The Brief History of Western Civilization Introduction The word “civilization” comes from Latin civis, meaning a citizen or resident of city. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives us a definition of civilization: “an ideal state of human culture characterized by complete absence of barbarism and non-rational behavior, optimum utilization of physical, cultural, spiritual, and human resources, and perfect adjustment of the individual within the social framework.”
The term civilization is similar to and often interchangeable with culture, but the former refers mostly to cultures that have complex economic, governmental, and social systems. That is, a civilization is technologically more advanced than other cultures of its time, whereas a culture, as a body of learned behaviors common to a given human society, shapes behavior and consciousness within a human society from generation to generation. So culture is any way of life, be it simple or complex, advanced or not advanced. Early people relied on information transmitted by word of mouth. But as cultures became increasingly complex, methods for keeping records were needed and systems of writing were created. The development of writing is a prerequisite for civilization. Therefore, the first civilizations were those highly organized societies in which the only efficient way of communication between individuals and groups across larger space and time was writing.
As the British historian Arnold Toynbee proposed his theory of challenge and response in A Study of History (1934-1961), he believed that civilizations arise only where the environment challenges the people, and only when the people are ready to respond to the challenge. This hypothesis could find support in the first civilizations, such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China, where the natural environments are not as conducive as many other places such as Western Europe to agriculture and the way of life it engendered. But when human ability to adapt to the environment increases, other challenges may take the place of those natural ones to create new civilizations.
It is important for those in Chinese civilization to know the history of other civilizations because when the developments of various civilizations are compared with one another, it is found that the problems that arise in the course of one civilization, and the solutions devised to solve those problems, tend to be similar to those that appear at paralleled points in the course of other civilizations. A civilization can keep its sustained development only if it can absorb fresh inputs from other civilizations or cultures.
The West is an idea. Originally, Europe was a name that referred only to central Greece. Gradually, Greeks extended it to include the whole Greek mainland and then the landmass to the north. Later, Roman explorers and soldiers carried Europe north and west to its modern boundaries. Western civilization is as much an idea as the West itself. Nor are Western achievements rooted forever in one corner of the world. What we call Western civilization belongs to no particular place. Its location has changed since the origins of civilization, that is, the cultural and social traditions characteristic of the civitas, or city, “Western” cities appeared first outside the “West,” in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, a region that we today call the Middle East.
By western civilization we mean the civilization that has consummated in the most industrially advanced regions in the world today, most in Europe and North America. Nevertheless, it is not a geographically defined concept. Western civilization belongs to no particular place, and the origin of Western civilization was oriental rather than occidental. The civilization that later spread to and left its legacy for the West appeared first outside the “West,” in Mesopotamia at the Tigris and Euphrates river basins in present-day Iraq and Iran, a region that westerners today call the Middle East. At every stage of its growth, Western civilization drew heavily on heritages of oriental civilizations in Egypt, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Indus, and China.
Western technology for harnessing nature, Western forms of economic and political organization, Western styles of art and music are – for good or ill – dominant influences in world civilization. They exert dominant influences on nearly all aspects of our life in our own country in the East and in most parts of the world. Many of today’s most pressing problems are also part of the legacy of the Western tradition. The remnants of European colonialism have left deep hostilities throughout the world. Hatred of Western civilization is a central, ideological tenet that inspired terrorist attacks on symbols of American economic and military strength on September 11, 2001, and the fuels anti-Western terrorism around the world. Western material goods lure millions of people from their traditional world into increasingly westernized cities. The West itself faces a crisis. The advances of Western civilization endanger our very existence. Technology pollutes the world’s air, water, and soil, and nuclear weapons threaten the destruction of all civilizations. Yet these are the same advances that allow us to lengthen life expectancy, harness the forces of nature, and conquer disease.
The content of history was restricted primarily to battles and treaties, the personalities and politics of statesmen, the laws and decrees of rulers. But important as such data are, they by no means constitute the whole substance of history. Especially within the last few decades historians have come to recognize that history comprises a record of past human activities in every sphere – not just political developments, but also social, economic, and intellectual ones. Women as well as men, the ruled as well as the rulers, the poor as well as the rich, are part of history. So too are the social and economic institutions that men and women have created and that in turn have shaped their lives: family and social class; capitalism and industrialism. Ideas and attitudes too, not just of intellectuals but also of people, are part of history. And most important, history includes an inquiry into the causes of events and patterns of human organization and ideas – a search for the forces that impelled humanity toward its great undertakings, and the reasons for its successes and failures. Identifying patterns and mechanisms of change will allow a better understanding of the present and a greater possibility of plotting prudent strategies for coping with the future.
The history of Western civilization is not simply the triumphal story of progress and the creation of a better world. Even in areas in which we can see development, such as technology, communications, and social complexity, change is not always for the better. However, it would be equally inaccurate to view Western civilization as a progressive decline from a mythical golden age of the human race. The roughly 300 generations since the origins of civilization have bequeathed a rich and contradictory legacy to the present. Inherited political and social institutions, cultural forms, and religious and philosophical traditions form the framework within which the future must be created. The past does not determine the future, but it is the raw material from which the future will be made. To use this legacy properly, we must first understand it, not because the past is the key to the future, but because understanding yesterday frees us to create tomorrow.
Chapter One GREEK CIVILIZATION Almost all the peoples of the ancient world, the one whose culture most clearly exemplified the spirit of Western society was the Greek or Hellenic. No one of these peoples had so strong a devotion to liberty or so firm a belief in the nobility of human achievement. The Greeks glorified humanity as the most important creation in the universe and refused to submit to the dictation of priests or despots. Their attitude was essentially secular and rationalistic; they exalted the spirit of free inquiry and made knowledge supreme over faith. Largely for these reasons their culture advanced to the highest stage that the ancient world was destined to reach.
1. The Greek Dark Ages
The fall of the Mycenaean civilization was a major catastrophe for the Greek world. It ushered in a period usually called by historians the Dark Ages, which lasted from about 1150 to 800 B. C. Written records disappeared, except where accidentally preserved, and culture reverted to simpler forms than had been known for centuries. Toward the end of the period some decorated pottery and skillfully designed metal objects began to appear on the islands of the Aegean Sea, but essentially the period was a long night. Aside from the development of writing at the very end, intellectual accomplishment was limited to ballads, and short epics sung and embellished by bards as they wandered from one village to another. A large part of this material was finally woven into a great epic cycle by one or more poets in the eighth century B. C. Though not all the poems of this cycle have come down to us, the two most important, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the so-called Homeric epics, provide us with a rich store of information about many of the customs and institutions of the Dark Ages.
The political institutions of the Dark Ages were exceedingly primitive. Each little community of villages was independent of external control, but political authority was so tenuous that it would not be too much to say that the state scarcely existed at all. The ruler was not much more than a tribal leader. He could not make or enforce laws or administer justice. He received no remuneration of any kind, and had to cultivate his farm for a living the same as any other citizen. Practically his only functions were military and priestly.
The pattern of social and economic life was simple. Though the general tone of the society portrayed in the epics is aristocratic, no rigid stratification of classes existed. Manual labor was not looked upon as degrading, and there were apparently no idle rich. There were dependent laborers who worked on the lands of nobles and served them as faithful warriors. Agriculture and herding were the basic occupations of free men. Except for a few skilled crafts, there was no specialization of labor. So far were the Greeks of this time from being a trading people that they had no word in their language for “merchant,” for barter was the only method of exchange.
To the Greeks of the Dark Ages religion meant chiefly a system for: (1) explaining the physical world in such a way as to remove its awesome mysteries and give people a feeling of intimate relationship with it; (2) accounting for the tempestuous passions that seized human nature; and (3) obtaining such tangible benefits as good fortune, long life, skill in craftsmanship, and abundant harvests. The Greeks did not expect that their religion would save them from sin or endow them with spiritual blessings. As they conceived it, piety was neither a matter of conduct nor of faith. Their region, accordingly, had no commandments, dogmas, or sacraments. All were at liberty to believe what they pleased and to conduct their own lives as they chose without fear of divine wrath.
As is commonly known, the deities of the early Greek religion were merely human beings writ large. It was really necessary that this should be so if the Greeks were to feel at home in the world over which they ruled. What the Greeks wanted was not necessarily gods of great power, but deities who could be bargained with on equal terms. Consequently gods were endowed with attributes similar to human ones – with human bodies and human weaknesses and wants. The early Greeks imagined the divinities as frequently quarreling with one another, mingling freely with mortals, and even occasionally procreating children by mortal women. The gods differed from humans only in the fact that they were immortal. They dwelt on the summit of Mount Olympus, a peak in northern Greece.
The religion was polytheistic, with no one deity elevated very high above any of the others. Zeus, the sky god and wielder of the thunderbolt, who was sometimes referred to as the father of the gods and of men, frequently received less attention than did Poseidon, the sea god, Aphrodite, goddess of love, or Athena, variously considered goddess of wisdom and war and patroness of handicrafts. To account for evil all the deities were deemed capable of malevolence as well as good.
The Greeks of the Dark Ages did assume, however, that shades or ghosts survived for a time after the death of their bodies. All, with a few exceptions, went to the same abode – to the murky realm of Hades situated beneath the earth. This was neither a paradise nor a hell: no one was rewarded for good deeds, and no one was punished for sins. Each of the shades appeared to continue the same kind of life its human embodiment had lived on earth.
Worship in early Greek religion consisted primarily of sacrifice. The offerings were made, however, not as an atonement for sin, but chiefly in order to please the gods and induce them to grant favors. Reverence, humility, and purity of heart were not essentials in it. The worshiper just made the proper sacrifice and then hoped for the best. The Greek temple was not a church or place of religious assemblage, and no ceremonies were performed within it. Instead it was a shrine which the god might visit occasionally and use as a temporary house. The morality of the Greeks in the Dark Ages had only the vaguest connection with their religion. Nearly all the virtues extolled in the epics were those which would make the individual a better soldier – bravery, self-control, patriotism, wisdom, love of one’s friends, and hatred of one’s enemies. There was no conception of sin in the Christian sense of wrongful acts to be repented of or atoned for.
At the end of the Dark Ages the Greeks already had started along the road of social ideals that they would follow in later centuries. They were optimists, convinced that life was worth living for its own sake, and could see no reason for looking forward to death as a glad release. They were egotists striving for the fulfillment of self. As a consequence, they rejected mortification of the flesh and all forms of denial which implied the frustration of life. Finally, they were humanists, who worshiped the finite and the natural rather than the otherworldly or sublime. For this reason they refused to invest their gods with awe-inspiring qualities, or to invent any conception of humans as depraved and sinful creatures.
2. The Evolution of The City-state
About 800 B. C. the village communities, which had been founded mainly upon tribal or clan organization, began to give way to larger political units. As trade increased, cities grew up around marketplaces and defensive fortifications as seats of government for whole communities. Thus emerged the city-state, the most famous unit of political society developed by the Greeks. They varied enormously in both area and population. At the peak of their power Athens and Sparta, each with a population of about 400,000, had approximately three times the numerical strength of most of their neighboring states.
More important is the fact that the Greek city-states varied widely in cultural evolution. With a few exceptions the Greek city-states went through a similar political evolution. They began their histories as monarchies. During the eighth century they were changed into oligarchies. About a hundred years later, on the average, most of the oligarchies were overthrown by dictators, or “tyrants”, as the Greeks called them, meaning usurpers who ruled without legal right whether oppressively or not. Finally, in the sixth and fifth centuries, democracies were set up, or in some cases “timocracies,” that is, governments based upon a property qualification for the exercise of political rights.
These developments affected not only Greece itself but many other parts of the Mediterranean world. For they were accompanied and followed by a vast overseas expansion. The results of this expansionist movement were momentous. Commerce and industry became leading pursuits and the urban population increased. Merchants and artisans now joined with dispossessed farmers in an attack upon the landholding oligarchy. The natural fruit of the bitter class conflicts that ensued was dictatorship. By encouraging extravagant hopes and promising relief from chaos, ambitious demagogues attracted enough popular support to ride into power in defiance of constitutions and laws. Ultimately, however, dissatisfaction with tyrannical rule and the increasing economic might and political consciousness of the common citizens led to the establishment of democracies or timocracies.
3. Greek Thought And Culture
In the realm of philosophy the Greeks attempted to find answers to every conceivable question about the nature of the universe, the problem of truth, and the meaning and purpose of life. The magnitude of their accomplishment is attested by the fact that philosophy ever since has been largely a debate over the validity of their conclusions.
Greek philosophy had its origins in the sixth century B. C. in the work of the so-called Milesian school, whose members were natives of the city of Miletus. Their philosophy was fundamentally scientific and materialistic. The problem which chiefly engaged them was to discover the nature of the physical world. They believed that all things could be reduced to some primary substance. Thales, the founder of the school, perceiving that all things contained moisture, taught that the primary substance is water. Anaximander insisted that it could not be any particular thing such as water or fire but something “uncreated and imperishable.” He called his substance the Indefinite or the Boundless. A third Milesian, Anaximenes, declared that the original material of the universe is air. Air when rarefied becomes fire; when condensed it turns successively to wind, vapor, water, earth, and stone. Although seemingly naïve in its conclusions, the philosophy of the Milesian school was of major significance because it broke through the mythological beliefs of the Greeks about the origin of the world and substituted purely rational explanations.
Before the end of the sixth century B. C. Greek philosophy developed a metaphysical turn; it ceased to be occupied solely with problems of the physical world and shifted its attention to abstruse questions about the nature of being, the meaning of truth, and the position of the divine in the scheme of things. First to exemplify the new tendency were the Pythagoreans, who interpreted philosophy largely in terms of religion. They taught that the speculative life is the highest good, but that in order to pursue it, the individual must be purified of the evil desires of the flesh. They held that the essence of things is not a material substance but an abstract principle, number. Their chief significance lies in the sharp distinctions they drew between spirit and matter, harmony and discord, good and evil, which made them the founders of dualism in Greek thought.
A consequence of the work of the Pythagoreans was to intensify the debate over the nature of the universe. One of their contemporaries, Parmenides, argued that stability or permanence is the real nature of things; change and diversity are simply illusions of the senses. Directly opposed to this was the position taken by Heraclitus, who argued that permanence is an illusion, that change alone is real. The universe, he maintained, is in a condition of constant flux; therefore “it is impossible to step twice into the same stream.” Creation and destruction, life and death, are but the obverse and reverse sides of the same picture. In other words, Heraclitus believed that the things we see, hear, and feel are all there is to reality. Evolution or constant change is the law of the universe. No underlying substance exists immutable through all eternity.
A final alternative to the question of the underlying character of the universe was provided by the atomists. The philosopher chiefly responsible for the development of the atomic theory was Democritus, who lived in the second half of the fifth century B. C. As their name implies, the atomists held that the ultimate constituents of the universe are atoms, infinite in number indestructible, and indivisible. Because of the motion inherent in them, they are eternally uniting, separating, and reuniting in different arrangements. Every individual object or organism in the universe is thus the product of a fortuitous concourse of atoms. The only difference between a human and a tree is the difference in the number and arrangement of their atoms. This philosophy represented the final fruition of the materialistic tendencies of early Greek thought. Democritus denied the immortality of the soul and the existence of any spiritual world. Strange as it may appear to some people, he was a moral idealist, affirming that “good means not merely not to do wrong, but rather not to desire to do wrong.”
About the middle of the fifth century B. C. an intellectual revolution began in Greece. It accompanied the high point of democracy in Athens. The rise in the power of the citizen, the growth of individualism, and the demand for the solution of practical problems produced a reaction against the old ways of thinking. As a result some Greek philosophers abandoned the study of the physical universe and turned to consideration of subjects more intimately related to the individual. The first exponents of the new intellectual trend were the Sophists. Originally the term meant “those who are wise,” but later it came to be used in the derogatory sense of men who employ specious reasoning. Since most of our knowledge of the Sophists comes from Plato, one of their severest critics, they were commonly viewed as the enemies of all that was best in Hellenic culture. Modern research has rejected so extreme a conclusion, while conceding that some members of the group did lack a sense of social responsibility and were quite unscrupulous in “making the worse appear the better case.”
One of the leading Sophists was Protagoras, who did most of his teaching in Athens. His famous dictum, “Man is the measure of all things,” contains the essence of the Sophist philosophy. By this he meant that goodness, truth, justice, and beauty are relative to the needs and interests of man. There are no absolute truths or eternal standards of right and justice. Since sense perception is the exclusive source of knowledge, there can be only particular truths valid for a given time and place. Some of the later Sophists went far beyond the teachings of Protagoras. The individualism implicit in the teachings of Protagoras was twisted by Thrasymachus into the doctrine that all laws and customs are merely expressions of the will of the strongest and shrewdest for their own advantage, and that therefore the wise man is the “perfectly unjust man” who is above the law and concerned with the gratification of his own desires. Perhaps most important, the Sophists broadened philosophy to include not only physics and metaphysics, but ethics and politics. As the Roman Cicero expressed it, they “brought philosophy down from heaven to the dwellings of men.”
Inevitably the relativism, skepticism, and individualism of the Sophists aroused strenuous opposition. In the judgment of the more conservative Greeks these doctrines appeared to lead straight to atheism and anarchy. The result of this conviction was the growth of a new philosophic movement grounded upon the theory that truth is real and that absolute standards do exist. The leaders of this movement were perhaps the three most famous individuals in the history of thought – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Socrates was born in Athens in 469 B. C. of humble parentage. He became a philosopher on his own account chiefly to combat the doctrines of the Sophists. In 399 B. C. he was condemned to death on a charge of “corrupting the youth and introducing new gods.” The real reason for the unjust sentence was the tragic outcome for Athens of the Peloponnesian War. Overwhelmed by resentment, the Athenian citizens turned against Socrates because of his associations with aristocrats, and because of his criticism of popular belief. There is also evidence that he disparaged democracy and contended that no government was worthy of the name except intellectual aristocracy. Because Socrates wrote nothing himself, he is generally regarded as primarily a teacher of ethics with no interest in abstract philosophy. Certain passages in Plato, however, raise the possibility that Plato’s abstract doctrine of Ideas was ultimately of Socratic origin. Socrates believed in a stable and universally valid knowledge, which humans could possess if they pursued the right method. Socrates argued that in similar fashion man could discover enduring principles of right and justice independent of the selfish desires of human beings. He believed, moreover, that the discovery of such rational principles of conduct would prove an infallible guide to virtuous living, for he denied that anyone who knows the good can choose the evil.
By far the most distinguished of Socrates’ pupils was Plato, who was born in Athens around 429 B. C., the son of noble parents. At the age of twenty Plato joined the Socratic circle, remaining a member until the tragic death of his teacher. Unlike his great mentor, he was a prolific writer. The most noted of his works are such dialogues as the Apology, the Phaedo, the Phaedrus, the Symposium, and the Republic. He was engaged in the completion of the Laws when death overtook him his eighty-first year.
Plato’s objectives were similar to those of Socrates although somewhat broader: (1) to combat the theory of reality and to substitute an interpretation of the universe; (2) to refute the Sophist doctrines of relativism and skepticism; and (3) to provide a secure foundation for ethics. In order to realize these aims he developed his doctrine of Ideas. He admitted that relativity and change are characteristics of the world of physical things, of the world we perceive with our senses. But he denied that this world is the complete universe. A higher, spiritual realm exists, composed of eternal forms or Ideas which only the mind can conceive. These are not, however, mere abstractions invented by the mind, but spiritual things. There are Ideas of man, tree, shape, color, proportion, beauty, and justice. Highest of them all is the Idea of the Good, the active cause and guiding purpose of the universe. The things we perceive through our senses are merely imperfect copies of the supreme realities, Ideas.
Plato’s ethical and religious philosophy was closely related to his doctrine of Ideas. He believed that true virtue has its basis and variable; hence true virtue must consist in rational apprehension of the eternal Ideas of goodness and justice. By relegating the physical to an inferior place, he gave to his ethics an ascetic tinge. He regarded the body as a hindrance to the mind and taught that only the rational part of man’s nature is noble and good. He urged that appetites and emotions should be strictly subordinated to reason. Plato never made his conception of God entirely clear, but he conceived of the universe as spiritual in nature and mechanism. As for the soul, he regarded it not only as immortal but as preexisting through all eternity.
As a political philosopher Plato was motivated by the ideal of constructing a state which would be free from turbulence and self-seeking on the part of individuals and classes. Neither democracy nor liberty but harmony and efficiency were the ends he desired to achieve. Accordingly, he proposed in his Republic a plan for society which would have divided the population into three principal classes corresponding to the functions of the soul. The lowest class, representing the appetitive function, would include the farmers, artisans, and merchants. The second class, representing the spirited element or will, would consist of the soldiers. The highest class, representing the function of reason, would be composed of the intellectual aristocracy. Each of these classes would perform those tasks for which it was best fitted. The division of the people into these several ranks would not be made on the basis of birth or wealth, but through a sifting process that would take into account the ability of each individual to profit from education.
The last of the great champions of the Socratic tradition was Aristotle (384-322B. C.). At the age of seventeen he entered Plato’s Academy, continuing as student and teacher there for twenty years. In 343 B. C. he was invited by Philip of Macedon to serve as tutor to the young Alexander the Great. Seven years later Aristotle returned to Athens, where he conducted a school of his own, known as the Lyceum. Aristotle wrote even more voluminously than Plato and on a greater variety of subjects. His principal works include treatises on logic, metaphysics, rhetoric, ethics, natural sciences, and politics.
Though Aristotle was as much interested as Plato and Socrates in absolute knowledge and eternal standards, his philosophy differed from theirs in several outstanding respects. To begin with, he had a higher regard for the concrete and the practical. In contrast with Plato and Socrates, Aristotle was an empirical scientist with a compelling interest in biology, physics, and astronomy. Moreover, he was less inclined than his predecessors to a spiritual outlook. And last, he did not share their strong aristocratic sympathies.
Aristotle agreed with Plato that universals, Ideas (or forms as he called them), are real, and that knowledge derived from the senses is limited and inaccurate. He asserted that form and matter are of equal importance; both are eternal, and neither can exist without the other. The union of these two gives the universe its character. Forms are the causes of all things; they are the purposive forces that shape the world of matter into the infinitely varied objects and organisms around us. All evolution, both cosmic and organic, results from the interaction of form and matter. Aristotle’s philosophy may be regarded as halfway between the spiritualism and transcendentalism of Plato on the one hand, and the mechanistic materialism of the atomists on the other. His conception of the universe was teleological – that is, governed by purpose; but he refused to regard the spiritual as overshadowing its material embodiment. Aristotle’s scientific attitude led him to conceive of God primarily as a First Cause. Aristotle’s God was simply the Prime Mover, the original source of the purposive motion contained in the forms. Aristotle seems to have left no place for individual immortality: all the functions of the soul, except the creative reason which is not individual at all, depend upon the body and perish with it.
Aristotle’s ethical philosophy was less ascetic than Plato’s. He did not regard the body as the prison of the soul, nor did he believe that physical appetites are necessarily evil in themselves. He taught that the highest good consists in self-realization. Self-realization would be identical with the life of reason. But the life of reason is dependent upon the proper combination of physical and mental conditions. The body must be kept in good health and the emotions under adequate control. The solution is to be found in the golden mean, in preserving a balance between excessive indulgence on the one hand and ascetic denial on the other. This was simply a reaffirmation of the characteristic Greek ideal of sophrosyne, “nothing too much.”
Aristotle included in his Politics much descriptive and analytical material on the structure and functions of government, and he dealt primarily with the broader aspects of political theory. He considered the state as the supreme institution for the promotion of the good life, and he was therefore vitally interested in its origin and development and in the best forms it could be made to assume. Declaring that man is by nature a political animal, he denied that the state is an artificial product of the ambitions of the few or of the desires of the many. On the contrary, he asserted that it is rooted in the instincts of man himself. He considered the best state to be neither a monarchy, an aristocracy, nor a democracy, but a polity – which he defined as a commonwealth intermediate between oligarchy and democracy. Essentially it would be a state under the control of the middle class, but Aristotle intended to make sure that the members of that class would be fairly numerous, for he advocated measures to prevent the concentration of wealth. He defended the institution of private property, but he opposed the heaping up of riches beyond what is necessary for intelligent living. He recommended that the government provide the poor with money to buy small farms or to “make a beginning in trade and husbandry” and thus promote their prosperity and self-respect.
Contrary to popular belief, the period of Greek civilization before the end of the fourth century B. C. was not a great age of science. The vast majority of the scientific achievements commonly thought of as Greek were made during the Hellenistic period, when the culture was no longer predominantly Greek but a mixture of Greek and western Asian. Consequently, with the exception of some important developments in mathematics, biology, and medicine, scientific progress was relatively slight.
The most significant Greek mathematical work was accomplished by the Pythagoreans. These followers of Pythagoras developed an elaborate theory of numbers, classifying them into various categories. They are also supposed to have discovered the theory of proportion and to have proved for the first time that the sum of the three angles of any triangle is equal to two right angles. But the most famous of their achievements was the discovery of the theorem attributed to Pythagoras himself: the square of the hypotenuse of any right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
The first of the Greeks to manifest an interest in biology was the philosopher Anaximander, who developed a crude theory of organic evolution based upon the principle of survival through progressive adaptations to the environment. The earliest ancestral animals, he asserted, lived in the sea, which originally covered the whole face of the earth. As the waters receded, some organisms were able to adjust themselves to their new environment and became land animals. The final product of this evolutionary process was man himself. The real founder of the science of biology, however, was Aristotle. Devoting many years of his life to painstaking study of the structure, habits, and growth of animals, he made many remarkable observations. Unfortunately, however, Aristotle’s biology was also heavily laden with misconceptions: he denied the sexuality of plants, for example, and he believed in the spontaneous generation of certain species of worms and insects.
Greek medicine also had its origin with the philosophers. A pioneer was Empedocles, exponent of the theory of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). He discovered that blood flows to and from the heart, and that the pores of the skin supplement the work of the respiratory passages in the breathing. More important was the work of Hippocrates of Cos in the fifth and fourth centuries B. C. By general consensus he is regarded as the father of medicine. He dinned into the ears of his pupils the doctrine that “every disease has a natural cause, and without natural causes, nothing ever happens.” In addition, by his methods of careful study and comparison of symptoms he laid the foundations for clinical medicine. He discovered the phenomenon of crisis in disease and improved the practice of surgery. Though he had a wide knowledge of drugs, his chief reliances in treatment were diet and rest. The main fact to his discredit was his development of the theory of the four humors – the notion that illness is due to excessive amounts of yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm in the system. The practice of bleeding the patient was the regrettable outgrowth of this theory.
Generally the most common medium of literary expression in the formative age of a people is the epic of heroic deeds. The most famous of the Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were put into written form at the end of the eighth century B. C. and commonly attributed to Homer. The first, which deals with the Trojan War, has its theme in the wrath of Achilles; the second describes the wanderings and return of Odysseus. Both have supreme literary merit in their carefully woven plots, in the realism of their character portrayals, and in their mastery of the full range of emotional intensity. They exerted an almost incalculable influence upon later writers. Their style and language inspired the fervid emotional poetry of the sixth century B. C., and they were an unfailing source of plots and themes for the great tragedians of the Golden Age of the fifth century B. C.
The three centuries which followed the Dark Ages were distinguished by tremendous social changes. The rural pattern of life gave way to an urban society of steadily increasing complexity. The founding of colonies and the growth of commerce provided new interests and habits of living. Inevitably these changes were reflected in new forms of literature, especially of a more personal type. The first to be developed was the elegy. Elegies varied in theme from individual reactions toward love to the idealism of patriots and reformers. Generally, however, they were devoted to melancholy reflection on the disillusionments of life or to bitter lament over the loss of prestige. Outstanding among the authors of elegiac verse was Solon the legislator. In the sixth century B. C. and the early part of the fifth, the elegy found a rival in the lyric, which derives its name from the fact that it was sung to the music of the lyre. The new type of poetry was particularly well adapted to the expression of passionate feelings, the violent loves and hates engendered by the strife of classes. It was employed for other purposes also. Both Alcaeus and Sappho, the latter a woman poet, used it to describe the poignant beauty of love, the delicate grace of spring, and the starlit splendor of a summer night. Meanwhile other poets developed the choral lyric, intended to express the feelings of the community rather than the sentiments of any one individual. Greatest of all the writers of this group was Pindar of Thebes, whose lyrics took the form of odes celebrating the victories of athletes and the glories of Greek civilization.
The supreme literary achievement of the Greeks was the tragic drama. Like so many of their other great works, it had its roots in religion. At the festivals dedicated to the worship of Dionysus, the god of spring and of wine, a chorus of men dressed as satyrs, or goat-men, sang and danced around an altar, enacting the various parts that related the story of the god’s career. In time a leader came to be separated from the chorus to recite the main parts of the story. The true drama was born about the beginning of the fifth century B. C.. The name “tragedy,” which came to be applied to this drama, was probably derived from the Greek word tragos meaning “goat.”
Greek tragedy stands out in marked contrast to the tragedies of Shakespeare or modern playwrights. There was, first of all, little action presented on the stage; the main business of the actors was to recite the incidents of a plot which was already familiar to the audience, for the story was drawn from popular legends. Second, Greek tragedy devoted little attention to the study of complicated individual personality. Those involved in the plot were scarcely individuals at all, but types. On the stage they wore masks to disguise any characteristics which might serve to distinguish them too sharply from the rest of humanity. In addition, Greek tragedies differed from the modern variety in having as their theme the conflict between the individual and the universe, not the clash between personalities, or the internal conflicts of one person. The tragic fate that befell the main characters in these plays was external to individuals. It was brought on by the fact that someone had committed a crime against society, or against the gods, thereby violating the scheme of the universe. Punishment must follow in order to balance the scale of justice. Finally, the purpose of Greek tragedies was not merely to depict suffering and to interpret human actions, but to purify the emotions of the audience by representing the triumph of justice.
In Greek, the first of the tragic dramatist was Aeschylus (525 B. C.). Though he is known to have written about eighty plays, only seven have survived in complete form, among them Prometheus Boundand a trilogy known as The Oresteia. Guilt and punishment is the recurrent theme of nearly all of them. The second of the leading tragedians, Sophocles (496-406 B. C.), is often considered the greatest. His style was more polished and his philosophy more profound than that of his predecessor. He was the author of over a hundred plays. His attitude was distinguished by love of harmony and peace, intelligent respect for democracy, and profound sympathy for human weakness. The most famous of his plays are Oedipus Rex and Antigone. The work of the last of the great tragedians, Euripides (480-406 B. C.), reflects a different spirit. He was a skeptic and individualist who took delight in ridiculing the ancient myths and the “sacred cows” of his time. He was the first to give the ordinary man, even the beggar and the peasant, a place in the drama. Euripides is also noted for his sympathy for the slave, for his condemnation of war, and for his protests against the exclusion of women from social and intellectual life. Because of his humanism, his tendency to portray men as they actually were, and his introduction of the love motif into drama, he is often considered a modernist. It must be remembered, however, that in other respects his plays were perfectly consistent with the Greek model. They did not exhibit the evolution of individual character or the conflict of egos to any greater extent than did the works of Sophocles or Aeschylus. Nevertheless, he has been called the most tragic of the Greek dramatists because he dealt with situations having analogues in real life. Among the best-known tragedies of Euripides are Alcestis, Medea, and The Trojan Women.
Greek comedy, in common with tragedy, appears to have grown out of the Dionysian festivals, but it did not attain full development until late in the fifth century B. C. Its outstanding representative was Aristophanes (448?-380? B. C.). Most of his plays satirized the political and intellectual ideals of the radical democracy of his time. In The Knights he pilloried the incompetent and greedy politicians for their reckless adventures in imperialism. In The Frogs he lampooned Euripides’s innovations in the drama. In The Clouds he reserved for ridicule of the Sophists, ignorantly or maliciously classifying Socrates as one of them. While he was undoubtedly an imaginative and humorous writer, his thought tended toward caricature. He deserves much credit, however, for his sharp criticisms of the policies of the warhawks of Athens during the struggle with Sparta.
No account of Greek literature would be complete without some mention of the two great historians of the Golden Age. Herodotus, the “father of history” (c. 484-c.420 B. C.), was a native of Halicarnasus in Asia Minor. He traveled extensively through the Persian Empire, Egypt, Greece, and Italy, collecting a multitude of interesting data about various peoples. His famous account of the great war between the Greeks and the Persians included so much background that the work seems almost a history of the world. He regarded that war as an epic struggle between East and West, with Zeus giving victory to the Greeks against a mighty host of barbarians. If Herodotus deserves to be called the father of history, much more does his younger contemporary, Thucydides (c. 460-c.400B. C.), deserves to be considered the founder of scientific history. Influenced by the skepticism and practicality of the Sophists, Thucydides chose to work on the basis of carefully sifted evidence, rejecting legends and hearsay. The subject of his History was the war between Sparta and Athens, which he described scientifically and dispassionately, emphasizing the complexity of causes which led to the clash. His aim was to present an accurate record which could be studied with profit by statesmen and generals of all time.