THE ANCIENT ISRAELITES give us one of the two great threads that will combine to make the metaphorical string of Western civilization. The other thread comes from Greece.

It is usual and customary to begin a discussion of Greece with a brief outline of Greek history, and then to move on to a more thorough examination of Greek ideas and how they are still fooling us today all these centuries later. The ideas, however, are obviously what make Greece worth talking about. Who would care about ancient Greek politics if the Greeks had not been the ones who invented politics? Who would read about the petty triumphs of obscure Bronze-age warlords if it had not been Homer who told us their stories? In this history, therefore, we shall begin with the ideas, and then go on to the history if we still have the patience for it.

When we first meet the Greeks, they are in the middle of their Bronze Age, having discovered how effective bronze tools can be in separating a man from his intestines. Fortunately they have left us a vivid picture of themselves in the works of Homer, where we already see the early signs of that scientific curiosity that was to characterize the best in Greek thought. The old bard’s knowledge of human anatomy is encyclopedic. Page after page of the Iliad is devoted to minutely correct catalogues of the various internal organs spilled out on the battlefield. The publisher who wished to produce an illustrated edition of the poem could simply lift the out-of-copyright engravings from old Henry Gray’s Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical.

The subject of Homer’s Iliad is one small incident in the Trojan War, which the Greeks regarded as the central event in their history. Historians today are generally of the opinion that the Trojan War never happened. We shall find, as we go through history, that whenever an event is universally believed and well attested in antiquity, historians are of the opinion that it never happened. This is how the professional historians distinguish themselves from the rank amateurs.

Whether the Trojan War was a real event or not, however, we may take it as representative of the time when the greatest accomplishments of the Greeks lay in the art of evisceration. Some time later, they began to take up other hobbies as well, and then they quickly astonished the world with their discoveries. Or at least they astonished one another; there is good evidence that the rest of the world merely shook its head and yawned.

The Lydian king Croesus, who may not have been strictly Greek but certainly liked to pretend to be Greek, accomplished a particularly astonishing thing when he became the richest man in the world. That is a remarkable enough accomplishment for anyone, but Croesus labored under a considerable handicap. If you were to ask any random passer-by what it takes to be the richest man in the world, would you not be told that it is necessary to have more money than anyone else? Yet Croesus lived at a time when money did not yet exist. It was therefore necessary for him to invent money before he could proceed to the business of being rich. Croesus’ first coins were primitive affairs, cut out of construction paper with a crude portrait of the king in orange crayon. But what wonderful results flowed from the simple discovery of money! When we consider what our civilization truly values as most laudable and permanent, we must bow our heads in silent tribute to Croesus, the inventor of being rich.

Another Greek invention was philosophy, which in Greek means “love of wisdom.” Other cultures had their wise men who claimed to love wisdom, and whose memorable pontifications were passed down from one generation to another; but the Greeks were the first to make a profitable business out of being smart. A teacher had only to equip himself with a few memorable epigrams about the nature of life, and he was ready to open his own school of philosophy, where people would actually pay to hear his opinions. Imagine how elated the first philosophers must have been when they discovered that they could make a living from the half-baked ideas they were always spouting at the corner bar anyway! It was an ideal career for anyone who was too cowardly to fight and too clumsy to make pottery.

According to tradition, the first of these professional wisdom-lovers was Thales, an Ionian Greek from Miletus who announced in about 600 B.C. that he had everything figured out. Until the time of Thales, the Greeks had attempted to explain nature by referring to a bunch of silly myths that had no basis in reality. Throw away those myths, Thales said, and stick to what we know. In the real world, everything is made of water.

From our modern point of view, Thales’ explanation may seem little better than the myths it replaced. But it is important to remember what Thales had accomplished. He had opened the floodgates of philosophy: now it was legitimate to think about things instead of telling traditional stories about them. And practically anybody could think about things. Soon the Greek world was filled with philosophers all claiming to explain nature without reference to mythology. One said that everything was made of fire; another said that everything was made of love; yet another said that everything was made of blue raspberry soda. There was no limit to the number of profitable philosophical schools that could be founded thanks to the wonderful innovation of Thales.

After a while, all the famous philosophers were concentrated in Athens, for exactly the same reason that all the car dealers always line up on the same street. One of the most successful of these philosophers was Socrates, who has the distinction of being the only philosopher ever to star in his own Broadway show, the all-singing all-dancing musical extravaganza The Clouds. Socrates affected to disdain wealth, which was very easy to do when you ate every night at the swankest dinner parties in Athens. Unfortunately, Socrates was tried and convicted on the ridiculous charge of corrupting the youth of the city, merely because he taught them that the Athenian system of democratic government was laughably absurd and should be replaced by a strong and ruthless dictatorship. Forced to swallow poison, Socrates became the very first martyr in the cause of fascism, and his memorable political ideas have been passed down to us by his student Plato, whose Republic has served as a detailed statement of principles for ruthless dictatorships for two and a half millennia.

Aristotle was another of the great names in Greek philosophy, and one whom we shall encounter again more than once in history. With his careful and methodical investigation and his rigorous logic, Aristotle made a large number of important scientific discoveries. For example, he discovered that falling bodies fall at different speeds according to their weight. This was such an important discovery that it took about two thousand years to undiscover it.

The Greek philosophers were often mathematicians as well, and to them we owe the foundations of the science of Geometry, or “earth-measuring.” In fact, the Greek philosophers were so good at geometry that they succeeded in measuring the size of the earth itself, which one would think would have rendered further geometry unnecessary; but once you get started with a thing like that, it’s hard to stop.

Later Greek philosophers showed a surprising aptitude for useless mechanical inventions. Automatic mills, steam engines, pennyfarthing bicycles—all these inventions were of no use to them whatsoever, because they also had slaves. Mechanical improvements were thus quite superfluous. Who wants to make a slave’s job easier?

When we look at all the ideas and discoveries the ancient Greeks have left us, we must confess that the single most important is the simple idea that it is worth the trouble to think about things. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” as Aristotle wrote on his business cards. As a result of this memorable idea, we have the multi-billion-dollar pop-psychology industry of today. Even more important, we are now convinced that one can be sitting down, obviously doing nothing, and still be “working”—an idea that would have seemed like nonsense to anyone who came before Thales.

So far we have seen how the Greeks examined their lives relentlessly. It remains for us to see in the next chapter how this constant self-examination rid them of all irrationality and selfishness, allowing them to create a utopian paradise on earth in which happiness reigned perpetually, and where poverty, war, and injustice were unknown. Just kidding.


  1. Bravo, Dr. Boli! I would have liked to see a mention of one or two more of my favorite Pre-Socratic Philosophers, such as Democritus, but this was an excellent general overview of Greek Thought, without needlessly going into prurient detail about some of the more unsavory things they thought about their young serving boys. I look forward with eager anticipation to seeing how the Spartans at Thermopylae and Alexander the Great expanded on and surpassed even the anatomical-dissection expertise of the Homeric heroes at Troy.

  2. C. Simon says:

    Philosophy is thought to be pedestrian, even boring; but in any general introduction, one should not disguise how dangerous the job really is. As a matter of fact, every philosopher who ever “made it” has met a horrific, accidental death “on the job,” as it were.

    Thales? One day, suddenly and tragically drowned.

    Democritus? Atomized.

    Peter Abelard? In a family magazine, I won’t mention it. But the amazing thing is that it actually happened to him for reasons wholly unconnected to his philosophy.

    Descartes got snapped in two, and he never knew what hit him. (A footnote on Descartes: There’s an apocryphal tale that Monsieur Descartes went to a bar and was put a trivial political question by his bar buddy, to which he answered, “I think not,” and vanished; and also that Ockham cut himself shaving and died. These tales are of course too silly to be true. In Descartes’ case, the apocryphal version is especially propagated by folks who are aren’t philosophical enough to comprehend the concept of a sudden death by mind-body dualism.)

    Thomas Hobbes was injured in connection with a brutish war of all against all.

    Hume perished of an unknown cause.

    (John Locke managed to inflict his own tragic accident on the King of France instead. Neat trick, that.)

    Darwin? Don’t tell this this one to any nightmare-prone children. Witnesses swore they saw him turn into an ape, though it’s sometimes claimed to be just a spooky urban legend.

    I inquired into the circumstances of Karl Popper’s tragic accident, but the stories are unverified.

  1. […] Next: Chapter 6.—The Ancient Greeks Live the Examined Life. […]

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