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What the Greeks did for us

To say that the ancient Greeks have had a profound influence on Western civilisation is a truism so obvious to many who regularly read this site that it might seem silly to spell it out. The state of education in Britain, however, means that it is important and necessary to spell that achievement out and draw out the key elements of what the ancient Greeks ‘did for us’ as well as point to some of the shortcomings.

Charles Freeman’s The Greek Achievement is a splendid tour of ancient Greece, starting in the Bronze Age and finishing with the advent of the Middle Ages. It covers military campaigns, notably the long-running Peloponnese war; the changing fortunes of the dozens of city states; the development of democracy and city government and the eventual rise of Rome. Interwoven with this is a masterful survey of developments in philosophy, maths, science, astronomy, law and language. Freeman also is excellent at explaining the role of myth and ceremony in Greek culture, and does not fight shy of showing the lousy treatment of women and the huge use of slavery. Among the highlights of the book is a lucid exposition of the philosophical innovations and arguments of Plato and Aristotle. Freeman writes without obvious bias but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that much though he admires Plato’s clarity of thought, he is highly conscious of how Plato’s vision of a Republic run by ‘philosopher kings’ is an early model for many tyrannies such as Revolutionary France, Communist Russia and China. Freeman even cites Sir Karl Popper’s book, the Open Society and its Enemies, as a foremost demolition of Plato’s ideas. He is, meanwhile, full of admiration for Aristotle and his development of key building blocks of logic.

Another highlight is Freeman’s description of the military campaigns of Alexander the Great. The myth of this great military leader is that of a man who had conquered a huge chunk of the then-known world by the age of 32 before succumbing to illness. He was certainly a brilliant and brave military commander and his feats were openly envied by later greats such as Tiberius of Rome and Napoleon Bonaparte. Alexander, though, was also a brute – sacking towns that failed to show instant loyalty and looting captured cities of their treasures. He also failed to set up the kind of stable regime able to survive after his death. Freeman certainly tries to cut this man down to size.

When I studied history at school and in my undergraduate days the Greek story was hardly touched upon in my studies. It seems to me, as I get older and think about the enormous contribution to civilisation made by the Greeks, that a study of this period is intensely absorbing. I intend to go on filling a major gap in my education in this area.

I can also recommend this book by Freeman and this one.

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37 comments to What the Greeks did for us

  • esbonio

    Thanks for the recommendation.

    Greece is a truly amazing country with a great history. I also missed out on the glories of Greece until I became an adult. I am now studying the langauge and visit the country at least once a year.

  • You say “lousy treatment of women” like this is a Bad Thing…

    Jokes aside, however, I wonder what those Ancient Greeks would say if they could see the socialist pit which is Modern Greece.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Kim, I suspect Pericles and the rest would ask Zeus to send down some thunderbolts.

  • Having just started to read Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason, I am starting to wonder if the Greek achievements, like the Preston Bypass in the old joke, were all they were cracked up to be. Astonishing book, so far. I wonder if I’ll still feel that way when I’ve finished it.

  • Kim du Toit: I wonder what those Ancient Greeks would say if they could see the socialist pit which is Modern Greece.

    Lemme see… Pericles would be pleased how Greek ideas like democracy have spread their way around the world, the Spartans would be impressed by the Greek army’s modern weapons, *everyone* would be in awe of modern medical care and a life expectancy of 79 years. Everyone would be surprised that the high standard of living was possible without slavery, but would be impressed how machinery does the job of slaves.

    Regarding its “socialist pit”, I expect ancient greeks would have thought free medical care, and free food and housing if you’re unemployed to be very desirable things and would be very impressed that the state had the resources to pay for them. But you can’t see that, because of your idiot fixation on the word “socialism”.

  • Josh

    “You made your slaves into welfare recipients and don’t expect them to work?”

    I wonder what might happen next if the spartans learned to use those high tech weapons. How many days would it take to dominate the country? Two? One? Zero point five?

    :3

  • Chris Harper

    Did the Greeks really ‘give’ us democracy?

    British parliamentary democracy was evolving on its own bat, without guidance from anywhere. The first full blown democracy in the modern world was the United States, whose constitution was based not on Greece, but on republican Rome, and whose justification for democracy was based on British concepts of individual rights and freedom.

  • Keith

    “and whose justification for democracy was based on British concepts of individual rights and freedom.” Maybe that should read:
    “and whose justification for democracy was based on British concepts of individual rights and freedom, since dismantled, alas..”

  • Chris Harper

    Keith,

    Well, yes. As I wrote that the thought crossed my mind that the US was the only place left where these ideas are even half understood by any sizeable chunk of the population.

    My main point though was that as important as Greece is to both European and Middle Eastern civilisations, it is not as important as the classicists would often have us believe.

  • Dan

    Let me add VDH’s Who Killed Homer? to the list of tangentially valuable works on the subject of Greek civilization.

  • guy herbert

    ‘Tother thing worth mentioning may be that when we mention “the Greeks” the conscious reference–conditioned by the anhistorical, literary, idealisation of the gentlemen of a century past–is to a high culture of Periclean Athens. But the Greeks of that age had striking cultural differences, segregated by mountains and constant warring, almost as the Papuans today. The influence of “the Greeks” comes to us through a later, softer-edged, syncretic Hellenistic culture, through Alexandria and Byzantium more than Sparta or Attica.

  • zdenek vajdak

    Chris Harper–can you flesh out your remark about the classicists exadurating the Greek achievement ; what have you got in mind ?
    Also your remark about British democracy seems to overlook that someone came up with the idea before it was polished and improved in Britain . British model ( personally I am a big admirer ) then is like the Chinese space program : its parasitic on ideas thought of somewhere else.

    More general comment : Greeks seem to have been first in providing naturalistic explanations for natural and social phenomena ( storm caused by air movement rather then by a deity ).
    Another big invention is Socrates’s approach to ethical questions . What you see in him ( again unique ) is using reason to figure out how to live a good life or act morally. ( total move away from relying on tradition or revelation ). Without this first enlightnment ( naturalistic turn ) there would be no modern science or philosophy as we know it. How do you exadurate a bequest like this I wonder ?

  • Luniversal

    Representative government– which is not the same as democracy– has its deepest roots among peoples of Northern European descent. The Althing and Tynwald are better exemplars for the British than the forums of Athens and Rome, just as our common law is better than imitating Napoleon’s imitation of Roman Law.

    Tribal councils under monarchs are organic growths. Republican constitutions inspired by half-baked understanding of classical governance have a far higher failure rate.

    America went wrong because it tried to graft reactionary (so-called Enlightenment) concepts on to an essentially Northern European society. It wound up with a desacralised, fossilised 18th century monarchy in uneasy juxtaposition with a written, codified constitution and an ill-thought-out relationship between the founding states and the central government. Washngton, the servant, became master. The Founders’ best intentions were perverted.

    In Britain we abolished the Scotch and Irish parliaments, compelled the monarch to recruit his cabinet from Parliament and clarified the relationship beween the judiciary and the Lords and Commons. Hence the United Kingdom lived up to its name. We went through the period of European revolutions at the turn of the 19th century peacefully, led the world in agriculture and industrial innovation, extended the franchise gradually and in time were able to survive two world wars, the Great Depression and the loss of empire without serious domestic unrest or dictatorship.

    Meanwhile the United States had to fight the bloodiest civil war yet known, without even resolving its fundamental racial incompatibilities– the Achilles heel whose suppuration, exacerbated by reckless immigration policies, is now poisoning its life blood as a united country.

  • zdenek vajdak

    Luniversal– At the heart of modern democracies is the notion of political obligation that owes nothing to mere power or to sanction given by deity. The idea is social contract. As free citizens we enter into an agreement with one another and this creates political obligation.

    The Greek idea you see first spelled out in Plato is that when you and I exchange promises the resulting contract is freely undertaken and any breach does violance not merely to the other person but also to the self, since it is repudiation of well founded rational choice.
    If we construe our obligation to the state on the model of a contract ,we can justify it terms of what all rational beings must accept. Obligation arises out of free choice. And this is the great idea we owe to Greeks who first asked all the relevant questions in this area and provided some of the answers to boot.

  • zdenek vajdak

    Luniversal– observe that contracts create vetoes because if there is a party who cannot accept the terms of the contract then the contract cannot be binding on such a person.
    In other words absolutelly brilliant realization Greeks have in this connection is that without freedom there cannot be government by consent . This is totally novel way of understanding political obligation .

    The beauty of this of course that we dont have to be members of the same tribe , family or subjects of the same king or believers in the same god even to have obligation under the law . This follows from the fact that your consent even as a non believer has to be secured .( all this required same citizenship and as you might want to point out this was exclusive : no women and no slaves sadly )
    So no I am affraid this is a bit more competitive than the tribal stuff of our “northern european people” .

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Regarding its “socialist pit”, I expect ancient greeks would have thought free medical care, and free food and housing if you’re unemployed to be very desirable things and would be very impressed that the state had the resources to pay for them. But you can’t see that, because of your idiot fixation on the word “socialism”.

    The only idiots are those who use the word “free” as if health care and the rest is provided by Father Christmas or the Cookie Monster, Phil.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The rather evil Luniversal goes on and on about the racial incompatibilities within the U.S. Ah, if only Jefferson’s Republic could get rid of the darkies, all would be well, eh?

    What a prat.

  • Johnathan: you beat me to the bash on the idiot, Hun.

    In any case, I am just now finishing volume II of Will Durant’s “Story of Civilization” — “The Life of Greece”. I think it’s very good and you might keep an eye out for it.

  • Chris Harper: Did the Greeks really ‘give’ us democracy? British parliamentary democracy was evolving on its own bat, without guidance from anywhere. The first full blown democracy in the modern world was the United States, whose constitution was based not on Greece, but on republican Rome, and whose justification for democracy was based on British concepts of individual rights and freedom.

    Wrong; the first full-blown democracy (i.e. univerasal adult suffrage) was new Zealand, in the 1890s.

    As other people have indicated modern democratic concepts spring as much from the Germanic peoples’ traditions (the Althing etc) as the classical world.

  • Johnathan: The only idiots are those who use the word “free” as if health care and the rest is provided by Father Christmas or the Cookie Monster, Phil.

    It was obvious from the context that free here meant free at the point of use.

    That you seek to deliberately misrepresent my argument to make a silly debating point demonstrates that deep down you are unsure that your position is sound (if you were sure of its soundness, you’d argue honestly), and is also evidence of your lack of faith in your own intellect.

    Because the truth is simple: if you look at the countries where people live longest, health care is partially or wholely funded by taxation. In other words, taxation-funded heathcare actually *works*.

    But of course stupid ideologues insist of wanting the world to be run as if their pet theories were true, instead of accepting reality.

  • Julian Taylor

    You say “lousy treatment of women” like this is a Bad Thing…

    There’s obviously more than just one idiot on here …

  • Aren’t stolen goods “free at the point of use”? I thought “free” meant “free as in speech”. There’s no such thing as a free beer, even if you steal it. Every “gift” has consequences, especially those from the government. Even the ancient Greeks would have understood that.

  • Luniversal

    Zdenek Vajdak: “Luniversal– At the heart of modern democracies is the notion of political obligation that owes nothing to mere power or to sanction given by deity.”

    That’s why they never last. Nothing dates faster than ‘modernity’, which usually turns out to be ephemeral cant and delusion. It is blood, faith, soil and sex which endure, not fashionable political prattle about ‘fundamental’ this and ‘universal’ that. Obligations are to those who are like us, not to the world and his common-law wife. Post-colonial Africa is the monument to republican sanctimony: arbitrary boundaries, unfit constitutions, dictatorship, famine and bloodshed.

    Your surname suggests you hail from Eastern Europe or the Balkans, so you ought to know about historical continuities defeating the best-laid schemes of statecraft. The peaceful stability of Northern European countries is founded on shared biology, not ‘modernity’.

    Johnathan Pearce: “…if only Jefferson’s Republic could get rid of the darkies, all would be well, eh?”

    That was more or less Abraham Lincoln’s view, as it happens. Nowadays the problem is compounded by the rise of La Raza. America is no longer even monolingual, let alone monoracial.

    Much of the rest of the world has sorted itself out ethnically since 1945: the former USSR, Yugoslavia, the Balkans. Now it’s the USA’s turn. A libertarian ought to look forward to the dismantling of monstrous, militarised, centralised power structures; but many self-professed Samizdata libertarians have an oddly worshipful attitude to the District of Columbia.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Luniversal, if you actually read this blog rather than project your own fantasys on to it, you would realise that none of us here have an “oddly worshipful attitude to the District of Columbia”. Just read the articles written here attacking the Patriot Act, for instance.

    As for your idea that Lincoln supported kicking out non-whites, that it simply idiotic. As I remarked before, it is pretty clear that you are a racist, as your comment about “shared biology” makes clear.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    It was obvious from the context that free here meant free at the point of use.

    Phil Hunt, when people say “free at the point of use” it begs the question of who exactly is going to pay. Usually it is the same people who get such services for “free”.

    That you seek to deliberately misrepresent my argument to make a silly debating point demonstrates that deep down you are unsure that your position is sound (if you were sure of its soundness, you’d argue honestly), and is also evidence of your lack of faith in your own intellect.

    Don’t be so touchy. I am sure of my position, thank. When people come out with ideas about “free” healthcare and the rest I always like to ask who exactly is paying for the “free” services. That it not a silly debating point but a willingness to face up to reality, which is also honest.

  • Luniversal

    Pearce: “As for your idea that Lincoln supported kicking out non-whites, that it simply idiotic.”

    Lincoln: “You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss; but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think. Your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason, at least, why we should be separated…

    “The colony of Liberia has been in existence a long time. In a certain sense it is a success. The old President of Liberia, Roberts, has just been with me – the first time I ever saw him. He says they have within the bounds of that colony between three and four hundred thousand people, or more than in some of our old States, such as Rhode Island or Delaware, or in some of our newer States, and less than in some of our larger ones. They are not all American colonists or their descendants. Something less than 12,000 have been sent thither from this country. Many of the original settlers have died; yet, like people elsewhere, their offspring outnumber those deceased. The question is, if the colored people are persuaded to go anywhere, why not there?

    “One reason for unwillingness to do so, is that some of you would rather remain within reach of the country of your nativity. I do not know how much attachment you may have toward our race. It does not strike me that you have the greatest reason to love them. But still you are attached to them at all events.

    “The place I am thinking about for a colony is in Central America. It is nearer to us than Liberia – not much more than one-fourth as far as Liberia, and within seven days’ run by steamers. Unlike Liberia, it is a great line of travel – it is a highway. The country is a very excellent one for any people, and with great natural resources and advantages, and especially because of the similarity of climate with your native soil, thus being suited to your physical condition….”

    (speech to black leaders, White House, August 14, 1862)

  • Johnathan

    Luniversal, fair enough. Do you agree with what he said, then?

  • Alice

    To Kim du Toit : do you say like other South African men, women should be “bare foot, pregnant and in the kitchen”?

    Thank you for reminding us that “lousy treatments” on any female weight on its productivity: cows, chicks, geese, she-financial analyst… and that “civilizations are mortal” too.

  • zdenek vajdak

    Luniversal writes : ” that is why they never last ( modern democracies based on social contract )…it is blood , faith, soil and sex which endure. Obligations are to those who are like us…”

    Some comments :
    first note that Luniversal has *conceded* that modern Democracies owe big to the Greeks ( the darkies ? is that why you have problems with the Greek inheritance ? ) if he concedes that social contract is a key . And that was the debate was it not ? The question was not whether modern Democracies are successful but whether there is a historical link with the Greek Enlightnment .

    Second : on the ‘not lasting’ claim I would point to USA which is a pluralist set up where the bonds of citizenship involve civic identity i.e. social contract between strangers , and it has endured rather well for some 200 years.
    Moreover it is being immitated around the world most recent example is South Africa . So these political set ups can certainly last and have a broad appeal.

    Third : to criticise social arrangements that are pluralist and that can be traced via European Enlightnment to the Greek experiments with the idea, you got to show that this type of arrangement is internally flawed in some way. And what is your *argument* here ? We have not seen one really accept some scoffing ; I am sure you can do better.

  • zdenek vajdak

    I am sorry but I just have to make the following point about our debt to the Greeks ( no one else wants to ):

    Our secular European outlook ( as opposed to quasi religious outlook espoused by Luniversal ) would be impossible without two huge *Greek* inovations :

    1) the assumption that Cosmos is a rational system that can be understood by using reason. This makes rational investigation of it possible for the first time.

    2) another huge shift involves preference given to naturalistic over myth-based explanations of the world around us.

    So what you ask ? well its just that without this shift you dont have science or philosophy and hence you don’t have Renaissance and no Ennlightnment. Big enough for you ?

  • Luniversal

    Zdenek Vajdak: “Second : on the ‘not lasting’ claim I would point to USA which is a pluralist set up where the bonds of citizenship involve civic identity i.e. social contract between strangers , and it has endured rather well for some 200 years.”

    No doubt you are unware of the war of 1860-65 which killed more than 500,000 Americans and terminated the republic of 1776. That’s how successful it was.

    The *present* centralised warfare/welfare USA has lasted less than 150 years, whereas the United Kingdom has kept going and enlarged itself smoothly (with one setback in 1920) since the time of Alfred the Great. I wouldn’t bet on the present USA still being around in 2050 for reasons previously adumbrated. BTW, few other countries have imitated the US presidential system, preferring separation between a ceremonial head of state, often appointed, and a chief minister, usually indirectly elected.

    “So what you ask ? well its just that without this shift you dont have science or philosophy and hence you don’t have Renaissance and no Ennlightnment. Big enough for you ?”

    The opposition between science and religion is a canard of dialectical materialism. Curiosity about the world about us as a manifestation of God’s plan for humanity has its roots in religion, above all in Christianity. It was the Greeks who were given to incuriosity and superstitious pantheism. And it’s an odd definition of ‘philosophy’ which awards primacy to the Greeks. Plato, their doyen, was one of the most anti-democratic and anti-scientific thinkers of ancient times.

    I speak only for the United Kingdom. Whatever the continentals may have done, Greek and Roman models of governance never had much to do with the long, slow, organic evolution of British statecraft from Saxons and Vikings. Their assemblies, and the practices of the Jews in the Old Testament, inspired English developments in the 17th century. Classical precedents were prayed in aid late in the day, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had largely established the constitution we still have, whose most dramatic later development– the extension of the franchise– was not justified by reference to Greek or Roman example. On the contrary, many Victorian classicists who opposed one man/one vote warned that Athens had been an oligarchy and Rome had been brought down by the need to buy off the masses with more and more bread and circuses.

    Johnathan: “Luniversal, fair enough. Do you agree with what he said, then?”

    Why on earth should I strike attitudes about a defunct political controversy in a foreign country?

  • Johnathan

    Why on earth should I strike attitudes about a defunct political controversy in a foreign country?

    Because in an earlier rather heated comment, you said this:

    Meanwhile the United States had to fight the bloodiest civil war yet known, without even resolving its fundamental racial incompatibilities– the Achilles heel whose suppuration, exacerbated by reckless immigration policies, is now poisoning its life blood as a united country.

    Now, that paragraph looks awfully like a statement that the US would be a lot better off without such “fundamental racial incompabilities”, a contention that needs to be backed up, to say the least. That is why I then asked if you thought that certain ethnic groups should be removed from the U.S., and you then mentioned Lincoln.

    Now in the past I have branded you a racist. Maybe I am being grossly unfair and will apologise if that is the case. You don’t seem shy of stating your views in bracing language so why be so coy on this occasion?

  • Johnathan

    It was the Greeks who were given to incuriosity and superstitious pantheism.

    On the latter point, true. On the former, I find it hard to see how a culture giving us Ptolemy, Aristotle, Thales, etc could be dubbed incurious. That seems silly.

  • zdenek vajdak

    Luniversal writes : ” it was the Greeks who were given to incuriosity and supersticious pantheism “.

    No this is not accurate. Homeric era was like that but when we talk about Greek inheritance in connection with science and phil. we are talking about a *reaction * to the Homeric outlook which was myth based ( and so you are right about the Homeric era )
    Prior to about 600 bc ( note that Christianity does not exist yet ) all people including Babylonians and Egyptians have evolved *technologies* and religious systems but had not progressed beyond mythological explanation.
    And mythological type thinking of course involves curiosity so that is not being denied. I am not dissing religion.
    But around 600 bc something *new* happens with what is called the Pre-Socratics :
    Thales , Anaxaminder, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Democritus, Hypocrates plus few more minor ones. ( see J. Barnes ‘The presocratic philosophers 1979 , A.Gregory ‘Eureka: birth of science’ 2001 )
    These folks ask new kind of question and more important *reject* myth-based explanation of Homeric outlook. In place they put natural explanations in terms of natural phenomena such as movement of atoms , movement of air, temperature etc. instead of activities of spirits or deity of some sort. Compare explanation of where humanity comes from which is naturalistic :
    1) humans have evolved by process of natural selection from a non human ancestor they share with chimpanzees .

    compare this with non naturalistic explanation:
    2) humans have been created by all knowing all powerful god .

    The difference between (1) and (2) is that (1) is a naturalistic explanation of the phenomenon in question
    whereas (2) is not ( another way to put the point is to say one is a scientific while the other is not ).

    This is precisely the distinction that the PreSocratics have drawn and we continue drawing the distinction when we say that the US creationists are not advancing scientific view when they want ‘intelligent design’ tought in US schools . This is a move Greeks have tought us to make.

    P.S. This is the ‘received ‘ view of all historians I know who study this part of European history and so this is the default position on the matter. If you dissagree with it you could start by indicating what your sources are , I have shown you mine ( see Barnes for full bibliography )

  • zdenek vajdak

    Luniversal writes :” and that is an odd definition of philosophy which awards priority to the Greeks. Plato was one of the most …anti-scientific thinkers of ancient times ”
    Two comments :

    (1) This seems to involve a muddle : its possible to be incredibly influencial historically on philosophy *and* be hostile to empirical science. We see the same attitude in Pythagoras and more recently in Descartes and even Wittgenstein.

    (2) Plato is hostile to science which wants to *rely on our senses* because he thinks that our senses are not reliable guides to truth. He has issues with perception . But he also thinks science can be put on better footing viz. pure reason . He sees mathematics as an example of science that guarantees truth.

    This is not being anti-science as such , his position is more nuanced , he wants the thing but not as it is being practices by Pre-Socratics.

  • Zoe

    Great story and information about the greeks but it doesn’t really help with my question:

    What did the greeks do for us?

    If you could please email me the answer before the 22nd March 2007 if you have it. Thank you……………..

  • bob

    this was not helpful