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A Little Happier: Sometimes, To Do a Simple Thing We Must Make a Huge Change.

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This story is very appropriate for our current COVID-19-dominated circumstances, because it involves a city struck by plague.

According to an ancient story, told by the Roman historian Plutarch in his work Moralia, (Bookshop, Amazon) in the essay “On the Sign of Socrates,” the island of Delos was struck by a plague. To learn what to do, what the god Apollo expected of them, the people of Delos consulted the revered oracle of Delphi.

The oracle responded with an answer, that I assume, was gratifying in its specificity. Usually oracles are ambiguous, but this was very straightforward, if unexpected and perplexing. The oracle told them that they must double the altar at Delos.

This instruction was harder than it sounded, because that meant that the black marble cubical altar to Apollo must be doubled in volume and yet remain a regular cube. Because the altar was a cube, when they doubled each dimension, which they did, they ended up increasing the volume of the altar eight times, not twice.

At that time, doubling the volume of a cube was a problem that was difficult, but it was solvable.

For help, the people of Delos consulted Plato. According to Plutarch, Plato “replied that the god was rallying the Greeks for their neglect of education, deriding, as it were, our ignorance and bidding us engage in no perfunctory study of geometry; for no ordinary or near-sighted intelligence, but one well versed in the subject.”

There were people who could tell them how to double the altar, but Apollo wanted them to figure it out for themselves.

“Rather that he enjoined all the Greeks to abandon war and its ills and to consort with the Muses, and by soothing the passions through reasoning and mathematics to live together profitably and without harm.”

I do love a prophecy, and I loved learning about this ancient prophecy which, by setting what seems a straightforward problem in geometry, aims to transform the values of an entire people.

It reminds me of something that scientist Carl Sagan said: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

Sometimes, to do a small thing, we must prepare ourselves in a very large way.

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