Chapter 1 - Section 8

The Golden Age: Contributions

    In fifth century BCE Athens, Hellenic civilization reached magnificent heights of cultural achievements in every area of artistic and philosophical endeavor. Individuals who lived in a democratic atmosphere of free expression achieved high standards in drama, architecture, philosophy, poetry, sculpture, science, mathematics and the writing of history. The intellectual output of these men was truly extraordinary and unprecedented in history. A few examples of this amazing record are summarized here.

     Drama: The origins of modern theater, films and other forms of drama can be traced to the plays of the ancient Athenians. Famous playwrights such as Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus wrote tragedies based upon universal themes involving the gods, man’s fate, justice and conflict. Aristophanes added his genius by using satire and comedy to make his points about society and politics of the time.

     Philosophy: The Greeks, mostly Athenians, also excelled in the area of philosophy. The philosophers tried to understand humanity’s relationship to nature, the gods, among each other and between the individual and the groups of human society. They looked to unlock the secrets of human nature. The philosophers repeatedly inquired as to the “why” of specific natural and manmade occurrences. They believed in a spirit of free inquiry separate from magic, superstition and the so-called will of the gods. Men should use their reasoning abilities and related talents to provide answers about human nature, society and the natural world about them. The major Greek philosophers are so well known that only a brief mention is given here.

     Socrates (469-399 BCE): He taught in Athens at the time of its defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. He taught his pupils to question and search for truth in all things. The constant search for truth and understanding through a questioning technique is of course, today known as the Socratic Method. He insisted that his students “Know Thyself” first as the beginning of insight into the understanding of human nature. However, given the temper of the citizens upon Athens’s defeat, Socrates was tried and found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth. These were dark days for the spirit of inquiry and the questioning of society. He was given a poison consisting of hemlock and died according to the decision of the Athenian court.Socrates did not leave written records. His teachings are known to us through his students. The most famous of these was Plato.

     Plato (427-347 BCE): Many of Plato’s writings have survived. The most famous of these are his Dialogues and The Republic. In The Republic, he described a utopian society based upon the enlightened rule of “philosopher kings”. The ideal state consisted of an aristocracy of the best and brightest men, the philosopher kings, possessing intelligence and a strong moral sense of justice. Plato is also known for his founding of the famous Academy school. Students came from all over the Greek world to study under its great master teacher, Plato. In turn, Plato’s most outstanding pupil was Aristotle.

     Aristotle (384-322 BCE): Aristotle is among the select few men who were possessed of a universal genius. He had a tremendous impact on learning, knowledge and therefore, the civilization of the modern world. His teachings and works influenced Islamic and European thought for over a thousand years. He particularly influenced the thought and works of Medieval scholars. His most famous works are Logic and Politics. Aristotle believed in observation and study. Precise observation and recording would lead to the creation of sound theory and explanations of observed phenomenon and events. His interests were universal. He investigated nature, astronomy, languages, literature, government and law and the physical sciences. His method of careful observations and drawing accurate conclusions from the data has come down to us as the inductive method of reasoning. His methods also form the basis of the Scientific Method of research. Aristotle was also a teacher in keeping with the traditions of his master, Plato. His most famous and exceptional student was none other than Alexander the Great of Macedonia.

     In summary, the Greeks held to the ideals of “man is the measure of all things” and “a sound mind and a sound body”. They believed in a versatile and well rounded complete individual. These values were basic to the Greek beliefs and were closely linked to another ideal, that of living the good life.

     History: The Greek achievements in this area can be expressed by focusing on two of its main contributors.

     Herodotus (484-424 BCE): He is known as the father of history. He wrote the monumental work, The Persian Wars which described the tremendous conflict between the Greeks and the Persians in the fifth century BCE. The victory of the Greeks secured their freedom from Persian despotism. His account is full of fascinating stories, anecdotes and much common folklore. True or not, such information provides valuable insights into the perceptions of Herodotus and the Greeks of the time.

     Thucydides (471-400 BCE): He has often been called the father of scientific history. Unlike Herodotus, he did not add stories, folktales or gossip to his writing. His famous History of the Peloponnesian War was accurate, factual and impartial. Whenever possible, he included eyewitness accounts of the participants. He was also an Athenian who observed and participated in the events he subsequently recorded. For example, the Funeral Oration by Pericles has been preserved for posterity because it is included in this work by Thucydides. This famous speech, honoring the war dead, is considered the seminal speech on the meaning of democracy and has often been compared to the Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

     Sculpture and Architecture: The ideals of the ancient Greeks were to them and to us today, revealed in their art. The architecture and the sculpture reveal a magnificent sense of grace, beauty and human proportions. The Greeks created their art to look natural and realistic. The depictions of nature, humanity and noteworthy events of society were designed to please the public, support civic pride and to reinforce Greek ideals of beauty.

     From the temple of the Parthenon in Athens to the sculptures of Myron, Praxiteles and Phidias, Greek concepts of beauty and perfection have served to inspire sculptors and architects throughout history.

A Collection of Greek and Roman Sculptures

     Math and Science Accomplishments through the Golden Age; 6th-4th centuries BCE: As in other areas of human achievement, the Greeks excelled in math and sciences in the ancient world. A few examples of their originality are given here.

     Hippocrates, Pythagoras and Democritus need to be remembered for their contributions to civilization. Pythagoras (582-507 BCE), discovered many mathematical principles that are still being studied in classrooms throughout the world. The father of medicine, Hippocrates (460-377 BCE), set the standards for all medical practitioners with his famous oath and the admonition “to do no harm” to any patient. For his part, Democritus (460-363 BCE), advanced the concept that all physical matter is made up of small, invisible particles called atoms. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, the culture of the Greeks, Hellenic, underwent a blending or cultural fusion with that of the Asiatic, Persian east that he had added to his great empire. This new modified Greek civilization was therefore, termed Hellenistic. It too produced many significant contributions in the areas of art, philosophy, science, mathematics and the fine arts. Individuals such as Aristarchus (the earth revolved around the sun), Euclid (math and geometry), Archimedes (math, physics, and gravity), Eratosthenes (measured earth’s circumference) and many others scored important achievements in Western Civilization.

     Perhaps the most significant factor of Hellenistic civilization was its profound influence upon ancient Rome. It was the Hellenistic world which the Romans subsequently conquered in the Eastern Mediterranean and from which the Romans borrowed many of their ideas.

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