Monday, 23 January 2017

No reason for pessimism: A crucial lesson from Ancient Greece.

In these times of turmoil, it is useful to take a step back and take a look at the big picture. While the daily news make us stressed and anxious, a historical and philosophical perspective can greatly contribute to enhancing our effectiveness and peace of mind.

While researching Ancient Greek history and philosophy for my latest book, I came across the work of Pyrrhon (360-290 BC), a participant in the campaign of Alexander the Great in the Middle East and Asia.

Like many people nowadays, Pyrrhon had to face large threats and disruptions in his life, and was struggling to make the right decisions and find a way forward.

Facing uncertainty

The historical context has changed, but Pyrrhon's troubles are essentially the same we are facing today: How can we build a good future in the middle of deep uncertainty? Should we worry ourselves to death due to potentially lethal threats?

Pyrrhon' reasoning shows that he must have met Aristotle while Aristotle was in Macedonia, working for King Philip II as a tutor of the young Alexander. Pyrrhon realized that the level of uncertainty he was facing prevented him from drawing accurate conclusions.

Aristotle would have favoured a thorough analysis of the factors involved, but what can you do when the picture is incomplete? How can you preserve your peace of mind when you are facing a many different threats?

Pyrrhon understood that Aristotle's demand for accuracy was unsuitable in highly uncertain circumstances: When you are facing complex threats, you may be unable to figure out all the consequences. When you are encountering deep disruptions, you might lack the time to study all details.

Luckily for us, Pyrrhon figured out what works and what doesn't. And he did this while he was travelling with Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) through Syria, Egypt, Persia, and India.

A solid approach

First, Pyrrhon realized that searching for perfect accuracy in uncertain situations is a fool's game. Such an attempt is doomed to failure, and can only generate stress and anxiety.

Second, he figured out that accuracy is anyway unnecessary in most cases. Pyrrhon came to the conclusion that, when he was confronted with uncertain circumstances, he could obtain good results by taking decisions on the basis of probability.

"Even in uncertain circumstances," wrote Pyrrhon, "a man can often succeed by choosing what seems to be his best option." For sure, he will make mistakes sometimes, but in the long term, he is likely to obtain overall good results by following this strategy.

The approach of taking decisions on the basis of probability leads to self-confidence, increased personal effectiveness, and peace of mind. It constitutes a workable, solid philosophy whose psychological benefits should not be underestimated.

Stress and anxiety 

So what would Pyrrhon do in today’s circumstances? Would he feel pessimistic, stressed, and anxious like millions of people feel today? Would he feel overwhelmed by the problems we are facing?

Absolutely not. Pyrrhon would take notice of the present challenges, acknowledge them fully, and then look at the big picture, which is profoundly positive.

Problems do indeed exist, but the overall outlook remains clearly favourable. Risks cannot be ignored, but things are most likely turn out right.

When looking at the big picture, Pyrrhon would not have missed the fast technological innovation, the entrepreneurial spirit of large segments of the population, and the benevolent attitude towards other cultures that results from increased international exchanges. Those major positive factors are firmly established, and likely to remain with us in the foreseeable future.

Alertness and focus

From looking at the big picture, Pyrrhon would have concluded that there are no reasons for pessimism, at least for the next decades. Despite occasional disruptions and reversals, things are most likely to turn out right. Despite the existence of risks, a positive trend is firmly established, and unlikely to change in the near future.

The central idea of my latest book is that what made the Ancient Greeks so successful in good and bad times was their rationality. Their alertness, pro-activeness, and focus were based on their willingness to look at the big picture, and make good decisions consistently. And when a threat materialised, the Ancient Greeks simply chose the best option available, and moved on.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides (455-400 BC) pointed out that the armed conflict could have been prevented altogether if the Athenians and Spartans had not blown their differences out of proportion. If they had looked at the big picture, they would have easily found a peaceful settlement, instead of falling prey to prejudice and fear.

The lesson from one thousand years of Ancient Greek history is unmistakable. It is only by looking at the big picture that we can avoid the temptation to succumb to worries and pessimism. It is only by making good decisions, day after day, that we can keep problems at bay, and build a better future.


[Image: photo of ancient sculpture; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016]

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

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