It Began with the Greeks
MARCH 01, 1970 by GEORGE CHARLES ROCHE III
Dr. Roche is a member of the staff of FEE. This article is reprinted by permission from his Legacy of Freedom (Arlington House, ¹969). The book also is available from the Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Western man’s search for an understanding of himself and of his universe began with the Greeks in the sense that they gave the greatest impetus to the classical search for man’s identity.
To the Greeks, the word philosophy meant "world view." This "world view," unlike our modern definition of philosophy, had a very broad meaning and included scientific study. It is in the area of what we would call science that the Greeks first excelled. Thales, a Greek who lived six hundred years before Christ, devoted himself to this scientific portion of the "world view," and is generally regarded as the "Father of Philosophy." He was the first in a long line of inquiring minds, including, among others, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, Democritus, and the famous Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine," in whose name today’s medical men still pledge their skills.
Ancient knowledge of the physical universe was so slight by our standards as to be almost meaningless. Yet these pioneers are important to us, not for what they knew, but for their curiosity toward what they didn’t know. They epitomized the "inquiring mind" and operated on the principle that man can learn about his universe. Perhaps the best term to describe these early Greeks would be "the physical philosophers."
If these Greeks were doing a little original thinking about their "world view" in the scientific realm, they also had time to do some very original thinking in political matters. They conceived the idea of the polis, the Greek city-state. In fact, our words "political" and "politics" have their origin in this Greek idea. Many of the words by which Western man has done his political thinking were originally used by the Greeks. They tried a variety of forms: monarchy, oligarchy, tyranny, democracy, aristocracy. They fared best under direct democracy—a system by which informed and concerned individuals took the responsibility of meeting to discuss the problems faced by the city-state and how to resolve them. In their political forms, as in their scientific thinking, the Greeks placed a high priority upon the informed, responsible individual.
In artistic endeavor, the Greeks were also turning out some highly original thinking. The epic poetry of Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey is filled with beautiful language and exciting adventure and concerns man’s perpetual problems concerning the who? what? where? and why? of human experience. The Greeks also gave us the drama. While they pioneered in this new art form, in the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes, they also probed deeply into those perpetual problems of man.
In all these endeavors, the Greeks would have been the last to say they had final answers. But at least they pointed the way for Western civilization, emphasizing the need to look beneath the surface of everyday human experience if man wishes to learn and grow.
In addition to their scientific, political, and literary efforts, early Greek contributions in art and architecture also laid a substantial base for the building of Western civilization. By about 500 B.C., the Greek city-states, with Athens leading the way, had built well upon two basic principles: responsible, informed individualism, and the inquiring mind. But like any number of other societies both before and after them, their faith in their own ideals seemed to weaken as they grew more prosperous. After a series of wars, first with the Persians and then among the Greeks themselves, the concepts of the individual and the inquiring mind came to be viewed even by the Atheneans as a "threat to the safety of the state." A Socrates who thought for himself was now viewed as undermining the youth of the city-state.
Let There Be Light
The rest of the story is quickly told. A young prince in nearby Macedonia had been tutored by Aristotle and believed that his mission was to carry the Greek message to the world. This young prince, Alexander the Great, like many "message carriers" since, thought that the method for getting this message across was to conquer the world with his army. Starting with the Greek city-states, he did just that. At least, he conquered the then-known world around the eastern end of the Mediterranean and even marched his armies as far as India.
Like most "conquerors," Alexander agreed with the people who called him Great. He saw himself as a patron of the arts, and was especially interested in philosophy. The story is told that while traveling with his entourage, Alexander was confronted by one of his ministers who rushed up to him to announce breathlessly, "Sire, Sire, just beyond the next hill is the greatest philosopher in all your realms!" Alexander himself hurried over the hill to discover Diogenes, lying on his back on a grassy knoll and sunning himself while he contemplated some philosophic puzzle or another.
"I am Alexander the Great, master of the world," the young ruler announced. Alexander continued, "I am also patron of the arts and can give you anything you wish…. You have merely to state your desire."
Now that was a generous offer, and Diogenes didn’t respond immediately. But when he did his answer was right to the point. "Please move, Sire, you are standing between me and the sun." At least one of those individualistic Greeks with an inquiring mind was still around, and one may hope that Alexander got the idea. After all, the Greek philosophy he admired so much was based on the very antithesis of the political patronage he was offering. And there is no record that Diogenes was executed as "an enemy of the people."
The empire of Alexander soon crumbled, as do most programs based on coercion. But Alexander’s interest in Greek thought and culture did spread those ideas throughout the Mediterranean area. The Greeks were finished as leaders in their city-states; Hellenic culture was gone. But in its place, Hellenistic culture, culture based on Greek ideas, yet espoused by others than the Greeks themselves, arose to pass along the best of those ideas to the next generations of Western civilization.
Theoretical and Practical
The most important part of this Greek contribution lies not in the scientific, artistic, or political forms of the Greeks, but in the Greek view of man and his meaning, in the Greek assumption that man’s past, present, and future posed problems worthy of an inquiring mind. Yet for all that penetrating analysis, the Greeks were a practical people and usually managed a sense of humor. Thales, the "Father of Philosophy," a man who knew enough astronomy to predict successfully an eclipse in 585 B.C., often has had the story told at his expense that once he gazed so intently into the heavens while out for a walk that he fell into a well. But he was a long way from being either an absent-minded professor or an impractical man. One year he noted that the next olive crop promised to be a large one, so he picked up options on all the olive presses on the Isle of Lesbos. Thales cornered the market and made a handsome profit when the inevitable rush for olive oil came at the end of the season, thus demonstrating that even philosophers can make a living.
A similar story is told of a friend of Socrates who was bankrupted by one of the wars leading to the decline of the great city-states. He not only was broke, but he had fourteen female relatives on his hands. The Greek polis was no welfare state. It was far too individualistic for that. So Aristarchus, Socrates’ friend, was bemoaning his fate when the practical philosopher suggested that there would always be demand for clothes and that Aristarchus should buy wool and put the women to work spinning and making garments. He did so, and soon everyone was making a nice living, including the fourteen female relatives. But Aristarchus quickly developed another problem… now the women were accusing him of living in idleness while they worked! He returned to Socrates for a bit more advice. What he got is both a demonstration of Greek practicality and a suggestion that the entrepreneurial function is a very old idea indeed. Socrates advised, "Tell them of the story of the sheep who complained that the watchdog did nothing."
These stories of Thales and Socrates are not mere entertainment. They also demonstrate that the Greeks were extremely practical people who did their thinking with a hardheaded sense of reality. Often the men who are most genuinely practical also prove to be those most willing to search for answers beneath the surface of events. Because of that Greek belief that the individual can discover such answers, and because some Greeks made the attempt to do so, the largest of the Hellenic contributions to Western civilization lies in the analysis of man and his purpose, in the determination of right and wrong, and the relationship of that right and wrong to human nature and human institutions.
The problem of right and wrong in human concerns began to play a dominant role in Greek thought in the fifth century before Christ. Such studies centered not on the physical universe, but on man’s relationship to man, that is, upon ethical considerations.
At that time in Athens there arose a group of teachers who advertised themselves as capable of teaching the science of improved personal relations between the individual and his associates. This new group of teachers tended to emphasize ways of persuading one’s neighbor to a different viewpoint. For example, courses were offered in how to plead one’s case before a jury. This early emphasis on "How to Win Friends and Influence People," was offered to the public by a group of men who came to be known as Sophists (men of wisdom).
Many Greeks did not approve of this approach to teaching. As a number of them, Socrates included, pointed out, these teachers seemed not to be searching after truth, but only looking for immediate results. What standard could remain for truth if all things were judged only by how well they work? Socrates must have been persuasive in criticizing the Sophists for their failure to make truth their guide; because even today, after twenty-five hundred years, the word "sophistry" suggests not only fallacious reasoning, but dishonest reasoning as well.
The Sophists and Relativity
Actually the Sophists varied widely among themselves. Some were only what today would be called speech teachers, while others went far beyond the mere teaching of technique to insist that the usefulness of any doctrine was the only reliable guideline, since no possibility existed of the establishment of absolute truth. Some Sophists carried their viewpoint to an attack upon the state, while others tried to uphold the existing political format. In the Republic, Plato sarcastically describes the Sophists, Protagoras and Prodicus, who, he said, felt they had "only to whisper to their contemporaries: ‘You will never be able to manage either your own house or your own State until you appoint us to be your Ministers of Education’—and this ingenious device of theirs has such an effect in making men love them that their companions all but carry them about on their shoulders." Yet other Sophists were what we would call anarchists, men who thought law was based on fraud and "put over" on the people through the misleading tenets of religion.
Protagoras, perhaps the most outstanding of the Sophists, asserted that he was the wisest man in the world and insisted that anyone who came to him as a student could develop the same skills. As a sort of money-back guarantee, Protagoras even promised that any student who studied under him was guaranteed to win his first trial in court or his tuition would be refunded. It was Protagoras who first said that "man is the measure of all things," which in effect made the definition of reality relative to each man’s view of that reality. This reduced truth to the level of opinion and denied objective reality.
Gorgias, another of the most distinguished Sophists, carried these relative standards to the definition of virtue, thus developing the theory of moral relativism. Such definitions of reality, truth, and virtue contain within them a number of implications: "… an individual’s perceptions and judgments are relative; universal truth valid for all men is denied, each man being the sole judge of what seems so, and therefore true to him; there is no authority higher than man to weigh and decide between conflicting opinions; and since man is constantly changing his mind, truth is not only a matter of the individual, but of the individual at that moment."¹ The standards adopted by the Sophists sound quite familiar to our modern ear. In fact, similar statements confront us every day from our communications media, our schools, and even our pulpits.
The Mind of Man
While the Sophists directed their attention to analyzing the feelings and impulses which they saw governing the decisions made by individual men, and therefore saw no purpose or guiding direction to man’s activities except that in accordance with the necessity of nature, Socrates recognized that man’s importance rested not upon that physical side of his nature, but upon his insight, an insight into his own nature and that of his universe that provided an objective standard for the estimation of men and their actions. Socrates thus resisted the current of his age in an effort to discover a standard of truth and a definition of reality that gave man a greater dignity than the Sophists’ view of human nature permitted. The short, bandy-legged, ugly man whom the Greeks knew as Socrates possessed the sort of character perfectly capable of standing against the spirit of an age. His principal biographers, Plato and Xenophon, dwell at great length on his amazing powers of physical endurance and the excellence of his record as a fighting man. Not the least of the demonstrations of his physical vigor was that, at the time of his death at the age of seventy, Socrates left two small children, one a babe in arms. A man of extreme simplicity in his habits of eating and drinking, and yet with a reputation for being able to drink heavily with no apparent effects, Socrates wore the same simple clothing winter and summer and habitually went barefoot, even in the midst of a winter campaign.
Socrates was beloved as a teacher rather than as a man of affairs. He wrote no treatises, taught in no classroom; his only classroom was the street in Athens, where he would stop a citizen and start a conversation. What we today call the Socratic method, the process of question and answer, is at once the best and the most difficult of all teaching methods. Only a man of exceptional intellectual capacity, and, more important, with a highly developed moral sense, could have successfully used such a method. Once one of his students admitted at the end of a Socratic dialogue, "I cannot refute you, Socrates."
Socrates replied, "Ah, no! Say rather… that you cannot refute the truth, for Socrates is easily refuted."
Yet, that truth was sometimes hard to discover, as Socrates would have been the first to admit. Once when a young man was introduced to Socrates as being a student of brilliant promise, the old teacher said that he felt sure the young man must have thought a great deal. The boy answered, "Oh, no—not that, but at least I have wondered a great deal."
"Ah, that shows the lover of wisdom," Socrates said, "for wisdom begins in wonder."
Search for Objective Truth
For Socrates, and ultimately for Western man, wisdom did indeed begin in wonder. The knowledge of the truth is only revealed to those who are first willing to admit its existence and begin to ponder its content. As Socrates, and after him, Plato and Aristotle, pointed out, the person who believes that all truth is subjective and is a matter only of opinion, must finally concede to one who believes that truth is an objective reality. If Protagoras or another relativist insisted that one man’s opinion was equally valid with another’s opinion, then he could not deny the validity of the opinion of a Socrates that such a thing as objective truth exists. Socrates thus began with the assumption that truth is a matter of objective reality, and that it is error which is subjective and relative, since it exists only in the mind of the individual person. The means by which such error was to be avoided was to come to a knowledge of the truth. That which is true is that which is good; thus knowledge equals virtue in the Socratic equation. What was the source of this knowledge? Ultimately, self-knowledge was most valuable since knowledge of the truth, and therefore knowledge of virtue, only had meaning when practiced through the self-control of the individual. Thus the Socratic injunction, "Know thyself."
Socrates never committed anything to paper, and what we know of him is based primarily on the reports of his principal student, Plato. Plato used Socrates and his dialogues as a literary device to convey the philosophy of Plato himself, as well as the ideas of his teacher. Thus, it is impossible to say precisely which ideas belong to each. Yet, the direction which Socrates was pointing is clear. Since he believed that goodness and truth were basic realities and that only lack of knowledge would cause man to pursue anything but truth and virtue, he spent his life attempting to open his own eyes and the eyes of those about him to the realization that a knowledge of virtue and truth was man’s only road to happiness. He preached no dogma and insisted upon no fixed set of beliefs, saying simply, "Although my mind is far from wise, some of those who come to me make astonishing progress. They discover for themselves, not from me—and yet I am an instrument in the hands of God."’ Man’s happiness was to be found deep in the heart of the individual as he came to understand his own nature and to strive to live in accordance with the best of that nature. Here, five hundred years before Christ, much of the idea of self-transcendence was already beginning to take shape in the mind and heart of Socrates.
Though Socrates never pretended to erect a philosophic system, his thinking was consistently directed toward an ethical frame of reference. He deeply felt the need for a fixed system of truth to provide a framework within which man made his decisions.
The Need for a Higher Goal if the Individual Is to Improve
"Know thyself." Some very vital ideas are contained within that simple advice. If man is indeed capable of knowing himself, such self-knowledge would demand the most rigorous rationality. True knowledge could scarcely be taught, but could only be understood by each man through his own efforts. Man’s intelligence alone is capable of the creation of abstract ideas. Thus man’s rationality allows him to perceive his spiritual personality and allows an understanding, a self-knowledge, attainable by no other being within the natural order.
Even long before Socrates, the Greeks had come to understand nature as a never-ending process of birth and growth, what they called Dynamis, a maturation and discovery of the treasures written deep within the nature of mankind. It was Socrates’ contribution to recognize that such development toward a higher goal could only be achieved by man if that higher goal were fixed, and not dependent upon man’s nature in itself.
The Greeks at their best had emphasized the individual and the inquiring mind. Socrates’ special addition to these concepts was the idea of a fixed right and wrong, giving order and purpose to the cosmos and pointing the way toward man’s discovery of what that order and purpose might be.
Socrates never developed a complete philosophy. Throughout his long life he perceived the concept of absolute good, searching his own inner experience and that of others for proof that such absolute good existed. He admitted late in life that he had not found the answer that he was seeking. Yet he, more than any other, pointed the way for later fruitful consideration of the possibility of man’s self-knowledge and for the development of man’s higher side in accord with fixed moral principles.
An Idea Takes Root
Socrates was not the only teacher of his time to insist that fixed standards of right and wrong existed independently of man. Within one hundred years of Socrates’ lifetime, Buddha, Confucius, and Zoroaster, each in his own respective civilization of India, China, and Persia, had also insisted that man could prosper only in terms of a fixed code of conduct. Thus, even though life in some form had existed on this earth for over a billion years and human life for over a million years, it was only within the past twenty-five hundred years, in man’s most recent moment of existence, that the human mind had begun to look about it and consider its nature, its origins, and its future. Even then, most of this thinking seemed to be occurring in the minds of a very few men indeed. It is the period of time marked by the beginning of their thinking, roughly 600 B.C. to 400 B.C., that may properly be spoken of as the beginning of Western civilization, since the civilizing influence of these ideas became effective as it was channeled through the Western experience.
Despite the fact that the first great outburst of energy devoted to the study of the nature and purpose of man occurred about twenty-five hundred years ago, we should not forget that some such moral sense, however poorly understood and enunciated, had actually been in existence for five thousand years. As long before the time of Socrates as Socrates’ own time is before our days, Egyptian scribes were recording advice to rulers and heads of families concerning the moral obligations of right conduct which these men of responsibility owed to those about them. Man had long realized, or at least suspected, the existence of some such moral code.
Still, the great outburst of energy occurring almost simultaneously in China, India, Persia, and Greece pointed the way toward Western civilization and toward man’s first systematic thoughts in terms of an underlying cosmic cause which gave meaning to all existence. Buddha’s attempts at Nirvana (the total emancipation from the material life), Zoroaster’s preaching of the never-ending struggle of good and evil and light and darkness in this life, and Confucius’ insistence upon the ethics of personal self-control leading to righteousness and wisdom as man’s source of happiness, all were beginning to make the ethical assumptions which presupposed a higher order of meaning than a merely material universe.
The battle of definition between mind and spirit, the definition which had to be worked out to distinguish man from the animal world and to enable him to know the truth which would give him his place in the universe, was beginning. In St. Paul’s later assertion that the things which are seen are temporal and the things which are not seen are eternal, we can sense what difficulty the early moral thinker had in his attempts to define the realm of the mind and the spirit.
The Hebrew Influence
Another primary influence upon the developing ethical system that was to serve as the basis of Western civilization was the developing world view of the Hebrew people. With the Hebrews, for the first time history became more than mere chronology. God, a fixed ethical system of right and wrong, and a discussion of man’s failures to measure up to such a system, together with an accounting of the high price which man paid for such failings, were all elements of Jewish history as it developed. The Old Testament is at once the history of man’s tribulations in this life and the promise of his redemption from those tribulations. In fact, it was the opinion of the brilliant nineteenth-century historian of liberty, Lord Acton, that the Jews in their federation and in their strictly limited view of political power, were giving the world an early demonstration of the achievement of human liberty by placing man under Divine authority, rather than human authority.³ Another student of liberty, Henry Grady Weaver, saw in the history of the Jews the evolution of a moral code. Weaver makes clear that this moral code was a demonstration of man’s striving after a higher reality in line with his spiritual nature.4
Yet, all of man’s earlier striving for the first several thousand years, as exemplified by the Egyptian attempts, by all of the moral teachings in the work of Confucius, Buddha, and Zoroaster, by all of the moral framework and the development of the idea of a human history as produced by the Hebrews, only achieved their focus and direction and formulation when developed by the Greeks and subsequent Western man. Thus Western civilization is the heir to a tradition that extends far back in human history and encapsules the best of these early strivings to pass them on toward modern man.
Man Builds upon Tradition toward a Higher Understanding
Other Greeks than Socrates were concerning themselves with the same problem. The plays of Euripides demonstrated that a natural moral order exists. Again and again, as, for example, in The Trojan Women, Euripides made clear that an act of injustice or impiety carried within itself the seeds of destruction that would inevitably bear bitter fruit with the passage of time. In Works and Days, Hesiod also presupposed a moral order in the universe, a code of conduct to which all men were subject even when they attempted to violate it.
Yet it is Socrates who was the true spokesman for the first positive statement of such a program. He, more than any other, was most emphatic that the individual man could achieve his own salvation. If Buddha wished for the annihilation of material life, Socrates was willing to enjoy its blessings. If Confucius would have had men guide their conduct only by tradition, Socrates thought that man could evolve toward a higher understanding building upon such a tradition. If the Hebrews had insisted that man could not grasp truth unless that truth were given him by God, Socrates insisted that man’s striving of spirit and intelligence was also the means whereby man might come to improve his comprehension of that truth. Thus the whole problem of ethics, as a problem with which man could work, was first clearly presented as a field of human endeavor by Socrates.
For all the originality of Socrates’ contribution, we should not forget the impact of the unique Greek matrix from which he grew. It was the Greeks who first influenced the Western world in its course, destined to be so uniquely different from the Eastern world. Consider the change wrought by the Greeks as described by Edith Hamilton: "The ancient world, insofar as we can reconstruct it, bears everywhere the same stamp.
In Egypt, in Crete, in Mesopotamia, wherever we can read bits of the story, we find the same conditions: a despot enthroned, whose whims and passions are the determining factor in the state; a wretched, subjugated populace; a great priestly organization to which is handed over the domain of the intellect. This is what we know as the Oriental states today. It has persisted down from the ancient world through thousands of years, never changing in any essential…. This state and this spirit were alien to the Greeks. None of the great civilizations that preceded them and surrounded them served as model. With them something completely new came into the world. They were the first Westerners; the spirit of the West, the modern spirit, is a Greek discovery and the place of the Greeks is in the modern world.”
The earlier moral teachers had turned away from the world. Buddha, Confucius, and Zoroaster, while offering much of sound moral value, largely believed that such value could be achieved by turning from this life. It was the Greeks who began the valuable idea implicit in Western civilization which emphasizes the place of the individual and the importance of a fixed moral order without neglecting this life and this world.
Why did the Greeks ultimately decline? What happened to a people with such faith in the individual, with such a desire to learn and grow, with such tremendous creative capacity in every phase of human endeavor? The answer lies, it appears, in evils which have led a number of other civilizations, Rome included, down the road to dusty death: war, centralization, decline of old values and honorable traditions, and unwillingness to allow the free play of the individual. Each of these tragic causes and effects is readily apparent in the history of Greece as it declined.
Most of the accomplishments of what we call "The Greeks" were really the accomplishments of the citizens of one particular city-state, Athens. One of the neighbors of Athens, Sparta, in fact pioneered in all the repressions of the individual with which we associate the modern totalitarian state. The young Spartan was trained from birth to maintain an obligation to the power of the state and to ignore or destroy everything which did not serve that obligation. All creativity, all dignity, all human aspiration, had purpose only as it served Sparta. As Plutarch described the citizens, "In Sparta, the citizens’ way of life was fixed. In general, they had neither the will nor the ability to lead a private life. They were like a community of bees, clinging together around the leader and in an ecstasy of enthusiasm and selfless ambition belonging wholly to the country."
Of course, it was not this Spartan society that produced the creativity and the divine spark of human dignity which we sense in ancient Greece. Athenian democracy was the home of that human progress. In Athens the state took no responsibility for the individual and the Athenian thought of himself as one of a union of individuals free to develop his own powers and pursue his own life. This freedom was to be limited by self-control. And in that freedom and self-discipline, the heights of Athenian creativity and dignity were reached. But when the Athenians were no longer willing to exercise that self-discipline in their political affairs or in their personal lives, Greece declined. As Thucydides tells us, "The cause of all these evils was the desire for power which greed and ambition inspire." Thus the Greeks ultimately failed through their inability to discover why and, ultimately, how, political power should be limited.
The Athenians were the only people of antiquity who grew great through the exercise of democratic institutions. But when those democratic institutions came to be corrupted, and when the people of Athens no longer recognized any limitation to their power except their own appetite, "no force that existed could restrain them; and they resolved that no duties should restrain them…. In this way the emancipated people of Athens became a tyrant…. They ruined their city by attempting to conduct war by debate in the market place. Like the French Republic, they put their unsuccessful commanders to death. They treated their dependencies with such injustice that they lost their maritime Empire. They plundered the rich until the rich conspired with the public enemy, and they crowned their guilt by the martyrdom of Socrates."³
Thus an excess of democracy proved to be the death of democracy. Once the desire to rule, or any other human appetite, becomes so strong that it accepts no restraint, and once it begins to insist that man is the measure of all things and that no standard of right and wrong should limit the exercise of his power, the way is paved for the decline of faith in the individual, the destruction of creativity, and the reign of coercion.
As Greece lost her way politically due to a collapse in the standards of her morality, the same declining standard of morality also wrought havoc with the standards of Greek society. Traditional Greek morality had been based on the cardinal virtues of justice, wisdom, self-restraint, and courage. The doctrine of self-discipline in conformity with a higher moral law was an accepted standard. The rise of relativism in the Fifth Century B.C. that produced the Sophists turned the old standards topsy-turvy. Why talk of justice or virtue if we no longer know what these qualities mean? Standards began to decline. And if Greek creativity and individual genius began to decline as well, that was due to "environment" or "the system," never to the individual’s departure from a high moral standard. If these arguments have a peculiarly modern ring to our ears, we might remember that if the Greeks pointed the way for us when they were right, it would seem perfectly natural that they could also point the way for us when we are wrong.
The patriarchal family was the vehicle for the creation and preservation of many of the ideas which have formed our civilization. Honor, modesty, wisdom, and justice, all on the level of personal responsibility, were always reflected through the agency of the family. As belief in the individual and belief in a standard of morality waned among the Greeks, it naturally brought a decline to the family, representing as it did the very values that the new spirit of the age had set out to destroy.
As the life ebbed from the institutions and values that for a moment had made Greece great in the full flower of her creative genius, the individual human dignity which had been protected by those institutions and by a fixed moral code declined as well until the Greek citizen was both rootless and defenseless. Without standards, without a moral guide, without the ability either to create or to stand firm against adversity, the Greek now found his sole satisfaction in the exercise of his unlimited political power. That he destroyed Athens through the exercise of that political power should not be surprising.
Socrates Chose Truth
As Greek society declined around him, Socrates chose to stand firm in defense of the principles and attitudes to which he had devoted his life. Perhaps he understood the idea that Ralph Waldo Emerson was to phrase twenty-four hundred years later: "God offers to everyone his choice between truth and repose. Take which you please—you can never have both." Socrates chose truth.
To a society which had come to recognize coercion and absolutely unlimited political power as the final arbiter of all matters, Socrates’ insistence on principle was anathema. He was tried and sentenced to death. Even at that moment, the serenity that comes to a man when he senses the truth and knows that he does, came to Socrates. To those who had just condemned him to death, he responded, "Be of good cheer and know of a certainty that no evil can happen to a good man either in life or after death. I see clearly that the time has come when it is better for me to die, and my accusers have done me no harm. Still, they did not mean to do me good—and for this I may gently blame them. And now we go our ways, you to live and I to die. Which is better, God only knows."’
Socrates did go on to die, in one of the most moving death scenes recorded in literature. To the end he maintained that good and truth did exist and that man could move toward an understanding of that good and that truth by an increased realization of the potentiality of his mind and spirit. The name and ideas of Socrates come to us as a hallowed part of the tradition of Western man. The petty politicians, who destroyed a man whom they could not coerce, perished in their own time. Thus ended an early round in Western man’s struggle to understand himself and his universe and, in the process, to free his soul.
SUGGESTED ADDITIONAL READINGS:
¹ Helmut Schoeck and James Wiggins (Editors), Relativism and the Study of Man, D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1961. This collection of scholarly essays examines the pitfalls of modern relativism, especially in those areas where that relativism has distorted the "social sciences."
2 Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1930. An excellent treatment of the contribution of Greek civilization to the Western world.
3 Lord Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power, The Free Press, 1948. A thoughtful analysis by a distinguished nineteenth-century historian which examines the concepts of freedom throughout history, especially the history of the Western world.
4 Henry Grady Weaver, The Mainspring of Human Progress, The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1953. A helpful introduction to many of the ideas which have made Western civilization so uniquely successful.
See also John Chamberlain’s review of Legacy of Freedom, page 189.