I certainly don’t want to join the political debate raging through Europe at the moment regarding the Greek bail-out, but I have heard a few unflattering comments regarding Greece and their contribution to the European community lately. So I thought it only fair to remind everyone, how much we all owe to the Greeks and how their culture and ideas help shape the modern world, and that their values were the foundations upon which Western society was based.
Medicine. The ancient Greeks were the first to develop theories that could be tested by symptoms and results. This in itself, was a massive shift forward from the previous beliefs systems held by virtually every society of the ancient world that illnesses were either punishments or gifts from their respective gods or deities. The foundation of modern medicine, ‘cause and effect’ was born. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460 BC – 370 BC) is now considered the ‘father of modern medicine’ after he devised the ‘Hippocratic oath’ and the methodology and value system that is still in use today.
Greek government. The ancient Greeks held an enduring fascination with different ways to rule a state. Rather than blindly accept that sovereignty should be held by a single monarch or tyrant, or even a select few oligarchs, they explored the possibilities of the rule of law being held by different officials or citizens. This took many different forms across many different city-states, as each sought the utopian society. The most famous of these was said to respect the interests not of the minority but of the whole people. They called this system democracy and it is of course the foundation of all Western societies’ government.
Olympics – The first of the ancient Olympic Games can be traced back to 776 BC and continued for nearly 12 centuries, not ending until AD 393. For over a millennia the dreams of young athletes were not the winning of a World Cup, or the Superbowl, but to receive a sacred olive-tree wreath, or kotinos, being placed on their head. The games held a deeply religious significance but the Greeks also recognised how the games could encourage good relations between the cities of Greece, and to showcase the Greek ideals and physical qualities of their young athletes.
Astronomy – A study of the stars was present in many different societies of the age, and was used largely in order to try and predict future events or interpret omens. However, it was the Greeks who started applying logical thinking and geometry to their observations. This was how they discovered that the moon passed around the Earth and also that the Earth was round, what caused eclipses, and very accurately calculated the circumference of the world. They even figured out that the Earth travelled around the Sun, before wrongly abandoning this theory due to the Earth not moving relatively to the stars. However, this theory remained for the first astronomers such as Galileo to begin their work when the telescope was invented.
Geography– As well as the Greek Anaksimander being the first man to create a map of the known world in 610 BC, the Greeks were also forward thinking in terms of cartography. Due to successfully deducing the spherical shape of the Earth, and managing to calculate its size, they were able to make projections to produce maps with the first known meridians and parallels. These lines later progressed so that locations on Earth could be pinpointed in terms of their latitude and longitude which is the same principle your GPS\Sat-Nav works on today.
Art – The Greek artists of the fifth century BC aspired to representing vitality of life combined with a sense of clarity and harmony. The artist Polykleitos formulated a system of proportions that achieved this artistic effect and was repeatable by others to produce magnificent bronze and marble statues. In vase painting, when the Greeks developed the red-figure technique that superseded the black-figures, it led to advances being made in depicting the human body, particularly the human form in motion. By the fourth century BC the nude Aphrodite of Knidos broke all previous conventions of art and its delicate proportions and stance began a new wave in sculpture and changed perceptions on how the female form was viewed in general.
In Architecture the distinctive Corinthian column appeared and has remained the hallmark of buildings of grandeur to this day. Equally, the acropolis of Athens and mausoleum of Halicarnassus showed that they were builders without peers.
Finally, Alexander the Great’s patronage of the arts saw the sculptor Lysippos set new standards in heroic portraits, and due to Alexander’s success on the field of battle saw the influence of Greek art spread throughout the known world.
Philosophy – It is possible that as great an influence as the other strata I have outlined are, it is in Philosophy that the Greeks made the greatest contribution to the Western world as they shaped how we think and view the world. Classical Greek philosophy that started with Socrates, continued with his student Plato, and was furthered by Aristotle, made such an impression that a clear line can be drawn through to early Islamic philosophy, the European Renaissance and the age of Enlightenment.
Socrates would often confront the young attractive students who teased him for his distinctive looks (you can see his likeness in the picture above) and tell them that he was far better looking than any of them. After all, surely the fact that his eyes protruded meant that they were better for seeing with, and that as his ears stuck out from his head, surely that meant that it was easier to hear?
Socrates once claimed to be the “Wisest man on Earth,” – the reason being? – “Because I know nothing….but at least I know, I know nothing.”
It was this breaking down of generally accepted knowledge and questioning everything that we see around us that can be viewed as the start of the empirical scientific approach – that theories should be testable and make falsifiable predictions. Arguably this approach could later be exemplified by the brilliant 20th Century American Physicist Richard Feynman when he won the Nobel peace prize for physics, and later, just before his death, correctly questioned the presumptions and accepted wisdom of NASA, successfully diagnosing the true reason behind the Challenger disaster of 1987. It showed that Socrates legacy was still alive and well.
I don’t have any answers here, and I know that the Greek debt crisis is very complex. But let’s try and keep an open mind, and maybe question again any generally accepted wisdom. After all, I can’t think of any other country that has contributed so much to Europe.