Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

 Greek Learning in its Historical Context

Steve Muhlberger
One can easily fall into uncritical praise of the Greek intellectual achievement.  They did, after all, accomplish a great deal that we value very highly and have built on since.  A recent scholar, Bernard Williams, began his discussion of Greek philosophy with this statement:  "The legacy of Greece to Western philosophy is Western philosophy."  Quite true.  But what does this mean? Does it mean that the Greeks gave us this  thing , a thing called philosophy, which has been kept in a vault and treasured ever since?

No.  Philosophy is not a thing, it is a way of thinking.  The Greek legacy of learning is the
same in all fields.  We have long since surpassed the Greeks, if you measure the number of facts known to them and us, or the techniques used, or even in the subtlety and power of useful theories.  But the Greeks remain an influential example of a certain approach to knowledge.  One could call it the philosophical approach.  This is the idea that human beings, using reason and in some cases observation too, can learn the nature of reality, or at least important aspects of it.

 The sustained quest of the Greeks to understand reality through reason is exceptional.  In most other civilized cultures, including European Christian culture, an official explanation of the world, of humanity's place in it, and of morality has held a near-monopoly.  In most cultures, a very small group has held and perpetuated this official knowledge, and suppressed efforts by others to offer other interpretations.

The Greeks had no group like this.  Greek society, for all its built-in inequality, was much more open than most others.  This open Greek society allowed for, perhaps even encouraged, an open intellectual life, where opinions and theories about life were freely discussed.  And because
they were freely discussed and exchanged, Greek intellectual life became very dynamic, and continued to be dynamic for a long time, producing philosophy, logic, mathematics, and even advances in science and engineering.

The story of Greek learning begins in the gymnasium.  Visualize a gymnasium filled with sweaty men exercising.  The image is there to remind us that most Greeks were not intellectual.  For most Greek citizens, in most times, education was mainly physical education:  in the gymnasium the men learned to fight and to compete athletically.  But even when Greeks were illiterate, there was another element:  poetry and music.  The Greeks had the highest respect for these arts, which were not only entertainment, but also the carriers of knowledge, folklore, and tradition.  So we must visualize those sweaty men as singers, as reciters and fans of poetry.  In modern society, poetry has rather effete connotations.  But poetry in pre-literate cultures has all the importance of popular music today, and more.

Furthermore, those sweaty men in the gymnasium were great talkers and arguers.  There was nothing to stop them.  In the late archaic age, they were all equals in some sense.  There was no priesthood with enough control to prevent discussion, and the social barriers between aristocrats and non-aristocrats were slowly being eroded.  (Of course anyone who spent a significant amount of time in the gymnasium was not poor.)  In an expanding world, the discussion could be pretty wide ranging.  Some men, by nature, were willing to go a little farther than others.  They were teachers and speculators, and came up with explanations to common phenomena, explanations that did not depend on the direct intervention of the gods of Olympus.  These men were the first philosophers.

To see these philosophers properly, we must remember that they were sweaty men in a gymnasium, teaching and exhorting their fellow citizens. They were not academics in our modern sense.  They did not necessarily study or write books.  (There were very few books:  the source of knowledge was poetry.)  The early philosophers were not scholars but men who felt that they had discovered something important and wanted to explain it to others.  Sometimes they used poetry to explain their ideas.   Some early philosophers never wrote anything; and most of the works that were
written down before the time of Plato in 400 B.C. has been lost.

Thanks to Plato and Aristotle,  we do know a fair bit about the early philosophers, who are usually called the Presocratics, because they lived before Socrates.  These early teachers spent a lot of time explaining the origin and nature of the universe.  Aristotle gives capsule summaries of their doctrines, which sound pretty humorous when reduced to their bare bones.  Thales, the first philosopher known to Aristotle (lived around 600 B.C.), said that the entire universe was made of water.  His student Anaximander, who lived before 550, thought that there was basically one infinite body of matter that was divided up into various forms by its own whirling motion.  The
whirling of the boundless matter separated itself into earth, air, and water.

It is easy to make fun of these theories.  The important point is that these men were looking for an underlying unity behind the diversity of experience; and that there was no constraint on their theorizing.  Without necessarily casting doubt on the traditional gods (though some did), reason
was considered sufficient to understand reality.

One could argue for almost any position.  But how was one to figure out which argument was better?  How could certainty be attained?  There were no established rules of logic to help with this problem.  A variety of approaches was tried before 500 B.C.  One insight is associated with the
name of Pythagoras.  Pythagoras was a great believer in the superiority of the spirit to matter, but this is fairly commonplace.  What is important about him is that he, and his disciples afterwards, believed that number was the key to reality, and that the understanding of numerical relationships was necessary for the wise man.  Thus Pythagoras was a pioneer in Greek mathematical thinking. The study of mathematical principles and their application to physical reality was a basic part of Greek thought from that point on. Greek mathematical analysis led to advances in geometry, acoustics, astronomy, and musical theory.

Another way of proving one's point was pioneered by a man named Parmenides.  Parmenides, who lived in Italy around 500, was another Greek who reached for a single principle behind the various confusing appearances that make up reality.  In his case, he thought that there was only one
thing, Being with a capital B.  Appearances were pure delusion.  The interesting thing about Parmenides is that he tried to prove his point by contradiction.  In his one work, a poem that survives in fragments, he had Being speak, and prove that multiplicity was nonsense.  This was an early
effort at logic:  if there are only two possible positions, and one is clearly nonsense, then the other must be true.

Parmenides disciples developed and popularized this kind of argument.  Zeno of Elea, for instance, tried to prove the main point by showing that movement, which  we see around us all the time, is an illusion.  He created the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise.  If Achilles and the tortoise race, and the tortoise has a head start, Achilles will never pass the tortoise, no matter how fast he runs.  Why?  When Achilles reaches the point the tortoise was at, the tortoise has always gone a little bit further.  Achilles can do this again and again, but the tortoise is always a bit further than Achilles can reach.  Thus the tortoise will win the race.  Obviously, this is not how movement really works.  The significance of Zeno's various paradoxes is that they were an attempt to create standards of logical
proof, and the infuriating conclusions he reached only spurred others on. Thought and knowledge, and not just the physical structure of the universe, became important philosophical concerns.

The problem of knowledge became quite acute in the fifth century because there were so many people claiming that they had it and could teach it to anyone who paid them.  These were the sophists, which means, men who knew.  The word sophist has a bad connotation today.  Now it means someone who can deceive the unwary with smooth talk and fallacious reasoning.  We
owe this meaning to Plato, who soon after 400 was denouncing the traveling teachers of the time, men who taught for money, as frauds, men without any real understanding.  The characterization has stuck.  The sophists of the fifth century are generally thought of as shallow men, who were more
concerned with teaching people how to argue, and to make the better argument seem the worse, than with ultimate truth.

This characterization is both fair and unfair.  Most of the sophists, or traveling teachers, were providing a product that had a wide appeal -- the art of public speaking, or rhetoric.  Citizens paid them so that they could learn to win arguments, especially lawsuits.  No doubt many of them
were willing to teach any trick that worked -- there was a market for such tricks, and sophists had to eat.  But the question of what was a good argument was something of real philosophical interest; there were still no set rules of logic, and helping people to make the best case for what they
thought was right could be ethically justified.

Furthermore, distinguishing sophists as a class from real philosophers is tricky.  Sophists would teach anything they could, if asked:  science, ethics, whatever.   They were all-purpose gurus.   Early
Greek philosophers were similarly all-purpose gurus.  Thales was not just interested in whether the universe was made of water -- that's just what we remember him for.  No doubt he had lots of opinions, all of which he considered to be real knowledge.

What is really important about the sophists, besides the fact that Plato did not like them, is that there were lots of them, and they often succeeded in finding paying students.  Only a minority of Greeks were interested in intellectual questions, but intellectual pursuits, aimed at better understanding and a better life, whether that meant success in court, in politics, or in spiritual well-being, were becoming an important part of life in the polis.  And it must be said that some sophists were real scholars -- for instance Hippias of Elis.  Hippias was the first systematic chronographer, the first man to try to construct a solid count of years by which events could be dated.   At the same time he was a
teacher of rhetoric and even ethics.  It is said that he was one of the few Greeks to believe in human equality.  He was certainly a mathematician of talent.

Plato disliked sophists in part because he wanted to defend his teacher Socrates (and perhaps himself) from the odium attached to these hustling gurus.  In some ways Plato was right to separate Socrates from the sophists.  Socrates stood out because he was an anti-guru:  a man who claimed to know nothing, but who attacked common-sense assumptions by showing that those who held them could not defend them in argument.

Socrates's main belief, in so far as it can be reconstructed from what Plato wrote about him, was this:  One must understand the essence of something before one can do it properly.  This applies above all to living the good life.  But what is the essence?  Socrates never provided any clear
answers, merely destroyed the answers supplied by others.  He thought of himself as God's gadfly, preventing his neighbors in Athens from sinking into comfortable self-satisfaction.  Socrates' thought had an elitist tendency.  His various known students were aristocrats who concluded, each
in his own way, that democracy was flawed because the common man was incapable of clear insight into the essence of things.

The most famous of Socrates' students is Plato.  Plato is the first philosopher whose work has survived in complete or near-complete form.  A man of wide interests, he was particularly concerned with problems of ethics and knowledge.  What exactly Plato thought is a perennial subject of
debate.  All of his works are dialogues, and in none of them does he speak for himself.  But we can identify the ideas that most influenced later thinkers.  Several of Plato's dialogues present the idea that the true world is an ideal world.

Ideal in this case means that there is a more perfect world, invisible to our senses, that is more real than the one we can see, hear, and feel.  Note the similarity to Parmenides.  In the ideal
world, perfection exists -- there are perfect things, or at least perfect qualities, such as perfect goodness or truth.  In the everyday world, nothing is perfect, good and bad are mixed, as are all other qualities. Physical object are poor reflections of the forms or ideas of the perfect world that transcends it.  Human beings can access the ideal world, but not through the senses.  Only pure intellect can detect forms or ideas.  In one famous passage, Plato has Socrates teach a slave boy a geometrical truth, simply by asking him questions.  This is supposed to show that the slave
"recollected" a truth that was in his intellect all the time.  Plato in fact believed that mathematics demonstrated that there was a big difference between opinion, which was a product of observation, and truth, which was a matter of pure thought.

Deep intellectual understanding of this sort was, according to Plato, a minority achievement, and would remain a minority achievement.   His dialogue  The Republic  is an argument for making philosophers rulers -- the perfect polis would only be achieved when philosophers were kings.  In such a state, all others would know only enough to assure the health of the state.  The state was compared to a single organism, a whole greater than the parts.  In saying this, Plato was not really going much beyond other Greeks, who tended to elevate "communal rights" above individual rights,
which were in fact scarcely considered.  But his formulation has always been an influential justification for elitism.  Plato, probably following Socrates here, thought ordinary people could never attain true
understanding and would need the wise to tell them what to do.  The wise could even lie to them, if necessary.

Plato's influence has always been very great, in part because he flattered intellectuals, in part because he argued that absolute knowledge was possible, in part because he was a brilliant writer.  It is rather odd that his most famous student, Aristotle, was not as much influenced by Plato's opinions as were many people who never met him.  Where Plato was greatly interested in the spiritual or intellectual world, which he considered far more real than the material one, Aristotle thought that the
world was entirely material.  And where Plato was very eclectic, writing about anything that interested him without trying to pull it all together, Aristotle was a champion systematizer.  Aristotle wrote a vast amount in an attempt to explain the whole universe, from bottom to top.  He thought
that everything could be explained, and he did his best to do so.

I have already said that Aristotle thought that the whole universe was material.  For him, even spirit was a kind of material, not something entirely separate and supernatural.  He believed that one thing differed from another because each thing was a different combination of form and matter.  Matter to him was a dead, passive, type of substance, completely without characteristics.  The active principle was form.  Form gave matter its characteristics; matter gave form solidity.  Aristotle believed that there was a hierarchy of things in which dead, dense, matter was at the bottom, and the most spiritual essence was at the top -- forming an impersonal god that was the directing principle of all things.

Aristotle was not content to sketch this out in the abstract. Aristotle explained everything in detail.  He was a keen observer, and believed that you could learn important things by paying attention to the appearances.  Aristotle is still highly respected for his biological work. He discovered many things about plants and animals that most people would entirely miss.  This is a field that Plato, for instance, would have thought entirely beneath a true philosopher.  But for Aristotle biology was as important as any other type of knowledge.  It all led to understanding.

Nor did Aristotle study only physical science.  He formalized logic, an extremely important step.  He wrote on ethics -- on what makes life good. He wrote on politics -- on how groups of men can arrange their affairs to make that good life possible.  He may not have written the book  Economics  -- on the management of the household -- but there is no doubt he lectured on the subject.
Aristotle is an important person for many reasons.  He was a prodigy, a brilliant and hardworking man worth knowing about just for himself.  Also he was perhaps even more influential than Plato.  Although Greek science continued to advance for generations after Aristotle, later he tended to
become the Authority with a capital A.  Because he wrote so much, and in a systematic fashion, it was easy for intellectuals in less dynamic times such as the European Middle Ages to appeal to him, both for specific facts and for a system of interpretation.  If you wanted mystical insight Plato
was better, but if you wanted matter-of-fact explanations, most of which were quite plausible, Aristotle was your man.

Because of his influence, it is worth looking at what Aristotle said. Like Plato, he had a hierarchical vision of reality, with dull matter and the earth itself at the bottom, and spirit at the top.  This shaped his view of not just the physical universe, but of the human race and human society.  Aristotle justified the Greek society of his time, with the free man at the top, and all others, women, children, barbarians, slaves, ranked beneath him.  This ranking was not a matter of raw power, but a reflection of reality.  Women, for instance, were earthier and less spiritual than men, and thus less capable of wisdom.  Similarly, Aristotle believed and argued that barbarians and slaves were inferior to Greek free males -- indeed, he implied that barbarians were just slaves in potential.

Furthermore, Aristotle's vision of the good life reflected and systematized the desires of the Greek citizen for independence and self-sufficiency. Like the good polis, the good man had everything he needed under his own control.  He was so intent at rational self-sufficiency that a modern
philosopher (Williams) has characterized his discussion of friendship as "bizarre"  -- because Aristotle had a hard time dealing with something that demanded more than self-interest from his ideal free man.

The ideal of the self-sufficient rational man is also present in Plato.  It should be kept in mind.  The roots of asceticism -- rejection of the world for more spiritual satisfactions -- are here.  Though Greek ascetic ideals were far more moderate than those of Christian monks, it cannot be said that pagan and Christian ideals of living were entirely separate.  Many Christian thinkers of antiquity and the Middle Ages could quite honestly turn to these men to help justify their own beliefs.

As I said, Aristotle was far from being the end of Greek science, but I will mention only the high points.  One of these is the development of a systematic geometry by Euclid, which took place around 300, a generation after Aristotle's death.  Euclid is one of the best examples of how the
Greek desire to clarify underlying principles helped make sense of complicated subjects.  Ptolemy, in the first century A.D., is another great proponent of mathematical analysis of complex physical phenomena.  He was the astronomer who calculated the movements of the planets so well that his
charts were used for another 1500 years.  Ptolemy, like Aristotle and Euclid, provided not only answers, but a model of how to think about physical problems.

After Aristotle we see an increasing differentiation between philosophers interested in how one lives the good life and "natural philosophers," physical scientists.  (This is a term that survived to the
18th century.)  Most people from Hellenistic times that we think of as philosophers were concerned with ethics, and especially the ethics of the individual.  It was no longer very profitable to debate the form of the perfect state as Plato had.  Most states were either monarchies or dependent on monarchs.  But how an individual lived in his community was still a lively question.

Two important trends or schools of philosophical thought sprang up in Hellenistic times, Epicureanism and Stoicism.  Both of these movements were centered in Athens, which was becoming a university town, but had influence all over the Greek and eventually the Roman world.

Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, flourished around 300 B.C.   He taught that the highest good was pleasure.  He did not disbelieve in the gods, but felt they were irrelevant to the material world.  Epicurus adopted an old Greek idea, atomism, to explain movement and events.  The world was made up of an infinite quantity of atoms that combined in a variety of ways to make up sensible objects.

Epicurus's interest in his theory was purely ethical.  He wanted to prove to people that the events of
ordinary life were entirely natural.  Therefore, one should not worry about death, or the structure of the universe, but about practical things: increasing pleasure and avoiding pain.

This goal of increasing pleasure and avoiding pain sounds like a recipe for licentious living:  eat, drink and be merry for eventually we will die.  But this is not the conclusion of Epicurus.  He thought that a
man should reduce his desires to a realistic minimum.  He should also withdraw from the dangers and problems of public life, and content himself with the friendship of a small group of like-minded friends.  Far from being licentious, the Epicureans were sober and quiet.  Epicurus himself lived with a small community of disciples at Athens in a household called the Garden.

The great rivals of the Epicureans were the Stoics, whose name comes from a  stoa , a porch or colonnade in Athens where their earliest teacher, Zeno of Citium, taught about the same time as Epicurus did.  Zeno disagreed with Epicurus on several issues.  He believed in a universal order, which was right reason.  Right reason kept the universe running properly, and was identical with virtue.  Human beings could know universal order through their own reason, and live in accordance with it.  In fact, it was their duty to do so.

The Stoic was a man who felt a duty not just to his neighbors, or his city, but to the universe as a whole.  He approached this duty in a stern frame of mind.  The moral man took part in the life of his community (still visualized as primarily his city), and showed neither mercy nor pity in the
carrying out of his proper functions.  He was a man who understood the universal basis of morality, and carried out its precepts.  At the same time, he did not complain if things went against him.  He, too, might suffer at the hands of fate, but did so in the full knowledge that it was in some sense just.

There are obvious points of difference between these two positions, but some interesting parallels.  The Epicurean was pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain.  The Stoic was pursuing right reason and was contemptuous of pleasure or pain.  But if each was true to his doctrine, both would live
similar lives of temperance and justice.  Each philosophy was trying to give its adherents guidance in a world that was both wide and narrow:  wide because the great Greek expansion had made the world more complicated; narrow because that Greek world was still made up of intensely competitive
local communities.  The difference comes in the solutions offered to the problem of living in such a world.  The Epicurean rejected the world entirely, outside of a small circle of friends.  According to him, one should tend one's own garden and let the rest of the world take care of itself.  The Stoic was a man who took responsibility for the world.

Indeed, it marked a heightening in the sense of public responsibility because it visualized justice and duty as going beyond the city, at least in potential.  In the world of Hellenistic kingdoms, and a Roman empire already coming into existence, this philosophy had a great career before
it.  It is interesting to note that later Christians were much more interested in Stoicism than Epicureanism, despite Epicurus' rejection of the world.  The Stoic belief in universal order was easier to swallow than the views of Epicurus on the irrelevance of the gods and the permanence of

Despite the end of the independent polis, and the rise of larger states, the Greek intellectual culture of antiquity kept its fundamental characteristics for a long time, well into the Roman empire.  Despite its
limitations, it has much to offer.  Being a largely uncensored, unrestrained pursuit of knowledge and ethical learning, it was very productive, various, and self-critical.  And this is why the Greeks
continue to be a subject of living interest today.

M.I. Finley, ed., The Legacy of  Greece:  A New Appraisal.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.