Stuff from Way Back #11: Exactly Why the Greeks Were Great

(I have no more completed Moses chapters; there were enough “likes” that I will persevere.  My apologies for posting the ancient Olympics piece twice.  If you like the following, read my Greek history Dare To Struggle, Dare To Win.)


It has been a traditional proposition in the West, one to which most intelligent people will pay immediate lip service, that ancient Greece was great and vitally important to the history of the human race. But why? Few, including many in classical studies, it seems, can provide any sort of substantial answer to this question. Vaguely gesturing towards the Parthenon and mentioning such things as democracy and Euripides and Plato, as most would do, barely hints at the reason for the greatness of Greece. Other cultures have after all created beauty and nurtured great intellects. Other peoples have exercised far more power over far wider areas than the Greeks. In terms of extent and longevity Roman society, which ultimately captured Greece, must certainly be deemed greater. What is it about the Greeks?
What makes the Greeks great, and uniquely so, is the discovery of the basic concepts utterly necessary to a mature society, whatever its cultural character. They are: constitutionalism, the notion that law is at the foundation of the social organization and that the people, not kings and gods, are the source of authority; rationalism, the will to doubt and to examine the universe according to logic and evidence, rather than faith and fantasy; and humanism, the conviction that man, rather than god, is at the center of things, that he is what is most important in our world. And with humanism comes a fourth idea, that of the individual, this curious notion that the individual human being has a value and a dignity quite apart from the group and the gods.
Constitutionalism has to do with the nature of authority in the community. In the pre-Greek societies of the ancient Near East the operative idea behind the kingship – and thus behind the whole concept of authority in the state – was that the power exercised by the king came from above, from the gods. With this notion, a society will never get beyond monarchy in its political development, and the kingship will likely have theocratic overtones, as is most obvious in the case of the Egyptian god-king.  What the Greeks entertained was precisely the opposite notion, that the power first wielded by their petty kings came from below, from the community, upon whose behalf, at least in theory, they ruled. This is the root idea of constitutionalism: the authority exercised by the state, whatever form the state takes, derives from the people. This concept simply did not exist in any of the oriental societies, where authority derived from heaven.
Now, this idea is hardly unique to the Greeks or to the Indo-European linguistic family to which they belong. Rather, it appears to be common to primitive and especially hunting-gathering tribal societies, in which the hunter-warrior host creates a sort of elective kingship in order to enhance its efficiency and that informal kingship tends to become hereditary, though insecurely so. The idea just seems to get lost as those societies settle and develop agriculture, and in only two places does it survive and mature to the point of influencing other societies: Greece and Italy.
The first Greek speakers certainly brought the idea with them when they entered the Balkan peninsula around 2000 BC, part of the great migration of Indo-European peoples from the north, but it could not survive in an Aegean world already dominated by the high culture of Minoan Crete. Mycenaean Greece (c. 1600 – 1200 BC) is consequently little different in its ideas and institutions from its oriental predecessors. But all this was swept away in the late thirteenth and twelfth centuries by a new Indo-European invasion, which obliterated the Hittite empire in Anatolia, tipped New Kingdom Egypt into a nose dive towards oblivion and sent another wave of Greeks, the Dorians, into the Balkans, where they vaporized Mycenaean civilization.
Greece was plunged into the Dark Age (c. 1200 – 750), but the new arrivals were free to develop their society without foreign influence. From the evidence of Homer, the later Macedonian kingship and the German tribes observed by the Romans, that society was initially made up of crude, isolated agricultural communities, each typically ruled by a chief or petty king, whose rule is based upon his control of a warrior host and is hereditary only to the extent that he who inherits can rule. The warrior aristocracy retain their tradition of assembling to hear and advise the king and most important, they understand themselves to be the source of his authority. Because of the unsettled conditions and warrior values, land has been temporarily replaced by herds and flocks and movable goods as the primary form of wealth.
As conditions stabilized and these communities grew, pressure on the king mounted, while the warrior aristocracy began to lose its heroic ideals and melt into agriculture. Land was meanwhile reemerging as the primary form of wealth, and the most important families were creating a new aristocracy, one whose power base was more familiar, the ownership of land. While the warrior aristocracy disappeared, however, their tradition of gathering to advise the king did not, and their informal assembly increasingly became a gathering of ordinary citizens.
Finally, in the close environment of the proto-polis (city-state) the new landed nobility rapidly developed a consciousness of their own power, and the poor obsolete warrior leaders began to disappear. Remember, the Greek kingship was not protected by the gods and their officials on earth, as in the Near Eastern societies, where abolishing monarchy would literally mean assaulting the natural order of things in the universe. Nor was there any strong institution or long tradition behind these rulers, as there was behind the kings of Babylon or Egypt. It appears the process was generally peaceful, as the monarchs were gradually stripped of their powers, until the office was no more than a limited tenure magistracy or disappeared altogether. At the same time, the need for the aristocrats to formulate rules for the sharing of the deposed king’s power led to more precise definitions of law and thus the development of the one-time warrior assembly into an actual legislative body.
By the middle of the eighth century the kingship has generally disappeared from Greece, which is already a tremendous achievement, since from the birth of civilization some two thousand years earlier monarchy had been the inevitable rule. Now, in the Balkan peninsula we find hundreds of little republics, possessing the basic machinery of constitutional government: each was governed by elected, limited term magistrates, and each had a citizen assembly that was the source of political authority and actually passed the laws. Of course, this political apparatus was oppressively controlled by the landed aristocracies of birth, but the fact is, it was there. And embedded in the very fabric of the young polis were the ideas that would form the essentials of constitutionalism and distinguish the matured polis.
Most important is the concept of the individual in society as “citizen” rather than “subject,” that is, the notion that the authority exercised by the state comes from below, from the people. One aspect of this bedrock concept is the universality of law, the idea that all members of the community, including the rulers, are equally subject to the law, because the community is the authority behind the law, regardless of who actually makes it. Egypt, for example, produces no law codes because it needs none; all regulations will come from heaven, through the mouth of Pharaoh. Another obvious derivative is the basic democratic idea: those in authority are in some manner responsive to the will of the citizen body, because it is from that citizen body that they derive their authority. And being incubated within the idea of man as “citizen” is the notion of man the individual.
Constitutionalism found its maturity in the Archaic Age (c. 750 – 500 BC), as the rapid growth of commerce and manufacture produced growing pressure on the old aristocracies by creating in Greek society centers of economic power that were outside their circles. At the same time the arrival of a middling class allowed the emergence of citizen armies of heavy infantry, which led almost immediately to the toppling of the birth aristocracies, as ambitious individuals rode the social discontent and new hoplite armies to power in the seventh and sixth centuries. The Age of Tyrants was over by the end of the sixth century, but it accelerated the process of moving from access to political power based on birth to access based on wealth, and thereafter the standard for the polis was one of matured constitutional government, in the form of oligarchies of wealth and democracies of various sorts.
The Archaic Age also witnessed the other world class breakthroughs, the discovery of rationalism and humanism, and it is during these centuries that the individual first walks the earth. To a great degree these towering discoveries in sixth century Ionia (the Aegean coast of Anatolia) were a matter of the right combination of things coming together in the right place at the right time. Certainly, the most important factor was the nature of the inherited Olympic religion, which the Ionian scientists ultimately spurned. The key fact here was the absence of a church, of an institutionalized religion with an ideology and a priest class to defend that ideology. This had already played an important role in Greek constitutional development, since it allowed the polis to avoid the invariable pattern found in the Near Eastern societies: the fusion or at least mutual support of the secular and religious authorities in defense of the political and intellectual status quo.
The tenets of Greek polytheism were very fluid and permitted almost complete intellectual freedom. There were no holy books or stultifying dogma and no powerful organization to enforce beliefs and threaten the thinker with the stake. “Amateurs,” like the late eighth century poet Hesiod, were consequently free to speculate on questions, such as the origins of the universe, that were normally reserved for the “professionals” of the priesthood. Organized religions have invariably slowed intellectual progress, for god requires belief without doubt, and doubt is vital to the discovery of truth.
Further, in contrast to the religions of the Near East the Greeks held that the Olympic gods did not create the universe, that men and gods were both subordinate to the fact of its existence. This permitted – and perhaps encouraged – speculation about its origins in terms other than divinities and personalities, which constitute the causative coin of mythopoeism. The world view of the Near Eastern societies was mythopoeic, or “myth-making,” a belief system in which the universe is completely animate and every natural phenomenon is the manifestation of a will or personality. Mythic thinking eschews generalization, is unconcerned with logic and consistency and cannot understand natural causation, since inanimate matter and impersonal forces simply do not exist. Like everyone else the Greeks first viewed the world mythically, but with their belief that the universe preceded the gods they had a leg up in the process of breaking free of the restraining bonds of mythic thought. And non-mythic propositions about the nature of the universe invite further examination and question because they are not protected by the sacred inviolability of myth.
A second important factor was the simple existence of the Greek cities in Ionia, where they formed a kind of east-west interface with the older oriental cultures. This not only brought access to the accumulated ideas and data of the eastern societies, but more important it also provided obvious and unavoidable cultural contrasts. You did not have to walk many miles inland from Miletus before you came upon communities that were definitely not Greek and that had far different customs, values and social organization. Fortunately, there are some who do not immediately assume these strangers must be wrong but face such a challenge by questioning the absolute validity of their own institutions, by wondering if perhaps such things are all relative after all. And thus some men were led to the first stages of skepticism, which is absolutely fundamental to scientific inquiry, for if you are content and do not doubt, there is no spur to intellectual progress. The Egyptians provide the perfect example: because of their benign and isolated environment, they immediately developed a self-satisfying, all-encompassing view of a positive and unchanging universe, in which everything was understood, and the price paid for the psychological contentment engendered by this was fifteen hundred years without progress of any kind.
Like the Egyptians and most people everywhere, the Greeks of course assumed that their ways were best, and the development of their society was accompanied by a growing conviction that Greek culture was simply better than anything the rest of the world had to offer. But one important component of this culture was the Ionian tradition of skepticism and examination, which made the Greeks, and subsequent western civilization, generally more receptive to outside ideas and less xenophobic than most. Again, in virtual cultural isolation for a millennium and a half, Egypt was so unreceptive to non-Egyptian ideas that they shattered the confidence and hope of the society when new ideas poured in as a result of the Hyksos occupation and New Kingdom imperialism.
Also because of the east-west interface, which put them on the cutting edge of the Archaic Age economic boom, the Ionian cities rapidly achieved a high level of material prosperity, which freed more men for purely intellectual pursuits. The existence of a leisure class is of course not a sufficient condition for the birth of rationalism; every civilization since Sumer had possessed a leisure class of some size, but none had produced rationalism. It is, however, a necessary condition, since men who do not have time just to think will not think new thoughts.
A final and extremely important factor was the material progress being achieved by the Greeks, especially in the sixth century. Archaic Age Greece was one of those very rare moments before the modern world when real change was apparent in a man’s lifetime, as the Greeks began to make great advances in the arts and engineering and in general mastery over the environment. Especially important in these developments were the new political hardballers, the tyrants, who could provide far more efficient government than the aristocrats ever could and who were everywhere inclined to feats of engineering.
Because of these achievements, because of the inescapable fact that life and society were not just discernibly changing, but also generally improving, the Greeks were becoming infected with a totally new idea – that of progress. For the first time in the history of the planet men were looking forward, rather than back to some golden heroic age. Every other society in the ancient Mediterranean had believed that if things were changing at all, they were only getting worse, and the Egyptians did not even have a real concept of non-periodic change and the passage of time. True, the Hebrews looked forward, but only to the arrival of a messiah; they had no concept of progress. The Greeks too had a vision of an earlier golden age, but that was now giving way to the astounding notion that things were getting better.
And these achievements were the accomplishments of men, not gods. Men were taking pride in human accomplishment and discovering that man, not god, was the most proper object of human attention, that human society and the individual human being had their own intrinsic dignity and worth. Indeed, the fact that the Olympic gods were so perfectly anthropomorphic, differing from men only in their immortality and immense power, made them completely unsuitable role models, compelling the Greeks to look to themselves for their moral values. Humanism was being born. In the mid-sixth century the Ionian scientist Xenophanes summed it all up in a single statement, one that would have been utterly impossible in any of the societies that preceded the Greeks: “The gods did not reveal to men all things from the beginning, but men, through their own search, find in the course of time that which is better.”
The result of all these factors was the birth of Greek rationalism and the real genesis of science and philosophy. The Ionian philosopher-scientists asked “why” concerning the world and its phenomena and sought to make consistent and logical generalizations about nature. And unlike any before them they did so from simple curiosity, from the plain desire to understand. The Near Eastern societies had developed a considerable body of scientific knowledge, but they had done so in the service of religion or practical needs and in a context of mythic thought. The engineering skills of the Egyptians, for example, followed upon the desire to build more elaborate temples and tombs, and the astronomical data of the Babylonians were collected in order better to read the will of the gods. And whatever the motives, the mythopoeism of these societies prevented them from turning their accumulation of data into true science. Now, for the first time in any significant numbers men were studying the world around them simply to understand it and were realizing that through such understanding the human condition could be improved.
The new skepticism was particularly focused on the religious traditions, and Ionian scientists were breaking the last mythic bonds by concentrating their attention on impersonal forces and natural causation in their examination of the cosmos. Hecataeus proclaimed the inherited Greek myths to be absurd, and Xenophanes made the astounding declaration that the gods were mere inflations of the mortal image, something most humans still cannot accept. Perhaps the most profound change was in the concept of man himself. In the religions of all the pre-classical societies man was a special creation of the gods, fashioned essentially to serve them and their designs. The Greeks now dared suggest that man was part of the animal kingdom, evolved, according to Anaximander, from lower creatures, but at the same time they boldly asserted that he did indeed occupy a special place, not because of any particular relationship with god, but because of his mind.
Constitutionalism, rationalism, humanism, the individual, these are the gifts the Greeks bear. Other societies have caught glimpses of these vital ideas, but nowhere else are they so confidently pursued and nowhere else do they have such an extensive influence beyond the society that discovered them, making classical Greece the most important society that has existed. Among the most precious, and dangerous, treasures of the human race, these ideas are the greatness of Greece