In the past month I’ve read loads of Greek classics. It was a really depressing month filled with people killing their kids, kids killing their parents, people marrying their parents, people stabbing other people in their eyes or at least stabbing themselves in their eyes. It seems like these things were so common in ancient Greece that sacrificial infanticide became unimportant enough that Homer left it out of why the Achaeans won the Trojan War.
So I understand why some people wonder how these works of literature lasted generation upon generation and relate to our lives today. The answer I’ve heard is that we can all draw some universally applicable truth from the classics, and I think I’ve finally figured it out for the Greek canon. These tragedians and historians have showed us the secret to human misfortune: our own stupidity. And because of this universal stupidity, we’re all in for some major shit.
“Stupidity” is a very vague term for the cause of your misfortune (and in ancient Greece probably that of your whole family, too), so here are some paraphrased lessons from the poets, historians, and playwrights on some specific ways to avoid the foolishness that will cause you and yours inevitable pain and suffering.
Calling out your name to the guy who you just stabbed in the eye might not be the best plan.
If you sacrifice your kid you can bet on getting shit from your wife.
Try not walking on the carpets of gods if you want them to like you—it’s rude.
As long as you’re smarter than the other guy, it’s okay to be stupid.
If an oracle says you’ll kill your father, maybe try not to kill anyone for a bit.
Don’t fuck your mom. Or anyone who might be your mom. Especially if an oracle tells you that you’ll end up doing it. Maybe the safest thing is to stay away from cougars in general.
It’s bad form to leave your wife saying it’s for her own good, and then go for a younger woman. Chances are your wife won’t be thrilled.
Don’t accept gifts from a woman after exiling her and marrying her husband.
And of course, there’s another important aspect of human stupidity in Greek tragedy—you always think you’re doing the right thing until you realize you were incredibly misinformed. In other words, you will always read your oracles wrong. And the lesson I learned from this perpetual ignorance of humanity is a definition of happiness best expressed by Croesus as he burns at the stake in Herodotus’ The Histories:
You’re never really happy until you die. Because if you’re happy in the middle of your life, you could lose everything the very next day [probably by being stupid] and suddenly be sad. But if you’re dying, then you know your happiness can’t be taken away. So right now, if you’re reading this and not dying, you’re not actually happy, you just temporarily have some good luck.
Greek classics are not the most uplifting of volumes, but that doesn’t mean they can’t teach us some important life lessons. In order to avoid misfortune and keep the “luck” of our present happiness for as long as possible, we should simply apply what Professor Ford described in his lecture over Oedipus Rex to our world today: “According to the Greeks, life is hard. But it’s harder when you’re stupid.”