Under this populist title, Mark Vernon has written a very readable book about his own personal and often engaging reflections on what we can learn from the ancient Greek philosophers. He gives much historical background for each of them; tells stories and legends about them which may not all have been true but which symbolize the impact the philosophers have made; and relates their wisdom amusingly to present-day ways of living. One could look at each chapter as a mini-sermon on how we should live today, from an author who was once a clergyman, and whose congregations must surely have greatly appreciated them.
Each chapter focusses on one aspect, like `Plato and the love of conversation', `Aristotle on surviving unpopularity', `Diogenes on the deceptiveness of fame', or `Zeno of Citium on the psychology of shopping'. They are written in a delightfully easy style and can be understood and appreciated by readers who have no background in philosophy at all.
Those who do have a general background will almost certainly learn quite a lot, for Vernon does not confine himself to the major names, but has chapters on Diotima of Mantinea (she might not even have existed, but, as a character in Plato's Symposium, has wise things to say about Love); on Onesicritus (who reported on the naked yogis he had encountered when in India with Alexander's army); on Hipparchia of Maronaia (who loved an ugly philosopher for his mind and not his body); on Bion of Borysthenes (who taught the value of empathy, of truly understanding points of view that are not your own); on Marcus Manilius (who espoused determinism and thought that wisdom consists of accepting your place in the chain of cause and effect); on Secundus the Silent (who, having found how destructive words can be, chose never to speak again!); and on Hypatia of Alexandria (the noble Hellenist philosopher who was cruelly killed by a fanatical Christian mob; the lesson being, I suppose, how unphilosophical is it to be a fanatic) - of all of whom I, for one, knew nothing.
And as for the famous ones: I did not know that Plato was a nickname, possibly meaning `powerfully built' for a man born as Aristocles and said to have been a wrestler before he became a philosopher.
On what I think is rather slight evidence, Vernon extracts from Aristotle his supposed equanimity at the ups and downs in his career which were determined by the ups and downs of the Macedonian royal family whom he and his father had served.
I knew that the Stoa from which the Stoics got their name was a colonnade, but not that it was a shopping precinct - hence the name attributed to the chapter on Zeno (though it was his follower Epictetus who specifically discussed how a Stoic should react to missing out on a bargain).
Several philosophers have valuable things to say about eating and drinking in moderation, and the value of occasional fasting; and Vernon shows how such advice can be of philosophical as well as of medical value: it is good for the mind as well as for the body.
The last chapter discusses the different things the ancients had said about death, and the intellectual, spiritual and indeed physical disciplines they practised to prepare themselves for that inevitable event. Someone who has lived a truly philosophical life should find that death has no terrors for him.
The threads connecting some of Vernon's reflections with what he tells us that his philosophers actually did or said are sometimes a little tenuous; but this is a most enjoyable book.