Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Greek Miracle...and me

It's humbling to realize how little philosophical progress has occurred in 2400 years.

I was reading today a column from Richard Handler on the website entitled "The non-believer's guide to death." In the article he referenced Epicurus, a Greek philosopher that I researched in my 4th year in undergraduate studies at Trent University in the 1970s, studying with a small coterie of 3 other students in a cramped office tutored by the head of the Philosophy Department at the time, Dr. David Gallop.

The course was challenging, but I did well, adding to my knowledge of pre-Christian Greek philosophy. Now, many years later, I find myself strangely attracted to those who, at least in the Western tradition, escaped myth and religion and initiated a course of thinking that led to science and philosophy now known as the "Greek miracle". At the time I was studying Greek philosophers at Trent (up to the Neoplatonists and Augustine), I fully anticipated a career teaching theology in a college or university.

But life plays tricks. The twists and turns have led me away from Christianity and theology into that most modern world of hosted software services and that most evident embodiment of western commerce, modern banking and commercial loans. Quite a ride. And yet, I find myself coming back to those long-dead philosophers of the "Greek miracle" with utter fascination and respect. How did they do it? And what about them is relevant for today? No simple answer to the first question - that will take many more years of study. But for the second question, all one has to do is do a quick Internet search to find those whose life and practice is deeply indebted to the Greek philosophers.

Handler, for instance, continues in his thought piece to reflect on the wisdom of a contemporary philosopher/psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom who was, in turn, deeply affected by thinkers like Epicurus. Yalom, in his most recent book, Staring At The Sun: Overcoming The Terror Of Death, reflects on the idea/metaphor of rippling, the notion that what we leave behind us after we die are concentric circles of influence, like waves or ripples on a pond. Plaques on walls, books, and other material evidence of our lives may stick around for a while, but ultimately what really survives is our effect on our family, friends, and acquaintances, the ripples of our character and influence.

Which is why I've decided, as I face yet another major birthday milestone, that life is too short to waste on the insignificant, the tedious, the mundane, and the negative. Although I cannot fully control the ripples emanating from my own life, I think I can choose something of the frequency and amplitude of those waves. Like Epicurus, a life of tranquility, respect, modest pleasures and honesty are where I think I should concentrate my energies. With care, concern, attention to detail, listening, and courage, maybe my immediate family, my close friends, acquaintances and colleagues will feel positive ripples emanating from my life, something which will survive this "crack of light between two eternities of darkness" (Vladamir Nabakov).


Anonymous said...

quaote* "philosophers of the "Greek miracle"* might have happened when the egyptian's knowledge reached Greece. It did not have to be developed.

Don Spencer said...

I wonder sometimes about the Egyptian legacy. Certainly technology and engineering would have fascinated the Greeks. But the Greeks departed from the mythology, supplanting it with their own mythology and, of course, science and philosophy and democracy. And who knows, my friends, maybe the beginnings of the Toastmasters tradition ;>)