fbpx

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.

What do you think?

%d bloggers like this: