Know thyself. Inscribed at the entrance of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
Had Greek civilization never existed … we would never have become fully conscious. W.H. Auden
The legacy of Greece to Western philosophy is Western philosophy. Bertrand Russell
Except the blind forces of nature, nothing moves in this world which is not Greek in its origin. Sir Henry Maine
These days Greece is not a country which enjoys a great deal of credibility. Lies, damned lies and Greek statistics as they say. But Greece will always occupy a special place in my heart because of the immense contribution of Ancient Greece, especially Athens, to world civilisation. This influence is almost impossible to quantify. We are like fish swimming in a wine-dark sea of aesthetics, ethics and thought. My post about Greek inventions and innovations should give you an idea of their importance. However, we are also very different. I am going to look at two areas, democracy and sex, to see how this plays out.
Greek democracy was an extraordinary accomplishment. It was imperfect and incomplete but we have to compare with what was prevalent at that time. I subscribe to that famous Churchillian dictum: “Democracy is the worst system – except all the others.” Their democracy, though, was very different from ours. It was direct. You would vote for a war and then go and fight, putting your life on the line. How very different fom what happens now. We have really taken Plato’s criticisms of democracy on board. Plato, perhaps influenced by what had happened to Socrates, had little faith in the general populace. He believed you needed a professional class of politicians – just like we have today. Perhaps this is inevitable; you can’t have a polis in country of 60 million. It would just be unworkable.
Greek society also displayed markedly different attitudes towards human sexuality. This is especially true in what we now call Greek Love. Strictly speaking it should be Athenian Love, because of how little we know about the sexual customs of the other city states. Athenian attitudes to homosexuality do not fit into easily into today’s culture wars. The idea of two bearded men being married would have horrified them. Homosexuality was part of a youth’s coming of age and there were very specific roles. The older partner, the erastes, played the dominant role; the young man, 16 was seen as the perfect age, the eromenos (beloved), was the passive one in the relationship. The older man acted as a mentor to the youth, instructing him about morality, loyalty, and physical endurance. This would not be considered acceptable. For me the lesson here is that each generation has to find its own moral compass. We cannot rely on some magic formula from the past. It’s messy but that’s the way it is.
How should we evaluate the Greeks? We do need to avoid the uncritical veneration we hear in some quarters. I think that some of the quotes I included in the introduction are a bit overblown. And there were undoubtedly negative aspects of classical Athens. Their democracy was like an exclusive men’s club. If you belonged, life was pretty good. If you were a woman, slave or foreigner, then all the talk about the glories of Hellenic civilisation may well have seemed pretty hollow. These contradictions can be seen in Athens’s most emblematic building. The Parthenon is a wonderful example of Classical architecture but it was built with protection money from Athens’s allies.
At a time of massive unrest in the world and multiculturalism it has become fashionable to downplay the achievements of ancient Greece. I believe that there have been many contributions to what we call civilisation from all over the word. But by any criteria the Greek legacy is impressive. It had its flaws but we have to judge ancient Greece in relation to other contemporary societies. We have to analyse them on their own terms and not by our values. The Greeks are in many ways like our great-grandparents. We descended from them. And we are like them but as we have seen we are also different. It is vital to know this As Cicero said:
“If you do not know where you come from, you will always be a child.” By knowing these Greeks better, we get to understand ourselves too.