Learning from Athens: The Power of Negative Thinking


Photos: ©Ola Pawlowska


Of all the philosophical schools to emerge from Hellenistic Athens, the Stoic one is today perhaps the most unfashionable. However, the popular notion of the Stoics as apathetically resigned is based on millennia of misunderstandings and simplifications. What they, above all, aimed to give their students was advice on how to live well in the face of adversity—something that the Greek people have had more than their fair share of practice in by now. In a time saturated with the odious cult of goal-orientation and positive thinking, the Stoics and their paradoxical remedies for the human condition deserve a more attentive look.


When Documenta 14 came to town in the spring of 2017, they did not receive an altogether warm welcome. Messages such as “Dear Documenta: I refuse to exoticize myself to increase your cultural capital” and the more laconic “Crapumenta 14” were to be found scribbled on walls all across the city. Many will jump at the first opportunity to shout post-colonialism and crisis exploitation, which of course isn’t very helpful. The decision to come to Athens was, in itself, an inspiring one; Kassel isn’t the most fitting backdrop for commenting on global politics and whatnot. But it almost seems as though they were asking for trouble when they, having chosen the ubiquitous slogan “Learning from Athens”, then followed up this on-your-nose didacticism with a deliberately abstruse exhibition. What, precisely, anyone was supposed to be learning remains largely unclear. The pretext for this essay is therefore to take on the challenge proposed by Documenta and, perhaps somewhat naïvely, try and give a more concrete proposal on what is to be learnt from the city. In order to do so I shall, with severe risk of overreaching, be looking at its philosophical roots and on how these may inform the present.


When visiting Athens right now, one is struck not only by the absolute hopelessness of the economic situation, but also by an unmistakable joie de vivre permeating the city in spite of it. Clearly, many unpleasant lessons can be learnt from Athens right now: about the lack of solidarity within Europe, about the misconstruction of the European Monetary Union, and about the counterproductivity of austerity. But I cannot help feeling that there is also something to be learnt from the Athenians’ response to all this. However, before taking that thought any further, a general disclaimer is in order: The aim of this text is not to paint a unified portrait of the brave Greeks stoically suffering what they must. At best, there is something tasteless in such essentialist accounts of nationalities. Despite the fact that Athens is clearly undergoing something of a cultural renaissance, there is also something perverse in speaking of crisis as opportunity at a time when people are starving. Over the next few pages I might, at times, tread dangerously close to both these notions in working with the hypothesis that the history of modern Greece has conditioned its inhabitants to always expect the worst, from politicians and society at large. This is by no means a novel idea. But whereas others have chosen to point to how this has generated an attitude of mistrust, which in turn has been the cause of widespread tax-evasion and societal collapse, I shall instead propose that such pessimism can have a liberating potential: by always expecting the worst, one runs no risk of ever being disappointed. This is very much a cornerstone on which the Stoics built their ideas, and the reason for which the great philosopher king, Roman emperor, and Stoic poster boy, Marcus Aurelius, jotted down the following reminder to himself in his posthumously published Meditations: “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”


The average Greek will have no need for such reminders. It ought to be enough that that taxes keep going up in order to pay back money that the vast majority of the people never have and never will see. And it’s not only since the breakout of the crisis in 2009 that the Greeks have had their limits tested. Indeed, their recent history can be understood as one crisis after another, with the more stable in-between periods being the exceptions. Despite certain poignant political shortcomings it would, however, be erroneous to simply declare Greece a failed state. To the contrary, considering its many trials and tribulations, the short history of the Greek state could just as well be regarded as a success story. Less than two centuries ago, what is now Greece was a backwater of the Ottoman Empire, populated by poor and illiterate farmers with little national identity to speak of. Out of this a nation significantly more developed than its neighbors has emerged, despite constant internal and external pressure. In the last century alone, the Hellenes have seen the rise and fall of a republic (1924-1935), a kingdom (1935-1967), and a military dictatorship (1967-1974); they have lived through Nazi occupation, fought in two world wars, one civil war (with Cold War gasoline poured on its fire), and one war in which they were the target of a genocide at the hands of the Turkish National Movement, after which their bankrupt state saw its population grow by one third through the integration of Anatolian refugees.


Things haven’t been easy, in other words. Perhaps it’s not so farfetched, then, to hypothesize that this constant turmoil may have generated a certain resiliency in the people living through it. If the history of modern Greece, more often than not, has been an exercise in crisis management, one may reasonably assume that its population has learnt to manage well in crisis. Perhaps I’m grasping at straws with the to link Stoicism here, and certainly I will not be so silly as to suggest that the Greek people are somehow channeling the ancient wisdom of their forefathers. But even if there is no particular correlation between Stoicism and the Greek reaction to the crisis—there is no point in hiding the fact this idea is largely based on my own willful projection—the Stoics still merit a revisit in their own right.


To get an idea of who the Stoics were and what relevance their teachings might have, one may as well go back to the end of the fourth century BC, when Zeno of Citium, a Phoenician merchant of purple dye, found himself in Athens after a shipwreck off the coast of Attica. By that time the Classical glory days of the Athenian Polis had just about passed. But long after its military and political power had faded the city would remain relevant for another reason: its philosophy schools. Wealthy Greeks and Romans would send their sons to receive a fine education at one of the city’s many gymnasiums, such as Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum. Or they would hire a private tutor in the form of a sophist or philosopher. The former would promise their students worldly success by teaching them rhetoric, mathematics, and other useful skills; the latter offered no such guarantees. Take, for example, the Cynics, a school of philosophy whose practitioners received their name from the word kynikos, meaning “dog-like”. The Cynics lived as they taught. More precisely, they lived in a dog-like manner, without possessions and in the streets, where they were known to unabashedly defecate. While there is more than meets the eye to the Cynics’ eccentric asceticism, their teachings were not, needless to say, highly sought-after among good families in the market for a private tutor. Nor would many be comfortable seeking life-lessons from them today. By the time Zeno arrived in Athens, however, the Cynics were revered as wise men. Thus, when he enquired about where to find a man such as the famous Socrates, he was pointed to a Cynic and became his student for some time. But Zeno was more theoretically minded than his teacher and left to look for knowledge at other schools. His contemporary critics would, however, say that he was simply fishing for ideas to steal; running a gymnasium was a competitive business and philosophy valuable capital.

The Athenian Agora and the idea of Western civilization encapsulated on a rock.

The Athenian Agora and the idea of Western civilization encapsulated on a rock.

Around 300 BC Zeno began teaching his own brand of philosophy in the Athenian agora. He would hold his lectures by the Stoa Poikile (“Painted Porch”), and his disciples would hence become known as the Stoics. He held on to some of the more refined ingredients of Cynicism whilst offering the distinct advantage of doing away with the dog-like behavior and the asceticism. Contrary to the Cynics, the Stoics did not think that luxury and worldly success needed to be renounced altogether. In their view, fame and fortune should never be sought as ends in themselves. However, if one should happen to stumble into a bit of money they saw nothing wrong in enjoying that. Zeno integrated these Cynic-inspired insights with elements from several other schools in an attempt to create an all-encompassing philosophy, organized in the triad of logic, physics, and ethics. Modern progress in the former two fields renders the relevance of the Stoics’ thinking there little more than academic. However, when it comes to ethics, the case can be made that we are actually more confused now than we were two millennia ago—given, that is, that one accepts the original Greek meaning of the word. Ethics today, both in common parlance and in academic philosophy, has the limited meaning of relating to moral rights and wrongs. The concern in stoic ethics, in contrast, was to aspire toward eudaimonia. Often translated as “human flourishing”, eudaimonia can also be understood as the less pompous “to live well”, i.e., to be good at living. For the Stoics, living well meant to live virtuously.

The location of the Stoa Poikile.

The location of the Stoa Poikile.

The reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, a stone-throw away from the birthplace of Stoicism.

The reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, a stone-throw away from the birthplace of Stoicism.

Virtue is not a word that is likely to particularly excite a contemporary audience. But again, much has been lost in translation. Stoic virtue obviously predates the Christian connotations we inherently attach to the term, and is to be understood rather as to live in harmony with (human) nature, i.e., to fully be human the way in which we were intended to be. The Stoics saw our rationality as the thing that first and foremost defined us. Hence, to be rational was understood as the root of virtue. From there they would go on to make a number of other rational conclusions, such as that we are social creatures and, therefore, have certain social responsibilities. This is all well and good but for the fact that it presupposes the notion that we were indeed created rather than evolved. And living in accordance with the way in which we have been naturally selected, i.e., to be greedy, selfish, and aggressive, won’t do as the foundation of any decent ethics. But there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater here; let us focus instead on the psychological reward promised by a life of virtue: tranquility.


Stoic tranquility is not to be understood as the state that may be induced by a tranquilizer. Rather, it can be defined as a state of serene equanimity, wherein negative emotions such as distress and anger give way to feelings of joy. Peace of mind, contentment, and happiness are some other terms we may ascribe to this sensation. In other words, it’s that thing we are all chasing, or at least think that we are. Oddly enough, however, most of us tend to go about our pursuit of happiness in a rather unreflective way, which typically expresses itself as an insatiable hunt for consumer products and social recognition through so-called success. When we attain these things, we may indeed experience an initial rush of joy, but this sensation soon passes and we move on to wanting something else. This treadmill-like quality of desire has repeatedly been confirmed in clinical trials, where the phenomenon has been termed hedonic adaption. What’s more, we are constantly encouraged to systematically perpetuate our hedonic adaption by setting goals and targets for ourselves. This type of thinking has probably always been around, but at least the old Stoics were lucky enough not to be around in an era in which goal-orientation is held up as a great virtue. Had they been, they would surely have been quick to point out that setting personal goals is terrible thing to do, as it really only has two possible outcomes: either one fails to reach one’s goals and ends up ruminating on the disappointment, or one reaches one’s goals and realizes that one soon after feels just as unfulfilled as before. In the more eloquent words of George Bernard Shaw: “There are only two tragedies in life. One is to lose your hearts’ desire. The other is to gain it.”


The problem here is that, while it may very well be that happiness is what we want, the process of natural selection, through which our minds and desires have been shaped, could not care less about it. To the contrary, those of our ancestors who were the least content, who always wanted more and would fight aggressively to get it, are those who would have had the best chances of passing on their genes and dispositions. To align Stoicism with the insights of Darwin, its definition of what constitutes the good life must be turned on its head: attaining happiness cannot mean to live in accordance with our human nature; rather, it must mean to find ways of overcoming it. It may seem that such an uprooting of the philosophy’s foundations would disqualify its conclusions but that is not necessarily the case. Indeed, it could be argued that a Darwinian makeover of this kind brings them an additional depth, as we now have a better idea of why it is that our pursuit of happiness tends to be so misguided.


Rather than uncritically trying to sate any desire that happens to appear in one’s mind, the stoic approach is to instead try and control what it is that one desires. Controlling one’s desires doesn’t need to be the thankless task of self-deprivation it may at first sound like. The aim is not to suppress desire, but to learn to desire that which one already has. By doing so they argued that one could break free from the treadmill of desire and thus finally be tranquil and content. This conclusion may be recognized from Buddhism and other Eastern traditions, with which Stoicism has a surprising amount in common. Similar ideas can also be found in the teachings of the Stoic’s constant competition: the Epicureans.


Epicurus was a contemporary of Zeno, with his own philosophical school, known as the Garden, not far from the Stoa Poikile. He, too, dangled the prospect of an untroubled and tranquil soul in front of the eyes of potential disciples, and in many respects proposed similar methods of attaining it as did the Stoics. But the Epicureans were hedonists, and thus even more explicit in their search for the good life. Their recommendation of a moderate lifestyle might therefore come as a surprise to some, as it indeed did to Epicurus’ contemporaries. When news spread of a philosophical school systematically dedicated to pleasure, rumors of drunken feasts and orgies naturally followed. Many who looked up this “happiest man in Athens” would therefore have been disappointed to find a celibate old vegetarian.


Philosophy in antiquity was considered not so much a theoretical discipline as a way of life. The various schools had their respective full-time devotees, much as do religions. This form of practical philosophy is often referred to as “philosophy of life”, as opposed to the purely theoretical philosophy we have grown accustomed to today. In the centuries following their inception, Stoicism and Epicureanism would grow to become the by far most popular philosophies for Greeks and Romans to model their lives after. The ideas of Stoicism, in particular, evolved with time; it’s predominantly the works of later Stoics that have survived, the most notable being those of Epictetus (a white collar slave), Seneca (a playwright and reluctant advisor to the emperor Nero), and Marcus Aurelius. They all wrote during something of a golden age for Stoicism, around the first two centuries AD. However, as Christianity’s influence grew, things were soon to go downhill—for Stoicism and for rationality at large.


As the church came to dominate society, the philosophies of life would not only be declared heretical but also lose much of their raison d’être; with the promise of eternal bliss in the afterlife, there was no longer any need to put a lot of work into being happy in this life. With this development philosophy, in the Hellenic sense, disappeared to never really come back. Contemporary philosophers typically do not see it as their place to offer advice on how to be happy. That job seems to be left to advertising executives. Hence, today there seems to be few real alternatives to unquestioningly partaking in the treadmill of desire outlined above. The alternatives that do exist tend to come in the package of religion, and thus carry with them a load of unhelpful mythological baggage. Ignorance may indeed often be bliss, but not in this case. Or else so many of us would not walk around constantly discontented the way we do. It’s unfortunate, then, that philosophy of life has such an awkward ring to it. Admitting to be a practitioner of an ancient philosophy of life would surely be a source of frequent embarrassment. Even worse, what these Hellenic philosophies offer is essentially nothing other than self-help—two words that sound almost as discouraging together as life-coach or motivational speaker. Most of what passes for self-help or philosophy of life is so bad that many will stay away from any related topic out of sheer fear of guilt by association. But again, one should not throw the baby out with the bathwater (no matter how dirty the bathwater); we need to help ourselves, because living well is not easy.


Reading the old Stoics is, of course, but one of many options in such an endeavor. So why should one choose to do that over, say, looking into the cozy pleasure principles of Epicureanism. Well, the first answer would be that there is no need to choose one over the other; it’s perfectly possible cherry-pick ideas as one sees fit. The second answer would be that, even though the Stoics and the Epicureans shared the goal of a tranquil life, they differed in one fundamental aspect: The Epicureans isolated themselves in small, introverted communities and sought tranquility largely by avoiding potential sources of distress, such as marriage and politics—it’s probably no coincidence if this sounds more like the life of a monk than a hedonist; the Epicurean retreats are believed to have converted to form some of the earliest Christian monasteries—the Stoics, in contrast, saw pain and suffering as inevitable, and preferred not to shy away from potential trouble. Rather than hoping to escape hardship by improving one’s external circumstances, they considered it a sounder strategy to change one’s perception of things. In the words of Aurelius: “Our life is what our thoughts make it.”


When things went badly, the Stoics would not look to hope for consolation. On the contrary, they would remind themselves that things could always get worse. In diametrical opposition to the fraud known as “positive-thinking” (most ludicrously manifested in Rhonda Byrne’s atrocious book The Secret, championed by Oprah Winfrey), the Stoics recommended that one instead make a habit of contemplating the possibility of losing the things one loves. I may, for example, imagine the death of a beloved or my house burning down. More than preparing me for the worst, such a practice forces me to acknowledge my affection for these things more fully, rather than letting it lie dormant by taking them for granted. No matter how bad things get, there is always something left in life to be grateful for. Though this may sound more like a recipe for paranoia than anything else, it doesn’t have to be; in essence, it’s a method for learning to desire that which one already has.


Another strategy for achieving tranquility the Stoics found in letting go of the things in life that one has no control over. First and foremost, that means letting go of the past, and to some extent also the present. In order to do so they recommended that one adopt a fatalistic attitude and accept all things that happen as inevitable, rather than dwelling on “what could have been”. Fatalism is yet another stoic concept unlikely to, at first glance, greatly inspire a contemporary readership, but the Stoics would argue that accepting one’s personal fate is the very key to a peaceful mind. Their reasoning being that, all one ever has is the present moment, and one can either wish it to be different, or one can accept it as it is. If one has the habit of doing the former, one will spend most of one’s time dissatisfied. If, on the other hand, one can learn to be happy with one’s lot in life, one will, by definition, be happy.


Perhaps this is as good a time as any to try and tie things back to modern Athens. Since the outbreak of the crisis, the Greeks have had very limited possibilities to improve their circumstances. Suggesting that they instead have managed to develop a stoic attitude, in the sense of appreciating the quality of life they still have, may indeed be to fall for the common temptation of projecting Greece’s semi-mythological past onto its present. But if so, I will allow myself to do just that. And even if such a thing as historical conditioning toward unconscious Stoicism is a pure fantasy on my part, that is somewhat beside the point I hope to make: because a stoic response to the crisis is still very much imaginable, and thus something from which inspiration can be drawn.

A piece from Michael Landy’s participatory exhibition Breaking News, presented by NEON in the Diplarios School.

A piece from Michael Landy’s participatory exhibition Breaking News, presented by NEON in the Diplarios School.

It’s important to note, though, that if the Athenians’ response to the crisis has been stoic, it has not paralyzed them with apathy. Contrary to the stereotype, stoic equanimity and embrace of fate do not lead to resignation. Indeed, the Greeks have repeatedly shown themselves far less complaisant than the other nations facing the euro-austerity. Their readiness to resist has been demonstrated not only through protests in the streets, but, more importantly, through the election of Syriza and the resounding no-vote in the referendum on the so-called rescue package from the troika of moneylenders. It is as ironic as it is unjust, then, that Syriza keep going against their word and the will of the people by continuing to agree to the increasingly punitive measures ordered by the EU.


In certain regards, the situation is now arguably even more discouraging than it was during the days of the military junta: at least then it was possible to effortlessly locate the source of repression and therefore simple to imagine life without it. But it’s no longer the case that that the villains are so helpful as to all dress up in uniform and parade around in public; the forces currently suffocating the nation are much harder to identify, and thus much harder to contest. This is one of the many ways in which Athens can be seen as a simulacrum of much larger developments. Moreover, what, quite unjustifiably, has been termed the Greek crisis is, of course, a European crisis, if not an expression of a global crisis. But if Athens shows us that the world can be hopeless and cruel, its people simultaneously show us that it’s possible to live well in spite of that.

Athenian graffiti recreated by Super Terrain as part of the exhibition Spoken Walls, curated by Void: a creative space focused on photography and alternative publishing.

Athenian graffiti recreated by Super Terrain as part of the exhibition Spoken Walls, curated by Void: a creative space focused on photography and alternative publishing.

Slanted Magazine 30 — Athens

(Still) Against Interpretation