The ancient philosophers knew a thing or two about life, and even in the internet age we can still benefit from their wisdom, says the author Mark Vernon
- Go with the flow
To live in a high-tech world is to live in a world of change. It was not dissimilar for the ancient Greeks. The adventures of Alexander the Great reshaped the known world. Technologies that could build the Parthenon were being developed. So, said Zeno the Stoic, don’t resist the change; learn to live with it. If you can go with the flow, you’ll find tranquility.
- Remember that less is more
It’s hard to do when everything is only a click away. Epicurus, who was known as a hedonist, didn’t argue that the pursuit of more and more pleasure was the key to happiness. Instead, he said he had learnt to be as happy as Zeus if all he had to eat was a glass of water and a barley cake. Less is more. That’s the test for a consumer age.
- Work to live, don’t live to work
Cleanthes, who was a Stoic philosopher and also known as the water-carrier, worked by night so that he could do philosophy by day. He was quite clear that he would work enough, and only enough, to support his real passion, the philosophy. In a world of email and 24×7, it is far too easy to work so hard that you miss what you really want.
- Beware the transience of the internet
It can make a hero in minutes, and destroy an individual in hours. The ancient philosophers were not against fame per se. Many, like Diogenes the Cynic, who resided in a barrel and lived like a dog, were not just famous, but infamous. However, they all advised that your life itself is the medium and message that really counts.
- Friendship requires face to face communication
Aristotle is our adviser on this matter. He argued that good friendship – soulmateship – is only possible when friends “share salt together”. He meant that they sit down with each other, not just over the occasional meal, but over the course of their lives. Texting and telephoning may be necessary in modern friendship, but alone, they are not sufficient.
- Keep hold of common sense
It’s easy, in a world of science, to be swayed this way and that with every new theory that’s announced. You see it with food fads. One week red wine is bad; the next it’s called good. Sextus Empiricus was a philosopher and doctor, and he advised his patients to measure new science against common sense. Bread might be made of carbs, but everyone knows it’s nourishing, so eat a little, he said.
- Be careful lest travel change you
It’s so easy to hop on a plane and within hours be in a different time and place. Mostly, we do it as tourists, so don’t allow a culture to change us. However, the philosopher Secundus went travelling as a young man and changed so much that when he got home no one recognized him, not even his mother. A stranger in the places he visited, he’d become a stranger in his own town.
- Don’t believe all the rumours
The web is a haven for them, though whether they are founded on truth is another question entirely. But it’s a vital question to ask. If there’s one thing everyone knows about ancient Athenians it is that they were democrats. If there’s a second thing, it’s that those democrats put Socrates to death. It was the action of the herd. And the great risk of those who enjoy freedom of speech – and a cheap means like the web to express it – is the same: rule by the rumour-merchants and the mob.
- Don’t forget nature
There are all sorts of things you can learn from it. Heraclitus developed an entire philosophy of life based upon his observations of the natural world. He noticed that because the water flowed, so you can never step into the same river twice. That was a metaphor for nothing stands still. He noticed how new the sun feels every morning, and so sought to renew his love of life every day.
- Resist the virtual life
The idea that you can have one – switching gender, looking handsome, becoming perfect – has grown with Second Life and the like. Plato is often associated with the existence of a perfect world, which philosophers call the Forms. But he was clear that this virtual place is not the real world. To live life in all its fullness, we humans must deal with this world’s imperfections, Plato said.
Mark Vernon is the author of Plato’s Podcasts: The Ancients’ Guide to Modern Living, to be published in October by Oneworld. For more information, seehttp://www.markvernon.com