Surprisingly Modern Wisdom From Ancient Greeks and Romans
Quotes from the ancients are as relevant today as when they were recorded.
Posted June 26, 2014 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Putting this piece together has been a history lesson for me. These ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and statesmen used few words to express pearls of wisdom that stand up today as guidelines for living wisely and compassionately. From Heraclitus’ understanding of the ever-changing nature of life to Epictetus’ and Seneca’s cautionary words about the perils of desire to Aristotle advising us to educate the heart as well as the mind, there’s much food for thought here. Enjoy.
Heraclitus (circa 535-475 BCE) is considered the most important pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. He was born in the Greek city of Ephesus. Little is known of his life and we have only a few sentences of his work.
Quotations from Heraclitus:
“Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become.”
“Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed."
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
This last quotation is his most famous. It sounds both the theme of impermanence and the idea that our identities are fluid and ever-changing, so we need not get attached to the mental state of the moment and think we will be that way from now on.
Pericles (circa 495-429 BCE) was the most prominent and influential Greek statesman and orator during the Golden Age of Athens. In 461, he became the ruler of Athens, a role he would occupy until his death. During his leadership, he built the Acropolis and the Parthenon and led Athens' recapture of Delphi, the siege on Samos, and the invasion of Megara. In 429, he died of the plague.
Quotations from Pericles:
“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you.”
“Time is the wisest counselor of all.”
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”
In my view, we’d do well to stick this last quotation on our refrigerators and read it every day.
Socrates (circa 469—399 BCE) was a classical Greek philosopher and is considered one of the founders of Western logic and philosophy. He established an ethical system based on human reason rather than theological doctrine. He maintained that the more we come to know ourselves, the greater will be our ability to reason and make choices that lead to true happiness. He is known to us mostly through the writings of his students, particularly Plato. When the political climate of Greece turned, Socrates was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning in 399 BCE. He accepted this judgment rather than fleeing into exile.
Quotations from Socrates:
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
“He is richest who is content with the least, for contentment is the wealth of nature.”
And here is Socrates expressing what Korean Zen master Seung Sahn calls, “Don’t-Know Mind,” a practice I love to write about:
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
Plato (circa 428—348 BCE) was a Greek philosopher. Like Socrates, he is considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. He was a student of Socrates’ and a mentor to Aristotle. He founded The Academy of Athens, which was the first institute of higher learning in the Western world.
Quotations from Plato:
“The greatest wealth is to live content with little.”
“Courage is knowing what not to fear.”
“Necessity is the mother of invention.”
“Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil.”
I believe so strongly in the truth of this last statement that I don’t use the word evil anymore. When people do harm, I think of them as having acted out of ignorance.
Aristotle (circa 384—322 BCE) was a Greek philosopher who is also considered one of the founders of Western philosophy. When he turned 17, he joined Plato’s Academy and stayed until he was 37. After Plato died, Aristotle left Athens and became a tutor for Alexander the Great. In 335, he founded the Lyceum in Athens. His writings cover an incredible array of subjects including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, ethics, and even biology and zoology.
Quotations from Aristotle:
“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies, for the hardest victory is over the self.”
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
“It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
I’ve written a lot in this space and in my books about how believing our thoughts—particularly the stressful stories we tell ourselves about our lives—is a source of unhappiness and suffering for us.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”
I use this quotation in my book, How to Wake Up, as part of a discussion of a similar quotation from the Buddha: “[What we] think and ponder upon becomes the inclination of our minds.” I go on to write:
[Thus] each time our “thinking and pondering” gives rise to compassionate thoughts or compassionate action, our inclination to be compassionate is strengthened, making it more likely that we’ll behave compassionately in the future. We’re, in effect, planting a behavioral seed that can grow into a habit. We are forming our character.
Seneca (circa 4 BCE—65 AD) was born in what is modern-day Cordoba, Spain. He was educated in Rome and became a Roman philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and even humorist. In 41 AD, he was banished to Corsica after being accused of adultery. Emperor Claudius’ wife insisted he be invited back to Rome and, upon returning, his reputation rose swiftly. He was a tutor and then chief advisor to Emperor Nero. He was ordered by Nero to commit suicide for supposed complicity in a conspiracy to assassinate the emperor. Seneca complied, but many historians think he was innocent.
Quotations from Seneca:
“The greatest wealth is a poverty of desires.”
“One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.”
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.
“A gift consists not of what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.”
“True happiness is… to enjoy the present without anxious dependence on the future.”
“Count each day as a separate life”.
These six quotations from Seneca are gems to me because they reflect the way I aspire to live my life.
Plutarch (circa 46—120 AD) was a Greek historian, biographer, and essayist. He lived in little, out-of-the-way Chaeroneia, Boetia, in Greece and spent his days lecturing and in friendly correspondence and conversation with many cultivated contemporaries among both Greeks and Romans. His famous work is a biography of Greek and Roman philosophers called Plutarch’s Lives.
Quotations from Plutarch:
“Neither blame nor praise yourself.”
“The whole life of a man is but a point in time; let us enjoy it.”
“Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.”
“Know how to listen and you will profit even from those who talk badly.”
Epictetus (circa 55—135 AD) was a Greek sage. He was born a slave in what is modern-day Turkey. As a young man, he gained his freedom, moved to Rome, and began to teach philosophy. When philosophers were banished from Rome in 89 AD, Epictetus left and started his own school in Nicopolis in Northwest Greece, where he lived for the rest of his life. His teachings were written down and published by his pupil Arrian.
Quotations from Epictetus:
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
“Make the best use of what’s in your power and take the rest as it happens.”
This last quotation struck me so strongly as a model for how to live my own life that it currently sits as the final quotation in my upcoming book on chronic pain and illness.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this excursion into ancient wisdom.© 2014 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work.
I'm the author of four books:
How to Be Sick: Your Pocket Companion (for those who've read How to Be Sick and for those who haven't) May 2020
How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015). I use several of these quotes in this book!
You might also like “All About Kindness: Quotations, Reflections, and Photos.”