What is it about the Greeks that enabled them to create the unique civilization we admire twenty five hundred years later -- a civilization some might argue has never been matched. To try and get at the answer, we look at the setting that fostered the building of a Greek identity, starting with the Greek dark ages and progressing to the classical period during the 5th century B.C. when the intellectual Greece reached its zenith.
In the time before the Greeks, man saw life as a dark and risky experience. Priests were part of each tribe and carried the responsibility for interpreting the will of the gods, which was not something that could only be understood by “specialists”.
The Greeks were able to escape the primitive view of the world and become enlightened as individuals. How?
Part of the story is the geography of Greece: mountainous with areas of extraordinarily fertile land, sitting at the connection of Europe to Asia, and not easy to invade. The mountains separated the people into local tribes, and those human colonies evolved into cities of equals. No aristocracy developed because there was no way to accumulate wealth; no way for a king to buy power. Military leaders ruled because each city had to be able to defend itself. Geography kept the colonies small and homogeneous -- the right setting for evolving the Polis.
Still geography does not tell us the whole story. It doesn’t tell us why the Greek mind began to wonder about man’s place in the world. To these first thinkers, the world seemed predictable and not magical. Physical events could be shown to repeat themselves meaning there must be order to the universe.
But the Greeks were thinking more broadly than the laws of physics. They adopted a unique synthesis of mind and spirit which has seldom existed before or since. Everything was looked at in terms of the whole and not its parts. Human beings were seen as part of a species even though they are individuals. The Greeks understood anatomy but realized a heart is the same in everyone. When they designed a building, the Greeks took into account its surroundings and how it fit in the space – the whole as important as the parts. Famous men were interested in everything as we see in the philosophers who were trying to learn all that could be known.
The Greek spirit is what we are missing today -- the experience of the joy of life. They played games for the purity of athleticism and competition and not for any other purpose. How sad to compare the Roman games of slaughter with the Olympics! They reveled in the joy of beauty and the appreciation of beautiful things. They described virtue as “beautiful” giving an aesthetic trait to human character.
The Romans never had the Greek spirit. They were “mind” only. Look at a problem, solve it, and move on. The context doesn’t matter; only the finished product – best army, best temples, best roads – but spiritless.
The same problem exists in the world today. We have become pieces separated from the whole – there is no whole. Only the individual matters, and individual rights over the rights of the people as a whole. Our minds have produced the greatest “things” but what does owning a designer shirt mean? Only more self-serving isolation from the rest of mankind.