The old woman lying on the park bench was smartly dressed. Nice blouse, neat shoes, carefully cut hair; and then I noticed the cardboard. That bench, in a side road of the Greek city of Thessaloniki, was not a temporary resting point; this was her new home.
Nearby, two young lads sniffed glue, a shipping heiress clicked past in Prada, while a motorbike posse of Israeli pilgrims roared out of the ghost-town Jewish quarter (50,000 Jews from the city were deported to and killed in Nazi concentration camps in the Second World War), their T-shirts bravely bellowing, “BACK TO BERLIN”.
In that single moment the big questions of life seemed to be incarnated in front of me. How do we seek not the bad but the good? What is truth? What is justice? Does money make us truly happy? Of course I am not the first to ask. Twenty-five centuries ago, each and every one of these quandaries was of burning urgency for three of the greatest minds of the ancient world.
The Buddha, Socrates and Confucius all lived within 100 years of one another and made it their business to try to nail not just the meaning of life but the meaning of our own lives.
“Pursue wealth, but not at the expense of wisdom” seems to me to be one of their most cogent maxims. When my banker acquaintances build swimming pools and wine cellars and cinemas in their basements, none ever seems to ask intelligently where all that cash comes from. I’m no economist but growth does not equal alchemy; somewhere down the line that dough was squeezed from the sweat of another’s brow.
Confucius was very clear – immoderation and virtue are incompatible. Socrates tells us that when we act selfishly we are not harming others, but our own souls. The degree of indulgence that I see on the streets of London is surely bad for all levels of society – including the protagonist.
There’s a danger of sounding Pollyanna-ish here but, critically, none of my favourite ancient thinkers were killjoys or esoteric greybeards; they drank and had sex. Socrates spent most of his life as a soldier, Confucius loved music so much he arguably invented art therapy, while the Buddha was practising cognitive psychology 25 centuries before the phrase was invented.
But I find their simple, central assertion immensely helpful; it is not that man is the measure of all things, but man’s relationship with man – so steer a life-path that lies somewhere between self-denial and selfish excess.
In a world riven by religious spirits we should also take a leaf from their book. Atheos in Greek does not mean atheism, a denial of god or the gods, but a standing back from them, a healthy distance. Again, all three talk about the possibilities of divinity but crucially all also make it clear that rigid sacred dogma and sterile memorialisation of ideas etiolate human potential.