in our storytelling are where the Stoics critically intervene and make us rethink the narrative. This is one reason why ancient Stoicism bridges gaps between psychology and philosophy – because storytelling is a fundamental part of what makes us human.

Hence, I see the Stoics as ancient mentors who can help us to become better storytellers about our own lives and the lives of others. 

Rather than allowing media and political stories to divide us, we need to find ways of telling stories that foster a sense of collective ownership of our future – and one that enables human flourishing. 

Darren Kelsey

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

To be more sceptical about our stories – as people and societies. So often our personal crises and social conflicts are due to broken stories. 

So much of my own anxiety was due to the fact that I was a terrible storyteller. I could pick apart the stories of others – in media, politics, work and play – but seldom would I stop to question my own stories that were making me so unhappy. Many of those inner stories about myself and my place in the world were unconsciously ruling my life in unhealthy ways. 

Sure, my stories were often based on past experiences that formed my identity and perceptions of the world around me. But they weren’t the only stories that were possible, and my stories about what might happen in the future were nearly always wrong. I realised that my fears made me more uncomfortable than fate itself. In a real crisis I could fix things, but in a future crisis that I was creating in my mind, I was causing myself unnecessary discomfort. 

There are also collective lessons to learn from the Stoics here. If we live in a society that constantly teaches us to be fearful of other social groups, then we live in a state of high alert that encourages tribalism. Instead, through our reason and virtue, the Stoics encourage us to rise above our tribal tendencies and approach other people as if every human belonged to an ideal city, which they called the cosmopolis

Rather than allowing media and political stories to divide us, we need to find ways of telling stories that foster a sense of collective ownership of our future – and one that enables human flourishing. 

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

No, I don’t. The Stoics are so full of wisdom in many different ways. But there are a couple of standout quotes from Marcus Aurelius, which I think encourage kindness, tolerance and compassion in current times – especially when so many people might be struggling to reach out and ask for help:

Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfil just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?

Marcus Aurelius

Reaching out for help doesn’t make us weak, it makes us stronger, and it’s our duty to support each other. As the courageous Helen Keller once said, “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light”.  It takes courage to help and be helped.

Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.

Marcus Aurelius

This is so important. You never know what someone else’s story might be or what baggage they are carrying. It is likely that the things that irritate you in others are characteristics you quietly resent in yourself. 

It is better for everyone if we put more work into fixing our own faults and flaws than criticising them in other people. Easier said than done, I know. But well worth aspiring to. 

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What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

Firstly, take advantage of modern Stoicism. We live in our own digital Athenian marketplace where some of the wisest minds mix among us on podcasts, YouTube, blogs and social media. Engage with this material and listen to conversations about the role of ancient philosophy in modern life, and discover what’s possible for the future. It’s exciting.

Secondly, of course, read the Stoics and enjoy those original texts and translations. Try applying Stoic toolkits in your daily life to learn more about the challenges of seemingly simple virtues that can be harder to stick to than you expect. Learn more about yourself in order to learn about how the philosophy speaks to you. 

Thirdly, a shameless plug: my forthcoming book shows how we can analyse personal and societal stories to understand more about collective psychology in ways that are practical, applicable and evidently beneficial in daily life. Readers will learn how ancient philosophy can be combined with modern psychology to analyse stories and the role of celebrity mentors that we look to for wisdom in modern life. 

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.

I would be so excited that I would be anything but Stoic. It would be a great opportunity to explore positive aspects of popular culture and show how the wisdom of ancient philosophy is more accessible and applicable to modern life and future societies than ever before. 

Click here for more works from Darren Kelsey, including published articles.

Darren’s previous books on media and mythology can be found here: 

Diane Kalen-Sukra: Save Your City

Diane Kalen-Sukra is the founder of Kalen Academy, an interactive online school for civic leaders and engaged citizens, which she launched after retiring as a city manager. She is also an acclaimed author, speaker and coach. Diane’s most popular book “Save Your City: How Toxic Culture Kills Community & What To Do About It”  takes readers on a successful journey from Bullyville to Sustainaville, which includes a visit to classical antiquity, calling for a renaissance of civic values and civic education as vital to fostering the type of culture that can sustain us, our democracy and our planet.

How did you first become interested in philosophy?

In university, I switched out of commerce to pursue studies in political philosophy. While there is renewed interest today in business ethics and the social and environmental responsibilities of business leaders and corporations, it was not in vogue then. Political philosophy asked the right questions. Questions which great minds have turned their attention to for thousands of years, like: What is the best way to organize society so that it brings about human flourishing? How can we decide what is right, just and good? What frameworks exist to discern whether an action or decision is ethical? Why is there so
much inequality and injustice in the world?

This interest in and conviction regarding the importance of philosophy only deepened as I entered the world of work and politics. It was striking to me that in a modern democracy, it wasn’t just citizens that seemed to be suffering from collective amnesia about basic duties, rights and responsibilities of citizens. Political leaders and high-ranking public servants, too often, have inherited political institutions and processes for which there is, at best, a lack of appreciation for the fragility and preciousness of our democracy and gravity of our responsibilities.

In these times of polarization and anemic levels of empathy, the civic values-based philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, which also champions shared dialogue are an excellent prescription for arriving at shared understanding and social unity, cornerstones of healthy community building.

Diane Kalen-Sukra

In these times of polarization and anemic levels of empathy, the civic values-based philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, which also champions shared dialogue are an excellent prescription for arriving at shared understanding and social unity, cornerstones of healthy community building.

The good news is that a renaissance of philosophy in civic leadership and in the public square is already underway in our cities and in City Halls. You can get an encouraging glimpse of it in my piece, The Rise of the Philosopher-CAO, published by Public Sector Digest.

Save Your City

What’s the most important concept that you teach people?

Love is the greatest civic virtue.

Kalen Academy courses are centered on this idea. Registration is open for the next upcoming course starting in April 2022: “Fostering Compassionate City Culture: A Guide to Human Flourishing”. This course is being hosted by the global Charter for Compassion and is open to civic leaders and engaged citizens.

My book Save Your City: How Toxic Culture Kills Community & What To Do About It charts a way forward to the love-based cultures of compassion that lead to human flourishing. The citizen’s edition has a green cover.

Are you a city leader? There is an exclusive edition of this book, Save Your City, published by Municipal World that includes a workbook for Councils, Boards and city staff to work through, available here. This edition has the blue cover.

Without a good spirit, as Aristotle calls it, that seeks the well-being of all, democracy will fail.

Diane Kalen-Sukra

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

Champion civic education that cultivates the heart and mind.

So much of the toxicity we experience in the public square and our lives today, begins in the heart.

What we call toxicity can be defined as unjust behaviours towards our neighbours and citizens. The great Athenian lawmaker Solon reminds us that an injustice to one, is an injustice to all. Injustice tears at the social fabric.

The ideal society is a just society.

Like every system before it and every system after it, without justice, democracy will fail. Without active, engaged and informed citizens, it will fail. Without a good spirit, as Aristotle calls it, that seeks the well-being of all, democracy will fail.

As much as we like to say, every vote counts, a much richer understanding of what creates and maintains thriving democracies is every heart counts.

Plato would have agreed with this. He believed “the city is what it is, because the people are what they are”. It was the citizens of Athens, after all, that executed his mentor Socrates. Civic academies should help make us better people.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

I love this cautionary quote from the introduction to Aristotle’s Politics:

The society that loses its grip on the past is in danger, for it produces men who know nothing but the present, and who are not aware that life had been, and could be, different from what it is. Such men bear tyranny easily; for they have nothing with which to compare it.


Considering these consequences, the study of philosophy and history are imperatives, not luxuries.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

Join me on LinkedIn.

Sign up for Kalen Academy’s e-newsletter “Ancient Wisdom for Modern City Builders.”

Stay up to date with recent publications here.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.

I would be deeply honoured to host a discussion of modern philosophers and governance experts at Plato’s Academy on the new forms of city governance that are emerging around the world, from administrative centres in master-planned communities by developers like Disney, to control and command centres in some Smart Cities. Isn’t that what Plato would do if he saw all these new forms of city government emerging? Which modern city governance structure can best lead to human flourishing and why?

Gregory B. Sadler: Don’t Cheat Yourself

Dr. Gregory B. Sadler is the author of Reason Fulfilled by Revelation: The 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates in France and the president of ReasonIO, a company dedicated to helping others put philosophy into practice. He takes resources from complex and often difficult philosophical texts and thinkers and makes them applicable to everyday life– transforming ancient philosophy intro useful tools for reflection, decision-making, and action.  

His main areas of study are the History of Philosophy, Ethics and Moral Theory, Critical Thinking, Philosophical Counseling, and Existentialism. He also teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, is the co-editor of Stoicism Today Selected Writings Volume 3, and has created over 1,500 videos on philosophy in his popular YouTube channel.

How did you become interested in this area?

There’s a complicated answer to that one!

It didn’t happen all at once, and there were different areas and aspects of philosophy that I got interested in along the way. The shortest answer would be, I suppose, that since childhood I’ve found asking the questions about why very captivating. I discovered later that philosophy was a field where – at least in theory, and in some of its representatives – asking that question, and working out answers wasn’t discouraged.  Then again, there’s more than one kind of why, isn’t there? We can ask not just “Why is this matter the way it is?”, but also “Why should it be that way?”, and a number of other related questions.

The first book of philosophy I read was Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. My uncle had a copy, and since I was interested in Greek mythology, I asked him if I could have it. I maybe understood a tenth of what was in it back then! At the Catholic high school I went to, I actually had a philosophy class, and it was pretty awful! The instructor basically taught from a textbook, expected us to memorize the answers he liked (even for essay questions), and there wasn’t any real discussion. 

By contrast, I lucked out when we got a last-minute substitute for our Sacraments class, a little monkish guy who was very much into St. Augustine. He reasoned that in order for us to understand Augustine, we’d need to learn a good bit about Plato, Aristotle, ancient cosmology, attempts to resolve the problem of evil, and a host of other topics. The other students didn’t like the class because it was him giving us some ideas and then a lot of open discussion. But I loved it.

When I was in the Army, I remember buying a few books that had to do with philosophy at the PX (post exchange – a kind of shop on base), and I gleaned some ideas from them.  After I got out, worked a while, and then decided to go to college, my mother’s old boyfriend gave me a bit of advice: “Declare a major right away, so that you get in with the professors and other students in a department”. And that’s what I did.

Without knowing much about it, I decided on a philosophy major, and just kept on taking classes, reading works in the discipline, and getting into conversations with people. And by a kind of inertia, perhaps reinforced by an affinity with some of the key authors, ideas, texts, and approaches of philosophy, I just kept on going.

Now I’m more than 30 years past that decision to major in philosophy, and I can say I’m pretty happy with the way my life, my work, my studies, and my relationships have gone because of it.

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

Well, that’s a very interesting one!

I was tempted at first to say that there isn’t any one single “most important” concept or idea for me, since I draw upon a lot of them from a number of different sources and traditions. Even just with Stoicism, I’m often the person saying to others: “Hold on there with those claims that X is the absolutely most central idea. Stoicism is a complicated network of ideas, practices, insights and so on, like Seneca himself tells us.” Being the eclectic that I am, there are even more ideas or concepts packed away in the proverbial philosophical toolbox. And yet. . . there is a very powerful practice and a capacity that I do see philosophy as particularly strong in. And that is making needed distinctions well, at the right time, in the right manner

It’s not as if philosophy has the market cornered on making good distinctions. (And there are plenty of people in the philosophy field who don’t do this well) However, it does seem to me that when one studies and practices philosophy in productive ways, one does get better at making distinctions that wind up being helpful; in the course of trying to figure something out, or even in the middle of seemingly intractable arguments. 

I do this all the time when I’m working with my clients on their personal or organizational problems, explaining something to confused students, working through things in committee or board meetings, or even just figuring out what a tricky passage from a philosophical text actually means. There’s definitely a set of skills involved in knowing when to point out that a term is being used by different people in different ways, or to say “if you look at it this way, then you’re right, but if you look at it this way, you’re off-base”.  There’s nothing magical about this, but it is pretty remarkable how very intelligent people from all sorts of disciplines and walks of life get mixed up and into conflicts by not recognizing when a distinction can be helpful.

So is there an idea or concept that corresponds to this skill, capacity, or practice?  Maybe it would be the notion that things are often more complicated than we realize, and that we’d do well to make good distinctions when we’re working through things?  These would be distinctions that aren’t just quibbling or unnecessary classification, but which really get to the heart of the matter, and divide things along lines that make sense.  Now, do I teach people this concept?  Well, yes and no, to introduce a distinction. . .

You put the two of these together – rationality and will – and you’re at the core of what human being is, and not just in the abstract, but in ways that we can relate to throughout our day-to-day practical life.

Gregory B. Sadler

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

That’s also a really tough one to answer! 

I suppose that since a significant part of my work is oriented around the problems and processes of integrating our emotions, our rationality, the habits we make and break, and our capacity to choose, there is an insight that I find myself pointing out over and over again. It turns out to be illuminating in a variety of frameworks, ranging all the way from discussions with fellow researchers at academic conferences to very practically-focused group discussions or client work.  You could express it in a very simple way like this: Working on yourself through practical philosophy involves deliberately using the parts of yourself we traditionally call your rationality and your will upon themselves to make them progressively less and less screwed up.

Unpacking that formula or catch-phrase into something a bit more meaningful requires saying a lot more, just a bit of which I’ll do here.  If you spend much time reading in ancient and medieval philosophy, and you’re really paying attention to what’s being worked out in those texts by those thinkers, one of the things that will jump out at you is how central our intellectual or rational capacity is for distinctively human beings, as opposed to the more general kind of thing we are, animal being. You’ll also find the progressive articulation of something that eventually comes to be identified as the will, which you can think of as the faculty of choice, though “choosing” is just one of its activities and functions. You can call this prohairesis, as Epictetus did, you can call it voluntas as Augustine did, or whatever else you like.  You put the two of these together – rationality and will – and you’re at the core of what human being is, and not just in the abstract, but in ways that we can relate to throughout our day-to-day practical life.

Another key insight of the ancients and medieval – and there’s many (perhaps complementary) ways to think about this – is that our rational faculties and our wills are not only parts of ourselves that have to develop themselves over time. By the time we start paying close attention to them, they’re usually messed up in one way or another – if we’re lucky! More often, they’re messed up, they have mis-developed, in more ways than we actually realize when we start looking at them. And this is where practical philosophy comes in and can help us out quite a bit. We need models of what it would look like to screw up less with respect to our rationality and will. The “sages” that some schools of ancient philosophy talk about provide some such models, but we can actually find others closer to where we are in those philosophers themselves who openly tell us that they aren’t sages. If we’re paying attention, we can also find myriad useful insights, distinctions, concepts, practices and the like in those philosophical works.

Rationality and will are not just higher parts of ourselves, in ancient and medieval thought. They are parts of ourself that extend and apply to, even govern you could say, other aspects and dimensions of ourselves, our relations to others, our engagements in the rest of the world.  Realizing that can be quite liberating or inspiring, but there’s another insight that is even more so. Rationality and will are reflexive, that is, they don’t just apply to everything else, but also to themselves. Again, this is something that Epictetus is crystal clear about. The rational faculty is one that governs itself. The prohairesis, which is what he says we are, determines itself. Even when other things do determine it, that is because prohairesis in some way allowed, chose, or gave in to that.

Put all these things together, and notice what you get as a result. We realize we’re messed up in complicated ways, and practical philosophy can help us extricate ourselves from that mire. How so? In a lot of ways, one of which is to show us that there are higher parts of ourself that can “run the show”, so to speak. But those parts are themselves all messed up as well. Yep, that’s true. But we’re lucky that they can also work on themselves, fix or replace the bits that are broken, improve and strengthen the parts that are running more or less right. And that’s us working upon ourselves through doing practical philosophy.

…a person doesn’t have to be the paragon of virtue in order to be on the whole good, to impress that goodness upon others, and to provide a kind of needed orientation or example.

Gregory B. Sadler

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

I guess I do, but it doesn’t come from philosophy as far as I know.  It’s actually something that my gym teacher and track coach used to say to us when I was in high school. It’s a very simple phrase: Don’t cheat yourself!

I think that phrase probably wouldn’t have made the impact it did upon me if the guy who said it, Chuck Bova, wasn’t, upon retrospect, a pretty virtuous person.  I won’t make the claim that he was an exemplary individual in every respect – how would I know that, after all? But coach Bova was certainly a pretty good guy, as I got to observe in classes, practices, conversations, and other interactions.  And as Cicero and Seneca tell us – this is something I think is really important – a person doesn’t have to be the paragon of virtue in order to be on the whole good, to impress that goodness (in however confused a way) upon others, and to provide a kind of needed orientation or example.  I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but looking back, I saw Bova display and act on those virtues that have long been recognized as the cardinal ones – wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice.

“Don’t cheat yourself” was the mantra he would say to us when he could tell we were tempted to do precisely that, when we were flagging.  It might be when we were lifting weights, running laps, doing sprints, running hills, or anything else. And he meant exactly what he said. It wasn’t about us as his students or athletes. He didn’t take our performance, good or bad, as reflecting upon him, because he knew he was already doing his part. He genuinely cared about us as people, and wanted us to put in the work required to develop ourselves. So not cheating ourselves was something he wanted for each of us. 

I’ll just say two more things about Bova here…

The first was that not every student was gifted athletically at that age, and I saw him tailor his expectations of each person in his class to what they could realistically achieve at that point. A level of effort that might count as “cheating myself” for me might be more than enough for one of my classmates. That was an exercise of prudence on his part. The second is that what he was teaching us – what really stuck with me at least – was how to persevere. For some of us, perhaps it was even more basic – that we could persevere.  As ancient virtue ethicists recognize, this is something absolutely central to personal development.  For the Stoics, it is a key aspect of courage. For Aristotelians, it is an analogue of self-control.  This lesson of perseverance, and that quote – or better put, maxim – “Don’t cheat yourself”- is applicable to pretty much every aspect of our lives, careers, relationships, and education.

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What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

I’m pretty easy to find on the internet. If you search on “Gregory Sadler,” a lot of entries will pop up.  The top listings will generally be my social media profiles, my YouTube channel and videos, my Sadler’s Lectures podcast, my writings in various blogs (especially Medium), and interviews with other people and platforms (like this one here!).  I’ve been on YouTube for over a decade now, and have produced well over 2,000 videos on all sorts of topics, mostly within the field of philosophy broadly speaking, but also a good bit in religious studies and literature.

I have my own business, ReasonIO, whose motto is “putting philosophy into practice”.  I offer a number of services to individual and business clients, including tutorials, academic coaching, consulting, and philosophical counseling (my certification for the latter is through the American Philosophical Practitioners Association.)  Another one of the services I provide (and particularly enjoy) is public speaking, providing talks and workshops for academic institutions, businesses, professional organizations, libraries, religious organization, and even restaurants.

Over the last two decades, I have taught at a number of colleges, universities, and academic startups, so you’ll find quite a few references to those when you search for me.  In recent years, I’ve been paring back on that, so I can focus more on my work in public and practical philosophy. The one academic institution I still routinely teach for is Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and you can find my faculty webpage here.  As an academic, I have engaged in research and scholarship, culminating at this point in one book, Reason Fulfilled by Revelation: The 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates in France, and dozens of academic articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries.

In 2016, I joined the Modern Stoicism team as editor of Stoicism Today, where we publish weekly pieces of interest to the modern Stoic community.  Last year, I also co-edited Stoicism Today Selected Writings Volume 3, a book bringing together some of the best essays from Stoicism Today in recent years.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens. 

I’d feel grateful and honored to be asked, excited to travel to an original home of philosophy, and happy to share useful ideas with attendees!  One of the great things about philosophy is that it can be studied and practiced anywhere in the world, with relatively few material requirements. And in the age of the internet you can access resources, participate in workshops, listen to lectures, and connect with people all over the globe. And yet. . .  there’s something about being in a place that has a history, isn’t there?

What precisely I’d talk about, I don’t know off the top of my head. There are so many topics that I’ve covered in the talks and workshops I’ve given just in the last decade, and I’ve got so many different research projects going right now. I suppose I’d see what the Plato’s Academy people thought might be most appealing to their students and attendees.

I will say, to bring this to a close, that giving talks in-person is something that I have missed during these last two years marked by the covid-19 pandemic.  Last month, I was invited back to one of the local libraries I partner with, to give a face-to-face, though masked up talk in the Philosophers In The Midst of History series, this one specifically on the Middle Platonist Plutarch.  I really enjoyed getting to engage with the audience in the same room, rather than over Zoom!  So, here’s hoping we’ll have a lot more of that, both at Plato’s Academy, and everywhere else, in the coming years.