The Greek Genius

The Greeks were the first to formulate many of the Western world's fundamental concepts in politics, philosophy, science, and art.

How was it that a relative handful of people could bequeath such a legacy to civilization? The definitive answer may always elude the historian, but a good part of the explanation lies in environmental and social factors.

Unlike the Near Eastern monarchies, the polis was not governed by a "divine" ruler, nor were the thoughts and activities of its citizens limited by powerful priesthoods.

Many Greeks, and most notably the Athenians, were fond of good talk and relished debate and argument.

As late as the first century A.D., St. Paul was welcomed by the Athenians because they "liked to spend all their time telling and listening to the latest new thing." (Acts 17:21)

The Greek Character

The Greeks felt a need to discover order and meaning both in nature and in human life.

This quest for order produced exceptional results in science, art, and philosophy.

Beginning with Hesiod, the Greeks stressed the virtue of sophrosyn (moderation, self-control) as the key to happiness and right living. Its opposite was hubris, meaning pride, arrogance, and unbridled ambition.

The result of human excesses and lying at the root of personal misfortune and social injustice, hubris invariably provoked nemesis, or retribution. According to the Greeks, an inexorable law would cause the downfall or disgrace of anyone guilty of hubris.

The Athenian dramatists often employed this theme in their tragedies, and Herodotus attributed the Persian defeat by the Greeks to Xerxes' overweening pride, for "Zeus tolerates pride in none but himself." ^16

[Footnote 16: Herodotus History of the Persian Wars 7.10.]

Greek Religious Development

Early Greek religion abounded in gods and goddesses who personified the forces of nature.

Thus Demeter (literally "Earth Mother"), was the earth and giver of grain;

Apollo, the sun and giver of light; and

Poseidon, who dwelled in the sea, was the ruler of the waters. Other deities had special functions, such as Aphrodite, the goddess of love;

Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine; and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and guardian of Athens.

By the time of Hesiod, a religious reformation had begun that changed the vengeful and capricious gods of Homer into austere arbiters of justice who rewarded the good and punished the wicked.

From the famous oracle at Delphi the voice of Zeus' son Apollo urged all Greeks to follow the ideal of moderation: "Nothing in excess" and "Know thyself" (meaning "know your limitations").

A century after Hesiod, the Orphic and Eleusinian mystery cults emerged

as a new type of Greek religion.

Their initiates (mystae) were promised an afterlife of bliss in Elysium, formally the abode after death of a few heroes only.

The basis of Orphic cult was an old myth about Dionysus as a son of Zeus who was slain and eaten by the evil Titans before Zeus arrived on the scene and burned them to ashes with his lightning bolts.

Orpheus taught that Zeus then created man from the Titans' ashes.

Human nature, therefore, is composed of two disparate elements: the evil titanic element (the body), and the divine Dionysian element (the soul). Death, which frees the divine soul from the evil body, is therefore to be welcomed.

"Happy and blessed one!" reads a typical Orphic tomb inscription, "Thou shalt be god instead of mortal."

Early Greek Philosophy

What the Greeks were the first to call philosophy ("love of wisdom") arose from their curiosity about nature.

The early Greek philosophers were called physikoi (physicists) because their main interest was in investigating the physical world. ("It is according to their wonder," wrote Aristotle, "that men begin to philosophize, pursuing science in order to know.")

Only later, beginning with Socrates, would the chief concern of philosophy be not in natural science but in ethics - how people ought to act in the light of moral principles.

The Mesopotamians, skilled observers of astronomical phenomena which, like the Greeks of Homer's time, they attributed to the action of gods.

The early Greek philosophers, beginning with Thales of Miletus around 600 B.C., changed the course of human knowledge by insisting that the phenomena of the universe be explained by natural rather than supernatural causes.

This rejection of mythological explanations and the use of reason to explain natural phenomena has been called the "Greek miracle."

Called "the father of philosophy," Thales speculated on the nature of the basic substance from which all else in the universe is composed.


He concluded that it was water, which exists in different states and is indispensable to the maintenance and growth of organisms. Thales' successors in Ionia proposed elements other than water as the primal substance in the universe.


This search for a material substance as the first principle or cause of all things culminated two centuries after Thales in the atomic theory of Democritus (c. 460-370


To Democritus, reality was the mechanical motion of indivisible atoms, which differed in shape, size, position, and arrangement but not in quality. Moving about continuously, atoms combined to create objects.

While these and other early Greek philosophers were proposing some form of matter as the basic element in nature, Pythagoras of Samos (c. 582-500 B.C.) countered with the profoundly significant notion that the "nature of things" was something nonmaterial - numbers.

By experimenting with a vibrating cord, Pythagoras discovered that musical harmony is based on arithmetical proportions, and he intuitively concluded that the universe was constructed of numbers and their relationships.

His mystical, nonmaterial interpretation of nature, together with his belief that the human body was distinct from the soul, greatly influenced Plato.

An important consequence of early Greek philosophical speculation was the undermining of conventional beliefs and traditions.

In religion, for example, Anaximander argued that thunder and lightning were caused by blasts of wind and not by Zeus' thunderbolts. Xenophanes went on to ridicule the traditional view of the gods: "If oxen and lions had hands, ... they would make portraits and statues of their gods in their own image."

The eroding of traditional views caused Greek inquiry to turn away from the physical world to a consideration of human values and institutions.

During the last half of the fifth century B.C., professional teachers, called Sophists ("intellectuals"), taught a variety of subjects the nucleus of our present arts and scienceswhich they claimed would lead to material success.

The most popular subject was rhetoric, the art of persuasion, or how to take either side of an argument - "the sort of thing one learns today in law school."

The Sophists submitted all conventional beliefs to the test of rational criticism. Concluding that truth was relative, they denied the existence of universal standards to guide human actions.

Socrates, A Martyr To Truth

The outstanding opponent of the Sophists was the Athenian Socrates (c.

470-399 B.C.).

Like the Sophists, Socrates turned from cosmic to human affairs; in the words of the Roman statesman Cicero, Socrates was the "first to call philosophy down from the heavens and to set her in the cities of men, bringing her into their homes and compelling her to ask questions about life and morality and things good and evil." ^17

But unlike the Sophists, Socrates believed that by asking salient questions and subjecting the answers to logical analysis, agreement could be reached about ethical standards and rules of conduct.

And so he would question passers-by in his function of "midwife assisting in the birth of correct ideas" (to use his own figure of speech).

Taking as his motto the famous inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, "Know thyself," he insisted that "the unexamined life is not worth living." To Socrates, human excellence or virtue (arete)i is knowledge, and evil and error are the result of ignorance.

[Footnote 17: Quoted in M. Cary and T. J. Haarhoff, Life and Thought in the Greek and Roman World, 5th ed. (London: Methuen & Co., 1959), p. 200.]

In time Socrates' quest for truth led to his undoing, for the Athenians, unnerved by their defeat in the Peloponnesian War, arrested him on the charge of impiety and corrupting the youth.

By a slim majority a jury of citizens condemned Socrates to die, a fate he accepted without rancor and with a last request:

Plato And His Theory Of Ideas

After Socrates' death, philosophical leadership passed to his most famous disciple, Plato (427-347 B.C.).

Like Socrates, Plato believed that truth exists, but only in the realm of thought, the spiritual world of Ideas or Forms.

Such universals as Beauty, Good, and Justice exist apart from the material world, and the beauty, good, and justice encountered in the world of the senses are only imperfect reflections of eternal and changeless Ideas.

The task for humans is to come to know the True Reality - the eternal Ideas behind these imperfect reflections. Only the soul, and the "soul's pilot," reason, can accomplish this, for the human soul is spiritual and immortal, and in its prenatal state it existed "beyond the heavens" where "true Being dwells." ^19

[Footnote 19: Plato Phaedrus 247.]

Disillusioned with the democracy that had led Athens to ruin in the Peloponnesian War and had condemned Socrates to death, Plato expounded his concept of an ideal state in the Republic, the first systematic treatise

on political science.

The state's basic function, founded on the Idea of Justice, was the satisfaction of the common good.

Plato described a kind of "spiritualized Sparta" in which the state regulated every aspect of life, including thought.

Thus those poets and forms of music considered unworthy were banished from the state.

Private property was abolished on the grounds that it bred selfishness.

Plato believed there was no essential difference between men and women; therefore, women received the same education and held the same occupations as men, including "the art of war, which they must practice like men." ^20

Individuals belonged to one of three classes and found happiness only through their contribution to the community: workers by producing the necessities of life, warriors by guarding the state, and philosophers by ruling in the best interests of all the people.

[Footnote 20: Plato Republic 451.]

Plato founded the Academy in Athens, the famous school that existed from about 388 B.C. until A.D. 529, when it was closed by the Christian emperor Justinian. Here he taught and encouraged his students, whom he expected to become the intellectual elite who would go forth and reform society.

Aristotle, The Encyclopedic Philosopher

Plato's greatest pupil was Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who set up his own school, the Lyceum, at Athens.

Reacting against the other worldly tendencies of Plato's thought, Aristotle insisted that Ideas have no separate existence apart from the material world; knowledge of universal Ideas is the result of the painstaking collection and organization of particular facts.

Aristotle's Lyceum, accordingly, became a center for the analysis of data from many branches of learning.

To us today, Aristotle's most significant treatises are the Ethics

and the Politics. They deal with what he called the "philosophy of human affairs," whose object is the acquisition and maintenance of human happiness.


Two kinds of virtue (arete), intellectual and moral, which produce two types of happiness, are described in the Ethics.


Intellectual virtue is

the product of reason, and only people like philosophers and scientists ever attain it.

Much more important for the good of society is moral virtuevirtues of character, such as justice, bravery, and temperance - which is the product less of reason than of habit and thus can be acquired by all. In this connection Aristotle introduced his Doctrine of the Mean as a guide for good conduct.

He considered all moral virtues to be means between extremes; courage, for example, is the mean between cowardice and rashness.

In the Politics Aristotle viewed the state as necessary "for the sake of the good life," because its laws and educational system provide the most effective training needed for the attainment of moral virtue and hence happiness.

Thus to Aristotle the viewpoint popular today that the state stands in opposition to the individual would be unthinkable.

Aristotle's writings on formal logic, collectively known as the Organon ("Instrument"), describe two ways in which new truths can be acquired.

The first, induction, moves from particular facts to general truths. Deductive logic, on the other hand, moves from the general to the particular. To facilitate deductive reasoning from general truths, Aristotle devised the syllogism, a logical structure requiring a trio of propositions.

The first two propositions (the major and minor premises) must be plainly valid and logically related so that the third proposition, the conclusion, inevitably follows. For example, (1) all Greeks are human; (2) Socrates is a Greek; (3) therefore Socrates is human.

There have probably been few geniuses whose interests were so widespread as Aristotle's.

He investigated such diverse fields as biology, mathematics, astronomy, physics, literary criticism, rhetoric, logic, politics, ethics, and metaphysics.

His knowledge was so encyclopedic that there is hardly a college course today that does not take note of what Aristotle had to say on the subject.

Although his works on natural science are now little more than historical curiosities, they held a place of undisputed authority until the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But in no important sense are his humanistic studies, such as the Ethics and the Politics, out of date.


Superstitions about the human body blocked the development of medical science until 420 B.C., when Hippocrates, the "father of medicine," founded a school in which he emphasized the value of observation and the careful interpretation of symptoms.

The Writing Of History

If history is defined as "an honest attempt first to find out what

happened, then to explain why it happened," Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484?-425? B.C.) deserves to be called the "father of history."

In his highly entertaining history of the Persian Wars he discerned the clash of two distinct civilizations, the Hellenic and the Near Eastern. His portrayal of both the Greeks and Persians was eminently impartial, but his fondness for a good story often led him to include tall tales in his work. As he stated more than once, "My duty is to report what has been said, but I do not have to believe it."

The first truly scientific historian was Thucydides (460-400? B.C.), who wrote a notably objective chronicle of the Peloponnesian War.

Although he was a contemporary of the events and a loyal Athenian, a reader can scarcely detect whether he favored Athens or Sparta.

Thucydides believed that his history would become "an everlasting possession" for those who desire a clear picture of what has happened and, human nature being as it is, what is likely to be repeated in the future.

His belief was based on his remarkable ability to analyze and explain human behavior. (Two examples - his definition of statesmanship and his account of Athenians justifying their empire on grounds of power alone - have been quoted on page 51.) In describing the character and purpose of his work, Thucydides probably had Herodotus in mind:

Hellenic Poetry And Drama

Greek literary periods can be classified according to dominant poetic forms that reflect particular stages of cultural evolution in Greece. First came the time of great epics, followed by periods in which lyric poetry and then drama flourished.

Sometime during the eighth century B.C. in Ionia, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the two great epics attributed to Homer, were set down in their present form.

The Iliad, describing the clash of arms between the Greeks and Trojans "on the ringing plains of windy Troy," glorifies heroic valor and physical prowess against a background of divine intervention in human affairs.

The Odyssey, relating the adventure-filled wanderings of Odysseus on his return to Greece after Troy's fall, places less stress on divine intervention and more on the cool resourcefulness of the hero in escaping from danger and in regaining his kingdom.

These stirring epics have provided inspiration and source material for generations of poets in the Western world.

As Greek society became more sophisticated, a new type of poetry, written to be sung to the accompaniment of the lyre, arose among the Ionian Greeks.

Unlike Homer, authors of this lyric poetry sang not of legendary events but of present delights and sorrows.

In reworking the old legends of the heroic age, Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) sought to spread the new values of the religious reformation, first expressed by Hesiod, by showing how the old pre-moral beliefs cause suffering.

In his trilogy, the Oresteia, for example, he concerned himself with hubris as applied to the murder of the hero Agamemnon by his queen following his return from the Trojan War, and then proceeded to work out its ramifications - murder piled on murder until people through suffering learn to substitute the moral law of Zeus for the primitive law of the blood feud.

Like the prophets of Israel, Aeschylus taught that while "sin brings misery," misery in turn leads to wisdom: