Illustration of Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Something extraordinary in the history of humanity occurred 2500 years ago in Athens—much of our cultural heritage, for better and worse, descends from a very small population of landowners, farmers and sailors during a surprisingly short space of time. They organized themselves into a radically democratic government. They held as a high ideal the dignity and freedom of an individual free man. They produced sculpture and architecture which set the standards by which these arts are still measured, and they laid the foundations of our philosophy, mathematics and sciences.

Stepping from a plane in Memphis in 1968, Robert Kennedy was informed that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. In an impromptu moment that has become famous, he responded:

… My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’…. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

To come to an appreciation of our Greek heritage is in some way similar to a fish coming to an appreciation of water.

Students are often astonished when they read for the first time the literature of classical Athens. It seems so much more familiar than, say, Dante’s Inferno, although this was written almost 2000 years later in a language much closer to our own. Greek plays were unlike anything the world had seen before. They are gory, horrific, passionate and heart breaking, their characters display human nature at its best and at its worst.

It is the Greek method of thinking that the Western world has inherited. The rediscovery of Greek science and philosophy in Medieval Europe kindled the Renaissance. To come to an appreciation of our Greek heritage is in some way similar to a fish coming to an appreciation of water. How we study this legacy is itself a product of that legacy. We separate our search for knowledge into Greek categories, such as politics, philosophy, history, and the individual sciences. Even the words we use for these disciplines are typically taken from the words used by the Greeks – technology, economics, logic, even our word “school”, taken from the Greek schole.

By the beginning of the sixth century BCE, Athens was disrupted by the same social unrest that had affected many of the poleis (city-states). Farmers, many of whom were Hoplite soldiers, banded against the aristocrats and civil war seemed unavoidable. Additional tensions were caused by the lack of written laws. To the Greeks, justice as part of a cosmic order ruled even the gods, but in fact the aristocrats controlled the laws and could change them at will. In 594 BCE they tried to forestall the civil war by electing the poet Solon as Archon, with a mandate to reform the constitution.

Solon (638–558 BCE)

statue of Solon


Solon was certainly one of the first Greek Axial thinkers we know of; he traveled widely in Greece, visiting Croesus in Lydia, and Thales in Miletus. According to Plutarch, Solon was “not an admirer of wealth,” but a “lover of wisdom” (Philosophia). Like Thales, he spent time in Egypt, where, according to Plato, he heard the story of Atlantis from Egyptian priests.

Solon told the Athenians that their unstable political situation could not be blamed on a divine cause but was the result of human selfishness. All citizens, he said, should accept responsibility for this dysnomia (disorder). In his view the solution lay in their hands, and only a collaborative political effort could restore Eunomia – good order and stability. Eunomia was about balance. It meant that no one sector of society should dominate the others.

The Areopagus from above

The Areopagus, as viewed from the Acropolis, is a monolith where Athenian aristocrats decided important matters of state during Solon’s time.

He set about reforms that strengthened the rule of law and set Athens on the road to democracy. For example, he abolished debts incurred mostly by farmers and debt slavery, and formalized the rights and privileges of each class of Athenian society according to wealth. Wealth not birth would be the criterion for access to public office. He created a series of census ratings according to which each adult citizen would have his wealth recorded and thus have access to offices. Under Solon a comprehensive code of law was spelt out and made available on tablets, so that citizens could see how they were governed and what their rights were.

Under Solon a comprehensive code of law was spelt out and made available on tablets, so that citizens could see how they were governed and what their rights were.

Solon set a new standard as an ideal citizen when he refused stay on to establish a tyranny in Athens to enforce these reforms: he had served the people without personal reward and as their equal. However, his reforms and ideas were not immediately accepted, and after his departure, Athens lapsed again into factional fighting and anarchy. Notwithstanding, the Greek world was impressed and put Athens at the forefront. In addition, the idea of Eunomia would influence not only political development but the development of early Greek science and philosophy.

In 561 BCE, Pisistratus made his first attempt to become tyrant of Athens (a term that meant simply ambitious men who seized power), but failed. On his third attempt, fifteen years later, he entered Athens with not only his private army, but accompanied by a six foot tall Athenian girl representing the Goddess Athena. This time he was successful.

Pisistratus maintained Solon’s laws and allowed elections to take place every year. Among his beneficial actions to Athens was the appointment of rural magistrates enabling all farmers to have access to legal redress. His foreign policy added to the city’s prosperity, and he developed peaceful relations with other Greek tyrants. Pisistratus was responsible for the cultural transformation of Athens including the annexation of the island of Delos, which gave Athens control of the prestigious sanctuary of Apollo. He embarked on a building program that included the construction of a temple to Athena on the Acropolis and the temple of Olympian Zeus. He instituted competitive musical and athletic festivals such as the Dionysia and Panathenaia that made Athens an important cultural center of the Greek world.

Even though nobility still governed the city, the Council and People’s Assembly could now challenge any abuse of power.

From now on there is a strong sense of a government, rule of law and regularity in Athens, which leads the way to its eventual democratic development.

Pisistratus’s son Hippias ruled oppressively and was driven out of Athens with help from the Spartans, who then put a garrison of 700 soldiers in the Acropolis.

statue of Cleisthenes

Cleisthenes (ca 565–500 BCE).

Cleisthenes drove them out and in one year in office (508–507), offered and gave democracy to the Athenian people. He completely reformed society, mixing people from different tribes and from the different factions of the Hill, the Shore and the Plain. He broke up old loyalties, redesigned and enlarged the Council and made the popular assembly the main legislative body. Even though nobility still governed the city, the Council and People’s Assembly could now challenge any abuse of power.

The Classical Period (Circa 500–300 BCE)

Athenian democracy became a model and their reforms reverberated throughout the Greek world.

This period is sometimes described as “the Golden Age” yet it was a time of almost constant strife. It began in 490 BCE with the Persian Wars which Athens was instrumental in winning, and it ended with the Peloponnesian War which pitted Athens and her allies against Sparta and her allies, and which Athens lost in 404 BCE.  Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, this turmoil, it was an extraordinarily creative time when Axial Greece came into its own, and the great monuments, the art, philosophy, architecture, democracy and literature that we now value as the beginnings of our own Western civilization came into existence.

During this time, Athenian democracy became a model and their reforms reverberated throughout the Greek world. The middle classes now participated in council debates along with the nobles and Greek intelligentsia. A new system, which the Athenians called isonomia (equal order), now energized the Greeks and encouraged other poleis to try similar experiments.

Map of Athenian territory at 431 BCE.
Delian League (“Athenian Empire”) shown in yellow, Athenian territory shown in red, situation in in 431 BCE, before the Peloponnesian War.
Athenians were now loyal to Athens above all and were committed to her survival and prosperity. They used their prestige and economic power to build a navy with which to fight Persia (490–479 BCE), and, when finally triumphant, they took command of a new alliance of Greek States and formed the Delian League in 478 BCE. Smaller allied states paid contributions in silver that enabled Athens to expand its shipbuilding and arsenals, and led to Athenian domination of Greek trade.
Smaller allied states paid contributions in silver that enabled Athens to expand its shipbuilding and arsenals, and led to Athenian domination of Greek trade.

Uncooperative states were seized and their lands given to Athenian colonists, (cleruchs,) thus Athenian territory expanded. In addition, Athens became a haven for political exiles from other parts of Greece, people who brought their wealth and expertise, and who set up business ventures in the Athenian state.

Under Pericles (495–429 BCE) the authority of the Assembly and the Heliaea (people’s courts) was made absolute, the Parthenon, Prophylaea and Erectheum were constructed, and the Athenian Empire emerged.

Democracy and Slavery

Classical Greek Democracy depended on the participation of the greatest number of citizens. Citizens had obligations to the State: to be part of judicial and political assemblies, to be on jury service, to attend religious festivals and other state activities. Even in their free time they were expected to play the prescribed part of the free citizen and to pursue activities called schole (from which we get our word school).  Schole involved regular exercise at the gymnasium, attending philosophy lectures and poetry recitals, all of which helped to establish the free citizen’s superiority. In this way the citizen proved himself fitted to rule.

Citizens were dependent upon the ubiquitous slaves. We know from the poems of Homer and Hesiod that slaves were part of Greek culture since the earliest times, before 700 BCE.  In the later Classical period, even the poorest Athenian citizen would own a slave, and not owning one meant that you were practically destitute. Slaves worked businesses, assisted the citizen women, who were virtually confined to their private homes yet in charge of domestic issues, and performed tasks for the State. Their work included performing clerical jobs, removing refuse and dung from the streets, and dangerous tasks like silver mining in Laurium. Their work provided invaluable wealth to the citizens and the state.

Greek democracy and culture depended on the ownership of slaves and Greek citizens found a way to justify it.

Ownership of land was still commended, and farming one of the most desirable sources of wealth, but the labor it required was not valued and where possible was performed by slaves.

In summary, Greek democracy and culture depended on the ownership of slaves and Greek citizens found a way to justify it. The obligations of citizenship and the regular activities of schole where the free man cultivated his mind, soul and physical excellence, proved his superiority. Conversely, those who labored and did not cultivate their mind were inferior. They were fit only for work and deserved to be slaves.

Thucydides and the Beginnings of History (Circa 460–395 BCE)

Bust of Thucydides

Bust of Thucydides residing in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

By the second half of the fifth century Athens and Sparta emerged as the two most powerful states in Greece. But now without a common enemy, tensions grew between them, and in 431 BCE they confronted one another, with most of the Greek states joining in support of either state. This Peloponnesian War was a long and merciless civil slaughter that, over twenty-seven years, produced suffering on a scale previously unknown to the Greeks. By 404 BCE Spartans had destroyed the Athenian navy, dissolved the entire empire, marched into Athens, and a pro-Spartan oligarchy ruled the Athenians. Athenian democracy was suspended and a pro-Spartan oligarchy – the Thirty – was installed.

This Peloponnesian War was a long and merciless civil slaughter that, over twenty-seven years, produced suffering on a scale previously unknown to the Greeks.

Almost the entire war was witnessed by Thucydides (465–395 BCE), a well educated member of the Athenian elite and one of the most important and influential historians, whose writings are still studied and discussed in military colleges today.

Before Thucydides, Herodotus had written history as one would then tell a good story: with a focus on notable events that included heavenly and cosmic intervention.

Thucydides saw that human behavior, not the Gods, was responsible for these events. He attempted to analyze events in a way that would help people understand that they were not a result of the gods’ favor or disfavor, but of the actions of individuals. We are all subject to passions, desires and appetites; more often than not, we go to war for irrational reasons, war is a “Harsh master and a harsh teacher,” it destroys our better natures which are nurtured by law and custom. Duress brings out our worst characteristics, and these are evident as war becomes protracted. Fathers kill their sons, neighbors their neighbor, his family and livestock.

Thucydides felt human nature was predictable and education, religion, government and family were ways to help us rise above our natural selves.

He felt that the power of Athens had alarmed the Spartans enough to be a major cause of the war, and looked for the underlying causes of disastrous events in wartime, such as fear, pride, bad calculations, or indecision. His accounts illustrated the way human affairs always follow the same patterns, among them: that power always seeks to increase; that necessity is the engine of history; that leaders must impose their will on those they lead, and that weakness invites the domination of the stronger entity.

Thucydides felt human nature was predictable and education, religion, government and family were ways to help us rise above our natural selves. People will behave in the same way under the same circumstances unless it is shown to them that such a course, in other days, ended disastrously. Athenians lost because they were incompetently led by people who, hungry for power and unscrupulous, misunderstood the strength of the Persian influence, and were undermined by their own greed and hubris.

Internal Wars and Philip of Macedon (338 BCE)

During the fourth century, after the defeat of Athens by Sparta, the Greek states remained mired in wars, supported in part by Persian satraps (regional governors) interested in destabilizing Sparta. Resentment against Spartan hegemony united former enemies and even allies. Eventually in 379 BCE Athens resumed its position as the leading Aegean power by calling on allies and additional formally pro-Spartan states, and reviving the Athenian League.  In 371 BCE the Spartans were defeated at Leuctra in Thebes, which then became the dominant state, but not for long. States allied themselves against Thebes, and from then on continually disputed among themselves until they were overshadowed by the foreign invasion of Philip of Macedon in 338 BCE.

This endless strife continued to be the backdrop to cultural innovation and activity in the polis (city state).

The Pre-Socratic Philosophers

These innovative thinkers came from both the eastern and western regions of the Greek world. Only fragments of their original writings survive, and our information about them comes from later philosophers such as Aristotle, who called them “Investigators of Nature”.

They used prose not poetry as their language of inquiry, and gradually prose became associated with the language of investigation, and logos to stand for what we would call scientific inquiry.

Just as questions, debate and reasoned solutions were part of political discussions in the Greek polis, these men focused on speculative questions, discussions, debate and reasoned conclusions with regard to the nature of the world. They thought of themselves as philosophers (literally “lovers of wisdom”).

Rather than rely on supernatural answers, they sought the natural elements that were involved in the world’s formation (physis), and to identify the Eunomia (balance) of the universe and the principles governing it. Their questions fell into areas that we now categorize as science, philosophy and spirituality. They used prose not poetry as their language of inquiry, and gradually prose became associated with the language of investigation, and logos to stand for what we would call scientific inquiry. From this sense of the word we get “logic” – rational thinking.

In the first half of the sixth century, the Ionian city of Miletus was a rich trading center with numerous colonies, possibly the most powerful Greek city on the coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Its citizens were audacious sailors whose travels took them to the cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt and who lived close to the rich city-state of Lydia.

Thales of Miletus (Circa 624–547 BCE)

An etching of a bust of Thales


It was the Ionian mathematician and astronomer Thales, whom Aristotle called ‘the founder of natural philosophy’, who set up the Milesian school and so launched the beginning of philosophy and science. Thales was from a wealthy family in Miletus whose father may have been of Phoenician ancestry. He was a contemporary of Solon and had also traveled and studied in Egypt, where he may well have learned some of the mathematical discoveries with which he is credited. Thales was widely believed to have predicted the solar eclipse in 585 BCE. He was a highly successful businessman and statesman, as well as a mathematician who is said to have claimed his only interest in business was to demonstrate the practical advantages of clear thinking.

Never before had someone put forward general ideas and explanations about the nature of the world without recourse to religion or myths. For the first time there was a conviction that there were natural laws controlling nature, and that these laws were discoverable. The world is made of material, and it is governed by the laws of material motion. Thales did not break entirely with religious explanations but he did attempt to give rational explanations for physical phenomena, claiming that behind the phenomena was not a catalogue of deities, but one single, first principle, which he called an archê, “cause”. He identified this first principle as water.

Anaximander (Circa 611–547 BCE)

He was Thales’ student and was the first to write a treatise in prose, which is known traditionally as On Nature. This has been lost, although it probably was available in the library of the Lyceum at the times of Aristotle and his successor Theophrastus. He explored the notion that there was a single, imperishable, primary element, but he disagreed with Thales over what it was. It was hard to see how water could be contained in something that is very dry, for instance, and Anaximander went on to reason that the fundamental material must be something that transcends ordinary matter, all of which would have limitations similar to the water theory. Therefore he postulated that the fundamental material must be something imperceptible to our senses that encompasses even properties of matter that appear opposite from each other. Anaximander identified this with ‘the Boundless’ or ‘the Unlimited’ (Greek: ‘apeiron’, i.e. ‘that which has no boundaries’). It lay beyond our experience, it was beyond the Gods, and the source of all life.

Another Milesian, Anaximenes (ca 585–525 BCE), said the primary element was air.

Illustration of Anaximander’s models of the universe.
Illustration of Anaximander’s models of the universe.The sun, moon and each of the stars is actually a transparent ring – or hoop – made of air. Each ring is filled with fire which we can only see when the hole in that particular ring passes over us. On the left, daytime in summer; on the right, nighttime in winter.

Pythagoras (Circa 582–504 BCE)

a bust of Pythagoras

Bust of Pythagoras of Samos in the Capitoline Museums, Rome.

He was active in southern Italy towards the end of the 6th Century. He coined the term “lovers of wisdom” (philo-sophia) saying that some people seek wealth, some power and admiration, and some fame, but the wisest are those who pursue knowledge: the philosophers. He wrote nothing down and apparently discouraged writing, so we have no original documentation. Nevertheless, his ideas reflect the vision of Axial Age thinkers in other parts of the world. In other words, it appears that he and his pupils’ primary quest was for spiritual enlightenment.

Pythagoras was well-traveled. As a young man he studied with both Anaximander and Thales of Miletus. He was said to have been initiated into the ancient mysteries of the Phoenicians studying in the temples of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos in modern day Lebanon, and to have visited Haifa and the temple on Mount Carmel in Israel. He spent time studying in Egypt, and when the Persian Empire expanding westward, invaded that country, he was captured along with members of the Egyptian priesthood and taken to Babylon. In Babylon he would have found himself at the center of a convergence of religious and philosophical ideas, and in a culture that, like Egypt, was also at the forefront of mathematics and astronomy. Zoroastrianism was in its early days, the Magi (Zoroastrian priests) were establishing the ethical teachings, rituals and monotheism of their religion in contrast to the multiple gods and rigid social hierarchy that was already part of Babylonian culture. Here Pythagoras may well have studied the importance of numbers and of the interaction of contraries or opposites good/evil; positive/negative; light/dark; right/wrong; etc.

An illustration of the Pythagorean theorem using squares.

The Pythagorean theorem: The sum of the areas of the two squares on the legs (a and b) equals the area of the square on the hypotenuse (c).

After twelve years in Babylon, he was allowed to return to his birthplace, Samos in Ionia. Leaving Babylon, he may well have traveled through Persia into India to continue his education where some sources say he is referred to as Yavanacharya, the “Ionian Teacher”. He could well have obtained his Karmic ideas directly from India, although similar ideas were also known in Egypt, plus, in Greece, the Orphic cult was heavily influenced by Eastern belief, particularly on the transmigration of the soul.

He intended to set up a community in Samos but corruption, neglect and tyrannical oppression made it unsuitable. He journeyed to Croton on the east of Italy, where he founded the Pythagorean society of philosophy, mathematics, and natural sciences. People from different classes – and even women – came to his school to hear his lectures and become part of his community. He recommended modesty, austerity, patience, equality and self-control.

Pythagoras’s famous saying “All is number” refers to his understanding that beyond the world of appearances there lies an abstract harmonious world of number. For the first time he demonstrated that the structure of nature is translatable into numbers and geometric forms which can describe its fundamental laws.

John Strohmeier and Peter Westbrook write in their book Divine Harmony – The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras, “For Pythagoras, mathematics served as a bridge between the visible and invisible worlds. He pursued the discipline of mathematics not only as a way of understanding and manipulating nature, but also as a means of turning the mind away from the physical world, which he held to be transitory and unreal, and leading it to the contemplation of eternal and truly existing things that never vary. He taught his students that by focusing on the elements of mathematics, they could calm and purify the mind, and ultimately, through disciplined effort, experience true happiness.”

Heraclitus of Ephesus (Circa 535–475 BCE)

A painting of Heraclitus.

Heraclitus (right) by Johannes Moreelse. The image depicts him as “the weeping philosopher” wringing his hands over the world and “the obscure” dressed in dark clothing, both traditional motifs.

He was a student of Pythagoras. He wrote that “all is flux,” that truth lies in constant change, in the impermanence of nature as illustrated by the saying attributed to him: “No man steps into the same river twice”. You could not rely on the evidence of your senses, you needed to go deeper in order to find unity. At the foundation of this perpetual flux experienced by both human beings and nature was the ruling principle – logos.

Xenophanes (Circa 560–480 BCE)

He went to Elea from Asia Minor where he founded the Eleatic School. By this time, people now realized that political institutions could be changed without causing any reaction from the Gods, and some now began to question their existence. Xenophanes ridiculed these anthropomorphic gods, he believed in one great God, which was not physical but was all mind (in Greek: nous), moving all things by the force of his spirit without himself having to move.

Parmenides of Elea (Circa 520–450 BCE)


Parmenides. Detail from The School of Athens by Raphael.

He was a student of Xenophanes. He taught that reality was one complete, eternal, quintessential Being beyond time and change, and that the changing world registered by our senses was an illusion.

Anaxagoras of Athens (Circa 500–428 BCE)

He taught that all things come to be from the mixing of innumerable tiny particles of substance, shaped and controlled by a creating principle he called Nous (“Mind”), a divine intelligence.

Leucippus (5th century) and Democritus (Circa 460–370 BCE)

They argued that everything was made up of an infinite number of tiny, invisible particles which they called “atoms.” Democritus named the atom after the Greek word atomos, which means “that which can’t be divided further.” As they move in infinite space, these atoms combine with others into an innumerable variety of shapes, forming, among other things, what we see and know of the world. Man’s actions are no exception to this universal law, and free-will is a delusion.

Epicurus (341–270 BCE)

Etching of Epicurus

Etching of Epicurus.

Like Democritus, Epicurus also taught that the universe was made of tiny indivisible units, or atoms, moving in infinite space. Everything that occurs is the result of these atoms colliding, rebounding and joining with each other, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. Plants, animals and humans evolved randomly over ages, some forming species that survive for a time, but nothing lasts forever. Only atoms are immortal, so every phenomenon is the result of natural causes. The atoms in the void, obey the law of their own natures, falling downwards because of their weight, meeting and clashing, forming molecules and larger masses, and, ultimately, building up the whole universe of worlds in infinite space.

In this view then, there is no need of gods, who are similarly created but are unconcerned with human affairs, so should not be feared. Neither should death be feared since it is just the dissolving of the atoms that make up the body and soul.

However, Epicurus’ philosophy differed from the earlier atomism of Democritus in that he believed that our senses are infallible and, through them, we know that we have free will. If man’s will is free, it cannot be by special exemption to the natural laws of atomic materialism, but because of some inherent principle: some element of unconscious spontaneity in the atoms’ behavior. Epicurus conclusion was that they randomly swerved. It is the ‘swerve’ then which enables the atoms to meet in their downward fall, it is the ‘swerve’ which preserves in inorganic nature that curious element of spontaneity which we call chance, and it is the ‘swerve’, become conscious in the sensitive aggregate of the atoms of the mind, which secures man’s freedom of action and makes it possible to urge on him a theory of conduct.” Titus Lucretius Carus, Lucretius On the Nature of Things, trans. Cyril Bailey.

This conduct should be guided by each individual’s perception of pleasure and pain, experienced in both body and soul. Pain is the dislocation of atomic arrangements and motions, pleasure their readjustment and equilibrium. Epicurus’ objective was to attain a balanced, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain. Pleasure to Epicurus was attained when one is free from either want or pain: when both have been removed.

His extensive writings were mostly lost and suppressed by Christian and Jewish theologians to the extent that the English definition of Epicurean means indulgence in sensual pleasures, especially eating and drinking, and his name is one of the words for heresy in Hebrew. His works survived mostly because of a 7,400 line poem about them, On the Nature of Things by the Roman poet Lucretius.

Some of Epicurus’ teachings include:

“Death is nothing to us. When you are dead you will not care, because you will not exist.”

“All organized religions are superstitious delusions rooted in longings, fears, and ignorance.”

“The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion. The enemies of human happiness are inordinate desire—the fantasy of attaining something that exceeds what the finite mortal world allows—and gnawing fear.”

The Sophists

As part of the scientific revolution in the fifth century BCE a new class of teachers appeared, who taught epistemology, language, geometry, astronomy and biology, and above all, rhetoric and eristic, the study of argumentation. Anyone who wanted a position of importance, especially in a democracy, would have to have oratorical skill, strength in debate, and a knowledge of law and politics; one would need to know how to manage property and maybe run the state, and know something of music, astronomy, math, physics, and so on. The Sophists equipped one to be a leading citizen, and supplied answers to help people live in a world whose reality had now been somewhat undermined by the Pre-Socratics.

Greek Drama

By the end of the sixth century, Athens had become the home of a tradition of drama that strengthened the bonds of the entire community. The City Dionysia, was held in March each year to welcome the spring. Dionysus, among other things, was the God of tragic art, and some scholars believe that these events were part of the religious festival in his honor. Others that they were added to the religious festival since the “audience” had already gathered for that event. Nevertheless, gods are always present in the plots, at least in the background, and sometimes as characters on the stage.  They are often invoked, or challenged by the human heroes who are frequently their helpless pawns.

Mosaic of Dionysos riding a leopard

Dionysos riding a leopard, 4th century BCE mosaic from Pella.

The plays took place in a stadium that seated about 20,000 people and were held on three specific and consecutive days each year, from sun up to sun down.

Each day one poet alone would present a trilogy, followed by a burlesque satyr play, which was shorter and often connected thematically to the plays that preceded it. In the Greek agonistic spirit — (from the Greek agōnistikos, from the word agōn meaning contest) — these plays were part of a competition between three tragedians selected for the event by the Archon responsible for organizing it all. In addition, more frequently than not, the main characters in every play were in conflict with each other.

Theatre of Dionysus

The Theatre of Dionysus (above) in Athens.

Tragoidia is a formal term that refers not to the subject matter but to the form, and its meaning was more like our word “play” than our word “tragedy.” According to Aristotle, “The plot of a Tragoidia needed to be serious.” Nevertheless, those that survived are almost all tragedies in our sense of the word.

Actors were generic figures: they wore heavy masks, hiding any expression, their robes were heavy and indistinguishable from each other, their movements ritualized. To move the audience, they relied entirely on the quality of their voices, dance-like movements, and on the poetry they spoke and sang. Sophocles, for example, avoided performing in his plays because his voice was too weak.

The plots were almost always drawn from traditional Greek mythology and tended to focus on conflict within a great family from the remote and heroic past. So the broad outline of the story and the main characters would be known to the audience. But the play’s details were modified, and minor characters often invented in order to refocus the story to highlight whatever angles the writer wanted, putting whatever words he wanted into the character’s mouths. Thus the tragedy commented on wider contemporary social themes, like justice, the tension between public and private duty, the dangers of political power, and the balance of power between the sexes.

Greek audiences would already be accustomed to listen attentively for a long time in public assemblies, and in the law courts, consequently the spoken word would have been easier for them to listen to and retain than this format would be for us today.

Aspects, perspectives and the relevance of the trilogies would be discussed by citizens, since tragedy not only validated traditional values, reinforcing group cohesion, but also exposed weaknesses, conflicts and doubts in both the individual and the state. Athenian democracy was new and the transition from traditional blood or tribal loyalty to loyalty to the state, although intellectually welcomed, would likely have been more difficult for individuals to internalize. Athenians applied what they learned in the theatre to other aspects of their lives, to difficult civic issues, to their deliberations in the Assembly and to their judgments in the courts.

The plays told stories that dealt ruthlessly and relentlessly with human passions, conflicts and suffering at the same time expressing Greek ideals. They were open to all citizens, possibly even women and slaves. Over at least three days, then, Athenians had the opportunity and space to experience and think about those aspects of humanity that threatened the wellbeing and eunomia (balance) of their society, both in the oikos (family) and in the polis (state.)

Here in open-air theatres the public could watch as every transgression—even the most horrific of human drives and passions—was acted out and released in a very controlled setting. It provided a cathartic experience (or cleansing) for everyone; here suffering was experienced and accepted, and empathy fostered. Greek Classical Theatre was a safety valve for the society where every year, passions and concerns were revealed and then could be controlled.

Karen Armstrong  writes in The Great Transformation, “Tragedy taught the Athenians to project themselves toward the ‘other’ and to include within their sympathies those whose assumptions differed markedly from their own. … Above all, tragedy put suffering on stage. It did not allow the audience to forget that life was ‘dukkha,’ painful, unsatisfactory, and awry. By placing a tortured individual in front of the polis, analyzing that person’s pain, and helping the audience to empathize with him or her, the fifth-century tragedians – Aeschylus (ca 525 – 456), Sophocles (ca 496 – 405), and Euripides (ca 484 – 406) – had arrived at the heart of Axial Age spirituality. The Greeks firmly believed that the sharing of grief and tears created a valuable bond between people. Enemies discovered their common humanity …”

Greek theater masks: comedy, Zeus, youth and Dionysus.

Socrates (470–399 BCE)

Bust of Socrates

Bust of Socrates.

Karl Jaspers writes in The Great Philosophers, Vol. 1“His mission was only to search in the company of men, himself a man among men. To question unrelentingly, to expose every hiding place. To demand no faith in anything or in himself, but to demand thought, questioning, testing and so refer man to his own self. But since man’s self resides solely in the knowledge of the true and the good, only the man who takes such thinking seriously, who is determined to be guided by the truth, is truly himself.”

The objectives of this rigorous, lengthy and relentless dialogue were to demonstrate the limits of a student’s … ability to arrive at real knowledge in this manner, and to expose the student’s assumptions

Let it be clear to you that my relationship to philosophy is a spiritual one.” Socrates says at his trial. His teaching method, known as elenchus (cross-examination), is often thought to be designed to draw out the pupil’s innate knowledge through a series of meticulous, rational, questions and answers.  This describes the process but its purpose was more than a search for innate knowledge as we generally understand it. It is more likely that the objectives of this rigorous, lengthy and relentless dialogue were to demonstrate the limits of a student’s – or anyone’s – ability to arrive at real knowledge in this manner, and to expose the student’s assumptions, opinions and false beliefs in order that that he or she might eventually realize that there was no right answer. Through this confusion the individual would see that he or she really knew nothing at all, at which point the search for truth could begin. Finally, by questioning their most fundamental assumptions, and through unrelenting questions and answers, individuals would be able to access an intuitive ability – a change in consciousness – and perceive ultimate good.

In Theaetetus Socrates describes himself as a midwife, guiding each student to discover within himself a level of intuitive understanding and self-knowledge that was synonymous with virtue.

In 399 BCE Socrates was accused of two violations of Athenian law: blasphemy by teaching about new gods not recognized by the Athenians, and corrupting the youth of Athens.

Like Pythagoras, the Buddha, and many other teachers, Socrates wrote nothing down, resisted formulating a coherent philosophical path and had no dogma. He was aware that some students, at least initially, were merely entertained by practicing his method, but he knew otherwise: “They enjoy hearing men cross-examined who think they are wise but they are not. But I maintain that I have been commanded by the God to do this through oracles, through dreams, and in every way in which some divine influence or other has ever commanded man to do anything.” writes Plato in The Apology.

In 399 BCE Socrates was accused of two violations of Athenian law: blasphemy by teaching about new gods not recognized by the Athenians, and corrupting the youth of Athens. He was accused of teaching young men idleness and encouraging cultish behavior. But perhaps above all – when the great Athenian Empire was losing to the Spartans towards the end of the Peloponnesian War – he was, in a sense, a scapegoat for their shame, disliked because he numbered among his friends and students men who were perceived as enemies of the Athenian State, such as Alcibiades and Critias. (Alcibiades had, on several occasions, changed sides, and Critias became part of the pro-Spartan oligarchy installed after Athens lost the war in 404 BCE.) In addition, his dialectic method – whereby through rigorous questioning he lead people to see the fallacy and limits of their thinking – made many conclude that he was merely intent on making them feel inferior.

Even in defending himself at his trial, Socrates revealed that first and foremost he was a teacher. “I shall never cease from the practice of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend … are you not ashamed … to care so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?” Instead of offering a defense that would assure his release, he refused to compromise and used the opportunity to expose the shallow emotionally-driven thinking of the members of the judiciary:  “For if you kill me, you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the city by God … [But] you may feel out of temper like a person suddenly awakened from sleep and might suddenly strike me dead … and then sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care for you sends someone to take my place.”

When the possibility of escaping from jail was presented to him, Socrates used this as an opportunity to teach Crito to observe the effect and consider the consequences of one’s actions, thoughts and feelings. In this instance such an action would in a sense destroy the Athenian state, whose laws had permitted his birth, upbringing and education and of which he willingly chose to be a citizen, obedient, therefore, to its laws. Socrates, in a lengthy dialogue, takes the part of the state and determines that if he did not stand by this agreement now, he would be dishonored, and his friends suffer by association.

“[Man] has only one thing to consider in performing any action – that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly…”

Socrates had no fear of death: “You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action – that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly… . No one knows with regard to death whether it is not really the greatest blessing that can happen to man, but people dread it as though they were certain that it is the greatest evil, and this ignorance, which thinks that it knows what it does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable.”

So he drank the hemlock and was put to death as the State required. “Such, Echecrates, was the end of our friend, who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time, the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man.” says Crito at the end
of Phaedo.

Painting of the death of Socrates
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787).


He was a student of Socrates and would later record a number of Socratic dialogues as well as personal accounts of Socrates, whom he admired greatly. His prose included not only histories, but biography, political pamphlets, and instruction manuals on an array of subjects, including household management, hunting and military tactics. He is often called the original “horse whisperer”, having advocated sympathetic horsemanship in his treatise “On Horsemanship”.

Plato (428–347 BCE)

The most important thinker to follow Socrates was his pupil Plato.

He was an aristocrat, his mother was descended from Solon, and father from the last king of Athens, Codrus. Unlike his mentor Socrates, Plato was a prolific writer as well as a teacher. A devoted pupil of Socrates, three of his early dialogues – The Apology, Crito, and Euthyphron – plus the later Phaedo are devoted to the trial, prison days, and ultimate death of his teacher.

After the death of Socrates, Plato, disillusioned with political life, traveled in Egypt and Italy for approximately ten years. He made contact with the followers of Pythagoras, whose understanding that numbers and geometric forms provided a way in which to understand reality, stimulated his own Theory of Ideas (of Forms).

In 387 BCE Plato founded the Academy in Athens which lasted in one form or another for nine-hundred years until 527 AD. Plato and other teachers instructed students from all over the Greek world in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, natural and mathematical sciences. Although the Academy was not meant to prepare students for any sort of profession, members of the Academy were invited by various cities to aid in the development of their new constitutions.

Around 390 BCE Plato is thought to have written The Republic. He did this in part to challenge the prevailing attitudes of the Sophists, the hired teachers that instructed the sons of Athens at this time, who were teaching a subjective morality that went something like this: whatever is to one’s advantage should be engaged in, and whatever is not, should be avoided. They considered any other morality a mere convention, insisting that the strong have advantage over the weak, and concepts of objective justice or objective truth were merely the products of propaganda and the tools of oppressors.

parchment scraps with Greek text

Papirus Oxyrhynchus, with fragment of Plato’s Republic.

Perhaps the most famous extract from Plato’s work is in Book VII of The Republic, where he describes his ideas in the form of an allegory. In a dialogue between Socrates and a student named Glaucon, The Allegory of the Cave, provides a poignant image of human beings who, although ignorant of their condition, are, since childhood, imprisoned in a cave, chained and able only to face straight ahead.  Unable to move, in that position they can see only the shadows of what is behind them reflected on the cave walls in front, and can hear only echoes of real voices. Knowing nothing else, these shadows and echoes seem to them to be real, as appearances are real to us.

Towards the end of the allegory, Plato refers to the demise of his old master when, as Socrates, he asks us to consider what it might be like if someone who had seen reality came back down into the cave. What, he asks, would the people think of him? He would inevitably be misunderstood and would become a laughing stock. If, in addition, he tried to set the captive men free and take them to the light, “if they could somehow get their hands on him and kill him, wouldn’t they do just that?” Glaucon agrees that they would.

The world revealed by our senses is not the real world but only a poor copy of it.

Then Plato, as Socrates, further reveals the meaning of this allegory and his own philosophical understanding: “That is the picture then my dear Glaucon, and it fits what we were talking about earlier in its entirety. The region revealed to us by sight is the prison dwelling and the light of the fire inside the dwelling is the power of the sun. If you identify the upward path and the view of things above with the ascent of the soul to the realm of understanding, then you will have caught my drift, my surmise, which is what you wanted to hear. Whether it is really true, perhaps only God knows. My own view, for what it is worth, is that in the realm of what can be known the thing seen last and seen with great difficulty is the form, or character of the good. But when it is seen, the conclusion must be that it turns out to be the cause of all that is right and good for everything. In the realm of sight it produces light and light’s sovereign, the sun, while in the realm of thought it is itself sovereign producing truth and reason unassisted. I further believe that anyone who’s going to act wisely either in private life or in public life must have had a sight of this form of the good.”

The world revealed by our senses is not the real world but only a poor copy of it. The real world can only be apprehended through the effort of rational thought. Justice was rational, and people needed to be brought up in a society governed by reason. Enlightened individuals, in Plato’s view, had an obligation to the rest of society to serve it. Society in order to be good should be ruled by them – the truly wise Philosopher-Kings.

[Plato] argued that all conventional political systems were inherently corrupt, and therefore the state ought to be governed by an elite class of educated philosopher-rulers…

Plato says in The Laws, “We should keep our seriousness for serious things and not waste it on trifles, and … while God is the real goal of all beneficent serious endeavor, man … has been constructed as a toy for God, and this is, in fact the finest thing about him. All of us, then, men and women alike, must fall in with our role and spend life in making our play as perfect as possible.”

Axial Age Greece was approaching its end, and, unlike the teachings of typical Axial teachers, Plato’s utopian city was elitist and lacked compassion. He argued that all conventional political systems were inherently corrupt, and therefore the state ought to be governed by an elite class of educated philosopher-rulers, who would be trained from birth and selected on the basis of aptitude.

Always seeking a practical application of his ideals, he identified justice as presiding in the structure of this ideal city where its functions are implemented through specialization: everyone does what he is best fitted to do and you have a just city. Similarly in the individual – in a just soul, there is a correct balance between the parts: the rational part must rule and dictate the overall aims of the human being, the emotional part must enforce the rational parts convictions, and the appetitive part must obey.

Plato claimed that since our experiences were unreal compared with the world of the Forms, people should devote themselves to understanding the reality of the Forms which they could do if they applied themselves, through discipline and rational thought. He disapproved of poetry, music and theatre, which were part of traditional Greek education, because these things aroused irrational emotions and encouraged people to give in to them; they encouraged immoderation and sympathy, both of which were incompatible with virtue in Plato’s view. Life was sometimes miserable, but it was not real, and it was only possible to ascend to the real world through self-controlled, disciplined and rational behavior.

Karen Armstrong says in The Great Transformation, “At the beginning of his philosophical quest, Plato had been horrified by the execution of Socrates, who had been put to death for teaching false religious ideas. At the end of his life, he advocated the death penalty for those who did not share his view. Plato’s vision had soured. It had become coercive, intolerant, and punitive. He sought to impose virtue from without, distrusted the compassionate impulse, and made his philosophical religion wholly intellectual. The Axial Age in Greece would make marvelous contributions to mathematics, dialectics, medicine, and science, but it was moving away from Spirituality.”

Plato’s Academy would eventually become the model for the Western university.

Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

fresco of 2 men

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael.

Plato’s student Aristotle studied at the Academy for nearly twenty years, leaving after Plato’s death, in 347 BCE. Three years later he was invited by Philip II of Macedon to become the tutor to his son Alexander the Great, which he did for at least another three years before traveling to Asia Minor where he went with Theophrastus to Lesbos to research the botany and zoology of the island. He finally returned to Athens where he established his own school, known as the Lyceum and taught there for twelve years.

As a well-known quote has it: “To Plato all chairs are just inferior forms of the perfect chair. To Aristotle if you add up all the different types of chair and reduce them to their common denominator, then you would understand what a chair is.”

Plato’s philosophy of Forms would have been familiar to Aristotle’s students, but like the pre-Socratic philosophers before him – those he called the “Investigators of Nature” – Aristotle encouraged his students to look at what was in front of them, to seek the nature of those forms and the primary instances of them as they exist right here in the world. Aristotle believed that the search for wisdom should begin with the sense perceptions and that through these we can acquire the understanding of both facts and causes, and the universal principles and primary causes on which they are built. His approach was strictly empirical, through observation, classification and deductive reasoning we would come to understand the causes and characteristics of things.

Aristotle became extremely critical of the notion that the ideal world was more real than the material universe, and questioned the independent objective existence of Forms. To him qualities of beauty, courage, roundness, etc. existed only in the material objects themselves.

“…the Forms …are not the causes of motion or of any other change …And they do not in any way help either towards the knowledge of the other things …or towards their existence …Moreover, all other things do not come to be from the Forms in any of the usual senses of “from.” And to say that the Forms are patterns and that the other things participate in them is to use empty words and poetic metaphors.” says Joe Sachs, St. John’s College, Annapolis.
He describes the Unmoved Mover as being non-matter, perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplating only the perfect contemplation of itself contemplating.

Aristotle and his students collected data on any and all aspects of the physical world and proceeded deductively to form theories and conclusions from the largest amount of data possible. He not only studied almost every subject possible at the time, but made significant contributions to most of them. In physical science, Aristotle studied anatomy, astronomy, economics, embryology, geography, geology, meteorology, physics and zoology. In philosophy, he wrote on aesthetics, ethics, government, metaphysics, politics, psychology, rhetoric and theology. He also studied education, foreign customs, literature and poetry.

Aristotle’s work in metaphysics was motivated by a desire for wisdom, which requires the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Through observation and logical reasoning Aristotle arrived at the concept of the Unmoved Mover:  one can observe that there is motion in the world, that things that move are set in motion by something else, there can be a chain of motion, but there must be something that caused the very first motion. This first cause set the universe into motion, it is not moved by any prior action but by desire. He describes the Unmoved Mover as being non-matter, perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplating only the perfect contemplation of itself contemplating. Modern physics has proven his premise to be wrong, but to Aristotle this was a rational idea arrived at through deduction and logic.

Karen Armstrong says in The Great Transformation, “Aristotle was a pioneer of great genius. Almost single-handedly he had laid the foundations of Western science, logic, and philosophy. Unfortunately, he also made an indelible impression on Western Christianity. Ever since Europeans discovered his writings in the twelfth century C.E., many became enamored of his rational proofs for the Unmoved Mover – actually one of his less inspired achievements. Aristotle’s God, which was not meant to be a religious value, was foreign to the main thrust of the Axial Age, which had insisted that the ultimate reality was ineffable, indescribable, and incomprehensible – and yet something that human beings could experience, though not by reason. But Aristotle had set the West on its scientific course ….”

The Allegory of the Cave Video

Watch: Plato’s Cave

An animated version of Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave.


Axial Age Thought

Further Reading

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