When I was an undergraduate student, I spent a few years studying Classical Greek and Latin. It’s amazing how practical these courses have turned out to be in my professional life. It honestly boggles my mind that people waste their time and money on post-secondary studies such as engineering, IT and medicine, or on learning languages that are still spoken today such as French, Spanish and Mandarin. If asked to offer one piece of advice to prospective university students, I would say this: Studying dead languages is the way to go, closely followed by poetry and creative writing. You can’t go wrong with pursuing any of these academic disciplines; unless, of course, you want to have a nice place to live and adequate food to eat. Did you know that the word sarcasm comes from the Greek sarkasmós, which means to bite the flesh from one’s bones?
It’s been 20 years since I immersed myself in the worlds of Greece and Rome, but I often think of the stories I read/translated by the ancient poets and philosophers. One of these stories comes to mind often, as it provides a gentle but profound reminder to embrace freedom in my life.
I believe the story below was originally told by Herodotus, who is known both as the Father of History and the Father of Lies. I’m relying on my memory here, so let’s just say it was written by Herodotus, and not completely made up by me, and then I’ll either be a disciple of history or a disciple of lies, depending on how familiar you are with ancient Greek texts.
As Greek men were wont to do—or at least in the stories of antiquity—one day all of the landowners from a small city left their farms, livelihoods and families to travel by sea to fight with their countrymen against the enemy Persians. Gone for 10 long years, the Greek men returned home only to discover that their slaves had taken their place as the new masters of the city, having even married their wives.
Filled with rage at this discovery, the Greek men put on their armour, picked up their shields, swords and spears, and marched toward the city to reclaim their homes. When the former slaves saw the Greeks approaching, they quickly armed themselves in defence. A battle raged, but the Greek men, tired and hungry, were pushed back beyond the city gates.
Twice more the Greek men marched against the city, but each time they failed to defeat their former slaves. As they prepared to give up their fight, one among the Greeks spoke up. “Why are we fighting our former slaves man to man? When we do this, we show them that they are equals, and we will continue to struggle to overpower them. We must remind them who holds the power.”
With these words, the Greeks threw down their swords and spears and picked up their whips. Then they walked proudly toward the city.
When the former slaves saw the men approach and heard the crack of their whips, they were reminded of their past, lost their confidence and surrendered their freedom. The Greeks reclaimed their mastery over the slaves and took back ownership of the city.
I write this now as a free man, but at times I question whether I have the intelligence, social skills and motivation necessary to excel in my professional life. I also worry too much about what others think of me and whether I receive enough recognition for what I do. And sometimes I speak sarcastically and critically of others. These are all things that enslave me and interfere with a healthy and vibrant life.
However, when I focus on being true to myself, showing kindness and patience to others, and listening to close friends and family members who know me best and care for me, I am able to experience a life of freedom.
The key is to recognize the whips which continually call me back to a life of slavery.