The Greek Miracle




Read the following excerpts from The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton and from “Why the Greeks?” by Kelly Ross. Come to class prepared to defend ONE of these two arguments about why philosophy originated in Greece during the First Millennium B.C.E.


The Greeks of the Classical Period (500-350 BC) produced a flowering of humanist thought which continues to serve as the foundation of Western art, literature, history, philosophy, science, and government. Many of the greatest writers, artists, and thinkers ever lived and worked together in Athens during this period:



Praxitieles, Phidias, Polykleitos


Ikitinos’ Propylea, Erichtheum, and Parthenon


Herodotus’ Persian Wars, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars, Plato’s Dialogues

Epic Poetry

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey



Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides





Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle



Aristotle, Archimedes


Political Science

Liberal Government: Democracy and Rule of Law



Hamilton's Interpretation: (excerpts from The Greek Way)


The Greeks considered happiness to be “the exercise of vital powers in a life affording them scope.” (Aristotle) This society prized the individual’s ability to use the mind to exercise control over nature. The visible, sensible, audible world, the living world, became more interesting and important than the spiritual world of the unseen and eternal. In a world ruled by the irrational, by dreadful unknown powers, “the Mind arose and made order.” (Anaxagoras) All things were to be examined and called into question. Men thought for themselves.


“Know thyself.” “Nothing in excess.” These words were inscribed on the sacred temple of the oracle at Delphi. The Delphic oracle told Socrates, the philosopher, that he was the wisest man on earth. Socrates’ response was, “That must be true because I am the only man who realizes how little I know.” At the moment of his death, Socrates said, “Think this certain, that to a good man no evil can happen, either in life or in death.


The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek words phileîn, “to love,” and sophía, “wisdom.” The love of learning suffused Greek culture. The ancient world’s great dynasties had been dominated by absolute monarchs who considered themselves gods. Their populaces had been subjugated, and a great priestly caste monopolized the life of the intellect, expending its energy in spiritual quests. In Egypt, the greatest dynasty in the history of the Mediterranean, a civilization that existed unchanged for over two thousand years, the center of interest was the dead. Life for the common people was short and wretched. To the Egyptian, the enduring world was not the real one of everyday life. That was just a way station on the path to the eternal realm of the dead. The department of the intellect that flourished there was mathematics: evidence, the great pyramids built to last forever.


Egypt is a fertile valley of rich river soil, low-lying, warm, monotonous, a slow-flowing river and beyond a limitless desert. Greece is a country of sparse fertility and keen, cold winters, all hills and mountains sharp cut in stone where men must work hard to get their bread. The villages that grew up in these mountain strongholds were rough but also difficult to conquer.


Life there was uncertain and brief too, and Greek art focuses directly upon the swift passing of all that is beautiful and joyful. But, and here is the key difference, the Greeks rejoiced in this life. To them life was a wonder and delight. To be alive, even in the face of inevitable death, was cause for celebration. The human experience was considered of vaster significance and beauty than the immortality of the gods! This is the central theme of the great epic poet Homer.


The Greeks fought against the seemingly overwhelming power of the Persians to defend what was most precious to them: their freedom. What is freedom? The free man obeys no man, only the law. Here is the birth of the conception of liberty of the individual in a state that he defends of his own free will. That can only happen in a place where men think for themselves. In Greece the free exercise of the intellect came to be valued over all other human characteristics.


This faith in reason does not mean that the Greeks did not value the spirit. Instead they expressed their belief in divinity through the exercise of reason. Aristotle, arguably the first great scientist, a philosopher dedicated to the empirical and logical observation of the concrete realm of nature, said, 


The glory, doubtless, of the heavenly bodies fills us with more delight than the contemplation of these lowly things, but the heavens are high, and far off, and the knowledge of celestial things that our senses give us, is scanty and dim. Living creatures, on the contrary, are at our door, and if we so desire, we can gain full and certain knowledge of each and all. We take pleasure in a statue’s beauty; should not then the living fill us with delight? And all the more if in the spirit of the love of knowledge we search for causes and bring to light evidences of meaning. Then will nature’s purpose and her deep-seated laws be revealed in all things, all tending in her multitudinous work to one form or another of the beautiful.




excerpts from Why the Greeks? by Kelly Ross




Why did philosophy have its origins in Greek cities located in rough, mountainous terrain, not blessed with the environment to produce agricultural abundance- like in Egypt?


1.      The wealth of city states like Miletus and Athens was different from the wealth of Egypt:


Cities like Miletus and Athens were wealthy, not because of the outstanding fertility of their lands, but because of something else: Trade. To engage in trade, all anyone needed was enough to get started, and Greek agriculture could provide a couple of starter products. Olive trees are hardy and drought resistant so they grow well in Greece. Olives themselves must be soaked in brine to be edible, but more importantly they can be pressed to obtain olive oil. The oil is not very perishable, and thus could quite easily be stored and shipped (in the six foot tall jars that the Greeks made) to be sold at distant locations for food, fuel oil, hair grooming, or other purposes. Similarly, the Greek climate is good for growing grapes. Grapes can be pressed and fermented to produce wine, another product that is not very perishable and can be similarly stored and shipped. Even apart from any other products, these trading goods would get a city like Miletus started in the exchange of products all over the Mediterranean.


Trade brought the Greeks into contact with people from throughout the Mediterranean world. Thus, ideas flowed as naturally as the money in the market places of these merchant cities.


If, then, trade is to be associated with the origin of philosophy, why didn’t philosophy start with the Phoenicians? After a fashion, perhaps it did. The man credited with being the first Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus (c.585 BCE), was said to have been of Phoenician ancestry. However, he was living in a Greek city, and even later philosophers who were certainly ethnic Phoenicians, like Zeno of Citium, moved to Greek cities to learn and practice philosophy.


2.      The commercial world of the prosperous city-states in Greece developed a different form of government from the rest of the ancient world.


The clue to what happened in the Greek cities may be found in something else that seems to be a unique characteristic of Greek history: by the time we know much about events, traditional kings in Greeks cities are mostly gone. This had never happened before. When ancient kings were overthrown, which happened often enough, they were simply replaced by other kings. The Phoenician cities all had traditional kings. But in Greece, the institution of kingship lost its traction. At Athens, the office of árchôn ("ruler" or "regent") pushed aside the authority of the king (who eventually became another elected árchôn). The leadership position was filled at first by hereditary nobles, then by elected nobles with life tenure, then by elected nobles with ten-year tenure (starting in 753), then with elected nobles by annual tenure (starting in 683), and then with the office opened (by Solon, c. 593) to qualification by wealth, rather than by noble birth. After some conflict and the rule of tyrants (especially Pisitratus), overthrown in 510, Cleisthenes led Athens into essentially pure democracy.


Unlike the Phoenician cities, which had been engaged in commerce for centuries, and where the kings were merchants themselves, the creation of wealth by trade in the Greeks cities seems to have undermined traditional authority. Whoever jumped into the game first would become, perhaps for the first time in history, a dominant middle class that chafed at hereditary privilege and had the means, by bribery and hire, to marshal forces against it. Since wealth by trade could be made away from home, it would be entirely outside the control of a hometown ruler. Returning home with a new sense of power and independence, a merchant could well have lost much of his awe and respect for authority by birth. Seeing Greece of the Dark Ages (c. 1200-800 BCE) as the kind of feudal society pictured in the Iliad, it not hard to imagine the new world of merchants and commerce with the same kind of dynamic that the Italian trading cities of the Renaissance exhibited in starting the process that undermined European Mediaeval aristocracy.


3.      Wealth in cities like Athens and Miletus was also measured differently: through money, not land.


Also, we can say that for the first time in history these transformations could have been accomplished by money: Money, meaning coined precious metals, was invented soon after 640 BCE in the Kingdom of Lydia. The Lydians were not Greeks, but the Lydian kings, after the Phoenician manner, were businessmen; and they worked closely with the adjacent Greek cities of Ionia. Money thus facilitated the rise of a city like Thales's Miletus; and since coinage enhances the manner in which wealth can be concentrated and transferred, we can also imagine that it enhanced the process of social mobility and political conflict.


The correlation between philosophy and the cities of commercial wealth and political transformation is obvious. A commercial democracy like Athens provided the social and intellectual context that fostered the development of philosophy.