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The Influence of Greece on Western Civilization


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The Influence of Ancient Greece on Western Civilization

Of all the cultures that have come and gone throughout human history, it was the achievements of ancient Greece that have left the most indelible imprint on Western civilization. In particular, it was greek achievements in the realms of art, democracy, medicine, philosophy and literature that has influenced the modern world the most. It is interesting to note that the loss of Greek thought after Roman civilization inducted a period popularly characterized as the Dark Ages. During this time human life was, in words popularized by Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short.” Superstition, disease and a short life span were the hallmark of the age. It is crucial to understand that the middle “dark” ages finally ended with the re-discovery of greek texts to usher in the re-birth of civilization, ie: the Renaissance. It was the Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas that set Western civilization on its current track by reintroducing Greek thinkers to European intellectuals. The popularizing of Greek philosophers renewed Western interest in Greek achievements, specifically within the realms of art, democracy, medicine, literature, and philosophy. While some of these subjects remained underdeveloped in Greek times, such as the discipline of medicine and democracy, others were so advanced as to set a standard to this day in the realm of art, philosophy, and literature. Discussed herein is a brief exploration of those Greek achievements that left their greatest influence on Western Civilization. To begin, Greek visual art has had a huge influence on the development of Western Civilization. Greek sculptures and plays have influenced Western society most profoundly since the renaissance. Visual art is focused on here ie: sculpture and painting to differentiate it from other forms of art, such as music or plays. Its effects are so powerful as to be worthy of its own exploration. Greek art can be best characterized by the style of romantic realism. Romantic, defined in the artistic sense, means to exalt human existence and to portray reality in its ideal form. The term realism, refers to depicting the chosen subject as similar to reality as possible. This is why Polykleitos set a standard for correct proportions when representing the human figure, whose influence can been seen clearly on renaissance sculptors such as Michelangelo. Consider now the contrast between the idealized man compared to the art of the dark ages. In the latter, man was portrayed as a corrupt, groveling, unworthy creature subservient to disdainful god. The paintings during that period were dark and generally featured misery, suffering and submissiveness. The likeness were crude, two dimensional and even the paintings resembled the imprints of woodcarvings. With the re-discovery of Greek art during the renaissance, paintings began to resemble reality more accurately and hopefully. Painters and sculptures not only used the style of romantic realism, but began to infuse Greek mythology itself into their work(see Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus). The discovery of Greek art at the conclusion of the middle ages provoked a humanist revolution in the world of visual art that continues to this day.

That the Greeks influenced our Western political structures have been spoken of ad nauseum. However it stands out as one the most important contributions of ancient Greece to modern day. Its view of democracy was not exactly like what exists today but was instead an important revolution in thought. Unlike the ancient Athenians, modern voters elect representatives who in turn vote for the laws and bills. Conversely, the laws made in Athenian democracy were passed by the people directly. Two major ideas influenced the creation of our political system. First, the separation of the aristocracy from the governing body. This means that the people who hold office must be either chosen by the people or be appointed by a representative. The second great political idea that influenced the West was that of the Demos or "the people". The idea was that citizens have a natural right to choose their representatives. This was the forerunner to our notion of "human rights". The notion of “one man one vote” still exists today, while applied more liberally. Athenian democracy also had a rough form of checks and balances between the legislature and the executive. This concept influenced Rome which the founder's of the American Republic looked to while constructing their own model. The Greeks inspired the West to institutionalize the concept that the founding level of government is the people, and that the state is beholden to the people. In summary, the Greeks influenced the creation of Western democracy by laying the groundwork for many of the ideas that we take for granted today. Greek medicine has had a profound influence on the modern world. It has laid the foundation for many of the therapies and perspectives that we use today in modern medicine. Many Greek therapies are still used today such as massage and herbal therapy. The Athenian physician Hippocrates is still often described as "the father of modern medicine." The Hippocratic Oath is perhaps one of the most well known influences. It requires a new physician to swear that they will uphold a number of ethical standards. While not required in modern medical schools, it laid the moral groundwork for the profession as it exists today, specifically the principle to "First, do no harm". The influence of Greek medicine unfortunately has had a negative effect as well, as the now-debunked humoral theory was adopted by the medical profession up until the 18th century. Regardless of this, Greek thought inspired the West to create a system of medicine based on reason instead of superstition. This scientific approach was furthered by Aristotle, who was the first to study anatomy in a method similar to Leonardo Da Vinci's dissection and illustrations of the physiology of corpses. Greek medicine gave the West a scientific way of exploring the the body and heath, although it took almost 2,500 years to be fully realized. However, it is responsible for setting Western civilization on a new track towards the treatment of illness based on rationality, which is responsible for the modern treatments we enjoy today. Literature is another major influence that Greece culture has imparted on modern times. Homer's Iliad was the first epic story of recorded history, and set down the basic structure now used by the majority of Western tales. Current stories depicting a hero on a journey or quest had their origins in greek literature. Joesph Cambell writes in his famous book The Writer’s Journey that the structure of the “hero’s journey” has remained unchanged since ancient times. The framework of the story is as follows: a hero is taken from the ordinary world that they have grown up in and are transported into a world of adventure in which they are tested. There they meet allies and foes, friends and villains and their transformation is what they bring back to their ordinary world. Greek literature has not only set down the basic structure of heroic stories but of dramas

and comedies, which are the basis for movie and t.v. dramas currently enjoyed today. It is well known that plays of Sophocles greatly influenced the writing of William Shakespeare, one of the greatest of Western writers. Even today, blockbuster films are not only using Greek story forms, but portray Greek mythologies themselves(The Immortals, Clash of the Titans). In summary, modern culture would not be what it is today were it not for the poems, plays and narratives of ancient Greece. The philosophy developed in ancient Greece had the most profound effect of all upon the modern world. It laid the groundwork for the scientific and technological achievements that our society currently enjoys. During the Archaic and Classical Periods it was the Greek’s devotion to the nature of truth that created the greatest influence upon Western culture. In particular, it was their determination to find natural causes in the universe, rather than divine or mystical explanations to observed phenomena, that created our scientifically derived civilization. It was the pre-socratic philosopher Thales, known as “the father of science”, who began the first attempt to understand the material beginnings of the universe. It was his hypothesis that everything began from water that bore an uncanny similarity to the Darwinian theory of life arising in the sea, which was to come thousands of years later. Without Thales it is unlikely that we would have our modern conception of the Big Bang. The Athenian philosopher Socrates was another titan of Western thought. By using reason to question the assumptions of his contemporaries he transformed the practice of philosophy. Socrates set down such eternal lessons as “question all received wisdom”. Such iconoclast notions are the basis for the revolutions that gave birth to our modern secular society. Yet it was a Macedonian philosopher living in Greece, who formalized the practice of logic, who gave birth to a proto-scientific method. Using observations, testing and rational inference to arrive at conclusions, the ancient Greeks began a movement in thought that would eventually spark scientific and technological revolutions. It was by laying the epistemological groundwork of reason and establishing the right method of gaining knowledge that ancient Greece have had the most influence on modern culture. Greek philosophy created the foundations for the West’s achievements in science, technology, and secular society. Had it not been for the re-introduction of Greek texts into Western society, it is plausible that our society might still be dominated by superstition, unreason and a malevolent perspective of humankind. It was the visual art style of romantic realism that transmitted a view of man that was hopeful while simultaneously realistic. The ancient Greek view of medicine gave us our current scientific methodology and ethics, while the democratic structure of the Athenian government influenced the creation of our political systems. Above all, Greek philosophy gave us formalized reason, intellectual inquiry, and the marvels of science and technology. The Greek framework of democracy and individual rights has since transformed the world. Truly these five intellectual revolutions of ancient Greece have provided not only the foundation of Western society, but of the greatest peace and prosperity the world has ever known.

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