Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

“If a thing is humanly possible, consider it within your reach”Marcus Aurelius

In early April around 4,000 years ago, the Babylonians held civilization’s first-recorded New Year celebration.

To the ancient Babylonians, New Year’s resolutions and traditions were extrinsically motivated. During the 12-day new year festival, new kings were crowned, or loyalty was sworn to existing monarchs. Crops were sown and promises to the gods were made to repay debts and return borrowed items.

Artist rendering of ancient Babylon

In more recent times, New Year’s resolutions have become more intrinsically motivated. This year, tens of millions of people will make promises of self-improvement or the achievement of particular goals.

Known as Telos (end, purpose, or goal) in ancient Greek, the ancients well understood the importance of goal-setting and achievement. According to the Greeks, Telos involved self-reflection, wherein one would ponder on their misgivings, and put in place a plan to improve their behavior or outlook on life. Some goals were fairly easy to achieve, such as being kinder to one’s friends, whereas some goals could take a lifetime to achieve, such as finding one’s purpose in life.

Modern-day resolutions tend to be more down to earth and usually concern matters of personal health and relationships. Weight loss, quitting smoking, drinking less alcohol, and better money management are among the most popular new years resolutions likely made this year. With an average of only 8% of people achieving their New Year’s goals, many will benefit from the following wise advice from the ancient philosophers:

Admit Your Own Ignorance

When starting something new, everyone is a beginner. No matter how old you are, or how many years you spent studying one subject or how expert you are in another, starting something new makes a student of all of us.

Socrates teaching

Alcibiades being taught by Socrates (detail), by Marcello Bacciarelli c. 1776

The only thing Socrates said that he knew was that he knew nothing. He approached every subject and philosophical quandary with the assumption that he knew nothing about it at all. According to Socrates, the realization of self-ignorance inspires empathy and encourages humility—and can even, paradoxically, deepen knowledge.

The recognition of ignorance also fosters the need to gather more information. So, whether you have resolved to learn a new language or new instrument, acknowledge in advance that you will make mistakes, and the best way to progress is to use those experiences to expand your knowledge.

Don’t Just Talk, Take Action

When it comes to self-improvement, Marcus Aurelius literally wrote the book.

Originally written as a personal journal and later published, Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations is full of practical advice for how to stick to your goals.

To Marcus, there is no point making a promise unless you intend to honor it. In other words, there no point setting a resolution unless you are going to immediately apply it in your life.

Aurelius and bread

Marcus Aurelius Distributing Bread to the People by Joseph-Marie Vien.

Those who make resolutions to be kinder, more patient, or less angry should seek out books and other sources on emotional management and immediately put what they learn into practice. Simply wishing to avoid stress and anger is not a helpful approach, as stressful and anger-inducing situations will arise whether we are prepared for them or not.

Practicing what we learn regularly will make us more resilient and stronger in our resolution. Recognizing the opportunities that challenge gives us will help to better reach our goals.

Realize That You Are Capable of Change

Aristotle believed that character types can not be changed, but that people can change their character.

For example, Aristotle believes that the formation of one’s character development involves actions, words, and personality, each playing its part. He theorized that those who act unjust, will eventually become unjust. What we say and what do moves us closer or further away from the person we want to be, and negative actions and words can lead one to lead an unfulfilling life.

Aristotle Fresco

Painting of Aristotle

It has been argued that this meant Aristotle believed that people could not change, but he meant the opposite. Aristotle tells us that one’s character could be chosen in the sense that we have control over our behavior. He argued that if people choose to do or say only good things, their character will improve, and motivate them to do more good deeds in turn.

This does not mean that your character or habits can be changed overnight, but even the smallest and most simple of steps will move you closer to your goals, making them easier to achieve.

Goal setting for New Year’s is an ancient practice. Our ancestors recognized that the coming of a new year was an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start anew. January, named after the Roman god Janus — who keeps one face turned to the past and one turned to the future — represents our desire to build for the future and make amends for past mistakes.

So, this year, why not take advantage of the clean slate to try something new? Or end a destructive habit? The ancients teach us that such endeavors may not be easy, but are certainly worthwhile. After all, we have 4,000 years’ worth of New Year’s Resolutions to look back on and learn from.






Gianluca Di Muzio. “Aristotle on Improving One’s Character.” Phronesis, vol. 45, no. 3, 2000, pp. 205–219. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4182646. Accessed 30 Dec. 2020.