What did the Greeks contribute to human life? As the eminent historian Will Durant wrote, “there is hardly anything secular in our culture that does not come from Greece. Schools, gymnasiums, arithmetic, geometry, history . . . physics, biology . . . poetry, music, tragedy, comedy, philosophy . . . ethics, politics, idealism, philanthropy . . . democracy: these are all Greek words for cultural forms . . . in many cases first matured . . . by the abounding energy of the Greeks.”1

Philosophy is the fundamental value that men inherited from the Greeks, for it seeks to answer life’s most important questions: What is the nature of the universe? How do men gain knowledge? What is human nature? What is the good? What is a good society? Philosophy attempts to give rational rather than mythic or faith-based answers to such questions.

Religion is a primitive form of philosophy. As such, it is important to note the difference between Greek religion and later monotheistic religion.

Greek “religion” was natural in that the Greek gods were physical, not exclusively “spiritual” beings; they occupied a physical mountain peak, not an immaterial heaven. They were powerful and occasionally wise—but not omnipotent or omniscient. They were more like comic book superheroes than anything resembling the otherworldly, mysterious, virtually inconceivable God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Homer and Hesiod, early in Greek development, appealed to these beings as explanations for natural occurrences.

In time, Greece’s great thinkers repudiated the early fables of their culture. Democritus, the Sophists, Epicurus—and above all, Aristotle—developed essentially secular, non-mythical philosophic theories.

The Sophists mocked and rejected all religious beliefs. They adopted Protagoras’s dictum that “Man is the measure of all things—alike of the being of things that are and of the not-being of things that are not.”2 Unfortunately, the Sophists jettisoned objectivity with religion, arguing that cognitive and moral principles were mere matters of opinion. Protagoras held that subjective desire was the standard of human morality—but, as a true conservative, he thought it expedient to generally follow whatever mores society accepted.3 Thrasymachus, another Sophist, agreed that moral principles are mere social conventions—but, as a more radical subjectivist, he held that right and wrong are whatever an individual feels them to be, “and that the only real authority in the world is force.”4

Socrates responded to the Sophists’ relativism by seeking exact definitions of moral concepts. What is justice? he asked. What is virtue? What is piety? He sought neither mere examples of such terms nor mythic, religious explanations. If justice, for example, has a nature—if it is what it is, and nothing else—then it can be defined; more broadly, if moral terms and principles have a nature, then, these can be identified, and an objective standard for proper human conduct provided. Socrates observed that “men’s talk was interlarded with . . . terms intended to be descriptive of ethical notions—justice, temperance, courage. . . . [But men] cannot talk about acting wisely, justly or well unless [they] know what wisdom, justice and goodness are.”5 Certainly, in a state of ignorance, they cannot talk meaningfully of such matters; hence, Socrates’s relentless search for rigorous definitions.6

In his pursuit of factual grounding regarding moral matters, Socrates claimed that x is not good because the gods approve it, but rather that the gods approve x because it is good.7 And, he said, the Sophists are wrong: The good is not based on subjective whim—neither of the gods nor of men. Socrates held that moral principles are absolute, not relative, and are discoverable by reason. His question-and-answer method, his fearless willingness to confront every issue and opponent, and his tireless discourse with inquiring minds (including that of the youthful Plato) were intended to discover exactly those principles. Wilhelm Windelband, a leading historian of philosophy, states the point succinctly: “Regarded on the whole, the activity of Socrates, in that he set up the ideal of reason as against relativism, was an attempt to reform the life morally by means of science.”8

Moral philosophy began in Greece with Socrates. But the discipline reaches its classical zenith in Aristotle.


References:

1. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 2, “The Life of Greece” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1939), p. vii.

2. Plato, “Theaetetus,” in Collected Dialogues of Plato, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 856, 152a–b.

3. W. T. Jones, “The Classical Mind,” in A History of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1969), pp. 67–68.

4. Jones, “Classical Mind,” p. 69; Wilhelm Windelband, History of Ancient Philosophy (New York: Dover Books, 1956), pp. 121–23.

5. W. K. C. Guthrie, The Greek Philosophers from Thales to Aristotle (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960), pp. 75–76.

6. Guthrie, Greek Philosophers, p. 77; Windelband, Ancient Philosophy, p. 129.

7. Plato, “Euthyphro,” in Collected Dialogues, pp. 178–79 and 10a–e.

8. Windelband, Ancient Philosophy, p. 134.

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 9, No. 1. Andrew Bernstein holds a PhD in philosophy from the Graduate School of the City University of New York and taught philosophy for many years at SUNY Purchase. He is the author of The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic, and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire (2005); Objectivism in One Lesson: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (2008); Capitalism Unbound: The Incontestable Moral Case for Individual Rights (2010); and Capitalist Solutions (2011). Dr. Bernstein is currently writing a book, Heroes and Hero Worship, at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, and is a contributing editor of The Objective Standard.

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