ISBN: 1230216995

I bought this book to get an overview of the historical progression of Ancient Greek philosophy. It walked me through dozens of the more notable men who lived during that time by reviewing their biographies and main philosophy. For this review I’ll share the ideas and statements I found most interesting.

Thales

Thales was one of the first astronomers who attempts to use science to explain natural phenomenon.

He asserted water to be the principle of all things, and that the world had life, and was full of daemons: they say, too, that he was the original definer of the seasons of the year, and that it was he who divided the year into three hundred and sixty-five days.

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…he thanked fortune for three things: first of all, that he had been born a man and not a beast ; secondly, that he was a man and not a woman; and thirdly , that he was a Greek and not a barbarian.

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“God is the most ancient of all things, for he had no birth: the world is the most beautiful of things, for it is the work of God: place is the greatest of things, for it contains all things: intellect is the swiftest of things, for it runs through everything: necessity is the strongest of things , for it rules everything: time is the wisest of things, for it finds out everything.”

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When he was asked what was very difficult, he said, “To know one’s self.” And what was easy, “To advise another.”

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When asked how men might live most virtuously and most justly, he said, “If we never do ourselves what we blame in others.” To the question, “Who was happy?” he made answer. “He who is healthy in his body, easy in his circumstances, and well-instructed as to his mind.”

Solon

…laws were like cobwebs— for that if any trifling or powerless thing fell into them, they held it fast; but if a thing of any size fell into them, it broke the meshes and escaped.

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…satiety was generated by wealth, and insolence by satiety.

Chilon

What was difficult, he said, “To be silent about secrets; to make good use of one’s leisure, and to be able to submit to injustice.” And besides these three things he added further, “To rule one’s tongue, especially at a banquet, and not to speak ill of one’s neighbours; for if one does so one is sure to hear what one will not like.” He advised, moreover, “To threaten no one; for that is a womanly trick. To be more prompt to go to one’s friends in adversity than in prosperity. To make but a moderate display at one’s marriage. Not to speak evil of the dead. To honour old age.— To keep a watch upon one’s self.— To prefer punishment to disgraceful gain; for the one is painful but once, but the other for one’s whole life.— Not to laugh at a person in misfortune.— If one is strong to be also merciful, so that one’s neighbours may respect one rather than fear one.— To learn how to regulate one’s own house well.— Not to let one’s tongue outrun one’s sense.— To restrain anger.— Not to dislike divination.— Not to desire what is impossible.— Not to make too much haste on one’s road.— When speaking not to gesticulate with the hand; for that is like a madman.— To obey the laws.— To love quiet.”

Pittacus

…he made a law that if a man committed a crime while drunk, he should have double punishment; in the hope of deterring men from getting drunk, as wine was very plentiful in the island.

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Being once asked what was best, he replied, “To do what one is doing at the moment well.”

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Once he was on a voyage with some impious men, and the vessel was overtaken by a storm; so they began to invoke the assistance of the Gods; on which he said, “Hold your tongues, lest they should find out that you are in this ship.”

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“Choose the course which you adopt with deliberation; but when you have adopted it, then persevere in it with firmness.— Do not speak fast, for that shows folly.— Love prudence.— Speak of the Gods as they are.— Do not praise an undeserving man because of his riches.— Accept of things, having procured them by persuasion, not by force .— Whatever good fortune befalls you, attribute it to the gods.— Cherish wisdom as a means of travelling from youth to old age, for it is more lasting than any other possession.”

Cleobulus

…when a man goes out of his house , he should consider what he is going to do: and when he comes home again he should consider what he has done.

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— Be not haughty when prosperous.— Be not desponding when in difficulties.—Learn to bear the changes of fortune with magnanimity.

Periander

Pleasures are transitory, but honour is immortal.— Be moderate when prosperous, but prudent when unfortunate. Be the same to your friends when they are prosperous, and when they are unfortunate.

Anacharsis

He said that a vine bore three bunches of grapes. The first, the bunch of pleasure; the second, that of drunkenness; the third that of disgust. He also said that he marvelled that among the Greeks, those who were skilful in a thing contend together; but those who have no such skill act as judges of the contest. Being once asked how a person might be made not fond of drinking , he said, “If he always keeps in view the indecorous actions of drunken men.”

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When he was asked what there was among men which was both good and bad, he replied, “The tongue.” He used to say “That it was better to have one friend of great value, than many friends who were good for nothing.”

Socrates

He, likewise, was the first person who conversed about human life; and was also the first philosopher who was condemned to death and executed.

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And very often, while arguing and discussing points that arose, he was treated with great violence and beaten, and pulled about, and laughed at and ridiculed by the multitude. But he bore all this with great equanimity. So that once, when he had been kicked and buffeted about, and had borne it all patiently , and some one expressed his surprise, he said, “Suppose an ass had kicked me would you have had me bring an action against him?”

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…in an argumentative spirit he used to dispute with all who would converse with him , not with the purpose of taking away their opinions from them, so much as of learning the truth, as far as he could do so…

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…he was a man able to look down upon any who mocked him. And he prided himself upon the simplicity of his way of life; and never exacted any pay from his pupils. And he used to say, that the man who ate with the greatest appetite, had the least need of delicacies; and that he who drank with the greatest appetite, was the least inclined to look for a draught which is not at hand.

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Once, when he was asked what was the virtue of a young man, he said, “To avoid excess in everything.”

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“That it is a good thing for a man to offer himself cheerfully to the attacks of the comic writers; for then, if they say anything worth hearing, one will be able to mend; and if they do not, then all they say is unimportant.”

Aristippus

At another time he was asked what advantage philosophers had over other men; and he replied, “If all the laws should be abrogated, we should still live in the same manner as we do now.”

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“Those who eat most, and who take the most exercise, are not in better health than they who eat just as much as is good for them; and in the same way it is not those who know a great many things, but they who know what is useful who are valuable men.”

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Once when some one brought his son to introduce to him, he demanded five hundred drachmas; and when the father said, “Why, for such a price as that I can buy a slave.” “ Buy him then,” he replied, “and you will have a pair.”

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A man was boasting of being able to drink a great deal without being drunk; and he said, “A mule can do the very same thing .”

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“…the best thing is to possess pleasures without being their slave, not to be devoid of pleasures.”

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On one occasion, when Simus, the steward of Dionysius, was showing him a magnificent house, paved with marble (but Simus was a Phrygian, and a great toper), he hawked up a quantity of saliva and spit in his face ; and when Simus was indignant at this , he said, “I could not find a more suitable place to spit in.”

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He found fault with men, because when they are at sales, they examine the articles offered very carefully, but yet they approve of men’s lives without any examination.

Theodorus

He used also to say that it was reasonable for a good man not to expose himself to danger for the sake of his country, for that he ought not to discard his own prudence for the sake of benefiting those who had none.

Plato

“Truth, my friend, is a beautiful and a durable thing; but it is not easy to persuade men of this fact.”

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Of perfect virtue there are four species. One is prudence, one is justice, the third is manly gallantry, and the fourth is temperance . Of these, prudence is the cause of a man acting rightly in affairs; justice is the cause of his acting justly in partnerships and bargains; manly gallantry is the cause of a man’s not being alarmed amid dangers and formidable circumstances, but standing firm; and temperance is the cause of his subduing his appetites, and being enslaved by no pleasure, but living decorously.

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Happiness is divided into five parts. For one part of it is wisdom in counsel; another is a healthy condition of the sensations and general health of body; a third is good fortune in one’s affairs; a fourth kind is good reputation among men; a fifth is abundance of riches and of all those things which are useful in life. Now wisdom in counsel arises from good instruction, and from a person’s having experience of many things. A healthy condition of the sensations depends on the limbs of the body; as, for instance, when one sees with one’s eyes, and hears with one’s ears, and smells with one’s nose, and feels with one’s body, just what one ought to see, and hear, and smell, and feel. Such a condition as this is a healthy condition . And good fortune is when a man does rightly and successfully what a good and energetic man ought to do. And good reputation is when a man is well spoken of. And abundance of riches is when a man has such a sufficiency of everything which relates to the uses of life, that he is able to benefit his friends, and to discharge all public obligations in a splendid and liberal manner.

Arcesilaus

He once reminded a certain dialectician, a pupil of Aleximes, who was unable to explain correctly some saying of his master, of what had been done by Philoxenus to some brickmakers. For when they were singing some of his songs very badly he came upon them, and trampled their bricks under foot, saying, “As, you spoil my works so will I spoil yours.”

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However , in all other respects he was so free from vanity, that he used to advise his pupils to become the disciples of other men; and once, when a young man from Chios was not satisfied with his school, but preferred that of Hieronymus, whom I have mentioned before, he himself took him and introduced him to that philosopher, recommending him to preserve his regularity of conduct. And there is a very witty saying of his recorded. For when some one asked him once, why people left other schools to go to the Epicureans , but no one left the Epicureans to join other sects, he replied, “People sometimes make eunuchs of men, but no one can ever make a man out of an eunuch.”

Bion

…he was asked who was the most miserable of men, and replied, “He who has set his heart on the greatest prosperity.”

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Another saying of his was that it was a great evil not to be able to bear evil.

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He used to say that self-conceit was the enemy of progress. Of a rich man who was mean and niggardly, he said, “That man does not possess his estate, but his estate possesses him.”

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Another of his sayings was, that young men ought to display courage, but that old men ought to be distinguished for prudence.

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He was once asked, what those who tell lies gain by it; “They gain this,” said he, “that when they speak truth they are not believed.”

On one occasion he was asked how much educated men were superior to those uneducated; “As much,” said he, “as the living are to the dead.”

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It was a saying of his that education was an ornament in prosperity, and a refuge in adversity. And that those parents who gave their children a good education deserved more honour than those who merely beget them: for that the latter only enabled their children to live, but the former gave them the power of living well.

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…he said, that the wise man was not destitute of passions, but endowed with moderate passions.

Theophrastus

They say that on one occasion, when dying, he was asked by his disciples whether he had any charge to give them; and he replied, that he had none but that they should “remember that life holds out many pleasing deceits to us by the vanity of glory; for that when we are beginning to live, then we are dying. There is, therefore, nothing more profitless than ambition.

Antisthenes

When he was asked why he reproved his pupils with bitter language, he said, “Physicians too use severe remedies for their patients.”

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He used to say, as Hecaton tells us in his Apophthegms , “That it was better to fall among crows, than among flatterers; for that they only devour the dead, but the others devour the living.”

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When he was asked what advantage he had ever derived from philosophy, he replied, “The advantage of being able to converse with myself.”

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Some one was praising luxury in his hearing, and he said, “May the children of my enemies be luxurious.”

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And he used to say that the wise man would regulate his conduct as a citizen, not according to the established laws of the state, but according to the law of virtue.

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One should attend to one’s enemies, for they are the first persons to detect one’s errors.

Diogenes

He used to say, that he wondered at men always ringing a dish or jar before buying it, but being content to judge of a man by his look alone.

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A profligate eunuch had written on his house, “Let no evil thing enter in.” “Where,” said Diogenes, “is the master of the house going?”

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A man once asked him what was the proper time for supper , and he made answer, “If you are a rich man, whenever you please; and if you are a poor man, whenever you can.”

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He said that a rich but ignorant man, was like a sheep with a golden fleece.

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When he was asked how Dionysius treats his friends, he said, “Like bags; those which are full he hangs up, and those which are empty he throws away.”

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When he was asked what advantage he had derived from philosophy, he replied, “If no other, at least this, that I am prepared for every kind of fortune.”

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Once when he saw a young man putting on effeminate airs, he said to him, “Are you not ashamed to have worse plans for yourself than nature had for you? for she has made you a man, but you are trying to force yourself to be a woman.”

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One day he saw an unskilful archer shooting; so he went and sat down by the target , saying, “Now I shall be out of harm’s way.”

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He used to say, that education was, for the young sobriety, for the old comfort, for the poor riches, and for the rich an ornament.”

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“If you are accustomed to pleasure, you may begin to gain pleasure in displeasure.” (paraphrased)

Chrysippus

He was once reproached by some one for not attending the lectures of Ariston, who was drawing a great crowd after him at the time; and he replied, “If I had attended to the multitude I should not have been a philosopher.”

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“…the methods of providing one’s self with means are ridiculous; for instance, some derive them from a king; and then it will be necessary to humour him. Some from friendship; and then friendship will become a thing to be bought with a price. Some from wisdom; and then wisdom will become mercenary; and these are the accusations which he brings.”

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He calls drunkenness an expression identical with ruin, and rejects all superfluity, saying, “That no one ought to exceed the proper quantity of meat and drink.”

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…when he was asked when a man might indulge in the pleasures of love, he replied, “Whenever you wish to be weaker than yourself.”

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It is said that he used to admonish his disciples to repeat these lines to themselves whenever they returned home to their houses: In what have I transgress’d? What have I done? What that I should have done have I omitted?

Philolaus

I say that all men ought above all things To guard against suspicion. For, though innocent, Still if you are suspected, you’re unfortunate.

Heraclitus

“All the men that exist in the world, are far removed from truth and just dealings; but they are full of evil foolishness, which leads them to insatiable covetousness and vain-glorious ambition.

Pyrrho

…the same pursuits are good for one man, and injurious to another;

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…it is impossible for a man ever, in his researches, to arrive at undeniable truth; since one truth is only to be established by another truth; and so on, ad infinitum.

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The mode which is derived from relation rests on the doctrine that no object is ever perceived independently and entirely by itself, but always in its relation to something else; so that it is impossible to know its nature correctly.

Epicurus

Not every bodily constitution nor every nationality makes it possible for one to become wise.

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Even when put to torture, the wise man is happy.

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Whether he is well-off or not will be matter of indifference to him.

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Death is no concern to us. All things good and bad are experienced through sensation, but sensation ceases at death. So death is nothing to us, and to know this makes a mortal life happy. Life is not improved by adding infinite time; removing the desire for immortality is what’s required. There is no reason why one who is convinced that there is nothing to fear at death should fear anything about it during life.

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…death, the most dreaded of evils, is nothing to us, because when we exist, death is not present, and when death is present, we do not exist. It neither concerns the living nor the dead, since death does not exist for the living, and the dead no longer exist.

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Everything we do is for the sake of freedom from pain and anxiety. Once this is achieved, the storms in the soul are stilled. Nothing else and nothing more are needed to perfect the well-being of the body and soul. It is when we feel pain that we must seek relief, which is pleasure. And when we no longer feel pain, we have all the pleasure we need.

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Although pleasure is the greatest good, not every pleasure is worth choosing. We may instead avoid certain pleasures when, by doing so, we avoid greater pains. We may also choose to accept pain if, by doing so, it results in greater pleasure.

Above I have shared the best parts of the book, but it comprises less than 1% of the total length, meaning you will have to to spend a lot of time finding the few nuggets of gold. The book contains mostly fluff with endless lists of names, places, and book titles, and the biographies of the lesser known philosophers were quite unsatisfying because their main philosophies are not clearly explained.

For you to attempt this book, you should be extremely patient with a strong interest in ancient philosophy. I don’t think most men would be rewarded from reading it.

Read More: “The Lives And Opinions Of Eminent Philosophers” on Amazon