by ProfDave, ©2022
(Mar. 12, 2022) — [See previous articles in this series here. — Ed.]
Someone has said that Western Civilization is founded on two cities: Athens and Jerusalem. Any historical generalization can only be about 60% true (Heughins’ Second Law of History. The first law being, “There are no laws in history”), but you can make a pretty good case for this one.
Jerusalem, of course, represents the Western spiritual heritage of ethical monotheism. Jahweh was both creator of the cosmos and lawgiver. Unlike most ancient peoples, the Hebrews conceived of their god as invisible, not subject to fate or sorcery, and not morally neutral or capricious. That, of course, is the divinity of Jews, Christians, and Muslims – the vast majority of Westerners – today.
Athens represents the Western intellectual heritage of secular philosophy and political thought. All our philosophical systems are but footnotes to Plato. Well, most of them. All the big questions were addressed. Most of our political terms are derived from Greek words and many modern scientific theories were anticipated in their speculations. Perhaps because the Greeks were not as systematic about their religion as their philosophy, they separated their thinking from their piety. They had no professional priests, dogma, or theology. By classical times, their sacrifices were nominal (offal, not choice cuts) and their spirituality limited to consulting the oracles. Man (specifically male), not anthropomorphic gods, was the measure of all things. But what philosophy, science, and literature they produced!
This tension between sacred and secular thinking is typical of the Christian West to this day. One symptom of this you have already encountered in the reference to Hebrew “traditions” (Duiker & Spielvogel). Jewish records go back to the beginning of time, but fully integrate sacred and secular. God is the major character and the nation has supernatural beginnings. To accept the account requires belief in the supernatural events and interpretations interwoven. This creates a problem for those religiously or existentially unwilling. The Greek historian, Thucydides, banished the gods and goddesses from history, seeking only natural and human explanations for events. Today, historians (as historians) neither deny nor affirm divine intervention but seek to explain events in natural terms and leave the supernatural to the prophets to interpret. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Nationally, classical Greece was an anarchy. The basic structure of society was the Polis, or city. Each polis had its own patron god or goddess, special rites and priests that symbolized the city and its unity. Education for citizenship was formalized in the gymnasium where political and military training took place. Protected as they were in their little maritime valleys, and without a whole lot of divine instruction, the Greeks felt free to experiment with all sorts of political and philosophical systems. Most famous of the Greek political systems were Spartan oligarchy and Athenian democracy. Sparta was a paranoid military state obsessed with keeping its slaves and neighbors in subjection. Athens invented the word democracy, but how democratic is a society that is 40% slave and maintains an empire by military power and intimidation to pay an enormous public payroll?
Sparta was governed by an oligarchy – a small number of leading families – and dual kings. The population was made up of citizens, periokoi (dwellers around – resident aliens), and helots (peasants and slaves). Spartans were most known for their brutal discipline, from early childhood onwards. At age twenty, the men were confined to barracks and – although permitted to marry – only visited their wives by going AWOL! Full citizenship came at age 30. Spartan women, too, were trained for war. The absence of their husbands in barracks and at war meant more freedom than most Greek women, but they had to be tough. War was a way of life for Sparta, culminating in the Pelopponesian Wars, 431-404, against the Athenian Empire. Sparta tried to organize Greece along oligarchic lines but failed. When finally defeated by Thebes in 371, there were only 1500 citizens left.
Athenian society was also made up of citizens (20-40%), metics (aliens, merchants, others), and slaves (about 40%). Slaves in the ancient world were captives of war, orphans, or debtors. The main legislative and judicial body of Athens was the Ecclesia, consisting of all male citizens, which chose two Archons as administrators. The Areopagus was an honorary body of ex-administrators by classical times. Cleisthenes reorganized the Ecclesia into ten new clans, called demes. Citizens were selected by lot to represent each deme in the Council. That’s where we get the term democracy. Citizens from the age of 18-60 were expected to spend March to October each year in public or military service, providing their own equipment. It cost money to serve as a hoplite, or heavy infantryman, fighting close order in the phalanx. Poorer men served as oarsmen in the navy – Athens’ greatest strength.
The 5th century saw the formation of the Delian League, an alliance of 200 city states with Athens ostensibly for defense against the Persian Empire. However, when the treasury was moved from the Island Delos to Athens, and those who fell behind in their payments were brutally punished . . . Was it really a common treasury or a tribute? An alliance or an Athenian empire? As much money went to beautify Athens as to build ships.
Athens reached its golden age under Pericles, 441-429. He brought about equality for all citizens by instituting payment for office holding. Now all citizens could afford to serve – on a huge state payroll.
The Greek ideal was arête: balanced excellence. The ideal citizen was male, intelligent, courageous, and well proportioned. Put a robe on him and he could make a speech before the Council and hold the highest office in the city. Offices were assigned by turn and by lot because any citizen could fill them. Strip him naked and he could wrestle, run, and hurl the javelin in the arena – and look good doing it. Put a suit of armor on him and he could fight close order in the phalanx, moving like a machine. Specialization was for non-citizens and slaves. Women were not treated as quite human unless they happened to be mistresses of important people. Infants were inspected by their fathers and exposed (set out with the trash) if they were unsatisfactory – leading to a shortage of girls and consequent population decline in later days. Note: without transcendent reference, Greek humanism depended on personal excellence (masculine). Thus ugly, illegitimate, or female babies possessed no intrinsic human worth.
Homer, Hesoid, and the Greek Dramatists certainly left us a marvelous mythology and literature. The somewhat adolescent antics of the gods and goddesses (Spiderman and the Fantastic Four come to mind) provided doubtful moral leadership and aroused little real devotion in classical times – but there were a lot of good stories. Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, and the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes are classics even in translation. The Greeks loved and pursued wisdom and pure science, independent of their mythology. Greek science was speculative and observational rather than experimental. They suggested many ideas that are now part of our modern world but were lost on contemporaries. For example, Anaxagorus argued that the sun was not a god but a white-hot stone. Pythagorus (587-507) determined that the earth, sun and moon were rotating spheres. Democritus (460-370) theorized about an infinite universe made up of atoms. Euclid reigned supreme in geometry until recently. Then of course, there is the famous eccentric and inventor, Archimedes. And Hippocrates (460-377) set the foundation for modern medicine and the Hippocratic Oath: the ethical standards that separated doctors from witch doctors until recently.
Still I would give the palm for greatest contribution to Greek Philosophy. Socrates is the questioner in Plato’s dialogues (or Plato is the recorder of most of Socrates’ dialogues). What is justice? What is courage? What is honesty? What is knowledge? What we see are imperfect shadows of true reality – like a bad television show. True reality is in the realm of eternal ideas, not temporal things. The body is the prison house of the soul. We can access these ideas by asking questions. All knowledge is innate to the soul: it just needs to be brought out by reason. The solution to all problems is right knowledge. Plato dealt with all the fundamental questions of philosophy and is still fascinating reading today.
Aristotle, pupil of Socrates, took a different tack. He taught that universals could only be known by studying individual cases. He collected and classified information about everything from poetry to botany and wrote voluminously. His encyclopedic writings, translated into Latin and Arabic, became the textbooks in a wide range of subjects for nearly 2,000 years. His Logic is particularly important. Alexander “the Great” was his most famous pupil.
What was so “Great” about Alexander? Undoubtedly, he was a great motivator of men and greatly admired by his entourage. Certainly, he was a genius in combined the hoplites, cavalry and light infantry on the battlefield. He also, like his father, knew how to gain the alliance of those he subjugated. But was he Plato’s philosopher king? Plutarch, the popular Roman biographer, credits him with being the world’s first universalist, treating all men as equals – Greek and “barbarian.” Or was he merely a brutal military tyrant and opportunist, taking advantage of oriental habits of obedience?
In any case, he pretty well conquered the world and drank himself to death by the age of 35 (a cautionary tale in itself). What is remarkable, is that his swift conquest and temporary empire left a permanent mark on the world. Greek became the trade language of most of Europe and West Asia. Greek culture, art, and sports were diffused from Spain to India. Greek cities were built, like Alexandria in Egypt, everywhere. Soldiers intermarried with local populations and formed Hellenized elites – there weren’t enough wives for them back home because of infanticide. And when the Iron Curtain descended over Europe in 1948, its southern end was close to the western boundary of Alexander’s realm.
Hellenistic civilization was somewhat different from classical Greek. Four generals fought over and divided Alexander’s empire. The Polis lost its independence and distinctiveness. Athens became a cosmopolitan center of wealth and learning but had to compete with Antioch and Alexandria. Art became less about perfection and more about struggle, emotion and individualism. Mystery cults from the east addressed the desire for personal salvation and spiritual achievement as the Greek pantheon never had. Judaism, with its one invisible and exclusive Creator of heaven and earth, resisted assimilation. The circumcised didn’t fit in at the arena and the public bath either. The attempt to enforce polytheism provoked Judea to rise in rebellion, led by the Maccabees. That’s where Hanukah comes in.
Africa, Thomas W., Sullivan, Richard E., and Sowards, J.K. Critical Issues in History.
Vol I. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1967.
Bowra, C. M. The Greek Experience. New York: World, 1957.
Bury, J. B. The Ancient Greek Historians. New York: Dover, 1958.
Chesterton, G.K. The Everlasting Man (1925). E-book retrieved from Bible Explorer 4.
Duiker, William J. and Spielvogel, Jackson J. World History, 7th Edn. Wadsworth,
Finley, M.I. Atlas of Classical Archaeology. New York: McGraw Hill, 1977.
Hatzfield, Jean. History of Ancient Greece. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966.
Plato. Dialogues of Plato, Jowett trans, J.D. Kaplan, ed., New York: Washington Square,
Scramuzza, Vincent & MacKendrick, Paul L.. The Ancient World. New York: Henry
Tarn, W. W. Alexander the Great. Boston: Beacon, 1962.
Think About it:
- How much has your worldview been influenced by Athens or Jerusalem?
- Compare and contrast the influence of Athens and Jerusalem on Western Civilization.
- How were the Greeks different from that other Indo-European group, the Aryans?
- Were the Athenians really democratic? In what way?
- Compare Socrates/Plato and Aristotle.
- How was Hellenistic society different from classical Greek society?
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.