Bettany Hughes on what ancient thinkers can teach us about our lives: “None of my favourite philosophers were killjoys – they drank and had sex”

"With global tensions running high we need wisdom ever more urgently," says the historian. "Let's complete Socrates's mission to bring philosophy down from the skies and back on to the streets where it belongs"

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.

Everything has to be interrogated, rigorous questioning is the best way to find the beauty of truth. Religion is not inherently bad but focusing on rewards in the hereafter rather than seeking the good in the here and now diminishes the sublime possibilities of life – whether or not that life is god-given. It is a message I’d like to see taught in all religious schools; if you have a god, love her/him and also revel in the empowering idea that it is possible to be good without god. 

With global tensions running high we need wisdom ever more urgently. Let’s complete Socrates’s mission to bring philosophy down from the skies and back on to the streets where it belongs. “The only evil is ignorance,” he said. Living through an information revolution, we invest so much time cataloguing the world we forget to comprehend it.

To the three Ps of business success (planning, productivity and passion) should be added philosophy – literally a love of wisdom. We should always ask not just the “what” and the “how”, but also the “why”.

Earlier that day when I spotted the dignified, homeless, Greek woman, I had been talking to human smugglers, trafficking a group of migrants across the border. They were cocksure, with new trainers, snazzy haircuts and attitude. Their charges, by contrast – 40 or so Syrian refugees – were dirty and anxious. I asked one young man (big, clever eyes, teeth clearly unwashed for the past few months) what he hoped to achieve by travelling West. “I just want to finish my law degree,” came the quiet reply. His English ran out – so he tapped some Arabic in to a borrowed phone to be simultaneously translated: “Syria is a mess”, the message flashed.

When times are hard we want answers, not questions. But until we stop messing up our world we need to keep on employing the power of our minds to try to solve the problems of our own creation. And the starting point for that quest must surely be robust, open-minded compassion. So question, think, love. As the Buddha reflected, “Love without limit”, and Socrates said, “Love is the one thing I understand” and “The unexamined life is not worth living.” 

The Buddha: Genius of the Ancient World Wednesday 9:00pm BBC4