Lessons From Stories: Zorba The Greek

Zorba The Greek is a novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis. It was first published in 1946 and it is essentially an interaction between the narrator, who has learned about life through books, and Alexis Zorba, who has learned about life through actual experience. In the course of the story, which centers around re-opening a mine in Crete, the large practical philosophical questions such as: how to live life, what is happiness, what it means to be free, how to reduce anxiety, how to be yourself and many more are discussed.

Lessons:

On Living: Live in the moment

“Look, one day I had gone to a little village. An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. ‘What, grandad!’ I exclaimed. ‘Planting an almond tree?’ And he, bent as he was, turned round and said: ‘My son, I carry on as if I should never die.’ I replied: ‘And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.’ Which of us was right, boss?”

[…]

I kept silent. Two equally steep and bold paths may lead to the same peak. To act as if death did not exist, or to act thinking every minute of death, is perhaps the same thing. But when Zorba asked me the question, I did not know.

[…]

“Everything in good time. In front of us now is the pilaff; let our minds become pilaff. Tomorrow the lignite will be in front of us; our minds must become lignite! No half-measures, you know.”

Two paths that lead to the same peak, meaning either way what is being taught is to live in the moment. Whether you achieve this clarity by reminding yourself of death every day or you reach it by forgetting that death even exists, it doesn’t matter.

Pilaff now. Lignite tomorrow. Whatever you have to focus on in the present moment is life. Everything outside of it doesn’t matter. In this manner, life is also simplified.

“A fresh road, and fresh plans!” he cried. “I’ve’ stopped thinking all the time of what happened yesterday. And stopped asking myself what’s going to happen tomorrow. What’s happening today, this minute, that’s what I care about. I say: ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m sleeping.’ ‘Well, sleep well.’ ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m working.’ ‘Well, work well.’ ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m kissing a woman.’ ‘Well, kiss her well, Zorba! And forget all the rest while you’re doing it; there’s nothing else on earth, only you and her! Get on with it!'”

On Finding Happiness:

“This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To take part in the Christmas festivities and, after eating and drinking well, to escape on your own far from all the snares, to have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right: and to realize of a sudden that, in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.”

To leave the rat race behind. To get off the track of materialistic pleasure, which forever seeks the new thing that will bring short term gratification. Instead, lose yourself in what you are tasked with, enjoy the company of your neighbor, and build a refuge within yourself that you can always go to.

We stayed silent by the brazier until far into the night. I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And all that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.

Happiness is a constant search. You have to seek out the small, minute, frugal things like eating roasted chestnuts and find happiness in that fleeting moment. If you tie your happiness to grand moments like a promotion or buying something expensive or achieving a long term goal then in your entire life you will only have a handful of happy moments because those grand experiences are few and far between. While searching for happiness in the every day occasions can result in a handful of happy moments daily.

On Living: Be Passionate In The Moment

“You can’t understand, boss!” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I told you I had been in every trade. Once I was a potter. I was made about that craft. D’you realize what it means to take a lump of mud and make what you will out of it? Ffrr! You turn the wheel and the mud whirls round, as if it were possessed while you stand over it and say: I’m going to make a jug, I’m going to make a plate, I’m going to make a lamp and the devils knows what more! That’s what you might call being a man: freedom!”

Live with passion. Whatever you are presently doing, you should do it with your entire existence. The aim is to achieve a flow-like state where a whole day passes but to you it feels like it has only been a few minutes. That’s when you know that time was spent wisely.

“Throwing yourself headlong into your work, into wine, and love, and never being afraid of either God or devil…That’s what youth is!”

On Living: Be Yourself

“As for you boss,” he said, “I think you do your level best to turn what you eat into God. But you can’t quite manage it, and that torments you. the same thing’s happening to you as happened to the crow.”

“What happened to the crow, Zorba?”

“Well, you see, he used to walk respectably, properly–well, like a crow. But one day he got it into his head to try and strut about like a pigeon. And from that time on the poor fellow couldn’t for the life of him recall his own way of walking. He was all mixed up, don’t you see? He just hobbled about.”

Much of life can be uncertain which causes us to seek out other people to follow and be like them. Although this isn’t inherently a bad thing, you still have to be careful not to abandon your own individuality in order to gain comfort. It’s easy to do and mimic what other people say. It’s much more difficult to trust your own way of walking. You don’t want to spend so much time being like someone else that you forget who you are.

How To Live And How Not To:

“Life is trouble,” Zorba continued. “Death, no. To live—do you know what that means? To undo your belt and look for trouble.”

I still said nothing. I knew Zorba was right, I knew it, but I did not dare. My life had got on the wrong track, and my contact with men had become now a mere soliloquy. I had fallen so low that, if I had to choose between falling in love with a woman and reading a book about love, I should have chosen the book.

The truth is that by being active you open yourself up to trouble. By acting you have to face the possibility of failure, disappointment and even humiliation. However, the passive way of life is no way to live. You are merely an observer when you live passively. And passivity isn’t a habit you want to master for like all habits, it will be difficult to break.

On Freedom:

That’s what liberty is, I thought. To have a passion, to amass pieces of gold and suddenly to conquer one’s passion and throw the treasure to the four winds.

Free yourself from one passion to be dominated by another and nobler one. But is not that, too, a form of slavery? To sacrifice oneself to an idea, to a race, to God? Or does it mean that the higher the model the longer the tether of our slavery? Then we can enjoy ourselves and frolic in a more spacious arena and die without having come to the end of the tether. Is that, then, what we call liberty?

To try and be better than who you were yesterday is the beacon of light that we need to move towards. We have to overcome ourselves, constantly, to overcome lowly passions which are purely driven by pleasure in order to get the opportunity to achieve higher passions which enrich our souls and our lives. These high passions have to be tethered to our souls rather than to a concept or idea made up by others. That’s the only way to escape slavery.

On Living: Simplify Life and Thus Reduce Anxiety

That man has not been to school, I thought, and his brain has not been perverted. He has had all manner of experience; his mind is open and his heart has grown bigger, without his losing one ounce of his primitive boldness. All the problems which we find so complicated or insoluble he cuts through as if with a sword, like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian knot. It is difficult for him to miss his aim, because his two feet are held firmly planted on the ground but the weight of his whole body. African savages worship the serpent because its whole body touches the ground and it must, therefore, know all the earth’s secrets. It knows them with its belly, with its tail, with its head. It is always in contact or mingled with the Mother. The same is true of Zorba. We educated people are just empty-headed birds of the air.

The universe for Zorba, as for the first men on earth, was a weight, intense vision; the stars glided over him, the sea broke against his temples. He lived the earth, water, the animals and God, without the distorting intervention of reason.

Often stress and anxieties are man-made. We overthink and over-complicate our lives. We give in too much to the mind and don’t use our bodies to feel.

“Boss, everything’s simple in this world. How many times must I tell you? So don’t go and complicate things!”

Our mind gets overwhelmed easily especially in our current information age. In reality, what we actually need is simple, the basics, and if you listen to your body and feel life it’s easy to realize this.

Many are the joys of this world—women, fruit, ideas. But to cleave that sea (Aegean Sea) in the gentle autumnal season, murmuring the name of each islet, is to my mind the joy most apt to transport the heart of man into paradise.

On Living: You Only Have One Life

Once more there sounded within me, together with the cranes’ cry, the terrible warning that there is only one life for all men, that there is no other, and that all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here. In eternity no other chance will be given to us.

A mind hearing this pitiless warning–a warning which, at the same time, is so compassionate–would decide to conquer its weakness and meanness, its laziness and vain hopes and cling with all its power to every second which flies away forever.

Great examples come to your mind and you see clearly that you are a lost soul, your life is being frittered away on petty pleasures and pains and trifling talk.

Simply put, you have one life and it can go quickly so don’t waste it chasing petty pleasures and pains and trifling talk.

I was a long time getting to sleep. My life is wasted, I thought. If only I could take a cloth and wipe out all I have learnt, all I have seen and heard, and go to Zorba’s school and start the great, the real alphabet! What a different road I would choose. I should keep my five senses perfectly trained, and my whole body, too, so that it would enjoy and understand. I should learn to run, to wrestle, to swim, to ride horses, to row, to drive a car, to fire a rifle. I should fill my soul with flesh. I should fill my flesh with soul. In fact, I should reconcile at last within me the two eternal antagonists.

Great Lines/Quotes:

“As far as I can see, your lordship’s never been hungry, never killed, never stolen, never committed adultery. What ever can you know of the world? You’ve go an innocent’s brain and you skins never even felt the sun.”

 

Zorba sees everything every day as if for the first time.

 

At the far end of the room a ladder or a few wooden steps lead up to the raised platform, where there is a trestle bed and, above it, the holy icons with their lamps. The house appears empty, but it contains everything needful, so few in reality are the true necessities of man.

 

“Ha! Man is a wild beast,” Zorba said suddenly, overexcited with his singing. “Leave your books alone. Aren’t you ashamed? Man is a wild beast, and wild beasts don’t read.”

 

“All those who actually live the mysteries of life haven’t the time to write, and all those who have the time don’t live them! D’you see?”

 

When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all powerful enemy—some call him God, others the Devil, seems to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed.

 

I walked rapidly along the beach, talking with the invisible enemy. I cried: “You won’t get into my soul! I shan’t open the door to you! You won’t put my fire out; you won’t tup me over!”