No matter the amount of times I stand before her, my breadth is always taken away as I stand in contemplation and in reverence of the glorious Temple of Athena – The Parthenon, in Athens Greece. As I stand on her Acropolis, I marvel at the ingenuity of this architectural masterpiece with its 46 outer and 25 inner Doric and Ionic columns, built with no right angles to create a perfect illusion of symmetry and beauty, along with its marble overlays and friezes. This Temple was built to honor Athena – the Goddess of Wisdom – to look over and protect Athens. Miraculously, the Parthenon was built in nine short years and completed in 432 BC.
As I balance my footing on the uneven polished marble slabs, I think of what this Goddess of Wisdom has withstood over the centuries. I think of the German occupation during World War II under Hitler to the 400 years of Ottoman rule. I think of the devastation, the bombings, the wars, the destruction, and even the natural disasters such as the earthquakes. Athena has seen it all.
As the fluffy white clouds float by, a perfect hue of blue frames this majestic marble structure while the sun’s rays extend their tentacles through the spaces in between, as if God’s majesty is fully present. I lay my hands on an ancient slap of marble to absorb the energy of this moment. I listen to the flapping of the blue and white Greek flag as it flaps in the distance, and I listen to the wind as it circles and dances around this perfect structure. This wind, this howling and distinctive melodic sound along with the hugs of the sun’s rays, bring tears to my eyes. This is the sound of mankind moving through the ages in pursuit of a better world for humanity. This is the height of ingenuity, where nature coexisted with mankind in perfect form. The Goddess Athena – the Protector of the City – the Goddess of Wisdom. I am moved to tears. This ancient world has so much to teach us.
My mind is taken back to the ancient philosophers from 423-332 BC – the great Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – who walked in the shadow of these columns contemplating life and giving us the rules of life. Democracy, free speech, individual rights, constitutional government, trial by jury, mathematics, biology, astronomy, atomic theory – so much this world of grand thinkers have given to us that the Western world in particular continues to enjoy to this day.
But in my observations, it is the notions of virtue and humanity that are the most important contributions of these philosophers. In Nicomachean Ethics (350 BC), Aristotle explained to us that to be a ‘human in the highest form, we must be able to prosper individually while collectively benefiting the larger whole.’ In other words, the individual must answer to himself, but also to his family, to his community, and to the betterment of humankind. Happiness, the Greek word ‘eudaimonia’ means to live well – not just in the physical sense but in the spiritual sense of the soul and the spirit – one’s conscious and peace of mind. And ‘arete’ is happiness deep within our soul that enriches our lives. It extends beyond our moral comprehension and into our daily physical world of the daily choices we make both in action and in words.
In ‘Republic’ (375 BC), Plato wrote of four virtues – the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice.
1) Wisdom is the capacity to make sensible decisions, meaning leaders taking good advice and then acting prudently. 2) Courage is the ability to confront fear, uncertainly, difficulty and intimidation. Courage was a virtue in ancient Greece, a tradition which endures to this day. Despite military conquests and economic difficulties from physical wars to the recent economic crisis, it is the Greek model of courage and heroism which illuminates one’s vision. As Winston Churchill declared, after Greece’s role in limiting Hitler’s expansion into Europe, ‘… we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.’ Or the U.S. President, Franklin Roosevelt: ‘When the entire world had lost all hope, the Greek people dared to question the invincibility of the German monster raising against it, the proud spirit of freedom.’ 3) Plato’s third virtue – was moderation – the quality of practicing self-restraint and self-control. 4) Finally, and most importantly, justice. Plato emphasized the interconnectedness of the three previous virtues. Only when these three prior virtues are present can the human soul be complete and can a society be ordered in a humane and just fashion. In other words, being fair and reasonable in how decisions are made and how people are treated require wisdom, courage and moderation.
As Greece celebrates its 200 years of Independence on March 25, 2021, we must also remember the important contributions of this ancient world which gave us an important roadmap in preserving our democracy; honoring our humanity; and understanding the importance of leading with wisdom, with humility, and with integrity. During these difficult times of global change and negative vibrations, our world needs to stand still and reflect on the teachings and grand contributions of Greece through all of the ages. If we are to continue improving mankind through the ages, as it has been improved for us, may we continue to always hold love, faith, and hope in our hearts and to lead with Greek verve, courage and wisdom!
**EFHARISTO HELLAS! XRONIA POLLA! ZHTO H ELLADA!**
Stella Thomas of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, USA and Thessaloniki, Greece, is the Managing Director of the Global Water Fund, Zurich, Switzerland.