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Note: those with no prior knowledge of this subject should not feel any concern about attending; similarly those with significant background will not fail to profit from attending this session.


As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world outside us – as most of us are led to believe – as in being able to remake ourselves. —Mahatma Gandhi, quoted in M. Nagler, Gandhi the Man (1978)

This dialogue explores the myth, art, and philosophy of ancient Greece as a resource for individual and social transformation. We’ll focus on the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Diotima — the woman who reportedly initiated Socrates into philosophy — in dialogue with the archetypal psychology of C.G. Jung.

Last year, a majority of human beings told pollsters that our nations are “on the wrong track” (Ipsos, 2018). In North America, we worried about runaway climate change, the Trump presidency, and the rise of xenophobic “populism,” while global concerns trended toward corruption, poverty, and extreme inequality.

What can we do? We can—and should—motivate for social, economic, and social policy solutions to these collective challenges. But their root causes are arguably neither economic nor political: they lie in individual human psychology, in our evolutionary wiring for excessive greed, self-interest, fear, and ignorance. And so we may find value in movements that offer resources for the individual transformation of the human psychē, for the felt cultivation of the mature and compassionate soul.

Global religions have traditionally housed self-transformative practices, like insight meditation and mindfulness, visualization, and prayer. Their potential to cultivate individual compassion, altruistic action, and happiness has been documented by neuroscientific studies, and promoted under rubrics from psychotherapy to “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” Still, each is distilled from a rich and ancient cultural tradition: the Buddhist Satipatṭhāna Sutta, for example, is an early source for many modern mindfulness practices.

This conversation explores the potential contribution of Ancient Greek culture as a reservoir of such self-transformative practices, focusing on the ideas of Socrates and Plato. Ancient Platonists cultivated a suite of “spiritual exercises” ranging from meditation on patterns of the divine (theōria) to music, art, narrative, and open-minded dialogue, each working on a different facet of the psychē. We’ll briefly explore these practices and open a discussion of each.

Ancient Greece and Modern Life 

Our history still begins with the Greeks… By “begins” I mean not only the temporal commencement, but also the archē, the spiritual source to which, as we reach every new stage of development, we must constantly revert in order to reorient ourselves. —Werner Jaeger, Paideia I, xv

The spirit of Ancient Greece is vibrant in 21st-century collective life. Democracy, demagoguery, rhetoric, and tyranny—like physics, psychology, poetry, history, and drama—are all ancient Greek words, but they’re also vital and ongoing cultural experiments. Ancient judgments on them still feel strangely relevant. “I don’t suppose,” as Plato reflected, “that tyranny evolves from anything but democracy: the most severe and cruel slavery from the utmost freedom.”


Through this dialogue, participants may expect to develop or deepen an understanding of:

  • Ancient Greek paths to the Divine, and their enduring legacy in modern religions and contemplative practices
  • Greek mythology and its formative influence on European literature and art, through the lens of Jungian archetypal psychology
  • The Greek philosophers Socrates (469-399 BC), Plato (c. 428–348 BC), and Diotima (active c. 440 BC?) and their core ideas.
  • The role of women as leaders and teachers in ancient Platonism, from Diotima, teacher of Socrates, to Hypatia of Alexandria.
  • Ancient Greek interpretations of the twelve Olympian gods as archetypes for an authentic life and a just society: Athena’s pure reason, Apollo’s cultural memory, Zeus’ justice and wisdom, Aphrodite’s love and compassion, and Dionysus’ intoxication and inspiration.
  • Plato’s search to channel these archetypes into a peaceful, sustainable, and equitable society, rooted in individual self-cultivation and critical reasoning. This search led Plato through a personal quest of grief, sacrifice, slavery, and love, flowering in the foundation of the Academy, Europe’s first university.
  • Plato’s prescription for a democracy fighting tyranny—a robust education system that privileges curiosity, open dialogue, equity, and care for the truth 
  • Platonic “contemplative practices,” with a special focus on the harmony between the discovery of meaning (logos), authentic emotion (thumos), and desire and aversion (epithumia)

An authentically just person… is her own friend. She harmonizes the three facets of her soul [meaning, emotion, and desire] like the notes of a musical scale. She weaves them together… and from having been many, she becomes entirely one, wise and harmonious. Only then does she act. —Plato, Republic 4, 448c

The Presenter:

Michael Griffin is an Oxford-trained classicist and philosopher with a passion for rediscovering ancient ideas and their capacity to enliven modern society. His public dialogues have been reviewed as friendly, accessible, and welcoming. Michael’s books focus on relating Ancient Greek and Buddhist ideas to modern philosophical education and society. With Sir Richard Sorabji, he is co-director of the Ancient Commentators project, described by The Times of London as “a massive scholarly endeavour of the highest importance.”

Michael has addressed the BC Ministry of Advanced Education, the Governor-General of Canada, and the Dalai Lama’s “Mind and Life” symposium, and delivered well-received lectures in Vancouver, Princeton, Oxford, and Milan.

Michael lives in Vancouver with his wife, Angelique, and is Associate Professor of Classics and Philosophy at the University of British Columbia.More about Michael:


Cost: $30 at the door

Registration Required: [email protected]