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Plato's Podcasts: The Ancients' Guide to Modern Living

Mark Vernon

(Oneworld Publications; US: Dec 2009)

I was pleasantly surprised by Mark Vernon’s book Plato’s Podcasts: The Ancient’s Guide to Modern Living. While I love the alliteration, the title made me think this book was going to be frivolous entertainment without any intelligent commentary.


Instead I found Plato’s Podcasts to be a wonderful hodgepodge of biographical information, philosophical musings, and colorful anecdotes. As Vernon notes in his introduction:


There are periods in history when it feels as if almost everything is changing. The economic prosperity that one generation enjoyed is thrown into doubt for the next. There are dramatic shifts in the balance of power, as new political forces appear on the horizon, causing the old consensus to flounder. The daily lives of ordinary people are transformed by the sudden progress in the sciences, and are astonishing and unsettling in equal message. Such moments are commonly regarded warily. They precipitate moral panics, ideological fundamentalism, and suspicion amongst neighbors./blockquote>


Vernon is, of course, talking both about Plato’s time as well as our own, and he makes a great case as to why ancient philosophers should still be studied today. The cynic (or Diogenes) in me does think that everyone should want to read Socrates, Aristotle, and/or Plato (in their original forms) and that everyone should know that their thoughts are still relevant today. However, for those who haven’t read, for example, Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics, Vernon provides a very accessible look into these philosophers’ lives. 


Plato’s Podcasts examines 20 ancient philosophers, including Pythagoras, Plato, Epicurus, Diogenes, and Socrates, provides interesting biographical information about each, and then illustrates how each philosopher’s thoughts might be used today. Some of the specific chapter subtitles include “on sometimes not having sex”, “on the psychology of shopping”, and “on working so hard you miss what you want.”


As Vernon covers these philosophers in approximately 200 pages, he can only hit the high points of each philosopher’s life. For the most part, he chose his material wisely. One of my favorite anecdotes comes from the chapter on Pyrrho of Ellis, who believed in thoughtful meditation and complete composure: “Pyrrho also found an ability to laugh at himself. One day, he was spotted falling back in fright when a vicious dog attacked him. A passer-by, and critic, thought he had caught the immovable one out. Pyrrho, composure regained, chuckled. ‘It is not easy to be calm,’ he admitted. ‘We must work at practising what we preach.’” 


Another wonderfully told anecdote involves Hipparchia of Maroneia. Her chapter focuses on the importance of marrying for love. As the story goes, Hipparchia loved Crates and wanted to marry him even though Crates was an unattractive man who gave much of his wealth to the poor. Vernon tells us: “He [Crates] was as ugly as sin to boot. The ancient Greeks could be brutal about bad looks, and Crates had grown accustomed to being laughed at, say, whilst exercising unclothed at the gym ... When he found out that the beautiful Hipparchia loved him, it was said he stripped off in front of her ... [and told her] deformity is what I will bring to the marital bed.”  The two did marry and also had two children.


Along with the biographical information comes some light philosophy, primarily focusing on how ancient thoughts can be applied to modern times. One of my favorite philosophical passages looks at Epicurus and was subtitled “on why less is more”. Vernon applies Epicurus’ theories concerning unnecessary and unnatural needs to bottled water and reaches this conclusion:


... bottled water is also an example of ... unnatural and unnecessary need too. For what is unnatural about bottled water, as well as unnecessary, is that it is so expensive. That much seems obvious when forking out bank notes for the stuff, as you can in some restaurants. But even a cheap bottle of water is unnaturally dear. For example, one that costs only £1 is already about three times as expensive by volume as the petrol you put in your car. That water, which falls out of the sky, should be vastly dearer than oil, which costs a fortune to leach from the ground, is what makes expensive bottled water both unnatural and unnecessary—and so deeply implicated in an unepicurean way of life.


Because philosophy is so subjective, most readers will prefer some chapters to others. That said, the chapter on Diogenes the Cynic is probably my least favorite. It does contain good anecdotal information and goes much further than simply telling about the meeting between Diogenes and Alexander the Great that many are already familiar with. Audiences learn that Diogenes was a cynic and “was a prophet, sparing no efforts to pass judgment on his times. What is the most beautiful thing in the world?, he was once asked. He replied: ‘freedom of speech.’”


I’m a fan of both cynicism and Diogenes; the problem with this chapter, for me, is that it begins, “Paris Hilton famously became famous by distributing on the internet a video of herself having sex with her then boyfriend, Rick Salomon.” I’m a firm believer that the less said about Ms. Hilton’s love life the better the world will be. Most know that Hilton did (and perhaps still is doing) some unusual things; so did Diogenes. He masturbated in public, urinated on his friends, and insulted Alexander the Great. While Diogenes and Hilton both perhaps operated outside the mainstream and, as Vernon notes, both lived a type of “simple life”, I simply can’t find (and truthfully don’t want to find) much meaningful connection between the two. 


While the chapter on Diogenes doesn’t resonate with me, much of the rest of the book is interesting and educational. The anecdotes are fun and humanize the ancient philosophers. The tone is accessible, perhaps even friendly, and the world would probably be a better place if much of the advice in this book was considered. After all, both Vernon and the ancients advocate paying attention, marrying for love, spending less, and laughing more. It’s hard to argue with that.

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