Stoics, cynics and the meaning of life



Stoics, cynics and the meaning of life

Its language is now barely known, and only a few of the works produced by its great writers and thinkers survive, but ancient Greece's influence surrounds us. In these extracts from her new book, Charlotte Higgins assesses the culture's legacy

Wednesday October 1 2008

Zeus once let fly two eagles from the ends of the world: one from the east and one from the west. They soared high over oceans, mountains, forests and plains, until they met at the very centre of the earth, its omphalos, or navel. On this spot, a temple to Apollo was dedicated, the home of the Delphic oracle, where those who wished for insight into their past, present or future might come to consult the god. The questioner would be led into the temple's dark heart. In the gloom, the visitor would more sense than see the Pythia - the laurel-crowned woman who acted as the sacred conduit for the god's communications. In a trance, amid the heady fumes of burning laurel and barley, she would begin her utterances: divinely inspired fragments that the priests would interpret and fashion. But as the inquirer passed under the temple colonnade, before he stepped into the inner sanctum itself, he would have seen some letters carved into the portico: gnothi seauton - "know thyself ".

This extraordinary challenge to achieve self-knowledge still rings out commandingly. It captures one of the things that is most exciting about ancient Greece: from the writings of its greatest thinkers and authors what stands out is an almost visceral need to question, to probe, to debate, to turn accepted opinion on its head - whether the subject of inquiry is the state of the human heart or the nature of justice.

The intellectual achievements of the ancient Greeks were quite simply extraordinary. They shaped the basic disciplines and genres in which we still organise thought: from poetry to drama, from philosophy to history, from natural history, medicine and ethnography to political science. We have been inexorably moulded by ancient Greece: the way we think about right and wrong, about the nature of beauty, goodness and knowledge; the way we conceive of what it is to be a mortal being amid the immensity of the universe; the way we talk about the past, and our ambiguous relationship with war; the way we discuss politics and citizenship. The tracks that lead back from our world to the Greeks' are narrow, meandering, sometimes virtually rubbed out or invisible - but they are there. What the Greeks did and said still casts light on what we say and do; by looking at the Greeks we can understand more about ourselves. The Greeks, in short, can help us answer their own challenge of "know thyself ".

The world of "ancient Greece" was certainly not confined geographically to the Greek mainland, nor was it a single entity. There were Greek settlements dotted all around the Mediterranean, from Marseilles in the west, to the coast of Asia Minor in the east. In fact, many of the most glamorous intellectuals of ancient Greece came from the coastline of what is now western Turkey. Nor is "Greece" (in Greek Hellas) a term that would necessarily have been widely understood. The Greek world was made up of hundreds of politically independent, often disputatious city-states, each with separate systems of government, locally distinct religious cults, even different calendars and names for the months of the year.

When we think of "ancient Greece", we tend to be drawn to just one of these hundreds of city-states, and at one particular time: Athens in the fifth century BC. This is perfectly understandable, as during its flowering of power between the routing of the Persians in 479 BC and its own crushing by Sparta in 404 BC, it was a magnet for writers, artists and thinkers from all over the Greek world, and the scene of the most exciting intellectual revolution that the world has ever witnessed. The Athenians have always made the most noise; and they left us an abundance of literary masterpieces, not least the great dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, written for performance at the Athenian festival called the City Dionysia. Still, it is best to remember that the Athenians weren't the only Greeks, nor were they even "representative" Greeks.

So, it is worth thinking about ancient Greece because it brings us a perspective on the way we live now, from our politics to our sense of history. And reading the Greeks is also a source of unbounded enrichment and pleasure. But even more important than all this, perhaps, is the idea of "ancient Greece" not simply as a specific place or a time, but a realm where the imagination, the emotions and the intellect can roam free. We will never completely grasp ancient Greece. An enormous wealth of literature, art, architecture and other artefacts have survived but, for every survival, there are a thousand losses. We have 20 dramas by Euripides, but we know that his complete works numbered 90 plays. For Aeschylus, we have seven out of 90 extant. And for Sophocles, just seven out of 123. Works that were seen as masterpieces in antiquity are nothing but dust, ashes and the occasional quote in other texts.

For me, the writing of Plato acts as a wonderful metaphor for our relationship with ancient Greece. Plato did not write in the form of treatises; he did not propound theories, even. His philosophy is almost always written as dialogues between two or more speakers: its very form encapsulates disagreement, debate and provisional answers rather than unshakeable dogma. Incompleteness, as it were, is at its heart. In the same way, knowledge of ancient Greece is fugitive, fragile, difficult to grasp. When the mind travels to ancient Greece, it embarks on a quest - an idea CP Cavafy, the great modern Greek poet, put beautifully in his poem Ithaca, which takes the idea of Odysseus' homecoming:

When you set out for distant Ithaca,
fervently wish your journey may be long, -
full of adventures and with much to learn.

And, as we set out on that long but rewarding journey towards Ithaca, we will come closer to answering that ancient challenge: gnothi seauton

Do you speak more Greek than you think?

As in, "Tarquin, I know the minimalist look is right up your street, but don't you think the room looks a little spartan with the actual floorboards removed?"

Simple, severe, lacking in comfort: that does in fact pretty much sum up what we know about the life of the Spartans. Despite its position as a Greek military superpower, the place had none of the kind of impressive architecture that would have overwhelmed the eye of a fifth-century visitor to Athens. Famously, Sparta also lacked walls or fortifications (it demonstrated that the inhabitants were such butch soldiers they didn't need nancy-boy walls to keep them safe). But being "Spartan" also meant adhering to a system of iron discipline, with boys taken out of their families for military training at the age of seven and, uniquely for ancient Greece, girls also given an education and athletic training - the better, presumably, to give birth to warrior sons. This was the background that produced the toughies who, vastly outnumbered, held off the Persians at Thermopylae, until all 300 were slaughtered. Dedication, bravery and suicidal bloodymindedness are thus also Spartan virtues.

As in, "Darling, I know being a teenage boy is all about communicating in grunts, but if you could descend from your laconic monosyllables occasionally, I'd be terribly grateful."

Laconia was the region of the Peloponnese that Sparta controlled; "laconic" refers to another Spartan quality: a severe, economic, and sometimes dryly witty way with words.

As in, "Don't worry, Henry, the animal care comes under the aegis of the National Donkey Protection League, which I am sure has impeccable standards."

Frankly, the aegis - a symbol of divine power - has always struck me as one of the weirdest things about the Greek gods. I can do no better than quote the Oxford Classical Dictionary, which describes it as an "all-round bib with scales, fringed with snakes' heads and normally decorated with the gorgoneion". (Gorgoneion being classicist-speak for the head of the Gorgon Medusa.) The aegis, the entry helpfully adds, may sometimes be tasselled. I have also heard it described as looking like a sporran.

As in, "Brenda has marvellous talents as a thespian, you know. You should see her Lady Bracknell."

Thespis was the man who, according to Aristotle, "invented" Greek drama, adding a prologue and speech to what had previously been a choral performance.

As in, "Cleaning the bathroom and kitchen floors, Muriel, seems to me to be a labour of Herculean proportions."

Hercules is the Romanised name of Heracles, the greatest of all heroes, and one of the few mortals to attain the status of a god. The labours, set him by Eurystheus, king of Argos, were 12 in number. Heracles had something of a problem with madness and mass murder: the labours were done to expiate the killing of his wife Megara and their children, which he committed in a bout of insanity visited on him by the goddess Hera. Another story has him killing the father and brothers of his girlfriend Iole. To purify himself, he worked for the queen of Lydia, Omphale, for three years. The twist was that he had to do this as a woman - spinning and weaving, in drag, a scene vividly depicted on a Roman well-head in the Townley Collection of Roman antiquities in the basement of the British Museum.

As in, "I've just caught a tantalising glimpse of Frank's homemade apricot ice cream and I can't wait to taste it."

From Tantalus, one of the very first generations of mortals. Invited by the gods to dine on Mount Olympus, he decided to kill, cook and serve up his son Pelops to see whether his hosts would detect the forbidden food (as you do). Demeter, distracted by her grief for her daughter Persephone, was the only immortal who tucked in, polishing off a shoulder. The gods reconstructed Pelops and brought him back to life, with a prosthetic shoulder made from ivory. Tantalus's eternal punishment in the Underworld was to stand in a pool that drained away when he tried to drink from it and beneath branches groaning with fruit that drew away when he reached for them. A tantalus is also a lockable stand for a set of decanters. You can see the booze, but you can't get at it without the key ...

As in, "I'm heading for a colossal overdraft. Drinks on you, I'm afraid."

From the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. In 305 BC, Rhodes was attacked by the Macedonian Demetrius Poliorcetes and successfully saw off a year-long siege. Demetrius abandoned his siege equipment on the island, and the grateful Rhodians used the proceeds from the sale of all that to erect a 33m statue to their patron, Helios, the sun god. However, it stood for only 56 years; an earthquake in about 226 BC undermined the statue at the knee. Even in ruins it still excited visitors, such as the Roman writer Pliny, who noted that its thumb was too big for most men to be able to clasp in their arms, and that its very fingers were bigger than most ordinary statues. The Statue of Liberty is inspired by the Colossus of Rhodes.

As in, "Miss, don't you think punishing smoking with a public flogging is a bit draconian?"

Draco, by tradition, set down the first Athenian law code in 621 or 620 BC, the first time the city's laws had been put in writing and displayed in public. Evidence is thin as to what these laws comprised: but according to tradition, it was the death penalty for pretty much everything. One Athenian in the fourth century quipped that Draco wrote his laws in blood rather than ink. "Draconian" is always a negative word in English, but you could argue that setting forth a state's laws in public for the first time was, in its way, a reforming measure ... though Draco's code was itself reformed soon enough, in 594/3 BC by Solon, who repealed everything except the law on homicide.

The boy's name Draco, for understandable reasons, has failed to take off: though it was famously pulled into service by JK Rowling for one of her most memorable baddies, the sinister Draco Malfoy. This is not surprising, given that JK studied classics and French at Exeter University and is rumoured to have based Dumbledore on the splendidly bearded Peter Wiseman, Exeter's classics professor emeritus.

As in, "I should think you'll be completely ostracised from the golf club, Derek, if you go anywhere near it in those trousers."

Ostracism was a method by which, through the Athenian democratic reforms introduced by Cleisthenes in 508 or 507 BC, a citizen could be exiled for 10 years after a majority vote in the assembly. The name of the chosen man was written on a shard of pottery, an ostrakon. Nearly 200 ostraka have been found in an Athenian well, with the name Themistocles written on them in a very few hands. Presumably he was at the receiving end of a carefully orchestrated campaign.

As in "What's on at the Odeon? I quite fancy catching 300 again there. Nothing I like better than a pumped-up Spartan wearing leather knickers."

The notable cinema chain is named, ultimately, for one of the great buildings on the slopes of the Acropolis, the odeion, or music hall (and in fact, there were odeia in other Greek cities, too). The Athenian odeion was a square hall with pillars supposedly made from the masts of Persian ships taken at the battle of Salamis in the Persian wars. Men and boys' choral competitions, part of the festival called the City Dionysia, were held there, as well as previews of the main tragic plays. Popcorn was not served.

Hoi polloi
As in, "Ivy says she can't bear to go shopping on a Saturday. The town centre is just too full of hoi polloi, apparently."

Hoi polloi is Greek for "the many", meaning the ordinary people. Used with more than a soupçon of snobbery in English. To say "the hoi polloi", incidentally, is strictly speaking a gaffe, since it means "the the many" as hoi is the definite article.

As in, "Susie's relationship with David is purely platonic, you realise."

The sort of admiring, passionate but asexual regard for young men that Socrates engaged in. Alcibiades slept one night under a cloak with Socrates, according to Plato - but, he said, it was just like sleeping with a brother or a father. Socrates just wasn't interested in going all the way. You could see this as a metaphor for his pursuit of knowledge: it's about the quest, not the consummation.

As in, "I'm fed up with you lot being cynical grouches. Let's bring in a bit of joy, people!"

A philosophical school, or, more accurately, way of life, practised from the fourth century BC. Diogenes, who supposedly lived in a barrel, was the most famous Cynic - the word probably derives from the Greek for dog, so cynicism means "doggishness". It seems that adherents tried to live in accordance with nature, seeing animals as exemplars of anxiety-free living, and eschewing ambition, power, material possessions, even education. Diogenes once famously masturbated in the street. Our word "cynical" thus takes a bit of leap from its ancient origins.

As in, "Martha has been tremendously stoical since her house burned down and she lost her job."

Stoicism, founded in the fourth century BC by Zeno of Citium, was an extremely significant philosophical school. Empiricism and materialism were key features; in the realm of ethics, freeing oneself from emotion and living in accordance with human nature (which for Stoics was indivisible from human reason), was of great importance. Virtue, argued Stoics, was sufficient for happiness.

As in, "The government claims it's going to have London ready for the 2012 Olympics, but frankly, I'm sceptical."

"Sceptic" was a label introduced in the first century BC to describe the position of philosophers who held no doctrine and suspended judgment on, well, everything. Particularly lively debates ensued with the materialist Stoics

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