Is it possible to enjoy a peaceful life in a world that is increasingly challenged by threats and uncertainties from wars, terrorism, economic crises and epidemic outbreaks? The answer, according to a new book, is yes. That's The 10 Golden Rules: Ancient Wisdom from the Greek Philosophers on Living a Good Life.
The wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers is timeless, says Michael Soupios. The philosophy professor says it is as relevant today as when it was first written centuries ago.
"There is no expiration date on wisdom," he says. "There is no shelf life on intelligence. I think that things have become very murky these days, lots of misunderstanding, miscues, a lot of what the ancients would have called sophistry. The nice thing about ancient philosophy as offered by the Greeks is that they tended to see life clear and whole, in a way that we tend not to see life today."
Examine your life
Soupios, along with his co-author, economics professor Panos Mourdoukoutas, developed their 10 golden rules by turning to the men behind that philosophy - Aristotle, Socrates, Epictetus and Pythagoras, among others. The first rule - examine your life - is the common thread that runs through the entire book. Soupios says it's based on Plato's observation that the unexamined life is not worth living.
"The Greeks are always concerned about boxing themselves in, in terms of convictions," he says. "So take a step back and sort of get off the treadmill, switch off the automatic pilot and actually stop and reflect about things like our priorities, our values, our relationships."
Stop agonizing over what you can't control
As we begin to examine our life, Soupios says, we come to Rule No. 2: Worry only about things that you can control.
"The individual who promoted this idea was a Stoic philosopher. His name is Epictetus," he says. "And what the Stoics say in general is simply this: There is a larger plan in life. You are not really going to be able to understand all of the dimensions of this plan. You're not going to be able to control the dimensions of this plan."
So, he explains, it's not worth it to waste our physical, intellectual and spiritual energy agonizing over things that are beyond our control.
"I cannot control whether or not I wind up getting swine flu [for example]," he says. "I mean, there are some prudent steps I can take, but ultimately I can not guarantee myself that. So what Epictetus would say is sitting home worrying about that would be wrong and wasteful and irrational. You should live your life attempting to identify and control those things which you can genuinely control."
Seek true pleasure
To have a meaningful, happy life we need friends. But according to Aristotle - a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great - most relationships don't qualify as true friendships.
"Just because I have a business relationship with an individual and I profit from that relationship, it doesn't mean that this person is my friend," he says. "Real friendship is when two individuals share the same soul. It's a beautiful and uncharacteristically poetic image that Aristotle offers."
In our pursuit of the good life, Soupios says, it's important to seek out true pleasures - advice originally offered by Epicurus.
But unlike the modern definition of Epicureanism as a life of indulgence and luxury, for the ancient Greeks, it meant finding a state of calm, tranquility and mental ease.
"This was the highest and most desirable form of pleasure and happiness for the ancient Epicureans," he says. "This is something very much well-worth considering here in the modern era. I don't think we spend nearly enough time trying to concentrate on achieving a sort of equanimity, a sort of contentment in a mental and spiritual way, which was identified by these people as the highest form of happiness and pleasure."
Do good to others
Other Golden Rules counsel us to master ourselves, avoid excess and not be a prosperous fool. There are also rules dealing with relationships: Be a responsible human being and do not do evil to others.
"This is Hesiod, of course, a younger contemporary poet, we believe, with Homer," he says. "Hesiod offers an idea - which you very often find in some of the world's great religions, in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in Islam and others - that in some sense, when you hurt another human being, you hurt yourself. That damaging other people in your community and in your life, trashing relationships, results in a kind of self-inflected spiritual wound."
Instead, he says, ancient wisdom urges us to do good. Golden Rule No. 10 for a good life is kindness toward others tends to be rewarded.
"This is Aesop, the fabulist, the man of these charming little tales, often depicted in terms of animals and animal relationships," he says. "I think what Aesop was suggesting is that when you offer a good turn to another human being, one can hope that that good deed will come back and sort of pay a dividend to you, the doer of the good deed. Even if there is no concrete dividend or benefit paid in response to your good deed, at the very least, the doer of the good deed has the opportunity to enjoy a kind of spiritually enlightened moment."
Michael Soupios says following the 10 Golden Rules based on ancient wisdom can guide us to the path of the good life where we stop living as spectators and become engaged and happier human beings. And that, he notes, is a life worth living.