Can the ancient Greeks really offer us ‘life lessons’ today?

Adam Nicolson’s seductive new book –a voyage around early Greek thought – opens with a lovely passage. Moored with his wife off the island of Samos, Nicolson rises at first light, with ‘only the cats awake’, to find that other boats have come in during the night and laid their anchor lines over his. Our action-man author dives in and swims down ‘the 12 feet or so to the sandy sea floor, hand over hand and link by link down the chain, looking for the tangle that needed to be undone’. It’s a metaphor for the task he sets himself in How To Be, which aims to separate out the

The vexing problem of ancient Greek mathematics

The most important thing to know about ancient Greek mathematics is how little anyone knows about it. The scant evidence available today is tremendously indirect: reconstructions from unrepresentative survivals of fragments of translations of transcriptions of commentaries on compilations of summaries of allusions to refutations of excerpts of documents produced as part of an oral culture of learning in which the original writing may never have been expected to encapsulate what really mattered. Many centuries separate the people we want to know about and even the oldest materials we have to know them with, and most of what they did and thought is simply and definitively lost. But that is