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What Would Socrates Do? Business advice from Ancient Philosophers

When trying to motivate yourself to dream big and achieve great things in your business (and life in general), it can help to look at what great thinkers and other clever people believe and hold to be true. Sometimes, it’s good to look not to the future, but to the past.

It may surprise you to know that my advanced university degree isn’t in marketing or creative writing, but ancient history/archaeology. I spent most of my time at university staring at Greek vases and translating hieroglyphs. I know, what a bunch of useful skills! But it instilled in me a love for ancient wisdom and for questioning the nature of the universe.

Here are some of my favourite quotes from some of the cleverest minds born more than 2000 years ago:

1. Socrates (c469-399BC), Greek Philosopher

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

One of the finest minds in ancient philosophy, Socrates believed in an ethical system based on human logic and reason. He developed the “Socratic Method” where he would get a person to make a hypothesis and then ask a series of questions in order to test the logic of their question. This could be rather frustrating for the person he was questioning, which might go some way to explaining why he was convicted of corrupting the youth and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock in 399BC.

No writings of Socrates exist – we only know of his words through the writing of his student, Plato.

Takeaway from Socrates: Remember how little you know, question everything, and keep your mind open to other possibilities.

2. Plato (c428-348BC), Greek Philosopher

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

“Courage is knowing what not to fear.”

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors."

Plato was a student of Socrates and adopted many of his master’s teachings. He founded the Academy of Athens, the first institute of higher learning in the Western world, which operated until 529BC, when Emperor Justinian I shut it down as he considered it a threat to Christianity. “Plato” may actually have been his nickname, as Plato means “a strong, broad build.”

Plato originally considered going into politics, but gave that up after Socrates was executed, which left Plato feeling dejected by politics. Plato wrote many dialogues on history, philosophy, science, metaphysics, politics, religion and other subjects, his most famous being The Republic.

Takeaway from Plato: Be kind and courageous, and you will always win the day.

3. Aristotle (c384-322BC), Greek Philosopher

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”

Aristotle was a student of Plato’s Academy. When Plato died, Aristotle became the tutor of Alexander the Great, who would bring botanical specimens back from his travel for Aristotle to study. Aristotle was very concerned with ethics, and invented a new scientific study called causality – the study of why things happen.

We are blessed that Middle Eastern scholars saw the value in Aristotle’s work, and they preserved many of his writings after Ancient Greek civilisation collapsed. Only one third of Aristotle’s work still survives.

Takeaway from Aristotle: If you love what you do, it will reflect in your work.

4. Sallust (86-35 BC), Roman Historian

“Every man is the architect of his own future”

“Necessity makes the timid brave.”

“Harmony makes small things grow, lack of it makes great things decay.”

Sallust was the first Roman historian. He was born into a plebeian family, and was the first man in his family to enter the Senate. Sallust backed Julius Caesar in his civil war against the Senate, and was rewarded with the proconsulship of Rome’s Numidian territory. Here, Sallust retired to private life, and he wrote about the conspiracy of Catiline and the struggles of King Jugurtha of Numidia with Rome.

Takeaway from Sallust: You are the person who decides your own future, so think of what you want that future to be, and make it so.

5. Epictetus (c55-135 BC) Greek Stoic Philosopher

“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”

“You count yourself to be but an ordinary thread in the tunic. You ought to think how you can be like other men, just as one thread does not wish to have something special to distinguish it from the rest: but I want to be the purple, that touch of brilliance which gives distinction and beauty to the rest. Why then do you say to me, 'Make yourself like unto the many?' If I do that, I shall no longer be the purple.”

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

Unlike many other Classical philosophers who came from a noble birth, Epictetus was born a slave in Asia Minor. His master brought Epictetus to Rome with him and enrolled him to study under Gaius Musonius Rufus, a famous Stoic philosopher. Some time later, he was freed, only to be expelled by Emperor Domitian after criticising the emperor’s tyranny. Epictetus settled into a simple life in Nicopolis, where people travelled from all over the Roman world to hear him speak.

Epictetus believed a person could achieve complete freedom by limiting their desires to those that are within their power to achieve or ordained by nature as necessary. The world is under the control of providence, but within one’s own realm of power, one is free and responsible for his/her own actions.

Takeaway from Epictetus: It is OK to be the odd one, the weird one, the person trying to do something different. Because you are the purple that gives beauty to the rest.

6. Julius Caesar (100-44BC), Roman general and Dictator

“It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience.”

“No one is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected.”

“As a rule, men worry more about what they can't see than about what they can.”

Perhaps one of the most famous military minds of all time, Julius Caesar led the Roman army to victory against the Gauls, won a civil war against the forces of Pompey, and established himself as dictator of the newly created Roman Empire. He was murdered in a conspiracy after the Senate became concerned about the amount of power he wielded – Brutus and Cassius stabbed him to death as he approached the steps to the Senate house.

Caesar was also a notable writer of Latin prose and poetry, and one of the most famed orators in the Empire. Only his military commentaries have survive, but they give us a unique glimpse into the mind of this remarkable man.

Takeaway from Caesar: Focus on what you yourself can change, and leave the rest.

Wisdom comes from many sources, and some of the wisest minds were debating the meaning of life and the creative process thousands of years before our birth. It is remarkable that even though time passes, we still concern ourselves with the same questions about humanity, creativity, and desire. By seeing how great leaders and minds of the past solved problems, we can learn new ways to approach business, and life, today.

What are your favourite motivational / inspirational quotes from ancient sources?

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