THESIS: The spirit of Ancient Greek civilization is characterized by humanism, rationalism, and secularism.
INTRODUCTION: Why should the Ancient Greeks mark the beginning of our consideration of Western Civilization? After all, the Phoenecians invented the alphabet, the Greeks received their mathematical knowledge from the Ancient Egyptians, and the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and other people of Mesopotamia made equal contributions to Greek civilization. The answer to this question is that humanism, rationalism, and secularism are the hallmarks of Western Civilization, and they first played a dominant role in Ancient Greek society. The Greeks set the stage for Western Civilization.
In all the societies of the Ancient Middle East mythopoeism was the rule. A mythopoeic view is one in which there is no separation between myth and reality. The Sumerians, Egyptians, and others made no distinction between politics and religion. Their king was also their chief priest. In times of drought or other catastrophe the Sumerians killed their king, so he could take a message to the gods. The Egyptian pharoah was a living god. Priests were tax collectors. A lost battle in the Ancient Middle East meant that the enemy's god was stronger. For ordinary people, an idol was not merely a representation of a god; it became the god. Symbolism and reality were intertwined. Any answer worth having to the Big Questions came from heaven. The gods controlled everything -- rain or drought, victory or defeat in battle, whether the sun came up or not, health or disease. To look for solace or help from fellow humans or from within was folly. People might be used as agents of the gods, so it was worthwhile to enlist their help or appease them, but, ultimately, the gods provided all motivation and all control of life. The Greeks were the first to break from this worldview. They developed an alternate view dominated by humanism, rationalism, and secularism.
Humanism is the belief that humans are the most important concern of human beings. As a Renaissance author put it, "The proper study of man is man." A glance at Ancient Greek Civilization will lend credence to this assertion. Unlike the animal headed, monstrous gods of previous civilizations, the Greek gods are merely superheroes -- humans on a grand scale. Not only do they have all the physical characteristics of humans on an exaggerated scale, but they also have the emotional makeup of humans. They get angry, they are jealous, they fall in and out of love, and they exhibit all the other emotions of humans. They are so humanlike that they engage with humans in battles, love affairs, and in all sorts of other ways.
The human body plays the dominant role in Greek sculpture. Greek plays deal with human dilemmas and struggles with relatively little influence from the gods. In the plays, poetry, and other productions of the Greeks, the primary concern is how individuals react to challenging circumstances. The emphasis is on humans and their actions rather than on the gods.
Rationalism is the belief that humans are CAPABLE of understanding everything. The emphasis is on the word "capable." It does NOT mean that people DO understand everything or ever WILL. But, if some god, alien from another galaxy, or some other force came to earth and explained to us the meaning of life and gave us the answers to all the other Big Questions, we would be capable of understanding them. The rationalist rejects phrases like, "That is beyond human understanding" or "That is only for the gods to know." For the rationalist nothing is beyond human understanding. Moreover, the power to understand the world lies within us. If we want to know why frogs jump, why birds sing, why grass grows, or what life is all about, we are better off using our mental faculties than praying for revelation. This is, of course, a matter of faith. No one can prove the rationalist position. Until and unless everything is known and understood, there is no way to prove that the human intellect is capable of understanding it all. So, rationalism is as much a matter of faith as belief in any religion.
Secularism is the view that this world and this life should receive most of our attention and concern. The Greeks believed in an afterlife, but it was not the heaven of later Christians. Across the River Styx the Shades, or souls of formerly living people, received little joy from a dull, ephemeral existence. There was considerable uncertainty as to what this existence might be like, and no one ever came back to describe it, so a wise person made the most of this life. Of course, they were concerned with the gods, but the emphasis was with their influence on living people rather than what they might have to do with the next life. The Egyptian preoccupation with the next life was foreign to the Greeks.
Greek humanism, rationalism, and secularism led directly to speculation by philosophers about the nature of the physical world and the place of humans in it. Many schools of thought and individual philosophers established a long tradition of philosophy before it culminated in the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. One sort of philosopher concentrated on the physical nature of the world. The most famous of these is Thales. He believed that water is the basic element of the earth, and that the entire world must have sprung from water through a natural process. According to him, humans are the descendents of fishes. He also theorized that the land was not rooted in the Earth, but rather floating on the oceans. Another type of philosopher was interested in how the universe is organized rather than the sort of substance that it is made of. Pythagoras is the most famous of them. He believed that mathematics provides the organizing principles for reality. Others, such as Heraclitus doubted the very existence of an unchanging reality. He expressed his view in the famous observation that one cannot step into the same river twice because the water is constantly changing. For him, change is the only constant.
The fourth and final school of thought concerning reality is that of atomism. Democritus, one of the principal thinkers on the subject of atomism, hypothesized that particles too small to be seen, called atoms, form the entire world. As these atoms change, they make up what humans see as reality.
Later philosophers such as the Sophists, Socrates, and Plato investigated whether or not there was a correct way to live life, and if so, what that correct way entailed. The Sophists were traveling teachers who taught rhetoric to the sons of wealthy men. They believed that sense perception was reality. As far as they were concerned, the only reality that can exist for us as humans is what we can understand through our five senses. Unlike many other Greeks at the time, the Sophists were skeptical about religion. They taught that humans are the only important subject for study and that everything else should be viewed from the perspective of human concerns. Their interest in human affairs led them to develop the concept of the social contract that was to play such an important role in later political theory. This notion holds that people give up freedoms in return for security and that the social contract thus formed is the basis for all government.
Socrates (469-399 BC) disliked the Sophists, because he thought them morally wrong to teach rhetorical skills merely to win an argument without regard for the merits of either side. He accused them of caring only about winning and not about the substance of their position. Hence, we use the word "sophistry" today to indicate an argument that is being advanced without sincerity. Socrates' main concern was with truth. He assumed that such things as truths exist. For him they are hard nuggets of certainty. The truth is not relative; it is unchanging and absolute for all time. It may seem strange to imply that truth may not exist, but, if everything is relative, what is true in one situation may be false in another. Socrates' belief in the existence of truth was a matter of faith; it cannot be proven.
Another of Socrates' articles of faith was his belief that people are capable of discovering the truth through their own efforts. The seeker of truth does not have to depend on revelation from some supernatural source. Each person has the ability through his or her powers of reason and observation to arrive at the truth without outside help. In fact, it is the duty of people as human beings to search for the truth. This belief is behind his most famous saying, "An unexamined life is not worth living." It follows that truth or knowledge is worth having for its own sake, so his third axiom is that all knowledge is desirable. "Ignorance is bliss" would be a ridiculous statement as far as he was concerned. It is always better to know than not to know. He went so far as to suggest that knowledge, virtue, and happiness are all interrelated. The more you have of one, the more you will have of the other two. So, for him:
Intelligence possessed by all humans is the means to discover truth.
Knowledge is worth having for its own sake.
As Socrates strolled through the streets of Athens he taught the band of young men who followed him as students to question or "examine" everything -- even their basic religious beliefs. Such a doctrine soon got him into trouble with his fellow citizens, who saw his questioning as a challenge to their most cherished views, and he was called to defend himself on a charge of corrupting the youth of Athens. Many of his fellow citizens were eager to see him convicted not only for what he taught but also for the irritating manner in which he taught. Some people today claim to teach using the "Socratic method," but they usually only mean that they use a question-and-answer technique. Socrates asked questions for which he very often did not have answers, and they were very searching questions such as "Why do you believe in the gods?" or ""What is the meaning of life?" Such questions can make people very uncomfortable, and those who did not want to think about them wanted Socrates to stop.
At his trial, Socrates took a defiant and insulting tone that led to a death sentence. He might have fled from Athens, but he was seventy years old and he also felt that he would somehow be betraying his beliefs and teachings if he tried to escape. In the company of his friends and students, he drank the hemlock that ended his life.
His student, Plato (c.428-348 BC), carried on with his teaching. Plato accepted Socrates' approach and carried it further. Just how much Plato added to Socrates' philosophy is open to question, because Plato presented his ideas as if they came from Socrates. Presumably Socrates' reputation as a great thinker led Plato to think that the ideas would be taken more seriously if they appeared to come from Socrates, or perhaps he was just honoring his teacher by giving him all the credit. Socrates wrote nothing, and all we know of him comes from the notes and recollections of his students. It is often assumed that any ideas presented by Plato that are not mentioned in other sources must be his own, but there is no way to know for sure.
Plato's view was that objects we call real are based on an abstract prototype or "Ideal" (sometimes "Form"). While "real" objects are subject to decay, rust, and other ravages of time and the elements, the Ideals they reflect remain perfect. In fact, the real world is always imperfect. For example, it is impossible to draw an absolutely perfect circle no matter how fine the instruments or how great the care taken, but it is quite easy to imagine a perfect circle. If, therefore, we are interested in dealing with the world of perfection rather than the arbitrary, imperfect, constantly changing material world, we should focus on the Ideal -- on abstractions like mathematics. It was no accident that the inscription above the door to Plato's Academy read, "Let no one ignorant of mathematics enter here."
The true reality is not the material world that we call reality but the Ideal. I have a Platonic car, an MGB I bought new in 1966. Since that time rust and accidents have led to replacement of all the external body parts except the trunk lid. Is it the same car? Although it appears exactly the same to me when I drive it, one could make the argument that we must think in terms of the material world and the materials that make it up are different. In some cases they are not even the same kind of material -- the fuel pump is now plastic, some parts of the leather seat covers are vinyl, and the steering wheel is a different composite, although it looks the same as the one it replaced. A Platonist would say that it is the same car, because it remains true to the Ideal held by the engineers who designed it. The concept is important; the physical material is irrelevant.
There were implications of some importance in Plato's philosophy. It suggested that truth and beauty are not relative. If the world of Ideals exists, the Ideals must be absolutely perfect. Human attempts to create material reflections of the Ideals or to represent them in ideas will always be flawed, but some are better than others because there is an absolute standard against which they may be judged. So, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, and truth does not depend on one's point of view.
In his famous Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes what he sees as the human condition and how he thinks that human beings can improve that condition. According to the Allegory, a group of people are trapped in a trench just inside the mouth of a cave in such a way that they can see only the back wall of the cave. Their knowledge of the outside world comes from the shadows they see flickering on the wall as events occur outside the cave. One of the people in the trench manages to escape the cave and to see the reality that exists on the outside. He is enthralled and excited but when he returns to the cave to report on what he has seen and to persuade the others to follow him outside, they refuse. They are comfortable with the existence they are used to and do not want to upset it by seeing something new even if it is greatly superior. Plato says this is the situation of humanity. We concentrate on the ephemeral, imperfect world around us and refuse to lift our eyes up to the world of Ideals and abstraction that we may find in mathematics and other "pure" endeavors.
InThe Republic , Plato's most famous work, he describes his conception of the perfect state. The purpose of the Allegory of the Cave was to encourage people to behave rationally and to think correctly about the true goals of life. He accepted Socrates' three assumptions, but he approached his work with three additional assumptions of his own:
Individuals who engage in "right thinking" will live virtuous lives and constitute a
Nation that is properly ordered, and, if everyone can be organized in such nations, the
Cosmos will be properly ordered.
His prescription for a properly functioning state is to put the intelligent and talented in charge. The rabble will follow orders and perform those tasks for which they are best suited. In charge is a "philosopher-king," who is the most talented and intelligent person available. The leaders, known as the "guardians" will not enjoy an idle existence at the expense of the ordinary citizen. In fact, more will be expected of them than anyone else, because their position of leadership is not one of privilege but one of service to the people.
Plato's pupil was Aristotle (384-322 BC). He called his school the Lyceum, but his most famous student, Alexander the Great, received instruction privately rather than at any school. Unfortunately, none of Aristotle's writing has survived. All we have of his ideas are the notes taken by his students. This loss puts him at something of a disadvantage, as the notes are often less complete than we would like. Despite the sketchiness of some of his ideas, he became the dominant philosopher of the Middle Ages and was reputed to have been the most brilliant person who ever lived.
He continues the rationalism, secularism, and humanism, of Socrates and Plato, but he rejects Plato's doctrine of Forms or Ideals. It made no sense to him to speak of abstractions as the "real" world. For him the real world is the world we perceive through our senses, and it deserves our attention. Our concepts of truth and beauty are not formed through contact with some abstraction but by averaging and judging what we learn from our surroundings. It is through investigation of the world that we learn -- not through speculation about the Ideal. Any ideas or theories that are not firmly based in reality are worthless. Such views led him to champion "hands on" science. He dissected animals, studied plants, and formed theories about physics and chemistry. So powerful were his explanations and observations that they formed the basis of science for the next eighteen hundred years.
He, too, accepted Socrates' three assumptions and added three of his own. The practical, realistic approach he advocated led him to assume that
Words we use are an accurate reflection of the
Abstractions in our minds, and these abstractions in turn are an accurate representation of
Real objects as they exist in the universe outside our minds.
In other words, there is a one-to-one relationship between words and mental images and between mental images and real objects. Later philosophers questioned these assumptions by pointing out that words often have different meanings for different people and that it is impossible to form a mental image that accurately reproduces reality. For example, the word "tree" may conjure up quite a different image in a listener's mind than is in my mind when I utter it. There may also be things about the tree, such as its colors in the infra-red or ultra-violet ends of the spectrum, that can play no part in my mental image of it.
One of Aristotle's most important contributions to Western Civilization was Aristotelian logic. Every student of higher education took logic as a required course from medieval times through World War II. Although it is no longer a requirement in the standard academic curriculum, it has become such an integral part of Western Civilization -- one of its continuities -- that everyone is familiar with the methods if not with the terminology of formal logic. Even modern computer programming languages follow its patterns, especially the pattern of a syllogism:
If all soldiers are tall,
And John is a soldier,
Then John must be tall.
The methods of Aristotelian logic have become so engrained that they are said to be characteristic of the Western way of thinking. For example, when Christian missionaries went to China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they would convert the inhabitants of a village and move on to the next. Often when they returned to a previously converted village, they found that the converts were practicing their old religions as well as Christianity. The missionaries were astonished to find that the converts thought they could follow two faiths at once. Such thinking violated Aristotle's Law of the Excluded Middle, which says that something cannot be X and not X at the same time. Because of it Westerners are supposed to think in dichotomies -- the switch is either on or off; the answer to a question is either true or false; the character in a movie is either good or bad.
The correctness or incorrectness of this interpretation notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the impact of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato on Western Civilization has been profound. Their refinements of the humanism, secularism, and rationalism implicit in most of Hellenic philosophy formed the foundation, if not the definition, of the Western intellectual tradition.
Curiously, most of the periods we will consider in the history of Western Civilization were given their names long after they were past. As later generations look back, they tend to concentrate on trends that, with the benefit of hindsight, they know will become important later. Thus, our efforts to find names for our own age will probably prove to be futile, because there are certainly aspects of our age that appear insignificant to us but will be thought of as the hallmarks of our time to later observers.
The ancient Greeks did not call themselves Greeks. They thought of themselves as being Hellenes who lived in a region known as Hellas. The original inhabitants of the Greek Peninsula were conquered by invaders from the North sometime before the twelfth century BC. Those invaders supplanted the local population and became the people we know as ancient Greeks. They spoke a common language but did not have common political institutions. Tribal loyalties remained strong, and the city-states that developed throughout Greece retained much of the character of tribes. Each city-state controlled the territory around its central city and developed its own form of government. None of the governments were very stable and the forms changed from time to time. Constitutions -- usually unwritten -- were so changeable that Aristotle suggested a natural life cycle for governments. He said that aristocracies become oppressive to the people, who revolt and form democracies. In turn, the democracies are easily swayed by popular demagogues, who become dictators. Because the dictators are threatening to influential people, conspiracies overthrow dictators or tyrants and form new aristocracies.
Through changes in leadership and revolt, the Greek city-states experimented with just about every imaginable form of government. They were constantly at war with each other and formed shifting alliances and empires within their own geographical region. Occasionally they struck out into other areas of the Mediterranean basin by establishing city-states as colonies that were expected to remain loyal to the founding city-state. The two most powerful of the Greek city-states were Athens and Sparta, which are emphasized in most accounts of the political history of ancient Greece. In fact, there has always been an Athenian bias in Western Civilization. Usually when people refer to ancient Greece, they are actually discussing ancient Athens. The three major philosophers discussed above were all from Athens, all the literature studied today is Athenian, and nearly all of the art works emphasized by later periods were Athenian. Whether this bias is due to some superior merit on the part of Athens or it is merely a customary bias is irrelevant. The fact remains that it is Athens we turn to when we are considering ancient Greece.
Athens had a population of about 30,000 citizens, but probably six or seven times that number if one includes women, slaves, and resident aliens. Because of the tribal nature of the Greek city-states, it was nearly impossible to become a naturalized citizen. The citizens of Athens thought of themselves as all being relatives in a giant extended family. Their concept of citizenship meant family ties and loyalty. A stranger could not become a member except, possibly, through marriage.
The Golden Age of Athens was the fifth century BC. By "Golden Age" is meant the period in which a nation appears to flourish in all categories more than at any other time. There have been several Golden Ages -- Augustan Rome, Renaissance Italy, seventeenth century Holland, and others. Just why a country should be politically, economically, and culturally important during the same time period is unclear but, nevertheless, an interesting phenomenon.
Fifth century BC Athens was famously a democracy, but it succumbed to a dictatorship under Pericles (c. 495-429 BC). Few mourned its passing. Plato and Aristotle were very dubious about the wisdom of a democracy, which they saw as rule by the unthinking masses. As they saw it public policy was reduced to the lowest common denominator in a democracy, and they had the execution of Socrates by the Athenian democracy to illustrate their point.
In the fifth century BC occurred the two most important political events of ancient Greece -- the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. The Persian Emperors, Xerxes and his son Darius, believed that the Greeks were aiding opponents to their Empire and mounted invasions of Greece to stop the Greek interference. Under external threat, the Greeks temporarily halted their incessant warfare with each other and joined forces against the invaders. Xerxes was defeated, but his son, Darius, soon returned. To meet the threat the Delian League was formed with Delos as its headquarters. Nearly all of the Greek city-states contributed to the common treasury kept at Delos. Athens was the most important naval power in Greece and Sparta was the most important land power. Although the Greeks ultimately won the war, the Persians managed to capture Athens and burn much of it. After the war was over, Pericles seized the treasury at Delos and used it to finance an extensive program of urban renewal in Athens.
Understandably, the Spartans and the other Greeks were upset by the seizure of the common treasury, and they were tired of the high-handed actions of the Athenians, who had used their navy to establish an empire of their own. The result was the Peloponnesian War, named for the geographical region, the Peloponnesus, in which Sparta and Athens were located. After many years of war, 431 to 404 BC, both Sparta and the Athenian Empire were so weakened that the stage was set for the rise of another regional power -- Macedonia.
Although the other inhabitants of the Greek Peninsula did not consider Macedonians to be Greek and could not understand their language, the Macedonians adopted Greek civilization and thought of themselves as Greek. Taking advantage of the weakened condition of his southern neighbors, Philip II (reigned 359-336 BC), who had seized power in Macedon, managed to conquer the entire region, thus putting an end to the city-state organization of Greece. After a rival Macedonian assassinated Philip, his son, Alexander the Great (reigned 336-323 BC), took control of the budding Macedonian Empire. He quickly murdered his rivals within Macedonia and destroyed the rebellious city-state of Thebes to demonstrate the fate of those who opposed him. Having secured his base, he began a remarkable career of conquest that was to remain the supreme example for would-be conquerors throughout the history of Western Civilization.
He was bold, brave, and capable of inspiring his troops, but the real key to his success was the creation of a professional, standing army. The soldiers of ancient empires were citizen-soldiers or militia. That is, they were part-time soldiers for the traditional fighting season between the planting and harvesting of crops. Such troops can be very effective. They are just as strong, brave, and skilled in the use of weapons as soldiers in a standing army that remains in existence year-round, but the most important factor in any military organization is its cohesion, and part-time troops are at a disadvantage in that regard.
To explain, let us consider ancient warfare. When a city or region came under attack or wanted to mount a military campaign, it called up all able bodied men to form a force of infantry. Cavalry was ineffective in the ancient world because the stirrup had not been invented. It is extremely difficult to swing a sword or charge with a lance without firm footing, which only the stirrup could provide. Cavalry and chariots were used in battle, but the soldiers using them usually dismounted to fight. They were mainly useful for the quick transfer of troops on the battlefield. All soldiers who were not infantrymen were mere "auxiliaries." Battles could not be won without victory by the infantry.
The ancient infantryman's weapons are shield and spear. He probably carries a sword if he can afford one, but his spear is the weapon that matters. In battle, the spearmen line up in formation and march at each other. As long as they maintain a "shield wall," all is well. Flanks and rear have to be protected from some surprise maneuver, and this is a good job for the mobile auxiliaries, but the real action is to the front. Everyone carries his shield in his left hand and his sword in his right. Left-handed people have to conform, because any exception would create a gap in the shield wall. As the formation advances it drifts to the right as everyone tries to cover his exposed right side with his neighbor's shield. For this reason, the most respected warriors are on the right of each line, or rank, of men. They are supposed to resist the drift to the right. The bravest and strongest are in the front rank. Next bravest are in the rear rank to prevent the weaklings in the center ranks from losing their nerve and running.
Despite the impression created by movies and ancient war stories, actual hand-to-hand combat did not last long if it occurred at all, and most people did not become casualties. A battle is not won or lost when one everyone on one side is killed, but when a majority on one side decides that it has lost. The real killing occurs in what is euphemistically referred to as "the pursuit," which means the murder of fleeing enemies by the pursuing victors. As long as the soldiers maintained their shield wall, they were undefeated. The problem is that not even the bravest man wants to be the last to run and will not stand when he believes the battle to be lost.
Now, we may understand the advantage of a standing army, in which the soldiers know they can trust each other through experience and the cohesion, or "bonding," that has developed over years. They have become a team and have accepted the military values of complete loyalty to one's comrades and devotion to duty. The part-time soldier may be brave and skilled but he does not know if he can trust the man beside him not to run at the crucial moment -- even if the man is a relative or close acquaintance within the city state.
Using Macedonia as a base and a source of troops, Alexander embarked on a thirteen-year conquest of Asia that took him all the way to India and back. Even his army of professionals, inspired by his leadership, finally had enough. In 326 BC they mutinied and refused to go any farther into India. Alexander returned to Egypt, where he died at the age of 33. His early death gave rise to the legend that he had bargained with the gods to exchange a long, sedentary life for a short, glorious one. Legends about him abound throughout Asia. He seems to have left his mark everywhere. It was certainly his intention to leave his mark on the Mediterranean world. He set up the splendid city of Alexandria in Egypt and announced that he was a god. Historians still debate about whether he was serious or not. It was certainly an unheard move in Greece, but not in Egypt and Asia. He may have seen his deification merely as a means of securing more effective control of his provinces. Upon his death, his subordinates divided his empire and established Greek dynasties -- one of which later produced Cleopatra -- throughout the Middle East.
The period after Alexander is often called "Hellenistic" rather than Hellenic to indicate that there was some dilution of the true Hellenic civilization by Eastern influences. During this Hellenistic period Greek ideas and civilization spread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean basin.
SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC
Lest it be thought that the Greeks were some sort of proto-Americans, it should be pointed out that they were very different from modern people in many respects. The last words of Socrates to the friends gathered around him at his execution were, "Don't forget that I owe a rooster to Aesculapius." He meant that he wanted them to sacrifice a rooster to the god Aesculapius. Such a statement appears a startling puzzle to us. This most rational of Greeks, whose observations resonate to this day, seems somehow to have betrayed us or lost his senses in making such a irrational, non-humanistic, unsecular request. It is important to keep it in mind, because it illustrates the fact that the Ancient Greeks, including Socrates, were not like us in many important respects. Our eagerness to relate to them as our intellectual ancestors leads us to misinterpret their Zeitgeist. They were probably more different from us than they were like us.
This contrast is most apparent in the social context. As indicated above, the Greeks considered the family to be the most important social and political unit. The family was the basis for their concept of community. Within the family, the father was the unchallenged authority, at least in theory. Their society was, therefore, patriarchal. Women were supposed to remain in the seclusion of the home as much as possible. As in some Middle Eastern societies today, decent women were not supposed to be seen in public. A woman went from the tutelage of her father to the control of her husband. She had no property rights or much in the way of other rights. Without the protection of her family, she was virtually defenseless. Her identity was bound up with that of her husband or her family if she had no husband. Greek plays like Aristophanes' Lysistrata, in which women withhold sex from their husbands in order to end a war, give some hint that practice did not always follow theory, but the role of women in Greek society was definitely secondary. It seems an odd contradiction, given the subservient role of women, that many of the most powerful gods were female. Athena, after all, was the patron goddess of Athens. If the contradiction occurred to the Athenians, they did not mention it.
The education of women was largely confined to domestic skills. Thus, there were no women in the band of pupils who followed Socrates through the streets of Athens, and there were no wives at the dinner parties and drinking bouts where much of the discussion of philosophy is described as taking place in Plato's works.
The exceptions to this rule were the courtesans or "companions" who often attended social gatherings. In addition to sexual favors, they were supposed to provide witty conversation, music, and other entertainment. Some of them became famous for their wisdom and made considerable amounts of money, but they were outside the realm of respectable women in spite of their fame and fortune. As might be expected in a patriarchal society, the "double standard" prevailed, and it appears that men were free to employ courtesans with no stain on their reputation.
Homosexuality, or rather bisexuality, was also freely practiced by Greek males. Plato and other Greek writers refer quite openly to affairs between teen-aged boys and older men as something that is expected to happen as a matter of course. The word "lesbian" comes from the Greek island of Lesbos where the famous Greek poet, Sappho, wrote her love poems to other women, but it is unclear how involved Greek women in general were with homosexual or bisexual activity.
Slavery was an accepted institution throughout the ancient world, and Greece was no exception, but slavery, as unpleasant as it doubtless was, seems to have been milder than it was to become in more modern times. Slaves could save up money and purchase their freedom, and they appear to have been allowed a family life of their own. They became slaves as prisoners of war or when they were so impoverished they could not live without surrendering themselves. Another source of slaves among the Greeks was the practice of "exposure," by which unwanted children were abandoned. The father had the legal right to say whether or not he wanted to keep a baby. Poor people, especially, might decide to "expose" infants in a public place, where they hoped someone would adopt them or, more likely, raise them as slaves. Of course, many more daughters than sons were exposed.
In Athens, the largest class of people included non-citizens who were not slaves. They were people who had originally come to Athens for economic or other reasons but remained non-citizens even if they and several generations of their ancestors had been born there.
The daily life of the Ancient Greeks was very simple by modern standards. Sparta was famous even in its own time for the harsh treatment of its children and the simplicity of its citizens food and clothing, hence the modern reference to a "Spartan existence" as being one of extreme simplicity with few creature comforts. The Athenians were a bit more concerned with comfort but hardly lived lives of luxury. Sandals, tunics, and simple wrap-around garments the Romans were to call togas formed their dress. Women wore longer tunics that might be called dresses. Greek houses were simple affairs with sparse furniture and an emphasis on providing shade in a hot climate. The emphasis was on social life outside the home rather than inside. Where this left women who were supposed to remain secluded is unclear. The agora, or market place, was the center of city life. There one could meet friends and socialize as well as purchase the ingredients for the family's meals. Bread, olives, olive oil, grapes, and wine were the staples of diet.
Manufacturing was on a small scale. Animal powered mills for grinding wheat and small potteries were the most common industries other than domestic weaving and spinning. Every woman had her spinning and weaving, which were almost a part of her identity as is made clear in Greek literature. Trade was an important part of the economy, and Athenian naval power was based on the success of its merchants, who acted as middle men for the products of the Mediterranean basin. One of the persistent questions among modern historians of ancient Greece involved the use of large clay jars known as amphora. These jars had double handles at the top near their mouths but were pointed on their bottom ends. The question was how to use them if they could not stand up. Marine archaeologists provided the answer when they began to investigate ancient sunken ships, in which they found the amphora stacked on their sides between layers of straw. They were apparently used to transport olive oil and wine to overseas markets.
TECHNOLOGY AND CULTURE
It may seem peculiar to link technology with culture, but the Ancient Greeks seem to have been relatively unconcerned with technology and applied it most often in a cultural context. For example, we read of a mechanical bird that could flap its wings and whistle by means of steam power. Archimedes is famous for his war engines and experiments with mechanical devices, but these all seem to have been one-of-a-kind productions valued more for their ingenuity than any practical use they may have been put to.
Whatever they may have lacked in terms of technology, they made up for it with their cultural productions. As with philosophy, they laid the foundations for the continuities in the cultural life of Western Civilization. Their humanism, rationalism, and secularism is nowhere more apparent than in the literature, architecture, and art that they bequeathed to later generations.
The great works of Ancient Greek literature were The Iliad and The Odyssey. Every Greek student read them and memorized large portions of them. Originally, they were apparently not written but sung. During the nineteenth century AD, a great debate raged about who composed them. Many scholars held that they could not have been written by one person and that they were composed over a period of several centuries, but modern computer analysis of word usage and frequency indicates that each was composed by one person, The Odyssey sometime after The Iliad. Whether the same person composed both of them and whether or not his name was Homer remains an open question, but there seems no reason to doubt his authorship without evidence to the contrary. The works were composed sometime before 700 BC and deal with the Trojan War and its aftermath. Supernatural events occur, especially in The Odyssey, and the gods intervene, but the subject matter is clearly the actions, reactions, and emotions of the people in the stories. The central event in The Iliad is the insult to Achilles and his anger, sulking, sorrow, desire for revenge, and pity that follow. In The Odyssey the focus is on Odysseus's adventures culminating in the destruction of his wife's suitors. Her constancy and loyalty to him as a supremely virtuous woman emphasize the human aspects of the story.
In later times, these themes are assumed by the great playwrights of Ancient Greece. Playwrighting was a Greek invention. According to Aristotle, drama, or at least tragedy, began as part of the festivals honoring the god, Dionysus. In them a chorus and a singer performed hymns to the god. In 534 BC, the singer, a man named Thespis, is supposed to have included an actor with whom he conducted a dialogue as part of the performance. We have no idea what the music was like, because musical notation was not invented until the Middle Ages.
The three great Ancient Greek playwrights are Aeschylus ( 525-456 BC), Sophocles (c. 496-406 BC), and Euripides (c. 480-406 BC). By the time of Aeschylus, the performances had become a competition. He won the competition thirteen times and produced as many as ninety plays, although only seven survive. His great innovation was the introduction of a second actor. The actors could take more than one part since they wore masks to indicate their character. All of the actors, even those playing women, were male. Sophocles added a third actor, and won the competition twenty times. He reduced the role of the chorus, introduced scene painting, and strove for more natural dialogue. Euripides displayed little interest in the gods and concentrated on the human aspect of his plays. Perhaps this approach was a bit too radical for his audience -- he won the prize only four times. In addition to tragedies, there were many comedies. Most of them were bawdy, if not obscene, productions that we might call slapstick today and love stories.
In all of these plays, the emphasis was on human emotions and reactions. Gods still made their appearances, but the real subject matter was clearly human and rational. Aristotle declared Sophocles' Oedipus to be the perfect model for what a tragedy should be. His analysis of Oedipus in his Poetics determined the form of tragedy for many centuries. Shakespeare, for example followed the Aristotelian formula closely.
Aristotle says that tragedy is the highest form of drama. It is good for people because it allows catharsis, the purging of emotions and tensions, vicariously through empathy with the characters in the play. In order for this to happen, the viewer must experience fear and pity. It is the duty of the playwright to construct a tragedy that will produce such feelings. A good tragedy deals with important people, worthy of our concern, involved in important action that has universal meaning. The most important feature of a tragedy is its plot. In Aristotle's view, a play without a well-constructed plot is worthless. One wonders what he would have to say about modern plays that concentrate on "character development" rather than the story line. There is little doubt that he would dismiss nearly all of television and movie "drama," which normally has little or no plot.
The "tragic flaw" as described by Aristotle is the best known aspect of his analysis. An otherwise admirable person -- actually a great, heroic person -- suffers a reversal of fortune because he or she has a tragic flaw that leads to a fatal mistake. Once the mistake is made the tragedy unfolds as a consequence. There can be no improbable last-minute rescues or interference by supernatural forces. The plot must be believable. When the plot is resolved, the hero recognizes the mistake and pays the price for having made it.
Aristotle's analysis is neat, satisfying, and easily illustrated through the works of those, like Shakespeare, who followed it in constructing their plays, but there is good reason to question just how well it applies to the Greek tragedies he claimed to be describing. For instance, what is the tragic flaw in Oedipus, Aristotle's example of a perfect tragedy? The usual answer is that it is Oedipus' pride as evidenced in his refusal to listen to his wife and advisor when they tell him to stop searching for the truth. But, is that really a flaw? Search for the truth is practically a duty as Socrates and quite a few people who came after him saw it. Oedipus did everything he possibly could to avoid the fate of killing his father and marrying his mother, but nothing saved him. It is difficult to find the flaw, because there is none. Aristotle aside, the traditional Greek way of looking at tragedy was that everyone has a fate -- moira -- and it cannot be avoided. Some lives are more tragic than others, but that is merely the whim of the gods or "fate." All humans can do is bear up under their fate as well as they can.
This tragic view of life is characteristic of the way the Ancient Greeks saw the human condition. Life is tragic because everyone is doomed to the ultimate failure, death. Along the way to death will be many other smaller failures or tragedies. No matter how good the gunslinger of the old western movies was, there was always someone better. Only one person in the world can be the best in any given pursuit, and even that person will not be satisfied with his or her accomplishment. The juggler who alone in the world can juggle ten balls at once will want to try for eleven, and will ultimately fail. Despite the seeming pessimism of the tragic view of life, it actually glorifies human achievement because, no matter how many times they fail and heedless of the fact that death will make all the striving pointless anyway, people continue to struggle against fate. They persist in trying no matter how hopeless the situation and that is the glory of being human.
With regard to the visual arts, very little painting has survived from Ancient Greece because of its fragile nature. The greatest sources of painting are the vases and other pottery that fill the Greek collections of all museums.
They depict everything from daily life to sacred myths. The fact that so many of them deal with every day life rather than religious themes seems to indicate the secularism of the society that produced them.
Rather than paying brief attention to each of a long list of vases, architectural monuments, and sculptures, let us concentrate on one work -- the most famous building in the world, the Parthenon. When Pericles seized the Delian treasury and embarked on his urban renewal project for Athens, many Athenians protested. Plutarch, the Roman historian, later described the controversy and, although, the sources on which he was basing his account have been lost, we have no reason to doubt his accuracy. In his words,
But there was one measure above all which at once gave the greatest pleasure to the Athenians; adorned their city; and created amazement among the rest of mankind; and which is today the sole testimony that the tales of the ancient power and the glory of Greece are no mere fables. By this I mean Pericles' construction of temples and buildings: and yet it was this, more than any action of his, which his enemies slandered and misrepresented. They cried out in the assembly that Athens had lost her good name and disgraced herself by transferring from Delos into her own keeping the funds that had been contributed by the rest of Greece. "The Greeks must be outraged," they cried. "They must consider this an act of Bare-faced tyranny, when they see that with their own contributions, extorted from them by force for the war against the Persians, we are gilding and beautifying our city, as if it were some vain woman decking herself out with costly stones and thousand talent temples.
Pericles justified his actions by saying that the other Greeks had no cause for complaint, because they were contributing funds to the Delian League for their defense and, so long as Athens was maintaining the defense, they should not be concerned with how the money was spent. Plutarch quotes him as saying,
All they supply is money, and this belongs not to the people who give but to those who receive it, so long as they provide the services paid forů. In this way all kinds of enterprise and demands will be created which will provide inspiration for every art, find employment for every hand, and transform the whole people into wage-earners, so that the city will decorate and maintain herself at the same time from her own resources.
He obviously had an economic purpose in mind. This project was not just to honor the gods, Athena in particular, for it had a more practical, secular, motivation as well. To put it in modern terms, Pericles intended to stimulate the economy by spending the Delian money in Athens.
The Parthenon was widely admired from its own time down to the present. It took nine years, between 447 and 438 BC, to build and another six years to complete the statuary. Significantly, Phidias, a sculptor, was in charge. The building was decorated with so much sculpture that it might be just as accurately seen as a large sculpture as a temple. Rather than limestone, the more durable and expensive material, marble, was used. Pericles was not one to let expense deter him from having the best, especially since the Delian treasury was footing the bill. At one point, when his enemies within Athens complained at the expense and the unfairness of using the Delian treasury, Pericles threatened to continue the building at his own expense and to include an inscription on it saying that it was his gift to Athens. The complaints ended because his opponents did not want such a gift to add to his prestige.
The site of the Parthenon was the Acropolis, which means "high city." It was on top of a hill some 260 feet high in the center of Athens. The Acropolis was an oval-shaped area about 500 feet wide by 1150 feet long. Most Greek cities had developed around such hills, presumably because they had been convenient positions to defend in earlier times. Over time it became the most revered spot for the Athenians and they built a number of temples there. When the Persians invaded and sacked the city in 480 BC, they destroyed the temples. This angered the Athenians so much that their soldiers took an oath before an important battle against the Persians that they would never rebuild the temples, but leave the ruins as a reminder to themselves and a monument. Pericles and the Athenians explained away this inconvenient oath when they began rebuilding by saying that it no longer applied since the Persians had been defeated. The other Greek city-states, who were rather unhappy over the Delian treasury, observed that such sophistry was typical of Athens. Probably as a concession to the oath, the Athenians did not use any of the rubble from the old temples in the new construction but placed large pieces of it in prominent locations within the walls around the Acropolis.
An aspect of Greek religion that may strike modern observers as odd is that each god had several different personas. That is, they took on different characteristics depending on which aspect of their personality was being emphasized. Each of these different personas had a different name. Apollo probably had the most for he was the god of prophecy, music, poetry, shepherds, medicine, cattle herding, law, philosophy, and archery. The various temples, shrines, and altars on the Acropolis were dedicated and named for different personas of Athena. All of them were works of art in their own right, and many of them had unusual features. The Erechtheum, for example, used female figures known as Karyatids as columns. The Parthenon, which means "virgin's place, was, however, the largest and most important of them. It was named for Athena as the Virgin Warrior.
It was like no building that had ever before been constructed. Not only the amount of sculpture, the size (230 by 100 feet), and the expensive materials; but also the style and its implications were different. The two styles in use at that time were the Doric and the Ionic. Both styles were used in the temples of the Acropolis, and the builders chose the Doric style for the Parthenon, but the building was too big for the usual Doric style and it was modified in a number of ways. The most obvious difference between the two styles is the shape of the columns. Most people have learned to associate the decoration of the columns' capitals with the Doric, Ionic, and later Corinthian styles, but there are many other differences. Each style had formulas associated with it that determined the look of the rest of the building based on the diameter chosen for the columns. The Doric style had the fattest look and would have produced a squat looking large building. In order to solve the problem, Phidias and his colleagues doubled the height of the columns in relation to the normal Doric rules relating diameter to height. They made other changes that resulted in a more elegant looking building than if they had followed the usual Doric rules. Instead of six columns across the fronts and thirteen along the sides, the Parthenon has eight on the fronts and seventeen on the sides. This ratio of x/2x+1 appears in many other places. Another ratio of 4/9 appears even more often throughout the building.
In many ways, the construction of the Parthenon may be seen as a giant geometry problem, and that is probably the way its architects saw it. They were not, however, slaves to mathematical precision. The lines are not perfectly straight and the columns are not evenly placed, because the builders wanted to give the illusion of perfect straightness and balance. Such distortions seemed desirable to them because human beings do not see straight lines as being parallel. Recall what happens when one looks down a railroad track. The rails appear to be inclining toward each other in the distance. A large building with tall columns presents the same illusion, and the builders wanted to counteract it. They introduced other distortions to counteract similar visual phenomena.
Although, the temple is devoted to a god, the human perspective -- impressing fellow humans, the appearance to humans, and the statement of human achievement -- seems nearly as important as the religious motives behind the construction. The methods and planning are certainly rational. We might even go so far as to say scientific when we consider the allowance for optical effects and the study of methods to counteract them. The wrangling over the political aspects of the financing and construction seem rather more secular than religious. The language of earlier civilizations when justifying their temples was more to the effect that the gods had ordered them built or that they were honoring the gods in some way. No doubt, the Athenians were sincere in their religious devotion, but they also had concerns about who got credit, who paid, and how their economy would be stimulated.
The Acropolis complex and the Parthenon were imposing sights. In addition to the abundant statuary, many surfaces as well as the statues were painted.
The pediments, or gable ends, of the Parthenon were filled with large sculptures. On the eastern pediment was the scene of Athena's birth as she sprang from the head of Zeus, fully armed and full-grown. On the western pediment was the fight between Athena and Poseidon for the control of the city of Athens. As the eye descended to the metopes and triglyphs, which alternate with each other to form a band around the building below the level of the roof, one saw depicted battles with giants, amazons, and centaurs respectively on three sides and the Trojan War on the fourth. On the next level down was a frieze that ran around the building with a total of some 360 human figures in what appears to be a procession with animals and a few gods in a religious festival. The emphasis in the frieze seems to be on depicting the human life of Athens, and such a thing had never been placed on a temple before. Temples were for the gods. What excuse could there be for the Athenians to place themselves in the presence of the gods?
The pedimental sculpture is gone, but some of the carving on the metopes and triglyphs survive.
More remains of the frieze than anything else.
Despite the damaged condition of the statuary, the care with which the sculptors portrayed the human body and the natural, flowing appearance of the carving can be easily seen. Unlike earlier Greek work and Egyptian statues, which were the inspiration for the Greeks, in these carvings we see natural poses and anatomically correct, if idealized, people. The emphasis is on real human beings rather than animal-headed gods. The conventional Egyptian and early Greek pose of the left leg thrust forth from a rigid body has been replaced by relaxed realistic poses. The treatement of people on the Parthenon and their mere appearance there illustrate the humanism that motivated the Athenians.
Inside, there were two rooms. In the first, known as the cella, was an enormous -- forty feet high -- statue of Athena, fully armed as she appeared at her birth. Phidias fashioned the statue with gold and ivory plates over a core of wood. The eyes were precious stones, and other precious stones appeared on her equipment. Standing in the palm of her outstretched hand was a six-foot statue of Nike (Victory). Both statues were broken up for their precious materials in ancient times, but there were so many descriptions of it that modern reproductions are probably reasonably accurate.
The second, smaller room, was known as the Parthenon, from which the building got its name.
It was the inner sanctum, where the goddess was supposed to visit or maintain some sort of presence. Most people would seldom see this holy place, although it held the city treasury. This combination of treasury and holy place seems curious to us, but the Athenians saw it as a practical solution to the problem of guarding their money. Temples were not like later churches. There was no congregation. Religious ceremonies took place at altars outside the building.
The Parthenon was constructed so well that it lasted in reasonable good condition for twenty centuries. It received some restoration from the Romans, who admired it greatly, but it was otherwise on its own until disaster struck in 1687. By that time Ottoman Turkish Empire had taken over Greece. The Turks were involved in a war with Venice, and were storing gunpowder in the Parthenon. A shell fired from a Venetian ship scored a direct hit and the center of the building along with the roof was blown away. More than a century later, Lord Elgin (pronounced with a hard "g") arrived as Ambassador to Turkey. He was horrified to see many of the sculptures lying on the ground and the local citizens carting the marble away. He said that some of them were burning the marble to get the chemicals it contained. He was so disturbed because the education that everyone received in the eighteenth century was classical, meaning that it concentrated on Latin and Greek language and ancient history. It seemed to him that the heritage of Western Civilization was being destroyed. He received permission from the Turks to collect the sculptures, and they granted it as a gesture of goodwill toward Britain. At that time, about 335 feet of the original 525 feet of the frieze still existed, and he took most of it to England, where the British Museum purchased it from him after he got into financial difficulty. Today the sculptures are known as the Elgin Marbles and are perhaps the most prized possession of the British Museum. The modern government of Greece denies that Elgin received permission to take them from the Turks and that the Turks had the right to give them away. Greek agencies use the word "stolen" when referring to the Elgin Marbles, and the government periodically demands their return.
This chapter has emphasized how humanism, secularism, and rationalism played a defining role in Ancient Greece, but it has not explained how these "isms" or things Greek became so important in Western Civilization. How could a tiny city-state like Athens, with a population of no more than a quarter of a million people, have had such a determining role to play? The answer can be given in one word -- Rome.