How young people can benefit from Greek Philosophy’s education – ΙΙ

18 September 2015

The Path of Virtue

We’ll get to the next life through virtue. Virtue which was extolled by poets, prose-writers and mostly by philosophers. So we should pay greatest attention to the writings of the last group. There’ll be no little benefit, if the souls of young people learn to cultivate their own virtues. What people absorb in their early days remains with them for life. Because the soul is still simple then and what it receives is imprinted deeply upon it. What else was Hesiod thinking about when he wrote his verses exhorting young people to acquire the virtues. He thought that the path of virtue was rough in the beginning, difficult to walk on and uphill. That you tread it with  a lot of sweat and effort. That this is why it’s no easy task to reach the top. And that when you do reach the top, however, you realize that in reality the path was level, beautiful, easy to walk and more pleasant than the other one, which leads to evil and which the poet himself admits is very easily trodden, because the end is so close to us. I believe this: Hesiod related all that to exhort us to acquire virtue, to push each of us towards  the good, not to give up in the face of difficult effort and not to stop before the end of the road. And we should accept the message of anyone else who hymns virtue in this way, because they would be leading us towards the same goal.

vasile-cel-mare,-athos-s17-INI once heard somebody talking about this who was able to delve into the meaning of poetry. And what he said was that the whole of the poetry of Homer was nothing other than a hymn to virtue. Everything in Homer, except what was marginal, looked towards that. This is the case, for example, with what he writes about Odysseus, who walked away, naked, from a shipwreck and straight away, just through his appearance, won the respect of the king’s daughter, Nausicaa. His nakedness wasn’t an embarrassment, because, instead of clothes, he was clad in virtue. He later produced a similarly favourable impression on other Phaeacians, to the point where they abandoned their relaxed life-style and, in their admiration, tried to imitate him. At that time, there was no other wish on the lips of the Phaeacians than to become a second Odysseus, even if buffeted by the sea. Because- this student of poetry pointed out- Homer taught the following very clearly: if people practice virtue, which swims along with them at the time of a ship-wreck, then, when they come naked to land, it will make them more honoured than the carefree Phaeacians. And that’s the way it is. Everything else which we might have might just as easily belong to somebody else. Sometimes it falls here, other times there, like dice. The only possession which can’t be taken away, is virtue. Each person has their own  for as long as they live and even after they depart this world. [This has been a common theme in literature ever since Homer. Solon and Theognis, for example said much the same, and many centuries after Saint Basil, Shakespeare would write:

“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;” (Othello, act 3, scene 3)].

Words and deeds

So almost everybody noted for their wisdom, some more than others and in their own ways, have extolled virtue in their writings. These are the people we should believe and we should strive to apply their words to our lives. Because if you support philosophy with deeds, when others restrict themselves to mere words, then you’re the clever one and the others are wandering around like shadows.

In this case we have a wonderfully beautiful portrait and, next to it, the same face in reality, just as attractive as its depiction. There are people who extol virtue before others with inflated words, but who, in their private lives prefer debauchery to sobriety, greed to justice. What are they like? Like actors who play in dramas. On stage they’re kings or great leaders without being either one or the other in real life and sometimes aren’t even free citizens but slaves. What musician would play a lyre that wasn’t properly tuned? Would a lead dancer agree to the chorus not being properly in step with him? No. Yet  are there people who want to be at odds with themselves, want their lives to differ from their words (as when Euripides says: “My tongue swore the oath, not my mind”) and who want to seem but not really to be good? That would be the height of injustice, if we believe Plato: giving people the impression that you’re a good person when, in reality, you’re not.

Wise people should avoid above all else, the life of being a show-off, concern for that others will say about them, lack of a moral compass. If they avoid these things, they won’t hesitate to go against the views of the whole of the rest of society, to take risks for the sake of the good, to make the right decisions and stick to them. People who don’t live like that are no different from Proteus in Homer, who could become an animal, a plant, fire or water at will.

All of this is taught best by our Holy Scriptures. All we’ve done here is make a sketch drawn from secular wisdom. People who take care to see the benefit in everything are like rivers that are fed by tributaries and thus become bigger. The same is true of knowledge as of money: if you keep adding to it bit by bit, it’ll increase.

We need to be properly supplied to meet the needs of this life, but it’s even more important to be supplied for the next. Of course, this is an issue that requires effort and has its difficulties, but that doesn’t mean that we should be discouraged and give up on it. It’s shameful if we pass up a chance now, and then, later, wish we could turn the clock back and do things differently, because all that brings is regrets. There are three kinds of people who are sick: those who have some slight illness and go to the doctor’s; those who have something more serious and call the doctor to the house; and those who are beyond help because they won’t let a doctor near them. Take care that, in matters of the soul, you don’t fall into the third category.

Based on a homily by Saint Basil.