1. Hellenic Culture
“FOR WE ARE LOVERS OF THE BEAUTIFUL, YET SIMPLE IN OUR TASTES; WE
CULTIVATE THE MIND WITHOUT LOSS OF MANLINESS.”
- THE FUNERAL ORATION OF PERICLES
The Greek contribution to the creation of Western civilization equals that of
the Jews and the Christians.
In addition to the concept of democratic governance, the Greek
achievement was exemplified most strikingly in the fine arts and in the
search of wisdom, which the Greeks called philosophy.
The Greek word philosophy means “love of wisdom.”
In both areas, the Greeks developed models and modes of thought that
are still valid and inspiring today.
The overall achievement of the Greeks during their great age is summed up
in the term Hellenic culture.
3. Philosophy: the Love of Wisdom
The Greeks used philosophy to examine the entire spectrum of human
knowledge and not just the narrower fields of inquiry, such as the rules of
The ancient Greeks can legitimately be called the originators of philosophy.
Of course, other peoples before them had attempted to work out the
nature and meaning of human existence but none pursued their studies
with such passion, boldness, and imagination as the Greeks of the sixth
Greek philosophy can be divided into two periods:
The Pre-Socratic Period
The Classical Age
4. Pre-Socratic Philosophy
The Pre-Socratic philosophers devoted themselves to investigating the origin
and nature of the physical world.
They were not concerned with truth or how to distinguish between good and evil
as the philosophers of the Classical Age would be.
The very first philosopher whose writings survived is Thales of Miletus.
During the 500s, a group of thinkers attempted to analyze the physical
nature of the world and make it understandable.
Once idea birthed from this time was Democritus’s vision of the atom as the
fundamental building block of nature.
The greatest contribution of the Pre-Socratics was the concept of law in the
The Greeks believed that what happened in the physical cosmos was the result
of laws of causation and thus understandable and predictable on a purely
Thales is credited with the scientific revolution, which began with
his rejection of mythological explanations for everyday living.
Being the first to define general principles and set forth
hypotheses, Thales has been dubbed the “father of science.”
He is also hailed as the first true mathematician and is the first
known individual to whom a mathematical discovery has been
attributed: Thales’ Theorem.
The diameter of a circle always
subtends a right angle to any point on
If a triangle has, as one side, the
diameter of a circle, and the third
vertex of the triangle is any point on
the circumference of the circle, then
the triangle will always be a right
7. Pre-Socratic Philosophy
They did not deny the gods or the powers of the gods, but they did not look
to the gods as the normal and usual causes of phenomena.
Instead, they conceived what we call natural law – a set of phenomena in
nature that, when properly understood, explain why certain things occur.
Two of the greatest of the Pre-Socratics were Anaximander and
Anaximander was the father of the theory of natural evolution of species and
thought the physical universe had no limits – he conceived it as boundless and
Hippocrates is best known as the founder of scientific medicine and the first great
empiricist of the natural sciences, arriving at his theories only after careful and
prolonged observation of the world that could be weighed and measured.
Anaximander is the first philosopher
known to have written down his studies,
although only one fragment of his work
He was an early proponent of science
and tried to explain different aspects of
the universe claiming that nature was
ruled by laws and anything that disrupts
the balance of nature does not last long.
Hippocrates was an ancient Greek physician of the Age of
Pericles and is referred to as the “father of western medicine.”
He is credited with establishing medicine as a profession
distinct from other fields, coining the Hippocratic Oath which
is still relevant and in use today, and advancing the systematic
study of clinical medicine.
10. Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygeia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses, making them my
witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant:
To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents and to live my life in partnership with him, and
if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine, and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers in
male lineage and to teach them this art — if they desire to learn it — without fee and covenant; to give a share
of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning to my sons and to the sons of him who has
instructed me and to pupils who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law,
but to no one else.
I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them
from harm and injustice.
I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I
will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.
I will not use the knife, not even on sufferers from stone, but will withdraw in favor of such men as are
engaged in this work.
Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice,
of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons, be they free or slaves.
What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of the treatment in regard to the life of
men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself holding such things shameful to be
If I fulfill this path and do not violate it, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and art, being honored with fame
among all men for all time to come; if I transgress it and swear falsely, may the opposite of all this be my lot.
11. The Classical Age
Socrates (470-399 B.C.) was the first philosopher to focus on the ethical and
epistemological (truth-establishing) questions that have haunted the
thoughtful since the dawn of creation.
Like most of the Classical Age Figures, he concentrated on humans rather than
on the physical nature – “How do I know?” not “What is to be known?”
Systematic questioning is the essence of the Socratic method, which
teachers have used ever since.
Socrates would systematically question his young Athenian students and
challenged them to fearlessly examine and justify everything before taking it for
Our knowledge of Socrates comes not from him directly but from the
numerous works of his pupil and admirer, Plato (427-347 B.C.), who joined his
master in Athens a few years before Socrates’ suicide.
Socrates was accused of poisoning the minds of the youth of Athens
by his irrelevant questions, which greatly irritated the conservative
elders of the polis.
Brought to trial, he was found guilty and given the choice of exile or
A true Greek, Socrates chose suicide rather than being outcast from
his chosen community.
Plato was not his actual name but a nickname which means “broad” or
“wide” in reference to his shoulders.
Following the death of his mentor, Socrates, Plato wandered
throughout Italy, Sicily, Egypt, and Cyrene in an attempt to expand his
knowledge and forethought.
Above the entrance to Plato’s Academy read, “Let one who has not
learned geometry enter here.”
14. The Classical Age
Plato defended his teacher from the unjust accusation, but nevertheless
was a very different thinker than his predecessor.
He tried above all to solve the problem of how the mind can experience
and recognize Truth.
He concluded that it cannot, beyond a certain superficial point.
Being an antidemocrat, Plato also ventured into an analysis of politics as it
should be in the republic and as it existed in the laws.
During his lifetime, Greece was in constant turmoil, which probably influenced his
strongly conservative political views.
Aristotle, who founded the first Academy in Athens, was a pupil of Plato but
he too was a very different man from his teacher.
Aristotle is the nearest equivalent to a universal genius that Greece produced.
After the death of Plato, Aristotle left Athens at the request of Philip
II of Macedonia to tutor Alexander the Great from 356 to 323 B.C.
His relationship with Alexander afforded him numerous opportunities
and an abundance of supplies – most notable was the Library of
Lyceum where he produced hundreds of books.
Aristotle is said to be the “first genuine scientist of history…. Every
scientist is in his debt.”
16. The Classical Age
Most of what Aristotle has written has survived and can fill an entire shelf of
His best-known works are the Politics, Physics, and Metaphysics.
Beyond philosophy, he was a first-rate mathematician, and astronomer, the
founder of botany, and a student of medicine.
So great was his renown in the medieval world that both European
Christians and Arab Muslims referred to him simply as the Master.
The Christian scholars thought of him as a pagan saint, who lacked the light of
Revelation as outlined in the Scriptures.
The learned Muslims thought of him as the greatest natural philosopher and man
of science the world had yet produced.
17. The Classical Age
Greek philosophy was marked at all times by the strong sense of self-
confidence that the philosophers brought to it.
The Greeks believed that humans were quite capable of understanding the
cosmos and all that lived within it by use of reason and careful observation.
In that sense, the Greeks were the world’s first real scientists, who never resorted
to supernatural powers to explain what could be explained by law.
The wisdom of the Greeks sought in their “love of wisdom” was that which
was reachable by the unaided human intellect.
19. Greek Religion
Not all Greeks were able to find the truth they needed in philosophy – the
large majority of people were not exposed to or were unable to follow the
reasonings of the philosophers.
They turned instead to religion: like most of the other peoples we have
discussed, the Greeks were polytheistic.
Their gods included Zeus (the father figure), Hera (the wife of Zeus), Poseidon
(god of the seas), Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), Apollo (god of the sun),
and Demeter (goddess of fertility).
Yet Greek religion was rather different from other religions in at least two
First, the Greek gods were less threatening and less powerful than other peoples’
Second, the Greeks never created a priestly class or caste, but used their priests
as informal leaders of loosely organized services.
20. Greek Religion
After 500 B.C., the priests and priestesses receded more and more into the
background, while many of the gods themselves became more symbolic
Even the great deities of whom all Greeks recognized, such as Zeus, were
not taken too seriously by the educated.
They were not feared in the way that the Sumerians feared their gods or the Jews
Greek religion differs in many ways with our modern ideas of religion.
It did not stem from a Holy Book.
It made no attempt to impose a system of moral conduct on the faithful.
The Greeks never centralized ecclesiastical authority.
Religion was largely a series of rituals and participating in these rituals was an act
of polis patriotism.
21. Greek Religion
In addition to greater deities whom all Greeks recognized, each polis had its
own local deities.
For example, Athena was the patron goddess of the city of Athens.
The Greeks did not believe that the gods controlled human destiny in any
Behind and above the gods was an impersonal and unavoidable Fate, which could
not be successfully defied by either humans or gods.
The ideal of the golden mean, the middle ground between all extremes of
thought and action, was a Greek specialty.
They distrusted radical measures and tried to find that which embraced the
good without claiming to be the best.
They believed that the person who claimed to have the perfect solution to a
problem was being misled by hubris, a false overconfidence.
The wise person always kept this in mind and acted accordingly.
22. Greek Religion
The Greeks were not humble by nature but were quite willing to take
chances and to stretch their intellectual powers to the utmost.
They believed passionately in the human potential but did not defy Fate or
the gods without expecting to be punished.
The great tragedies written by Sophocles are perhaps the most dramatically
effective expression of this expectation, particularly his trilogy about the doomed
As with the Confucians, it was this world that engaged the Greeks’ attention
and provided their frame of reference for good and evil.
Greeks did not speculate about the afterlife and saw no reason to fear it.
The acts of the gods became more and more to be viewed as myths,
stories that served a useful moral purpose in educating the people to
their duties and responsibilities as good citizens.
Sophocles is one of three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have
survived: of his 123 plays only seven have survived in complete form.
Of the Athenian dramatic competitions held during religious festivals,
Sophocles competed in thirty competitions and won twenty-four while
never being judged lower than second place.
Although the manner in which he died is uncertain, he died at the age
of ninety or ninety-one, having been witness to the Greek triumph in
both Persian Wars and the bloodletting of the Peloponnesian War.
24. The Arts and Literature
The classical Greeks gave at least three major art forms to Western
The drama, a Greek invention that originated in the 600, presumably in Athens, as
a sort of pageant depicting scenes from the myths about the gods.
Lyric poetry, originating in the pre-Classical era and represented best by the
surviving fragments from the work of Sappho, a woman who lived on the island of
Lesbos in the 600s.
“Classical” architecture, most notably the temples scattered about the shores of
the Mediterranean by Greek colonists, as well as the Acropolis in Athens.
Besides these art forms, the Greeks excelled in epic poetry, magnificent
sculptures of the human form and face, dance, fine ceramic wares of every
sort, and painting on ceramic vessels and plaques.
25. Social Relations in the Classical Age
The average Athenian was a laborer, small artisan, merchant, or slave.
The freeman and his family generally lived very simple.
He made a modest income working for others or for the polis or as an
His wife normally worked inside the home, performing the usual domestic duties.
Ancient Greece was a very male dominated society.
Outside the home in public life, the women were very much inferior to men,
except for the trained and educated entertainers, called hetairai, who were
uniquely respected and allowed to do as they pleased.
Wives could divorce their husbands and had control over any property they
brought into the marriage.
Homosexuality was relatively common, at least among the educated.
26. Social Relations in the Classical Age
Greeks and foreigners could be enslaved, usually as the result of debt.
Slaves were normally not abused by their masters, and many slaves were prized
workers and craftsmen who worked for pay but were not free to go off at will to
Only in the polis-owned silver mines near Athens were slaves abused as a matter
of course, and these slaves were normally criminals not debtors.
Slaves did not enjoy civil rights in politics and could not serve in the military.
The general level of education among the urban Greeks of the Classical
Age was remarkably high and was not approximated again in the Western
world until much later.
Yet, like politics, education was also basically an urban phenomenon as much of
the country people were illiterate.
The Greeks were the first people to look on the nurture of the physique as
an important part of human life.
They admired a healthy body and thought it was a duty to cultivate its
As a part of this effort, they organized the first athletic events open to all
male citizens – the most important was the great Pan-Hellenic festival
known to us as the Olympic Games.
According to the records, the Olympics were first held in 776 B.C. and then
every four years thereafter in the small polis of Olympia on the west coast of
the Peloponnesian peninsula.
The games were originally more a religious festival than a sports event, but soon
The best Greek athletes competed for their hometowns in foot races,
chariot drives, the discus throw, weightlifting, and several other contests.
Prizes were limited to honors and a crown of laurel leaves.
The games lasted for about a week and were immensely popular.
After the Macedonian conquest, the games declined and then ceased for
twenty-three centuries until they were revived in the late nineteenth
29. The Greek Legacy
The dimensions and lasting importance of the Greeks’ legacy to Western
civilization cannot be overemphasized.
When the polis fell to the Macedonians, this legacy was retained although
in diluted forms.
When the Macedonian world was then itself overtaken by the all-
conquering Romans, the new masters adopted much of the Greek heritage
with great enthusiasm and made it their own.
In this way, the Greek style and the content of their art, philosophy, science, and
government gradually infiltrated much of Europe.
In the process, though, parts were lost permanently, and much of it was radically
altered by other views and conditions of life.