Urgent breaking news from Athens

What is news? A standard definition might go: ‘news’ is something that people don’t know about, that matters a lot – and that has happened just now.

But consider another, subtly different way of defining the subject: ‘news’ is anything that people don’t know about, that matters a lot and that could have happened at any point in time, perhaps today, but equally, perhaps, some time in the fourth century B.C.

The news holds a prestigious place in society because – as it likes to tell us in often bombastic tones – it can inform us about the most important things that have happened anywhere in the world in the past few hours. By its very nature, the news assumes that everyone has by now already heard all about what happened yesterday and the day before – and that everyone has by now already had all the interesting thoughts that it’s ever possible to have about the past, and that we hence never need to go over any of it again. The ‘news’ simply has to be about what happened since the last bulletin – or tweet.

A lot of the time, this makes great sense. We don’t need to pour over the old stuff. We’re heading into the future, and at dizzying speed, and therefore we need the most up-to-date information, right now. But, sometimes, this philosophy robs us of a chance to get at key bits of information that didn’t gestate since breakfast time.

Sometimes – and this is something the news will never tell us – the real ‘news’ happened a long time ago. It deserves to be called news because it’s still important, it’s still relevant and most crucially, it’s still new to most people alive now. There’s a lot of vital information out there that for various reasons hasn’t reached us yet. News organisations may boast about their high-tech satellites and fibre-optic cables, but the obstacles to delayed news are often cultural and psychological. Important information floats in the darker parts of the ether, but we’re distracted by other things, no one is bringing it up, we’re looking elsewhere. But the day we learn to tune in at last, it become news.

In the early 400s B.C., the philosopher Socrates had a vital insight (a big bit of news) into what is needed for a good life. He argued that the first responsibility each person has towards themselves is to ‘know themselves.’ Every human needs to spend a good deal of their life getting to understand their motives, their prejudices, their ambitions and their frailties. We need to understand what we are really trying to do with our careers or why we so often get into in bitter rows with our partners or why every relationship we’ve been in fails or why we haven’t spoken to one of our cousins for six years, or why we get so anxious every Sunday evening. At the root of such mysteries is the fact that we don’t have full insight into our own motives and desires. Socrates’s momentous discovery is the amazing extent of our ignorance about ourselves. This discovery took place millennia ago, in a suburb of Athens. But it remains news, headline news, because the message has not yet been heard.

This news item also happens to have vast implications. A very large part of the modern global economy is devoted to addressing our desires for luxury, status, stimulation and distraction. And yet at an individual level – the news from Athens suggests – we may not really know why we want these things. But not because we are idiots.

Still waiting to hear the news

According to Socrates we naturally desire what is good for us. But we don’t know enough about what is genuinely beneficial for our lives, because we don’t know who we are. So we latch onto the things that have the biggest immediate appeal. Thus the person buying a fifteenth handbag actually wants substantial things like friendship, calm, a sense of purpose and a strong relationship. But the brain has picked up the erroneous idea that the way to achieve these things is through another hand luggage purchase. The person buying a high-end saloon car is – our philosopher says – really seeking dignity, security and recognition for their real accomplishments. But they have arrived at a mistaken theory of how to get them. And – hence – the astonishing thought that we do not so much need to stop wanting things in order to live well, as to get to know better what we actually really want, an insight that would at a stroke transform the luxury car and handbag industry.

Judged on the basis of importance, rather than sheer novelty, this piece of news from Athens deserves to go straight to the top of the agenda. It’s one of the enduring lead stories of humanity.