Greece preserves one of the most ancient cultures and one of the most inspiring histories worldwide. Its history is made up of bloody wars and occupations, but also of people who, with their ideas, visions and ambitions, have shaped the course of the whole world. Most of them are considered to be philosophers and many of their ideas, point of view and world theories still inspire modern people. Although many of them did not actually write texts, their sayings were saved by their students. Recognized virtues, such as discipline, glory, honor, and the value of family and friendship, can be traced back to their insights, and still move and influence modern people’s lives.
1. “I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” – Socrates
(Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Maybe this is one of the most famous quotes of all time. Socrates (470 – 399 BC) was born in Athens and his theories concentrated on humans and not on nature. This is why his ideas were considered to be humanistic and not abstractive. He thought that wisdom is not something to look for, but comes after admitting the knowledge of nothing. When he was old, he was accused of disrespect to the laws and the gods and corruption against the young people. Eventually, he was sentenced to death, because he opposed the theories of several sophists and criticized the faults of the Athenian democracy. He allegedly drank Conium maculatum (poisonous hemlock) and died after being imprisoned for 30 days, due to delays before his execution.
2. “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” –Aristotle
(Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) was born in Stagira of Macedonia and was a famous philosopher of the fourth century BC, Plato’s student and teacher of Alexander the Great. The Aristotle University of Greece comes from his name. This phrase, written in The Nicomachean Ethics, remains an exemplary model of self-control and absolute inner calm. His ability to control his anger and not to let himself be seduced by this “easy” act is vital and beneficial. According to Aristotle, knowing when, where, why, how and with which person to get nervous can offer beneficial effects on his social, family or business relationships. Not all of his works are saved, but many of them are preserved by others, like Plutarch.
3. “Everything flows. / Life is flux.” – Heraclitus
(Painting of Heraclitus, by Johannes Moreelse (after 1602–1634), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Heraclitus (540-480 BC) was born in Ephesus and strongly believed that no one could enter the same river twice, because at any time the river is always changing, so it is never the same river. According to him, everything in the world is in constant motion and process, that is, in war and rivalry. He claimed that the primary substance in the world is energy, the “pyr”, meaning fire in Greek. Heraclitus came to the conclusion that nature, as well as the nature of the flows, change as time passes by. Everything flows onwards, just like a river. People change like rivers and nature. Sadly, the sayings of Heraclitus have only survived in broken fragments and little is known about his life.
4. “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is just opinion.” – Democritus
(Painting of Democritus, by Johannes Moreelse (after 1602–1634), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Democritus (470 – 370 BC) descended from a wealthy family, as did most of the philosophers of ancient Greece. He travelled a lot to the east and set up bases for modern physics, understanding the laws of sound, light and heat and was the first to invent atomic theory. He gave a clear explanation of the birth of the constellations and claimed that even the soul is composed of smooth and round atoms, which the body inhales from the air, thus giving to the psychic life both materialistic and mechanical function. The Democritus University of Thrace carries on his name.
5. “Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.” – Epicurus
(Print of Epicurus, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
A philosopher of the 4th century BC, Epicurus was born in Samos, but lived in Athens, where he founded his own school. He believed that everything is based on matter and that life rotates between two poles, pain and joy, the latter being the pole to seek out. He was a devotee of life, and he did not fear or worry about death. He adhered to an atomistic theory, and believed that the material universe is composed of minute particles, which are considered to be relatively simple and immutable and too small to be visible.
6. “Let no man be called happy before his death.” – Solon
(Solon writing laws for Athens, in an 1842 wood engraving, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Solon was an Athenian lawmaker, philosopher and poet from the 6th century BC. After an unfortunate moment with his finances, he managed to travel and cooperate with many different cultures and studied mainly their economic and social life. Solon proposed that, till someone’s death, he is not happy, only lucky. He is considered one of the seven sages of ancient Greece. An ancient story explains why and when Solon said this famous quote:
Croesus was the last king of Lydia, son of Alyattis, known for his incredible riches that were becoming more and more immense. He believed he was the happiest man in the world, until one day he met with Solon, whom he asked who was the happiest man in the world. Solon refused to name Croesus as the happiest man, warning him with the phrase: “Let no man be called happy before his death.” Later, after losing a battle with Cyrus of Persia, Croesus was captured and sentenced to death. At the time they were to put him up to burn him, Croesus remembered Solon’s words and cried three times “Solon! Solon! Solon!”. Then Cyrus, who heard him, asked to know what the invocation meant. Listening to the story, he spared Croesus life and even kept him as his trusted friend and advisor.
7. “Man: a being in search of meaning.” – Plato
(Herm representing Plato, with a modern inscription mistakenly identifying him as Zeno. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from the last quarter of the 4th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Plato (429 – 345 BC), philosopher of the 5th century BC, was an Athenian raised by a noble family. He owes his name to the width of his sternum and forehead. He was a faithful student of Socrates. Having this in mind, the term “platonic love” nowadays defines friendship, family love between people with family ties, as well as religious love and devotion. Plato founded the “Academy” and acquired many students and supporters of his philosophy, such as Aristotle. He claimed that a man is a logical being, who will always be looking for the real meaning of life. The famous fresco painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael shows the elder Plato walking along with his student Aristotle in the School of Athens.
8. “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” – Alexander the Great
(Alexander the Great, c. 100 B.C.E., marble, Brooklyn Museum, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC) was a Macedonian general, one of the most important figures of world history and a student of Aristotle, whom he admired, was grateful to and deeply respected. He said that he owed his father for life and his teacher for good living. He died young, but he created a huge empire and expanded Greek culture. To many, Alexander was also considered a philosopher and a genius. According to his quote, lions are wild, strong and vigorous animals, while sheep are popular for following along without thinking. So, a lion could easily lead a group of sheep and they would do exactly what it said, but a sheep could not control a group of lions. Alexander Technological Institute of Thessaloniki in Greece is honored to carry on his name.
9. “Everyone who is very happy because of money, he is very sad when he spends it” – Xenophon
(Depiction of Xenophon, ancient Greek historian. From Thomas Stanley, c. 1655, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Xenophon (430 – 354 BC) was born in Athens and was a philosopher, historian and general. He was a student of Socrates. All of his written works are saved, mostly consisting of historical narratives, which still influence modern literature. He said the above phrase after his teacher proposed that the secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. Xenophon knew that money cannot bring happiness, although he supported the fact that the more he has, the better he lives.
10. “By all means, get married: if you find a good wife, you’ll be happy; if not, you’ll become a philosopher.” – Socrates
(Socrates and Xanthippe, illustrated by Otto van Veen (1556–1629), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Socrates was married to Xanthippe whom he considered his equal and freely accepted her right to express her own opinions. Xanthippe felt strongly that Socrates should charge for his services as an educator because his not doing so meant financial hardship for her and their children. She and Socrates argued about this frequently, and sometimes even publicly. Despite the fact that he loved his wife, he was not happy, so he ended up being a philosopher, according to his saying. However, there is strong historical evidence that, overall, their marriage was good and happy, and they cherished each other deeply.
10 + 1. “Even if you get married or not, whatever you do, you will both regret.” – Socrates
Socrates’ appearance was not like the “Greek standards” of beauty. He was ugly, with a short and small nose, but was widely recognized for his wits, originality and humor, and according to his student Plato, was the finest and wisest of Greeks. While Socrates was alive, he was the object of comic ridicule, but most of the plays that make reference to him are entirely lost apart from the “Clouds” of Aristophanes. Although he realized that marriage should be considered a “must”, he truly regretted being married, but he also knew that he would regret being not married.
Top Picture Attribution: (Plato’s Academy, by Raphael (1483–1520), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
Written by Stefanos Karampalis.
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