Learning from the Ancient Greeks

By Janani Harish
Spirituality and Prosperity Magazine


Haven't we seen things that were popular in the 1960s and 70s becoming the fashion again? The old has always had a charm, and is often of greater value than is imagined.Take a look at ancient Greek literature.

MaryPapoutsy, a classicist, believes that Greco-Roman works of Aristotle Plato,Socrates,Sophocles and others cover every possible ethical situation that applies to business today.

Plato emphasized on the virtues of wisdom, courage, self-control and justice.Homer's Iliad shows the consequences of unbridled anger.FromOdysseus one can learn about survival, identity, and loyalty.

Let us look in detail into one of the works--Sophocles' Philoctetes.In it Philoctetes is exiled on a remote island, shunned by fellow men because of an illness.His one tool for survival is a bow. Greek warriors at Troy need this bow to win any battle. So they send Odysseus and Neoptolemos to obtain it.Neoptolemos steals the bow, but later decides to return it, and asks Philoctetes for it instead.He also prevents Philoctetes from venting his anger on the unscrupulous Odysseus.He agrees to help Philoctetes go back to Greece.But, in the end, a vision convinces Philoctetes to take the bow and accompany Neoptolemos toTroy.

What could be leant from this drama?
Why does Neoptolemos agree to get involved in the first place? How often do we allow colleagues to persuade us to do things we are not comfortable doing? Why does Neoptolemos return the bow? Would we let go of an undue, unfair advantage?What can Neoptolemos gain from returning the bow? Do we gain by being fair, when we are not forced to be fair?Does Neoptolemos gain anything in the endS? Is it worth sticking to our values? Why does he helpOdysseus, who forces him to steal?Should we help our rivals? If yes, why?

Philoctetes involves honesty, deceit, trust, exploitation, generosity, deceptive practives and relationships as well as peer pressure and survival.What a treasure house to learn from!

Another drama, the Antigone, discusses laws--civil and unwritten. King Kreon is defied by his niece, Antigone. She is caught and labeled a traitor. She justified her act, saying divine laws supercede civil laws.Kreon however condemns her to death.Later, warned by a seer, he changes his mind and tries to stop the execution, but is too late.Antigone has killed herself.Returning to the palace, he finds his son had been in love with Antigone and has killed himself, too, and his wife has taken her own life in despair.He pays heavily for his arrogance and anger.

Is this just a tragic love story? Or could we learn about anger and the role it plays in shaping the course of things? Can the laws be superceded in some circumstances?Conversely, when questionable ethics is lega, should we go ahead? Are there unwritten laws? Are we bound to them? Should we do something we believe in, even when we know the consequences will be unpleasant? Need we heed the warmings given by others?Does anger and arrogance affect decision-making? If yes, how harmful is it? How do we know we are destroying ourselves, and not others as we imagine? The questions could go on and on.

Business teachers can draw on this min of wisdom in classical literature.Now, where in the world has anyone combined business ethics and Greek wisdom to give one the education that shows which way to take when the legal and ethical are not mirror images?

In Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester,the Christos andMaryPapoutsyEndowed Chair inBusiness Ethics was launched in April 2002.The chair has been established to offer courses in ethics, based on the ancient Classics of theGreco-Roman world. Because there are diverse values worldwide, it has been decided to settle on the works of those who have shaped the history of Westerncivilization.

The people behind this,Christos andMaryPapoutsy,believe business students will benefit from these age-old teachings. The programme includes the ethical dilemmas and ensuing discussions in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and the Grek dramatists.The vision for the course is Aristotle's Global Eudaimonia--the amterial and the spiritual well-being of a society.

The ancient and the modern can be combined, to produce greater and better results--be it in life or business. And it is being done successfully everywhere. To go back to where it all started, consider this experience of a visitor in Meteora,Greece--a monastery town with a spectacular landscape.

Hundreds of rock spires rise from the plain, many soaring 1,000 feet. In the 10th century, monks built monasteries on the tops of these towers.Once the rock had been scaled, people, construction materials, and food had to be hauled up by rope. For centuries, the only access was by nets, tied to the end of long ropes, raised or lowered by people. Those days, goods and visitors swung wildly as they were raised or lowered.

Now, cables have been strung across the spires.The said visitor saw two elderly priests sitting in something that looked like a large wheelbarrow, dignifided in their black robes, as the cable transported their swaying cart over an 800-foot chasm. Suddently, a monk who seemed to be in contemplation, reached into his robes and pulled out a cell phone, and became engrossed in conversation with someone from elsewhere. After they crossed the abuss, riding the "cable" car from their monastery, they hopped into a new Toyota, to drive away into town!

About the author

Janani Harish is a software engineer based in Pondicherry and is currently working as a teacher as well as a research assistance on freelance basis. Janani can be contacted at jananiram@hotmail.com.



(Posting date 15 March 2006; article reproduced with permission, appeared originally on pages 17-18 of the January-February 2004 edition of
Spirituality and Prosperity Magazine based in India.)

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