The intellectual world of the ancient Greeks, as exemplified by our five great thinkers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus and Epicurus was later adapted by the more practical Roman society which admired Greek culture completing, rather than destroying, many of the unfinished Greek monuments and, through its empire, laying the foundations for European society, its colonies, and eventually Western society as a whole (see Ancient Greece).
European leaders-to-be were for many generations educated in the classics, the literature, science, philosophy and ethos of the classical world. Europe inherited from the Greeks and later Romans not only a tradition of intellectual rigour but their system of economy, justice, and politics, even social attitudes ‘warts an’ all’ concerning the role of women and sexuality, education, the structure of society, and sport.
These men are Greek representatives of a stream of intellectual exploration that was taking place across Afro-Eurasia during the Axial Age (c. 800-200 BCE). In an unprecedented period of introspection the known world was taking mental stock in a movement that included not only the Mediterranean philosophers and developing Abrahamic religions but, in China, Taoism and Confucianism, in India Buddhism, and in Persia Zoroastrianism. Cosmopolitanism had brought a questioning of the authoritarian beliefs and inflexibility so often associated with small isolated groups (see History in 10,000 words).
In The Republic and Timaeus Plato constructed an intricate and compelling edifice of thought, a toolbox for understanding and coping with the world, his intellectual architecture being something that could be further worked by subsequent generations. Much of the foundation of Western science came to us through ancient Greek thinking and Plato especially would provide the bedrock of all subsequent Western philosophy including those aspects of his thought incorporated into Christianity by St Augustine. We may not agree with his overall thesis today but the clarity, depth and breadth of thought expressed in The Republic over 2000 years ago is truly stunning: it laid out a roadmap for philosophical debate that has continued to this day with its carefully crafted metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, ethics, political theory, and theory of education. It even included a mystical four-step path to transcendental enlightenment.
Plato was a Rationalist. His metaphysics claimed that the ultimate reality was the world of Being, the world of Forms, which could not be accessed through the senses, but only through the intellect using reason and logic. He is also associated with what became known as ‘idealism’, maintaining that ‘truth’ was abstract and transcendental (like the truths of mathematics, and the idea of the Forms) existing more clearly in our minds than in the natural world and only insofar as it approximated the ‘idea of the Good’. The world of sense experience was unreliable and illusory. It would take the genius of Aristotle to provide an alternative more earthly and scientific outlook in which objects were more real than forms.
Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) in a school of thought that later became known as Neoplatonism, translated Plato’s worlds of Being and Becoming into the worlds of Heaven and Earth and the Form of the Good into God. Following the decline of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity Plato’s works would be lost to the West until recovered by Italian Renaissance humanist Petrarch in the fourteenth century. Christian medieval scholastic theologians subsequently transposed Plato’s ideas into Christianity aligning them with the world of Christian revelation. Plato’s ‘soul’ (his tripartite mind) also belonged to the world of Forms because though invisible and capable of self-reflection it ruled the body. As ideas are not physical things they must belong to a spiritual realm which, being eternal and unchanging, is more real than the transient material realm. As Forms were immutable then the soul too must be immortal, passing from the world of Becoming into the world of Being at death. For St Augustine Plato’s eternal world of Being, or heaven, was the place in the afterlife supporting the immortality of the soul. Plato’s objective morality became God’s law. Following Plato’s conviction that the world of sense-experience was unreliable, Christianity portrayed the physical world of experience as an inferior, imperfect or ‘fallen’ world, a wretched place totally unlike the perfect, eternal and transcendental world of God. This other-worldliness described by Plato in Phaedon, Timaeus and Symposium became known as Platonic idealism. Similar other-worldly analogies occur in Islam and Judaism.
Plato’s works remained available after the fall of Rome but underwent a major revival in the Italian Renaissance when in 1462 Marcilio Ficino (1433-1499), a catholic scholar and humanist, was appointed Head of a Platonic Academy in Florence modelled on the former Academy in Athens. Ficino was the first to translate Plato’s works into Latin; his attempts to reconcile Platonism and Christianity had a great influence on later philosophy although the Academy lasted only a few decades, being dissolved in 1492.
While all of Plato’s works survived, of Aristotle’s 150 works only 25-30 survive and these too were temporarily lost. Transcribed into Arabic by Islamic scholars Aristotle’s cogitations were later recovered by Christians during the Crusades, the depth of Aristotle’s thought being immediately recognised. Early Christian thinkers maintained that the application of reason to human affairs had resulted in a rag-bag of different viewpoints on all aspects of life resulting in chaos and confusion. Only faith could provide truth, certainty and support in life. Reason was condemned.
When Aristotle’s works were returned to the West they too were reconciled with the gospels through the ‘scholasticism’ of St Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 CE) and his monumental work Summa Theologica that would become so influential in Christianity. Aquinas pointed out that God created not only the natural world but also the human faculty of reason which should not be denied a central role in life. With St Thomas Aquinas reason was once again permitted a place in intellectual life, Aquinas supporting his position by pointing out that reason could be used to discover and celebrate the order and wonder of God’s Creation (a view that became known as ‘natural theology’). Only through Aquinas’s admission of reason did science become acceptable within that early Christian world. Christianity then incorporated Aristotelian ideas (he was known as ‘The Philosopher’) like his teleology, into the Christian idea of God’s purpose or plan.
For both Plato and Aristotle existence entailed a plan and therefore a supernatural agency. Plato thought that the order we see around us in the universe must have an ‘organising principle’ or demiurge. Aristotle also saw purpose and design in everything around him and referred to this as telos (see Meaning & purpose) with God the prime mover or initiator of the universe but indifferent to human affairs rather than anthropomorphically caring for the universe in a paternalistic way.
Though acknowledging a spiritual world, Aristotle is most closely associated with ‘analytic empiricism’ which maintained that it was possible to obtain true statements about the natural world by means of careful observation and analysis (break-down and classification) combined with the use of rigorous logic. He did not share Plato’s disdain for the material world.
A scientifically-based bitter resentment of Plato for his transcendental religiosity, philosophical idealism and subjectivity, and authoritarian politics is not helpful as I hope you agree. Plato’s thought was modelled on mathematics and the physical mathematics of astronomy which looked upwards to the perfection and geometry of the heavens while Aristotle’s influence lay more in biology and society. Without Plato we would have missed so many insights and almost certainly not have had the benefit of Aristotle’s thought as their influence continued forward in the great traditions of Rationalism and Empiricism.
After the ancient Greeks open-minded philosophy would not return to the West for about 1200 years until the Renaissance when the intellectual battle-lines were clearly drawn. There were those following the transcendental Platonic tradition of innate ideas (the Rationalists) and those who followed Aristotle’s tradition of earthly observation (the Empiricists). These two schools of thought arrived at a stale-mate. Rationalists needed to generate objective truths from ideas untainted by experience that is, from a priori ideas), and this was a tall order. Meanwhile empiricists like John Locke and David Hume, who maintained that all meaningful ideas must be traced back to experience, had to confront the subjectivity of sense-experience, the ‘egocentric predicament’, an equally difficult problem. Only with Immanuel Kant would come the suggestion that our brain structures, or filters, our sensory input and that this is why we perceive the world the way we do – this filter was the a priori aspect of our ideas: it was a fusion of the Rational and Empirical positions. Philosophy could move on.
Now we can now see how Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the other ancient Greek philosophers had a profound influence on the future character of subsequent religion, education, poetry, literature, the theatre, science, politics, law, economics, society, morality, sexuality, sport and much more. Their influence on the history of ideas cannot be doubted, they are at the heart of the Western grand narrative. No education is complete without a knowledge of their contribution to the modern world and plant people will hold a special place for Theophrastus, Aristotle’s heir at the Lyceum who laid the foundations of plant science. In our admiration and deep respect for their intellectual rigour we should not forget our social differences – these men lived in a strongly hierarchical society that supported a privileged aristocracy and slavery, and denied women political and legal rights, Aristotle even describing women as ‘incomplete men’.
This was a cosmopolitan and divided society of extreme rivalry and competition that strived ruthlessly for excellence in all fields. Historian Hesiod spoke of ‘good strife and bad strife’, distinguishing between the noble emulation of healthy and peaceful competition that can benefit all, and the malicious and destructive competition of warfare. We now see ancient Greece as a society of contradictions. Daily life was steeped in religion and ritual observance but Greece gave us spiritual skeptics and natural science. Great men like Pericles and Alexander were admired almost to the point of worship as gods while at the same time there was the strong egalitarianism we associate with democracy. And yet the democracy we attribute to the Greeks existed in a hierarchical society with an aristocratic and wealthy elite. The physical magnificence of Greek monuments, their engineering, and the many benefits of cosmopolian trade that marked a great civilization were only achieved through the use of slave labour. The ultimate measure of a Greek man (women hardly counted) was his demonstration of courage, loyalty, and heroism in warfare. Little wonder that ‘why?’ had such a privileged position in the Greek world. In the search to ‘Know themselves’ they lived life (and death) to the full, stretching intellectual and physical experience to its limit, challenging future generations to do better. Roman military might would eventually prevail but Greek culture was respected and preserved.
Modern study of the Axial Age has tempered the former grip of the Greeks and ancient Mediterranean societies over the Western mind suggesting an exaggerated and eurocentric interpretation of their role in world history. Perhaps the influence of the classics within academia is still overstated in a world that becomes more global by the day . . . but Greco-Roman influence on the old British empire cannot be doubted and this influence is strong and continuing.
In a debate between now British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Cambridge Professor Mary Beard on the relative merits of ancient Greece and Rome, Johnson pointed out how, even though nearly 2500 years old, many ancient Greek works of literature, art and philosophy are ‘imperishable masterpieces’. Greek mythology can be seen today to contain penetrating psychological insights, while Greek literature and art explored new ideas as never before . . . the list goes on.
The vital link between human nature, reason, morality, science, and sustainability will be explored in the other articles of this section.