All That You Need To Know To Survive In The Modern World You Can Learn From The Ancients

The 21st century is upon us and with it come many changes. Just like the Industrial Revolution brought in a new era, the Internet Revolution is bringing in another new age.

The old truths and ways of working of the 20th century no longer seem to be working in this new one. This is causing headaches for many people, who often feel lost and out of touch. This new state of affairs calls for a re-examination of how things are done. This means you need to adapt.

The Renaissance started by people rediscovering the wisdom of the ancient world. This brought about a new age of creativity and progress which led to the modern world. However in the 20th century, most people forgot about this ancient wisdom and an era of narrow specialization seemed to prevail.

The challenges of the 21st century call for a new way of working. What most people don’t realize is that the answers to many of today’s problems lie right there in front of them. In fact, they have been there for over two thousand years.

By rediscovering the wisdom of the ancient world, most people can tackle the challenges of the modern world. Just like the Renaissance was born through the rediscovery of the sages of Antiquity, today’s world can greatly benefit from the return of these old sages as well. By applying these old techniques to your life, you can make sure that you are not fazed by any challenge.

General Mindset

Two of the most well-known works of world literature are the Iliad and the Odyssey. They were composed by Homer around the year 800 BC and tell of an old war that happened way before his time. They are stories of ancient heroes, with their strengths and weaknesses, and demonstrate the power of the human condition.

They were meant not only to entertain, but also to teach moral lessons and serve as inspirations for the following generations. They are structured according to the hero’s journey framework. Especially the Odyssey is about one man, who after spending 10 years fighting, takes another 10 years to get home.

On the way, he faces many trials and tribulations, loses all his companions and learns much about himself. He gets lost during the journey, has to overcome many challenges, descends down to his innermost cave, but then rises up and at the end emerges victorious.

This type of structure is inherent in the journey of anyone who goes through life, but no matter the barriers he faces, manages to climb over them and conquer. It is basically the blueprint for the life of a hero, but one which is applicable for the life of any mortal who wants to accomplish great things.

These myths and legends served as the guiding lights for people’s lives, but the ancient world also produced some very practical methods to help deal with common problems. While the Ancient Egyptians and the different Mesopotamian civilizations served as initial inspirations, the Ancient Greeks managed to come up with very original thoughts which have served as the basis of all the progress that came after. These methods and techniques were then perfected during the times of the Ancient Romans.

Many of them were forgotten during the so-called Dark Ages, and it was their rediscovery and wider spread that sparked the Renaissance and thus built the modern world. They give practical lessons and are incredibly applicable to normal every day activities. For the Ancients, philosophy was not only a way of thinking about the world, but also informed them on how to live.

At the height of the Roman Empire, there were two rival schools of philosophy that competed for adherents, the Stoics and the Epicureans. The Stoic philosophy was very compatible with the martial outlook on life of the Ancient Romans and so gained many fans among the Roman soldiers, administrators and even Emperors.

The Epicurean philosophy was more popular among people who wanted to get away from public life and instead focus on other things. Its scientific outlook on the universe has many parallels with the way we can look at the world today. In fact, some historians argue that it was the rediscovery of a book called “On the Nature of Things” written by Lucretius, an Epicurean poet and philosopher, that sparked the modern age.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius is remembered as the last of the Five Good Emperors. He ruled at a time when the Pax Romana (the Roman Peace) was coming to an end and the Empire was under increasing strain from barbarian tribes in the north. He had to spend much of his reign on campaign against these tribes.

In order to keep himself grounded, Marcus kept a personal journal. This journal is now known as the “Meditations” and serves to inspire millions of people. It has very practical insights and routines that can be used by anyone in order to get through their day.

The Stoic philosophy teaches resilience in face of the unpredictability of life. At various times, you will face obstacles and challenges, which might bring many hardships to your existence, but by keeping a sound mind (always reminding yourself what is and what isn’t under your control), you will be able to overcome all these things. This is the essence of Stoicism.

In order to learn more, read the articles below:

Marcus Aurelius: How to gather the strength to survive in adversity.

Then go into my series on describing the Three Stoic Disciplines:

All the articles in this mini-series:
The Introduction.
The Discipline of Desire.
The Discipline of Action.
The Discipline of Assent.

Then read the application of this in practice:
A day in the life of someone applying the system of Marcus Aurelius.

You should also read about the thoughts of the man who Marcus learned from, Epictetus, the former slave turned philosopher (as written down by his student Arrian):

The wisdom of Epictetus.

The Epicurean philosophy was also very prominent. However, contrary to the modern view, it did not encourage hedonism, but in fact the opposite. Its main goal was to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, and one way to do that was by limiting your desires.

One technique to do that is to divide up your desires into three categories: natural and necessary, natural and unnecessary, and unnatural and unnecessary. The natural and necessary desires are the ones you need to pursue and are enough to satisfy you. The natural, but unnecessary desires are nice to haves, but should not be your ultimate focus. And the unnatural and unnecessary desires should be avoided completely.

These teachings actually greatly influenced later prominent thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson. He is the guy who put in “pursuit of happiness” as a phrase in the founding documents of the US.

Epicurus was the founder of this philosophy, but one interesting example comes from Oinoanda, in what is now Turkey. There a guy named Diogenes wrote down the teachings of Epicurus and his thoughts on them on a big wall for all to see. There are many pearls of wisdom found among them:

The thoughts of Diogenes of Oinoanda on pleasure, pain and living a life of happiness.

Also if you have ever wondered why in this world it sometimes seems that the bad guys win and the good guys lose, read the thoughts of Boethius, which he wrote down as he was waiting for his execution:

Boethius: how a man about to die found happiness.

Problem Solving

There are two basic ways of solving problems: first principles thinking, and reasoning from analogies. With first principles thinking, you go back to the basics and working on a totally new solution from there. In analogical reasoning, you look at things that already exist and then reuse these concepts in other contexts.

1) First Principles

First principles thinking is about going back to the basic assumptions (the ones that cannot be broken down further) that you are making and rethinking the problem from the ground up. The notion of first principles was introduced by Aristotle. Euclid worked with this type of thinking when he introduced axioms in his ground-breaking work on geometry “The Elements”.

In the modern world, Elon Musk is a big proponent of this type of thinking. Many of his innovations are based on going back to first principles and building up a totally new solution from there.

A short lesson on first principles thinking.

If you want to read a longer introduction on first principles thinking and a discussion on barriers to thinking in first principles, click below:
Introduction to first principles thinking and barriers to thinking in first principles.

If you want to read more on what types of techniques you can use in order to overcome those barriers and solve problems using first principles, click below:
The techniques for first principles thinking.

If you want to read more on the applications of first principles thinking, then click below:
The applications of first principles thinking.

2) Analogy

Aristotle not only came up with the notion of first principles, but also wrote a lot on analogies. His thoughts formed the basis of what we can call analogical reasoning. In his writings, he discussed two types of argument forms, arguments from example and arguments from likeness.

The Ancient Romans also used analogies a lot. The practice of law was very important for upper class Roman aristocrats and in order to win their cases, analogies were very helpful. However analogies were also used in science. For example, Vitruvius (Roman architect and the guy behind the Vitruvian Man) compared the sound of voices to water waves, which is a comparison which still forms the basis of our understanding of sound even today.

Analogical reasoning can be very useful when coming up with solutions to problems. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel all the time, In fact, most of the time an analogy will be a better way to solve the problem than using first principles thinking in order to rethink everything from the ground up. Elon Musk seems to be learning that lesson through all the many problems he is having in bring the Tesla Model 3 to mass production.

If you want to read more on how analogies can sometimes work better than first principles thinking, then click below:
When analogies work better than first principles thinking.

The key to successfully solving problems will be the ability to decide when to use which technique. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses.

What is clear is that Renaissance Man skills are becoming more and more important. In the old times, people had deep knowledge in many disciplines and were able to cross-pollinate them. Ancient Greeks like Aristotle or Plato, Ancient Romans like Cicero, or even guys from the period of the Renaissance were well-versed in all kinds of things.

With the advent of AI and robots, these types of skills are becoming crucial once again. You need to have the ability to take different pieces of knowledge from various domains and then apply them at the right time. You need to create many different mental models and then be able to use them when the time comes. This type of learning across disciplines is a key lesson that you can take-away from the Ancients.

Public Speaking and Persuasion

Public speaking and being able to persuade people are skills that are incredibly important. You might have the best ideas, but if you are not able to persuade anyone about their worth, then you are likely doomed to failure.

In Ancient Greece and also in Ancient Rome, rhetoric was taught as one of the core subjects. There are three main ways of persuading an audience.

1) Ethos – appeal to authority, or a person’s character.

2) Pathos – appeal to emotions.

3) Logos – appeal to logic.

Since we all know that humans are flawed creatures, appeal to logic is usually not the best way to persuade them. An appeal to authority (ethos) and even more so working on their emotions (pathos) are much better ways of convincing them.

There are some great sources on rhetoric coming from the ancient world, namely those of Cicero and Quintilian. They discuss the many ways that you can use to persuade people and warrant a closer look. The techniques they talk about are useful even today (in any language).

I have covered one aspect of rhetoric and that is using humor. The works of Cicero and Quintilian (as well as others) cover this extensively and I have gone through the trouble of going through them and noting down some of the key lessons.

Tips on humor from the Ancient Romans.

Having a good memory is also very important. Even though today, we need to rely less and less on our memories (with all this information available at our fingertips), having a good memory can still serve as a comparative advantage.

The Ancients considered this a key skill and came up with many techniques to help with this. One of these is called the Memory Palace and was one of the techniques that Joshua Foer used to become the US Memory Champion and then described in his book “Walking with Einstein”.

According to legend, this technique was invented by the Greek poet Simonides. One day he was attending a banquet and at one moment decided to step out of the room. While he was gone, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed, killing everyone and disfiguring them beyond recognition.

The authorities did not know how to identify the victims and so they asked Simonides for help. He identified all of them based on the position they were sitting at during the dinner. He walked through the room in his mind and then remembered each of the people. This then gave him the idea to develop the memory palace technique.


A good mind in a healthy body was the ancient motto. A man was expected to be well-rounded. For example, while Plato is known primarily as a philosopher, he was also a high-level wrestling and pankration (ancient from of MMA) practitioner, who even participated in some of the top contests of the day.

So it is no surprise that the Ancients (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans) developed some advanced sports training systems. One of these is called the tetrad system and consists of a cycle of 4 day training periods.

Basic training principles like progressive overload, periodization, and rest for recovery were all well known to them. According to Peter McAllister and his book “Manthropology”, the men of those days were in some respects much stronger than the men of today. One example that he uses is that of Ancient Athenian rowers on the triremes (ancient ships). Apparently, the average rower on those ships could row faster and for longer than even today’s Olympics rowers!

Ancient gladiator training methods.

Read More:

In order to learn more about the system of Marcus Aurelius, begin by reading my summary of his thoughts:

Marcus Aurelius: How to gather the strength to survive in adversity.

Then go into my series on describing the Three Stoic Disciplines:

All the articles in this mini-series:
The Introduction.
The Discipline of Desire.
The Discipline of Action.
The Discipline of Assent.

Then read the application of this in practice:
A day in the life of someone applying the system of Marcus Aurelius.

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