01/29/2015 01:13 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High School -- Part 14

Aphorisms 4 -- The Greeks on the Ethical Life

The Greek view of the ethical life is an interesting contrast to that of the Bible's. A different tone and mood pervade these aphorisms than what one finds in the Old and New Testaments. More significantly, the motivation for leading an ethical life is worlds apart from that of biblical morality.

These aphorisms seem surrounded by a profound silence which invites the reader to think about the implications of what is being said. There is little emotion in the language employed, but simply an appeal to the mind for quiet reflection. Thinking through the meaning of each aphorism is the only portal one can enter to move beyond the marbled words to the pulsating humanity behind them.

Students had already been exposed to the Greek mind and sensibility during the first nine weeks of the course when they studied Edith Hamilton's classic, The Greek Way, supplemented with interpretations by Johann Winckelmann, Jacob Burckhardt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Gilbert Murray, Werner Jaeger, and Pierre Hadot, as well as extensive training in critical thinking throughout the nine weeks. But these aphorisms opened up a deepened awareness of the Greek temperament, as well as underscoring the marked contrast between this worldview and the biblical understanding of human existence.

In this assignment I asked students to discuss three questions: the difference between the Greek and biblical motivation for an ethical life; the strengths and weaknesses of each motivational system; and the student's opinion as to which system would be more effective in motivating ethical behavior, and discussing the reasons why.

With respect to the third question, it didn't matter which system was chosen; what mattered was the cogency of the reasons for choosing it.

For extra credit, a student could argue the opposite case as well.


Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.

What matters isn't what happens, but how you react to what happens.

There is only one way to happiness -- cease worrying about the things which are beyond our control.

Circumstances don't make the man, but only reveal him to himself.

Who is rich? Whoever is content.

Be careful about what images and ideas you let enter your mind.

All of philosophy is contained in only two words: endure and renounce.

God has entrusted me with myself.

As you think, so you become.

When misfortune befalls you, ask yourself how you can use it to become a better person.

It is difficulties that show what we are.

Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to happen, but, instead, want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.

Keep company only with those who uplift you - those who call forth your best.

We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.

Don't seek what is good from without, but seek it within yourself, or you will never find it. The trials we endure introduce us to our strengths.


The greatest wealth is to live content with little.

People can either nourish you and help you grow as a person, or stunt your growth and make you wilt and die.

Be as you wish to appear.

The body is a tomb.

Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.

Worthless people live only to eat and drink; people of worth eat and drink only to live.

Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around them.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.

Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.

The first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself.

No evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.

No one knows whether death, which people fear as the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others.

Riches can never make a bad man at peace with himself.

God knows best what is good for us.

We cannot be better than in seeking to become better.


Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.

Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.

To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.

The antidote for fifty enemies is one friend.

Misfortune shows those who are not really friends.

Time crumbles things; everything grows old under the power of Time and is forgotten over the passage of time.

It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Man is a goal-seeking animal. His life only has meaning if he is reaching out and striving toward his goals.

The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain.

The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances.

Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope.

The young are permanently in a state resembling intoxication.

The young have exalted notions because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not one act, but a habit.

The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead.

Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.

Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth.


Happiness does not dwell in herds of cattle or in gold.

By desiring little, a poor man makes himself rich.

One must compare one's own life with that of those in worse cases, and consider oneself fortunate, reflecting on their sufferings and being so much better off than they.

Virtue consists not in avoiding wrongdoing, but not even wanting to do wrong.
Do not say or do what is base, even when you are alone.

Courage makes misfortunes small.


We must free ourselves from the prison of everyday affairs and politics.

It is useless to ask the gods for what one can obtain for oneself.

It is better to be free of fear and lying on a bed of straw than to own a couch of gold and a lavish table and yet have no peace of mind.

Live your life without attracting attention.


Moderation is the noblest gift of heaven.

This is courage in man -- to bear unflinchingly what heaven sends.

Happiness is brief.

The designs of heaven are indeed frightening and inscrutable.

Time will show what you are.

Take heart. The gods bring mortals many good outcomes even from desperate situations.

If gods do anything shameful, they are not gods.

How quickly the gods upset the fortunes of the prosperous!

Understand mankind's condition and do not grieve beyond measure: You are not alone in being visited by misfortune.

You cannot prosper without effort; and it is shameful for a young man to be unwilling to work hard.

Men's anger from disaster is terrible, and their hearts begin to lose their way.

Do not provoke the gods, but be content with your lot. Desire for the impossible makes many lose what they already have.

Since you are mortal you must expect also to suffer as mortals do; do you claim the life of a god when you are but human?

A grieving heart is unstable.

Events will take their course; it is not good being angry at them.

Do not consider painful what is good for you.

The good and wise lead quiet lives.


Each one of us must live the life God gives us.

Nothing abides - the starry night, our wealth, our sorrows pass away.

Man is nothing but breath and shadow.

Grief teaches the steadiest mind to waver.

Chance rules our lives, and the future is unknown.

Fate has terrible power. You cannot escape it by wealth or war.

Children are the anchors of a mother's life.


Call no man happy until he is dead.

Wisdom comes only through suffering.


It is not good for men to obtain all that they wish.

Moderation is the great virtue, and wisdom is to speak the truth and act according to nature.
A man's character is his fate.

No one encounters prosperity without also encountering danger.

Silence, healing.

Fate rules all.

Everything changes, and nothing abides.

Good character is not formed in a week or a month. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become.


Education does not take root in the soul unless one goes deep.

Man is the measure of all things.

Concerning the gods I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they don't exist, nor what sort of form they have. There are many reasons why knowledge on this subject is impossible, owing to lack of knowledge and the shortness of human life.


Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are disgraceful among mortals, stealing and adulteries and deceiving one another.

If horses had hands and could paint, they would paint horses as gods.


He has most who is content with least.

The stomach is the Charybdis of life.

Time is the most valuable thing that a man can spend.

Like a shepherd, madness drives the multitude wherever it wants.

Poverty is the unintentional teacher of philosophy because what philosophy tries to instill with words, poverty compels by the power of facts.

The foundation of every state is the education of its children.


The present will not long endure.

If any man hopes to do a deed without God's knowledge, he errs.

Creatures of a day, man is but a shadow's dream.

Good cheer is the best of healers.

O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but seek the limits of the possible.