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• Last updated: November 15, 2023

Podcast #943: The Lesser-Known Philosophy of the Iron Age Greeks

When we think of Western philosophers who pondered questions about the good life, we typically think of the classical era of Greece and the likes of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. But my guest would say that the poets and philosophers who came out of the preceding period, Greece’s Iron Age, also have something to say about the nature of existence.

Adam Nicolson is the author of How to Be: Life Lessons from the Early Greeks. Today on the show, Adam takes us on a tour of Iron Age Greece and how these seafaring people set the stage for our modern sense of self. Adam makes the case that the early Greeks had what he calls a “harbor mindset,” which lent them a mentality centered on fluidity and transience. We discuss how Odysseus exemplifies this harbor mindset, and how a group of lesser-known pre-Socratic philosophers defined life through a lens of change and contradiction. Adam then explains how a mystical guru named Pythagoras paved the way for Greek thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and the rise of cooperative civility.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. When we think of Western philosophers who pondered questions about the good life, we typically think of the Classical era of Greece and the likes of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. But my guest would say that the poets and philosophers who came out of the preceding period, Greece’s Iron Age, also have something to say about the nature of existence. Adam Nicolson is the author of How to Be: Life Lessons from the Early Greeks. Today in the show, Adam takes us on a tour of iron Age Greece and how these seafaring people set the stage for our modern sense of self. We discuss how Odysseus exemplifies this harbor mindset and how a group of lesser known Pre-Socratic philosophers defined life through a lens of change and contradiction. Adam then explains how a mystical guru named Pythagoras paved the way for Greek thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and the rise of cooperative civility. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right, Adam Nicolson, welcome back to the show.

Adam Nicolson: Thanks for having me. A pleasure.

Brett McKay: So we had you on last year to talk about your book, Why Homer Matters, where we explore Homer, the great epic poet and his works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and what we can learn from him. You got a new book out called How to Be: Life Lessons from the Early Greeks. And in this book, you explore the intellectual development of the Iron Age Greeks and then how their geography influence their philosophical outlook on life. And I think when we typically think of the ancient Greeks, I think we typically think of Greeks living in the Classical era. We think of Plato and Aristotle. But your book goes further back into Greek history. So what’s the time period that you explored in your book?

Adam Nicolson: Well, this book really is a successor to that one I wrote about Homer. It takes on where Homer leaves off. And so conventionally, people date Homer nowadays to about 750 BC, 720 BC, something like that. And Homer lives just at the beginning of this revolution in thought and life that represents the beginning of what is conventionally called the Archaic Age in Greece, stretching from then about 700 to really about 500, 470, when you could say the Classical Age begins. These are artificial divisions and artificial categorizations. Obviously, it’s a continuous evolving process. But there is something unique about this age known as the Pre-Socratic Age of Philosophy, ie, the age before Socrates, and filled with a series of really intriguing thinkers, almost philosophers, almost poets, many of them wrote in poetry, shaman-like figures in some ways, not unlike even prophets, Hebrew prophets on the other side of the Mediterranean in Israel.

And it’s absolutely filled with a sense of beginnings, of a new way of thinking about things, and evolving away from the Homeric universe that we talked about last time of a terrible sense of destiny, of divinely inspired destiny controlling the nature of human life, and instead beginning to say, “How can I make my life good? I do not depend on the divine. I can think myself, or how to make a good society, how to have a good self, how to live well according to my own choices.” And I think that that’s what’s extraordinary about this moment, that it appeals to many, many modern questions, many of the modern questions which say, “Are we really satisfied with the inherited answers? Are we not in a very fluid and in many ways troubling time? That demands of us that we think, what is it to be? What is it to be good? What is it to conceive of oneself as something distinct in the world?” And so there’s a curiously powerful connection for me anyway, between now and then. These seem very arcane, very distant people 2700 years ago, and yet their concerns are still ours. And that’s really what intrigued me about them.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I was intrigued by that too, as you described these different philosophers during this period, was it seemed both foreign but at the same time very familiar.

Adam Nicolson: I agree. Both foreign and familiar because so much of our intellectual inheritance is really about, it seems to me, the of imposition of certainties, the need to accept. For example, the kind of great platonic vision that things of value are not in this world but in another world or in a world distinct from this one, lying behind and above this one. And that this world that we’re in now may be interesting scientifically and materially, you can investigate its stuff, but the place of value is somehow not here. And I’ve always really [chuckle] resented that idea that our life here is somehow second rate compared with the life that might be lived elsewhere, always being lived elsewhere in heaven or whatever you want to call it. And so I think that this Pre-Platonic, Pre-Socratic understanding that this world is the one to attend to, in a way beyond the scientific, not only about its material structure but about how we are in it, is hugely valuable and something of a kind of almost, I feel like saying, an ally in a difficult time.

Here are people who have at the very beginning of freedom in some way, of intellectual freedom. This is not a democratic world we’re discussing, so it’s not as if there is universal liberty going on. It’s a very, very strictly run oligarchic world, actually; just a few people telling other people what to do. But those few people are thinking hard, and it’s extraordinarily refreshing. It’s a kind of great surge of newness. It’s not a surge of oldness, and exciting for that.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So it sounds like this period is a transition period where you start seeing the development of, I think we can call it “agency” in the Greek mindset.

Adam Nicolson: Yeah. Yeah.

Brett McKay: The sense of self, that I’m an individual, that I’m not just buffeted by my environment that is going on, but there’s a sense that I can do something about it.

Adam Nicolson: Yes, it is. It’s definitely transitional. And an intriguing thing that I discussed this in the book, is that there is already a transition visible within Homer between the two Homeric poems. If the Iliad is really a poem about the imprisonment of destiny, of destiny shutting you into a frame of unaddressable fate, then the Odyssey is really about choice. How can you navigate a world? How can you find your way out through all the troubles and turmoil of existence? And there’s a very interesting thing that in the Iliad, often when people are having to make up their minds, a god appears and almost infuses the human beings with their godliness and kind of makes up their minds for them.

There’s one point in the Iliad where Athene grabs Achilles by the hair and shakes his head physically to change his mind. The Odyssey is the very opposite of that, that Odysseus is clearly a man making up his own mind in his own world. And there’s one point at which Odysseus compares his own heart to a sausage on a grill, turning it and turning it in the flames. And so his mind is saying, “Shall I do this? Shall I move this way? Shall I turn that way?” And so already within Homer, you can see this exactly what you were talking about, that transition to agency and autonomy beginning to evolve.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I love that chapter about the Odyssey ’cause the Odyssey is my favorite Homeric epic. And I think it’s because Odysseus is such a relatable character even for the modern age. I think we all can feel like Odysseus at times where you’re just… Everything’s confusing and you feel like you have to use your wiles to navigate all the changes you encounter in life. And you see Odysseus do that.

Adam Nicolson: Yes. And I think wiliness, it’s almost a synonym for agency. Wiliness is exactly the mind engaging with the conditions you find yourself in and being inventive in those conditions. This philosophical moment, there are thinkers who talk about the material world, but there’re also the first lyric poets, poets who like Sappho and Archilochus and Alcaeus from the Aegean Islands, who know all about Homer, often use Homeric language, who use Homeric metaphors and so on, but do not put the self in that epic frame, the epic frame, which even the Odyssey does for Odysseus. That he isn’t alone in his world; he is hugely accompanied. The lyric poets have almost, you could say, the self as the battlefield on which the questions of consciousness are played out. If the Iliad has the plane of Troy, Sappho has her own heart, her own heart in which these storming questions are acted out.

And so it’s as if the self comes up to the surface of the culture. The self has clearly been in play. Achilles has a huge self, Odyssey has a huge self, Hector and Priam, they’re all radiantly present in those poems, but they’re not the frame within which the poem is acted out. And so for Sappho, especially Sappho, the self is the drama of itself. Wordsworth had this great phrase in the prelude. He says, “There’s a grandeur in the beatings of the heart.” And that notion, which of course has played itself out in any number of ways, that notion begins with these early Greeks.

Brett McKay: So the Odyssey takes place on the sea; it’s just Odysseus going from harbor to harbor, getting shipwrecked. And one of the big themes or thesis in your book is that the geography of this Iron Age Greek era heavily influenced the thinking of these philosophers, writers, poets. And you call it, they had a “harbor mindset.” How would you describe this harbor mindset and how did it shape the thinking of these Iron Age Greeks?

Adam Nicolson: Yes. Well, just to go back, obviously these philosophers are not the first intellectuals that ever were. There have been huge, long, hugely powerful civilizations in the Near East, in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in Eastern Turkey, with the Hittites in Crete, with the Minoans. Highly sophisticated palace economies largely, dictated by great kings and huge bureaucracies with a very powerful fusion of worldly authority, monarchical authority with a sense of divinely ruled cosmos with great, powerful, kingly gods. And the status of the intellectual in all of those cultures was really subservient to power, subservient to the monarchical powers. They were officials of priests and royal bureaucracies. Now, those civilizations famously all disintegrated at the end of the Bronze Age in about 1100 BC for reasons no one has really yet satisfactorily explained. Egypt, the Mesopotamian kingdoms, the Hittites, the Minoans, even the early Greek, the Mycenaeans, so all fell apart at pretty well the same moment.

And the Eastern Mediterranean was left as a power vacuum. And as ever, with the end of empires, many small piratical, self-determining invaders, raiders, whatever you want to call them, pirates came and expanded all through that world. And one of them was the Phoenicians and the what is now the coast of Lebanon, the great cities, the great… What became the great trading cities of Tyre and Sidon and Byblos. And almost as their successors, these Greeks who have uncertain origins, maybe to the North in North of the Black Sea, but as their successors, the Greeks also set up trading cities on what is now the West coast of Turkey, the Aegean coast of Turkey. And these cities, none of them had great hinterlands, great fertile hinterlands. They were not like the great river civilizations of Mesopotamia or Egypt, which hugely productive of their own wealth agriculturally.

These cities entirely depended for their wellbeing on seaborne trading. And they became great sea adventurers, sailing to the far North of the Black Sea, to the far West, to what is now Spain in the Western Mediterranean to Southern Italy, to the Mediterranean islands and so on. And so there is an absolute foundation on sea journeying, on the connectedness that sea trading relies on, on really the foundation of the city not being in the city itself but in the links and connections it makes all across the adjoining sea. And so there is something essentially different about a great centrally shaped empire like Egypt or the Mesopotamians and this marginal, small, un-monarchical… None of these cities had kings while from time to time they had a tyrant, but essentially they were mercantile oligarchies. And so the whole structure of authority changes. And instead of it being, I think the word is “centripetal,” that everything gets sucked in towards the center. It becomes absolutely at its core centrifugal, that things are dependent on the distant, the fluid, the connecting.

And so in these cities, in these mercantile cities, you have a frame of mind, which as you say, I call the “harbor mind,” which doesn’t conceive itself as needing a great dominating regal force, but knows about the network, the meshwork of connections on which their life, their wellbeing, and I think their sense of reality comes to depend. That none of them are sort of… None of them are dependent on the great gods. None of them are dependent on a rigid, dominating set of ideas. All of them are interested in fluidity and change, and the transformations of who we are, what the world is made of, what the cosmos is made of. And so I think it was rarely said that philosophy has a geography. People think of philosophy as something existing in this pure, immaterial sphere. But it seems absolutely clear to me that these ideas of fluidity and change as being at the heart of existence emerged from a world in which fluidity and change are the governing facts of their lives.

Brett McKay: Right. So you can see this in the Odyssey. Odysseus is described as a polytropos, [0:18:30.1] ____. He’s slippery. And then also we’ll see this in some of the philosophies of the pre-Socratics. And you also make the point that the Greeks, while they didn’t emphasize the fluid and the change that is harbor mindset, they weren’t completely fluid. They tried to find some sort of basis, and you make the point that they found a third way. They cut the difference between the river kingdoms of Egypt and Mesopotamia where it was very bureaucratic and stable and power-centered, and they combine that with this piratical, pirate-like free-for-all.

Adam Nicolson: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. Say you could… If you think of that in historical terms, if you think of the term one, the great setup empires and the last in the Bronze Age, then the anarchic piratical moment of what people have conventionally called the Dark Ages. And then this third term emerging out of that, which draws a lot on the learning and wisdom of Egypt and Mesopotamia. They get some mathematics, navigational skills, cosmological understanding, and even… The Greeks actually take their writing, their alphabetic writing from the Phoenicians. And so you get as a third term, the setting up of a new world, a new independent world, which is neither rigidly bureaucratic nor antiquely piratical, but somehow fuses that into these philosophical cities in which all the great questions are asked. It is a questioning culture rather than an answering culture. And they start to decide, What is justice? What kind of law system do you need? How can you understand the essential nature of the material world? What is the relationship between identity and change? How can identity last in a fluid world?

And so there is a dialogue between the making of the well-shaped thing, whatever you like to call that, temple, a city, a self, an idea. And the idea that change is absolutely at the heart of identity, paradoxically. [chuckle] That our identities are essentially fluid. And I think that is a source of real dynamism. You don’t just have pirate kings as you do in the Iliad. It’s easy to see those Greeks in the Iliad as… Or even you could see Odysseus as this, as a self-determining pirate king, like a terrifying Viking raider. He’s much more than that. There is, people start to think of ideas of civility and sociability and the good life together. They set up the Olympic games, these often fiercely competing cities can meet in a nonviolent meeting every four years, and so on. And so there is a lovely ambivalence permanently in play between the, you could say, I think the fighting mind, the going-out-and-getting mind, and the careful mind, the caring mind, and that tension between “Let’s make this good” and “Let’s make this adventurous” is in play in any number of spheres.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. So continuing on with this idea that this was a period where the thinking was fluid because of that harbor mindset they had, you highlight three Pre-Socratic philosophers who all lived in Melitus, which was at the crossroads of all the navigation roots of the Eastern Mediterranean. You had Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. And the question that they were all grappling with is, What is existence made of? And they felt that it was a substance that life springs from and then it goes back into, and then it just… That’s the process. It goes up and it goes back down, and it comes back up. So tell us about them.

Adam Nicolson: Yeah. So these three early Melitus thinkers all think that somehow lying behind all the variable phenomena of existence, surely there is something to being which is beyond the endless little details which we’re surrounded by. And Thales thinks it’s water, Anaximenes thinks it’s air, and Anaximander thinks it’s this thing called the apeiron, which just means the undefined, either the limitless or something that where you can’t say what qualities it has. And in a way, this is all versions of one idea that, of course, we now know, we recognize, don’t we? That the material world that we are and we’re surrounded by is only the form that stuff is currently taking. We’re all made of the stars, and we will all return to the stars in the end. And so it is this idea that nothing is fixed. We are only the form that the wave of existence is currently taking.

And I find that idea incredibly liberating, that you don’t actually need to become almost addicted to things as they are, but you can allow, must allow even, if you are to recognize the reality of things, you must allow the wave to go on its way. And there are so many implications of that idea about the nature of birth and death. I think one of those, Melitian thinkers says there’s no such thing as birth or death, that it is only things taking another form. And isn’t that such a relief? [laughter] I find that a huge relief, that you were never really born, Brett, and that you will never really die. The wave will simply move on.

Brett McKay: Well, another Pre-Socratic philosopher you highlight who also explored metaphysics, like what is reality made of, Heraclitus, Heraclites?

Adam Nicolson: Heraclitus, are you saying?

Brett McKay: Heraclitus, okay. Heraclitus. And he also thought reality is constantly changing, but he used, instead of water or fluid, he used fire. Talk about Heraclitus.

Adam Nicolson: Heraclitus, who came from a neighboring and rival city of Melitus, in Ephesus, just to the north of there. And he is the most intriguing of them all. He’s exceptionally difficult to understand. It’s not clearly stated. And the reason I think is that for Heraclitus, the nature of identity, the nature of identity is at its heart self-contradictory, and that the self-contradiction is the energy of things. So that’s rather opaque he said. But for example, one of his analogies is that justice, and by that, I think he means the good city, the good society, even the good self, is like a bow, like a bow and arrow, or like a lyre. And in a bow or a lyre, the frame of the bow and the string of the bow pull in opposite directions. That the bow is only a bow because the frame pulls in one way, and the string pulls in another. And if either string or frame were to win out in that contest, that tension, then the bow would no longer be a bow. It would be an inert bit of string or broken string and a bit of wood.

And so that kind of the pulling together, or the pulling against themselves of opposites is what Heraclitus thinks life and being is. And so you can’t ever really identify anything, that everything has this self-contradiction to its heart. And so I think that that is also a form of liberation. And we live in an age of extreme over-definition. And so Heraclitus provides an answer to that in a way. And he was absolutely ridiculed [laughter] for these ideas in Classical Greece. But I find them… It’s another form of freedom, that if you can… If you think of an idea that you really treasure, and the most enlightening and enlightening thing to do with that idea is to consider what’s wrong about it, know what the other thing in it is. And that is a Heraclitean inheritance.

Brett McKay: No, this idea that justice or vitality in life requires that tension or competition, you see this going on in Greek culture. The Greeks had this idea of the Agon.

Adam Nicolson: Yes.

Brett McKay: The competition. And it is only through that competition where… It’s like the fire refines things and you can actually see what is good, what is virtuous.

Adam Nicolson: Yeah. But actually, I think there’s no emergent term. You don’t end up with the purified thing that comes out of the Agon or the internal self-contradiction. The process is never-ending. You never come to a moment where you can say, “Oh, now I have it. Now I’ve refined the silver and here’s my pure coin,” whatever. Famously he says that you can’t step into the same river twice, because if you step into a river twice, it’s not the same river anymore; it has become something else. It’s another river there.

Brett McKay: Well, I’m curious. What’s interesting is so these Pre-Socratic philosophers had this idea that things constantly change, there is no beginning, there is no end. How did this thinking lead to Plato, where Plato said, “No, well, there is this… There’s a form out there that is the good, and our goal is to shape ourselves to the good.” So how did we go from “Everything’s fluid” to “There is actually an abstract ideal out there?”

Adam Nicolson: Well, one interesting thing that happens with this stream of thought, that it begins in the East, in the Eastern Aegean, and then in its later terms, moves over to the new Greek cities in Sicily and Southern Italy. And one of the philosophers, early philosophers who made that journey was Pythagoras. He came from Samos in the Eastern Aegean and went to live in a city called Crotone in Southern Italy. And the Pythagorean inheritance, he then has followers in other cities in Southern Italy, Parmenides and Zeno, leave behind this absolute fluidity of that first Eastern phase. And Pythagoras is the first person, for example, to conceive of a soul, an everlasting soul. And that, Heraclitus would have laughed in your face if you’d said to him that there was a soul. And of course, there is no soul if everything is a fire, everything is a constant burning. But Pythagoras who is a… This is called a social and political dimension to this, that Heraclitus is definitely marginal to his own world in Ephesus that he won’t take on any political responsibility; he won’t draw up any law or codes. He spends his time playing with children and beggars, the marginal, interestingly Christ-like position, and he won’t become powerful.

And Pythagoras does the exact opposite, that when he arrives in Southern Italy, he gathers around him a coterie of followers. He becomes like a guru, shamanistic guru, disappearing for weeks at a time underground, returning apparently from another world with visions of the beautiful destiny that awaits the good soul in another world, and begins to conceive of the purities beyond the material world, which Thales and co., and Heraclitus wouldn’t really have countenanced. And so there is a shift, a very, very deep shift in the Italian phase, to an idea that through all sorts of really mystical processes, one can conceive of a good world beyond this one. And Parmenides, who is a follower of Pythagoras, in a lovely little coastal town, just up the coast of Italy, from Sicily, between Sicily and Naples… He in a great and an almost impenetrable difficult to understand poem, describes a journey in which an initiate like him, someone who is deciding to engage with mystical realities, travels to the underworld, hurtles down to the underworld, and in the underworld meets the great goddess of the underworld.

And she describes to him a kind of singular perfection, a beautiful glowing, good, unaddressable world of oneness where nothing changes, nothing moves, everything is one thing, beyond all this chaotic multiplicity. And from that aspect of this tradition, Plato undoubtedly takes on the Parmenides, with his follower Zeno, who is a extraordinary logician, logician-magician, you could say, who tries to explain to the Athenians. Parmenides and Zeno both go to Athens and tries to explain to the Athenians, Socrates included, about this other world distant from the one in which we find ourselves, where all true meaning resides. And that I think is the beginning of… Well, it’s the beginning of so many things: The idea of the soul, the platonic good beyond, of the idea of the ideas, beyond this world. And to me, in a way loses sight of everything that was valuable in the early philosophers. It starts to devalue the world that we are living in. And that is never anything that appeals to me.

Brett McKay: Okay. So this is interesting. So you can see the lead up to the Classical Age here. So you had these early Pre-Socratic philosophers. They’re developing this sense of agency, this idea that we can think through problems, think through existence. Conflict was a part of that. You’d have these discussions and back and forths and this idea that truth can be sussed out by looking at contradictions, for example.

Adam Nicolson: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And then you have Pythagoras who comes in and says, “Well, the soul is immortal.” And Parmenides picks up on that and says, “This world is the unreal world. Reality is beyond this world.” And so that’s where Plato picks up. But even Plato and Aristotle, they still continued this idea of, you can call it conflict, to suss out things, right? ‘Cause that’s the whole point of dialogue. What I like about this is that you lay it out; you see how we get Plato and Aristotle, and it was because of these Iron Age Greeks who are making that transition. And another thing you mentioned earlier, you all see during this time, is the development of, we’ll call it manners and civility.

Adam Nicolson: Yes.

Brett McKay: How would you describe the Greeks or what came before the Greeks? We’ll call them Homeric Greeks, the Iliad Greeks.

Adam Nicolson: Yes, yes.

Brett McKay: How would you describe their approach to life in civic engagement? And then how do these Iron Age Greeks, these Pre-Socratics start changing that?

Adam Nicolson: Well, there’s a very interesting way of reading the Iliad itself: Of the Greeks are away from home, they’re on the beach, their shacks are built up against the side of their ships, the ships themselves are now rotten, they’ve been there 10 years, there’s no civil society there. Who is actually in charge is, it’s in contention. It’s difficult to know. There’s a kind of terrible, angry, unplaced mutual rivalry and hostility that every single one of them needs to be the best. When they go, they’re on the rampage through the battlefield. It’s called the Aris Deion, I think, the kind of the moment of best-ness. And so it is like, there is no civility there. That Agamemnon, the super king, the top king, can steal the girls from Achilles without any sense of compunction. It’s just a kind of warring, angry, disintegrated world. On the other side of the plane of Troy is Troy. And in Troy itself, things are extraordinarily orderly, that there are men and women living in families together. The only women in the Greek camp are captives, slaves, no women with any authority there. But they have authority in Troy. They’re living in well-built palaces, all very well-arranged. There are complicated and intricate and stable family and civic relations.

And so already in the Iliad is a suggestion that the warring and piratical, anarchic, mutually competitive world of the Greek warrior is in some ways a failing. It’s in some ways inadequate. And so the implication or the presumption there is that we’ve got to move beyond this. And the Iliad ends with that extraordinary scene between Priam and Achilles, where they reconcile and they eat together over the body of Priam’s son Hector, who Achilles has killed, in the most extraordinary outcome of a war story that the two rival warriors end up kissing each other’s hands. Achilles is called his man-slaughtering hands. Incredibly moving and beautiful thing, the most beautiful thing in Homer, I think. And so already, so if Homer’s writing that, or whoever we call Homer’s writing that in the 700, there is there the seed of the need for civility.

And the question is that, How do you find civility outside dominating, centralized power in the way that previous civilizations had achieved it in the great cities of the Near East? And the answer to that is, the evolution of a courteous culture, a kind culture, and a just culture. And so law codes. But also there’s a figure called Xenophanes, who lived in one of these harbor cities, in a double city called Colophon and Notion in what’s now Western Turkey. And Xenophanes absolutely clearly says he can’t stand the ancient gods. So what kind of model are they? They’re no model for a courteous, civilized life. They’re lying, cheating, fighting. We need to get beyond that. And in fact, for Xenophanes, Xenophanes says, there is no distinction between nature and god. God is only another name for the world as it is.

And so there is a kind of emergent idea of cooperative civil life. And it takes material form. These cities are laid out very carefully. They have council chambers right in the heart of them, all of them do, right next to the marketplace where joint decisions are made, not by everyone, but by the merchant elite. But as a kind of proto, it… They’re not democracy. It’s very tempting always to think that democratic ideas are nascent here. They’re not democracies, but there is an idea that those who can [chuckle] decide about their own lives, must. And I think it’s absolutely intimate with the idea, as you were saying earlier, that selves need agency for dignity. That the dignified life is one in which you decide.

Brett McKay: What is the big takeaway you hope readers walk away with after they finish your book?

Adam Nicolson: I wanted to write this book because it is about an open frame of mind. And I hope people reading it will think there is no need to be aggressively loyal to what you think you think. Open your mind [chuckle] to the possibility that you are wrong. And that’s what I would love people to think after reading it. How absolutely thrilling it is, that so long ago these people were thinking such civilized things.

Brett McKay: Well, Adam, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Adam Nicolson: Well, there are marvelous editions of these thinkers’ works. None of them wrote very much, which is very good. [chuckle] And so if you find a book about the Pre-Socratics, their texts, then there are wonderful parallel Greek and English text published by the Harvard Loeb Library, and many other translations. And I would go to one of them.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Adam Nicolson, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Adam Nicolson: Well, for me too, Brett. Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Adam Nicolson. He’s the author of the book, How to Be: Life Lessons from the Early Greeks. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AoM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us your view on Apple podcasts or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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