The Genius Complex, Part 1: The Wisdom of Ancient Athens

September 2, 2019
The most fun and insightful book I read all summer was Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places, from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.
Like life itself, the book is “creative non-fiction” — a mix of inquiry, travel, research, and humor — a kind of practical guide on how to cultivate creativity.
These reading notes and quotes — all from Mr. Weiner unless otherwise noted, — are for you.

First Stop : Ancient Athens

“What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” -Plato. This comment ends up having a lot of staying power, especially if you consider each of us to be a kind of country.
“For the Greeks, virtue and genius were inseparable. You could be the greatest poet or architect in the world, but no one would consider you so if you were an arrogant jerk.” I love this idea! Creative work is secondary to the work of being a good human being. Austin Kleon, a great artist, said that as he ages, he’s less interested in making great art and more interested in becoming a great person. That’s legit and worth remembering.
“The expectation of a reward or evaluation, even a positive evaluation, squelches creativity.” Even so, external motivation can play a big role in creating our best work. Evolving theories of motivation suggest that: “a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is ideal.”
One good source of extrinsic motivation can be a sense of competition, but:
“A crucial question is not whether someone is competitive but, rather, for what (or whom) they are competing.”
“Socrates was the Dude.”
Of course, ancient Athens was home to my main man Socrates, who had a “shiny ignorance” : “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing,” he said. This is especially helpful to remember since many of us are unable to accurately assess our competence in our works. As filmmaker Errol Morris put it: “we’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.”
Athenians embraced foreign goods and ideas, and they also embraced foreigners themselves. According to some psychologists, “openness to experience” is “ the single most important trait of exceptionally creative people.” This makes sense, I think.
And on another (political) note: “Athenians were deeply suspicious of private wealth…nearly everyone, from craftsman to physician, received the same salary.” Imagine that! According to Lewis Mumford, “poverty was not an embarrassment: if anything, riches were suspect.” Imagine that!

Other practical takeaways:
Walking is great for creativity. Greek men walked a lot, spending very little time in their poorly plumbed homes. It should be noted here, probably, how incredibly sexist ancient Greece was.
Alcohol can help creativity. But not too much. Many Greeks diluted their wine 5 parts water to 2 parts wine, and then drank all afternoon. (I started doing this at parties where wine was served. Less than a half a glass. Fill the rest with water. Slip slowly. Micro-dosing alcohol, if you will. It works well.)
For the Greeks, the excessive pride of Hubris was a “crime against the gods.” And we piss off the gods at our own peril. According to some historians, it was the “creeping vanity” of the city that caused its demise.
Hope this helps!

Cover Photo by Lee Weng on Unsplash

Photo 2 by Lee Weng on Unsplash

Photo 3 by Puk Patrick on Unsplash