Monday, June 1, 2009

Fascination with the Greeks

I find the Spartans and the Athenians equally fascinating. How is it that two cultures like these could exist at the same time in history -- and in the same region of the world? If we drop the Spartans out of the picture for a few moments and look at the golden age of Athens (460-430 B.C), there was perhaps no greater culture in the history of the world. Between science, art, architecture, mathematics, drama, and philosophy the Athenians did it all. Why then and why not since then? One doubts that the ancient Greeks were smarter than every culture since then, but then we’re forced to conclude it was the environment – geography, culture, political system, etc., that was responsible.

There is no doubt the political structure was supportive. Greek democracies promoted free thought and equality among the people. Still, there had to exist the intellectual capacity and curiosity to produce advanced thinking. There is no question that the Greek art, architecture, and philosophy still have great influence.

Separately, mathematics and science continue to advance today as they have continuously over two thousand years – how could they not given the number of thinkers, perhaps more in one American university today than all of Greece in 450 B.C.

But most of the rest of our intellect is corrupted by our complex society and the love of “things”. We have made life easy -- to easy – and discipline is too hard for modern society. Few Americans could tolerate the Spartan life, psychologically and physically.

What the Athenians did for intellectual thought the Spartans did for the art of war. They began a unique system of discipline to protect themselves from their enemies and took it to the extreme -- producing a perfect fighting machine. If you’d asked a Spartan whether he felt like a slave in his culture of discipline, he’d say no. It was a way of life, an honorable life they lived. The Spartan king Agesilaus was asked which of the laws introduced by Lycurgus was most important. He replied, “contempt for pleasures”.

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