Early does not = Primitive part II

Today we continue yesterday’s thought for the day looking at the sophistication of ancient writers’ thought on matters such as society, well, frankly, ‘Life, the Universe, and Everything’. Today’s topics are:

Philosophy and Politics

Ancient political philosophy has been influential not just on political theorists that came after, but even on the lawmakers themselves, the Founding Fathers of America being the prime example.

One could argue that the West has placed democracy on a pedestal, strongly influenced by idealised views of fifth-century Athens or republican government in Rome. Texts such as Thucydides, Cicero would have been central to the Classical education, during ‘the Enlightenment’.

However, the influence of the Classics is certainly not sufficient evidence for the sophistication of ancient thought. My evidence for their sophistication is to show how some ‘modern’ theories have strong parallels in ancient thought.

Leadership theory is my first example. Recurring themes are:

  • · strong, but ethical leadership

  • · creation of a sense of belonging

  • · fostering of a sense of understanding and connection with those being led

I give you two ancient thinkers who included these traits in their theories of harmonious leadership: Confucius and Polybius.

The following quotations from Confucius’ great Analects show that in the remote time of the 6th/5th century BCE, these qualities for leadership were already praised:

Tsze-kung said, "Our master is benign, upright, courteous, temperate, and complaisant and thus he gets his information.”

The master, Confucius, is kindly in his manner and thus people respond willingly to what he asks.

Moderation is another theme that appears in the Analects: “In festive ceremonies, it is better to be sparing than extravagant.”

The good leader must not show excess in his tastes and conduct. One could apply this in a modern context – self-enrichment is not an endearing trait in a leader, boss, or employer.

(The translation of Confucius can be found at:


Polybius gives a full account of the rise of the good leader at the start of his account of the anacyclosis of politeiai in book six of his Histories. Strength initially unites a group under a leader for the purpose of protection. They feel gratitude towards him and support his rule. For Polybius, gratitude is the birth of morality and a sense of duty and the people support a ruler as long as he rules by these values. Support must be willing, or the government is not true. A similar sentiment can be found in the Analects:

“"Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?" The Master replied: "How about 'reciprocity'! Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself."”

Whilst the leader, whom Polybius calls ‘a king’ (namely, the good form of one man rule), does not distinguish himself from his people and walks among them as one of them, he will remain loved. But when power and its displays displaces the values of gratitude and fairness, tyranny is born

The importance of History

“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

This quotation is variously attributed, and I cite it in the form that is attributed to George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher and essayist. It is an important lesson. It is also a message ancient historians wished to bequeath to us. The great ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote a thought-provoking and rather sobering account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, wished his history to be something valid for all time. In his third book, he confidently asserts that those who read his work will have a clear idea of ‘the sorts of things that happen and will always happen whilst human nature stays the same’. Humans are destined to make recurring and ghastly mistakes. Thucydides is somewhat pessimistic in his tone, however. History makes you aware of this recurring pattern of human inadequacy, and that is essential. He does not seem so confident about history’s ability to correct such faults.

Polybius was a little more optimistic, but his high standards for historical writing to achieve its full benefit and usefulness render his reader feeling somewhat like Thucydides. But he saw a diagnostic role for history. His brilliant analogy between history and medicine in his twelfth book (I’ll leave his vitriolic invective against poor Timaeus aside for now) divides both disciplines into three stages: study of the theory/accounts of the past; one’s own effort and enquiry; application of knowledge and experience. The historian becomes a doctor of ‘human failing’. Sickness and the darker side of human nature is a recurring theme of the Histories. Polybius likens army mutiny to sores that fester unseen until they burst out in a toxic form that is much harder to deal with (the mutiny in Scipio’s army, book eleven). Such a comparison between history and medicine is implicit in Thucydides’ harrowing narrative of the plague of Athens in his second book. I will expand in another article.

Curiosity and Education

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but fundamentally, it is a beautiful thing that drives knowledge, discovery, progress, and perhaps first and foremost self-enrichment, betterment, and reflection.

The ancients could not be better evidence of curiosity. Their zeal for learning, explanation, and in some cases willingness to go against the grain and ‘accepted’ view (the Epicureans with their atomistic explanation of the universe, for example) are all laudable traits we can and should learn from. It is very easy to look at modern technology and think ‘oh, we have come so far’. Have we? In our tools maybe, but do we risk losing something more fundamental? A striving for more, in understanding that it, not tools. Polybius (yes, I know, I do often come back to this guy) writes beautifully in his Histories on how a good general should master astronomy, the position and movement of the stars and planets when planning his campaign. Lucretius gave us a theory of atomic random movement and events that is strikingly comparable to modern theories of particle physics. I would like to finish this section with Socrates. Socrates knew the problem of complacency very well. If one doesn’t question, how can someone be confident that he/she is right and that the ‘established’ norm should be accepted? Moreover, he believed that success, gain, wealth, eclipsed the true goods. Justifying his place in Athenian society in the second speech of his Apology (where he pleas for his penalty to be feeding at public expense because of his ‘benefaction’ to society. Yep, that went down really well), he says that he wanted to teach Athenians to take care of themselves, before their ‘affairs’, and to look after the city, before the care for ‘her affairs’. His point is that individual and city well-being do not purely lie in satisfaction with success and wealth and fame. Curiosity and learning require effort, and potentially, the risk of being unpopular.

Human needs - Maslow's Pyramid

Curiosity is a human need. Once the basics of our requirements have been satisfied, clothing, food, protection, shelter, we have other needs: knowledge, understanding, self-reflection. We are ascending Maslow’s pyramid of needs and human development. We have seen this in some of the examples above. The ancients knew well the potential and importance of curiosity and fostering it. Is this something we have lost?

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