How young people can benefit from Greek Philosophy – 1

16 September 2015

My dear children, there are many reasons I want to give you this advice. I think it’s the best I can give and will be useful to you if you make it your own. So if you take my words to heart, you’ll belong to the second category of those who are praised by the ancient poet Hesiod, when he wrote that the best people were those who could tell what is right by themselves and good people are those who conform to proper guidance. Anyone who isn’t able to do either of these things is termed useless. And don’t be surprised that I’ve come to add something of my own to what you’ve read at school about ancient writers, or that I say that what I have to tell you is of greater benefit. This is the whole thrust of my advice: you mustn’t hand over the rudder of your mind to ancient authors, so they can take you wherever they think fit. You shouldn’t follow them in all things. You should take whatever’s useful from them and pay no heed to the rest. So let me show you what’s useless in their writings and also how you can tell the former from the latter.

vasile cel mare, ms s15, dionysiou VID

Saint Basil the Great, 15th Century manuscript, Monastery of Dionysiou

 Water and the sun

We Christians consider this human life here below to be entirely unimportant. We take little account of and don’t consider good what serves us only in this life. Noble lineage, robust health, bodily beauty, a fine bearing, the honours awarded by people, even royal office and anything else the present world offers us, aren’t great and enviable things as far as we’re concerned. Our own hopes go much farther than that. Our actions are a preparation for another kind of life. It’s precisely what we’ll need in this other life which is what we love and long for, deriding whatever falls short of it. What is this other life? Where and how shall we live it? That’s a subject which is outside my scope for today. And in any case, you’re still too young to take in any proper description. But I’ll give you a sketch, which will do you for now. Let’s take all the happiness that’s accumulated in this world here from the very first day. All the earthly happiness doesn’t even begin to touch the smallest of the good things in that life. All the best things in this life here are as far inferior to the least of the good things there as a shadow or a dream is to reality. Or, to use a more common example, the difference between the two lives we’re talking about is as great as the difference in value between the soul and the body.

Our guide in this life is Holy Scripture, the language of which is very mysterious. When people are very young, it’s only natural that they won’t understand its more profound significance. So what should they do? They should practice, with the eyes of the soul, reading other texts which aren’t entirely foreign but which are like mirrors or shadows. It’s the same thing as happens in the army. Soldiers gain military experience first through exercises, which are like a game. Later, they get to know real war. And we’ve got a battle to face ourselves. The greatest of all. To prepare, we have to train, to work hard. How can we do this pre-training? By looking carefully at the poets, prose-writers, orators and all the other people who will give us something to strengthen our souls. Remember what they do in dye factories. First they prepare the cloth they’re going to dye, and it’s only when this preparation’s complete that they take the red dye, or some other colour, and actually carry out the dyeing. The same has to happen with us. First we need to prepare our minds with worldly wisdom and then we’ll be able to listen to the sacred and profound truths of Christian teaching. First we need to see the sun reflected in water, and then we’ll go on to look at the sun itself.

The fruit and the foliage.

If both teachings were somehow related, it would be beneficial to have some knowledge of both. But there’s a big difference. So if we put them side by side and compare them, we’ll see that the one is superior to the other. But what can we liken them to, so as to give a proper image? The prime value of a plant is that it gives fruit. But the leaves also give decoration when they’re ruffled by a breeze through the branches. It’s rather like that with the soul. Its fruit, its value, is truth. But it’s still pleasant for it to be surrounded with secular wisdom, like foliage nicely shading the fruit. This was the case with Moses, famed as he was for his wisdom, according to tradition. First he trained his mind in the arts and sciences of ancient Egypt and then slowly made his way towards the true God. Something of the sort also happened with Daniel, centuries later. First he was taught the wisdom of the Chaldeans in Babylon and later he fell to studying the teaching of God.

Weights and Measures

I’ve said enough to show you that these secular lessons aren’t useless for the soul. So let’s look now at how we should assimilate them. Let’s look at the wide variety of works of the poets. You shouldn’t pay equal attention to the teaching of all of them, without exception. When they tell you of mighty deeds or the words of good people, accept them gladly, see that you imitate them, resemble them insofar as you’re able. But when they bring forward bad people, avoid images such as that. Shut your ears, as did Odysseus, according to Homer, when he didn’t want to hear the singing of the sirens. Why? Because if you get used to sinful words, you’ll go on to sinful acts. This is why we must protect our souls by all possible means. This is honey that’s poisoned. So we won’t be praising poets who depict people who are impious, who mock, who lead wild lives, who are betrayed by drink, and who equate happiness with banquets and bawdy singing. Nor will we pay any attention when they talk about gods and tell us that there are lots of them and that they all hate each other. Because, as you know, the false gods of idolatry fight each other, brother against brother, father against children and vice versa, in really devious ways. And let’s leave to the theatre people that adultery of the gods, their erotic passions, their unbridled carnal relations, especially those of Zeus, who, according to them, is the greatest of all. These are things that, if you said them about animals you’d blush. The same is true of prose writers, especially when they write to amuse.

We shan’t imitate the orators in law courts, whose art is lying. Because lying isn’t good, whether it’s in court or anywhere else, and, as Christians, we’ve chosen the proper and true path in life, and the Gospel tells us in no uncertain terms not to go to court. From what we’re taught by all the above, we’ll select and take only what is praise of virtue and condemnation of evil. For people and other creatures, flowers are good only for their scent and their colour. But for bees, there’s something else in them: pollen to make honey. Same thing here. If you don’t want just to seek sweetness and grace in the writings of the ancients, you might then find something of benefit to the soul. So we need to study these writings in accordance with the example of the bees. They don’t fly to all flowers in the same way. And wherever they land, they don’t look to take everything. They take only what’s needed for their task and they leave the rest and fly away. That’s what we should do, as well, if we’ve got the sense. We’ll take those texts that are close enough to the truth and which we need, and the rest we’ll leave behind. Just as, when we cut a rose, we’re careful not to take the thorns as well, so, with these texts, we’ll take what’s useful and protect ourselves from what’s detrimental. From the first moment, we should examine these teachings and adapt them to our own purpose, using our own weights and measures.