Philosophy and Intellectualism: The Essence of Greece?

            In the classical time period of 500-300 BC, Greece consisted of various city-states trying to gain power. Through the work of eminent philosophers and military men, impressive cities formed throughout Greece. Over many centuries, these cities were overthrown by smaller states that endeavored to achieve greatness. During these times of conflict, less widely known and recognized changes were being made: philosophers and other intellectual individuals were shaping the culture of Greece. The philosophers devised innovative ways of thinking which increased the public’s mathematical, scientific, and artistic skills. By expanding the general knowledge of the ancient Greek people, the philosophers enhanced every known innovation of Greek culture. Although war and conquest during the Hellenistic times greatly influenced the ancient Greek civilization, it was philosophy and intellectualism that formed the fundamental nature and cornerstone through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle’s works.

            Socrates (469-399 BC) is known as the most brilliant philosopher of all time and the inventor of the Socratic Method. His unique way of persistent reasoning with other people made him the enemy and the hero of many. He firmly believed in principle rather than honor, obeying one’s conscience, and admitting one’s ignorance. One of Socrates’ quotes was, “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” Socrates’ death was a sign to the world that he was willing to die for what he believed in as he refused to abandon his principles. He died from drinking hemlock mixed with water. It was not suicide because the judges gave him a choice between living and giving up his values, or dying with them. Through his life and death, he created a new sense of what it meant to be a human being and he revolutionized the way people thought about themselves and the world. Socrates reformed philosophy because he supported ideas and morals that were unfamiliar to the Athenian citizens but are now accepted today. He taught Athenians that it is better to die a satisfied man with much happiness than to die with riches. “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have,” is one of his famous quotes.    

             Numerous people say that Socrates’ greatest achievement was his student, Plato (427-347 BC). Plato believed in absolute goodness, beauty, and truth. He was especially intelligent in metaphysics which is the study of phenomena that cannot be understood through a direct encounter or scientific research. He said that the changing world portrayed a false impression that blocked the higher truth of unchanging ideas. The higher truths he named Forms and some of the Forms are Goodness, Justice, Beauty, and Equality. “The Forms,” Plato said, “are true reality; what humans experience with their senses are mere shadows of this reality.” Politically, Plato was in opposition to democracy due to Socrates’ death. In his writing he describes principles for political and social organizations led by leaders that cared about their citizens’ wellbeing and respected their beliefs. He did not admire the leaders of democracy because of Socrates’ death. He wrote many plays including The Republic and The Timaeus that reflected his views of the world and how society should be improved. Socrates was often a main character in the plays. The Cave, a parable in the play The Republic (one of the most influential books on political theory) is about the real world versus our perception of it.

            Another significant philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BC), was one of Plato’s students. He used and taught a modified version of his teacher’s views by turning away from supernatural thoughts and ideals. Aristotle preferred to be down to earth and focused more on the real world than Plato had. He is known for his attempts to understand, classify, and examine the natural world by dividing organisms into classes and sub-classes with similar characteristics. Aristotle is the creator of the primitive taxonomic order that categorizes all living creatures (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species). He had theories about atoms such as, “All existing things are atoms, or empty space; atoms are the same size like grains of sand and always in constant motion; atoms are building blocks while elements are fundamental substances.” Charles Darwin considered Aristotle to be the most important contributor to the subject of biology due to his extensive plant and animal research. Western society has taken ideas and morals from the philosophers and used them as a base for modern society’s principles. The philosophers’ principles still stand today because many of them contain reasonable advice on how to become a happier and fulfilled person. As Aristotle stated, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.”

            Even though philosophy and intellectualism influenced the Greek civilization, war and conquest considerably assisted in the society’s formation. Valiant warriors were portrayed in literature and art and have been revered by all societies of people. Battles are remembered and stories are still passed by word of mouth. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), ruler of the immense Macedonian Empire was one of history’s renowned fighters. He was known for his fantastic skill in arranging a battle to perfection when the odds were against him. He fought the Persian army and defeated them in glory even though he was outnumbered 6 to 1. During the battle, his soldiers and generals gained a deep respect for him and were inspired by the effort that he put into winning and achieving his epic title: the Great. He brought the states of Greece and the Near East closer together during his reign because of the extensive explorations that he undertook. “The popularity of the legend of Alexander as a symbol of the height of achievement for a masculine warrior-hero served as one of his most persistent legacies to later ages.” Some might ask, “How did he reach his greatness?” The answer lies in his teacher: famous philosopher, Aristotle. Alexander owed to Aristotle, his skill in medicine and his desire for learning. He kept a copy of Aristotle’s edited version of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow and felt that it was the treasure of all military knowledge. Throughout Alexander’s life, his craving to learn and attain knowledge never abated. War and conquest during Classical Greece could never be considered the essence of Greece if philosophy and intellectualism had not existed.

            Philosophy and intellectualism is the basis of all other essences of Greece through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle’s works. Today the world still studies the teachings of the philosophers and learns morals and takes attributes from them that contribute to society. War and conquest is also an enduring aspect of Greek culture, but the truly notable battles that were fought were helped by philosophy and intellectualism. As Plato stated, “The first and the best victory is to conquer self.”