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  • The modern world is deeply attracted to ancient Greece.

  • Every year around one million people visit the Parthenon and wander around the ruins.

  • Because they're sure the place and the culture of which its supreme embodiment

  • has something important to say to them.

  • But it's often not quite clear what.

  • What can ancient Greece do for us?

  • It's a big vulgar but central question.

  • There are perhaps five big ideas we can take away from ancient Greece.

  • Tragedy

  • The Greeks thought it was extremely important for everyone regularly to witness a certain

  • sort of gory tail they called a tragedy.

  • Festivals existed to honor these tragedies and

  • governments close civic buildings businesses and law courts to enable citizens to go and see them.

  • Some festivals such as the festival of Dionysus in Athens which began in 508 BC

  • would last a week and involve up to 17 plays.

  • Famous plays included Aeschylus' The Oresteia

  • Sophocles' Ajax, Oedipus' The king and Electra and Eurípedes' Medeia.

  • In these tragedies people were seen to break a minor law or

  • make a hasty decision or sleep with the wrong person and the result was ignominy and death.

  • Yet what happened was shown to be to a large extent in the hands of

  • what the Greeks called fate or the gods.

  • It was the Greeks poetic way of saying the things often work out in random ways

  • according to dynamics that simply don't reflect the merits of the individuals concerned.

  • In the Poetics, the philosopher Aristotle defined the key ingredients of tragedy:

  • The hero of the tragedy should be a decent person, better than average often

  • highborn but prone to making small mistakes as we all do.

  • At the start it may not be obvious that it is an error they are making

  • but by an unfortunate chain of events for which they are not wholly to blame

  • this small mistake leads to a catastrophe.

  • Tragedy is the sympathetic morally complex account of

  • how good people can end up in disaster situations.

  • It's the very opposite of today's tabloid newspaper or social media sphere

  • with a mob rushes to make judgments on those who slipped up.

  • Aristotle thought it was extremely important that people see tragic works

  • on a regular basis to counter their otherwise strong inclinations to judge and moralize.

  • Tragedy is meant to be a corrective too easy judgment.

  • Without the idea of tragedy we can make existence for everyone far crueler and far more

  • judgmental than it really need be.

  • We should look back to the Greeks to recover an extremely important idea.

  • Philosophy

  • Athens was the cradle of philosophy.

  • Home of the three greatest philosophers:

  • Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

  • What unites the Greek philosophers is a search for what they termed eudaimonia.

  • Which translates happiness or fulfillment.

  • They saw philosophy as a hugely practical subject that could help people

  • find their way through the dilemmas of life.

  • The approach was already contained in the word philosophy itself:

  • in Greek, Philo means love or devotion and Sophia means wisdom.

  • Philosophers were people devoted to wisdom.

  • That would be abstract the concept of wisdom isn't mysterious.

  • Being wise means attempting to live and die well,

  • leading as good a life as possible within the troubled conditions of existence.

  • What we call the history of Greek philosophy is made up of repeated

  • attempts over the centuries to address ways in which we are unwise.

  • So for example Socrates paid special attention to the problem of how people get confused in their minds.

  • He was struck that people didn't quite know what they meant by key ideas like

  • courage or justice or success

  • even though these were the main ideas they used when talking about their own lives.

  • Socrates developed a method which still bears his name by which you can learn to

  • get clearer about what you mean by playing devil's advocate with any idea.

  • The aim isn't necessarily to change your mind

  • it's to test whether the ideas guiding your life are sound.

  • A few decades later, the philosopher Aristotle tried to make us more confident around big questions.

  • He thought the best questions with those that ask what something is for.

  • He did this a lot and over many books asking

  • what is government for?

  • What is the economy for?

  • What's money for?

  • What's art for?

  • Today he might be encouraging us to ask questions like:

  • What's the news media for?

  • What is marriage for?

  • What is pornography for?

  • Also active in ancient Greece was the stoic philosophers who were interested in panic.

  • The Stoics noticed the really central feature of panic:

  • We panic not just when something bad occurs but when it does so unexpectedly,

  • when we are assuming that everything was going to go rather well.

  • So they suggested that we should arm ourselves against panic by getting used to the idea that

  • danger, trouble and difficulty are very likely to occur at every turn.

  • The overall task of studying Greek philosophy is to absorb

  • these and many other lessons and put them to work in the world today.

  • The point isn't just to know what this all that philosopher happened to say but

  • to aim to exercise wisdom at an individual and societal level starting now.

  • Democracy

  • Athens is known as the home of democracy.

  • Democracy was developed in the fifth century BC first under Solon then Cleisthenes and Ephialtes.

  • However, democracy came under threat in the later stages of the fifth century BC,

  • When Athene was in the midst of fighting a lengthy war with its nemesis Sparta,

  • the Peloponnesian War.

  • So to remind Athenians of their importance within a democracy, the great general Pericles

  • delivered a rousing speech at the annual Funeral Oration to mark the dead of the war in 430 BC.

  • What makes Pericles's famous speech so striking is that

  • he isn't defending democracy just as a way of running the state.

  • He's defending what we might call the democratic spirit,

  • a spirit of equality, community and comradeship

  • that can develop in societies where members more or less feel themselves to be equal to one another.

  • The voting system is a root to something much deeper that we might term "fellow feeling".

  • An emotion the Greeks discovered for Humanity.

  • Pericles declared: the administration of Athens favors the many instead of the few;

  • this is why it's called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal

  • justice to all in their private differences; if there is no social

  • standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class

  • considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit nor again does

  • poverty bar the way if a man is able to serve the state,

  • he has never hindered by the obscurity of his condition.

  • Against the brutality of the Spartans, Pericles celebrates the generosity, erudition, openness,

  • public spiritedness and dignity of Athenian democratic life.

  • These values Pericles says enables Athens to provide a shining beacon of

  • freedom and decency to the Greek world and now to our own times too.

  • Architecture

  • The Greeks were architects par excellence.

  • They were involved in the construction of five of the seven wonders of the ancient world:

  • The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus,

  • The Statue of Zeus at Olympia,

  • The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus,

  • The Colossus of Rhodes,

  • and the Lighthouse of Alexandria.

  • But the most common and inspiring buildings were their ordinary temples.

  • Magnificent structures typically made of limestone and scattered all across Greece and its islands.

  • Aside from the temples on the Acropolis, other great structures include

  • the Temple of Apollo at Corinth,

  • the Temple of Zeus at Olympia,

  • and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion.

  • The architectural language of these temples has spread around the world

  • even when their specific religious uses are fallen by the wayside.

  • Because they suggest values which humanity will always find impressive:

  • harmony, dignity, calm, reason.

  • The Greeks taught the West how to build in such a way that would

  • externalize some of the noblest ideals of human beings.

  • Sport

  • Where earlier civilizations such as the Egyptians, Persians, Assyrians found nakedness shameful,

  • The Greeks celebrated the naked body of both gods and citizens.

  • Works such as Zeus or Poseidon of Artemision shows the statue, power and physical prowess of a nude Greek god.

  • Discobolus shows the action of a naked discus throw mid motion

  • again the sculpture celebrates the poise and physical beauty of an athlete.

  • His muscles perfectly toned.

  • The Greeks loved physical exercise.

  • There was at least one major national athletic competition every year.

  • The most famous sporting event was the Olympic Games held every four years from 776 BC.

  • But what's distinctive in the Greek approach is that they didn't want athletes merely to be athletes.

  • The idea was that everyone should train both mind and body.

  • It's a telling that Milo of Croton, a celebrated wrestler of the sixth century BC

  • was also an associate of a great mathematician Pythagoras.

  • One of the important Greek ?

  • was that a healthy mind could only dwell in a healthy body.

  • The Greeks thought exercise condition discipline in people which would enable

  • them to be diligent and virtuous democratic citizens in Athens or

  • devoted and controlled warriors in Sparta.

  • Ancient Greek gyms were nothing like the mindless body pumping places of our own times.

  • They were both public centers for physical training and intellectual hubs.

  • Gymnasia and schools were simply the same thing.

  • A great number of Socrates's dialogues about ideas around justice and truth unfold tellingly at the gym.

  • We owe to the Greeks the remarkable now often forgotten idea that

  • our bodies should be looked after just as our minds are and

  • that for someone to be merely an intellectual or merely a body builder is obscene.

  • True virtue means a balance between the physical and the mental.

  • There is a sad morality tale about the end of ancient Greek civilization.

  • They had much nicer ideas than their enemies, but they weren't as well organized .

  • So they got defeated and the ideas got lost for centuries.

  • The Greek city-states fought among themselves endlessly over the course of the fifth and fourth centuries BC,

  • and were eventually stripped of their independence under Alexander the Great.

  • The Greeks failed to add political stability to their virtues.

  • The ideas of Greece no longer survive in the country in which they first originated but it

  • should be a tribute to ancient Greece that the best of these ideas remain of complete relevance to our own times.

  • With the help of the Greaks