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4-4: The Culture of Classical Greece

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Greek Religion par 1
Religion affected every aspect of Greek life. Greeks considered religion necessary to the well-being of the state. Temples dedicated to gods and goddesses were the major buildings in Greek cities.
Greek Religion par 2
Homer described the gods worshiped in Greek religion. Twelve chief gods and goddesses were thought to live on Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. Among the twelve were Zeus, the chief god and father of the gods; Athena, goddess of wisdom and crafts; Apollo, god of the sun and poetry; Artemis, the sister of Apollo, who was goddess of the moon and of the hunt; Ares, god of war; Aphrodite, goddess of love; and Poseidon, brother of Zeus and god of the seas and earthquakes.
Greek Religion par 3
Greek religion did not have a body of doctrine, nor did it focus on morality. The spirits of most people, regardless of what they had done in life, went to a gloomy underworld ruled by the god Hades. Because the Greeks wanted the gods to look favorably upon their activities, rituals became important. Rituals are ceremonies or rites. Greek religious rituals involved prayers often combined with gifts to the gods based on the principle "I give so that you (the gods) will give (in return)."
Greek Religion par 4
Festivals also developed as a way to honor the gods and goddesses. Certain festivals were held at special locations, such as those dedicated to the worship of Zeus at Olympia or to Apollo at Delphi. Numerous events, including athletic games, took place in honor of the gods at the Greek festivals. The first such games were held at the Olympic festival in 776 B.C.
Greek Religion par 5
The Greeks also had a great desire to learn the will of the gods. To do so, they made use of the oracle, a sacred shrine where a god or goddess revealed the future through a priest or priestess. The most famous was the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, located on the side of Mount Parnassus overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. At Delphi, a priestess, thought to be inspired by Apollo, listened to questions. Her responses were then interpreted by priests and given in verse form to the persons asking the questions. Representatives of states and individuals traveled to Delphi to consult the oracle of Apollo.
Greek Religion par 6
The responses provided by the priests and priestesses were often puzzling and could be interpreted in more than one way. For example, Croesus, King of Lydia and known for his incredible wealth, sent messengers to the oracle at Delphi asking "whether he shall go to war with the Persians." The oracle replied that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire. Overjoyed to hear these words, Croesus made war on the Persians but was crushed by his enemy. A mighty empire—that of Croesus—was destroyed!
Greek Religion par 7
Although Greek religion is no longer practiced, it was the source of most Greek drama and art. Not only did the Romans adopt the Greek gods, but many stories and references about Greek gods appear in European and American literature.
Classical Greek Arts and Literature par 1
The arts of the Western world have been largely dominated by the standards set by the Greeks of the classical period. Classical Greek art was concerned with expressing eternal ideals. The subject of this art was the human being, presented as an object of great beauty. The classic style, with its ideals of reason, moderation, balance, and harmony in all things, was meant to civilize the emotions.
Architecture and Sculpture par 1
In architecture, the most important form was the temple, dedicated to a god or goddess. At the center of Greek temples were walled rooms that housed both deities and treasuries in which gifts to the gods and goddesses were safeguarded. These central rooms were surrounded by a screen of columns that made Greek temples open structures rather than closed ones. The columns were originally made of wood. In the fifth century B.C., marble began to be used.
Architecture and Sculpture par 2
Some of the finest examples of Greek classical architecture were built in Athens in the fifth century B.C. The most famous building on the Acropolis, the Parthenon is regarded as the greatest example of the Classical Greek temple. It was built between 447 B.C. and 432 B.C. Dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, the Parthenon was an expression of Athenians' pride in their city-state. Indeed, it was dedicated not only to Athena but also to the glory of Athens and the Athenians. The Parthenon shows the principles of classical architecture: the search for calmness, clarity, and freedom from unnecessary detail. The Parthenon today is a revered ruin. It was damaged by an explosion in 1687 and has been partially restored.
Architecture and Sculpture par 3
Greek sculpture also developed a classical style. Lifelike statues of the male nude, the favorite subject of Greek sculptors, showed relaxed attitudes. Their faces were self-assured, their bodies smooth and muscled.
Architecture and Sculpture par 4
Classical Greek sculptors did not seek to achieve realism, however, but rather a standard of ideal. Polyclitus, a fifth-century sculptor, wrote down systematic rules for proportions that he illustrated in a work known as the Doryphoros. His theory maintained that the use of ideal proportions, based on mathematical ratios found in nature, could produce an ideal human form.
Drama par 1
Drama as we know it in Western culture was created by the Greeks. Plays were presented in outdoor theaters as part of religious festivals. The first Greek dramas were tragedies, which were presented in a trilogy—a set of three plays—built around a common theme. The only complete trilogy we possess today, called the Oresteia, was composed by Aeschylus. This set of three plays relates the fate of Agamemnon, a hero in the Trojan War, and his family after his return from the war. In the plays, evil acts are shown to breed evil acts and suffering. In the end, however, reason triumphs over the forces of evil.
Drama par 2
Sophocles was another great Athenian playwright. His most famous play was Oedipus Rex. In this play, the oracle of Apollo accurately foretells that Oedipus will kill his own father and marry his mother. Despite all attempts to prevent this, Oedipus does commit these tragic acts.
Drama par 3
A third outstanding Athenian dramatist, Euripides, tried to create more realistic characters. His plots became more complex and showed a greater interest in real-life situations. Euripides was controversial. He questioned traditional values. He portrayed war as brutal and barbaric and expressed deep compassion for the women and children who suffered as a result of it.
Drama par 4
Greek tragedies dealt with universal themes still relevant today. They examined such problems as the nature of good and evil, the rights of the individual, the nature of divine forces, and the nature of human beings. In the world of the Greek tragedies, striving to do the best thing may not always lead to success, but the attempt is a worthy endeavor. Greek pride in accomplishment and independence was real.
Drama par 5
As the chorus chanted in Sophocles' Antigone, "Is there anything more wonderful on earth, our marvelous planet, than the miracle of man?"
Drama par 6
Greek comedy developed later than tragedy. Comedies were used to criticize politicians and intellectuals and were meant to both entertain and provoke a reaction. The plays of Aristophanes are good examples, using puns and satires.
The Writing of History par 1
In the Western world, the Greeks were the first people to present history as a systematic analysis of past events. Herodotus wrote History of the Persian Wars, often seen as the first real history in Western civilization. Its central theme is the conflict between the Greeks and the Persians, which Herodotus viewed as a struggle between Greek freedom and Persian despotism. Herodotus traveled widely and questioned many people as a means of obtaining his information. He was a master storyteller.
The Writing of History par 2
Many historians today consider Thucydides the greatest historian of the ancient world. Thucydides as an Athenian general who fought in the Great Peloponnesian War and later wrote its history. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides saw war and politics as the activities of human beings, not gods. He examined the Peloponnesian War clearly and fairly, placing much emphasis on accuracy. As Thucydides stated in his history: "And with regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible."
The Writing of History par 3
Thucydides was not a modern historian, of course. For example, he wrote set speeches for the leading actors in the war, but these words were based on a careful judgment of facts he tried to verify. Like many later historians, Thucydides believed that the study of history was of great value in understanding the present.
Greek philosophy par 1
Philosophy refers to an organized system of thought. The term comes from a Greek word that means "love of wisdom." Early Greek philosophers focused on the development of critical or rational thought about the nature of the universe.
Greek Philosophy par 2
Many early Greek philosophers tried to explain the universe on the basis of unifying principles. In the sixth century B.C., for example, Pythagoras, familiar to geometry students for his Pythagorean theorem, taught that the essence of the universe could be found in music and numbers. In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle raised basic questions that have been debated for two thousand years.
Sophists par 1
The Sophists were a group of traveling teachers in Ancient Greece who rejected speculation such as that of Pythagoras as foolish. They argued that it was simply beyond the reach of the human mind to understand the universe. It was more important for individuals to improve themselves.
Sophists par 2
The Sophists sold their services as professional teachers to the young men of Greece, especially those of Athens. The Sophists stressed the importance of rhetoric (the art of persuasive speaking in winning debates and swaying an audience). This skill was especially valuable in democratic Athens.
Sophists par 3
The Sophists' goal was to argue effectively, not to promote particular beliefs or ideas. They were known for their ability to argue for both sides of an issue. To the Sophists, there was no absolute right or wrong. What was right for one individual might be wrong for another. True wisdom consisted of being able to perceive and pursue one's own good. Because of these ideas, many people viewed the Sophists as harmful to society and especially dangerous to the values of young people.
Socrates par 1
One of the critics of the Sophists was Socrates, a sculptor whose true love was philosophy. Because Socrates left no writings, we know about him only what we have learned from the writings of his pupils, such as Plato. Socrates taught many pupils, but he accepted no pay. He believed that the goal of education was only to improve the individual.
Socrates par 2
Greek philosophers before Socrates were most concerned with issues of natural science. However, Socrates taught his students how to live their lives by a code of ethics. He believed that people could be happy by living moral lives, and that they could also be taught how to behave morally.
Socrates par 3
Socrates used a teaching method that is still known by his name. The Socratic Method of teaching uses a question-and-answer format to lead pupils to see things for themselves by using their own reason. Socrates believed that all real knowledge is already present within each person. Only critical examination is needed to call it forth. This is the real task of philosophy, because, as Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." This belief in the individual's ability to reason was an important contribution of the Greeks.
Socrates par 4
Socrates questioned authority, and this soon led him into trouble. Athens had had a tradition of free thought and inquiry, but defeat in the Peloponnesian War changed the Athenians. They no longer trusted open debate. Socrates was accused and convicted of corrupting the youth of Athenians by teaching them to question and think for themselves. An Athenian jury sentenced him to die by drinking hemlock, a poison.
Plato par 1
One of Socrates' students was Plato, considered by many the greatest philosopher of Western civilization. Unlike his teacher Socrates, who did not write down his thoughts, Plato wrote a great deal. He was fascinated with the question of reality. How do we know what is real?
Plato par 2
According to Plato, a higher world of eternal, unchanging Forms has always existed. These ideal Forms make up reality and only a trained mind—the goal of philosophy—can become aware of or understand these Forms. To Plato, the objects that we perceive with our senses (trees, for example) are simply reflections of the ideal Forms (treeness). They (the trees) are but shadows. Reality is found in the Form (treeness) itself.
Plato par 3
Plato explained his ideas about government in a work entitled The Republic. Based on his experience in Athens, Plato had come to distrust the workings of democracy. To him, individuals could not achieve a good life unless they lived in a just and rational state. Plato described how he would explore the nature and value of justice, as follows: "(Justice is)...sometimes spoken of as the virtue of an individual, and sometimes as the virtue of a State...And is not a State larger than an individual?... I propose therefore that we enquire into the nature if justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them."
Plato par 4
Plato's search for the just state led him to construct an ideal state in which people were divided into three basic groups. At the top was an upper class of philosopher-kings.
Plato, The Republic, Book II excerpt
"Unless either philosophers become kings in their countries or those who are now called kings and rulers come to be sufficiently inspired with a genuine desire for wisdom; unless, that is to say, political power and philosophy meet together...there can be no rest from troubles...for states, nor for all mankind."
Plato par 5
The second group in Plato's ideal state were warriors. The third group contained all the rest, people driven not by wisdom or courage but by desire. They were society's producers—artisans, tradespeople, and farmers. When each of these groups performed its appropriate role in society—and did not try to take on the roles of others—the society would function smoothly and be just. Contrary to Greek custom, Plato also believed that men and women should have the same education and equal access to all positions.
Plato par 6
In The Republic, he concluded that justice could be achieved in the same manner by both a state and an individual. He argued that just as the different groups in a society need to work together the different parts of a person's soul—reason, courage (or will), and desire—need to come together to create a just and ethical individual.
Aristotle par 1
Plato established a school at Athens that was known as the Academy. His most famous pupil was Aristotle, who studied there for 20 years. Aristotle did not accept Plato's theory of ideal forms. He thought that by examining individual objects (trees), we could perceive their forms (treeness). However, he did not believe that these forms existed in a separate, higher world of reality beyond material things. Rather, he thought of forms as a part of things themselves. (In other words, we know what treeness is by examining trees.)
Aristotle par 2
Like Plato, Aristotle believed that people's happiness was tied to their behavior. He taught that happiness resulted from living a life filled with virtue, and that virtue was a midpoint between extreme behaviors. For example, courage would be a midpoint between reckless behavior and cowardice.
Aristotle par 3
Aristotle's many interests lay in analyzing and classifying things based on observation and investigation. He defined entire categories of study, such as logic, biology, and physics, and write about a range of subjects, including ethics, politics, poetry, and the sciences.
Aristotle par 4
Aristotle studied natural science by making and recording observations. Although these methods are now part of the scientific method, they were groundbreaking in Aristotle's day. Until the seventeenth century, science in the Western world remained largely based on Aristotle's ideas.
Aristotle par 5
Aristotle often wrote about the importance of intellectual life: "The activity of the mind is not only the highest...but also the most continuous: We are able to study continuously more easily than to perform any kind of action...It follows that the activity of our intelligence constitutes the complete happiness of man. In other words, a life guided by intelligence is the best and most pleasant for man, inasmuch as intelligence, above all else, is man. Consequently, this kind of life is the happiest."
Aristotle par 6
Like Plato, Aristotle wanted an effective form of government that would rationally direct human affairs. Unlike Plato, he did not seek an ideal state but tried to find the best form of government by analyzing existing governments. For his Politics, Aristotle looked at the constitutions of 158 states and found three good forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional government. He slightly favored constitutional government, which can be democratic, as the best form for most people.
Aristotle par 7
Aristotle is often viewed as the most influential thinker in the Western world. He wrote a vast number of works on a wide range of subjects. His most famous pupil, Alexander the Great, spread his ideas across a vast empire. Students and scholars study Aristotle's works to this day.
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