Category Archives: Lesson4b. Hellenikon: Culture

Lesson 4b: Hellenikon (the Greek Thing) and its cultural aspects

Jackson Spielvogel’s view on the legacy of ancient Greek civilization for Western societies

For Professor Spielvogel and many other classical historians, the civilization of the ancient Greeks was the fountainhead of Western culture.

Spielvogel writes that:

  • Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle established the foundations of Western philosophy.
  • Herodotus and Thucydides created the discipline of history.
  • Our literary forms are largely derived from Greek poetry and drama.
  • Greek notions of harmony, proportion, and beauty have remained the touchstones for all subsequent Western art and architecture.
  • A rational method of inquiry, so important to modern science, was conceived in ancient Greece.
  • Many of our political terms are Greek in origin, and so are our concepts of the rights and duties of citizenship, especially as they were conceived in Athens, which gave the idea of democracy to the Western world.
  • Especially during the Classical period, the Greeks raised and debated fundamental questions about the purpose of human existence, the structure of human society, and the nature of the universe that have concerned Western thinkers ever since.

Spielvogel does caution that even if their legacy has come be be seen as foundational, the ancient Greeks themselves did not conceive of Western civilization as a cultural entity.

We might note, however, that they had begun to conceive of themselves as of the West, not the East.

We could also note that their democratic ideals were hierarchical (equality among some citizens was greater than among others, and equality of all citizens relied on the subjugation of other peoples). To some degree the roots of these contradictions lay in their identities and culture.


The Greeks had a word Hellenikon, meaning ‘Greekness’ (or, ‘the Greek thing’).

It was first used by the historian Herodotus to sum up everything the ancient Greeks had in common: language, religion, customs, blood.

Today, ‘the Greek thing’ has become a kind of shorthand for the values and ideals that we like to think lie at the root of who we are: rational, cultured, humane and civilized. But beneath the cool marble skin there was a fierce pulse that gave ‘the Greek thing’ its energy and passion, and also its capacity for sudden, shocking violence.

  • Violence and slavery are, equally, legacies of the ancient Greeks.

Ancient Greece shows us, with absolute clarity, the polarities contained within the concept of ‘civilization’.

In the story of ancient Greece, …. the blossoming in art, philosophy and science went hand-in-bloody-hand with political discord, social unrest, endless wars and, ultimately, the complete failure to forge a common political identity (Richard Miles)’.

Mythologizing the Warrior Culture

Let’s have a listen to Bettany Hughes talking about chariots and warriors (play video clip).

So that fighting spirit, we talked about last week, comes from the Mycenean warrior culture, and the Greeks celebrated it, …. they mythologized it.

The Iliad, Homer sometime between 750 and 700 BC epic of the Trojan War.

Iliad and the Odyssey supposedly deal with the heroes of the Mycenaean age of the thirteenth century B.C.E., many scholars believe that they really describe the social conditions of the Dark Age.

According to the Homeric view, Greece was a society based on agriculture in which a landed warrior-aristocracy controlled much wealth and exercised considerable power. Homer’s world reflects the values of aristocratic heroes. Speilvogel.

The Iliad tells the story of war between Sparta and Troy (a city in what is now Turkey). The war was sparked by Paris, a prince of Troy. By kidnapping Helen, wife of the king of the Greek state of Sparta, he outraged all the Greeks. Under the leadership of the Spartan king’s brother, Agamemnon of Mycenae, the Greeks attacked Troy. Ten years later, the Greeks finally won and sacked the city.

The Odyssey, Homer’s other masterpiece, is an epic romance that recounts the journeys of one of the Greek heroes, Odysseus (oh-DISS-ee-uss), after the fall of Troy, and his ultimate return to his wife. But there is a larger vision here as well: the testing of the heroic stature of Odysseus until, by both cunning and patience, he prevails. In the course of this testing, the underlying moral message is ‘‘that virtue isa better policy than vice. Spielvogel

Richard Miles writes that The very first word of this epic poem is menin, meaning rage, and that is what the poem explores … the rage of men fighting for honour, vengeance and personal gain, for victory, survival and the intoxicating adrenaline rush of licensed savagery. Miles.

Here is an exemplary passage:

Achilles drew his sharp sword and struck him on the collarbone by the neck, and the whole length of the two-edged sword sank inside him and lay stretched on the earth: and the dark blood ran from him, soaking the ground. Achilles took him by the foot and flung him to float in the river, and spoke winged words in triumph over him: ‘Now lie there among the fish. They will lick the blood from your wound and give you no loving burial. Your mother will not lay you out on the bier and lament for you … Death take you all, all the way till we reach the city of sacred Ilios, you Trojans running in flight and I behind you cutting you down.’

The Iliad gave the Greeks a conceptual framework with which to think about themselves and the kind of societies they were creating …

  • Well-walled’ Troy, with its ‘lofty gates’, ‘wide streets’ and ‘fine towers’, is in many ways the ideal city-state to which the Greeks aspired.
  • And Hector, the noble, doomed warrior who fights and dies for its survival, is civilization’s champion and the true hero of the Iliad. Richard miles

The Greeks regarded the Iliad and the Odyssey as authentic history as recorded by one poet, Homer. These masterpieces gave the Greeks an ideal past with a cast of heroes and came to be used as standard texts for the education of generations of Greek males. As one Athenian stated, ‘‘My father was anxious to see me develop into a good man . . . and as a means to this end he compelled me to memorize all of Homer.’’3

The values Homer taught were essentially the aristocratic values of courage and honor (see the reading on ‘excellence’).

A hero strives for excellence, which the Greeks called arete (ahr-ih-TAY). In the warrior-aristocratic world of Homer,

Arete is won in a struggle or contest. Through his willingness to fight, the hero protects his family and friends, preserves his own honor and that of his family, and earns his reputation.

In the Homeric world, aristocratic women, too, were expected to pursue excellence. Penelope, for example, the wife of Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, remains faithful to her husband and displays great courage and intelligence in preserving their household during her husband’s long absence. Spielvogel

The rise of individualism and the valuing of ‘excellence’

Membership in the elite of a polis came, ideally at least, to be something men earned by their success, rather than inherited as members of the aristocracy. This flourishing of the role of the (for example, worthy, or excellent) individual was tied to the competitive character of ancient Greek society, and the Olympics give us a great example of that culture.


The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC and the first event was a 200-metre sprint. In contemporary western culture there is an idea that ‘it isn’t winning that counts, what’s really important is taking part’. The ancient Greeks were not like that, for them winning was everything.

The kudos of victory brought material rewards and political power. For the losers there was no silver or bronze – all they could expect were derision and ignominy. The poet Pindar describes them slinking back home, spurned by their mothers and girlfriends, ‘lurking in byways, hoping to avoid their enemies, stung by their ill fortune’. (Miles)

Greeks saw a direct link between prowess on the sports field and on the battlefield. Greek athletes competed as individuals. It was every man for himself. This accorded with the view given to Achilles who was said to believed that glory cannot be shared (it can only be earned by an individual winner).

Let’s have a look at Homer’s idea of excellence (from Jason Spielvogel)

This passage from the Iliad, describing a conversation between Hector, prince of Troy, and his wife, Andromache (an- DRAHM-uh-kee), illustrates the Greek ideal of gaining honor through combat. At the end of the passage, Homer also reveals what became the Greek attitude toward women: women are supposed to spin and weave and take care of their households and their children.

Homer, the Iliad

Hector looked at his son and smiled, but said nothing. Andromache, bursting into tears, went up to him and put her hand in his. ‘‘Hector,’’ she said, ‘‘you are possessed. This bravery of yours will be your end. You do not think of your little boy or your unhappy wife, whom you will make a widow soon. Some day the Achaeans [Greeks] are bound to kill you in a massed attack. And when I lose you I might as well be dead. . . . I have no father, no mother, now. . . . I had seven brothers too at home. In one day all of them went down to Hades’ House. The great Achilles of the swift feet killed them all. . . .

‘‘So you, Hector, are father and mother and brother to me, as well as my beloved husband. Have pity on me now; stay here on the tower; and do not make your boy an orphan and your wife a widow. . . .’’

‘‘All that, my dear,’’ said the great Hector of the glittering helmet, ‘‘is surely my concern. But if I hid myself like a coward and refused to fight, I could never face the Trojans and the Trojan ladies in their trailing gowns. Besides, it would go against the grain, for I have trained myself always, like a good soldier, to take my place in the front line and win glory for my father and myself. . . .’’

As he finished, glorious Hector held out his arms to take his boy. But the child shrank back with a cry to the bosom of his girdled nurse, alarmed by his father’s appearance. He was frightened by the bronze of the helmet and the horsehair plume that he saw nodding grimly down at him. His father and his lady mother had to laugh. But noble Hector quickly took his helmet off and put the dazzling thing on the ground. Then he kissed his son, dandled him in his arms, and prayed to Zeus and the other gods: ‘‘Zeus, and you other gods, grant that this boy of mine may be, like me, preeminent in Troy; as strong and brave as I; a mighty king of Ilium. May people say, when he comes back from battle, ‘Here is a better man than his father.’ Let him bring home the bloodstained armor of the enemy he has killed, and make his mother happy.’’

Hector handed the boy to his wife, who took him to her fragrant breast. She was smiling through her tears, and when her husband saw this he was moved. He stroked her with his hand and said: ‘‘My dear, I beg you not to be too much distressed. No one is going to send me down to Hades before my proper time. But Fate is a thing that no man born of woman, coward or hero, can escape. Go home now, and attend to your own work, the loom and the spindle, and see that the maidservants get on with theirs. War is men’s business; and this war is the business of every man in Ilium, myself above all.’’

Another place we can find the Greek idea of the individual is in their art where we find a celebration of physical beauty. Recall what we learned from the historians Mary Beard and Jonathan Jones and colleagues: (clips from Civilizations, How do we Look?)

The Body Beautiful

Jackson Spielvogel notes the resemblance of early Greek statues, the kouros to Egyptian statues of the New Kingdom. The figures are not realistic but stiff, with a slight smile; one leg is advanced ahead of the other, and the arms are held rigidly at the sides of the body.

Life-size stone statues of young male nudes known as kouros (KOO-rohss) figures.

Mary Beard (in the film) observed that early Greek sculpture was gave an ideal form of the virtues of deities and types, but the sculptures were not realistic representations.

Phrasikleia (the maiden) tomb stone circa 550BCE

The subsequent transformation in Greek sculpture was more realistic in style. Famous works of Greek sculpture such as the Parthenon Marbles and Discobolos (the discus thrower) epitomize the artist’s interest in depicting human emotion, beauty, and accomplishment realistically, even if those qualities are presented in works featuring immortals. (Mary Beard and Jonathan Jones and colleagues).

What we can see developing is a new, more realistic form of idealism, where the ideal is the perfect beauty of the human body. This is true of the individuals celebrated in sculpture, like the disc thrower, and of the Gods (whose perfection takes the form of the beautiful human).


It’s a kind of realism, but still idealized (the ideal is beauty). Compare, the realism of the modern British Lucien Freud’s painting below with the Ancient Greek sculptures.

Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, 1996 (oil on canvas)
Lucien Freud, seated nude.

Harmony in architecture

The arts in Classical Greece were designed to express the eternal ideals of reason, moderation, symmetry, balance, and harmony.

In architecture, the most important form was the temple, and the classic example of this kind of architecture is the Parthenon, built between 447 and 432 B.C.E

The Parthenon
Ancient Greek Temple Columns Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The size and shape of a column constituted key aspects of Greek temple architecture. The Doric order, with plain capitals and no base, developed first in the Dorian Peloponnesus and was rather simple in comparison to the
slender Ionic column, which had an elaborate base and spiral-shaped capitals, and the Corinthian column, which featured leaf-shaped capitals.

Much important classical architecture was built in the 5th century using funds from the Delian League. The Parthenon, built between 447 and 432 B.C.E. was consecrated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. The Parthenon typifies the principles of Classical architecture: the search for calm, clarity, and freedom from superfluous detail.

The individual parts of the temple were constructed in accordance with certain mathematical ratios found in nature. The architects’ concern with these laws of proportion is paralleled by the attempt of Greek philosophers to understand the general laws of nature, and of artists like Polyclitus (pahl-ee-KLY-tuss), whose sought to find the ratios that would express the ideal beauty of the human body.

This statue, known as the Doryphoros, or spear carrier,
is by the fifth-century B.C.E. sculptor
Polyclitus, who believed it illustrated the ideal proportionof the
human figure.

Religion and mythology


Greek religion was based on twelve chief gods who supposedly lived on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece.

The Olympian gods, and Zeus in particular, gained supremacy over the cosmos after a long war in heaven with the previous ruling gods, the Titans, led by Cronus. However, the Titans had actually won an earlier rebellion against a primordial god, Uranus (sky/heaven).

These primordial gods seem to have been personifications and concepts, such as heaven, earth, sea, light, darkness, time, etc. According to (one  version from) Greek mythology, Cronus wanted the power of his father, Uranus. Uranus had angered Gaia (earth, mother goddess) after placing some of their children (Titans) in the darkness of Tartarus (the abyss) because he was angry at them. Gaia then created a gigantic stone sickle and organized Cronus and others of the lesser gods to defeat Uranus (Hesiod, Theogany). Cronus then ambushed Uranus and attacked him with the sickle, castrating him.

The victory resulted in a period in which Cronus and the Titans ruled, and was called the Golden Age (Hesiod, Days and Times). This was a period of peace, leisure and virtue. After this though, Zeus led a rebellion of the Olympians, defeated Cronus and imprisoned him for eternity, and became the ruler of the gods. … This same war in heaven concept in which the original god or gods suffered defeat after a rebellion of some of the created lesser gods is found in the even more ancient literature of the Near East. (DTH)



Each polis usually chose one of the twelve Olympians as a guardian of its community.

Because it was desirable to have the gods look favorably on one’s activities, ritual prayers and gifts were practiced, involving sacrifices (animals or agricultural products).

Divination was a common practice (seeking to know the will of the Gods). Oracles were used, sacred shrines dedicated to a god or goddess who revealed the future.

Ancient Greeks understood their gods through myths, (myths were often performed by bards) Homer’s works were an expression of the eternal order of the world and his conception of the individual striving for excellence form the foundations of the Greek outlook. In time, his epic poems formed the basis of the Olympian religion accepted throughout Greece. [Perry, M].

The legends of gods and heroes like Athena, Zeus, and Oedipus embodied the central ideals and values of Greek civilization notions like civic responsibility, the primacy of male authority, and humility before the gods.

The stories weretrue” not in a literal sense but as reflections of important cultural beliefs. These myths assured the Greeks of the nobility of their origins; they provided models for the roles that Greeks would play in their public and private lives; they justified inequities in Greek society; they helped the Greeks understand human life and destiny in terms thatmade sensewithin the framework of that culture. (Colombo et al.,)

Legacies of Greek mythology

Greek mythology has many legacies for western societies (civilization). We can trace some of those through culture (poetry, drama), and in language.

Living in the twenty-first century we are constantly surrounded by the resonances of Greek mythology, and, though we seldom pause to reflect on it, we talk the language of myth all the time. We inhabit a chaotic world (Khaos was the primal void) where Trojan horses threaten our computers and Ajax is a cleaning product and a Dutch football team. Politicians dismiss their opponents’ opinions as ‘myths’ (i.e. lies), while at the same time television archaeologists try to unearth ‘the truth behind the myth’ of Atlantis. Centaurs grace the pages of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series; football managers say their star strikers have the Midas touch; a man can be an Adonis, a woman a siren or a harpy; and we all have our Achilles heel. Others are nymphomaniacs, use aphrodisiacs and read erotic literature – all activities with Greek mythological semantic roots. Meanwhile we undertake Herculean tasks, wrestle with our Oedipus complexes, make personal odysseys, and should certainly beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

There is nothing new in our fascination with the myths: no self-respecting Renaissance palazzo was complete without an array of mythological paintings, perhaps with underlying meanings referring to the politics of the day; opera has constantly drawn on the corpus of Greek myths, from Monteverdi’s Orfeo through to Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and beyond; dance has done the same, be it classical ballet or more contemporary pieces such as Martha Graham’s Andromache’s Lament. Film thrives on a Greek background, drawing directly on such myths as Jason (Jason and the Argonauts, directed by Don Chaffey, 1963) and the Trojan War (Troy, Wolfgang Petersen, 2004, where the abduction of Helen becomes an excuse for an attack on an eastern state by a ‘Greek superpower’ and has been seen as analogous to the recent American-led invasion of Iraq, which some commentators think has opened a Pandora’s box in the Middle East), or operating more allusively as in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite (1995), which deals with the power of love and parodies Greek tragedy at the same time. Rock, jazz and other contemporary music styles draw on the myths too, from Led Zeppelin’s sublime ‘Achilles’ Last Stand’ to Virgin Steele’s ridiculous ‘symphonic metal’ The House of Atreus, from Ivo Papasov and his Bulgarian Wedding Band’s Orpheus Ascending to the tumbling chords of the Anglo-Scandinavian jazz trio Stekpanna’s ‘Ikaros’. Ian Hamilton Finlay created a stunning garden at Little Sparta, Joe Tilson produced a series of Nine Muses at the most recent Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. There is no escape from Greek mythology. (Kershaw)



Greek theatre began in the 6th century BCE in Athens with the performance of tragedy plays at religious festivals. These, in turn, inspired the genre of Greek comedy plays. The two types of Greek drama would be hugely popular and performances spread around the Mediterranean and influenced Hellenistic and Roman theatre. Thus the works of such great playwrights as Sophocles and Aristophanes formed the foundation upon which all modern theatre is based. (Cartwright)

Drama was used to educate citizens and was supported by the state for that reason. Plays were presented in outdoor theaters as part of religious festivals.

Ruins of the Theater of Dionysus in Athens.

The form of Greek plays three male actors who wore masks acted all the parts.

Ancient Greek dramatic masks
Ancient Greek costumes

A chorus, also male, spoke the important lines that explained what was going on. Action was very limited because the emphasis was on the story and its meaning.

The first Greek dramas were tragedies (trag?ida), plays based on the suffering of a hero and usually ending in disaster.

The exact origins of tragedy (trag?ida) are debated amongst scholars. Some have linked the rise of the genre to an earlier art form, the lyrical performance of epic poetry. Others suggest a strong link with the rituals performed in the worship of Dionysos such as the sacrifice of goats – a song ritual called trag-?dia – and the wearing of masks. Indeed, Dionysos became known as the god of theatre and perhaps there is another connection – the drinking rites which resulted in the worshippers losing full control of their emotions and in effect becoming another person, much as actors (hupokritai) hope to do when performing. The music and dance of Dionysiac ritual was most evident in the role of the chorus and the music provided by an aulos player, but rhythmic elements were also preserved in the use of first, trochaic tetrameter and then iambic trimeter in the delivery of the spoken words. (Cartwright)

Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.E.) is the first tragedian whose plays are known to us. His plots focus on a single tragic event and its meaning. Greek tragedies were sometimes presented in a trilogy (a set of three plays) built around a common theme. The only complete trilogy we possess, called the Oresteia (uh-res-TY-uh), was composed by Aeschylus.

The theme of this trilogy is derived from Homer. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, returns a hero after the defeat of Troy. His wife, Clytemnestra, avenges the sacrificial death of her daughter Iphigenia by murdering Agamemnon, who had been responsible for Iphigenia’s death.

In the second play, Agamemnon’s son Orestes (uh-RES-teez) avenges his father by killing his mother. Orestes is now pursued by the avenging Furies, who torment him for killing his mother. Evil acts breed evil acts, and suffering is one’s lot, suggests Aeschylus.

In the third play, Orestes is put on trial and acquitted by Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. Personal vendetta has been eliminated, and law has prevailed.

Athenian playwright Sophocles (SAHF-uh-kleez) (c. 496–406 B.C.E.) was very successful. His most famous play was Oedipus the King. The oracle of Apollo foretells that a man (Oedipus) will kill his own father and marry his mother. Despite all attempts at prevention, the tragic events occur. Although iOedipus suffered the fate determined by the gods, Oedipus also accepts that he himself as a free man must bear responsibility for his actions: ‘‘It was Apollo, friends, Apollo, that brought this bitter bitterness, my sorrows to completion. But the hand that struck me was none but my own.’’15

In Sophocles’s play Antigone, Antigone (an-TIG-uh-nee), the daughter of Oedipus, is caught in a terrible dilemma. Her brother Polynices (pol-uh-NY-seez) has died in an attempt to seize the throne of Thebes, and now the king of Thebes, Antigone’s uncle Cleon, has forbidden his burial as a traitor to the state. Should Antigone adhere to her principles and fulfill her obligation to the gods by burying her brother or face death by defying the authority of the state? In the confrontation between Cleon and Antigone, Sophocles bears witness to the complexity of human existence.

Euripides (uoo-RIP-i-deez) (c. 485–406 B.C.E.), moved beyond his predecessors in creating more realistic characters and plots. His play The Bacchae deals with the introduction of the hysterical rites associated with Dionysus (dy-uh-NY-suss), god of wine. Euripides is often seen as a skeptic who questioned traditional moral and religious values.

Euripides was also critical of the traditional view that war was glorious. He portrayed war as brutal and expressed deep compassion for the women and children who suffered from it.

Greek tragedies dealt with universal themes that are still relevant in our day.

the nature of good and evil,

the conflict between spiritual values and the demands of the state or family,

the rights of the individual,

the nature of divine forces, and the nature of human beings.

The lessons of tragedy were that humans were free and yet could operate only within limitations imposed by the gods. The real task was to cultivate the balance and moderation that led to awareness of one’s limited position. (Spielvogel)

However they also celebrated the achievements and independence of humanity. As the chorus chants in Sophocles’s Antigone: ‘‘Is there anything more wonderful on earth, our marvelous planet, than the miracle of man?’’16

Greek Comedy

Greek comedy developed later than tragedy and was often satirical and political.

The plays of Aristophanes (ar-is-STAH-fuh-neez) (c. 450–c. 385 B.C.E.), used both grotesque masks and obscene jokes to entertain the Athenian audience, and to attack or satirize politicians and intellectuals. In The Clouds, for example, Aristophanes characterizes the philosopher Socrates as the operator of a thought factory where people could learn deceitful ways to handle other people.

Aristophanes was opposed to the Peloponnesian War. His play Lysistrata, performed in 411 B.C.E., at a time when Athens was in serious danger of defeat, has a comic but effective message against the war.

The birth of history

History as we know it, the systematic analysis of past events, was a Greek creation. The Greek word historia (from which we derive our word history) means ‘‘research’’ or ‘‘investigation,’

Herodotus (huh-ROD-uh-tuss) (c. 484–c. 425 B.C.E.), wrote The Persian Wars, the first real history in Western civilization. he viewed the wars as a struggle between Greek freedom and Persian despotism.

Herodotus traveled widely for his information and was dependent for his sources on what we today would call oral history. His history was a combination of sometimes fantastical storytelling and critical reflection.

THUCYDIDES Thucydides (c. 460–c. 400 B.C.E.) Thucydides was an Athenian
and a participant in the Peloponnesian War who drew on his experiences to write his History of the Peloponnesian War.

Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides was not concerned with underlying divine forces or gods as explanatory causal factors in history. He saw war and politics in purely rational terms,
as the activities of human beings. He examined the long-range and immediate causes of the Peloponnesian War in a clear, methodical, objective fashion. Thucydides placed much emphasis on accuracy and the precision of his facts. As he stated:

And with regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I heard of them from eyewitnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible.(Thucydides, 1954, 24)

Thucydides thereby gave us one of the fundamental principles of research and investigation (relevant to history and other social sciences), that of fact-checking, or corroboration.

For Thucydides, studying history aided understanding the present. He thought that past events were likely to be repeated in some way as human nature was unchanging.


Religion and mythology pervaded daily life, but in time, traditional religion was challenged and undermined by a growing secular and rational spirit.That transition was in part the work of the philosophers. [Perry, M]

Philosophy is a Greek word that literally means ‘‘love of wisdom.’’

Early Greek philosophers were concerned with the development of critical or rational thought about the nature of the universe and the place of divine forces and souls in it.
Much of early Greek philosophy focused on the attempt to explain the universe on the basis of unifying principles. Their theories eliminated the role of the gods as portrayed in Greek myths, but they did not eliminate divinity itself from the world, tending instead
identifying divinity with the underlying, unchanging forces that govern the universe.

Thales of Miletus (circa 600BCE), postulated the unity of the universe. All things were linked by water as the basic substance.

Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 490 B.C.E.), taught that the essence of the universe could be found in music and number.

Sophists (SAHF-ists) were a group of philosophical teachers in the fifth century who thought the only worthwhile object of study was human behavior and, especially, self-improvement.

The Sophists stressed the importance of rhetoric in winning debates and swaying an audience, a skill that was especially valuable in democratic Athens. We get the word sophistry from them (the art of persuasive speaking).

Sophists were what we call relativists. They believed that there was no absolute right or wrong—what was right for one individual might be wrong for another. Wisdom consisted of being able to perceive and pursue one’s own good.

Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.) developed a teaching method employing a question-
and-answer technique to lead pupils to see things for themselves using their own reason (we still call this the Socratic method). Socrates believed that all real knowledge is within each person and that ‘‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’’

Socrates’s questioning of authority and public demonstrations of others’ lack of knowledge led him into trouble. Athens had had a tradition of free thought and inquiry (in or modern terms we might think of that as free speech). However, at times Athens became intolerant of open debate and soul-searching. Socrates lived in one of those periods, following Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War. He was accused and convicted of corrupting youth by his teaching, and an Athenian jury sentenced him to death.

Plato (c. 429–347 B.C.E.), one of Socrates’s students, is considered to be one of or perhaps the greatest philosopher of Western civilization.

Plato’s works were concerned with questioning of reality: How do we know what is real?
According to Plato, a higher world of eternal, unchanging Ideas or Forms has always existed. To know these Forms is to know truth. These ideal Forms constitute reality  The objects that we perceive with our senses are simply reflections of the ideal Forms. The objects we perceive are just shadows, and reality is actually the Forms themselves.

Plato believed that the ideal Forms could only be recognized by by a trained (i.e., philosophical) mind (a very different idea from Socrates’ belief that we all have the truth within us and can and should seek it).

Aristotle. Aristotle’s philosophical and political ideas became important to important role in the evolution of Western thought during the Middle Ages (as we wil see in a later lesson).

Aristotle was a polygot, whose subjects included ethics, logic, politics, poetry, astronomy, geology, biology, and physics.

He was interested in analyzing and classifying things based on thorough research and investigation. He believed that by examining individual objects, we can perceive their form and arrive at universal principles, but they do not exist as a separate higher world of reality beyond material things (as Plato thought); rather the principles are a part of things themselves.

Aristotle was the first philosopher to developed a systematic study of logic. His framework would become an authority in deductive reasoning for over two thousand years. The doctrine of syllogism is his most influential contribution to logic. He defined the syllogism as a discourse in which certain things having been stated, something else follows of necessity from their being so. A well-known example is:

  1. All men are mortal.  (major premise)
  2. Socrates is a man.  (minor premise)
  3. Socrates is mortal.  (conclusion)  [Violatti]

Aristotle wrote about gender relations and his ideas about women and their role in society later became influential (especially in the Middle Ages). Aristotle believed  marriage was a good, as it provided mutual comfort between man and woman and contributed to the overall happiness of a community:

‘‘The community needs both male and female excellences or it can only be half-blessed.’’

However, men were more excellent than women, Aristotle argued that women
were biologically inferior to men:

‘‘A woman is, as it were, an infertile male. She is female in fact on account of a kind of

Therefore women must be subordinated to men (in the community and in marriage).

In these beliefs he was aligned with the beliefs of many Ancient Greeks that a woman’s place was in the home, bearing and raising children and managing the household. Yet there were exceptions. The Spartans believed in the independence of woman, allowed women to own property in their own right and manage their households, and celebrated and encouraged female strength and power.

After the fall of ancient Greece and the rise of Hellenic society women enjoyed fewer restrictions, and women of all classes had a new freedom of movement. The most notable gains, especially for upper-class women, came in the economic area.


Building on Egyptian and Babylonian knowledge, figures such as Thales of Miletus, Pythagoras, and Aristotle developed ideas in mathematics, astronomy, and logic that would influence Western thought, science, and philosophy for centuries to come. Aristotle was the first philosopher who developed a systematic study of logic, an early form of evolution was taught by such figures of Greek philosophy as Anaximander and Empedocles, and Pythagoras’ mathematical theorem is still used today. 

Scientific explanations for the world

Thales of Miletus, c. 600 BCE

He first developed the idea that the world can be explained without resorting to supernatural (mythical) explanations.

It is likely that the astronomical knowledge that Thales got from Egyptian and Babylonian astronomy allowed him to predict a solar eclipse which took place on 28 May 585 BCE.

Anaximander, another Ionian, argued that since human infants are helpless at birth, if the first human had somehow appeared on earth as an infant, it would not have survived. Anaximander reasoned that people must, therefore, have evolved from other animals whose young are hardier.

Empedocles who first taught an early form of evolution and survival of the fittest. He believed that originally “countless tribes of mortal creatures were scattered abroad endowed with all manner of forms, a wonder to behold”, but in the end, only certain forms were able to survive.


Ancient Greek Mathematics was aided by the influence of Egyptian mathematics; itsastronomy was, aided the influence of Babylon.

The Greeks derived rules of thumbs with specific applications from Egyptian mathematics and furthered them into general principles with broad applications

Egyptians knew, for example, that a triangle whose sides are in a 3:4:5 ratio is a right triangle.

Pythagoras took this concept and stretched it to its limit by deducting a mathematical theorem that bears his name: that, in a right triangle, the square on the opposite side of the right angle (the hypotenuse) is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.


Limits of the ancient Greek method

Besides its great achievements, Greek science had its flaws. Observation was undervalued by the Greeks in favour of the deductive process, where knowledge is built by means of pure thought. This method is key in mathematics, and the Greeks put their emphasis on it. The starting point to discover principles was always an idea in the mind of the thinker: sometimes observations were undervalued and some other times the Greeks were not able to make a sharp distinction between empirical observations and logical arguments. Modern scientific method no longer relies on this technique; today science seeks to discover principles based on observations as a starting point. Likewise, the logical method of science today favours induction over deduction: instead of building conclusions on an assumed set of self-evident generalizations, induction starts with observations of particular facts and derives generalizations from them.

Imagining Greek superiority and Eastern inferiority

For the ancient Greeks – the story of heroic resistance and the ultimate victory over a regional superpower (Persia) showed that ‘the Greek thing’ produced a different and superior class of human being.

In Athens, Aeschylus would write the first The Persians, which marks a critical break between a reconstituted ‘Greek’ culture and the Near East that had spawned it.

Greece would default on the cultural debt that it owed to the East, insisting that it owed nothing to anybody.

The virtues of Greece were now juxtaposed with the supposed oriental barbarity of the East as represented by Persians, the ‘East’ would come to stand for everything Greece was not – an anti-type to be despised and parodied.

Greek Eastern
Liberty Despotic, slave-like
Reason Irrational
Civilization Barbaric
Virility Effeminate, hen-pecked
Courageous Cowardly
Noble/honorable Treacherous



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Violatti, ‘Ancient Greek Science’, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2013.