, Research Paper
Ancient Greek Philosophical Views Are Still Relevant Today
As a strategy to defeat the invading Persians during the Persian War, the poleis (Greek city-states) of Greece united in order to form one large military force. Following the war, Greece decided to adhere to this idea of unity and form the Delian League in order to protect Greece from Persian domination. However, many of the poleis begin to resent the fact that the polis of Athens held a roll at the top of the League. This tension leads to a war between Athens and Sparta, known as the Peloponnesian War. As a result, writers such as Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle developed their own views on the effects of the war. Evidence presented shows that the philosophers’ views are still relevant to today’s world.
Thucydides discusses his method of recording and understanding history. Thucydides admits that it is hard for him and those who reported to him to recollect the exact words from the speeches made before or after war. Because of this, he has to be able to select words that are proper for the occasion so he can adequately express what the speaker is trying to say, while endeavoring to convey the general meaning of what is actually said. He describes nothing unless he either saw it himself or learned from others, to whom he claims to have made the most careful and particular inquiries. Thucydides explains that the task of history is a laborious one, mainly because eyewitnesses of the same occurrences give different accounts. This could be because the witnesses each remembered the incident differently, or because the witnesses have an interest in one side of the issue or the other. Thucydides states that his history should be an everlasting possession, not a prize composition to be heard and forgotten. The present world should take heed to Thucydides’s views about the war and cherish his and the public’s history. To learn from history’s mistakes, we must be open to understanding our society today. In today’s world evidence is shown that societies are not in very good conditions, morally. Even in the Hellenistic world moral is down and changes occur among men’s attitudes; this is one of the effects of war.
Thucydides explains that after the Peloponnesian War begins, the entire Hellenic world is in commotion. When the troubles started in the cities, those who followed the movement carried the revolutionary spirit further and further, and attempted to outdo the reports of all those that had preceded them. Because of this, they started to change the meanings of words as they saw fit. For example, Thucydides states, “reckless daring is held to be loyal courage. Prudent delay is the excuse of a coward. Moderation is the disguise of unmanly weakness. To know everything is to do nothing. Frantic energy is the true quality of a man. A conspirator who wants to be safe is a recreant in disguise. The lover of violence is always trusted, and his opponent suspected. He who succeeds in a plot is deemed knowing, but a still greater master in craft is he who detects one.” According to Johnson, “those who do wrong to others are applauded, and so is he who encourages doing evil to someone who does not suspect. Revenge is dearer than self-preservation” (qtd. Johnson 122). These changes happen even today in American culture. Americans are taught to try to get to the top as soon as possible, however underhanded or deceitful they may have to be to get there. Perhaps Americans are not aware that they put this pressure to “live out your dreams” on their children. Some children are pushed so hard by their parents to succeed in school, sports, or even talents until the children eventually snap under all the pressure of their parents and society. Children are made to fulfill their parents’ dreams. Sometimes this pressure is derived from the greed of money, or the need to be successful, or the need to have revenge.
The source of all this evil is the love of power originating in avarice and ambition. The party spirit was endangered because of this, as men were constantly contesting against each other. This revolution gave birth to every form of
wickedness in the city of Hellas. The simplicity, which is so large an element in a noble nature, is laughed at and disappears. Words are no longer binding enough, neither is an oath terrible enough to reconcile enemies. Every man must look to his own safety, and cannot afford to trust others. These social tendencies are also shown today. Greed of men and the need to rise to power is still not below people’s way of thinking even in the present.
Thucydides explains that Athenians believe in gods, but he knows that men, by law of their nature, will rule wherever they can rule. Johnson describes Thucydides view: “This rule is not made by man, and the Athenians are not the first who act upon it. Men do inherit the rule, and it shall be so for all time. And men know that all mankind, if they are as strong as the Athenians, will do as they did” (qtd. Johnson 122). Thucydides is obviously accurate about men inheriting this rule of power even now. Evidence of this is shown all around the world today. Even small children are authorities over other children if they are permitted to be. This nature of men to rule others often leads to war, or perhaps discord.
Plato explains the difference in the names “discord” and “war,” and also the difference in the nature of the two. Plato quotes, “discord is expressive of what is internal and domestic, whereas war pertains to what is external and foreign. The Hellenic race is united together by ties of blood and friendship, but this philosophy is alien and strange to the Spartans. Therefore, when Athenians fight with Spartans and Spartans with Athenians, Athenians will describe this antagonism as being at war, and that they are by nature enemies. When Athenians fight with one another they, meaning friends, shall say that Hellas is then in a state of disorder and discord” (Edman 427).
Plato states his opinion, in The Works of Plato on who should rule by saying, “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, -no, nor the human race, as I believe, -and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day” (Edman 431). He believes that the philosophers were the only ones fit to rule the State in order to defend it. Richard Mckeon mentions Plato saying that not all of those born are meant to be philosophers, but to be followers rather than leaders (5). Men need to realize that everyone has a place in society, and until people realize this societies will continue to decline or be forced into war. Many problems still exist in societies of the world today. In The Politics, Aristotle explains how to correct the problems of the current state:
He states, first there is to be a union of those who cannot exist without each other, such as males and females, so that the race may continue. This is not a union that is formed from deliberate purpose, but because, just like with other animals and with plants, mankind has a natural desire to leave behind an image of themselves. Second, there must be a union of natural ruler and subject so that both may be preserved. He that can foresee with his mind is by nature intended to be lord and master, and he who can work with his body is a subject (and by nature a slave). Therefore, master and slave have the same interest. Aristotle further explains the forms of government by saying, “A constitution is the arrangement of magistracies in a State, especially of the highest of all. The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, or of the few, or of the many, are perversions. For citizens, if they are truly citizens, ought to participate in the advantages of a State” (164, 167).
Aristotle feels that aristocracy, the rule of the best, is so called because the rulers are the best men, or because they have at heart the best interests of the State and of the citizens. When the citizens at large administer the State for the common interest, the government is called by the generic name—a constitution. One man or a few may excel in virtue, but there are many kinds of virtue. Also, as the number increases it becomes more difficult for them to attain perfection in every kind (though they may in military virtue), for this is found in the masses.
Aristotle explains further that the perverted should not govern. According to Aristotle the perversions are as follows: of royalty, tyranny; of aristocracy, oligarchy; of constitutional government, and of democracy. He says that tyranny is a kind of monarchy that views only the interests of the monarchy, which has in views the interests of the monarch only. Oligarchy views the interest of the wealthy and of the needy. He believes that none of these ideas dealt with the common good of all. In hopes to keep the next generation from becoming like the present one Aristotle taught young Alexander the Great his own ideas about politics (Oliver). Traditions and Encounters show that until the seventeenth century C.E., most European philosophers still regarded the Greeks as intellectual authorities (Chapter 9). Ex-President Clinton should be an example of a perverted leader due to the perversions he had in his office with a White House intern. Clinton’s scandal should teach potential American leaders a lesson before any other American leader decides to make Americans the laughing stock of the entire world. Americans should be known for their pride in their country and their wide variety of cultures resulting from the blending of nationalities.
Greek philosophers deeply influenced the development of European cultural traditions. Keep in mind, as one-source states, “There can be no such thing as an authoritative history of ancient Greece, not least because the surviving evidence is often so thin” (Martin 5). Thus, like philosophical and religious figures in other classical societies, Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle provided a powerful intellectual framework that shaped thought about the world and about human affairs for more than two millennia. Even today everything that is printed is not necessarily true, for example, the National Enquirer
These Greek philosophers’ views should be carefully considered and reviewed by everyone, especially those that have a say in politics. The Ancient Greek Philosophers show us how human society was, what human society is today, and how human society will be for all time by their words of wisdom. World leaders presently should definitely consider these views expressed. Perhaps the Greek philosophers’ views will be able to help leaders understand more about human nature and maybe even remind them that we are all merely men and have tendencies to rise to the top when we can, becoming corrupt on the way up; however, once one rises to the top he must be mindful that the love of power is corrupt. Those in power should respect those they govern and be careful not to loose sight of the overall needs of the majority.
Bently, Jerry H., and Herbert F. Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters. Boston: 2000.
Edman, Irwin, ed. The Works of Plato. New York: Modern House Library, 1956.
Green, Peter. “Down with the polloi.” TLS 22 Dec. 2000: Issue 5099, p4.
Johnson, Oliver A., ed. Sources of World Civilization. Volume I: To 1500. Upper
Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 2000.
Martin, Thomas R., “Introduction to the Historical Overview in Perseus.” An Overview of Classical Greek History from Homer to Alexander. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc+1999.04.0009. 17 Jan 2001: 1. Online. Netscape. 1 March 2001.
Mckeon, Richard. “The Interpretation of Political Theory and Practice in Ancient Athens.” Journal of the History of Ideas, 42.1 (1981): 3-12.
The Ancient Greeks. Dir. E. Lynn Oliver. 1989.