I suppose that the Peloponnesian War (q.v.) was, shamefully, the downfall of the ancient Greek Empire. War had penetrated men’s minds and they did bad things. With Pericles as King of all those nation states, the Greeks seemed triumphant, master of the world, but the terrible sack of Melos was allowed, and the Greek ideal, embodied by Athens, was no longer splendid. It was at this worst time for Athens that the great philosophers appeared on the scene.
Socrates was born around 470 B.C., and had in fact been teaching in Greek schools during the last years of the War. He had no tenure in any particular school or university, he just thought and thought and then spoke to people, young or old. He taught them that worldly empires and power and having lots of money or being frightfully grand meant nothing at all really because what really mattered was a man’s soul. If that was healthy, and you loved goodness for its own sake, and nursed the truth, nothing could hurt you and the treasure of happiness was yours.
Now of course other teachers in schools had tried to teach this too, but Socrates was the first of the philosophers to consider these issues of our inner values more important than the outer value of things, of objects, of possessions. He debated it all in a perfectly reasonable way, convincing his listeners that what he said was true, not just schoolmasterly ranting. He very soon had an audience which grew and grew. Young and old alike thought of themselves as his disciples and pupils, and not a few of them wrote down what he said, which is why we still know, nearly two thousand five hundred years later, of Socrates’ teachings.
Among those who were writing down the sayings of Socrates was a young man called Plato. He noted what the questions were and how Socrates answered them. He put them into a collection which eventually became a book called The Dialogues of Plato though they were really the dialogues of Socrates. They are the most important books on philosophy ever written.
But then came revolution in Athens, and counter-revolution and counter-counter revolution and people became upset and angry with each other. It even came about that people blamed Socrates for teaching people his views, which they now said were subversive, even treasonable, though they were of course nothing of the kind. Socrates thought nothing of the accusations, dismissed them from his mind, and took no notice of his friends’ advice that he should defend himself. Certain it is that he never stopped teaching. He was condemned to death by lesser men and told he must drink poison or be put to death with the sword.
Only a section of Athens supported the shameful execution of Socrates, but it was enough. It is always the worst people in a revolution who come out on top, and History has shown for thousands of years that this is true. But the strange thing is that the names of Socrates and his pupil Plato are the names we remember, not the wicked men who stir up revolution in the name of the people, when in reality all they seek is Power.
When Socrates died, his work was continued by Plato, who founded a real school for the teaching of Philosophy as a Subject. This was Plato’s Academy, and it carried on for at least one thousand years after all the original philosophers had died. It became the chief centre for intelligent learning in the Hellenic world.
Plato was followed by Aristotle who did not share exactly the same views as Plato. He wrote books on more exact things such as Natural History, and he made a strong point about the careful explanation of everything we have heard of, if he could. His reputation was such that King Philip of Macedon, a fast-rising leader, heard about him and insisted on his becoming his son Alexander’s tutor. Now Alexander was a very real Greek, even if he came from Macedon, and he had some definite plans, plans which his new tutor did not necessarily agree with. Alexander went on to spread the Macedonian Empire across the known parts of the world but when he died just over thirty the empire fell into little bits, perhaps because not enough of Aristotle’s teaching had penetrated the very special mind of Alexander the Great. When these three philosophers were dead the tradition of Greek Philosophy did not die, it flourished. Schools of Philosophy were established everywhere, especially in the lands Alexander had conquered, such Bactria, a country on the border with India.
The two most important schools of thought were formed by the Stoics and the Epicurians. Zeno from Cyprus founded the Stoics, which comes from a Greek word meaning porch. It was under colonnades of porches of houses in public squares that Stoicism was taught, which stated that one should believe in an inner life and peace for all, which will help us to stand up to hardship and misfortune. This was the teaching of Socrates but taken further. Stoics lived the simplest lives, without any visible comfort or luxury, because they believed life’s attainable treasures interfere with the training of the soul, and tend to distract your attention from more important things. Stoics also believed that you should not take much notice of the outer world, but only our inner, spiritual world.
The Epicurians lived and taught surrounded by Nature’s work in a garden. They said ‘the world is hard and unjust and cruel and only friendship and goodwill towards others can make it endurable’. They believed in self-help and helping each other, and making life as pleasant as possible for all. They were usually very good people, though the word epicurean has gradually taken on a different, and far less pleasant meaning, applied for example to people who like very good food and extremely good living too much. The original Epicurians were not like this at all.
They differed from the Stoics in that they wanted to make ordinary life pleasant, whereas most Stoics despised ordinary life and strove to change it.
The influence of the teachings of Socrates and Plato and their followers, of Aristotle, and of the Stoics and Epicurians comes through all religious thought ever since. We should accept that Greece was the original education of this world, just as Pericles said that Athens was the education of all Greece.