Wisdom from the Greek Philosophers on Living the Good Life
by M. A.
Soupios and Panos Mourdoukoutas
John was a successful car mechanic. He was a master in his field. He
could perform magic on car engines, identifying and correcting even the
most difficult problems. He was also a good family man, raising three
children and putting them through school, and a good citizen, casting
his vote in local and national elections. But he wasn’t master of
himself, of the inner desires that shaped his lifestyle. He was a heavy
smoker and drinker, and he constantly craved junk food. Worse, he never
tried to honestly assess his inner desires. Instead, he deceived
himself by rationalizing his misguided desires with all kinds of
spurious arguments, like “people don’t die from smoking, drinking, and
eating; they die from the stress and anxieties created by the
restrictions doctors impose on them.” As it turned out, they do! John
passed away in his late forties from a massive heart attack.
John’s story is neither new nor unique. It highlights people’s failure
to master themselves, underlining the fifth rule of spiritual living by
One of the more concrete ties between ancient and modern times is the
idea that personal freedom is a highly desirable state and one of
life’s great blessings. Today, freedom tends to be associated, above
all, with political liberty. Therefore, freedom is often perceived as a
reward for political struggle, measured in terms of one’s ability to
exercise individual “rights.” This is especially the case in true
democratic societies, like the United States and the European Union,
where individual freedoms and rights are warranted by law and people
consider themselves the masters of their own lives.
Yet individuals who are fully protected under a system of political
rights and enjoy immunity from external oppression may not be fully
protected from negative physiological and spiritual forces. Democratic
constitutions and laws allocate citizens’ freedoms and protect them
from oppression, but they do not reach far enough to assure the more
comprehensive freedom implied by Epictetus’s term self-mastery
Long before Sigmund Freud and the advent of modern psychology, the
ancients argued that the acquisition of genuine freedom involved a dual
battle. First, a battle without, against any external force that might
delimit thought and action. Second, a battle within, a struggle to
subdue psychological and spiritual forces that preclude a healthy
self-reliance. The ancient wisdom clearly recognized that humankind has
an infinite capacity for self-deception, to believe what is personally
useful and convenient at the expense of truth and reality, all with
catastrophic consequences. Individual investors often deceive
themselves by holding on to shady stocks, believing what they want to
believe. They often end up blaming stock analysts and stockbrokers when
the truth of the matter is they are the ones who eventually made the
decision to buy the stocks in the first place. Students also deceive
themselves into believing that they can pass a course without studying,
and end up blaming their professors for their eventual failure.
Patients also deceive themselves that they can be cured with convenient
“alternative medicines,” which do not involve the restrictive lifestyle
of conventional methods.
Self-mastery isn’t a divine endowment people receive at birth, but a
daily struggle, an inner war, a combat between rational and irrational
elements, which is far more difficult and intimidating than any
struggle against external opponents. Winning this war takes a ruthless
honesty and a capacity to critically assess the choices, values, and
lifestyle by which we choose to live: it requires that we stop blaming
others for our shortcomings or wasting time manufacturing excuses. In
the process of reconstructing themselves self-mastered people proceed
without pity or leniency: they candidly assess their weaknesses,
particularly the bad habits that undermine their well-being.
Most fundamentally, self-mastery requires the full understanding of who
we are, and an accurate and unambiguous self-image that nourishes,
informs, and updates everything we do. Self-mastery requires an inner
direction and self-determination in accordance with standards and
principles arrived at through the crucible of critical
self-examination. Self-mastered people are self-assured without being
self-satisfied, quietly confident without being vain or proud. In
short, the self-mastered individual represents the integrated
personality, a person operating at the highest level of human
functioning deemed “free” because the highest liberty is an
understanding of self devoid of illusion.
The Meditation Grid
≈ Resist any external force that might distort your thoughts and
≈ Avoid convenient and self-justifying rationalizations.
≈ Complete liberty necessitates a struggle within, a battle to subdue
psychological and spiritual forces that preclude a healthy
≈ Be ruthlessly honest with yourself; always critically assess your
≈ Don’t blame others for your shortcomings.
≈ The highest liberty is an understanding of self devoid of illusion.
Soupios, PhD, is a professor at Long Island
University, where he has taught for nearly 30 years. He has received
several teaching awards and holds eight graduate degrees, including
four earned doctorates.
Mourdoukoutas, PhD, began his
academic career at State University of Pennsylvania and continued at
both Long Island University and Economic University at Athens.
the good life doesn't require a lot of money or even any faith. The Ten Golden Rules
condenses the wisdom of the ancient Greeks into 10 memorable and
easy-to-understand rules that, if lived by, can enable modern readers
to have rich, meaningful lives.
Each chapter examines a rule:
1. Examine life
2. Worry only about those things under your control
3. Treasure friendship
4. Experience true pleasure
5. Master yourself
6. Avoid excess
7. Be a responsible human being
8. Don't be a prosperous fool
9. Don't do evil to others
10. Kindness to others tends to be rewarded
chapters begin with a quote from one of the great Greek philosophers
who inspired the rule, followed by a story or explanation of the rule
and its importance in life, and end with teaching points on which to
meditate and reflect.
Any reader searching for meaning will return
to this simple, slim volume again and again to find tried-and-true
wisdom that spans the ages to speak to us today.
is a wonderful resource for busy people with a philosophical frame of
reference and would make a great gift for a high school or college
student. Concise and well-written, it offers simple, yet profound,
insights into the things that make life enjoyable. I was struck by the
fact that most of the ideas here have been recycled countless times in
the more recent "self-help," genre, but the authors have provided a
boiled down philosophical framework that leaves out the puffery and
focuses on the critical principles that will help improve the quality
of life. Each chapter starts with a brief object lesson and fleshes out
the history and the conceptual issues in a manner that is engaging and
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