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A History of Ancient Greece

Greece And The Hellenistic World
 

Author:      Robert Guisepi

Date:        1998


Greek Creativity In Culture


The genius of Greek civilization lay more obviously in various facets of
culture than in politics. It was Greek culture that determined the most
lasting contributions of this civilization to the Mediterranean world, and
that served as the key linkage in the larger Hellenistic orbit sketched by
Alexander.

The Greeks did not create a major religion, and in this they differed
from India and to a lesser extent from China. Greek ideas would ultimately
influence great religions, particularly Christianity and to some degree Islam,
but this came later. The characteristic Greek religion was a rather primitive
affair, derived from animist belief in the spirits of nature elevated into a
complex set of gods and goddesses who were seen as interfering in human life.
The Greeks thus had a creator or father god, Zeus, who presided over an unruly
assemblage of divinities whose functions ranged from regulating the daily
passage of the sun (Apollo) or the oceans (Poseidon) to inspiring war or human
love and beauty. Specific gods patronized other human activities such as
metalworking, the hunt, literature, and history. Regular ceremonies to the
gods had real political importance, and many individuals sought the gods' aid
in foretelling the future or in assuring a good harvest or good health.
Stories of the gods' activities provided rich entertainment and could drive
home lessons about appropriate moral behavior, including courage and humility.

This was a religion, then, passed down from earlier Indo-European
experience, that served many human needs and cemented community loyalties. It
was not, however, intensely spiritual. Interestingly the basic Indo-European
pantheon was the same as that brought to India, which in both cases assumed
human form. The Greek use of religion, however, differed considerably from the
more otherworldly Indian outcome. Greek religion tended toward a
human-centered, worldly approach. Stories of the gods allowed illustration of
human qualities, rather like soap operas on a vaster scale; the gods could be
jealous, sneaky, lustful, and powerful. Greek religion, like the Indian
religion, helped engender an important literary tradition. In the Greek
religion the gods primarily provided good stories or served as foils to
inquire deeply into human passions and vulnerabilities. Greek gods were used
mainly in terms of what they could do for humankind and what they could reveal
about human nature, rather than as sources pushing people toward consideration
of higher planes of spirituality or some ultimately divine experience.

Greek religion also had a number of limitations. Its lack of spiritual
passion failed to satisfy many ordinary workers and peasants, particularly
when times were hard due to political chaos or economic distress. Popular
"mystery" religions, which had more exciting rituals and promised greater
spiritual insight in contrast to worldly cares, often swept through Greece
with secret ceremonies, a strong sense of fellowship, and a greater
implication of contact with unfathomable divine powers. The importance of
mystery religions to an extent paralleled the role of Daoism in providing a
contrast to more politically-directed religion or philosophy, though none of
the mystery religions won the currency or durability of Daoism in China.

Philosophy

The limitations of Greek religion also left many literate and educated
people dissatisfied. The religion provided stories about how the world came to
be as it is, but scant basis for systematic inquiry into nature or human
society. And while the dominant religion promoted political loyalty, it did
not provide an elaborate basis for ethical thought. Hence, from at least the
6th century onward, many Greek thinkers attempted to generate philosophical
systems separate from a primarily religious base. The attempt to understand
humankind, society, and nature by rational observation and deduction became
one of the hallmarks of Greek and Hellenistic culture. The approach was not
entirely dissimilar from that of Confucianism in China, but it had different
specifics and a different and wider-ranging scope.

Many thinkers sought to generate ethical systems on the basis of rational
definitions of right and wrong and some sense of the purpose of life on earth.
Socrates (born in 465 B.C. and the tutor of Plato, who in turn would teach
Aristotle) urged people to consider the bases of right action in terms of
rational reflection on goals and consequences; in contrast to earlier
Middle-Eastern traditions, he thus formulated secular criteria, rather than
devising rewards and punishments from an otherworldly system. Aristotle,
perhaps the most important of the Greek philosophers, maintained this ethical
system through stressing the importance of moderation in human behavior
against the instability of political life in Athens and the excesses of the
gods.

During the Hellenistic period other ethical systems were devised. Thus a
group called the Stoics emphasized an inner moral independence to be
cultivated by strict discipline of the body and personal bravery. These
ethical systems were major contributions in their own right, attracting many
disciples and generating much literary debate; they also would, later, be
blended with Christian religious thought.

Greek philosophy further devoted much attention to defining appropriate
political structures. Various constitutional systems were discussed, often in
light of ongoing political disputes between Athens and Sparta. The Athenian
philosopher Plato, in the 5th century, devised an ideal government structure
in which philosophers would rule. Most Greek political theory stressed the
importance of balance with due outlet for aristocratic principles and some
popular contribution. Again, religious justifications for political behavior
were played down in favor of arguments in terms of utility and practicality or
more general definitions of justice. It was in this vein, also, that
philosophers, such as Aristotle, discussed social topics such as slavery or
the conditions of women (providing vigorous defenses for the inevitability and
usefulness of slavery and for family structures that would assume women's
inferiority).

The idea of a philosophy separate from official religion, though not
necessarily hostile to it, also encouraged considerable emphasis on the powers
of human thought. In Athens, Socrates encouraged his pupils to question
received wisdom on the ground that the chief human duty was "the improvement
of the soul." Socrates himself ran afoul of the Athenian government in the
aftermath of the tensions of the Peloponnesian War, for he seemed to be
undermining political loyalty itself with his constant questions. But the
Socratic principle of thinking things through by means of skeptical
questioning, rather than assuming on the basis of authority or faith, became a
recurrent strand in classical Greek thinking and education and was part of its
heritage to later societies. Socrates' great pupil, Plato, accentuated the
positive somewhat more strongly in suggesting that human reason could approach
an understanding of the perfect forms - the absolutely True, Good, and
Beautiful - that he believed underlay nature. Thus a philosophical tradition
arose in Greece that tended to play down the importance of human spirituality
in favor of a celebration of the human power to think. The result bore some
similarities to Chinese Confucianism, though with greater emphasis on
skeptical questioning and abstract speculations about the basic nature of
humanity and the universe.

Greek interest in rationality carried over into inquiry into the
underlying order of physical nature. The Greeks were not great empirical
scientists. Relatively few new scientific findings emanated from Athens,
though philosophers such as Aristotle did collect large amounts of biological
data. The Greek interest lay in speculations about nature's order, and many
non-Westerners believe that this tradition continues to inform what they see
as an excessive Western passion for seeking sweeping rationality in the
universe. Greek belief in rational theorizing produced widespread
philosophical commitment to a scientific method that would combine empirical
data with general concepts. In practice, the Greek concern translated into a
host of theories about the motions of the planets and the organization of
elemental principles of earth, fire, air, and water, and into a considerable
interest in mathematics as a means of rendering nature's patterns
comprehensible. Greek and later Hellenistic work in geometry was particularly
impressive, featuring among other achievements the basic theorems of
Pythagoras and Euclid's compendium of geometry.

Scientists in the Hellenistic period added some important empirical
contributions, especially in studies of anatomy; medical treatises by Galen
were not improved upon in the Western world for many centuries. Less
fortunately, the Hellenistic astronomer Ptolemy formalized an elaborate theory
of the sun's motion around a stationary earth; this new Hellenistic theory
contradicted much earlier Middle Eastern astronomy, which had recognized the
earth's rotation. The idea of an earth-centered universe seemed to explain
many observed phenomena, including eclipses, and this fact along with the
sheer reputation of Greek science assured that Ptolemy's theory was long taken
as fixed wisdom in Western thought. (Ptolemy's views followed those of
Aristotle. Aristotle had combined what he thought were observed data plus
rationalistic deductions about nature's properties - the earth's core is
heavier than its shell and so must be the center of the system - to prove that
the sun and the planets revolved around the earth.)

Other Hellenistic scientists added more constructively to the
observations about planetary motion. Archimedes (c. 287-212 B.C.) wrote about
mathematics and the measurement of water power. He devised pulley systems to
pump out flooded ships and fields and invented novel kinds of fortifications.
Other Hellenistic scientists, using dissection on the corpses of criminals,
made important discoveries about digestion and the vascular system.

The Arts

Despite the importance of the rationalist tradition, science and
mathematics loomed far less large than art and literature in conveying key
cultural values in Greek and Hellenistic culture. The official religion
inspired themes for artistic expressions and justifications for temples,
statues, and plays devoted to the glories of the gods. But the human-centered
qualities of the Greeks also showed through, as artists emphasized the beauty
of realistic portrayals of the human form and poets and playwrights used the
gods as foils for inquiries into the human condition.

[See Temple Of Poseidon, Calauria: Scene of the death of Demosthenes, Temple
of Poseidon, Calauria.]

All the arts received some attention in classical Mediterranean
civilization. Performances of music and dance were vital parts of religious
festivals, but their precise styles have not been preserved. Far more durable
was the Greek interest in drama, for plays took a central role in this
culture. Greek dramatists worked both on comedy and on tragedy, indeed making
a formal division between the two approaches that is still part of the Western
tradition. On the whole, in contrast to Indian writers, the Greeks placed
greatest emphasis on tragedy. Their belief in human reason and balance also
involved a sense that these virtues were precarious, so that a person could
easily overstep and be ensnared in situations of powerful emotion and
uncontrollable consequences. The Athenian dramatist Sophocles, for example, so
insightfully portrayed the psychological flaws of his hero Oedipus that modern
psychology long used the term Oedipus complex to refer to potentially tragic
attachments between a man and his mother. Another Athenian playwright,
Aristophanes, used similar beliefs in the limitations of human experience to
produce a sense of comedy, poking fun at the failures of human nature.

In addition to defining the concept of drama, enriching the language,
providing powerful themes, and maintaining a society that appreciated
compelling plays, the Greeks established rules for future societies about how
a drama should be written. These rules included an insistence on a coherent
plot as opposed to a jumble of unrelated events. These specific precedents,
along with the knowledge that the Greeks had perfected drama, helped shape
dramatic writing in societies that looked back on the Greek example.

Greek literature contained a strong epic tradition as well, starting with
the beautifully crafted tales of the Iliad and the Odyssey. By the 5th century
B.C., interest in human affairs led to a new kind of formal historical writing
with Herodotus trying to sort out fact from myth in dealing with various
Mediterranean cultures and Thucydides composing a vivid account of the
Peloponnesian War.

In the visual arts, the emphasis of classical Mediterranean civilization
lay in sculpture and architecture, though Greek artists also advanced in
ceramic work. In Athens's brilliant 5th century B.C. - the age of Pericles,
Socrates, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and many other intensely creative figures -
sculptors such as Phidias developed unprecedented skill in simultaneously
realistic yet beautiful porhrayals of the human form, from lovely goddesses to
muscled warriors and atheetes.

Greek architecture, foom the 8th century B.C. onward, emphasized
monumental construction, square or rectangular in shape, with columned
porticoes. The Greeks devised three distinct styles for their massive
buildings, each more ornate than the last: the Doric, the Ionic, and the
Corinthian. The Greeks, in short, invented what Westerners and others in the
world today still regard as "classical" architecture,ithough the Greeks
themselves were influenced by Egyptian and Cretan models in their preferences.
Greece provided abundant stone for ambitious temples, markets, and other
public buildings. Many of these same structures were filled with products of
the sculptors' workshops. They were also brightly painted, though over the
centuries the paint would fade so that later imitators came to think of the
classical as involving unadorned stone.

Classical Mediterranean art and architecture were intimately linked with
the society that produced them. There is temptation, because of the formal
role of classical styles in later societies, to attribute a stiffness to Greek
art that was not present in tha original. Greek structures were built to be
used. Temples and marketplaces were part of daily urban life. Classical art
was also flexible, according to need. Classical dramas were not merely
examples of high art performed in front of a cultural elite. Indeed, Athens
lives in the memory of many intellectuals because of the creativity of the
writers and philosophers and of the large audiences that trooped to
performances of plays by authors, such as Sophocles. Literally thousands of
people periodically gathered in the big hillside theaters of Athens and other
cities for the new plays and the music and poetry competitions that
simultaneously honored the gods.

[See Temple of Aphaea, Aegina]

The Principles Of Greek Culture

Overall, the Greek and Hellenistic cultural achievement rested on four
major principles. First, the interest in formal political theory, with a
strong emphasis on debating the merits of different constitutional structures
and assuming that government forms could be planned, obviously reflected the
distinctive political atmosphere of Greece. If Greek politics faced frequent
crises, its incorporation in political thought and history gave it a longer
life and wider subsequent influence.

Second, art and sculpture served on the whole to glorify human
achievement, starting with a celebration of the beauties of the ideal human
form, used also to represent the gods.

Third, drama and philosophy stressed the importance of human striving,
though comedy might poke fun and tragedy might emphasize the inevitable
limits. This characteristic joined with the emphases of the visual arts in
stressing secular over otherworldly themes. And while ethical philosophers
might enjoin moderation, there was a fascination with human energy and
striving rather different from the more consistent restraint urged in secular
Chinese thought.

Fourth, the philosophical and scientific tradition emphasized the
validity of logical constructs in understanding the natural world.

The characteristics of Greek philosophy were not totally distinctive, of
course, and they built on some earlier features of Middle Eastern culture. Nor
was the resultant cultural package uniformly successful. Greek and Hellenistic
science was open to more error than the more practical scientific traditions
established in classical China and India. The Greek approach also tended to
emphasize a significant cultural gap between the educated elite and common
masses. The debates of the philosophers formed part of an aristocratic
tradition closed to the ordinary folk. The absence of a strong religious link
helped to separate popular beliefs and folklore from the reasoning of the
creative intellectuals.

Some gap between literate and nonliterate culture was built into all the
classical civilizations. But formal Greek culture was particularly
uninterested in adopting popular values, which meant that there were fewer
shared assumptions among various levels of Greek and Hellenistic society in
terms of styles of thought, than was true in China or India. Popular and
widely accessible dramatic performances and the public art of the Greek cities
modified this gap. With the decline of the city-states, however, and the rise
of more general Hellenistic forms in which community art played a lesser role,
the cultural gaps stood out in sharper relief.

Hellenistic Culture During And After Alexander

Greek intellectual and artistic life was not a constant. Literature
changed considerably between the epic style of Homer and the more controlled
dramatic forms of the great Athenian playwrights of the 5th century B.C.
History-writing, similarly, moved away from epic storytelling toward more
analytical inquiries into the characteristics of different cultures or (with
Thucydides) the causes of major developments such as the Peloponnesian War. In
architecture, change was more limited, but there was a tendency to move toward
more elaborate decorative motifs over time.

Inevitably, the decline of the Greek city-states and the emergence of the
larger Hellenistic zone, from the 4th to the 3d centuries B.C., produced still
more innovation in the Greek cultural tradition. Literature, for example,
declined. Alexandria in Egypt became a dominant center of literary studies,
based on a vast Greek library. Older stories and plays were preserved and
analyzed, often with great intelligence. Historical information was
elaborated, and historical biography came into its own. There were also many
disputes, some learned and some very petty, about the principles of literary
excellence. But there was little new drama produced.

Greek art and sculpture continued to dominate Hellenistic output, and the
commercial wealth of the early Hellenistic kingdoms encouraged a vast amount
of new building and decoration. While no new styles emerged, there was some
movement toward more sentimental, emotional statuary.

Hellenistic intellectuals, in addition to their concerns with ethical
systems, concentrated heavily on developing new knowledge in science and
mathematics. Alexander and the Hellenistic dynasty in Egypt encouraged this
work, and the expansion of cultural exchange in the Mediterranean in the
Middle East also encouraged new research. Hellenistic thinkers thus preserved
Greek scientific achievements and added significant new elements. Their work
provided most of the scientific learning available to the Western world for
almost 2000 years, and it also set a durable basis for scientific research in
the Middle East and North Africa. Astronomical charts and maps improved
greatly, despite the confusion about the Earth as the center of the universe.
Geography also improved, and one scientist was able to calculate the
circumference of the Earth within 200 miles. In biology and medicine, however,
there was little advancement, beyond summing up Greek research in textbook
fashion. Interest in astrology and magic in fact increased. And in general,
partly because of political decline, Hellenistic science won few new
achievements after the end of the third century.

Thus, along with an understanding of the main Greek-Hellenistic cultural
emphases as they added up over time, a grasp of changing strengths is also
essential. Hellenistic thinkers performed signal service simply in preserving
Greek learning, particularly in blending it with Middle Eastern cultures and
in spreading it to North Africa. In some facets, they also added important
contributions of their own. Their vigor and the comprehensive art and
philosophy they took over from the classical Greeks, greatly impressed the
Romans as they moved into wider contacts with the Mediterranean world, just as
the Hellenistic era was fading away.

 

 

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