Although the ancient world was filled with injustices and cruelty, we moderns flatter ourselves when we give ourselves (too much) credit for our enlightened notions of fairness and empathy, because the speeches and the arguments of the ancient Greeks and Romans sound strikingly familiar when quoted back to us now.
Take this line:
“I am convinced that people are much better off when their whole city is flourishing than when certain citizens prosper but the community has gone off course. When a man is doing well for himself but his country is falling to pieces he goes to pieces along with it, but a struggling individual has much better hopes if his country is thriving.”
Is that Bernie Sanders giving another speech about income inequality? No, it’s Pericles in Athens in 431 BC.
Marcus Aurelius’s line that “what’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee,” could just as easily be a quip in an upcoming political debate as it could be a New York Times headline. And most impressively, it’s still true and has never stopped being true in the two thousand years since it was first uttered.
Yes, the Greeks and Romans tolerated some truly abominable ideas. Slavery. Rape. Pillaging. Pederasty. Conquest and colonialism. Things that we have vowed to never allow again. But they also nourished a strong sense of community and connection that we struggle to hold onto today. The Stoics believed we were put on this planet for each other. That we each had a role to play in the larger whole, that we must constantly meditate on our sympatheia—on our mutual interdependence.
What good is our success if it comes at the expense of others? What good are we if we can’t help others? We are all bound up in this thing called life together. If we forget that, we’re not only not as advanced or evolved as we think we are, but we are turning our backs on an ancient truth as well.