Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times

Sunday, April 17, 2016
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 7, 2013

What Is It

If the Ancients found themselves transported to the modern world, they would have much to learn about science, technology, and human thinking. But is there something the Ancients can still teach us about how to live a good life? What relevance do the virtues – wisdom, courage, prudence, justice, and so on – have for our modern times? Could these ancient values help solve some of the most challenging problems of contemporary life? John and Ken talk old school with Melissa Lane from Princeton University, author of Eco-Republic: What the Ancients Can Teach Us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living. This program was recorded live on campus as part of the Stanford Continuing Studies series The Art of Living.

Listening Notes

Most Greeks thought the Earth was flat, slavery was permissible, and women were second-class citizens. Where’s the wisdom in all that? These blatantly erroneous views aside, ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle did have valuable insights, especially into ethical theory. Instead of the more modern approach to ethics that focuses on the rules governing behavior, ancient Greeks focused on what it means for someone to lead a good life. Have we lost touch with what the Greeks understood about vice and virtue? And could this inattention to the old ways of ethical thinking by responsible for modern economic and ecological crises?

Melissa is invited to weigh in on these difficult questions. She contends that although modern psychology and economy treat desires as unanalyzed and go from there, ancient Greek philosophers were concerned with reasoning about which desires are good and which are bad. Even a modern day society operating under impeccable liberal principles must face substantial questions related to vice and virtue and about what “the good life” is. For example, a society whose only rule is “don’t harm others” will still have to judge what counts as harm. Burglary certainly counts as harming others, but does polluting the atmosphere?

An audience member contends that unlike an economy that commends moderation, a capitalism that turns around greed, an apparent vice, generates pleasure and happiness. However, as Ken notes, this kind of economy dangerously requires constant growth. Melissa adds that capitalism has indeed raised many out of poverty and generated technological advance. However, it has also produced unemployment, financial hardship, and ecological crisis. Ancient virtues should be applied to re-enlighten capitalism rather than to replace it.

Melissa ends the segment by encouraging the audience to reflect on what they think is good rather than taking for granted that inherited values will make society thrive. A virtue-based approach to ethics, where individuals are motivated by their happiness and who they want to be, is more reliable than an approach where individuals merely conform to a set of prescribed rules.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:25): Caitlin Esch joins a UC Riverside Philosophy Club star party. She then speaks with the founder of Socrates Café, Christopher Phillips, who is dedicated to bringing the Socratic method to life in coffee shops around the country.