Introduction to Ancient Greece (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.1)

Greece is a small peninsula in the southeastern part of Europe. In spite of the small size of their country, the people of Greece have had a huge effect on the world. Many of the ideas that began in Greece have spread all over the world. These ideas continue to be important today.

The Greeks highly valued their independence. More than perhaps anything else, the Greeks wanted to be free. They did not want to be ruled by other nations nor did they allow even their own leaders to gain too much power. Rather than having one big government for all of Greece, each Greek city-state, or polis, was independent. The government of each city-state was different, but what all of them had in common was that they were not ruled by just one man. Instead, all of the citizens were expected to participate in government.

In addition to valuing liberty and citizenship, the Greeks also emphasized the use of reason to solve problems. Reason is the ability of the human mind to think, understand, and form judgments. The Greeks believed that it was important to use reason, rather than to merely rely on tradition or authority, to understand things and to make decisions.

Because the Greeks valued liberty and reason so much, they developed a culture that allowed people to have the freedom to pursue their own interests. The result is that Greek culture flourished. The Greeks were the first to do many things.

The first historians, for example, were the Greek writers Herodotus and Thucydides. Herodotus wrote the first book of history. He wrote about many things, but focused especially on the Greco-Persian Wars. Thucydides wrote a book about the Peloponnesian War. We will be studying both wars in this unit and we will have an opportunity to read a little of what each of these historians wrote.

The first scientists were also from ancient Greece. Thales of Miletus is usually considered to be the first scientist. Thales is most famous for being able to predict a solar eclipse on May 28, 585 BC. Another Greek scientist was Hippocrates, who is often called “the father of medicine.” In addition to his medical research, Hippocrates also wrote an oath for doctors to promise to do their jobs well. The Hippocratic Oath is still taken by doctors today. The ideas of the Greek mathematicians Pythagoras and Euclid are also among the earliest and most important ideas in the development of science.

Ancient Greek writers like Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides wrote some of the earliest and most important poems and plays. Homer is best known for his two epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. Many later authors used the ideas, characters, and events of Homer’s poems for their own. There is hardly a poet who has not been influenced by Homer. Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides wrote great plays that are still presented on stages today and whose plots continue to influence many writers. Even the words “drama”, “comedy”, “tragedy”, and “poetry” all come from the Greeks.

The Greeks are probably most famous as the inventors of philosophy. Philosophy is a Greek word that means “love of wisdom”. The ancient Greek philosophers wanted to understand things like how nature works, what it means to live a good human life, and how to make a good society. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are the most famous and important of these early philosophers. We will learn about all three of them later in this unit.

The Greeks were able to produce all of these original and important ideas because of the importance they placed on liberty and on reason. They believed it was very important to be able to use your own abilities to make important decisions for yourself and be able to share your ideas with others. As a result, the Greeks became one of the most important nations in all of history.


Review Question

  1. In a paragraph, identify one aspect of the heritage we have received from the Greeks that you think is important and discuss why it is important.


Vocabulary Words 

Citizenship – the rights, privileges, and duties of a member of a society

Liberty – the state of being free from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views.

Polis – the Greek word for a city-state

Reason – the ability of the human mind to think, understand, and form judgments

“On Education” by Elizabeth Bentley

When infant Reason first exerts her sway,
And new-formed thoughts their earliest charms display;
Then let the growing race employ your care
Then guard their opening minds from Folly’s snare;
Correct the rising passions of their youth,
Teach them each serious, each important truth;
Plant heavenly virtue in the tender breast,
Destroy each vice that might its growth molest;
Point out betimes the course they should pursue;
Then with redoubled pleasure shall you view
Their reason strengthen as their years increase,
Their virtue ripen and their follies cease;
Like corn sown early in the fertile soil,
The richest harvest shall repay your toil.

Personhood in Medieval Philosophy (Personhood Part VI)

The history of medieval thought is largely a history of attempts by various thinkers to bridge the gap between and create a synthesis of biblical faith and Greco-Roman philosophy within the context of the Christian Church. As is to be expected from any attempt to reconcile such disparate sources as Plato, Aristotle, and Genesis, and to create a coherent whole out of this reconciliation, this medieval synthesis of Western thought was often an uncomfortable amalgam of contradictory elements. Medieval ideas about personhood are largely the result of this tension and combination.

One relatively early example of this tension in Christian thought is demonstrated in the words of the fourth century bishop Gregory of Nyssa in his work “On Infants’ Early Deaths.” In that work, Gregory refers to a newborn who has died shortly after birth as passing away “before he is even human,” adding to this statement the parenthetical explanation that “the gift of reason is man’s peculiarity, and he has never had it in him.”69 For his belief that reason is the defining feature of humanity, Gregory drew upon the ideas of the extremely influential late second and early third century Christian author Origen, according to whose assertion, “we hold the resemblance to God to be preserved in the reasonable soul.”70 Origen, who drew heavily on Greek philosophy to explain biblical ideas, in turn, drew on that philosophy for this explanation of the content of the Imago Dei. The Bible itself, however, offers no such identification between human reason and the Imago Dei. In bringing together the Greek philosophical idea that reason is the defining feature of personhood and the biblical idea of the Imago Dei, the beginning of the uncomfortable synthesis of the Greco-Roman with the biblical is demonstrated. In spite of his denial of full personhood to an infant, however, an apparent departure from previous Christian understandings, Gregory nonetheless does not express doubt in the same work that said infants possess immortal and complete human souls.

Another fairly early example of this uncomfortable synthesis that marked medieval Christian thought occurs in Augustine of Hippo’s early fifth century work “On the Holy Trinity.” In that work, as in much else that he wrote, Augustine exhibits a bizarre mix of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity. This amalgam leads him, in a discussion of women, to draw simultaneously on the opening chapters of Genesis and on 1 Corinthians 11:3-12, interpreting both through the lens of Neo-Platonic philosophy. The rather strange conclusion that he reaches is that a woman herself does not bear the Imago Dei but is the Imago Dei only in conjunction with her husband. According to Augustine, “woman herself alone … is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.”71 The uncomfortable mixture of the biblical and Platonic in Augustine’s thought runs throughout his discussion of the Imago Dei and reaches its high point when he, along with Origen and Gregory before him, identifies the Imago Dei with a “rational mind.”72 He is forced to admit, in order to remain true to the biblical text and to traditional Christian anthropology and soteriology but clearly in contradiction to what his previously stated views on women imply, that “it is clear, not men only, but also women have” full possession of this “rational mind.”73

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the tension between the biblical and the Greco-Roman in medieval Christian thought on personhood is in the ideas of the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose influence on Western Christianity is arguably less than only Paul and Augustine. Whereas Augustine struggled to find a synthesis between the Neo-Platonic and the biblical, Aquinas sought to bring Aristotle’s philosophy together with the Bible. Just as in Augustine’s work, this attempted synthesis creates a tension that is a palpable and ubiquitous presence in Aquinas’s works. His thoughts on women certainly present an outstanding example of this uncomfortable synthesis, as is exhibited by his discussion of women in his Summa Theologica’s Question 92.74 There, Aquinas almost desperately attempts to make the statements of Genesis in regards to the creation and dignity of women agree with Aristotle’s thought on women in his work On the Generation of Animals. In order to make two very different and ultimately mutually exclusive accounts agree, however, Aquinas is forced to perform strenuous mental gymnastics. In his First Article, Reply to Objection 1 in that section, for instance, he is forced to affirm both that woman is a good and complete creation of God, as Genesis claims, and that she is “defective and misbegotten,” as Aristotle claims. In spite of his very best mental gymnastics, Aquinas is clearly unable to make Genesis and Aristotle agree.75 


69 Gregory of Nyssa, “On Infants’ Early Deaths,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 2nd series, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

70 Origen, Against Celsus, book 7, ch. 66.

71 Augustine of Hippo, On the Holy Trinity, ch. 7, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 1st series, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid.

74 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 92, in Thomas Aquinas: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).

75 I have adapted most of the preceding paragraph from a post to my blog. David Withun, “Aquinas’s uncomfortable synthesis,” Pious Fabrications, 4 April 2013, (accessed 20 April 2013).

False religion and reason

What I might call, by analogy, the ‘false religion’, is obsessed not only by God’s power over men but also by His power to create a world; similarly, false rationalism is fascinated by the idea of creating huge machines and Utopian social worlds. Bacon’s ‘knowledge is power’ and Plato’s ‘rule of the wise’ are different expressions of this attitude which, at bottom, is one of claiming power on the basis of one’s superior intellectual gifts. The true rationalist, in opposition, will always be aware of the simple fact that whatever reason he may possess he owes to intellectual intercourse with others. He will be inclined, therefore, to consider men as fundamentally equal, and human reason as a bond which unites them. Reason for him is the precise opposite of an instrument of power and violence: he sees it as a means whereby they may be tamed.

Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, p. 363