What We Owe the Greek

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School of Athens by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino), 1511. Fresco. Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Vatican Museum. Greek thinkers include philosophers Herakleitos, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (center). Diogenes of Sinope (in front of Aristotle and Plato, on the floor). Philosopher Hypatia murdered by Christian monks (in 415, lower left wearing a while robe), and Alexander the Great (left above Hypatia). Public Domain

Prologue

We owe the Greeks our desire to be the best and most powerful people in the world: There’s nothing more Greek than striving for excellence, choosing from one’s values, and competing with others for a prize. This is the passion that gave birth to Homer, the nude and sacred Olympics, democracy, the golden age of Athens, the dramatic theater, warfare, Eros, philosophy, science, Alexander the Great, the Alexandrian Library, and the Antikythera computer of genius.
Greek democracy and its influence

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Pnyx, meeting place near the Acropolis of the Athenian Assembly of citizens, Ecclesia. The citizens made the laws and elected citizens executed those laws. Wikipedia

The fifth-century BCE Athenian politician, Pericles, presided over golden-age Athens, a proud, democratic, and powerful polis (city-state) that left its indelible mark on Greek and Western history and culture. Pericles said the Athenians did not copy other peoples’ traditions; rather, they were the models for the rest of the Greeks. This is because, he said, the Athenians had laws as their masters: a person’s talents being the sole qualification for serving the polis. Every year Athens elected citizen volunteers to all public offices, including ten generals for leading their armed forces.

We owe our democratic institutions to the Greeks. The American Senate came from the Amphictyonic League that managed the Pythian games at Delphi. The House of Representatives was a copy from the British political tradition, which had its roots in Greek democratic ideas and institutions. Greek democracy (δημοκρατία, rule by the people), particularly its original direct democracy version practiced in Athens, was no abstract theory, but a way of life of living politics as an intimate experience. Aristotle, one of the greatest Greek philosophers who lived in the fourth century BCE, defined man as a political animal, meaning a citizen of the polis. Pericles said the citizen who did not participate in the political life of Athens was useless. Not all Greek poleis, of course, were democracies. Monarchies and aristocracies / oligarchies, tyrannies and democracies or a combination of some or all of these political systems dominated the governments of the approximate 1,500 Greek poleis in the Mediterranean and Black Sea coast. Many of those poleis were republics with a prosperous middle class, numerous small farmers, freedom of speech, trial by jury, equality before the law, and the civilian control of the military. The assembly of all citizens in Athens, Ekklesia, met regularly and decided on all public policy issues. The citizen officers (heads of state, jurors, administrators, tax collectors, ambassadors, generals), elected for a year, executed the decisions of Ekklesia; they never made policy.

Our political institutions may not be copies of Greek political institutions but have preserved democratic ideas and institutions like those of the middle class, the jury system, freedom of speech, and the civilian control of the military. In his inaugural address, January 20, 1961, President John Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” That idea was in practice in Greek democracies. The Greeks had even a word for selfishly serving one’s country – leitourgia. In fact leitourgia – a personal service or money or other contribution a citizen made for the benefit of the polis – was the standard for the well-being of the Greek democratic poleis. The Greek citizens were the polis.

So, democracy remains the Greeks’ defining legacy to us. “The world now must be made safe for democracy,” said on July 25, 2004 John Lewis Gaddis, Yale professor of history and political science, “and this is no longer just an idealistic issue: it’s an issue of our own safety. And by ‘our’ I mean not just the United States, but the international community as a whole.”[1] Gaddis is right. America and the world are getting hostile to democracy. If anything, the experience of Donald Trump as President of the United States, 2017-2021, should have taught the country to take democracy seriously. But it does not. Trump is trying to return to the White House. And America’s ruling business class, remembering the Trump tax cuts and deregulation, has no problem for another four years of Trump. Should this corrupt and dangerous politician return to power, alas for democracy in America and the world. Trump is a tyrant in camouflage. Americans are in deep sleep. Their media (television, iphones, radio, novels, and most schooling) are like drugs. Without Greek theater and reasonable political discussion, Americans are indifferent or immune to warnings of the impending dangers.

Tragedy and the theater of Dionysos

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Dionysos (god of grapes, wine, rural life, tragedy, and theater) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1595. Wikipedia

The tragic poets of Greece recycled the epics of Homer for the creation of their masterpieces for the theater of Dionysos. They wrote poetry, which, in the form of tragic plays, led the Greeks to a deep appreciation of their religion, political life, and early history. Tragedy (from tragodia, song for the prize of a goat) brought the Greeks face to face with some of the most barbaric acts imaginable. Living through the reenactment of terror in the theater, out in the open in the sunlight, helped the Greeks understand, and, therefore, limit the murderous impulses in all human beings. Coming face to face with harrowing events has its cathartic or cleansing effects. The shame one feels for incest or the revulsion for the son killing his mother have healing consequences on the soul. This experience made the Greeks capable of looking at the head of Medusa without turning to stone. This was particularly relevant because the Greeks had the constant ambition to be second to none. Athens paid poor citizens to attend the theater.

Greek theater has had a humanizing impact in the West, spawning opera and countless presentations of the surviving Greek plays or modifications of those Greek plays. The West, meanwhile, has been confronting the same abyss of terror, which the Greeks tried to cut down to size. Through the plays of the Greek tragic poets and Greek literature, we owe the Greeks the courage and values of facing down terror — and doing something about it during the Renaissance, for example.

Holding up the head of Medusa

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Medusa by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, c. 1597. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Public Domain

The Greek experience of reason and tolerance is timely now more than ever before because we are dealing with two kinds of terror, unknown to the Greeks. The first one is the terror sprang with the emergence of monotheism, the irrational conviction of holding the truth, the only truth about the unknowable. The undeclared war between Christianity and Islam dragged America, a Western country, to Iraq, a non-Western Islamic society. Like the Vietnam War, which was fought for irrational causes of empire and hubris, the war in Iraq had the potential of blossoming into a full-scale crusade between civilizations, that of the West represented by America and Islam represented by Moslems in Iraq and the entire Islamic world.

Greek reason ought to teach us it is misleading and dangerous to describe our Moslem enemies as “terrorists.” All violence is terror. All soldiers in any war become some kind of “terrorists.” But undefined “terrorism” used carelessly to describe suspicious persons, who commit or could commit acts of violence, become all and nothing. Using such terminology to fight a war shows the confusion of purpose of that war. The other terror, worse than any religious conflict, is that of nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. They make mockery of science and civilization, and therefore, by necessity, our connection to the Greeks. Nuclear bombs obliterate everything. They are our Medusas. They make us dust. With the sole use of the atomic bombs by America on two Japanese cities in August 1946, the larger version of the atomic weapons, the nuclear bombs, have been in hiding places for almost 80 years. However, these evil weapons have leaked out of their secure prisons in the United States, Russia, France, and England, spreading to Pakistan, India, Israel, China, and North Korea, and, in all probability, Iran. Yet the US government has been abandoning the international regime for their control and, at the same time, it has been constructing small nukes so they can probably be used, in which case, one would not find a worse expression of global danger and hubris. Other nuclear states are copying America’s trillion dollars “modernization” of nuclear weapons. Greek reason alone has the potential of guiding us to tame these killing monsters before they turn us into barbarians and, ultimately, nothingness.
The Olympics: The nude contest for the gods

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Philippeion, Olympia: Macedonian Treasury funded by King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

Starting in 776 BCE, the people of Elis, a small polis in northwest Peloponnesos, initiated the Olympics as a Panhellenic festival of nude athletic competition in Olympia. The chief reasons for the Olympics included honoring the Olympian Zeus, the celebration of Greek identity and culture, and an antidote to war. Every four years men from all over the Greek world would come to Olympia for either taking place or simply watching the athletic contests in sacred Olympia. All warfare or any other conflict ceased during the two or three summer months of the organization and execution of the Olympics. The winners of the Olympics were honored with an olive crown, becoming heroes who exemplified arete, manliness, courage, and perfection. The Olympics was one of several Panhellenic athletic games in Greece.

We owe the Greeks both the modern Olympics and our values of athletic competition. Sports would be inconceivable without the Greeks. They invented the nude athletic games to cultivate arete among the young. Athletics was also another way of putting the brakes on warfare. We have the opportunity to remake the Olympics in the Greek model, returning the games to Olympia for the creation of a global culture of peace and athletic arete.
The unconquerable Eros

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Eros by Praxiteles, 4th century BCE. Naples Archaeological Museum. Public Domain.

Eros was the most beautiful and powerful of the Greek gods. He was a force that kept the Cosmos, an ordered universe, together. Eros was also responsible for the beauty of the Cosmos. Eros was the personification of beauty, sex, and passionate love. Neither gods nor men, Sophocles said, could resist his loosening of their limbs. He was invisible in battle. His mother, Aphrodite, came into being from Kronos’ cutting off the genitals of his father, Ouranos / sky. Aphrodite sprang out of the foam, aphros, of the sea when the genitals of Ouranos hit the water.

Greek culture has the footprints of Eros and Aphrodite. Eros shot his arrow into the breast of Medeia, the barbarian princes and daughter of Aietes, son of the god Sun Helios, in Kolchis, the easternmost cost of the Black Sea (modern state of Georgia). Medeia immediately fell in love with the visiting Greek prince, Jason. The love of Medeia for Jason is the most exquisite part – a paean to Eros — of Argonautika, the epic story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Medeia’s passion was so powerful that she abandoned her father and country for Jason.

About 25 years after the Golden Fleece expedition in the Black Sea and Kolchis, the Greeks fought the Trojan War in Troy, Ilion, in Asia Minor. They waged war against the Trojans for strategic reasons and for bringing Helen home. Helen was the daughter of Zeus and wife of the Spartan king Menelaos. Homer wrote his immortal epics, the Iliad, and the Odyssey, to document the destructive effects of war and the unconquerable power of Eros and love. Kalon k’ agathon, the beautiful and the good, intimately related to Eros, is the most fundamental virtue of Greek civilization. The Greeks believed the beautiful was good and the good was beautiful. They built their mythology, politics, religion, philosophy and science and art, in particular, around this ideal.

We owe the Greeks our evolving ideas about sex and love. Remember Western culture is not a pure product of the Greeks. Many Western people are also Christian, sharing Christianity’s obsession against Eros, but learning from the Greeks’ honest experience with Eros, and appreciating the Greeks’ daring of looking at the world as is.

Archimedes: Give me a place to stand and I will move the world

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Portrait of Archimedes on the Fields Medal of the International Mathematical Union. Portrait done by Stefan Zachow. Public Domain

The Greeks started thinking very early in their history about the Cosmos, which they defined to be a beautiful and ordered universe, whose causal laws could be discovered by reason. The Greeks had many gods. These gods were forces in the natural world. They sparked the speculation of the Greeks about cosmology, philosophy, and science. The sixth-century BCE philosopher, Herakleitos, said men explain some things just and some unjust, but, to the gods, everything is just because the Justice of Zeus, father of the gods, is the order of the universe. In addition, men are always responsible for their actions; the gods are part of nature, acting through nature. So, understanding nature, and giving a divine explanation and an explanation based on reason to a natural phenomenon was not inconsistent to figuring out how things work. In other words, grasp episteme, knowledge for the understanding of nature and the betterment of the human condition. This Greek episteme has become our science. No wonder Anaxagoras, a fifth-century BCE philosopher and friend of Pericles, was certain he was born so he could contemplate the works of nature.

But Greek science became entirely modern with Archimedes, a third-century BCE genius – a great mathematician, astronomer, physicist, and engineer. This is the man who possibly leapt naked from his bath crying eureka, eureka (I have found it, I have found it) because of the pure pleasure of discovery. And what did he discover? He said that the same weight of different materials displaces different volumes of water; that way he judged if the gold wreath made for his king was of pure gold or not. Archimedes invented hydrostatics and made contributions to number theory, mechanics, astronomy, and optics. His water screw is still used in Egypt for raising water. Archimedes made advances in calculus, a field of mathematics invented, supposedly, two millennia after Archimedes. Galileo Galilei, Italian mathematician, and physicist of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, called Archimedes divine. In the thirteenth century monks erased the mathematical work of Archimedes from a parchment and replaced it with prayers. Modern scientists have deciphered the scraped mathematical physics text of Archimedes.

A computer of genius from the Greeks

Archimedes wrote On the Spheres, a book that described a mechanical universe run by metal gears. That book never made it to our times. However, not long after the Romans assassinated Archimedes, the astronomer Hipparchos in mid-second century BCE in Rhodes developed a mechanical universe with toothed gears probably known as meteoroskopeion, a device for the observation of the stars and the sky. The primary purpose of the meteoroskopeion was to predict the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. These two stars, like all the other heavenly bodies, were gods to the Greeks. A large part of this device survived. Sponge divers discovered it in the waters of the very small Greek island of Antikythera in the Spring of 1900. Greek museum officials named it Antikythera Mechanism.

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Front and back view of the seven fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism.

The back view of Fragment A shows the toothed gears of the Antikythera Mechanism. Fragment A includes 27 of the surviving 30 gears of the device. Courtesy Tom Malzbender and Hewlett Packard.

Scientists from Greece, England, and the United States have been studying the Antikythera Mechanism for more than 120 years. This is a computer of genius, predicting the will of the gods and uniting the heavens and Earth. Its technology was about 2,000 years ahead of its time, the second century BCE.

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Painting of the Antikythera Mechanism by the Greek mathematician Dionysios Kriaris. We see interconnecting gears. We see the front Cosmos with the sphere of the Sun and the pointers to the planets as well as the Zodiac with its 12 constellations / months. We also see the spirals of the back representing an exact Metonic 19-year 235 month calendar, and the 18-year 223 month Saros predictive dial.

We owe the Greeks the origins and character of our science. Philosophers like Plato, the greatest moral philosopher who lived in Athens during late fifth and fourth centuries BCE, and Aristotle, student of Plato, who lived in the fourth century BCE, made observation of nature the language of science. Aristotle was The Philosopher for both Christians and Muslims for almost a millennium. He invented the science of zoology. He was also the tutor of Alexander the Great.

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Aristotle, third from the right, and his students, including Archimedes, left bending over a geometrical figure, and Alexander the Great, next to Archimedes. Aristotle is giving a knife to Straton, right, for starting the anatomy of the dead bird. The student next to Straton is Theophrastos, the inventor of botany. Mosaic above entrance to the University of Athens. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

Aristotle and his student Alexander created the world that gave rise to the meteoroskopeion. The first king of Egypt, Ptolemaios, was a student of Aristotle and a general and close friend of Alexander. Ptolemaios translated the Hellenic science and political vision of Aristotle and Alexander into the Mouseion-university and Library in Alexandria. The Antikythera came from that center of Hellenic studies in Alexandria. For example, Aristarchos of Samos, a third century BCE astronomer, worked out the basics of a heliocentric universe. The Library of Alexandria was basic for his research and great invention. Of course, the Library came out of a continuing Hellenic advancements in the sciences that dated centuries. Medical doctors like Hippocrates (fifth century BCE) and Galen (second century) prepared the ground for the scientific understanding and treatment of disease. Greek scientists left theories and data on how nature works. They inspired the Renaissance scholars in leading the way to the rebirth of science: The Greeks’ legacy was in a careful method of collecting data in support of an idea, testing the hunch of how things work, publishing the results of the experiment, letting others repeat the experiment to confirm or deny the validity of a discovery or idea.

Soul-devouring war

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Memorial to the battle of Salamis, 480 BCE. Monument by Achilleas Vasileiou. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

The Greeks fought more than the Trojan and the Peloponnesian wars. But these two major conflicts, one international (twelfth century BCE) and the other domestic (fifth century BCE), show the Greeks as skilled, courageous, even outstanding warriors. The soldiers of Sparta were soldiers for life, unmatched for courage and heroism for centuries. In fact Sparta was a military polis. In early fifth century Greek soldiers, especially those of Athens and Sparta, defeated the mighty and huge Persian Empire twice, in 490 and 480 BCE. These victories that sparked the golden age of Greece. Homer’ Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, and the Olympics were great denunciations of war, however. Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War is another Iliad, this one about the Greeks’ civil war in the last twenty-seven years of the fifth century BCE.

We owe the Greeks our principles of fighting wars in defense of freedom with citizen soldiers. The Greeks also gave us the tradition of the civilian control of the military. The Greek legacy of warfare is particularly relevant now that the United States has been weakening its democratic tradition of citizen-soldiers, relying on enlisted soldiers for pay, in other words, mercenary troops. The war crimes of American soldiers against prisoners in Iraq threaten our democratic values. Such unacceptable behavior is probably the result of both illegal orders from the hierarchies of the Pentagon and the White House and the mercenary nature of America’s armies. This is another reason why we need the Greeks, why the Greeks ought to be “first” in our priorities: They lived a long life, inventing the civilization that drives Western societies, including the United States. Greek democratic armies kept the barbarians at bay, defending freedom for about a millennium. Their behavior ought to revitalize our democratic traditions, avoiding the soul-devouring wars of conquest.
The Greeks are our benefactors

 

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The Parthenon, June 2023, emblem of Hellenic achievement and beauty. Photo: Courtesy Georgia Nomikos

“We are all Greeks.” This was the proud declaration, in 1821,of the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their root to Greece.”[2] Shelley was witnessing the heroic struggle of the Greeks to throw the Turks off their land. He was one of several Philhellenes who fought with the Greeks to regain their freedom.When the Europeans were fighting each other in the Crimean War in the 1850s, the English newspaper, The Manchester Guardian, connected the Greek achievement to the Greeks’ passion for freedom. And that, the newspaper said, is why the Greeks matter: “Why do we still read with undying interest the annals of that small Athenian state, whose whole free population never equaled that of the least of our metropolitan boroughs?” asked the editor. “Is it for the graceful verse of its tragedians, the rollicking wit of its comedians, or the glowing eloquence of its orators? Not a bit of it. All these treasures of literature are precious to us because they are the legacy and the inheritance of a freedom gained at fearful odds from mighty hosts. It is because each choric song and each tragic lay breathes of the spirit, which drew the sword at Marathon, and baffled the invader at Salamis. Each page of history tells us that it is only so long as a people retain the power of self-defense and the spirit of military resolution, that they can do these things for which the world will rank them among peaceful benefactors.”[3]

Jacob Burckhardt, the famous Swiss cultural historian, was grateful to the Greeks for throwing light in human culture, enabling men to be civilized. He said in 1872 that the Europeans see with the eyes of the Greeks and to abandon them would be to accept their decline.[4] Another European scholar from England, W.R. Inge, wrote in 1921 that there was no way the Europeans could do without the Greeks. “Without what we call our debt to Greece,” he says, “we should have neither our religion nor our philosophy nor our science nor our literature nor our education nor our politics. We should be mere barbarians. Our civilization is a tree which has its roots in Greece…[our civilization] is a river…but its head waters are Greek.”[5]

On the eve of World War II, in 1935, the scholar E. M. Butler spoke about the “tyranny” and “devastating glory of the Greeks.” She explained: “Greece has profoundly modified the whole trend of modern civilization, imposing her thought, her standards, her literary forms, her imagery, her visions and dreams wherever she is known. But Germany is the supreme example of her triumphant spiritual tyranny. The Germans have imitated the Greeks more slavishly; they have been obsessed by them more utterly, and they have assimilated them less than any other race. The extent of the Greek influence is incalculable throughout Europe; its intensity is at its highest in Germany.”[6]

In 1948, the English poet W. H. Auden suggested that the people of the West owe their very existence to the Greeks. He said the Greeks taught us to think about our thinking, that is, to ask questions. Without the Greeks, he said, “we would never have become fully conscious, which is to say that we would never have become, for better or worse, fully human.”[7] And in 1999, Charles Freeman, yet another English writer, grabbed one of the greatest discoveries in biology in the twentieth century, the chromosome, the genetic material in every living thing responsible for passing one generation’s biological characteristics to the next, to argue that the Greeks “provided the chromosomes of Western civilization.”[8]

The chromosome is an idea and metaphor of science, knowledge where the Greeks have had their greatest lasting influence on the West. In the late 1950s, E. J. Dijksterhuis, Dutch historian of mathematics and natural sciences, said that any inquiry on the origins of present-day knowledge eventually leads to Hellas, especially in mathematics and natural sciences.[9]

NOTES

1. “Kill the Empire! (Or Not),” The New York Times Book Review, July 25, 2004, 23. 

2. The Complete Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (New York: The Modern Library, 1994) 501. 

3. Editorial, “Study the masters,” The Manchester Guardian, Dec. 19, 1855, reprinted, The Guardian, Oct. 16, 2004. 

4. Jacob Burckhardt, The Greeks and Greek Civilization, tr. Sheila Stern, ed. Oswyn Murray (New York: St. Martin Press, 1998) 12. 

5. W.R. Inge, “Religion” in The Legacy of Greece, ed. Richard Livingstone (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969) 28. 

6. E.M. Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (first published 1935; Boston: Beacon Press, 1958) 6. 

7. W.H. Auden, Forewords and Afterwords, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1973) 32. 

8. Charles Freeman, The Greek Achievement (New York: Penguin Books, 2000) 434. 

9. E.J. Dijksterhuis, “The Origins of Classical Mechanics from Aristotle to Newton” in Critical Problems in the History of Science, ed. Marshall Clagett (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969) 164. 

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.

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