Ancient Greeks On Managing Obesity

Ancient-Greeks-symposiumIn 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults, aged 20 and older were overweight. In 2013, over 500 million of the world’s population was obese. By seeing these alarming numbers one could definitely argue that these people would benefit from a dose of self-control, as performed by ancient Greeks some thousand of years ago.

For the people of ancient Greece, fatness was the result of a lazy lifestyle and as proud people, ancients didn’t want to be associated with such a life. Quite a change there today!

For Socrates, who took a stern line on the problem, being obese was the result of not knowing what the right thing is. “If we knew,” he said, “we would not fail to do it, because it would have been so obviously in our interests to do it.” To the objection that a person often knew what was right but did not do it, in fear of e.g. losing pleasure, the ancient Greek philosopher replied that such a person didn’t really know what was right after all. The person simply had an opinion about it, which was prone to be perverted by passing whims. Hence the Socratic paradox according to which no one does wrong willingly, but only ignorantly. Therefore, curing ignorance is the only solution.

The doctor Hippocrates, well aware that sudden death was associated with obesity, knew that “dieting which causes excessive loss of weight, as well as the feeding-up of an emaciated person, is beset with difficulties.”

But none of this faced the real problem. As the ancient Athenian orator Demosthenes said, “There is no difficulty explaining what it is best thing to do, only in making you actually do it.” Elsewhere he said, that emotional reactions like anger and sexual infatuation made a person act against his best interests, as if his capacity to deliberate had been overwhelmed by some external god-like force. But this is understandable. After all, one cannot actively decide to become for example lustful and vice versa, even if one wanted to.

Only one thing is sure. Governments cannot implement strict rules regarding the control of one’s body weight. Therefore, the problem of obesity requires cognitive and moral as well as dietary fiber.


  1. In starving Greece we have nothing more pressing to worry about but how the ancients addressed obesity? A little hard work never hurt anyone however the problem here is there is no work. A better historical diet fondly remembered by our elders is the Occupation Diet 1941-45 where they ate grass, weeds and just about anything they could find.

  2. There has to be some context to our situation. There are places in Africa where people are suffering far more than we are. Our goal should be fairness and the opportunity to fix our mistakes,. not to absolve ourselves of moral responsibility. Ancient Greeks concerned themselves with principled ethics not only sophist self-interest.

    IMO part of our problem today is many greeks are like the Skopians. Posers that boast about ancient Greeks but then spend little time learning about them. Hellenism isn’t exactly about mimicking ancient Greeks. It’s about drawing on their great wisdom so that we ourselves can learn to be better people, One can’t do that without first learning. No matter what their circumstances, every Greek should study ancient Greeks beliefs from cradle to grave (else they shouldn’t call themselves Greeks)

  3. When you walk the streets of Athens you will see every variety of persons and personalities, the same was true for ancient Greece. We learn of the greatness of Greece but there were darker sides as well that we tend to overlook in our enthusiasm to admire our glorious past. We are different than Skopians as we are historically linked to the land by our language, culture and religion. We did not migrate to Greece in historical terms, we have been in Greece and rightfully call ourselves Greeks for millennia.
    As to the first part of your comment, there is very little we can do to change the tribal, cultural and political issues that often tear at the fabric of humanity in Africa. At the moment there are two wars in progress on the continent and no amount of money, food or assistance will quell them until the factions determine for themselves it is time for peace.

  4. There is no end to what we can still learn by studying the ancients. They were much closer to nature than modern man. Visit-Ancient-Greece!

  5. Ethics is one of the reasons we try to remember and value their views despite that they also made mistakes. Aristotle’s physics may have been virtually all wrong but the fact he could identity physics (and logic) are a testimonial to his timeless genius. There are lessons to be learned from ancient Greeks even 2500 years later. The trick to learning is listening to the teacher not spending all one’s time trying to correct the teacher.