An Ancient Greek Approach to Risk and the Lessons It Can Offer the Modern World

Yves here. Notice that a considerable portion of this article about how the Greeks dealt with risk describes their use of omens. We moderns have put that behind us, right?

Not really. As a journalist friend who conducted many profiles of top-level Wall Street figures (and therefore others in their circle) said, “Wall Street runs on sex and psychics.” I only spent a little time in and around the New Age, but even so, met full time psychics, one on the payroll of Morgan Stanley, the other Disney. Both were regularly brought into executive-level meetings (one as a member of the HR department, the other as a marketing consultant). Similarly, quite a few of the professional money managers I know use astrology in deciding when to put on trade, not because they believe in it but enough investment professionals do that it affects market action, and they feel they need to be mindful.

By Joshua P. Nudell, Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics, Westminster College. Originally published at The Conversation

Most of us take big and small risks in our lives every day. But COVID-19 has made us more aware of how we think about taking risks.

Since the start of the pandemic, people have been forced to weigh their options about how much risk is worth taking for ordinary activities – should they, for example, go to the grocery store or even turn up for a long-scheduled doctor’s visit?

As a scholar of ancient Greek history, I am interested in what the classics can teach us about risk-taking as a way to make sense of our current situation.

Greek mythology features godlike heroes, but Greek history was filled with men and women who were exposed to great risks without the comforts of modern life.

The Iron Generation

One of the earliest written works in Greek is “Works and Days,” a poem by a farmer named Hesiod in the eighth century B.C. In it, Hesiod addresses his lazy brother, Perses.

The most famous section of “Works and Days” describes a cycle of generations. First, Hesiod says, Zeus created a golden generation who “lived like the gods, having hearts free from sorrow, far from work and misery.”

Then came a silver generation, arrogant and proud.

Third was a bronze generation, violent and self-destructive.

Fourth was the age of heroes who went to their graves at Troy.

Finally, Hesiod says, Zeus made an iron generation marked by a balance of pain and joy.

While the earliest generations lived life free of worries, according to Hesiod, life in the current iron generation is shaped by risk, which leads to pain and sorrow.

Throughout the poem, Hesiod develops an idea of risk and its management that was common in ancient Greece: People can and should take steps to prepare for risk, but it is ultimately inescapable.

As Hesiod says, “summer won’t last forever, build granaries,” but for people of the current generation, “there is neither a stop to toil and sorrow by day, nor to death by night.”

In other words, people face the consequences of risk – including suffering – because that is the will of Zeus.

Omens and Divination

If the outcome of risk was determined by the gods, then one critical part of preparing to face uncertainty was to try to find out the will of Zeus. For this, the Greeks relied on oracles and omens.

While the rich might pay to petition the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, most people turned to simpler techniques to seek guidance from the gods, such as throwing dice made of animal knuckle bones.

A second technique involved inscribing a question on a lead tablet, to which the god would provide an answer such as “yes” or “no.” These tablets record a wide range of concerns from ordinary Greeks. In one, a man named Lysias asks the god whether he should invest in shipping. In another, a man named Epilytos asks whether he should continue in his current career and whether he ought to wed a woman who shows up, or wait. Nothing is known about either man except that they turned to the gods when confronted with uncertainty.

Omens were also used to inform almost every decision, whether public or private. Men called “chresmologoi,” oracle collectors who interpreted the signs from the gods, had enormous influence in Athens. When the Spartans invaded in 431 B.C., the historian Thucydides says, they were everywhere reciting oracular responses. When plague struck Athens, he notes that the Athenians called to mind just such a prophecy.

Chresmologoi played so much of a role in bolstering public confidence that the wealthy Athenian politician Alcibiades privately contracted them as spin doctors in order to persuade people to overlook the risks of an expedition to Sicily in 415 B.C.

Mitigating Risks

For the Greeks, putting faith in the gods alone did not fully protect them from risk. As Hesiod explained, risk mitigation required attending to both the gods and human actions.

Generals, for example, made sacrifices to gods like Artemis or Ares in advance of battle, and the best commanders knew how to interpret every omen as a positive sign. At the same time, though, generals also paid attention to strategy and tactics in order to give their armies every advantage.

Neither was every omen heeded. Before the Athenian expedition to Sicily in 415 B.C., statues sacred to Hermes, the god of travel, were found with their faces scratched out.

The Athenians interpreted this as a bad omen, which may have been what the perpetrators intended. The expedition sailed anyway, but it ended in a crushing defeat. Few of the people who left ever returned to Athens.

The evidence was clear to the Athenians: The desecration of the statues had put everyone in the expedition at risk. The only solution was to punish the wrongdoers. Fifteen years later, the orator Andocides had to defend himself in court against accusations that he had been involved.

This history explains that individuals might escape divine punishment, but ignoring omens and failing to take precautions were often communal rather than individual problems. Andocides was acquitted, but his trial shows that when someone’s actions put everyone at risk, it was a community’s responsibility to hold them accountable.

Oracles and knuckle bones are not in vogue today, but the ancient Greeks show us the very real dangers of risky behavior, and why it is important that risk not be left to a simple toss of the dice.

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  1. DJG, Reality Czar

    There are indications that the herms of Athens, which displayed phalloi, had damage not only to the face of the god. After all, phalloi are good luck.

    The great writer Plutarch, besides being an astute observer of just about everything, was also a priest of the oracle at Delphi. So his dialogues about what went on at Delphi are interesting indeed. One of his questions is why the oracle started by giving prophesies in poetry and then devolved into prose.

    The oracle at Dodona, where Zeus, and his consort Dia, talked by means of an oak tree, yields many of the lead ribbons or tablets mentioned. (Some of the questions are written on what look more like a ribbon of lead to me.)

    All of which is to say that in assessing risk, once is dealing with a span of time, which is why prophesy seems to work. One is engaging the past, the present, and the immediate future. The gods, who know everything as one continuous present, surely can drop a hint now and again, right?

    I find it interesting that people think that astrology has strong predictive value: I have had my chart done more than once. Astrology is more like Jungian psychology–a look deep inside. As to whether stocks will go up, Planet Mercury has no interest in telling you yea or nay.

    1. Icecube12

      Psychological astrology is not very old and is only one branch. I think it actually originates with Carl Jung, who used astrology in his practice. Predictive astrology is far far older, but from what I know of the subject, if I wanted to get predictions made, I would more likely look to Vedic astrologers (in the Indian Vedic tradition) or Western astrologers well versed in such ancient techniques (which from my vantage are mind-bogglingly complex and very different from the pop stuff about Mercury retrograde one finds online).

      1. DJG, Reality Czar

        Icecube 12: Yes, Jung used astrology as a diagnostic in his practice, which is why I interpret astrology the way that I do. Freud supposedly used astrology now and again.

        Both of them are reputed to have had an interest in tarot cards, too, and tarot has only a weak predictive value. Again, a diagnostic.

        I have never been able to understand how Vedic astrology works.

        1. Adam Eran

          Regardless of the accuracy of astrology (really, an advanced superstition, not a science), it has its uses. I recommend Indian Matchmaking on Netflix for an excellent example. A woman consults the matchmaker to find a husband, and she’s rejected, repeatedly–and for good reason. She grows ever more uptight with each rejection, making here eminently reject-able.

          The matchmaker brings her to consult with an astrologer who reassures her that Jupiter is finally moving the right direction. Her temperament wasn’t the problem; the stars weren’t aligned, and the timing was bad for her to seek romance. She lightens up, since her ego is not on the line, and is much nicer to the prospective mates.

          That’s very useful!

        2. Henry Moon Pie

          One of the texts I consult is a Jungian take on the I Ching. Ask the universe a question, and the answer comes back as an invitation to a deep dive.

          1. Loran Davidson

            The I Ching has been my favorite “uncle” for consultations, meditations, since I was in college…amazing sometimes how deep and accurate….also, re the Vedas, Hesiod’s cycle of generations is nearly identical to the Yugas cycle in Hindu philosophy. We are now in the dark cycle of Kali Yuga, the Iron Age:


            Kali Yuga
            The Patriarchal Dark Age

            Kali Yuga, the Dharma-Ending Age, the Age of Iron. Most traditions have a name for the final Dark Age. What does it mean to us?

            Modern Western thought pictures time as a straight line. Traditional thought tells us that time goes in cycles. The most recent version of Modern Western thought (a few hundred years old) sees time, in human terms, as a constant “progress”. This tendency came to its fullest fruition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which were characterised by unbridled optimism about human progress and its Utopian future. Since then, this optimism has become decidedly muted and many views of the future are dystopian.

            Traditional thought, throughout the world, has always seen the “progression” of humanity as a downward movement. And throughout the world we find a division of the cycle of human decline into four Ages. The ancient Greeks called the four ages of human civilization the Age of Gold, the Age of Silver, the Age of Bronze and the Age of Iron. The Hindus and Buddhists call them Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga and Kali Yuga.

            To understand this Cycle, we have to realise that it is fundamentally a cycle of solidification or materialisation. Human beings – and indeed their terrestrial environment – begin close to the Spirit from which they first issue. The material aspect of things is much less in these early stages. Only gradually do beings consolidate into full materialisation, and some never do. This is why no physical remains of “mythical creatures” from earlier Ages have been found. Part of the process of history, as it relates to maidkind, is her increasing descent to the level of physical matter, with more and more of her life being tied to the physical plane.

            …Kali Yuga, naturally, is the most “consolidated” of the four ages. It is the age in which a truly “materialist” life becomes possible. It is also, and for the same reason, the Age of Quarrels and conflicts. For the “downward” tendency of solidification is also the “outward”, or centrifugal, tendency, away from the Spiritual Centre of being and its Unifying Principle.

            Traditional texts about Kali Yuga teach us that it is a time when human beings will kill one another. Of course there has been no historical civilization (i.e. one of which written records survive, all of which are patriarchal) in which the killing of one human by another, often in large organised wars, has not been commonplace. But in early civilisations, where all or most of the iconography is female, we find no fortifications or weapons of war. These begin to appear at the same time as the male image becomes more dominant in the iconography. War and torture become increasingly predominant as the Kali Yuga moves from its early toward its middle phase, and as feminine civilization is gradually expunged from history.

            Language becomes simpler as Kali Yuga progresses. It is easy to see that modern French is a simpler language than Latin, or Hindi than Sanskrit. Language becomes increasingly a tool for dealing with the material world and nothing else. The human mind becomes simpler and more materially-oriented. Studies show that the extraordinary range of consonantal sounds in ancient languages make it certain that early humanity had far finer and subtler powers of hearing and articulation than we children of Kali Yuga; and the study of ancient music, with its remarkable subtlety of rhythm and melody, confirms this.

            1. RS Hayes

              A very interesting post that most NC readers will be quick to dismiss outright (unfortunately).

              I just wanted to note that Evola would vehemently disagree with your identification of the female/lunar as a predecessor stage to male/solar divinity; maternal diety is a form “degeneration” from the animating center; solar diety embraces the warring spirit of “Empire”.

      2. Ne’ermind

        There has been a magical renaissance of late and interesting work done in the field of Hellenistic Astrology. Check Chris Brennan and Austin Coppock. Apparently the Vedic draws on that anyway.

        Horsey astrology is another interesting branch.

        Like religions or philosophy there are many different schools.

        Personally I think oracles provide an interesting opportunity to test personal bias and check intuition which can be either highly conditioned superstition or subtle and potentially valuable personal signals about a situation.

        It’s tricky though. And abuse obviously rife. But fun to play with if you can be dead honest about own murky ambitions and fears. It’s all very psychological and memetic and semiotic and cybernetic to me.

    2. Kaleberg

      There’s a good book on that, The Reign of the Phallus. Yeah, all the household Hermes front door statues had their stone erections broken off. I got the impression Eva Keuls raided half the museum back rooms in the world for her research. NSFW.

  2. lyman alpha blob

    To your point in the intro, someone here at NC recommended a book I’ve been enjoying – The Enchantments of Mammon – How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity.

    It is quite the doorstopper, coming in at around 800 pages, and while I’m only about 1/4 of the way through, the author makes a very convincing case that we have not removed religion and superstition from our everyday life to create a more rational world as the prevailing Enlightenment narrative would suggest. Instead we have merely shifted the focus of our worship to the point that our god has become The Market, whether we consciously admit it or not.

    1. Synoia

      I don’t think reading an 800 page book is required to come to the Conclusion that people worship Money and Markets.

      I had my first lesson when at Uni. I visited my Sister’s work place, a stockbroking company, and we briefly discussed industry and manufacturing.

      I was told “We don’t invest industry and Manufacturing.”

    2. Amfortas the hippie

      that was me,lol…bought it based on a rec on goodreads…but haven’t had time to open it yet….led there by a review i happened across somewhere.
      i’ve known since i first cracked an econ 101 book that much of what counts as Modern Economics is little different from reading entrails.
      i dabble in hedgewitchery…mostly protection(next new moon, we’re off to the cemetary for more graveyard dirt, for to make more Run Debbil Run Oil to put on the gates, door jambs, etc…my kids get a comprehensive educational experience)…”magic is the last resort of the powerless”….Intention manifested in the world.
      but i also listen to the wind…like at Dodona…but it’s hardly granular enough for investment advice.
      as for Hesiod…W&D is one of my very favorite books. I re-read it every other year in January(alternating with Virgil’s Georgics) for inspiration in my ongoing subsistence farming.
      (Five Acres and Independence is another favorite of the genre)

      the key to it all is to remember that we don’t know near as much as we like to think that we do.

  3. zagonostra

    Was it Terence Mckenna who explored the role of hallucinatory drugs in aiding the oracle in coming to her cryptic prognostications? It probably wouldn’t hurt if those who calibrate economic risk that have broader implications for the planet and my pocketbook sought out more oracles and maybe participated in a DMT experience periodically.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      at Delphi, last i looked, consensus was that it was methane from a crack in the floor.
      similar high to ether, if i recall correctly(from erowid, long ago).
      Pythia would babble incoherently, and the Priest would “interpret”(mansplain?).

      i prefer mushrooms for higher order quests…and a nice fat hogleg for more mundane pursuits.
      Green Dragon is good for intermediate endeavors(i use tequila…soak a bud in it for a month, filter, and do a shot as normal, with lime and salt.)
      Reckon wall street would be a better place all around if they adopted these methods(i also like mindlessly building stone circles on mountains, too…perhaps on the wall st rooftops? )

      all that said, i think it would behoove our wall street overlords to be rid of the Grasshopper God…find some less rapacious deity….perhaps one with a horn’o plenty or Hestia, or someone.
      lots to choose from…no need to settle for the voracious idiot gods of rapine and plunder.

  4. farmboy

    Using risk as a concept requires assessment of present circumstances, historical flows and turns, future possibilities and outcomes and the tantalizing prospects for reward. Risk doesn’t exist without reward, hand in hand they go. Viewing risk as just trying to keep what you have in trading vernacular is hedging. The precautionary principle-why take chances when the outcome is unsure and maybe the gain is minimal (my own extension) and the physicians creed-do no harm, define hedge. The common phrase “hedge your bets” captures placing a value on risk, but presupposes there is a choice to placing a bet. We sometimes peek at the oddsmakers for political outcomes or sporting events with a cynical heart, what do they know? Beneficial ways to assess risk go from detail to big picture and back again. Fractal understanding allows dipping your line in anywhere. Straight line outcomes seldom or nearly never transpire so simple projection is only usefull as a guide, allowing algebraic curve understanding will more likely generate a path showing a progression of outcomes.
    Growing a crop is a whole separate set of skills from selling one. Most farmers are in love with their produce, have a hard time pulling the trigger as is commonly said, to sell some crop. Some folks use the pin the tail on the donkey method or sell when cash flow dictates which is not a terrible approach and is common. Following the crop reports and sales and fundamental flows ala Clarence Beeks (Trading Places spy) is nearly unconscious, everyone does it like breathing or spitting. Everyone looks at charts and a picture says a thousand words and allows perspective unavailable any other way. The best traders I know of use algorithms they have experience making good decisions with, proprietary traders they are and most of the time their results cannot be replicated using the same methods. Diving into the esoteric, astrologic, numeric, the utility of everything developed prior is used as a platform for next up analysis. Serious traders have digested all of astrology and use what works for them and often without saying a word about it.
    Rather than marvel at the ignorance of newspaper and late night tv astrology, knowing the layers upon layers of let’s say shorthand that can be found in some seeming stray indicator someone might use as trigger to add or subtract risk could make for interesting results. Jung popularized astrology from a universal personal window. Abstracting subtle energies, i.e. tides, allows for understanding what influences might be actin on us in ways not evident.

  5. Wukchumni

    How about adding in something that didn’t matter all that much in the past because who cared about China, but that was then and this is now, and they are pretty anal about numbers. We generally only care about 13 & 666, but for them it is all consuming, every number having a meaning, and watch those inauspicious combinations!

    1. John

      Many ancient cultures were into numerology. Both Greek and Hebrew alphabets were used to represent number. Thus every Greek and Hebrew word has a numerical and numerological value and meaning.

      “The quadrivium was the upper division of the medieval education in the liberal arts, which comprised arithmetic (number in the abstract), geometry (number in space), music (number in time), and astronomy (number in space and time)” from Wikipedia scientistic POV

      We have lost a lot in discarding the categories of 5th Century Greek education, named in medieval Latin the Trivum and the Quadrivium.

      A beautiful introduction into this world:

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        That patterning instinct built into us has been determined to reduce the cosmos to a set of numbers or their more complex relative, equations. And when the damn thing won’t fit, we try forcing it. For a while…

  6. Darthbobber

    “We” might be a little better at risk assessment if there was more overlap in a Venn Diagram of the people doing the assessment and the people bearing the risk.

  7. Susan the other

    Pretty hard to crunch every frequency of every possibility into a probability. Or a range of probabilities. And then walk right out and slip on the ice. But that’s how we survived, ice and all – taking our best guess based on what we learned as hunter gatherers and farmers and thieves. How else? If there once was a spectacularly unsuccessful psychic or fortune teller it strangely did not go down in history – but it would really make a great movie.

  8. Jeremy Grimm

    I think Artificial Intelligence AI, may provide oracles for this age, not to suggest that AI has completely supplanted divination by older means. In some areas models augment the revelations of AI.

    Perhaps Neoliberalism has found the best means for dealing downside with risks — push them off onto someone else.

  9. I have lived in your future

    Our capitalist economy gave up on risk management when they allowed banks to issue shares, nowadays with no skin in the game we oscillate from one extreme to another with crisis supposed to happen every century occurring every decade.

  10. The Rev Kev

    This whole idea of assessing risk still remains disappointing in how it is done. Thousands of years ago we would use omens and oracles. Now we use charts or we just go to astrologers or any of a variety of such things that are on par with using omens and oracles. Risk remains a part of life though you could sort it into three categories. There is risk that you should actively seek such as asking a person for a date, there is risk that should be avoided such as drinking & driving and then there is risk that must be endured such as taking out a long-term loan. If you wanted to push it, you could say that anything worth doing always is a little bit risky. And if people are going to deal with assessing risk, it would be better if people were taught in school how to assess risks but we don’t really do that. Which is why people use astrology instead to let others do the heavy lifting of thinking for them. As I said, our attitudes to things like risk remain disappointing. If human civilisation was like a human lifespan, we would still be stuck in out early teenage-hood.

  11. Dick Swenson

    I started to listen to a podcast where McCarraher discussed his book The Enchantment of Mammon.
    I won’t even try to summarize this discussion. It is intensely interesting and does offer an explanation of why the concept of money is so central to every aspect of our lives. Capitalism is inedependent of all the other “isms” that we discuss and forms a foundation for them all – communism, socialism, libertarianism,et. – and is central to social and political thought.

    I look forward to a complete review from lyman alpha blog.

  12. Kaleberg

    If you’ve studied game theory, you’d know that sometimes a randomly mixed strategy is better than any pure strategy. They used oracles in the good old days. We use Bayesian statistics. There’s no sure thing in life, but you can jigger the odds.

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      Yes, there is also ‘efficiency diversity’ which is a fancy way of saying ‘keeping your options open’.

      Nice thought provoking essay, and good comments here, a pleasure to read, thanks to all.

    2. tegnost

      sometimes a randomly mixed strategy is better than any pure strategy.

      This is essentially the theory behind (imo) the i ching and tarot cards in a way that makes it almost impossible for them to be wrong, albeit subjectively interpreted by individuals. In this way it’s maybe better in those formats not to ask a question but rather look for an answer.
      Here’s an example I’ve used in re bernie…not as a divination beforehand but as a process thing describing disparate forces and outcomes in the way of proverbs or just good old common sense colloquialisms…randomly applied and exemplified with the interactions between physical forces and matter.

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