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Ancient Greek and Roman Wisdom

Western philosophy grew from a range of ancient thinkers in Greek and Roman civilization. From the dialogues of Plato to the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, ancient philosophy continues to shape how we think and live today.

Sources of ancient Greek and Roman wisdom include: 

Plato

Plato (423-347 BC) was a Greek philosopher who wrote dialogues about his teacher Socrates, who didn’t write down his own views. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates schools people in the ways of skepticism and wisdom.

The Allegory of the Cave
Uplift’s retelling of a famous allegory about what happens when we — like the person who leaves the cave — discover wisdom.

There once was a group of people imprisoned in an underground cave.

A fire blazed behind them as they stared all day at shadows of images — animals and people — moving along the cavernous wall. Knowing little else, these prisoners started to believe that the shadows they saw on the walls were reality itself.

Then, one day, a prisoner was suddenly freed. He turned around and looked directly at the fire, his eyes pained by the brightness. But he kept walking, past the fire and then outside the cave itself. The moment he left, the light overwhelmed him, his eyes so unused to the sun. It took time, but eventually he discerned the shapes of the outside world, realizing that this world, with sun and grass and trees and living animals, was reality.

With this knowledge, he returned to the cave. But his eyes were no longer adjusted to the darkness, and he fumbling around. When he saw his friends, he tried to explain what he’d seen outside, but they just laughed and call him a fool.

Wisdom passages from Plato:

  • “Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.”
  • “All knowledge, when separated from justice and virtue, is seen to be cunning and not wisdom.”
  • “Most people are not aware that this roundabout progress through all things is the only way in which the mind can attain truth and wisdom.”
  • “The inexperienced in wisdom and virtue, ever occupied with feasting and such, are carried downward, and there, as is fitting, they wander their whole life long, neither ever looking upward to the truth above them nor rising toward it, nor tasting pure and lasting pleasures.”

Aristotle

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a Greek philosopher who taught a wide range of subjects, including politics, ethics, poetry, biology, and more. Students took notes of his lectures, parts of which still exist today.

Wisdom passages from Aristotle:

  • “Humans are, by nature, a social animal.”
  • “It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most people live only for the gratification of it.”
  • “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, for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

Epicurus

Epicurus (341-270 BC) was a Greek philosopher who advocated for living a life of peaceful tranquility and virtue.

Wisdom passages from Epicurus:

  • “Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship.”
  • “Wealth beyond what is natural is of no more use than an overflowing container. Real value is not generated by theaters, and baths, perfumes or ointments, but by the love of wisdom.”
  • “Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when they’re young nor weary in the search of it when they’ve grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come or that it is past and gone is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young alike ought to seek wisdom.”
  • “No pleasure is itself a bad thing, but the things that produce some kinds of pleasure bring along with them unpleasantness that is much greater than the pleasure itself.”

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius ruled as the emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD. Given this fact, it’s perhaps surprising that the’s best known today for writing a book of private meditations that he recorded for himself and that were never meant to be published. In the book, we see a ruler who’s endlessly introspective, curious, and interested in seeking well-being.

Here are just a few of the best passages from Meditations.

  • “Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul.”
  • “Acquire the contemplative way of seeing how all things change into one another.”
  • “Look within. Within is the fountain of the good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig.”
  • “Nowhere can you find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in your own soul.”
  • “Remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present.”
  • “What stands in the way becomes the way.”
  • “At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
  • “Nothing more is required of us than to accomplish well the task at hand.”
  • “Always look to what is inside. Never let the true essence and worth of a thing to escape you.”
  • “The noblest way of taking revenge on others is by refusing to be like them.”
  • “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed.”
  • “Early in the morning, when you are reluctant in your laziness to get up, let this thought be at hand: “I am rising to do the work of a human being.” Even though I know this, why am I still resentful if I am going out to do that for which I was born and that for which I was brought into the Cosmos? Or was I created so that I could lie under my covers and keep warm? “But this is more pleasant,” you might say. Were you brought into this world simply to feel pleasure, that is, to be acted upon by feelings rather than to act? Have you not considered the plants, the birds, the ants, the spiders, and the bees, all doing their specific work and contributing to the Cosmos, each according to their unique capacities?”
Looking for a good translation of Meditations? We recommend the Gregory Hays translation as well as the translation by Jacob Needleman and John Piazza.

Additional ancient Greek and Roman wisdom:

  • The best of Epictetus (forthcoming)
  • The best of Seneca (forthcoming)

For more, see our growing wisdom library

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