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Greek Genius


THE GREEK CHARACTER   The Greeks were the first to formulate many of the western world's FUNDAMENTAL CONCEPTS in philosophy, science, and art. They discussed:
The nature of the universe and of man
Man's duty to the state and to his fellow citizens
Law and freedom
The purpose of art and poetry
The standards of a good life

The Greek character  was one of ENERGY and BOLD EXPERIMENTATION tempered by the exercise of REASON and CLEAR JUDGMENT.

They believed that an ideal life was based on a HARMONY OF INTERESTS and a healthy BALANCE OF THOUGHT AND ACTION.
To obtain harmony and balance, it was essential to AVOID HUBRIS (excessive pride). Hubris was at the root of personal misfortune and social injustice and provoked nemesis, or retribution.
The philosopher Protagoras is credited with the statement "MAN IS THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS" -- a saying which sums up the Greek attitude toward themselves and the world.   In short, the Greeks were humanists.
Early Greek philosophers insisted that the universe can be explained by NATURAL CAUSES.
THALES of Miletus (c. 636-546 B.C.) 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 or forms and is indispensable to life.
Thales' successors in Ionia proposed elements other than water as the primal substance.
One called it the BOUNDLESS, a general concept for matter.
Another proposed AIR, out of which all things come by a process of rarefying and condensing.
A third asserted that FIRE was "the most mobile, most transformable, most active, most life-giving" element.
This search for a material substance as the first cause of all things culminated two centuries after Thales in the ATOMIC THEORY OF DEMOCRITUS (c. 460-370 B.C.)

The ERODING OF TRADITIONAL VIEWS caused Greek inquiry to turn away from nature to a consideration of human values and institutions.

During the last half of the fifth century B.C., the SOPHISTS (men of wisdom who taught public speaking) submitted all conventional beliefs to the test of rational criticism.
They concluded that TRUTH WAS RELATIVE and 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.
But unlike the Sophists, Socrates believed that agreement could be reached about ETHICAL STANDARDS and rules of conduct.
And so he would question passers-by in his function as MIDWIFE, assisting in the birth of correct ideas.
Taking as his motto the famous inscription on the temple of Appollo at Delphi, KNOW THYSELF, he insisted that THE UNEXAMINED LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING.
To Socrates, KNOWLEDGE IS VIRTUE (ARETE) or human excellence, and evil and error are the result of ignorance.

In time, Socrates' quest for truth led to his undoing.

The Athenians, unnerved by the Peloponnesian War, arrested him on the charge of impiety and corrupting youth.
By a slim majority, a jury of citizens condemned Socrates to die, a fate he accepted without rancor and with a last request:

When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, my friends, to punish them, and I would ahve you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue. . . . And if you do this, both I and my sons will have received justice at your hands.

PLATO AND HIS WORLD 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, Goodness, and Justice exist apart from the material world, and the beauty, goodness, and justice that we encounter in the world of the senses are only IMPERFECT REFLECTIONS of eternal and changeless Forms.
Man's task 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.

DISILLUSIONED WITH DEMOCRACY, Plato expounded his concept of an ideal state in the Republic.

The state's basic function, founded on the Idea of Justice, was the satisfaction of the COMMON GOOD.
Plato described a society in which the STATE REGULATED EVERY ASPECT OF LIFE, including thought.
The family and private property, for example, were abolished on the grounds that both bred selfishness, and marriage was controlled in order to produce strong, healthy children.
Individuals belonged to one of THREE CLASSES (bronze, silver, or gold) 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.

Plato founded the ACADEMY in Athens, the famous school which existed from about 388 B.C. until 529 A.D. 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 LUCEUM, 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 most significant treatises are the ETHICS and the POLITICS. They deal with 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 philosophers and scientists achieve it.
Much more important for the good of society is MORAL VIRTUE (e.g., liberality 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 virtues to be means between extremes.
Thus courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness.

In the POLITICS, Aristotle viewed the STATE AS NECESSARY for the good life because its laws and educational system provide the most effective training needed for the attainment of moral virtue and happiness.

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. (major premise)
(2) Socrates is a Greek. (minor premise)
(3) Therefore, Socrates is human. (conclusion)

Aristotle's accomplishments won him renown and he was ultimately requested to TUTOR the young prince of Macedonia, who became his most famous pupil -- ALEXANDER the Great.

Medicine   Preconceived and false ideas 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 members of this school were firmly convinced that disease resulted from natural, not supernatural, causes.
Despite their EMPIRICAL APPROACH, the Hippocratic school adopted the theory that the body contained four liquids or humors -- blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile -- whose proper balance was the basis of health. This doctrine was to impede medical progress until modern times.
History   The Greeks viewed history as a HUMANISTIC STUDY by which historians sought to learn about the actions and characters of men. As such, history could be subjected to rational standards and critical judgment.
HERODOTUS (c. 484-425 b.c.) wrote a history of the Persian Wars.
However, the first truly scientific historian was THYCYDIDES  (c.460-400 B.C.), who wrote an objective chronicle of the Peloponnesian War.
Hellenic Poetry and Drama   Greek literary periods can be classified according to dominant poetic forms:
Homer's EPICS have provided inspiration for generations of poets in the western world.
The Iliad, describing the clash between the Greeks and the Trojans, 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 resourcefulness of the hero in escaping from danger and in regaining his kingdom.
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. its authors sang not of legendary events but of present delights and sorrows.
DRAMA filled a civic-religious function in Greek society.
In Athens, by the fifth century B.C., two distinct forms -- tragedy and comedy -- had evolved.
Borrowing the old familiar legends of gods and heroes for their plots, the tragedians reinterpreted them in the light of the changing spirit of the times.
Greek Sculpture   5th century Greek sculpture followed the classic principles of HARMONY and PROPORTION that have shaped the course of western art. Sculpture from this period displays the beginning of IDEALIZATION OF THE HUMAN FORM.
The Hellenistic
  Through ALEXANDER THE GREAT, the Greeks became masters of the ancient Near East and a new and distinctly cosmopolitan period in their history and culture began -- the Hellenistic Age.
Alexander's legacy to political thought was the VISION OF A UNIFIED WORLD and the BROTHERHOOD OF MANKIND.
The Hellenistic Age set the stage for Rome's ABSORPTION OF GREEK CIVILIZATION and its transference of that heritage to modern Europe.

Greek Philosophy: Good secondary treatment of Greek philosophy from the presocratics to the neoplatonists. 
Western Philosophical Concepts of God: Interesting secondary treatment of the subject beginning with the Ancient Greeks and ending with the 19th century.
Greek Mythology and Prehistory: This secondary account includes Heroes and Thei Deeds, the Various Roles of Women,  Man the Inventor and more.
Presocratic Fragments and Testimonials: Excerpts from the works of many early Greek philosophers (including Heraclitus, Parmenides, Anaxagoras, and Zeno).
Plato's Republic: Online version of the Greek philosopher's most famous work outlining the perfect state.
Plato's The Crito: The dialogue which portrays the death of Socrates.
What common approaches and assumptions about humanity and its relationship to the universe were shared by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle? How did their views differ from those of the Sophists?
Socrates led his students to question their ideas and the acts of their leaders?  Do you think this was a good idea? Why?
What assumptions do you think people who design buildings, write plays, or sculpt statues today in the styles of ancient Greece hold?
Alexander the Great had a dream of "one world." Can you describe what your concept of a unified world would be? Would it work? Why or why not? What factors would lead to success or failure?
Imagine that you are a Greek scientist during the Hellenistic period. Do you think that you would join the many scientists who traveled to Alexandria to study? What advantages might you see in a community of scholars? Might there be disadvantages?                                                                           

Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: July 12, 2000