Greek Culture

Overview back to top

Greek influence pervaded the Roman Empire. This resulted from 3 major factors: 1) Roman interaction with Greek colonies in Sicily and southern Italy, 2) Greek intellectual thought impacted the education of upper class children in the Empire, 3) immigrants from the Hellenized areas came to Rome as slaves, soldiers, and for commerce.

Greek became the common language of the Empire. While the upper class spoke Latin, the commoners spoke Greek. Greek theatres and clothing became popular and many Jews changed their names from Hebrew to Greek.

The Hellenistic world was an incredibly prosperous one. Alexander and his successors had liberated an immense amount of wealth from the Persian Empire and with this influx the standard of living rose dramatically. The Greek empires embarked on building projects, on scholarship, on patronage of the arts, and on literature and philosophy. The Greeks exported their culture, political theory, philosophy, art, and literature all over the known civilized world.

The mighty empires of the Greeks hung onto a vast amount of territory (Italy to India & Macedonia to Egypt) for almost three centuries. Slowly, however, a new power was rising in the west, Rome. By the time of Christ, the great Greek empires of the Hellenistic world had been replaced and unified once more into the Roman Empire.

Deeper Analysis back to top

Greek philosophical though first appears in a poem, Theogony, written by Hesiod about 725 BC. Theogony retells the myths of the gods and speculates about the origins of things and the order of the universe. Greek philosophy was almost certainly derived by the Greeks from Egyptian culture; particularly natural science preoccupied Greek thought up to the time of Plato. Even the Greeks themselves claimed without dissension that their philosophy came from Egypt.

Nonetheless, in the later half of the 5th century, a group called the Sophists shifted the inquiry away from natural science towards the nature of morality and society. Socrates followed in the footsteps of the Sophists in making ethics his primary topic. Plato's overwhelming concern with ethics focused Greek philosophy primarily on ethical and civic virtue.

While there are many more thoughts and divisions of Greek philosophy, we will limit our discussion here in two divisions: Pre-Socratic and those from Socrates forward.

The Pre-Socratic schools were primarily focused on explaining the origin of things and change. They often were in search of the primary substance in which all things were made. The Milesians, for example, put forward the idea that the primary substance was water, indefinite, and also air. The Pythagoreans who were very obscure and impenetrable in their thought said that the essential unity of things lie not in the physical, but in number and numerical relations. There were other Greek philosophers, such as Xenophanes, ridiculed the anthropomorphic gods of Greece and believed in one great God, who was not physical but was all mind (nous) and moved all things by the force of his spirit.

Parmenides of Elea taught that existence must be unchanging and unmoving, and so the changing world registered by our senses has no reality whatsoever and cannot be known. Empedocles of Acragas tried to reconcile the views of Parmenides with those of most Greeks of his day by identifying four basic elements: earth, water, air, and fire. He said that these elements remain unchanging but combine to form the changing and moving world of our senses.

Socrates, despite his foundational place in the history of ideas, actually wrote nothing. Most of the knowledge of him comes from his pupil Plato. Plato had other concerns in mind other than historical accuracy so it is impossible to know how much of his thinking actually derives from Socrates. His most accurate writing on Socrates was probably The Apology (means "defense-speech"). It is Plato's account of Socrates' defense at his trial in 399 BC. In this work, Plato outlines some of Socrates most famous philosophical ideas: the necessity of doing what one thinks is right even in the face of universal opposition, and the need to pursue knowledge even when opposed.

Socrates wrote nothing because he thought that knowledge was a living, interactive thing. Socrates' method of philosophical inquiry consisted in questioning people on the positions they asserted and working them through questions into a contradiction, thus proving to them that their original assertion was wrong and all the while Socrates never takes a position.