‘ No man is an island’
The Ancient Greeks were onto something when they encouraged communal well- being over personal glory.
RECENTLY, I’ve been reading a lot about Ancient Greece: its philosophers, art, architecture, the love of wine – all the good stuff.
The Greeks were pioneers of so much that we enjoy today. Democracy, science, medicine, language and, of course, philosophy, are just some of the ways in which Ancient Greece significantly influenced the world – an influence that continues today. ( Fun fact: the English word idiot stems from the Greek idiotes, which was used to describe an unrefined person who took no interest in public affairs.)
It could be argued that the glory of Athens was born from the desire to put personal glory aside for the greater good. Every competition, every philosophical pursuit, all education and training was geared towards strengthening the city’s standing. Civic duty, far from being seen as a chore, was a joy for the people of Athens. They understood that for a city to be great, its people had to excel. However, those who became overly ambitious and sought personal glory could find themselves exiled thanks to a public vote where people used ostrakon ( bits of broken pottery) to etch the names of undesirables they wanted to see banished. This is how the ostrakon became the root for another modern term: the English word ostracise.
From a social perspective, putting the interests of the many ahead of the few provided obvious benefits, the main benefit being that we’re here. Certainly, if we evolved as a species without developing concern for the well- being of others, we wouldn’t have got very far.
But the practice of serving others – described as “the highest purpose” by Socrates – actually offers a number of psychological and physiological advantages. In one study in 2008, researchers at Canada’s University of British Columbia found that money can buy happiness – when it’s spent on other people. Regardless of income, people who spend money on others enjoy a higher sense of happiness than those who solely look after their own interests.
Part of the study measured the happiness of employees at a Boston firm before and after they received a profit- sharing bonus. Researchers found those who used more of their bonus to buy gifts for others or donate to charity “consistently reported greater benefits than employees who simply spent money on their own needs”.
At the peak of the golden age of Ancient Greece, collective wellbeing and the pursuit of knowledge and truth were considered to be true riches, while private wealth was seen as suspect, as conveyed in many plays that told stories of the misery wealth can bring. In some cases, it is argued that the glory of Ancient Greece started to corrode when the tide of thought began to turn and houses became more opulent, streets widened, and personal wealth became a sign of status.
Through this shift of the times, we can see that service to others helps communities to stick together, as people focus on maintaining a society of collective prosperity. As we lend mutual support, we see each other in a more positive, caring light, and we are more likely to open up to others as they are to us.
It’s little surprise, then, that a study carried out at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University revealed that providing service to others can lead to lower blood pressure. Researchers interviewed participants twice, once in 2006 and again in 2010. All 1,164 participants had normal blood pressure at the first interview. A paper then revealed that those who reported at least 200 hours of volunteer work during the initial interview “were 40% less likely to develop hypertension than those who did not volunteer when evaluated four years later”.
It would appear that the Greeks of old were onto something when they encouraged communal wellbeing over personal glory, and it’s surely no coincidence that the greatest spiritual teachers throughout history all included service to others as a key part of their message.
Banishing someone for 10 years for the sin of self- interest would likely be viewed as too extreme today, but it does show how seriously Ancient Greece believed that well- being is a collective pursuit, and how enlightened they were in realising that no man is an island entire of itself.
Sandy Clarke has been a keen practitioner of meditation and contemplation for the past 16 years, and believes that the better we understand ourselves and our emotions, the more likely we are to cultivate a positive outlook and sense of contentment.