Making It Relevant: The Ancient Greeks

May 29, 2009

By Joshua Eskew, a senior at Marian College studying English and communication, and an intern with the Indiana Humanities Council.

“A true friend is one soul in two bodies.” – Aristotle

What makes a good friend? Nobody can answer this question for us, but we can find help when we turn to the literature of the past. When my sophomore Humanities class turned its attention to the ancient Greeks, most students responded with exhausted yawns and weary sighs. After an hour of staring stone-faced at statues of Socrates, many students felt as old and tired as the Greeks themselves. The time has come, though, to dust off those old tomes and direct that thoughtful gaze right back at those marble busts. They, too, had to deal with the pain of a good friend betraying them. They, too, experienced that wonderful joy we feel when we find ourselves with a certain someone. They, too, asked what makes a good friend. Today, we’ll be looking at some of their answers.

I’ve been thinking about Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. If you can get past the pronunciation, you’re doing well. I’d like to draw attention to Book VIII, where he discusses friendship. He talks about three different kinds of friendship: those which are for utility, those which are for pleasure, and those in which both are seeking the same moral good. Think about it this way: the classmate who you’ll borrow notes from, the best friend you’ll go out on a night for the town with, and a husband or a wife, or a child who we dearly love.

You don’t even need to have a beard to scratch to understand how important it is to know our friends. A quick run through your Facebook friends list will probably reveal people that fall into each of these categories. Whether or not we think about it actively, we probably know by intuition where most people in our lives fall. So think about this: Who are those friends you just can’t live without? Who are the people in your life that inspire you to be the best person you can be, whether it be morally, professionally, academically? Who brings out the best you? When we know who these people are, we can give them the love, respect, attention, and appreciation they deserve.

While we probably can’t imagine who Aristotle would’ve had on his Facebook friends list, we can still learn a lot from him and the rest of the ancient Greeks. They can inspire tears of boredom or tears of joy all in the same day. The insights they brought into the questions and concerns that we face today, that have not disappeared with hybrid cars and cell phones, make them a source to consider for all of our lives. 

Suggestions for reading:
The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle (Find it online here: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html)
The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton
After Virtue, Alasdair Macintye
The Universe, the Gods, and Mortals, Jean-Pierre Vernant

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