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 we need to remember the role of tragedy, emphasize the practice of philosophy, honor the spirit of democracy, build with harmony and dignity, and exercise both mind and body in equal measure. For all this we can be grateful to the now absent Greeks as we wander among the rubble of the Parthenon. If you like our films, take a look at our shop: the school of life.com/shop You’ll find lots of thoughtful books, games, stationery and more.