Though a sundry of modern practices have their roots in the ancient Near East, it is the Greeks who absorbed these traditions and made them their own, thereby laying the foundation for Western Civilization. This is particular true in three realms of Greek thought: their uniquely Greek approach to philosophy, the concept of freedom it produced, and the literature that has preserved these thoughts for generations since.
Greek philosophy, like many other things Greek, had its roots in the thought of the ancient Near East, especially in the Ionian areas of modern-day Turkey (this also become the driving thesis of Freeman’s sweeping survey, Egypt, Greece and Rome). There, during Greece’s Archaic Age, Greek thinkers began to recognize the presence of certain laws of nature that seemed uniform and predictable, especially as they concerned the movements of the celestial bodies. Such a view, however, represented a clear departure from the popular beliefs of the day, which held that natural phenomena were the results of the arbitrary will of the divines rather than anything approaching an understandable order and pattern. The result was the recognition of logic (from the Greek word logos or ‘thought,’ ‘study’) as the uniquely human way of solving problems of everyday human life both in nature (as in the example above) as well as in humanity itself (psychologically and socially; see Martin 90-91).
Greek philosophy, however, was not limited to these subjects alone. Later in its development, Socrates introduced a moral aspect to philosophy that gave us another word used often today: ethics. Socrates’ focus was simple; justice was the goal of human existence and because of this, an individual could only be happy by achieving this justice in his own behavior toward others, a state Socrates defined as virtue. For Socrates, then, it was in the individual’s best interest to reflect on his own character, to challenge his assumptions and in doing so, to refine his own sense of right and wrong as he related to those around him. “Moral knowledge was all one needed for the good life, as Socrates defined it” (Martin 170). It was this foundation that was built upon by Socrates’ student Plato, crystallized by Plato’s student Aristotle, and eventually challenged by the later Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans of the Hellenistic Age (Martin 177-185, 212-217). In essence, then, prior to the second century before Christ, the Greeks had undertaken nearly every major issue and approach to human knowledge and happiness.
One major ideal served as both an underlying assumption and an overarching conclusion to such self- and natural examination: the Greek concept of freedom. Today, the word freedom is almost always understood in a political sense, and while such an understanding would concur with ancient Greek thoughts on the subject, the word itself implied much more than simple civil liberty. In a political sense, a Greek used the word simply to mean that “however his polity was governed it respected his rights,” whether he had any say in the matter or not (Kitto 9). “But ‘eleutheria’…was much more than this . . . . Slavery and despotism are things that maim the soul . . . . The Oriental custom of obeisance struck the Greek as not ‘eleutheron’; in his eyes it was an affront to human dignity” (Kitto 10). There was also then a spiritual connotation to the word that tied the welfare of the community inextricably to the welfare of individuals with both physical and spiritual natures. Freedom was not just a political ideal, but an overriding principle that led to a distinctively human way of solving problems rooted in our shared ability to observe and reason based on common human experience.
But for the Greeks, writing was not merely didactic. Instead, their thoughts on natural law, logic, ethics, and freedom, were most often transmitted artistically through literature and drama. As Kitto points out, “That which distils [sic], preserves and then enlarges the experience of a people is Literature” and human society at-large owes a great debt of gratitude to the Greeks in this respect (Kitto 8). Though various forms of poetry existed prior to the rise of Greek literature (religious, romantic, prophetic), the Greeks soon added both epic and lyric poetry to this list.
Epic poetry was especially important in preserving what would otherwise have been lost of Greece’s Mycenaean past on the Eurasian mainland. Homeric poetry mainly discussed the uniquely human value of excellence (Greek arete). The goal of the excellent life, however, was not moral in nature but involved the legacy one would leave behind, what the Greeks called their kleos, or “glorious reputation,” whether on the battlefield, through friendship with strangers (the literal meaning of hospitality), or through victory in the quadrennial Olympic games (Martin 41-46). Mythology also played a prominent role in the shaping of early Greek thought on their existence. The poet Hesiod sought to recast the myths of his forbearers “to reveal the divine origin of justice” as an absolute sense of right and wrong rooted in humanity’s common origins and their shared fate in death (Martin 48).
Lyric poetry came onto the scene much later with a greater emphasis on the musical aspects of poetry, varying the rhythm, including instrumental accompaniment, and being written for performances by choruses which often performed them while dancing rather simply seated or standing (Martin 89). Along with this change in form came a similar change in content, as the Greeks began putting their thoughts on politics and philosophy into writing for the first time, first in lyric poetry and then in prose, an innovation that had not previously been attempted on such a scale by any human society (Martin 90). It can be said with some truth then that most of the genres of literature recognize and work within today were “created and perfected by the Greeks” (Kitto 9).
The Greeks have impacted our collective consciousness in ways both simple and profound. They believed there was something that set us apart from the other creatures with which we share our planet. Because of this, they believed it was perfectly in keeping with their nature to look both internally and externally to explain their material, spiritual, ethical and political existence—all in the name of justice and the achievement of their own earthly happiness. And in doing so, they produced many of the greatest works in human thought. We remain the heirs of the Greeks, then, not because they are more than human but because they are precisely much like ourselves, and because of this, their experiences are ours, their aspirations are ours, and their lessons are for us all.