The coast and islands of the northeastern Mediterranean Sea were populated by waves of Indo-European immigrants who arrived from the north. Sharing a common language (though with different dialects), culture, and religion, they designated anyone who did not speak Greek as “barbarian.” But they engaged in trade with other cultures, including Egyptians, Phoenicians, and the Minoans of Crete. Politically, the Greeks were never united until they all were captured and drawn into the Macedonian Empire by King Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. Before that time, each Greek polis (or “city-state”) was independent with its own form of government, ranging from the royalty of Sparta to the democracy of Athens. Sparta had two kings, and they could not act unless they agreed with each other. The democracy of Athens included only Greek-speaking men who owned property, so it excluded women, slaves, foreigners, and many other residents. But it was the beginning of democracy as is still practiced in the world today.
The Greeks united, after a fashion, to resist the Persian invasions of 490 and 480 BCE. They also united—sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily—as leagues to battle one another. Greek culture flourished in spite of their battles and wars. The Greeks of Athens and of other poleis achieved excellence in mathematics, science, architecture, sculpture, drama, history, and philosophy. Not only did Greeks know that the world is round; they measured its size fairly accurately. Although they borrowed freely from other cultures, the thinkers of Greece laid a foundation upon which western civilization firmly rests.
Confucius and the Buddha presented new Axial Age ideas without rejecting the gods and religious practices of the Chinese and Indian cultures. Zarathustra in Persia overthrew the gods in his proclamation of one god. Greek thinkers approached the world without reference to any gods. They continued to build temples to the gods and worship them; they continued to portray gods in sculpture and in drama. But Greek historians recorded events without attributing success or failure to the gods. Likewise, Greek philosophers sought to explain the material world and its processes without attributing those to the gods.
One early Greek philosopher thought that everything material is made of water. That makes sense: water can be solid, liquid, or vapor, and many things we encounter contain water. Others thought the material world consists of some other primary substances. Greeks first proposed the atomic theory, suggesting that all material things are made of tiny, unbreakable substances. Still others proposed that everything material is made out of numbers. Philosophers debated whether the material world is always at motion or whether true reality is stable and unmoving. One class of philosophers showed that motion is logically impossible. Achilles cannot defeat a tortoise in a race if the tortoise has a head start: by the time Achilles reaches the place where the tortoise started, the tortoise will have traveled to a new spot. When Achilles reaches that spot, the tortoise will have traveled further. Achilles can never catch the tortoise so long as the tortoise keeps moving. Likewise, I cannot throw a ball across the room, because the ball must reach a half-way point on its way across the room, but first it must get half-way to that point, and before that it must get half-way to that point—the ball cannot travel through an infinite number of points in a finite amount of time. (It took Newton and Leibnitz’ invention of calculus centuries later to handle concerns about traveling through infinite points of space.) Greek science did not involve observation and experimentation—that scientific method was developed in Europe during the medieval period. Greek science was a logical process that followed mental rules rather than seeking to discover natural rules.
Over time, Greek philosophy degenerated into theories of communication and rhetoric. Sophists claimed they could take either side of a dispute and win a debate—useful talents in politics and law, but not so helpful in scientific pursuit. From this community arose Socrates. He questioned experts in every field, searching for ultimate truth in the things they knew. Instead, he discovered limits to their knowledge. Socrates wanted to know what makes something good, whether that something is a song, a painting, a boat, or a man. A boat-maker can fashion a good boat and describe its goodness, but the boat-maker could not tell Socrates how the boat acquired its goodness. Especially the Sophists could not answer Socrates’ questions about language and rhetoric, about what makes something true or how to distinguish a good idea from a bad idea. By his persistence, Socrates made enemies among the Sophists and politicians and legal experts and leading citizens of Athens. They accused him of impiety and of corrupting the youth of Athens. Narrowly convicted, both Socrates as defender and his prosecutors were allowed to suggest a punishment. The prosecutors called for death. Socrates said that, because of what he had been doing, he deserved to have a house and regular meals charged to the public expense. The jury chose the prosecutors’ sentence. With his cooperation, Socrates was executed by poisoning.
Socrates had a student named Plato who wrote dialogues featuring the ideas and challenges of Socrates. Some are probably based on real conversations; others were likely invented by Plato to explore his own philosophical ideas. The search of Socrates for ultimate truths about what is good and true and beautiful led Plato to believe that the most real things in the world are goodness and truth and beauty. Those things we encounter in the material world merely draw their qualities from the more real world of ideas. When I write the word “dog,” each reader pictures a dog: large or small, young or old, exuberant or lazy, friendly or vicious, possessing various lengths and colors of fur, but each an example of a dog. Plato would say that they share the qualities of the idea of dog—the ultimate reality is not the individual dogs we experience and picture, but the dogness that they share. Likewise, goodness is an idea that is found in many places, but real goodness is an idea that we know through its diverse manifestations. To form a good society, we need experts who know how to approach the idea of goodness and how to express it in laws and requirements that will drive badness away and will draw goodness out of all citizens.
Plato had a student named Aristotle who disagreed. Aristotle said that the objects we encounter are real. Ideas about them, such as “good” or “dog,” are only labels we create for our own purposes; the labels themselves are not real. Aristotle had his students study the world to sort all things into categories. Dogs can be sorted into various breeds, and all dogs are among mammals, which are among animals, which are among living beings. Likewise, boats and songs and pictures can be described and labeled, sorted into categories and judged by predetermined rules to we can determine which boats and which songs and which paintings are the best.
Other schools of philosophy developed in ancient Greece. Stoics, like Buddhists, stressed non-attachment to the world. They viewed the material world as unimportant; they taught that the mind or soul escapes the body and material things at death and moves on to a higher state of being. Epicureans believed that only the material world exists. The mind and the soul, like the body, disintegrate and disperse at death. Nothing individual survives. The best we can do is enjoy life now, but not to excess. A glass of wine adds quality to the evening; drinking the entire bottle only causes problems. Both Stoics and Epicureans resisted Christian teachings about the resurrection of the body, but for different reasons. Epicureans thought that nothing remains to be regathered and raised; Stoics thought that when the mind or soul escapes the body it was better off and would not want to return to the body.
Many Christians have built their understanding of the world around Greek philosophy. Putting their trust in Jesus and believing the message of the Bible, they still approach and understand these teachings in a Greek framework, whether Platonic or Aristotelian or Stoic or Epicurean. Christian mystics often have drawn inspiration from neoplatonic expressions of ancient philosophy. Christian monastics often have justified their practices through a Stoic outlook upon the world. Christians committed to a faith-ordered life that is logic and rational draw inspiration from Aristotle’s writings. Christianity is not bound to Greek philosophy—the Gospel of Jesus Christ is available to everyone in the world, even if they were trained in Daoist or Buddhist or indigenous religious world views. J.