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6-08-2015, 19:01

Ideas and Ideals

Perhaps more than anything else, the Greeks are
remembered for their deep thinking about life and
the world. Whereas philosophers spoke of harmony
and self-awareness, ordinary people prized physical
fitness and competitiveness. Together, these ideals
played out in the rituals and traditions that defined
regular Greek life.


Festivals and religious ceremonies regulated the days, seasons, and years
of the ancient Greeks. No event was bigger than the Olympic Games, which
were held every four years. The date for the first Olympic Games is officially
776 BCE, but they probably dated to an even earlier time in the form of a
festival held to honor Zeus. The first games featured only one event, a sprint,
but they expanded quickly. By the 500s BCE, the games included chariot
races, long jumping, and discus and javelin throwing. Boxing, wrestling, and
overall fighting were combined in a particularly grueling event called the
pankration, which had few rules. Competitors were banned from biting their
opponent or trying to gouge out his eyes during the pankration, but kicking
and choking were perfectly acceptable.
No foreigner athletes were eligible to participate, and because of the time
needed to train and compete, competitors usually came from the ranks of
the aristocracy. Women were not allowed to compete. Married women could
not even attend the games because it was considered improper, although
single women could.
Winners at the games did not receive any money as a prize. Instead, they
were awarded a wreath woven from wild olive branches. A victor might also
be honored with a feast, and sometimes a poem or statue was commissioned
to commemorate his victory. The poet Pindar wrote about one winner,
“When they saw you many times victorious . . . each of the maidens was
speechless as they prayed you might be her husband or son.”1 Not all agreed
with celebrating the victors, however. The philosopher Xenophanes argued,
“It isn’t right to judge strength as better than good wisdom.”2
Nevertheless, a primary function of the games was to encourage physical
excellence. Men who showed strength and endurance proved worthy of
serving in the military. Athletes competed naked, which fit the Greek ideal
of promoting physical fitness and attractiveness. The competition focused
on individual rather than team events. Who was fastest? Who was strongest?
Aiming to be the best dovetailed with the Greeks’ competitive spirit and their
emphasis on being able to subdue an enemy.
As with other rituals, the games also had a religious aspect, and
sacrifices were held beforehand. Athletes consulted the gods for guidance
in the competition, but there were no guarantees, and defeat for some was
unavoidable. The intense spirit of competition in the Greek world meant a
loss could be shameful and humiliating.


The tradition of theater in Greek life was also rooted in religion. In Athens,
an annual theater festival called Dionysia celebrated the Greek god who
oversaw wine and entertainment. Central to the
festival was the spirit of competitiveness. Each year,
the city’s leading playwrights would submit a trilogy
of tragic plays, plus a lighthearted play that provided
comic relief.
The competition was fierce but fair. The rules
stated that all plays had the same number of cast
members: three actors to play the leading roles plus
15 chorus members. There was a drawing to decide
which of the best actors would perform in which
of the competing plays, so as not to give anyone an
unfair advantage. Male actors played all the parts,
even the women characters. The winning playwrights
earned a special respect among the Athenians. It
wasn’t only the writers who wanted recognition,
though. The wealthy citizens of Athens built prestige
by financing the productions, which required more
than 1,200 actors and singers all together.4
Most of the Greek tragedies focused on the
interplay between men and the gods. Comedies, on
the other hand, might look frankly at more everyday
matters. Aristophanes’s comedies offer an intimate look into the more
seedy aspects of Athenian life. Plays explored political and cultural issues
facing the Greeks and offered a way to bring new ideas and opinions to the
thousands of people watching.


“What do you think?” A student of Socrates, one of ancient Greece’s most
important philosophers, would have heard that question many times.
Socrates didn’t tell his students what to believe. Instead, he asked questions
until they arrived at their own conclusions. Socrates went against the
traditional ways of Athenian society in the 400s BCE. Rather than pursue
power and fame, he instead questioned the greater rights and wrongs of
society, often speaking up for the underdog when no one else did. Socrates
worked to broaden the role of philosophy. Making
sense of the physical world wasn’t enough. Rather, he
encouraged men to understand their inner thoughts
and value systems.
Although Socrates recorded none of his beliefs
in writing, he is remembered through the records
of his students, notably Plato, who lived from 428
to 348 BCE. Plato built on the ideas of Socrates and
added his own. He wrote in the form of dialogues,
with Socrates regularly appearing as a character.
Plato was passionate about examining the ideals of
society and how they succeeded or failed in real life.
In the Republic, he wrote about a society that was
governed by a wise king and not tainted by the greed
or passions of ordinary people.
Similar to his teacher Socrates, Plato explored
the idea that people go through life without realizing
their intellectual limitations because they have
known nothing else. Plato explained this in his story
“The Cave.” In this story, men live in a cave, watching shadows of people
and animals move on the wall. This is all there is to their life, until one man
leaves the cave. He realizes the shadows are only representations of real
objects, and life is infinitely more complex than he previously realized.
Plato’s most famous student was Aristotle, who studied with him for 20
years. Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 BCE, was fascinated with marine
biology and physics, and his philosophical realizations often came from what
could be observed and measured in the physical world. He was interested
in developing ways of thinking that reflected the reality of the natural
world. Aristotle’s contributions were a unique combination of the scientific
and the philosophical. The way he brought the two together reflects his
importance as a founder of the scientific tradition, one of Greece’s most
important legacies.