Sunday 25 September 2016

Ideas of SUCCESS ancient and modern


I find myself stumped as to what to say about ‘ideas of  success in antiquity’ on live radio next Wednesday night at 2200 pm. I've been invited to help mark the 50th anniversary of a famous BBC radio broadcast when ‘the nature of success in contemporary society’ was discussed by an (of course all white male) team:  one hero of mine—the Marxist intellectual & art historian John Berger—the self-appointed pontificator Malcolm Muggeridge, and actor Michael Redgrave. I dread to think which one I am supposed to be the substitute for.

While I can happily explain to the BBC listenership the rather bland Latin root verb succedo, which can mean all kinds of different movement through space, time, systems and procedures, my problem is that there was no ancient Greek  word for ‘success’. There are words for material prosperity, excellence, military or athletic victory, glory won on the battlefield, immortal fame, good luck and for happiness. Aristotle spend his life trying to work out what defined the ‘Good Life’ and how to achieve it permanently. But there was no simple way of translating ‘success’ in sentences like ‘Alan Sugar is a success’ or 'Alan Sugar has enjoyed success.'

I wonder whether my planned interlocutors, academic Peter Francopan and theatre director Kwame Kwei-Armah, will agree with me that success is intimately related to capitalism, entrepreneurship and accumulation of material goods. Having only recently paid off a longstanding mortgage, and feeling ecstatic freedom from pressure to work-for-money if I don’t want to that I have not felt for quarter of a century, my own sympathies lie with Bob Dylan. Neither fame nor fortune has made him happy, and he says, ‘A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.’ Success is freedom. It is not having to be at someone else’s beck and call in order to survive. On this definition,  a universal basic income would make successes of us all.

But that is not how the word is generally used. A man (and this is gendered) is a ‘success’ if he has wads of cash, a luxury home, a prestige-brand car and can buy/marry high-value sexual partners. In ancient Greek thought, people who accumulated money and the concomitant access to unlimited physical pleasures were often very far from ‘successes’ if their lives were taken in the round: Midas’ obsession with gold resulted in death from starvation; the fabulously wealthy Croesus of Lydia, far from being the happiest man in the world, as he believed, lost his son, his wife and his kingdom.

Alexander the Great was a successful imperialist, but dying of drink in his thirties surely disqualifies him. Medea was a successful pharmacist, but led rather an unstable life. Pericles begins to get there for me, having made a good speech, planned some nice buildings and enjoyed a rich personal life. But must have died, probably in agony from the plague, knowing that he was leaving the Athenian democracy in trouble.

So please help! Is there anyone out there who can help me with a ‘faithful’ translation of SUCCESS into an ancient Greek concept, or think of a classical myth, hero, text, historical figure who could illuminate the idea of SUCCESS for a 21st-century audience? I will be eternally grateful!


  1. I don't know if this helps, but there's the greater emphasis in ancient Greece upon the present. One example: the Classical Greek tragedies are still performed today, but at first they weren't written with any thought about long-lasting fame. There was intense competition among the tragedians, and prestigious prizes were given to those judged to be best, but until the early 4th century BC, each tragedy was only performed ONCE.

  2. Olympic (and other games) victors were given laurel crowns and, sometimes at least, were lauded in their home cities, even with statues and inscriptions. This doesn't seem to have happened to the same extent to the winners of poetry or music festival contests, though poets tend t suggest that their works can make their subjects famous for ever (that's more Roman than Greek?). The philosophers, from Plato onwards, saw the 'good life' in terms of balance and restraint - 'nothing in excess' - which makes their idea of success (if that's what it is) very different from Donald Trump's.

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  4. That's the thing - how success is measure has changed. I am sure that if today's success was the same in Ancient Greece they would definitely have a word for it. A similarity and connection with the ancient world is perhaps Dionysus. Nowadays it seems to a lot of younger people success is going our on a Friday and/or Saturday and become almost insensible through drink in the shortest possible time. This causes a loss of control and a loosening of the grasp of reality often culminating in a brush with authority or a fight (Pentheus anyone?). If only they knew they success is a mirror from a Greek tragedy. So as Steve above has said not only Greek plays being performed but the are enacted.