The Benefits of a Classical Education

As some of you may know, I got my undergraduate degree in Greek and Latin Classics. So when Forbes asked me to do an interview on the subject of how my Classical education had affected my business career, I agreed. The result, part of a special report called Power, Ambition, Glory, used only a small part of the interview I provided, so I decided to publish the entire interview here. Questions in bold were provided by Forbes in an email interview:

1. Tell us about a time when lessons learned from the ancients contributed to your success.

I love this question. As John Cowper Powys noted in The Meaning of Culture, culture (vs. mere education) is how you put what you’ve learned to work in your own life, seeing the world around you more deeply because of the historical, literary, artistic and philosophical resonances that current experiences evoke. Classical stories come often to my mind, and provide guides to action (much as Plutarch intended his histories of famous men to be guides to morality and action). The classics are part of my mental toolset, the context I think with. So rather than giving you a single example, let me give you a potpourri.

  • The unconscious often knows more than the conscious mind. I believe this is behind what Socrates referred to as his inner “daimon” or guiding spirit. He had developed the skill of listening to that inner spirit. I have tried to develop that same skill. It often means not getting stuck in your fixed ideas, but recognizing when you need more information, and putting yourself into a receptive mode so that you can see the world afresh.

    This skill has helped me to reframe big ideas in the computer industry, including creating the first advertising on the world wide web, bringing the group together that gave open source software its name, and framing the idea that “Web 2.0” or the “internet as platform” is really about building systems that harness collective intelligence, and get better the more people use them. Socrates is my constant companions (along with others, from Lao Tzu to Alfred Korzybski to George Simon, who taught me how to listen to my inner daimon.)

    I believe that I’ve consistently been able to spot emerging trends because I don’t think with what psychologist Eugene Gendlin called “received knowledge,” but in a process that begins with a raw data stream that over time tells me its own story.

    I wrote about this idea in my Classics honors thesis at Harvard. The ostensible subject was mysticism vs logic in the work of Plato, but the real subject was how we mistake the nature of thought. As Korzybski pointed out in the 1930s, “the map is not the territory,” yet so many of us walk around with our eyes glued to the map, and never notice when the underlying territory doesn’t match, or has changed. Socrates was one of my teachers in learning how not to get stuck following someone else’s map.

  • When Alexander the Great came to see Diogenes in his barrel, he was so impressed by the philosopher that he offered him money. Diogenes scornfully pointed out that he had no need of money, to which Alexander replied, “Have you no friends?” I’ve always thought that Alexander had the better of this encounter. His awareness that even when your own needs have been met you can work for the betterment of others has helped me to understand that being a successful businessman can be a powerful way to contribute to society. In building a business, it’s important to remember that you aren’t just acquiring wealth for yourself, but creating value for your employees, your customers, and others whom you may never even meet. This is the principle behind one of the mottos we use at O’Reilly: “Create more value than you capture.”

    Of course, the lessons for this one aren’t just from the Classics but from all of literature. I’m mindful of a wonderful passage in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables about the good that Jean Valjean does as a businessman (operating under the pseudonym of Father Madeleine). Through his industry and vision, he makes an entire region prosperous, so that “there was no pocket so obscure that it had not a little money in it; no dwelling so lowly that there was not some little joy within it.” And the key point:

    “Father Madeleine made his fortune; but a singular thing in a simple man of business, it did not seem as though that were his chief care. He appeared to be thinking much of others, and little of himself.”

  • I’ve been deeply influenced by Aristotle’s idea that virtue is a habit, something you practice and get better at, rather than something that comes naturally. “The control of the appetites by right reason,” is how he defined it. My brother James once brilliantly reframed this as “Virtue is knowing what you really want,” and then building the intellectual and moral muscle to go after it.

  • There are many topics, from open source software to web 2.0, where I’ve had to spend years trying to persuade others to a point of view that was at first foreign, then popular, then misunderstood and bastardized by those seeking to profit from the term without really understanding it. In telling the same story over and over again in different ways, I’m following in the footsteps of the Greek orator (alas, I forget his name) who said “The difference between a man and a sheep is that a sheep just bleats, but a man keeps saying the same thing in different ways until he gets what he wants.”) Look at a series of essays like Hardware, Software, and Infoware, The Open Source Paradigm Shift, and What is Web 2.0? and you’ll see me pursuing the same ideas, refining, clarifying, and advocating till I get what I want.

  • I live with a constant consciousness of the decline and fall of the Roman Republic, and the alarming parallels to 20th and 21st century America. Today’s venal partisan politics, driven by self-interested lobbyists, who all too often put personal gain ahead of the real interests of the nation, is eerily reminiscent of the way Rome fell from its high ideals. Heck, we’re even replacing our military with mercenaries, one of the things that had disastrous consequences for Rome. Fortunately, we’re still early in the process, and there is an opportunity to turn it around.

    There are of course also other parallels – many of which have been noted by the classically trained among our politicians. Robert Byrd’s masterful retelling of the disastrous Athenian invasion of Syracuse (which ultimately led to their defeat in the Pelopponesian wars) highlighted the parallels with the US invasion of Iraq, and made clear that, as Mark Twain said, “While history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme.”

2. If you could invite one classical figure to dinner, who would it be and why?

It would have to be Socrates, if only to know if he was indeed, as Plato said, “the noblest and best man ever to have lived” or rough clay refined by Plato’s own imagination. I like to think he’d be a great guy to have around to ask the right questions of those in power today. We’d probably imprison him too, though!

3. Who is the most powerful person in your life?

My wife Christina. She’s got a deep moral compass and a kind of intuitive sense of what matters. In our early years together, she had worries about me getting sucked too far into the competitive world of business, perhaps forgetting what is important. In so many ways, the kind of business I’ve built, which focuses on creating value for society and not just for the shareholders, is a reflection of my desire to build something she’d be proud of. I’m glad that I seem to have succeeded.

4. What is your secret ambition?

I’d love to have the time to learn to sing opera properly rather than bellowing half-formed fragments of melody in exuberant moments.

5. At what price glory?

While the willingness of the ancient Greeks to sacrifice their lives for glory brings tears to my eyes, I cannot ultimately condone the choice of Achilles. A short, glorious life in service of a greater good – say the life of the Spartans at Thermopylae, or the pilots in the Battle of Britain, of whom Winston Churchill said “Never have so many owed so much to so few,” – that is worth praising. But for glory alone? I think not.

6. Greeks or Romans?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning explained why you can’t make this choice:

“What I do and what I dream include thee,

As the wine must taste of its own grapes.”

Both Greeks and Romans are part of my roots – part of all our roots. I can, however, admit to partiality to individual works: Homer over Virgil (and The Odyssey over The Iliad), but Horace over Theocritus, and much as I love classical Greek statuary, my deepest love is for Roman busts, those detailed portraits of real people, time travelers from an age so like our own.