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Epicurus – Proto-Scientist, Secular-Saint, and Sophisticated Hedonist

by January 18, 2019

By Jacob Bell, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
There is probably no other ancient Greek philosopher who has been so misunderstood in our modern era. Nowadays his philosophy is associated with excess and drinking and food apps… but the reality is, he preached the exact opposite. Indeed, his name should connote moderation, science, atheism, death…and happiness?
Who are we talking about? None other than Epicurus.
Epicurus Bust

Bust of Epicurus

A radical thinker of his time, Epicurus was a philosopher of the Hellenistic period, living from 341-271 BCE. Living in accordance with his philosophy, which came to be known as Epicureanism, he lived a rather simple, peaceful, and relaxing life. He utilized his garden as a classroom, and relied heavily on donations to survive. Aside from the occasional college party, Epicurus and his students lived mostly on bread and water.
The Epicureans adopted empiricism as their theory of knowledge and atomistic materialism as their theory of the cosmos. They developed an egoistic hedonism as their theory of ethical values, and aside from specific cases, the Epicureans ignored politics and valued friendship above all other human relations, even familial ones. If you ever thought that friends were god’s apology for family, then you might actually be a follower of Epicurus.
Epicurus developed his philosophy with a practical aim in mind, and so employed the use of logic and rationality as a means to happiness, rather than as tools for uncovering the truth for truth’s sake. Rejecting the importance of mathematics and purely scientific pursuits, he was interested in logic insofar as it served physics, and interested in physics insofar as it served ethics. Epicurus viewed many philosophers with a feeling of antipathy, denounced religious dogmatism, railed against the skeptics, and argued for a secular world. In sum, it’s surprising that he didn’t meet the same ending as Socrates!
Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

For the Epicureans, the senses are fundamental and at the basis of our knowledge. Senses have dominion over reason, because reason relies first on sense perception. We can only reason about something once we have gathered data from our senses about the thing in question. According to Epicurean theory, we should then judge this information according to our feelings or passion, and we should choose that which gives us pleasure, and avoid that which gives us pain.
Does this mean that we have a justified theory of excessive drinking and eating? Don’t grab for that second bottle of wine just yet. Although Epicurus outlines a hedonistic ethic, it is a sophisticated theory that encourages moderation. After all, we won’t be happy tomorrow when we wake up to a throbbing head, sour stomach, and purple lips… especially if there is photographic evidence.
First identifying with Aristotle’s notion that happiness is the highest good, Epicurus then couples this with the idea of pleasure, concluding that pleasure is the only manner from which to obtain happiness. Epicurus’ view of choosing the best pleasure consists in contemplating the future and choosing the option that will provide sustaining contentment and absence of pain. We must look to the future to determine what will be the cause of more pleasure and less pain. With this in mind, in the final analysis, we will gain more pleasure from moderating our intake of wine, and we will endure less pain by going to the dentist and getting that toothache taken care of… you know, before you need that root canal.
Epicurus qupte
Just as important to the Epicurean ethic is a reduction of desires. If we want less, we will be happy with less. The Epicurean path to happiness is not a result of an excess of external pleasures or material goods. Live simply, and without an excess of wealth or luxury, says Epicurus, and with that proclamation he very well may lay claim to the title of “first western minimalist!” Moderation, temperance, and cheerfulness are Epicurean virtues; unbridled luxury and feverish desire Epicurean vices.
In a seeming contradiction to a hedonistic ethic, Epicurus believed that it was more pleasurable to do a kindness for someone rather than receive one. He also held that we should attempt friendship with all of mankind, and if this is not possible, at least don’t make enemies, and if this fails, and we make an enemy, avoid interacting with them.
Friendship was the highest human relationship for Epicurus because it provided security, tranquility, and pleasure. He also urged against the rat race, because a race for wealth, fame, or power would destroy tranquility and peace by placing the contestant at the mercy of chance, public opinion, and disrupt the enjoyment of friendship. For similar reasons, a man who seeks to be happy should stay out of politics unless he has such an urge to a political career that he couldn’t be happy without it… and let’s be honest… those people probably shouldn’t be politicians in the first place.

To Epicurus, as well as Aristotle, Friendship is an important key to happiness

Being concerned with the pragmatic value of philosophy, and against truth for truth’s sake, it may again seem contradicting that Epicurus held so many proto-scientific views. He adopted, with a few changes, Democritus’ atomistic theory of the cosmos. Epicurus believed that the universe was made up of the void (empty space) and an infinite number of small indivisible bits of matter in motion called atoms. These bits of matter make up the world by coming together to form the objects of the world, including us. Because of this, Epicurus also believed that the mind could be found in the body, and he argued against the idea of an immaterial soul that might live on once our body has died.
He sought to discredit the mythological concepts of the world and its creation, and so proposed a purely mechanical explanation for our world coming into existence. Through the use of mechanical and atomic explanations of the natural world, he denied any interference of gods within human affairs. He also claimed that our world is just one of an infinite number of worlds, and that worlds come into existence, grow for awhile, decline, and eventually perish. With this, Epicurus became one of the first proponents of the multi-verse theory!
Now, you might be wondering, how do these theories align with the idea of happiness being the highest good man can achieve? How can these theories help us live a better, happier life? After all, Epicurus has seemed to abandon the idea of god as a creator, the immaterial-eternal soul, and the idea of an afterlife.
Epicurus quote death
Well, for Epicurus, the existence of gods interfering in our world, and the possibility of punishment after death, was a great source of anxiety. Therefore, by justifying the world without need of a god, soul, or afterlife, he believed that he would relieve himself and others of this anxiety. Furthermore, he argued that death is nothing to be fearful about, because it does not concern us. Defending this notion, Epicurus stated that, “death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved is devoid of sensation, and that which is devoid of sensation is nothing to us”.
Imagine the eternity before your birth… the eternity of nothingness. That doesn’t seem scary; you didn’t experience that nothingness. That same kind of eternity is what comes after death, according to Epicurus, and so we shouldn’t be afraid of that either.
In addressing his peers, Epicurus announces the benefits of his secular system of philosophy: “…They anticipate or have forebodings of the eternal terror related in the myths, or even fear the absence of sensation in death as if it concerned them… But tranquility belongs to him who frees himself of all these misconceptions and has a continuous remembrance of the whole and the most important truths.”
And here, as I address you all, these most important truths, more than any food app or extra bottle of wine, can give us true happiness.

Xenophon: A Biography of the Historian, Poet and Military Strategist

by December 15, 2018

By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Xenophon’s Early life
Not much is known of Xenophon from his early years, except that he was son of Gryllus, a wealthy citizen of Erchia, a suburb of Athens. He was born circa 430 BC, and not much is known of his life up to 401 BC. This is when he was, according to his work Anabasis, invited by his friend Proxenus to join the military expedition…one that marked his life and lifetime work. He became a mercenary for Cyrus the Younger against his elder brother, King Artaxerxes II of Persia.
There was, however, one small problem. He was not aware of that fact.
Statue of Xenophon

Xenophon in front of the Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna

Xenophon’s Career

Xenophon and his Ten Thousand men
This endeavor was hugely influential for both Xenophon, as well as military leaders throughout history. In the end, it provided important lessons on military logistical operations, flanking maneuvers, feints, attacks in specifics and retreat, in general.
Why retreat, you ask? Well, mostly because that’s exactly what the Greeks did. They were expecting a much easier obstacle, a Persian satrap named Tissaphernes (do not forget this name, we will come back to him later). Instead, they faced a great Persian army. Moreover, soon into the expedition the main financial and logistical provider, Cyrus, was killed in the middle of a battle. The chain of events got even worse when shortly thereafter, Greek leaders, generals, and captains were invited to a peace conference… where they were betrayed and executed.
So, the Greek army was left with a simple plan. One, retreat. Two, have Xenophon lead the way back home.
Map of Xenophon's retreat

The Route of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand Men

Anabasis, one of Xenophon’s greatest works, is where you can read in detail his struggles and strategies. This epic adventure is the reason why “the centuries since have devised nothing to surpass the genius of this warrior”, as quotes military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge. We, however, will cut the story short here and say that he got his men safely back home.
Tissaphernes – a name we told you not to forget
Tissaphernes was a Persian satrap and a historical knot that entangles many individual destinies as well as the regions Persia, Athens, and Sparta, among others.
First, he got in between two brothers – Persian King Artaxerxes II and his younger sibling Cyrus the Younger (a price he will pay with his life to their mother Parysatis). After first betraying Cyrus, and later killing him at the Battle of Cunaxa, Tissaphernes pursued Xenophon and his Ten Thousand men in retreat with a vast force. We already said that Xenophon brought his men home, but Tissaphernes became an enemy of both Sparta and Athens because of all the events mentioned above.
Now, it’s important to remember at this moment that Athens and Sparta were not particularly friendly to each other… indeed, they were sworn enemies. Despite this, Xenophon of Athens (as he was called) did not hide his profound admiration for Sparta and Spartan leaders (Agesilaus II and Lysander, in particular).
Coin of Tissaphernes

Coinage of Phokaia, Ionia, circa 478-387 BC. Possible portrait of Satrap Tissaphernes, with satrapal headress.

But Tissaphernes was the main reason why Xenophon came to respect the military wisdom of the Spartans. While he was seeking refuge from Tissaphernes, he noticed the respect Spartan leaders had for one another while successfully fighting the Persian satrap in Asia Minor.
So much, in fact, that he mentioned them extensively in his works Anabasis, Agesilaus, Polity of the Lacedaemonians, and Hellenica.
Excerpt from Agesilaus, Xenophon:
«It would be hard to discover, I imagine, anyone who in the prime of manhood was as formidable to his foes as Agesilaus when he had reached the limit of mortal life. Never, I suppose, was there a foe-man whose removal came with a greater sense of relief to the enemy than that of Agesilaus, though a veteran when he died. Never was there a leader who inspired stouter courage in the hearts of fellow-combatants than this man with one foot planted in the grave. Never was a young man snatched from a circle of loving friends with tenderer regret than this old graybeard.»
illustration of Xenophon's friend

Spartan King Agesilaus

Excerpt from Hellenica, Xenophon shows the relationship between the Spartan Rulers, in particular the king Lysander and king Agesilaus:
“But here was Lysander back again. Everyone recognized him and flocked to him with petitions for one favour or another, which he was to obtain for them from Agesilaus. A crowd of suitors danced attendance on his heels and formed so conspicuous a retinue that Agesilaus, anyone would have supposed, was the private person and Lysander the king.
«All this was maddening to Agesilaus, as was presently plain. As to the rest of the Thirty, jealousy did not suffer them to keep silence, and they put it plainly to Agesilaus that the super-regal splendor in which Lysander lived was a violation of the constitution.
«So when Lysander took upon himself to introduce some of his petitioners to Agesilaus, the latter turned them a deaf ear. There being aided and abetted by Lysander was sufficient; he sent them away discomfited.
«At length, as time after time things turned out contrary to his wishes, Lysander himself perceived the position of affairs. He now no longer suffered that crowd to follow him and gave those who asked him help in anything plainly to understand that they would gain nothing, but rather be losers, by his intervention.
«But being bitterly annoyed at the degradation put upon him, he came to the king and said to him: “Ah, Agesilaus, how well you know the art of humbling your friends!” “Ay, indeed,” the king replied: “Those of them whose one idea it is to appear greater than myself. If I did not know how also to requite with honour those who work for my good, I should be ashamed.”
«And Lysander said: “Maybe there is more reason in your doings than ever guided my conduct” adding, “Grant me for the rest one favour, so shall I cease to blush at the loss of my influence with you, and you will cease to be embarrassed by my presence. Send me off on a mission somewhere; wherever I am I will strive to be of service to you.”
Illustration of Lysander

The multitude saluting Lysander with loud acclamations.

Apostle of Socrates
From Xenophon’s excerpts on Sparta, as well as from other historical facts, we must understand two things before we can go to one of the most important roles Xenophon played in the history of humankind.
One, Athens was on its decline and the trial of Socrates only illustrated how Athens represented, or rather failed to represent, a pedestal of democracy. Sparta, on the other side, as Xenophon underlines “even though among the most thinly populated of states, was evidently the most powerful and most celebrated city in Greece. And I fell to wondering how this could have happened. But when I considered the institutions of the Spartans, I wondered no longer.”

The Death of Socrates

Second, Sparta was admired as a whole, envied because of its unity. Athens, however, produced magnificent individuals, who were free to question, write, and influence one another, even if it meant an inevitable fall in the end, as Socrates clearly demonstrates.
Thus, it is very important to appreciate this polarity both in general and with regards to Xenophon specifically. Xenophon had the opportunity to perceive both sides and thus produce works that reflect a wider, more honest, spectrum of Ancient Greece.

Thalatta! Thalatta! (The Sea! The Sea!) — painting by Bernard Granville Baker, 1901 – A famous scene from Xenophon’s works

Xenophon’s admiration for Sparta was only equalled by his love for his mentor, the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought, Socrates.
Memorabilia, Apology, Oeconomicus, and Symposium were all Xenophon’s gospels to Socrates. He admired his teacher very much (along with fellow protege Plato). So much so that some conjecture that Socrates would not have been sentenced to death if Xenophon had been in Athens instead of on a military expedition in Persia.
Per Diogenes Laërtius, a biographer of the Greek philosophers:
“They say that Socrates met Xenophon in a narrow lane, and put his stick across it and prevented him from passing by, asking him where all kinds of necessary things were sold. And when he had answered him, he asked him again where men were made good and virtuous. And as he did not know, he said, ‘Follow me, then, and learn.’ And from this time forth, Xenophon became a follower of Socrates.”
Socrates Illustration

Drawing of Socrates

Xenophon’s Works
Xenophon was greatly prolific. Of the 14 works we know of, they can be broadly categorized into three categories. His ‘Historical and biographical’ works include: Anabasis, Cyropaedia, Hellenica, Agesilaus, and Constitution of the Lacedaemonians.
Next are his ‘Socratic’ works, which are: Memorabilia, Apology, Oeconomicus, and Symposium. Finally his ‘other’ works are: Hiero, On Horsemanship, Hipparchikos, Hunting with Dogs, and Ways and Means.
Xenophon’s Death
There is no firm record on how Xenophon spent his last days. There is one version of him being exiled (or self-exiled) from Athens to Scillus and later in Corinth. It is estimated that he died circa 354 BC.
It is recorded that he had two sons, Gryllus and Diodorus, who fought at the Battle of Mantinea as members of the Athenian army.
Bust of Xenophon

Xenophon, Aphrodisias Museum

Xenophon’s Achievements and Legacy
Aside from what we have previously mentioned, it is important to emphasize that Xenophon was a sort of practical philosopher. This is what made him a successful military strategist, leader, soldier, politician, poet, and historian.
His Anabasis was used as a field guide by none other than Alexander the Great during the early phases of his expedition into Persia. Moreover, Memorabilia had a huge and important impact on the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, in particular. Clearly Xenophon’s influence on mankind can not be overstated.

Euclid: The Father of Geometry

by December 12, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
We all know the varsity team: Einstein, Newton, Pythagoras, Descartes. These names are drilled into our heads all through grade school math and history classes, and possibly accompanied by an under-the-breath curse from a disgruntled calculus or physics student. However, another mathematician should receive our attention: Euclid of Alexandria.
It is difficult to underscore enough the importance and significance of Euclid and his impact on mathematics for the subsequent 2000 years. Nonetheless, we will try.
Portrait of the Mathematician Euclid

Euclid of Alexandria

Euclid’s Early Life
The documentation of Euclid’s life is scant, at best. While we have a great deal of his work in extant, facts about Euclid as a person come down to us mainly through little snippets by Proclus and Apollonius (among others). Proclus, a Greek philosopher living in the 5th century CE, writes retrospectively and so his information must be taken with a grain of salt. He writes that Euclid taught in Alexandria, Egypt during the time of Ptolemy I Soter (4th-3rd century BCE). This places him as younger than Plato, but slightly older than Archimedes. Euclid was likely born around 300 BCE and resided in Alexandria, Egypt for most, if not all, of his life. Some historians think that he might have studied for a bit at Plato’s Academy in Athens, but this is conjecture based on his style of teaching. Past this, nothing is known of Euclid.
Map of Alexandria, Egypt, birthplace of Euclid

Map Showing Alexandria, Egypt, birthplace of Euclid

Euclid’s Career
Often called the “Father of Geometry,” Euclid was a teacher of mathematics, cultivating a school of pupils not unlike the style of the Academy. Proclus writes that Ptolemy once asked Euclid if there was a “shortened way to study geometry than the Elements, to which Euclid replied that there was no royal road to geometry.” This would suggest that not only was Euclid noteworthy among mathematicians and scientists in Alexandria, but was prominent enough to have an audience with the ruler of Egypt. As with details of his early life, we don’t know specifics regarding his career, save for his extant works and the fact that he was a prominent teacher in Alexandria.
Euclid’s Works and Achievements
Euclid likely wouldn’t have reached his level of renown if his works didn’t survive to such an incredible extent. His main work, The Elements, is a proto-textbook of 13 sections pulling together definitions, theories, and constructions of mathematics at the time. He covers geometry, number theory, and incommensurate lines- all subjects that have proved to be invaluable over the development of mathematics.
Book cover of Euclid's work

The cover of Euclid’s Elements

The Elements consisted of five general axioms and five geometrical postulates. Euclid provided the basic model for mathematical argument that follows logical deductions from initial assumptions. For those of us (including myself) who are not so mathematically inclined to understand the nitty-gritty details of Euclid’s Elements, Sir Thomas Heath sums them up in his 1908 publication The Elements of Euclid:
The 5 Axioms of Euclid:

1. Things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another
2. If equals are added to equals, the whole (sums) are equal
3. If equals are subtracted from equals, the remainders (differences) are equal
4. Things that coincide with one another are equal to one another
5. The whole is greater than the part

The 5 Geometric Postulates:

1. It is possible to draw a straight line from any point to any point
2. It is possible to extend a finite straight line continuously in a straight line
3. It is possible to create a circle with any center and distance
4. All right angles are equal to one another
5. If a straight line falling on two straight lines makes the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the straight lines, if produced indefinitely, will meet on that side on which the angles are less than two right angles.

Other important contributions from Euclid is his proof of Pythagoras‘ Theorem, providing us with formulas that calculate the volumes of solids like cones, pyramids, and cylinders, as well as identifying the first four ‘perfect numbers,’ among a dozen or so other theories and proofs.
Euclid's Proposition 1.47

The most famous proposition from The Elements, Proposition 1.47. Also known as the Pythagorean Theorem.

In addition to the Elements, five other works of Euclid have come down to us and have been able to be interpreted: Data, dealing with the nature and implications of “given” information in geometry; On Divisions of Figures, dealing with the division of geometrical figures into two or more equal parts or into parts in given ratios; Catoptrics, dealing with the theory of mirrors and the images formed in plane and spherical concave mirrors; Phaenomena, a treatise on spherical astronomy; and Optics the earliest surviving Greek treatise on perspective.
Euclid’s Death and Legacy
Portrait of Euclid

Euclid of Alexandria

We can assume that Euclid died in the mid-3rd century BCE in Alexandria, but that is all we know. However, he left behind a legacy that has survived almost two and a half millennia. His work on geometry and theory is still in use today, governing even advanced models of dimension mathematics. He is considered one of the greatest mathematicians to have ever lived, and a European Space Agency’s spacecraft was even named in his honor, the Euclid Spacecraft.

Thales of Miletus and the Birth of Western Philosophy

by December 4, 2018

Living sometime between the 8th and 6th century BCE, Thales of Miletus is often considered one of the very first of the Greek philosophers. It was Thales who initially attempted to decipher the world without reference to mythology, and he was impressively influential in this respect. Indeed, almost every pre-Socratic philosopher followed his thinking as they tried to unravel the universe. For this, many say ‘Greek philosophy begins with Thales’.
Around this time period, the people of the ancient Greek peninsulas began to settle into established city-states. They developed a structured system of counting, as well as created an alphabet. But it was Thales who revolutionized a way of reasoning and endeavored to explain the world around him.
Until this time, Greek men and women lived by the whim of the gods. All natural phenomenon such as rain, thunder and even earthquakes were believed to be the result of temperamental and powerful deities. Thales, however, being the bold individual that he was, concluded that the universe was logical, rational… and even predictable.
Solar Eclipse

Solar Eclipse

While the rest of Greece prayed to the gods for healthy crops and peaceful seas, Thales diligently studied geometry and astronomy. Subsequently, through the power of his own observations, he accurately predicted a total solar eclipse in 585 BCE.

As you can imagine, this foresight meant he was considered something of a demi-god or sorcerer. Never before had a man been capable of predicting the erratic nature of the universe! For Thales, however, the solar eclipse only cemented his belief that the universe behaved with predictable tendencies.
Thales’ conviction in order and reason had additional benefits, something that separated him from the rest.
You see, one of the most common criticisms of philosophers was that they provided no influence or solutions to everyday problems. It was said that these thinkers kicked up dust and then complained that they could not see. Indeed, it was noted that Thales, while walking one night with his head turned up to the stars, fell face-first into a ditch.
Aside from being embarrassing, this would appear to be evidence that philosophy distracts us from our earthly condition and that it holds no sway in practical matters. And yet, Thales is still a shining example of a man who used philosophy as a means to arrive at a very practical and profitable end.
Olive mill

An olive mill and an olive press dating from Roman times in Capernaum, Israel.

For instance, Thales deduced that good crops were due to favorable weather conditions, and not the result of the gods. Thales used this knowledge to predict a high yield of olives one harvest year. He bought out a large number of olive presses at a low price early in the season. Several months’ later farmers indeed were met with a bountiful supply of olives. Thales, being the owner of a majority of olive presses, was able to rent and sell the equipment at a considerable mark up. The man made a substantial profit and proved that philosophy, in fact, could lead to success in business.

While Thales had many intellectual successes, he also had a few ideas, while influential, that were eventually dismissed.
It had occurred to Thales that the state of the universe was due to natural causes. Consequently, he set about to try to understand the world… but first, he needed an original principle from which to work.
Thus the question he posed was this: ‘what is the basic material of the cosmos?’ He believed there must be a common denominator of sorts that could accurately compose all of matter. Surely there was some first substance from which came all other materials.
And to Thales, that substance was water.
This idea, that the entire universe is composed of one fundamental element, is known as “Monoism”. It is a branch of metaphysics that was very popular in ancient Greece, and indeed, many of Thales’ followers would build on his idea that the universe is composed of one essential substance.
It is not hard to imagine why Thales drew the conclusion that everything was made of water. He believed that the fundamental material of the universe would have to be something from which all life could be formed. It would be a material necessary for sustaining life. Additionally, it would have to be a substance that was capable of motion and change. Water satisfied all of these criteria.
Living in the Greek peninsulas, the world very much appeared to come from water. Men traveled upon boats in the rivers and the oceans, and in fact all land ended at water. Much of the food in ancient Greece was fished from the sea. The livelihood of the farmers was determined by the rainfall of that season. Water was life, and to Thales, it was also the universe.
But it is not because of his assertion that everything was made of water, that we remember Thales. His claim might seem far-fetched by the standards of modern science, but for the time period, it was a dramatic leap forward in the arena of critical thinking and scientific study.
Of course we can’t be sure, but this initial step of challenging institutionalised ideas might have helped to blaze the way for the next controversial thinkers. By seeking rational explanations for observable phenomena, he laid the foundation for future philosophical and scientific thinking. For this reason, Thales of Miletus was one of the first pair of shoulders on which a long line of philosophers would stand…
“Thales of Miletus and the Birth of Western Philosophy” was written by Van Bryan

Euripides, The Great Greek Tragedian

by November 17, 2018

By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Euripides’ Early life
Born on Salamis Island in 480 BC to mother Cleito and father Mnesarchus, Euripides’ destiny was foretold in a prophecy given to his father. The Oracle fated that Euripides would one day hold the “crowns of victory”. Mnesarchus did not lose any time insisting that his son take on sports and athleticism, firmly believing that reaching fame in those fields was the boy’s destiny.
In the end, Euripides did crown himself with victories… but far from the track and combat fields.

Bust of Euripides

Euripides’ Career
Euripides led an introverted life and suffered two failed, unfaithful marriages to Melite and Choerine, with the latter bearing him three sons. Eventually he became a recluse and moved to the depths of The Cave of Euripides, a ten-chamber hole in the rock overlooking the Saronic Gulf. He spent most of his days there, collecting books, restless thoughts and writing accounts of his own life, or a perception of it, through his dark heroes and human-like Gods. There he produced notable tragedies such as: Medea, 431 BC, Hippolytus, 428 BC, Electra, c. 420 BC, The Trojan Women, c. 415 BC, and Bacchae, 405 BC.
Euripides was the youngest of the three most famous Greek tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles and himself. Having in mind that they all were pretty much contemporaries, the rivalry, whether direct or perceived as one from the audience, existed then as it does today.
Cave of Euripides

The Cave of Euripides

Critical of Athens
Euripides lived in between two important wars. The first one was where Athens won against Persia at the Battle of Salamis, an important twist in the Greco-Persian wars. The second, which he did not live to see, was the fall of Athens under Sparta, a huge defeat in the Peloponnesian wars.
It is for this reason the works of the three tragedians looked upon Athens so differently. Aeschylus was a hero at the battle of Salamis, Sophocles was old enough to witness it and feel the patriotism as a result of the victory, while Euripides was born on the day of the battle. This timeframe made his views differ widely from his older colleagues.
Unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides was a huge critic of Athens’ senseless heists and wars. And because of this, as well as his other views on Athens, Euripides was highly criticized. Ironically, the Spartans who planned the demolition of Athens and the enslavement of its people, grew merciful after being entertained at a banquet by scenes from Euripides’ play Electra. “They felt that it would be a barbarous act to annihilate a city which produced such men”, (Plutarch, Life of Lysander).
Euripides was a contemporary of Socrates, the philosopher sentenced to death for his critical views on Athenian democracy. Euripides was a man whose own perception of Athens was not far from Socrates’ and both of them were viewed as decadent intellectuals. There are some indications that say that Socrates was even one of the co-authors of Euripides’ plays. This explains why Athenians watched Euripides seriously, but never fully accepted his views. Perhaps, it’s no wonder why Euripides exiled himself to Macedonia at the decline of his life.
Painting of the philosopher's death

The death of Socrates

An excerpt from Aristophanes’ The Frogs and Other Plays (translated by David Barret) illustrates this:

“They sit at the feet of Socrates
Till they can’t distinguish the wood from the trees,
And tragedy goes to pot;

They don’t care whether their plays are art
But only whether the words are smart;
They waste our time with quibbles and quarrels,
Destroying our patience as well as our morals,
And making us all talk rot.”

In fact, Euripides became the main fodder for comedians. Euripides, unlike Aeschylus or Sophocles, didn’t have any other job. He was a true tragedian, a dark comedian and a critic of society. Being fully aware of the consequences, Euripides chose not to comply, but rather, to continue.
However, Comedy and Tragedy live in symbiosis and without that critical, opportunistic complex, without Aristophanes mocking Euripides, we may have not heard of either of them.
Work and Achievements
Euripides introduced twists into drama, something that influenced tragedy, as well as comedy, for ages to come. He did this while exploring his characters’ feelings, their relationships and acts. He did not constrain himself, which allowed him to make breathtaking twists, teaching people to babble, to think, to see, to understand, to love, to contrive, to suspect all and consider things from every angle. Euripides’ sophistry, atheism, and immoral relativism was considered by Aristophanes as a corruption by the Athenians.
A perfect example of this is Euripides’ treatment of Medea. In some versions, the citizens of Corinth murder the children. In others, Medea accidentally kills her children. Euripides, however, decides to take it two steps further by making the mother purposefully murder her young after poisoning Jason’s new bride. Euripides’ invention of Medea’s filicide went on to become the standard.
painting of Jason and Medea

Jason and Medea – as depicted by John William Waterhouse, 1907

Euripides was a fruitful writer, producing more than 92 plays in his life. He was awarded five first prizes in festivals, while Sophocles won 24, and Aeschylus 13. Still, more of Euripides’ works were preserved than the other two writers combined, proving his posthumous influence.
Euripides became one of the cornerstones of ancient literary education in the Hellenistic period, along with Homer, Demosthenes, and Menander. Eventually, “It was Euripides, not Aeschylus or Sophocles, whose tragic muse presided over the rebirth of tragedy in Renaissance Europe.”
Euripides’ Death
Euripides died at the age of 74 (406 BC) in Macedonia after choosing a life of exile from Athens at the court of King Archelaus of Macedonia. This was never fully confirmed, however, and it is possible that he never visited Macedonia at all.
Nevertheless, we are dedicating our time to the master of twists, so we will add here one dark version of Euripides’ death from the mouths of the oldest Macedonian storytellers (Diodor):

“Euripides died in the following manner. There was a town in Macedonia called the village of the Thracians because Thracians had once settled there. At some point, a female Molossian hound belonging to Archelaus had strayed into the village. This dog the Thracians, as is their custom, sacrificed and ate. Accordingly, Archelaus fined them one talent. Since they did not have the money, they asked Euripides to get them released from their debt to the king.

Sometime later, when Euripides was resting by himself in a grove near the city and Archelaus came out to hunt, his dogs were released by their keepers and fell on Euripides. The poet was torn to shreds and eaten.
These dogs were the descendants of the dog that was killed by the Thracians. This is the origin of the Macedonian proverb, “a dog’s justice”.”
Euripides Greek Tragedy

Bust of Euripides

Euripides’ Legacy
Maybe the best way to summarize his Euripides’ legacy will be by using the words of Bernard MacGregor Walker Knox, an English classicist, author, and critic who was the first director of the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C., USA:
“He was a problem to his contemporaries and he is one still; over the course of centuries since his plays were first produced he has been hailed or indicted under a bewildering variety of labels.
He has been described as ‘the poet of the Greek enlightenment’ and also as ‘Euripides the irrationalist’; as a religious skeptic if not an atheist, but on the other hand, as a believer in divine providence and the ultimate justice of divine dispensation.
He has been seen as a profound explorer of human psychology and also a rhetorical poet who subordinated consistency of character to verbal effect; as a misogynist and a feminist; as a realist who brought the tragic action down to the level of everyday life and as a romantic poet who chose unusual myths and exotic settings.
He wrote plays which have been widely understood as patriotic pieces supporting Athens’ war against Sparta and others which many have taken as the work of the anti-war dramatist par excellence, even as attacks on Athenian imperialism.
He has been recognized as the precursor of New Comedy and also what Aristotle called him: ‘the most tragic of poets’. And not one of these descriptions is entirely false.”

Hesiod, a Poet of Agriculture and Peace

by October 26, 2018

By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Long before Herodotus fathered History and did his best to chronicle the past deeds of humankind, the true recorders of men and Gods were the ancient Greek poets, one of which was Hesiod.
Even though the exact time of his life is unknown, Herodotus’ estimation puts him (as well as Homer) around 400 years before Herodotus’ time, at circa 8th or 7th century BC.
It is hard to know the precise facts of Hesiod’s life, except what we know from his works. As such, we will delve into the poet of Agriculture and Peace through three important figures related to him.
Sculpture of Hesiod

Bust of Hesiod

Hesiod’s Early Life
First one is his father, Dius. A native of Cyme in Aeolis (modern day western Turkey), Dius was a seafaring trader and farmer, and generally a poor man. He was forced to leave his native place and move to continental Greece, settling at Ascra near Thespiae in Boeotia (as explained by Hesiod in his “Works and Days“). Dius had two sons, Hesiod, our poet, and Perses, a loafer and prodigal descendant of a hardworking father. After their father died, his land was divided between the sons, but Perses kept the larger share by bribing the corrupt rulers of Thespiae.
Mosaic of Hesiod

Portrait of the Greek poet Hesiod (ESIODVS) on the Monnus mosaic from Augusta Treverorum (Trier), end of the 3rd century CE.

It will be easy then to understand why Hesiod’s “Works and Days” revolved around not only myths and legends, but also two major moral precepts. Those are that labor is a universal virtue of Man and that he who is willing to work will always get by, both notions highly valued by the ancients. “Works and Days” also underlines advice and wisdom, emphasizing a life of honest labor, attacking laziness, corrupt rulers and the practice of injustice.
Hesiod and the Boeotian School
Works and Days” also lays out the “Five Ages of Man”, the first extant account of the successive ages of mankind. At this point, we start noticing Hesiod’s didactic approach to poetry, chronology, and to an extent, history. The latter of which was, in comparison to Homer’s romanticized versions of past events, respected.
painting depicting the five ages of man

The Five Ages of Man

This method was later classified as the Boeotian School of epic poetry. And it was the reason, according to the historian Herodotus, why Hesiod’s retelling of the old stories in “Theogony” became, in spite of all the various different historical traditions, the definitive and accepted version that linked all Greeks in ancient times.
Ancient Rap Battle: Homer Vs. Hesiod
Homer is the third important figure of Hesiod’s, not life, but heritage. If Homer was Dr. Dre, Hesiod was Ice Cube. Homer was all about his poems. He added drama and huge characters, all while romanticizing ancient Greece to the point that every other poet wanted to do the same, with equal effect and celebrated consequences.
Sculpture of Homer

Bust of Homer

Hesiod, modest as he was, talked of ordinary life, the morality of human life, just systems and chronological order of events. Even at the moment of winning the tripod at the contest in Chalcis, Euboea, Hesiod only mentions in “Works and Days” that the only time he sailed in a ship was when he went from Aulis to Chalcis to take part in the funeral games for Amphidamas, a noble of Chalcis. Hesiod there was victorious and he dedicated the prize, a bronze tripod, to the Muses at Helicon. There was no mention of Homer.
But to realize how important both of these poets were to ancient Greece, one must look at the Legend of Certamen. It was a contest of wit and wisdom between Homer and Hesiod, where the latter emerged as the greatest. Even though there is no proof they even met each other, let alone confronted each other poetically at a contest, the fact that the legend exists is meaningful. Moreover, it is important to note why Hesiod was victorious at that apocryphal battle; his work on agriculture and peace is pronounced as more valuable than Homer’s tales of war and slaughter. And then and there, even if it was just a legend, the mic, or in this case the tripod, dropped.
Hesiod’s Death
Sculpture of the Muses

The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807). Hesiod cites inspiration from the Muses while on Mount Helicon.

The third important figure known to be part of Hesiod’s biography is a woman. She was not the Muses of Helicon, the ones who inspired all of his works. It was also not the Pythia, the Delphic Oracle, priestess of Apollo, who warned warned Hesiod that he would die in Nemea, which caused him to flee to Locris where he was killed at the local temple to Nemean Zeus, and probably buried there. The fourth figure is the woman he fell in love with, seduced, and eventually was murdered by her brothers as a result. His body, cast into the sea was brought to the shore by dolphins and buried at Oenoe.
Here, we will end the story of Hesiod with a description of his final moments, an epigram by Alcaeus of Messene:

“When in the shady Locrian grove Hesiod lay dead,
the Nymphs washed his body with water from their own springs,
and heaped high his grave;
and thereon the goat-herds sprinkled offerings of milk mingled with yellow-honey:
such was the utterance of the nine Muses that he breathed forth,
that old man who had tasted of their pure springs.”