Career Wisdom From Ancient Greece

An Ancient Greece Perspective

Much of Western politics, art, scientific thought, theatre, literature, and philosophy derives from the classical period of ancient Greece (5th and 4th centuries BC). We are taught about the Persian wars, about the rise of Athens, and about Plato’s philosophy. But what did an average Greek person do back then? What did a typical Greek day look like? Did they have jobs, or even careers? I believe that, in exploring the day-to-day contents of ancient Greek life, we can understand the boundaries of our day-to-day perspective on life, especially with regards to personal development in terms of careers. Looking at a culture totally remote from our own is enlightening because of the contrast it provides; it can help us catch a glimpse of a way of thinking or living that has been lost in the entrenchment inevitably accompanying long-standing political and economic trends.

Without the complexities entailed by the varieties of technologies, demographics, and sheer amount of people present today, careers in the classical period were relatively simple. Farmers focused on cultivating the land rather than worrying about subsidies and protectionism. Artists sculpted marble and drew pictures without worrying about how many hits their personal blog would get on the Internet. Traders made money from negotiations and personableness rather than reading into the stock market’s future. In other words, the intricacies relating to jobs due to phenomena such as globalisation did not exist. Furthermore, there were fewer types of careers that one could pursue. As a result, people’s lives as a whole were more focused on what was in front of them. Their role in society was governed by a precise purpose, manifested as a particular job, rather than a complex web of interdependent political, economic or multicultural considerations. This is not to say that human nature was somehow more shallow back then; it was after all the home of a great deal of early philosophy, which aimed specially to understand how to best live life as an individual and as a community.


The Principle of Specialisation

At the time, the culmination of such philosophical considerations with regards to careers was Plato’s emphasis on the Principle of Specialization in his Republic. This principle is refreshingly simple to the point of being poignant in the contemporary career context: each person should perform just the task to which he is best suited (this has since been adopted in economic theory by the likes of Adam Smith). It is this principle that I would most like to draw attention to in discussing the contrast between how we view careers now and what they may have been like in classical Greece. For it is this principle that drove career choice both from an individual’s perspective and from the perspective of a community. An individual did what he or she was best at because this was most beneficial for their own lives, and the community profited from their most specialised talent in terms of maximizing social roles’ efficiency. People did not aim to do a certain job because this would help them achieve some other better-desired goal; achieving expertise in the field that they held a talent for was their primary goal, and this had widespread positive social impacts.

Is this how we can describe the general structure of career culture now? I do not think so. It can often be the case that the very opposite goal system underlies one’s career ambitions. We grow up watching advertisements, celebrities and news media; these in turn nurture values for material goods, fame and personally political recognition. Our primary goal is to make money or gain some sort of social power, and jobs are a means to these ends. Perhaps this is a good thing, given that we live (in the West) in capitalist democracies, which are founded on monetary and interpersonal power dynamics. Ancient Greece may not have been as successful in implementing egalitarian democracy, or in tackling other issues that our current socioeconomic environment does. But if we take a look back in history to an era that is in many ways well-respected, we can refresh our perspectives on our own career choices and aims. We can perhaps try to see our careers as ends in themselves, both for our own good and for the good of our society. In this way, as Aristotle once said, we can perhaps see the truth in believing “Happiness depends upon ourselves”. There is a lot we can learn from Ancient Greece.

This article is part of the Career Wisdom Series. Click here to read about career wisdom from the ancient silk road and here to read about career wisdom from Confucius.


Photo courtesy of pixabay
Receive Updates

No spam guarantee.