5 Worthy Life Lessons to Learn from Greek Tragedies

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Ancient Greece is the place where it all started. The richness of its art is breathtaking, especially when it comes to literature. Tragedies provided valuable lessons about life and represented a moral pivot for Greek theater-goers. If you are facing a moral dilemma or just need some words of wisdom, turn to some of the greatest works of the magnificent cradle of European civilization, and find your answers. Here are five valuable lessons to learn.

  1. Lessons about unconditional love and the importance of democracy

What would you do if you had to choose between what you believe is right and what you are told to do? Antigone, a tragedy by Sophocles, has this problem in its focus. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, decides to punish Polyneices for his rebellion, posthumously. How is that even possible, you might ask? Well, according to Greek tradition, the deceased should be honored to vouchsafe his passage to the other world. Creon, a ruler drunk with power, decides to disobey higher law and publicly shame Polyneices for what he thought was treachery. Antigone disobeys Creon and honors Polyneices, her brother, despite the consequences of doing so. Antigone, an amazing and noble woman, can teach you a few things:

I was born to join in love, not hate – that is my nature. A city which belongs to just one man is no true city. There’s nothing in the world so demoralizing as money.

Sure, most of the characters are dead by the end of the play, and Antigone hangs herself. It is a tragedy, what did you expect? But, still – this piece will make you question your own courage and moral integrity when it comes to doing the right thing.

  1. A lesson about coping with being surrounded by idiots

How many times have you felt crazy because nobody seemed to value what you had to say, even though you knew you were right? Crushed by the power of the majority, you had nothing else to do but watch as doom approached. That is the pain of not being listened to. Sounds familiar? That’s exactly how Cassandra felt, from the tragedy Agamemnon by Aeschylus. Allegedly, Apollo fell in love with Cassandra. He gave her the gift of prophecy in order to win her love, but then she refused him. He spit in her mouth (how rude!) and cursed her so that she could see the future, but nobody would believe her. Talk about not taking no for an answer… So, if you’re having problems with all the people who just don’t value what you have to say, take advice from this tragedy:

Wisdom comes through suffering. Things are now as they are; they will be fulfilled in what is fated; neither burnt sacrifice nor libation of offerings without fire will soothe intense anger away.

The pain of knowing what’s going to happen doesn’t come unrewarded. You will have your moment of triumph, only a delayed one. And hey, being right gives you the satisfaction of exulting when you see others crash and burn, just because they didn’t listen to you. Perfect if you’re an “I told you so” person. And, since we live in the 21st century, there is this spell of stupidity present. Fortunately, that one can be broken.

  1. A lesson about what do to when you get left for another woman

Ever wonder how it is possible that there is no straighter path than from love to hate? One day, you feel love and peace with your significant other; the very next – everything falls apart. Maybe you have been through the pain of being left for somebody else. If that’s the case, turn to Medea, a tragedy by Euripides in order to see what you should not do. Of course, don’t kill and eat your children for the sake of revenge, that’s for sure. Here are some thoughts you should keep in mind when dealing with difficult emotions like sadness and anger:

Do not grieve so much for a husband lost that it wastes away your life. Old loves are dropped when new ones come.

You should keep in mind that it’s all life. People are going to mistreat you, but revenge will bring you nothing good except brief satisfaction. The best revenge is to move on, and then decide whether you should forgive.

  1. A lesson about the pain and glory of being rebellious, for a greater good

We’ve all been there: under some kind of authority, you have to keep your mouth shut in order to stay safe. But what if you decide you cannot stay silent and you have to stand up for what you believe in, no matter the consequences? That’s exactly what Prometheus did (in the tragedy Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus) – he stepped up and became a connection between gods and ordinary people – mortals. He gave people the mystery of fire, but also the knowledge of various arts and sciences. Afterwards, he was brutally punished, but he did carve his name in history, that is – mythology. So, when you think about giving up, when you feel you’re too tired from hitting the wall all the time and dealing with impossible people, think about these words of wisdom from Prometheus:

I am in this wretchedness, yoked in these constraining bonds, because I gave privileges to mortals: I hunted for, and stole, a source of fire, putting it into a fennel-stalk, and it has shown itself to be mortals’ great resource and their teacher in every skill. Such is the offence for which I am paying this penalty, pinned in these bonds under an open sky.

Great minds and doers of good will always be put down by others who obtain greater power and are burdened by vanity. Have no regrets and hold on to your bravery. Also, there will always be the ones who would love to tell you what to do, but never actually step up and fight by your side. You should never stop fighting, and keep in mind that

It is easy for the one who stands outside the prison-wall of pain to exhort and teach the one who suffers.

  1. A lesson about choosing the ones you fight for

Sometimes, we can get misled by others. We can think that they will protect us or even die for us, if necessary. But when the moment comes – they prove us wrong. There is nothing more discouraging than the fact that someone means more to us than vice versa. Alcestis (in the tragedy Alcestis by Euripides) even chose to die in place of her husband, having only one wish for her husband: to honor her death and not rejoice for a while, and not to remarry. But, the moment she was taken away by Death (Thanatos), Hercules came to visit and her husband decided it would be to rude not to drink with him. So, you may get the impression he wasn’t worth dying for. So choose wisely for whom you fight and in whom you invest your energy. And if you do get your share of bitter disappointment, keep in mind that nothing is unfixable and that it’s all part of precious experience. Take these words of wisdom:

Time cancels young pain. You were a stranger to sorrow: therefore Fate has cursed you. 

Greek tragedies are full of universal truths. You just have to have an eye for them. The basic nature of humans: their passions, desires and the drama that is all around, hasn’t changed much. Don’t be afraid to take the unconventional approach to dealing with your problems and try to understand the mythical world of the ancient Greeks. Maybe it will help you to get to know yourself better, too.

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