Can we learn something from ancient philosophy? Yes, Carlos Fraenkel argued, a great deal. If we boarded a time machine to take a tour of ancient Athens, all philosophers we’d meet there would try to lure us into their schools by advertising their philosophy as the gateway to “eudaimonia”: a happy and flourishing life.
Who doesn’t want to be happy and flourish? But once the old bearded men in tunics started lecturing, we’d be in for a shock. They would turn everything we believe about happiness and flourishing on its head. Good looks, cool friends, romance, sizzling sex, Instagram-ready children, wealth, status, fame, an Ivy league degree, a stellar career? None of this matters, they contend. From Socrates to the Skeptics––the ancients shake us out of our complacency.
How does this help? Since the Soviet Bloc crumbled, more people than ever are free to live as they please. What liberal societies fail to teach us is how to make good use of all that choice. The last few years have thrown us into ever-growing confusion: extreme weather, populist upheaval, billionaires buzzing through space juxtaposed with capsized migrant dinghies washing up on shores, war in Europe, etc.
The ancients, Fraenkel argues, can help us fix the mess. At a time when we’re scrambling to figure out the right way to live, engulfed by cascading crises, they offer us formidable tools to reconsider what we want our personal and collective lives to look like.
Carlos Fraenkel, James McGill Professor at the Departments of Philosophy and Jewish Studies of the McGill University. His scholarly work spans ancient, medieval, and early modern philosophy, as well as political philosophy. His publications include From Maimonides to Samuel ibn Tibbon: The Transformation of the Dalālat al-Ḥā'irīn into the Moreh ha-Nevukhim (Hebrew, Magnes Press, 2007), Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World (Princeton University Press, 2015).
Ludger Hagedorn, IWM Permanent Fellow, provided commentary and moderated the discussion.