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Nicolson’s ‘How to Be’ Offers Insights from the Early Greeks

October 2, 2023

When most people think of Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle usually come to mind, there were, however, numerous Greek thinkers who laid the foundations for later philosophers long before the Golden Age of Athens in the 5th century BC. These early Greeks, some better known than others, began to ask questions about the world around them and their ideas inspired others in powerful ways that continue to resonate to this day.

How to Be: Life Lessons from the Early Greeks by Adam Nicolson is a charming and informative book, offering insights from the early Greek thinkers. This well-written volume draws the reader along on a fascinating journey through the ancient world as the author explores our connections to the past. The constancy of human nature is clear in the questions those early thinkers asked, as noted in the book’s description- “What is the nature of things? What is justice? How can I be myself? How should we treat each other?”

The book includes maps, illustrations, and photos that highlight the geography, art, architecture, and material culture that help bring the history to life. With detailed notes and an extensive bibliography, the book is a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about the early Greek thinkers and about philosophy in general and how it applies to our lives today.

“Before the Greeks, the idea of the world was dominated by god-kings and their priests,” the book’s description continues. “Twenty-five hundred years ago, in a succession of small eastern Mediterranean harbor cities, a few heroic men and women decided to cast off mental subservience and apply their own thinking minds to the conundrums of life.”

“These great innovators shaped the beginnings of western philosophy,” the description notes. “Through the questioning voyager Odysseus, Homer explored how we might navigate our way through the world. Heraclitus, in Ephesus, was the first to consider the interrelatedness of things. Xenophanes of Colophon was the first champion of civility. On the Aegean island of Lesvos, the early lyric poets Sappho and Alcaeus asked themselves, ‘How can I be true to myself?’ On Samos, Pythagoras imagined an everlasting soul and took his ideas to Italy, where they flowered again in surprising and radical forms.”
Nicolson guides us through this changing world in search of what light these ancient thinkers can shine for us today. Exploring early ideas from the dawn of investigative thought, the book poses the fundamental questions of the ancient philosophers for a contemporary audience to ponder. What are the principles of the physical world? How can we be good in it? And why do we continue to ask these questions?

Nicolson is the author of many books on history, landscape, and great literature. He is the winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, the W. H. Heinemann Award, and the Ondaatje Prize. His books include The Life Between the Tides and Why Homer Matters. He lives on a farm in Sussex.

How to Be: Life Lessons from the Early Greeks by Adam Nicolson is set to be released on October 17.


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