The Gifts of Greece

Amanda Aremisia Forrester

The entire culture of the Western World is built on ancient Greece. Their philosophy, their art, their style of government is echoed in our own. American municipal, city, state, and federal buildings are built on the style of ancient Greek architecture, with the soaring white columns, sculpted friezes, and domed roofs. The Lincoln Memorial, with the giant statue of President Lincoln enthroned, nestled among the white marble pillars, resembles nothing more then a Greek temple. They have given the world the fields of science, logic, history and medicine, is well as mathematics.

Greece has forever left its distinctive stamp upon Western society. The Greeks invented many things and ideas that some people probably would have not even considered to have been invented at all, but simply assumed to have always existed. Among them are logic, science and history, as these subjects are now known.

Logic has been defined as a science itself, the science of reasoning and argument. Logic, which was used to some degree by men already but had no set rules applied to it, was first refined by Aristotle. William Kneale and Martha Kneale, in their book “The Development of Logic”, says “Logic is concerned with the principals of valid inference; and it is certain that men made inferences and criticized the inferences of others long before the time of Aristotle. This is not enough … to justify us in saying that there must have been a beginning logic before the time of Aristotle; for men may perform various activities correctly (e.g. talk English) without formulating the rules for those activities explicitly.”(Kneale, pg 1)

Perhaps modern people would better recognize this example, as logic questions are seen on SAT and ACT tests quite often. There are many questions along these lines: If all mammals are animals, and some animals are birds, then are mammals birds? The answer, of course, is no. This is an example of deductive reasoning, using known facts (all mammals are animals but only some animals are birds) to figure out an unknown (whether mammals are birds), which Aristotle specialized in.

The same people who gave us logic also gave as science, which, of course, is deeply and inextricably connected with logic. The Greeks invented what is now known as the scientific method. The scientific method is gathering information that is observable and empirical, and attempting to reproduce it by experimenting. Pythagoras of Samos, an Ionian philosopher, invented the earliest system of geometry, and mathematics students still learn the Pythagorean Theorem today. So too are students of Engineering taught Archimedes’ Hydrostatic Principle, and the principles he laid out explaining the mathematical reasons of how a lever and a compound pulley works.

In the science of astronomy, literally “measure of the stars”, the Greeks were second to none of their time. The Greeks knew that earth orbited the sun a full 18 centuries before Copernicus made that discovery. Aristarchus of Samos and Eratosthenes both calculated the size of the earth, and measured the size and distance of the moon and sun. Theo Koupelis and Karl F. Kuhn, in their book “In Quest of the Universe”, report that:

Aristarchus’ model was a heliocentric model, constructed about 1800 years before Copernicus proposed the one that we use today (in a modified form). Aristarchus visualized the Moon in orbit around a spherical Earth and the Earth in orbit around the Sun. … Aristarchus (correctly surmised)that the angle between the Earth-Moon-Sun is 90 degrees. However, for the angle of Moon-Earth-Sun, he used 87 degrees, instead of the correct value of 89.85 degrees. We do not know what method Aristarchus used to measure this angle. Knowing the angles in right triangle of Earth-Moon-Sun, he was the able to obtain a relationship between the distances Earth-Moon and Earth-Sun. He found that the Sun is about 20 times farther from the Earth than the Moon is, instead of the correct values of about 390. However, this large difference of a factor of about 20 is due to the difference of only about 3 degrees in the choice of the angle Moon-Earth-Sun. What is important here is not the quantitative error, but the power and simplicity of the argument he used to find, 2000 years before anybody else, the relative distance to the Sun. (Koupelis, Kuhn, pg 44-46)

Closely related to science is the field of medicine. Before the seventh or sixth century B.C., the arts of medicine and of magic were mostly the same thing. Taking a herb as medicine was tied to doing a ritual that went with it, and doctors were also shamans whose job it was to drive off evil spirits as well. The Greeks were actually the first to use the term “physician” instead of shaman or healer. Hippocrates of Cos is called “The Father of Medicine”. Although he was not the first to completely secularize healing and medicine, he did write the most on the subject. None of his books have any supernatural cures in them. Doctors still take his Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm”.

The study of anatomy was also perfected by the Greeks. Aristotle, besides being a philosopher, dissected many animals and wrote many texts comparing their anatomy. Herophilus, in Alexandria where the world’s first University was located, performed the first human dissection recorded.

Herodotus is called “the Father of History”. He was born in the Greek colony of Halicarnassus. Although his primary subject was the collecting of accounts of the Greco-Persian Wars, Herodotus traveled around in order see the sights of the ancient world and write about them. It could be said that he wrote the first tourist guide ever!

What made Herodotus different then the other writers of his time was that he completely suspended judgment and personal bias. He did not try to labor a point with his writings; instead he simply reported the stories and information that was told to him by the people he encountered on his travels. He was also the first person who was known fact-check. He admitted when he did not know something, and searched for authorities on the subject to ask their input. He even recorded when he believed he had proof that the Oracle of Delphi had once or twice taken a bribe. One must remember, many in Greece would have simply dismissed that idea out of hand. Delphi was the most sacred site of ancient Greece, and the Oracle was above reproach, much like the Pope is to many Catholics today. Yet Herodotus was committed to the truth, not dogma. Herodotus was indeed the first, and ideal, historian.

Now the subject of philosophy could fill entire books, and it has. The word itself is Greek, meaning “Love of Wisdom”. Philosophy covers, among other things, the study of ethics (moral philosophy), musings on the nature of Ultimate Reality, and in those days what was called “natural philosophy”, the study of Nature, which was not a separate discipline from philosophy.

One of the most well-known and recognizable parables of Greek philosophy remains the Allegory of the cave. In Plato’s “The Republic”, he retells this story of people who live their entire lives underground, chained so that they cannot move. Behind them is a large bonfire. Upon the wall before them, shadows from the fire play across the cave wall. Having never known anything else, their entire reality is made up of what they see in the shadows on the wall in front of them. Nothing else exists to them, because that is that all they can see.

Then one day, one of them manages to get free of his chains, and he ventures out of the cave and into the real world for the first time. His eyes, unaccustomed to the light of the sun, are blinded at first. He wanders around in a daze, confused at this bright new world around him. Eventually, he becomes acclimated to the light, and realizes that this bright world is the real world, and his companions in the cave below are in captivity to their ignorance. He pities them and he returns to the cave to try to free them. He tries to tell them of the world above, but how do you explain this to someone whose only concept of reality is shadows on a wall? They think he is mad. Plato tells us: “Men would say of him … that it would be better not to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up into the light, then let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.” (Plato, pg 536)

This is the plight of the philosopher, which Plato understood all to well. Socrates’ tale was sadly prophetic. The Athenian assembly eventually put Socrates to death on the charges of impiety and corrupting the youth.

Any essay on ancient Greece would be incomplete without a mention of democracy. True democracy, which means “rule by the people”, sadly, has never been reproduced. America, which calls itself “Democratic”, is actually a Representative Republic. The voters decide who will represent them, but they have almost no say in the actual laws that are enacted. Democracy works very well for small city-states. All the citizens can be assembled quickly if there is an emergency to discuss. Looking at the size of America, a pure democracy seems to be nearly impossible.

Dr.Steven Kreis, in his lecture “The Athenian Origins of Democracy”, found on the History Guide website, lays out the difference between ancient Greece democracy and modern democracy when he says “The citizens in any given polis were related to one another by blood and so family ties were very strong. As boys, they grew up together in schools, and as men, they served side by side during times of war. They debated one another in public assemblies – they elected one another as magistrates – they cast their votes as jurors for or against their fellow citizens. In such a society – the society of the polis – all citizens were intimately and directly involved in politics, justice, military service, religious ceremonies, intellectual discussion, athletics and artistic pursuits. To shirk one’s responsibilities was not only rare but reprehensible in the eyes of the Greek citizen. Greek citizens did not have rights, but duties (italics mine). A citizen who did not fulfill his duties was socially disruptive.”

The Greeks did not look at all favorably upon any citizen who did not vote or was not active in politics. Thucydides, a Greek historian, quotes Pericles, the great Athenian orator and the man who commissioned the Parthenon, as saying “If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition… Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless.” (Thucydides, pg 104)

Thus far this essay has focused mostly on the scientific discoveries of the Greeks. But the Greek culture has made significant contributions to the arts, as well. Among them are literature, oratory, sculpting, painting, and architecture.

Both the words “tragedy” and “comedy” come from the Greek. “Comedy” comes from “komos” meaning, not surprisingly, “to revel”. But it is interesting to learn that tragedy, which comes from the word “tragoidia”, means “goat-song”. This is because Dionysus, the rural God of wine and ecstasy, who was accompanied by the half-goat satyrs and was sometimes depicted as having goat horns himself, was also the patron of the Greek stage. Nearly all of the famous Greek plays that are still read and performed today were first written for the theater competition of the Greater Dionysia, held in March or April in Athens. The Lenaea, which took place in January or February, also had theater competitions, but the Greater Dionysia was the larger and more important festival. The plays were held everyday for about two weeks. At first the admission was free. Eventually the play-goer’s were charged two obols, but these would be refunded to anyone who really couldn’t afford it.

On a slightly more modern note, the mythology of the Greeks formed the template for the theories of both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the two arguably most influential psychologists, although they espouse two very different views of the human psyche. Freud based his theories of sexual development in children on the myths of Oedipus, who, adopted as a child, ends up killing his father and marrying his mother, and Elektra, a lesser-known female counterpart to the tale of Oedipus. In contrast, Jung emphasized what he called the collective unconscious, the pool of racial memory from with we all draw. Jung emphasized the Greek Gods and myths as archetypes in the human unconscious, profound symbols of aspects of self that battle within the heart and soul of every human being.

Jung, in his essay “On the Psychology of the Unconscious.” states that “There is present in every individual, besides his own memories, the great ‘primordial’ images …the inherited possibilities of human imagination as it was from time immemorial. The fact of this inheritance explains the truly amazing phenomenon that certain motifs from myths and legends repeat themselves the world over in identical forms…. I have called these images or motifs ‘archetypes’… We have to distinguish between the personal unconscious and an impersonal or trans-personal unconscious. We speak of the latter as the ‘collective unconscious’, because … it is common to all men.” (Jung, pg 65-66)

One can now see how all who partake in Western culture are the heirs of ancient Greece. More then 2000 years ago the Athenian orator Isocrates said “All who are shaped by Greek books are in this sense Greek.” This is still true today. Greece never fell. Greece lives on, in all of us.

Works Cited

Jung, Carl Gustav “On the Psychology of the Unconscious” . Two Essays on Analytic Psychology. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. Routledge. London. 1992, reprinted 1999.

Kneale, William. Kneale, Martha. The Development of Logic. Oxford University Press. 1984

Koupelis, Theo. Knune, Karl F. In Quest of the Universe. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. 2007.

Kreis, Steven. “The Athenian Origin of Democracy”. The History Guide. Last revised: February 2006. Retrieved: 3/2/08

Plato. “The Allegory the Cave”. The Republic.

Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley.1951.


1 Response to The Gifts of Greece

  1. Pingback: Some of my writings « Temple of Athena the Savior

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