Review: “How to Be: Life Lessons from the Greeks,” by Adam Nicolson

I’ll let Socrates tell the story: The philosopher Thales “was studying the stars and looking upward, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty Thracian servant girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was before him at his very feet.” It’s a tale full of opposites: worldly and otherworldly, laughter and seriousness, Earth and the heavens, the sublime and the ridiculous. One could imagine its tableau as the leaf-fringed legend on a Grecian urn, its characters fired in red and black: the original absent-minded professor, legs flailing; the enslaved girl pointing in mockery.

There are other elements at work here, too. For Plato, who puts the story in Socrates’s mouth, it represents dedication to the cause of philosophy, the unavoidable hazards of a life of contemplation. But, reading it today, do we feel also satisfaction, a sense of redress between the free man and the enslaved girl? As Adam Nicolson’s wise, elegant new book observes, philosophy’s origin myth is more than mere pastoral slapstick: Quietly, discreetly, it depicts a world divided into “those who were enslaved and attended to the actual, and those who owned enslaved people who could attend to the high-minded.”

Book review: ‘Why Homer Matters,’ by Adam Nicholson

How to Be,” then, is an attempt to take the thought of the early Greeks — the motley group of mathematicians, moralists and mystics we know as the pre-Socratics — and to set it in its context. This means both historical context — contact and conquest, the founding of settlements across the Mediterranean — but also topographical. Nicolson, the author of “Life Between the Tides” (2022) and “Why Homer Matters” (2014), travels the ruins of the coastal towns — Miletus, Ephesus, Samos, Elea — where Western philosophy began. Much of what he finds is now silted, silent, heron-pecked, but Nicolson is alive to the telling detail: the peninsula that allowed for a double harbor; the shallow beach that was once a quay for unloading enslaved people. The attention to place is a moving device, doing for Greek thought what Gilbert Highet’s “Poets in a Landscape” once did for Latin poetry.

Despite the book’s New Agey title and a halfhearted conclusion, which attempts to reframe the preceding chapters as nuggets of lifestyle advice (“What can we take from these people?”), in truth Nicolson’s book has little to do with the self-help genre. It is richer and more unusual than that, an exploration of the origins of Western subjectivity. Not so much How to Be as (admittedly less catchy) How We Got to Be Like This.

At the heart of Nicolson’s reading of the landscape is the idea of what he calls the “harbor mind,” a seafaring mentality shaped by trade and transience, its unofficial symbol the dolphin that appears on coinage from throughout the region. “It might be no coincidence that these first questions about the nature of reality were raised in a port city where shiftingness and exchange were its lifeblood,” Nicolson points out.

Traveling in the footsteps, or sailing the routes, of the philosophers, Nicolson also engages with some of his illustrious relatives. He is an English aristocrat, though he does not use his title — Heraclitus would approve — and is the grandson of Virginia Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West (and Sir Harold Nicolson). Nicolson’s father-in-law, John Raven, was a Cambridge classicist who literally wrote the textbook when it comes to the pre-Socratics. Often “How to Be” draws on this for its sources and some of its translations, expanding on the older work, thinking through some of its knottier ideas, enriching them with ground data and historical context, along with Nicolson’s own expansive thinking.

Aristotle’s lisp, why Socrates loved dancing and other tales of ancient thinkers

To the philosophical mix, Nicolson has added another ingredient: the poetry of the “Odyssey” and of Sappho of Lesbos. In Sappho’s lyrics (poetry intended to be accompanied by the lyre) we see the emergence of a new aesthetic, a turn inward “by which the poet’s private sensibility, her most unspoken thoughts, spring up in her heart and balloon out into the room in front of her.” In one famous fragment (almost all of Sappho’s work survives only in partial form), the poet watches a couple in conversation and is transfixed by the woman’s laughter:

puts the heart in my chest on wings

for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking

For Nicolson, this personal, emotional examination represents an intellectual development on a par with — or, rather, of a part with — the philosophical investigations being undertaken by Sappho’s contemporaries on the Ionian coast.

Leaving Sappho on the island of Lesbos, “How to Be” tacks westward to the settlements of southern Italy and Sicily. Here we encounter Pythagoras — charismatic, hucksterish, a cult leader with a repertoire of miracles and an aversion to beans — and Parmenides, for whom the evidence of our senses obscures the unchanging timelessness of reality.

And then there is Zeno, who may as well have Thales and the enslaved girl in mind as he defends philosophy against its mockers. Imagine a race between Achilles and a tortoise, he instructs. The tortoise has a head start, but surely Achilles — the fastest runner the Greeks have ever known — will soon catch up? Except by the time Achilles reaches the point where the tortoise started from, the tortoise will have moved to a new spot; and when Achilles reaches that point, the tortoise will be still farther ahead, and so on ad absurdum. If you think the new philosophy is far-fetched, Zeno cautions, don’t imagine that common sense stands up to much scrutiny, either.

Dennis Duncan is a lecturer in English at University College London and the author of “Index, A History of the.”

Life Lessons From the Early Greeks

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 368 pp. $32

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