On Herodotus' Histories

The Parthenon The Greeks

Homeric Geography

The Greeks referred to all other peoples as barbarians (whose unintelligible speech sounded like bar-bar-bar), using it in the wider sense of foreigners.  But their conscious cultural pride was unmistakable. Herodotus reveals his in saying, 'the Greeks have been from very ancient times distinguished from the barbarians by superior sagacity and freedom from foolish simpleness.' They were of much mixed racial stock to speak of differences—the key attributes of Greek identity were language, religion and culture.

Greek religion was derived from the 'age of the heroes' (depicted in the Iliad and Odyssey)—a few hundred years before Homer who lived in the eight century BCE, part of a long line of bards reciting and transmitting oral poetry. Homer was the universal teacher of Hellas, the essential textbook in school, the undisputed authority on their God's and ancestors—an educated, upwardly-mobile fifth century Greek gent could be expected to recite several stretches of his poetry.

The striking feature of the Greek gods is their remarkable humanization. Apart from their immortality and superior power, they were mirror images of people. They lusted, hated, cheated, seduced, schemed, turned jealous, and often acted without any ethical principles. They just had to be on your side, and if not, you had to cajole and bribe them with gifts and sacrifices—the gods grew fond of and helped individuals, no matter what their conduct. They held power in different domains and kept their place in an intricate social divine-world which (surprise, surprise!) mimicked the social values of the Trojan war heroes.

With Cupid doing his part, Pan exhorts a not too amused Aphrodite for some favors

In Greek mythology, humans had descended directly from the gods who inhabited the same natural world and dealt with similar everyday challenges. There were hundreds of supernaturals and each community patronized one. Mostly harmless, they didn't stand in judgment from high above, and didn't give anyone a hard time unless someone challenged their enormous egos—like the mortal Paris inviting proof by judging Hera and Athena less beautiful than Aphrodite. The Trojans paid for his folly with their blood. 

Ruins of Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The Greeks paid collective homage via temples—a house of god with the deity's statue and treasures, not a place of worship with prayer-stools and shrines. For rituals there was the ubiquitous outdoor altar, and heroes like Heracles and Achilles had cults of their own. Sacrifices and processions, frequently sponsored by the state, were the most common religious activities. They were managed by priests who were secular officials of the state—laymen, not a hereditary caste as in Persia. Religion was inclusive, assimilating new deities at times, alongside Zeus et all. It had no doctrine, no 'mother church', no concept of sin or morality, and therefore, no sacrilege, no guilt, no atonement. The stress was on this world rather than an after-life. As a result, Greek religion provided little moral guidance or discipline for everyday living—that came from their culture and the laws of the polis (city-state). 

Interestingly enough, the Ionian enlightenment (before Herodotus' time) had challenged the flawed morality of the gods—in sixth century BCE, Xenophanes of Colophon complained, 'Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything that is disgraceful and blameworthy among men: theft, adultery and deceit'. Plato too lamented the divine virtues embedded in Homeric poetry and 'that a man ought to regulate his life by following this poet.'


The Archaic age that preceded the Classical age was one of aristocratic tradition. Early warring tribes of the region had lived off piracy—then considered a heroic thing to do—falling upon villages with no walls to protect them. Over time, these tribes began to group together for easier survival, built defenses, acquired settled lifestyles, fleets, and hereditary monarchies, applying themselves to the acquisition of property and wealth. 'The love of gain would reconcile the weaker to the dominion of the stronger, and the possession of resources enabled the more powerful to reduce the smaller towns to subjection.' There was considerable uniformity in that aristocratic families everywhere monopolized the organs of decision making, warfare, and judicial procedures. Geography contributed to an uneven, disjointed development for centuries, a period we perceive only dimly, and which led to an elementary distinction between oligarchic and democratic principles.

In Sparta, girls were trained in athletics, including running, javelin and discus to turn them into strong and healthy mothers.

Early city-states evolved at Sparta and Athens. They offered local pride and a sense of identity. In Athens, in response to a tyranny in seventh century BCE, a stern law code was established by Draco. A few years later, after much aristocratic in-fighting, emerged a new leader, Solon, chosen by consensus and charged with the task of reform. He modified the law code to suit the aristocratic share-cropping society. In its concern for the weak, his code resembled Hummurabi's, the Babylonian monarch who lived a millennium earlier. But Solon's code was secular, Hummurabi acted in the name of the gods. Besides, the latter legislated for subjects of a king, the former laid down rules for the community to govern itself. Aristotle later highlighted Solon's top three achievements: a general amnesty for debtors freeing them from enslavement, introduction of appeals to a popular tribunal, and the right of a third party to seek justice in court on behalf of an aggrieved person (the birth of the lawyer). 

Military and leadership positions now came to be tied to wealth in land—the right to own property was also an incentive to compete for more—a fundamental difference from Persia where all land ultimately belonged to the king. Over time, power devolved to smaller units of landowners and led to decision-making via representatives. Old style tyrannies, however, remained common elsewhere in Greece and which 'with their habits of providing simply for themselves, of looking solely to their personal comfort and family aggrandizement, made safety the great aim of their policy, and prevented anything great proceeding from them.' With increasing rivalry between city-states, the leisured classes applied themselves to winning glory for themselves and their communities via chariot races and other competitions. Sun-lit skies and mild weather were ample encouragement for outdoor life.

Theater at Epidauros


While there were relatively few material or technological differences between the various peoples, enormous differences of culture and institutions had come about by the mid-fifth century. Athens was a constitutional democracy and practiced justice by jury trials—law was the king, and all were equal subjects. The hereditary aristocratic entitlements of the past were undermined in this new age. The Athenian democracy was direct, not representative. Other than resident foreigners, slaves, and women, all adult males (20% of the total population) were members of the Assembly (i.e., citizens) from which a ruling Council was chosen by lot. The individual citizen, however, had no natural or inalienable rights to protect him from the virtually unlimited power of collective decision-making, even when in practice it chose to leave alone certain areas of private life. 

Dying Warrior, Temple of Aphaia, Aegina

Ordinary Athenians aspired to noble fame and glory via public office, were patriotic, and existed for and within the framework of the polis—their raison d'ętre. While fiercely competitive, they disapproved of overt ambition and displays of private luxury. They celebrated youth in popular culture— the good were thought to die young—and put up statues of sports-stars in public places. The polis mandated military service from all citizens. Victims of war received elaborate public funerals which began with ritual praise for the glorious deeds of the Athenian ancestors; their children were raised on state expense.

By mid-fifth century, the symposium had become a pillar of Greek social life—a private men-only affair, mixing drinking, dining, poetry recitals, music, jokes, conversation, and at times, dancing girls and boys for erotic entertainment. Often the party ended with a drunken romp through the streets. Homosexual love was deemed normal and even encouraged. Another national pastime was the agora, the central marketplace around a square, combining shopping, loafing about, listening to public announcements, and indulging in daylong gossip—all roads led to the agora, the happening place in town. Young men frequented gymnasiums preparing for the pentathlon, boxing, or wrestling —for cerebral workouts some later built annexes, examples of which include the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle. A city distinguished itself from a village by the presence of a council house and other public buildings, a theatre, a gymnasium, and the vitality of life in the agora.

"Sack of Troy," details of the Byrgos cup, a kylix decorated by the Byrgos painter, c. 490 BC.

Athenian politicians never tired of praising 'the Athenian people' and their city, especially in times of war—its openness, equality of all citizens, meritocracy, unrivaled freedom—while owning slaves and domesticating their women, the hetairai or cultured concubines being the sole exception. The general quality of female social life in Athens was not much different from that of women in contemporary orthodox Islamic communities—restricted to the household and denied political equality—a good deal less free than in Sparta and Crete where they could also own property. Women were believed to be endowed with less reason than men and attitudes mixed fear of their irrational and passionate nature with a paternalistic urge to protect them from the public eye. Sexual double standards flourished. Families were nuclear but for men their male buddies were far more central to their lives.

The rhetoric of democracy, freedom, and equality before the law also went hand in hand with slavery. Slaves were acquired through wars and in purpose were more like the servants of Victorian-era households but without wages or personal freedom— each family aspired to owning at least one—there were nearly as many slaves as citizens. In addition to being porter, nurse, cook, maid, and tutor, they accompanied soldiers on their campaigns. One searches for men who called for the abolition of slavery on moral grounds but one does not find them in ancient Greece.


Acropolis-reconstructed.jpg (320043 bytes)

Athens had awe-inspiring temples, stoas, stately public edifices, with ever more ambitious conceptions—Phidias' Acropolis was the crowning achievement. Guilds of sculptors idealized youth and beauty through bronze and marble with increasing naturalism, some began to emphasize attitudes, feelings, kinetic motion. The state was the sole patron of the monumental arts and private palaces in Classical Athens are conspicuous by their absence. The artist was not the rebel, nor did he restlessly search for highly individual styles and conceptions to make a personal statement, or to shock his audience—it was for the philosophers and other public figures to question the values of society. The artist and his guild were to produce commissioned work according to the norms of public taste. Manual labor was despised. Architecture followed mathematical rules and only grew bigger and more ornate—the Greeks didn't experiment with arches, vaults, or the dome— that had to wait for the Romans.

Athens dominated the Olympic games (held in honor of Olympian Zeus), pan-Hellenic chariot races and the performing arts. Playwrights and poets, alongside sociopolitical plays, subconsciously embellished old legend and erected new ones in the service of the Athenian people. Pindar proclaimed, 'Shining and violet crowned and celebrated in song, bulwark of Greece, famous Athens, divine city.' They arrogantly called themselves the 'school of Hellas,' torchbearers of civilization. Of Athenian cultural conceit Jacob Burckhardt wrote: 'Attica [greater Athens] was traditionally credited with the invention of civilization to an extent positively insulting to all others. According to this tradition, it was the Athenians who first taught the human race how to sow crops and use spring water; not only were they the first to grow olives and figs, but they invented law and justice, the agon [competition] and physical exercise, and the harnessing of horses to carts.'

Herodus Atticus theatre of ancient Athens with port Piraeus in the distance

Decades earlier, Athens was swelled by the outcasts of Hellas. Presently, the enterprising and gifted Diaspora of the empire flocked to it, making it the most populous polis: half-a-million people. Grain was the staple of diet and famines from crop failures were not infrequent. Athens had fruits and merchandise from distant lands and relied on imports to supplement local produce like corn and salted fish, maintaining permanent garrisons abroad to ensure a steady supply.

Stoa on the Agora (reconstructed)
Around 600 BC, Sappho wrote poetry on Lesbos, where she teaches young women poetry, music and the social graces.

A majority of male citizens were literate—basic citizen literacy in classical Greece was probably higher than any other period in western culture before the twentieth century—the preferred medium of communication however, was oral, not written. While schoolteachers were generally underpaid, the Sophists emerged as the first sought after professionals with the chief aim of teaching independent thinking to young men, concentrating not on the abstract truth of philosophers but on making a success of human life, especially for the sons of rich aristocrats. While they taught subjects like rhetoric, logic, grammar, ethics, politics, physics, and metaphysics, they were also accused of relativism and of injecting skepticism into the moral. They made Athens the leading center of advanced education but caused much consternation in conservative circles, constantly being accused of impiety, inciting heresies, and disrupting traditional family values. Many thought them to have little regard for truth compared to success in oratory and argument.

Protagoras, a leading sophist, famously announced, 'Man is the measure of all things: of things that are, that they are; of things that are not, that they are not' and, 'I know nothing about the gods, either they are or they are not, or what are their shapes. For many things make certain knowledge impossible— the obscurity of the theme and the shortness of human life.' For some young men it became fashionable to question all orthodox opinion and age-old tradition.

As for other pursuits of mind, Anaxagoras, a philosopher-friend of Pericles, applied a new spirit of scientific inquiry to discover the true cause of eclipses. He envisioned the mind as the chief agent of order in the universe. He claimed the planets to be stones torn from the earth; later, he was prosecuted on a charge of impiety for asserting that the Sun too was an incandescent stone somewhat larger than the Peloponnese. Heraclitus reasoned that everything in the world is subject to perpetual change and decay caused by an inevitable clash of opposites: the dialectic. Pythagoras of Samos had established the Theory of Numbers and the mathematical basis of musical harmony. Parmenides of Elea argued that all change is illusory and that understanding of nature must come from reason rather than experience. Building upon Empedocles' theory of correspondence between the four basic elements (earth, fire, air, water) and the bodily humors, Hippocrates was soon to inject empiricism into the study of medicine— not for the next two thousand years were major breakthroughs realized. Democritus of Abdera was soon to propose that all physical matter can be explained in terms of random collisions of the smallest particles, the atoma.

Philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras recognized intervals in music as constant and invariant.

Greek medical writings are assembled into the Hippocratic corpus which establishes ethical standards of practice (431 BC).

However, none of these and later scientific insights progressed into technological innovation or greater productivity at any time in ancient Greece. The basic Greek technologies in agriculture, stone, clay and metal-working were all inherited from their Mycenaean predecessors and from the older civilizations of the Near East, a notable exception being the technology of ship construction. By and large, understanding of nature was deemed a sufficient end. Knowledge was not progressive or cumulative for there was no 'scientific method'—the Greeks made random, though inspired, forays into science. 

Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides had become household names in the performing arts. Annual competitions were held during the Springtime festival, Dionysia, to a packed audience of thousands. Common themes included the exploration of moral conflict, choice, destiny and behavior under divine power, psychological drama, political satires, tragedies and comedies inspired by Homer and other legends, not to mention raucous humor and sexual innuendoes.

Medea by Euripedes is the first work of its kind to focus on the artist's feeling of separation and isolation from his audience and the larger world. Euripides excelled at penetrating psychological analyses and in exploting the dramatic possibilities of a scene.

All three playwrights were remarkably prolific—Sophocles wrote 120 plays, Aeschylus 90, Euripides 92. Aeschylus had fought the Persians at Marathon, Salamis and Artemesium. His play Persians, which commemorates the Greek victory at Salamis, later won the first prize at the Dionysia, as did many others. Sophocles, at age sixteen (in 480 BCE), was chosen for his physical beauty and athletic prowess to lead the paean celebrating the same victory. Son of a wealthy arms manufacturer, he later served as a treasurer responsible for managing the tribute money extorted from Athens' colonies, a part of which financed the construction of the Acropolis. He was also one of 10 strategoi (military commanders) and one of 10 commissioners entrusted with Athens' financial and domestic recovery after their Sicilian misadventure. Predictably enough, he portrayed Athens in fond terms and won most frequently at the Dionysia.

Euripides, by contrast, led a largely private life and remained passionately interested in ideas which brought him restlessness rather then conviction. He is said to have associated with Protagoras, Anaxagoras, and other Sophists and philosopher-scientists. 'There's a strong strain of skepticism in his writing ... increasing doubt and uncertainty pervade his plays,' particularly those written towards the close of the Peloponnesian war. Disappointed by the reception of his plays at Athens, and perhaps due to other disenchantments, he migrated to Macedonia in old age; he died there before the final defeat of Athens.


Meanwhile, Socrates declared that the unexamined life is not worth living, insisting on self-knowledge and the supremacy of the intellect—one must work hard to discover the right and wrong. With Socrates, the central problem of Western philosophy shifted from cosmology to the formulation of a rule of life through understanding, to a practical use of reason. As the Apology relates, Socrates advocated the tending of one's soul, to make it as good as possible—and not to ruin one's life by putting care of the body and possessions before care for the soul.

'The Death of Socrates' by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

Socrates, 470-399 BCE

Socrates was no ascetic in denial but an urbane intellectual of aristocratic lineage, a man of the world, famed for his practical wisdom, modesty, self-control, generosity, alertness, and integrity. 'There was no complacent self-righteousness of the Pharisee nor the angry bitterness of the satirist in his attitude toward the follies or even the crimes of his fellowmen. It was his deep and lifelong conviction that the improvement not only of himself but also of his countrymen was a task laid upon him by his God, not to be executed with a scowling face and an upbraiding voice. He frequented the society of promising young men, and talked freely to politicians, poets, and artisans about their various callings, their notions of right and wrong, the matters of familiar interest to them.' Socrates, the story goes, when pronounced the wisest of men by the oracle at Delphi, set about to investigate the truth of this claim. He interrogated poets, craftsmen, politicians and other 'wise men.'  After investigating, he concluded:

'And by Dog gentlemen! my honest impression was this: it seemed to me ... that the people with the greatest reputations were almost entirely deficient, while others who were supposed to be their inferiors were much better qualified in practical intelligence ... it was not wisdom that enabled [the poets] to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean ... I also observed that the fact they were poets made them think that they had a perfect understanding of all other subjects, of which they were totally ignorant ... [even craftsmen] seemed to share the same failing ... this error more than outweighed their positive wisdom ... [after meeting a politician] I reflected as I walked away: Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems to me that I am wiser than he is to the extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.' 

Socrates however was no democrat—the radical vice of democracy, he believed, is that of putting society in the hands of men without true insight and with no adequate expert knowledge. His other criticism was that though in some departments democracy takes the advice of a qualified expert, on questions of morality and justice it assigns equal value to all opinions. Herodotus knew many, possibly most, of these prominent men.


The average Athenian was self-reliant, instinctively praised much-exemplified community ideals of virtue and goodness, and was easily moved to tender feelings. He belonged to multiple social groups to which he had many obligations. He was also pious and superstitious—a citizen could be penalized for not honoring the gods of the city. Omens had significance and oracles were routinely consulted. Even in late fifth century the conservative military general Nicias made disastrous tactical moves in Sicily based on a lunar eclipse.

In spite of a relatively high degree of personal freedom, the notion of individual autonomy apart from the twin pillars of community and polis, is absent from Greek thought. Freedom held meaning and sought expression in a public life—the modern artist, seeking redemption, solitary pleasure or glory through a brave new work of the imagination and with no explicitly larger purpose beyond, would have been quite alien to the Greeks.

The 'Doryphoros' ('Spear-Bearer') by Polyclitus exemplifies the Classical Greek art. The subject's body is poised in graceful, balanced movement.

The liberal-popular and the conservative-aristocratic became the two dominant factions in Athenian democracy. Of the former, Pericles, a blue-blood, outwardly 'espoused the popular cause and chose the side of the mass of poor people rather than that of the rich few, despite the fact that his own nature . was far from being sympathetic to the common people.' Mixing self-possessed ambition, moderation, lofty principles, dignified oratory, and real-politik, he democratically appropriated enormous powers, indulging the citizens now and again in their whimsies, sponsoring lavish festivities during the Panathanea, and big public spending projects. Representing the latter faction, the military general Cimon, a seemingly generous and affable aristocrat, lavished his considerable private bounty acquired in overseas campaigns on his countrymen, offering free meals, cash, and clothing to the needy, and on beautifying the agora. The popular assembly elected ten generals equal in stature—mostly men of independent means and renown, and responsible directly to the people. They courted mass appeal via populist deeds and used oratory as if to exemplify: I speak, therefore, I am.   

A striking feature of classical Greek society, even in the most democratic of communities, is its considerable aristocratic leaven and which largely produced the classical Greek high culture. The spirit of the agon or competition, fame, glory, honor and the desire to surpass all others were values enshrined even in the Homeric poems, particularly the Iliad. 'It was universally the case, and universally accepted as 'natural', that the members of the community were unequal in resources, skills and style of life ... In this society of unequals, the elites who dominated all activities, political, military, athletic and cultural, constituted a single group ... they all came from the same minority of wealthier families, barring the inevitable exceptions ... the impact and manipulation of ideas and values in philosophy and science, literature and art, all of them propounded and developed within the elite circle ... these creators of Greek high culture, in every field, were professionals; they had the necessary training and they devoted themselves more or less full-time to [their pursuits].' The ordinary population appreciated not much more than the more visible aspects of high culture, particularly the visual arts and athletics.

In Herodotus' prime, Athens was the dominant naval and imperial power with colonies all over the map. It offered military protection to members of the Athenian (Delian) league in exchange for tributes, euphemistically called contributions —other euphemisms include protection for military occupation, prison was dwelling, an Athenian military defeat was to have a misfortune. Athenian citizens were granted homesteads in the colonies, cementing further their hold on them and squelching any moral objection from the participants. Many of the colonized though, even when they resented the politics of Athens, found its popular culture irresistible. But unlike the Roman empire, the benefits of citizenship were restricted to the progeny of Athenian citizens, exacerbating further the psychological gap between the rulers and the ruled. The professed objective of Athenian foreign policy was to aggressively promote democracies abroad in direct opposition to the more muted Spartan confederacy's preference for oligarchies. Exceptions to high principle were frequently made for illiberal ends. At times, foreign territory was grabbed in the name of goddess Athena herself.

Asclepius, a legendary physician, was the God of healing and disease in Classical Greece. His staff entwined with the holy snakes became the symbol of the medical profession.
The Caryatids of ancient Acropolis

In reality, wars were used to acquire wealth, to keep the economy humming, to flex their muscle of growing power, and to distract citizens from domestic issues. Classical Athens soon turned into a wartime economy. Special interest groups in popular assemblies cloaked their impassioned speeches in the rhetoric of national interest and glory—deemed acceptable grounds for hostile military action even when others' legitimate rights were mauled. Athens began asserting itself in all manner of allied causes and interfered in other nations' internal matters. It had shrewd orators—demagogues, idealists, pragmatists, with the ability to manipulate public opinion to catastrophic ends—illustrated by the Mitylene debate when the popular assembly, following the frenzied instigation of the demagogue Cleon, voted to condemn all men in the rebellious colony to death to set an example. Leaders also weathered the fickle wrath of popular sentiment—banished now, back in favor again. Even their most celebrated Persian war hero, Themistocles, late in his life, was forced to take refuge in Xerxes' court. In late fifth century, Alcibiades, playboy-aristocrat, star athlete, ambitious politician and general, was warmly embraced after falling out with the public and, in retaliation, colluding with the Spartans to bring about the defeat of Nicias' Athenians in Sicily.

In greater Hellas, Athens repeatedly invoked its role in the Persian wars as moral justification for present domination, backing it up with militant aggression, much to the exasperation of the second-rank powers and other 'inward-looking' city-states. A generation after Herodotus, the great historian Thucydides thought the Peloponnesian war inevitable: Athens had become an unprincipled bully; they had to be checked. Their cultural effulgence had a dark side; they were victims of their own cupidity and recklessness. Their conduct towards other city-states, with its own self-serving logic and momentum, had set them on a road to disaster.

Political alliances in ancient Hellas

Some Athenians believed that a just society needed an inspired combination of philosophy and real-politick in a leader—a philosopher-king, but the production and predictable supply of such men proved utopian. Democracy relied on public awareness, responsibility, and participation to provide a bulwark against any willful abuse of power; conscious citizens were vital for its success in their asking—who are these men making decisions for me and my people and does 'my god' approve of them? In Athens, the disparity between rich and poor had become enormous,♣ as did the knowledge gap between the civilized few and the superstitious many. Class conflict between wealthy landowners and less fortunate craftsmen, sailors and small traders became pervasive; the poor began asking awkward questions when reminded of their obligation to the polis. Thucydides portrays the fragile and corruptible nature of popular government and noble institutions, the twin spectacle of the juggernaut of history and an endlessly vulnerable humanity, egocentric leaders lusting for power and glory, and at times inevitability, in light of the often blind and contending cultural instincts of peoples—his is a stage portrait of man, the political animal. ♣

Ruins of ancient Corinth, an arch rival of Athens

Thucydides attributes this speech to a Corinthian orator addressing the Spartans after a sedition in Corcyra in 427 BCE, probably soon after Herodotus' death. Exasperated and bitter at the growing arrogance of Athens, the orator uses forceful words to rouse their less politically savvy neighbors by bluntly contrasting their values with those of the Athenians.

... the great contrast between the two national characters ... how widely, how absolutely different from yourselves. The Athenians are addicted to innovation, their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; ... they are adventurous beyond their power, daring beyond their judgment, in danger they are sanguine ... swift to follow up a success, and slow to recoil from a reverse ... they hope to extend their acquisitions, you fear to endanger what you have left ... they toil ... with little opportunity for enjoying, being ever engaged in getting: their only idea of a holiday is to do what the occasion demands . laborious occupation is less of a misfortune than the peace of a quiet life ... they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others. And yet, Lacedemonians [Spartans], you still delay, and fail to see that peace stays longest with those who are not more careful to use their power justly than to show their determination not to submit to injustice ... your habits are old fashioned ... it is the law as in art, so in politics, that improvements ever prevail; and though fixed usages may be best for undisturbed communities, constant necessities of action must be accompanied by the constant improvement of methods ... the vast experience of Athens has carried her farther away than you on the path of innovation. Here, at least, let your procrastination end ...


Classical Athenian thinkers appear striking in their effusive energy, flair, and optimism. The goal of human striving, they believed, was understanding that led to personal virtue and political action. With the premise that men are essentially unequal in moral caliber, they pondered over 'the ideal form of government', 'justice', and 'civic virtue'—grand narratives with unequivocal answers, they believed, within the reach of reason. They regarded the framework of the polis as an indispensable agency to human happiness. Not constrained by inflexible religious dogma—religion and state didn't mingle—their politics was built on a foundation of equality, citizenship, and public discourse. The right to own property (unlike in Persia) and the cultural imperatives of success and achievement created the ideal conditions for initiative, curiosity, and ambition. It fostered self-reliance and creativity. Reward was individual and immediate and came in the form of fame and glory. Competitive self-interest became a truism as it didn't in any other society until two thousand years later.

The World map of the Classical Greeks (5th century BC)

As it turned out, Athenian self-interest sought expression in a visible public life. The pursuit of selfish gain devoid of at least a seeming public purpose was sneered at—not because of religion but culture. Their able minds were not lured by profit via trade, industry, and higher productivity. Still, even this proved to be no insurance against corruption, greed, and abuse of power. And they paid for it in the end as their ambitious yahoos hankering after fame and glory took control. In modern times, competitive self-interest was to embrace the pursuit of private gain as a not-unworthy end in itself, with the belief that wider benefit would generally accrue from it—effectively raising the stakes for humanity. Socrates most likely would have been appalled (if not also amused).

What followed the classical age was fragmentation—of polity and national feeling— the Peloponnesian war threw Hellas into crisis and turmoil. The institutions of the polis were negated by the Macedonian monarchy of Philip and Alexander; emphasis shifted from political to other aspects of moral philosophy. In came the winding-down of the Hellenistic age, a withdrawal into the inner self, the soul-centered Stoics, Cynics, Epicureans—wisdom calling for humility, kindness, and detachment from the transient material world with its vain constructs—virtue born of reflection was good, ambition and ego unworthy, passion-filled activism dubious. While advocating reason and the pursuit of knowledge, its leading exponents strongly cautioned against excesses of human nature that promote disquietude and anxiety. The classical age was followed by an age of personal reckoning. 

Acropolis from the Aeropagus

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