An ancient Greek approach to risk and the lessons it can offer the modern world


A vase from ancient Greek civilization depicts Apollo consulting the oracle of Delphi. G. Dagli Orti/DeAgostini Collection via Getty Images

Joshua P. Nudell, Westminster College

Most of us take big and small risks in our lives every day. But COVID-19 has made us more aware of how we think about taking risks.

Since the start of the pandemic, people have been forced to weigh their options about how much risk is worth taking for ordinary activities – should they, for example, go to the grocery store or even turn up for a long-scheduled doctor’s visit?

As a scholar of ancient Greek history, I am interested in what the classics can teach us about risk-taking as a way to make sense of our current situation.

Greek mythology features godlike heroes, but Greek history was filled with men and women who were exposed to great risks without the comforts of modern life.

The iron generation

One of the earliest written works in Greek is “Works and Days,” a poem by a farmer named Hesiod in the eighth century B.C. In it, Hesiod addresses his lazy brother, Perses.

The most famous section of “Works and Days” describes a cycle of generations. First, Hesiod says, Zeus created a golden generation who “lived like the gods, having hearts free from sorrow, far from work and misery.”

Then came a silver generation, arrogant and proud.

Third was a bronze generation, violent and self-destructive.

Fourth was the age of heroes who went to their graves at Troy.

Finally, Hesiod says, Zeus made an iron generation marked by a balance of pain and joy.

While the earliest generations lived life free of worries, according to Hesiod, life in the current iron generation is shaped by risk, which leads to pain and sorrow.

Throughout the poem, Hesiod develops an idea of risk and its management that was common in ancient Greece: People can and should take steps to prepare for risk, but it is ultimately inescapable.

As Hesiod says, “summer won’t last forever, build granaries,” but for people of the current generation, “there is neither a stop to toil and sorrow by day, nor to death by night.”

In other words, people face the consequences of risk – including suffering – because that is the will of Zeus.

Omens and divination

If the outcome of risk was determined by the gods, then one critical part of preparing to face uncertainty was to try to find out the will of Zeus. For this, the Greeks relied on oracles and omens.

While the rich might pay to petition the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, most people turned to simpler techniques to seek guidance from the gods, such as throwing dice made of animal knuckle bones.

Dice made of bone
Marry, or stay single? Ancient Greeks, at times, let the dice decide. PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A second technique involved inscribing a question on a lead tablet, to which the god would provide an answer such as “yes” or “no.” These tablets record a wide range of concerns from ordinary Greeks. In one, a man named Lysias asks the god whether he should invest in shipping. In another, a man named Epilytos asks whether he should continue in his current career and whether he ought to wed a woman who shows up, or wait. Nothing is known about either man except that they turned to the gods when confronted with uncertainty.

Omens were also used to inform almost every decision, whether public or private. Men called “chresmologoi,” oracle collectors who interpreted the signs from the gods, had enormous influence in Athens. When the Spartans invaded in 431 B.C., the historian Thucydides says, they were everywhere reciting oracular responses. When plague struck Athens, he notes that the Athenians called to mind just such a prophecy.

Chresmologoi played so much of a role in bolstering public confidence that the wealthy Athenian politician Alcibiades privately contracted them as spin doctors in order to persuade people to overlook the risks of an expedition to Sicily in 415 B.C.

Mitigating risks

For the Greeks, putting faith in the gods alone did not fully protect them from risk. As Hesiod explained, risk mitigation required attending to both the gods and human actions.

Generals, for example, made sacrifices to gods like Artemis or Ares in advance of battle, and the best commanders knew how to interpret every omen as a positive sign. At the same time, though, generals also paid attention to strategy and tactics in order to give their armies every advantage.

Neither was every omen heeded. Before the Athenian expedition to Sicily in 415 B.C., statues sacred to Hermes, the god of travel, were found with their faces scratched out.

The Athenians interpreted this as a bad omen, which may have been what the perpetrators intended. The expedition sailed anyway, but it ended in a crushing defeat. Few of the people who left ever returned to Athens.

The evidence was clear to the Athenians: The desecration of the statues had put everyone in the expedition at risk. The only solution was to punish the wrongdoers. Fifteen years later, the orator Andocides had to defend himself in court against accusations that he had been involved.

This history explains that individuals might escape divine punishment, but ignoring omens and failing to take precautions were often communal rather than individual problems. Andocides was acquitted, but his trial shows that when someone’s actions put everyone at risk, it was a community’s responsibility to hold them accountable.

Oracles and knuckle bones are not in vogue today, but the ancient Greeks show us the very real dangers of risky behavior, and why it is important that risk not be left to a simple toss of the dice.

Joshua P. Nudell, Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics, Westminster College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In times of stress, turning to contemplation can be helpful – here’s why religions emphasize rest


Most religions emphasize rest and contemplation. Geovien So/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Kristen Lucken, Brandeis University

Over a year of dealing with COVID-19 has left a lasting imprint on our daily lives. The pandemic disrupted usual work routines, with the majority of Americans having to work from home for long spells. While working from home has some hidden benefits, such as no daily commute, it also resulted in longer workdays and high levels of stress for many.

A global study of the communication patterns of 1.3 million workers during the global lockdown showed the average workday increased by 8.2% during the pandemic, and the average number of virtual meetings per person expanded by almost 13%. Many in the workforce felt overloaded with never-ending online meetings and unexpected family obligations that added pressure to the lives of working parents and other caregivers.

People’s well-being can be profoundly impacted if work-life balance ignores the need for rest and recuperation. As a scholar who studies the sociology of religion, I know that the themes of rest and contemplation are woven throughout the fabric of most religious traditions, and they remain equally salient in our lives today.

Faith, contemplation and rest

Box of Yehuda brand Shabbat candles, used during the Shabbat celebration.
Themes of rest and contemplation are woven through many religious traditions. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam view a day of rest each week as a sacred right and responsibility of believers. The traditional Jewish Shabbat offers a 24-hour period beginning at sundown on Friday when the busyness of everyday life halts. Participants gather to worship, share a meal, study and pray.

Similarly, practicing Muslims celebrate their holy day on Fridays. This is a time when Muslims step away from work to attend a midday jumah, a prayer service at a local mosque, where imams offer sermons on a range of intellectual, spiritual and practical topics and lead congregations in prayer.

Although attendance numbers are declining, many Christians observe the holy Sabbath on Sundays through church attendance, communal worship, music and the sharing of the Eucharist, when Christians consecrate and consume bread and wine representing the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The Christian Sabbath represents a time to rest, pray, worship and spend time with family.

Branches of Islam, Christianity and Judaism additionally call for regular times of prayer and contemplation as part of daily and yearly cycles. In the Islamic tradition, stopping to pray throughout the day represents one of Islam’s five pillars of faith.

Through the practice of meditation, religious traditions quiet the senses in order to achieve a mindset of rest that they believe brings about heightened consciousness. Hindus, Buddhists and Jains teach the concept of dhyana, which generally translates to “contemplation.”

Through yoga, meditation and other contemplative practices, practitioners can achieve a state of meditative consciousness and self-awareness that can lead to better mental, physical and spiritual health.

Quieting the mind

Religions emphasize the need for rest and quiet reflection so our over-cluttered minds can focus on prayer and other contemplative practices. The Apostle Paul discusses how cultivating the “fruit of the spirit” through prayer and contemplation moves us toward patience and away from egocentrism.

Buddhists believe that quieting the mind through meditation can help people recognize that their feelings, perceptions, worldviews and even the self are impermanent features of life that can cause suffering. It can also help people contemplate their connectedness to the world around them.

Rest and contemplation help connect religious people with the deeper sources of meaning they seek to cultivate through scriptural study, meditation and prayer. As the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton explains in his 1948 autobiographical book “The Seven Story Mountain,” contemplation is a time of rest, the suspension of activity and a “withdrawal into the mysterious interior solitude in which the soul is absorbed in the immense and fruitful silence of God.”

Health benefits of rest and meditation

Medical science has become religion’s unexpected partner in confirming the benefits generated by these religious practices.

Researchers have found an association between downtime, learning and creativity. Sleep, nature walks and exercise offer a number of life-enhancing benefits, including improved memory, productivity and physical health. Recent advances in neuroimaging technologies have allowed researchers to observe brain changes during times of intense prayer, yoga and mindfulness meditation. Scientific evidence suggests that engaging in these practices may lead to improved health and well-being.

A broad range of clinical studies on mindfulness, decentering and acceptance therapies note that regular meditation can physically alter the brain and how it responds to the world. For instance, these practices have been found to transform the brain’s neural pathways and create new neurological networks that can lead to improved health and well-being.

Research on the practices of Japanese and Chinese Buddhist monks reveals benefits for physical and mental health. Furthermore, active meditations, such as yoga, qigong and tai-chi, are found to increase a sense of well-being through the regulation of mood and the reduction in anxiety and depression.

Even in the midst of a pandemic – or a stressful work week – taking time to rest, exercise, sleep, meditate or pray can lead to improvements in our everyday physical, mental and spiritual health.

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Kristen Lucken, Lecturer in Religious Studies, Brandeis University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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