HERITAGE OF GREEK THOUGHT: The crowning glory of ancient

The crowning glory of ancient Western Civilization was the Acropolis of Athens.
The Parthenon was the symbol of Greek culture and values: rationality, harmony, repose – the
triumph of reason and freedom over the “superstition” and “despotism” of “Eastern” cultures
such as Assyria or Persia.
But the achievements of classical Greek civilization would have been impossible without the
debt Greece owed to Phoenician, Assyrian, and Egyptian ideas and inventions.
Building on their experiences after the collapse of the Bronze Age, Greeks of the Iron Age came
to cherish values and assumptions that differed greatly from their Eastern neighbors: human
dignity, individual liberty, participatory government, artistic innovation, scientific investigation,
constitutional experimentation, confidence in the creative powers of the human mind.
The democracies of the modern West are not only heirs of Greek life and thought, but they
would have been impossible without the Greek model.
Greeks endured war, population decline, and flight from Greece to foreign lands, participated by
the arrive of Greeks from the north called Dorians.
Greek religion was interwoven in fabric of society, but Greeks were very suspicious of their gods
and their motives and did not necessarily see the gods as positive forces. These gods were
capricious and possessed human failings while wielding superhuman powers. The gods
delighted in interfering in human affairs – so they were to be appeased and propitiated, but
were not fully trusted.
Greeks relied more on the power of the individual human spirit than on divine intervention, but
they developed the idea of HUBRIS (excessive pride) to discourage men from being too proud of
their own accomplishments.
Trade increased and stimulated the economy. Social stratification became more pronounced. A
small group of aristocrats began to emerge who justified their preeminence as a reflection of
their own superior qualities as “the best men.”
Wealth was also gained through warfare and plunder. A great man had to be not only wealthy,
but a singer of songs, a doer of deeds, a winner of battles – a man favored by the gods = THE
Greeks passed down stories through oral tradition until the adoption of the Phoenician
alphabet.. Homer’s epics finally written down – describe Greek heroic life in the Dark Ages.
Homer’s world – competition and relative status are of paramount importance.
The Phoenicians also encourage seafaring in the Greeks and Greek commercial traffic increased
in the Aegean.
Greek populations began to explode – social cooperation became necessary so the POLIS was
born. Each polis was organized around a political and social urban center known as the ASTY,
the location of most markets and important meetings where business was conducted.
Surrounding the asty was the KHORA (“land”) where farmers lived.
SYNOIKISMOS (“the bringing together of dwellings”) was the formation of the POLIS. Greeks
may have adopted the Phoenician model of building an urban center around a temple, or
temples may have been built in the urban centers that were already formed.
This period has been called the “Age of Experiment.”
Hoplite warfare developed at this point. (Hoplites were foot soldiers armed with spears or short
swords and protected by a large round shield (hopla), a breastplate, a helmet, and sometimes
wrist and leg guards (greaves). Hoplites fought in phalanx formation.
Rise of Aristocratic culture and Tyranny:
Aristocrats of the Archaic Age pursued wealth, power, and glory. Respectable women were
excluded from the “symposium” where elite men would meet to drink wine, recite poetry,
dance, and consort with courtesans.
The SYMPOSIUM was an essential feature of aristocratic life in the polis. Homosexuality was
accepted but regulated by social custom. A rising man in his late 20s and 30s would take on a
youth as his protégé, who would learn from the older man about the workings of government
and society and would make important political and social connections that would benefit him
later in life.
By the end of the Archaic Period the circle of the aristocratic elite was narrowing. Violence
between aristocratic groups increased, ultimately giving rise to TYRANNY as an alternative form
of government.
The tyrannos was a person who seized power and ruled outside the constitutional framework. A
tyrant in Archaic Greece was not necessarily an abusive ruler. He was usually an aristocrat who
used the hoplites to secure power. To stay in power he had to redress the grievances of his
hoplite supporters.
On mainland Greece, tyranny rarely lasted more than 2 generations when the people
demanded more representative government.
During the Archaic Period, Corinth was the leading commercial city in Greece, Sparta was the
preeminent military power, and the Aegean islands were centers of learning and culture.
When Athens began to emerge, their aristocratic officials (archons) became lifetime members of
the Aeropagus Council that ran Athens – it was the “high court” of Athenian society.
The city of Miletus because the center of Greek speculative thinking and philosophy. The “PreSocratics” of Miletus raised serious questions about the relationship between the natural world
(the “kosmos”), the gods, and humans. Three most important thinkers of Milesian School were
Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. They began to formulate RATIONAL theories to explain
the universe.
Later Xenophanes complained that men made gods in their image, not the other way around.
The fissure between religious belief and philosophical speculation was a crucial development in
the history of Western thought. However many citizens were unnerved by the philosophers’
“impious” questioning of the nature of the gods.
The Archaic Period ended with dramatic military struggles with Persia. Our main source of
information about the Persian Wars is Herodotus (known as the “father of history”). The
culmination of the Greek/Persian Conflict was the Battle at Marathon where 6400 Persians died
compared to only 192 Athenians. Athens began to transform itself into the preeminent naval
power of the Greek world.
A second Persian invasion under Xerxes who conquered Thebes and Delphi. Athens, Sparta, and
other cities refused to yield and formed the Hellenic League. Xerxes defeated the Greeks at
Thermopylae and Athenians were forced to evacuate their city, which the Persians burned.
Athenian leader Themistocles smashed the Persian fleet at the Bay of Eleusis in the Battle of
Salamis, driving the Persians out of Greece.
The reforms of Cleisthenes in Athens made Greek experiments in democracy possible, including
elections of officials by lot.
One office left open to traditional voting – THE STRATEGOS or general. STRATEGOS:
Themistocles, Cimon (led the Delian League to victories), and most notably PERICLES (Perikles)
who was from an aristocratic family.
Pericles defeated Cimon and then pushed through reforms to make Athens more democratic.
Power was shifted away from the Areopagus to male citizens of Athens. Pericles built buildings
and held lavish festivals to honor the gods, especially Athena.
Drama developed during this period from the choruses chanted at the great spring festival in
honor of Dionysus. Greatest Greek tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Also during this period, Greek prose developed. Heroditus and Thucydides (on
Athenian/Spartan War) were masterful historical accounts.
Women in Classical Greece:
Perikles’s advice to married women: rear more children for the sake of Athens, show no more
weakness than was “natural to their sex,” and avoid gossip. His disdain for women mirror
widely held male attitudes about women in Classical Greece.
The growth of Greek democracy actually lead to greater inequality between the sexes. In the
Dark Ages, women had been portrayed as beautiful, wise, and courageous (Helen of Troy,
Andromache, Penelope) but as aristocratic ideals gave way to democratic ones, women’s live
were relegated to the shadows.
Athenian male youths were trained for the military together and encouraged to develop close
relationships. Aristocratic “respectable” women lived in seclusion. Girls of fourteen were
married to men twice their age and their marriages were arranged by their fathers. Legally wives
became their husbands’ property. Most women bore 4 to 6 children and died by age 35. A man
would not want his wife seen outdoors by other men except at public festivals. At home they
wove cloth and ran the house. Few husbands had an emotional bond with their wives who they
regarded as natural inferiors.
Falling in love with one’s own wife was generally scorned. Athenian men of the 4th and 5th
centuries BCE tended to idealize homosexual relationships since men were superior to women.
They turned to household slaves or prostitutes for physical pleasure, but only the children of
marriage could inherit from the father.
Athenian society was dependent on slaves who performed all the heavy labor while the men
engaged in politics. Most families had one or two slaves that they generally treated well. The
Athenians believed that nature had chosen some people to be slaves (inferior) and others to be
free and prosperous.
The Peloponnesian War with Sparta brought about a self-destructive passion that Athenians
began to turn on one another when the war was over. After the war, they began to try and
execute generals who had lost ships during the war, including Pericles’s own son. The most
experienced and able commanders began to flee Athens. Lysander of Sparta was finally able to
destroy the Athenian fleet and besiege Athens.
When the Athenians surrendered, Corinth and Thebes called for the city’s utter destruction. The
Spartans, to their credit, declined to raze the city. Thirty Tyrants were set up to rule Athens
while the Spartans had to defend Athens from Persian aggression.
Under these grim circumstances, Socrates (469-399 BCE) attempted to refound ethical and
political life in Athens on new and more certain foundations.
Philosophical Background to Socrates:
Athenians were growing more pessimistic over their loss of freedom. Thinkers with solutions
began to emerge:
Pythagoras from Samos in Southern Italy founded a sect in the city of Croton. He and his
followers regarded the speculative life as the highest good and to live that life successfully one
must be purified from all desires of the flesh. They studied the principles of music and
mathematics and the contrasts of “odd” and “even.” Pythagoras actually proved an old
Babylonian assumption (the Pythagorean Theorum.)
Around 450 BCE, professional teachers emerged who were called SOPHISTS – “those who are
wise.” They were the first in Western history to be paid for “selling” their knowledge. Socrates
and Plato later viewed the Sophists as teachers who deviously employed false reasoning, but
originally they were revered.
Sophists included Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things,” meaning goodness, truth, and
justice are relative to the needs and interests of human beings. Protagoras was agnostic (he did
not know whether the gods existed or not). He concluded there could be no absolute truths or
eternal standards of right. If sense perception is the only source of knowledge there could only
be particular truths for the individual knower.
Sophists were courageous in calling ASSUMPTIONS into doubt and encouraging Athenians to
examine each new situation on its own terms and merits. Unfortunately , the “wise man” might
be the one who best knows how to manipulate others, gratify his own desires, and could
rationalize monstrous acts of brutality.
Socrates brought about the growth of a new philosophical movement grounded on the theory
He wished to examine every “slogan” – submitting it to rigorous questioning to ultimately reach
ethical certainties. Because Socrates wrote nothing himself, it is difficult to determine exactly
what he taught. Here is what we know from Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes:
Socrates wished to subject all inherited assumptions to reexamination.
He maintained that complacent people who thought they knew everything really knew nothing.
He styled himself a “gadfly,” engaging people in conversations and showing them through
“Socratic” questioning that their supposed certainties were nothing more than unthinking
prejudices resting on false assumptions.
According to Plato, an oracle once said that Socrates was the wisest person in the world.
Socrates agreed, for everyone else thought he knew something, but he (Socrates) was wiser
because he knew that he knew nothing.
He wished to base his philosophical speculations on the sound definition of words.
He wished to advance to a new system of truth by examining ETHICS rather than by studying the
physical world.
He shunned discussions of why things exist, why they grow, and why they perish to reflect
instead on principles of CONDUCT both for their own sake and for the good of society as a
One should think of the meaning of both one’s life and one’s actions at all times, for, as he said,
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
He was a philosopher of the marketplace who held tradition and clichés up to doubt to help
people improve their lives.
He believed in the standard of ABSOLUTE GOOD rather than expediency.
The state must construct a system that offered a positive framework of truth and reality.
The intellectual shift begun by Socrates was carried on by his most brilliant student, Plato, who
was born into an aristocratic family about 429 BCE.
Plato joined Socrates’ s circle as a young man and witnessed Socrates’ forced suicide. As a result
of this trauma, Plato shunned direct political involvement, seeking instead to vindicate the
memory and teachings of Socrates by constructing a philosophical system based on Socratic
Plato taught in an informal school (no building) called the “Academy” and also wrote a series of
“dialogues” (treatises expressed in DRAMATIC FORM) in which Socrates was the main speaker.
The Platonic dialogues (particularly the Phaedo, the Symposium, and the Republic) are enduring
works of literature as well as philosophy.
Plato understood that to refute the “relativism” of the Sophists and to combat “skepticism,” he
needed to provide a secure foundation for ETHICS, which he did through his doctrine of IDEAS.
Relativity and change are part of the world we perceive with our senses, but he denied that this
sensual world was the entire universe.
He believed a higher, spiritual realm exists, composed of ETERNAL FORMS that only the mind
can grasp. These IDEAS are not abstractions but have REAL EXISTENCE. Thus there are Ideas of
chair, tree, shape, color, proportion, beauty, and justice.
Highest idea = GOOD, the cause and guiding principle of the universe.
The objects we perceive through our senses are imperfect copies of supreme realities, the Ideas,
and relate to these ideas as shadows relate to material objects. By understanding and
contemplating the GOOD, one might achieve the ultimate goal of fulfillment through VIRTUE.
Plato addressed the politics of the imperfect world of the sense in his most famous dialogue,
The Republic -- the first systematic treatment of political philosophy ever written.
Plato thought harmony and order were more important than liberty or equality. He argued for a
state where most people (farmers, artisans, traders) would be governed by intellectually
superior “guardians.” Guardians had first to serve as soldiers, living together without private
property. The wisest among them would receive further education and eventually become
Plato thought neither wealth nor heredity equipped one properly to rule or lead, but only the
greatest intelligence enhanced by the best possible education. Once philosophers were in
power, they would choose the wisest to succeed them and see to it that everyone in the state
was subordinated to the IDEA OF THE GOOD.
Question: Who will guard the guardians? Plato assumed that properly educated rules would
never be corrupted by power or wealth – a theory that has not been borne out in world history.
Greatest student of Plato and son of physician.
His philosophical system based on thought that the human mind could understand the universe
through the rational ordering of sense experience.
While Plato taught that everything we see and experience is but an untrustworthy reflection of
some intangible truth, Aristotle believed in the objective reality of material objects and taught
that systematic investigation of tangible things + rational inquiry could yield full comprehension
of the natural order and human beings’ place in the world.
He was the earlier formal LOGICIAN known to human history and probably the greatest.
He established rules for the SYLLOGISM.
Aristotle’s central belief was that all things in the universe consist of the imprint of form on
matter, a compromise between Platonism, which tended to ignore matter, and the purest
materialism, which saw no patterns in the universe other than the accidents of matter impinging
on matter.
Forms are the purposeful forces that shape the world of matter.
For Aristotle, the universe was TELEOLOGICAL – every item and class of items is inherently
aiming toward its own particular end. His universe is one of constant motion as everything
moves toward it’s ultimate perfected form (its telos.)
Aristotle’s moral philosophy was expressed most fully in his Nicomachean Ethics. The highest
good consists in the harmonious functioning of the individual human mind and body. Humans
differ from animals because of humans’ rational capacity. Humans find happiness by exercising
these rational capacities most appropriately – by using reason in practical affairs.
Good conduct = virtuous conduct. Virtue resides in aiming for the “golden mean” between
The contemplative life is better than the practical life because it allows those few equipped by
nature for it to exercise their rational capacities to the utmost. Therefore, philosophers were
the happiest of men.
While Plato viewed politics as a means to an end (the orderly pursuit of the supernatural Good)
Aristotle thought of politics as an end in itself – the collective exercise of the good life.
Aristotle thought “barbarians” were not fully human and we meant by nature to be slaves.
He excluded women from the life of the polis and from being fully functioning humans engaged
in the state like men.
All male citizens were meant to share in the life of the state for, as Aristotle says, “Man is a
political animal” or a “creature of the polis.”
Aristotle did not think the best form of government was democracy which he saw as a debased
form of government. He preferred the POLITY –which was monarchical and aristocratic –
democratic elements were included by means of checks and balances.
Xenophon was a contemporary of Plato and a student of Socrates. He composed histories,
biographies, treatises on ideal kingship, and household management (the Oikonomikos – root of
our modern “economics”).
He assumed that good government was to be sought through exemplars and moral paragons.
Became disillusioned by Epanminodas’s crippling of Sparta – the state he most admired.
Isocrates was an Athenian orator who proposed a massive invasion of Persia led by a man of
vision and ability – someone who could unite the Greeks world behind his cause. He began to
see Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) as that man.
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