Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

Iain Duncan Smith, ex-leader of the Tory party, is evidently in a state of some depression at his humiliating rejection. Ancient philosophy must spring to his aid.

Greek and Roman philosophers were primarily concerned with ethics: that is, they wanted to show their adherents what the good life was and, at a practical level, how to lead it. One of their most productive lines was dealing with failure and despair. On Tranquillity of Mind by the essayist Plutarch (46-120 AD) is a good example.

He rejects the idea that tranquillity is best achieved by doing nothing, as if the best advice for a sick man was never to leave his bed. Likewise, he does not believe that any one particular way of life is by definition free from pain, since if you are the sort of person who is unable to make right use of circumstances, a change of life will not of itself alter your disposition.

The key to tranquillity, argues Plutarch, is reason and wisdom. He quotes Plato, comparing life to a game of dice. There is no point in raging at the way the dice fall since there is nothing we can do about it; we must therefore make the best of what we have, and refuse to react overemotionally either to good fortune or to bad. 'From the grimmest circumstances we must draw something that suits us and is useful. …

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