Lessons from Delphi
There are two famous maxims of Greek thought inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi:
· μὴδεν ἄγαν - nothing in excess
· γνῶθι σέαυτον - know thyself
My next two Classical Thoughts for the Day will focus on the remarkable, enduring, and I would say urgent relevance today. So, we begin with ‘nothing in excess’.
What would you write down if I said “‘nothing in excess’, you have two minutes to note the first ten words or concepts that come to mind”? These are some examples from my husband wrote: pursuit of money, sunshine, drink (alcohol), food, criticism. I love these. They at once prove the relevance of the maxim. Sunshine, very good for you, but soak up your vitamin D without turning into a lobster; pursuit of money, we all need it, but being a slave to it is not conducive to happiness; drink, well that’s obvious; food, again, obvious, even foods deemed healthy become poisons when consumed in excess. Now, criticism. Brilliant, and this is the one I wish to pay close attention to. It opens up a much wider can of worms that needs confronting. My husband was referring to criticism of colleagues, specifically. It can become a habit, it can become narrow if you only seek out people who agree, and you can lose sight of positives. He’s absolutely right and what this exemplifies is human nature’s tendency to vent, and however justifiable, it can become unhealthily acidic. Once it crosses the boundaries of human restraint, it can become damaging and dangerous. My beloved Polybius expressed such a view: the Aetolians, were entirely justified (a rare concession in the Aetolian-hating Polybius) in hating Rome for their at best ambiguous, at worst actively deceptive proclamation of freedom to the Greek peoples in 196 BC. But being Aetolians, they took it too far to their own cost.
I would like to consider the internet in this light. The great educator and founder of EducationInfluence.com, Gavin McCormack made the following wise observation:
“The internet is an amazing thing when used for the right reasons.”
He is absolutely right. How can the chance to offer free education, opportunities, and inclusion on a global scale be anything, but wonderful and fully supportive of the internet’s raison d’être. However, thanks to human nature, there is a much darker side to the internet, not intrinsically, but a potential that the wrong side of human nature has exploited and is deeply linked to the notion of human excess.
My maternal grandfather once said (and sadly, I never knew him) that everything was put into this world for ‘use or abuse’. This was never more true than with the Internet. And I am not talking about the dark web and its evils. I remember watching a video on the internet, chat was enabled, and seeing the following post: ‘Can’t wait till that b***h gets killed’. It was referring to a character in the video. I was shocked, disturbed, disgusted. It was as if the character was real, it was venomous. What really alarmed me was realising that this kind of comment was no exception. Would you say that, even if you were watching with friends in your living room? You might, but you would be less likely to do so surely, at least in such blunt terms? The internet has, quite unwittingly, provided an ethical threshold, where views that would never be spoken face to face are unleashed. And that was a mild example. I have seen far more aggressive sentiments than that. Friends have endured threatening messages. Unhealthy and extreme interest groups can come together and fire their own resentment and anger as mutual reinforcement. This is the abuse my grandfather spoke of. I once formed the potential debating motion, after conversation over dinner with a colleague about the blessings and curses of the internet:
“This House believes that the Internet has become a universal ‘Picture of Dorian
What I meant by that was that people feel they can ‘dump’ their bad and taboo views or sentiments somewhere without consequence. Dorian hid his painting in the attic, internet users hide behind their username, IP address, or something more sophisticated. This is the excess we need to guard against. Human emotion has been a powerful, causative factor throughout history.
The Greeks knew it. WE need to remember it.