Ancient Greece contained many of the greatest scientists and philosophers in the history of civilization. Great thinkers who contributed endless knowledge in almost every subject. It’s quite incredible how many of the Greek quotes on this list date back as far as the 5th century BC and yet they are still known, and their meaning is still relevant today.
It seems that the Greeks have always had a deep understanding of the human condition, and the words with which to express it. And they continue to do so today. Many of our quotes are from the ancients, but some are more modern, and many are proverbs of unknown origin that are merely woven into the daily wisdom of Greek life.
We’ve listed 20 of our favorite Greek quotes and their meaning for you here in the hopes that they bring a little inspiration, motivation, or wisdom to you as you go about your day.
Quotes About Wisdom
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates.
Widely considered one of the greatest thinkers of all time and the founder of Western Philosophy, Socrates nevertheless said that it is in believing that you know nothing that you achieve wisdom. He believed that those who thought they knew nothing were more likely to search out knowledge and continue learning than those who thought that they knew everything already.
“Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.” – Plato.
Another of the world’s greatest thinkers, and a student of Socrates, Plato, reminds us that it is best to keep our mouths shut if we have nothing of value to say. That talking just for the sake of it is foolish.
“Wait for the wisest of all counselors, time.” – Pericles.
An injunction against rash decisions and hasty action by a prominent politician of Ancient Greece, Pericles. Since he played an important role in developing democracy, his words on thinking before acting are certainly worth listening to.
“You can knock on a deaf man’s door forever.” – Nikos Kazantzakis.
One of our more modern quotes, the meaning of this one was made famous in the 1940s by Greek literary giant Nikos Kazantzakis. The Crete-born novelist used it in his best-known work, Zorba The Greek. This quote conjures up a powerful image of futility, of an action we can perform over and over again with no hope of ever succeeding. This evocative use of language is one of the reasons why Kazantzakis was repeatedly nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature.
The Importance Of Self Knowledge
“The camel does not see her own hump” Greek Proverb.
In Greece, this is a folksy way of calling someone a hypocrite. It refers to the fact that people are often quick to point out flaws in others when they often have similar ones of their own. It talks about how we are often unaware of, or intentionally blind to, our own defects.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates.
If we don’t want to be like the blind camel, we should take a close look at ourselves and our own lives. According to Socrates, if we do not examine our lives, we are likely to be unaware of the consequences of our actions, the impact we have on other people, and the value that we could be bringing to the world around us. He thought that it was through moral self-examination that we could live our most worthy lives.
“Where rage seeds, repentance reaps.” – Greek Proverb.
Most cultures have a proverb or two that runs along this theme, that if we act in anger, we will come to regret it later. It counsels us to calm down and examine our actions before we go ahead with them.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus.
This is the first of two quotes on our list by another ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, and both of them have meaning to do with change. Heraclitus believed that the only constancy in nature was change and that everyone and everything was constantly changing from moment to moment.
Many people use this quote to say that we should never go back in our lives. That if we return to a place we once loved expecting to find it unchanged, we will be disappointed. And while this can be true, Heraclitus was not necessarily telling us that change is bad or that returning to the river would be a mistake. He was merely saying that we should always expect and be prepared for change.
“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all” – Hypatia.
A quote here by one of Greece’s most famous female philosophers – yes, there were several notable female philosophers of ancient Greece, although sadly, their legacies are less well preserved. Hypatia was a prominent mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, and teacher and reminds us here of the importance of thinking for ourselves.
Friendship And Love
“An open enemy is better than a false friend.” – Greek Proverb.
Anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of betrayal by someone they thought was their friend can acknowledge the truth of this one. If you’re anything like us, you’d rather know who your enemies are upfront. Ok, ‘enemies’ is a little strong, but we’d definitely prefer it if people who didn’t like us said so (or just stayed out of our way) rather than pretending to be our friends.
“I don’t need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.” – Plutarch.
What use is a friend who only tells you what you want to hear? Who agrees with you even when you’re making bad life choices? We need friends who are honest with us and speak their minds, and we need to do the same for our friends too. Or else we all might as well be talking to our shadows.
“Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” – Aristotle.
A quote on the idea of soulmates from Aristotle, a student of Plato and one of history’s greatest philosophers. This quote is thought to be based on the Greek myth that said humans were once whole, but Zeus, fearing their power, split each one into two separate beings. Humans were from then on destined to spend their lives searching for their other half or soulmate, achieving true happiness only when they found them.
Quotes About Bravery
“You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.” – Epicurus.
Epicurus was a philosopher whose teachings challenged Plato’s and would later inspire some of the greatest thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Epicurus’s words remind us that we would never need to be brave if there were no hard times or challenges and that if life is always easy, we will never learn to be courageous.
“We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.” – Aristotle Onassis.
Some more words of wisdom from the 20th-century, these ones come from Aristotle Onassis, a Greek shipping mogul and one of the richest men in the world. He was an astute businessman and his words counsel us to train ourselves to act and succeed when the going is tough and not wait for circumstances to become more manageable.
“There is nothing permanent except change.” – Heraclitus.
The second of our quotes by Greek philosopher Heraclitus with meaning about the inevitability of change. Again this quote does not warn us that change is good or bad but merely reminds us that it happens and that the only way to be happy in life is to prepare for it. Anyone who’s ever tried to ignore or deny change and progression will know that it does not make for an easy life!
“Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.” – Demosthenes.
Success doesn’t often come to us all at once, and we rarely get the chance to make massive leaps forward in one go. Instead, success is often the product of many small steps taken in the right direction and small opportunities taken advantage of. If anyone understood this, it was Demosthenes, a man who lost his father at a young age, was swindled of his inheritance by unscrupulous guardians, and who forged a career for himself as one of Greece’s most prominent public speakers despite having a debilitating speech impediment.
Kindness And Duty To Others
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” – Pericles.
We like this idea that our impact on other people is our most important legacy, more so than any material gains or monuments that we might leave behind. Pericles is thought to have meant it especially in relevance to the teaching of others and the positive shaping of children’s lives.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Socrates (maybe).
The origins of this quotation are now being contested, and there are claims to it coming from an Egyptian, a Scot, or an Englishman. But since it also gets attributed to both Plato and Socrates, we thought we’d get away with including it here, especially since it’s still so popular today. It is also one of our favorite quotes on this list because living by it is one of the easiest ways to make a difference in the world. Simply by being kind, because you never know what other people are going through.
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in” – Greek Proverb.
Another one of our Greek quotes which gets a lot of use these days and whose meaning is especially relevant during all the current talks about environmental issues and climate change. This one is all about working to create a better future for our children and all future generations, even though we may not be around to reap the benefits of our work.
And Our Personal Favourite
“Wine and children speak the truth” – Greek Proverb.
Anyone who’s had a 2 am phone call from a drunk friend or received a brutally honest opinion from a child can attest to the fact that this is correct!