By Brendan M.P. Heard, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The maxim, know thyself, inscribed over the opening to the very ancient Temple of Apollo at Delphi, was a traditional credo of much speculation. This call to know thyself is inextricably tied to Socrates’ belief that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (Plato, Apology). Indeed it was the Oracle of Delphi who reportedly told Socrates that there was no one wiser than he, since he knew the limits of his own knowledge.
“For my part, as I went away, I reasoned with regard to myself: ‘I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do. I am likely to be a little bit wiser than he in this very thing: that whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know.’” – Plato, Apology 21d-e
Like Socrates, Aristotle, who taught Alexander the Great, believed that knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. What heights of potential did Alexander reach, from knowing himself? Only by cultivating the internal world may the maturity of balance be genuinely achieved in ethical decision making.
Aristotle believed rational development was the most important human pursuit, being a uniquely human trait, and essential to philosophical self-awareness. More to the point, this concept of balance, or moderation, was encouraged in all ways, as the extremes led to chaos, and the resulting imbalance a force for moral degradation.
One of his examples was the virtue of courage, being considered the balance or moderate concept in-between the extremes, or vices, of cowardice and recklessness. The two extremes are animal responses, the middle road of courage is the balanced higher human response. This balance fulfills the Greek concept of harmony.
“The just, then, is a species of the proportionate (proportion being not a property only of the kind of number which consists of abstract units, but of number in general)…“This, then, is what the just is-the proportional; the unjust is what violates the proportion. Hence one term becomes too great, the other too small, as indeed happens in practice; for the man who acts unjustly has too much, and the man who is unjustly treated too little, of what is good. In the case of evil the reverse is true; for the lesser evil is reckoned a good in comparison with the greater evil, since the lesser evil is rather to be chosen than the greater, and what is worthy of choice is good, and what is worthier of choice a greater good.“This, then, is one species of the just.”– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Written 350 B.C., Translated by W. D. Ross
The Stoic school of thought, quite similarly, entailed a system of personal ethics informed by an acceptance of each moment as it occurs, where freedom consisted solely in the way we react to outside events.
The Stoics believed that we ought to master our natural desire for pleasure and aversion to pain by dwelling on nature and the essentiality of destiny. Their ethics considered the greatest good to be contentment or apatheia (which in translation means equanimity rather than apathy), and this state of mind was to be achieved through self-mastery. They strove always to accept the inevitable, for Stoic philosophy mandates the embracing of that which cannot be altered. This is surely the ultimate balanced or harmonious attitude to the currents of fate.
“Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, ‘You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.’ And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion
The Epicureans were not as antagonistic towards pleasure as the Stoics were, but they believed the pleasures to be sought would be moderate ones. Far from hedonistic, this pleasure was to be found in living a simple life, free from fear and pain. Intellectual pleasure was higher than physical and, conversely, desire itself was considered an interference with Epicurean pleasure. In this sense they were not so very far from the Stoics. This complex concept of pleasure, if correctly understood, would coincide with virtue.
“When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.” – Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
Again we see balance as a foundational concept and function, where concepts of pleasure are measured between the extremes of physical desire and mental peace.
In all classical thought, pertaining to art, music, poetry, geometry, architecture, astronomy, philosophy, justice, ethics, and more, we see the recurring theme of balance. Even mathematically this is described as the eternal guidance of the perfect ratio known as the Golden Mean, which was the Pythagorean formula for proportion emulated in patterns everywhere in nature (and is a principle in classical art and architecture).
In this ratio each part relates to the sum of larger parts, and they to the whole, following principles of harmony and proportion for which there is a mathematical basis. The beauty of this numerical harmony is the glowing hearth of classic lore.
As applied to ethics, harmony or balance seems to contain great wisdom, in that the harsh pluralities of right and wrong do not always become clear, when viewed in light of the truly virtuous path, or the path required to reach justice where conflict occurs. The harmonious path seeks ethical answers that determine objective decisions.
To emulate classical virtue seek balance in your ethics and your self-judgments. Let reason be the rudder to your ship of virtue, as you pilot a sea of turbulent extremes. For reason moderates passion; and there is no scenario, mild or precarious, for which a carefully measured response or judgment is unwelcome. Above all else, know thyself!
“Now he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods. For if the gods have any care for human affairs, as they are thought to have, it would be reasonable both that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e. reason) and that they should reward those who love and honour this most, as caring for the things that are dear to them and acting both rightly and nobly. And that all these attributes belong most of all to the philosopher is manifest. He, therefore, is the dearest to the gods. And he who is that will presumably be also the happiest; so that in this way too the philosopher will more than any other be happy.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Written 350 B.C.,Translated by W. D. Ross