Archive for the ‘Greeks’ Category

Why study the Greeks

Aside from Shakespeare and the Bible, the books that have helped me the most to understand the world and my place in it were nearly all written by three kinds of people: serious Christians, black Americans and the ancient Greeks.

The Greeks make the list for three reasons:

  1. Along with the Bible they are what the West was built on.
  2. The Greeks valued the truth. They questioned things and took nothing at face value. It was not enough for an answer to sound good or be respectable – it had to make sense and stand on its own.
  3. Like Shakespeare and the Bible, the Greeks are universal: you can read them and they sound like they are writing about people you know, about your time and place.

An excellent example is Thucydides. He wrote a history of a war between Athens and Sparta. Reading about a forgotten war sounds like a waste of time – and it probably would have been if Thucydides wrote it like a White American: full of self-serving lies, concerned more in making himself and his country look good than in the truth.

But he did not. Instead he wrote it like he lived in the very same crappy part of New York that I lived in. Yes. A place which none of the American schoolbooks or television shows helped me to understand – but which Thucydides did.

He could do that because he stuck to the truth, particularly the truth of human nature and the nature of power. He knew full well that in a hundred years no one would care about the war, and yet he knew people would still be reading his book – because people are the same all down through history.

If I lived in China I would read the oldest Chinese books I could find. Because they would lie at the root of what makes China China. But I live in the West, so I read its oldest books instead: the Bible and the Greeks.

Some dismiss the Greeks as DWEMs – Dead White European Males – while others use them to prove how great white people are.

The Greeks did not think of themselves as white. They divided the world not by race but language: if you spoke Greek you were Greek, if not you were barbarian. Racism is not as “natural” as racists like to think. All these white people who try to claim the Greeks for the glory of the white race are, yes, barbarians. It is pretty laughable – and sad. Especially since Greek “whiteness” seems to be less than 200 years old – but that is another post.

Further, Greek achievement was built mainly on top of thousands of years of Egyptian achievement. We are taught not to notice how culturally Egyptian they were.

On the other hand, just because they were “white” and “male” that does not mean they were incapable of true greatness. That would be just as racist as saying people of colour are no good. The truth is both are equally human.

Thanks to Macon D of Stuff White People Do for kind of suggesting this topic.

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Reading Plutarch


Plutarch in his book “Parallel Lives” compares the lives of famous Greeks and Romans. Always a good read. He tells of the lives of people like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Pompey, Solon, Pericles and so on.

What I liked best were the lives of Brutus, Cato the Younger, Pompey, Antony, Crassus, Pericles, Alcibiades, Nicias, Lycurgus, and Theseus. Sometimes it is the man I like (Brutus), sometimes it is the times he lived in (Alcibiades), and sometimes it is the tragedy of his life (Crassus).

Plutarch writes about men’s lives to see how their virtue and vice, their moral decisions, their character – what we  in our time call “values” – affected their lives. If I had read Plutarch when I was younger he would have affected me more deeply.

The book is about long as the Bible and, surprisingly, makes a far better case for living a moral life. The Bible’s case is based mainly on fear of God and has few down-to-earth examples to model your life on (King David comes the closest). Even though Plutarch’s examples are generals and statesmen, they seem far closer to everyday men than do Moses or Jesus. Plutarch’s feet are planted on this earth, and that too makes him easier to believe.

Although he is a follower of Plato, he also makes a better case than Plato himself, and for the same reasons: he writes about this earth and its men and their lives, not all this hot air about a higher plane of being.

Things I learned from Plutarch:

  1. Sometimes it’s safer to be brave than not.
  2. Philosophy, like religion, can be a way of life and not simply a way of making sense of the world. (The respectable religions of his day were worn out.)
  3. Moral character  rests on a base of self-control.
  4. Men are defined by their actions, not by their position or property. But then the Bible tells that too.
  5. One of the best things about television is that it shows the terror and waste of war far more than its glory. Plutarch is blinded by the glory. He tells the story from the general’s camp, not from the streets that run with blood.
  6. That maybe Sparta, not Athens, was the crown of Greek achievement.
  7. That war and prison are true tests of a man’s character. I used to hate prison films. No more.

Like the earlier Greeks, he places a lot of value on courage, especially the physical kind. Like them, he sees the glory of war far more than its blood and waste – and this even though he knows from his grandfather’s knee what Mark Antony put Greece through in his failed attempt to rule the world.

Yet unlike the earlier Greeks, Plutarch  does not have the tough, clear mind they had, people like Sophocles, Thucydides and Aristophanes. His thought is based more on hopes and feelings than on reason and a clear eye.

– Abagond, 2008.

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ancient Athens

Athens was one of the great cities of Europe in Greek and Roman times. It reached the height of its glory under Pericles in the -400s. Even under Roman rule, when Greece was poor and broken, Athens was still a great seat of learning.

Today Athens is the largest and greatest city in Greece, but for a over a thousand years Constantinople, not Athens, was the centre of the Greek world, from the 300s till the 1400s. It was not till the 1800s that Athens was back on top.

In the middle of Athens is a long hill with a flat top: the Acropolis, the high city. Its sides go straight down in cliffs. On top are the remains of ancient temples, the biggest and most famous one being the Parthenon.

The Parthenon was the temple to the virgin goddess, Athena. Later it became a Christian church and then a Muslim mosque. In the 1600s the roof was blown off during a war between Venice and the Turks. In the early 1800s in the time of Napoleon the British carted away parts of it and put them in the British Museum (losing some of it at sea).  But even so it is still a thing of beauty.

The Parthenon was built in the -400s taking the place of an older temple to Athena. It was partly painted in red, blue and gold. Inside was a huge statue of Athena made of gold and ivory. Its columns are not all straight and the same but are made so the temple “looks right” when viewed from the ground. That is what makes it look more graceful than most temples.

So many people have visited it over the years that some of the rocks nearby have become smooth enough that you can slip on them.

The Parthenon was built when Athens was a great sea power, the centre of an empire. Athens sold olive oil and pots. It had a silver mine, university-level schools and some of the greatest thinkers and writers of all time. People like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

Because of its writers, Athenian or Attic Greek became the way to write Greek for a thousand years. And because of its writers we know more about Athens than almost any other ancient city.

Athens could not grow enough of its own food. It was fed by wheat grown by Scythians on the shores of the Black Sea. So its food came from over the seas. That meant Athens needed to be a sea power: without control of the seas an enemy could cut off its food. Which is what did in Athens in the end.

After enjoying great wealth and power it overreached itself and found itself locked in a fight to the death with Sparta. Sparta won. Yet Athens shined brightest when it fell: those who lived through those times, like Plato, Thucydides and Aristophanes, produced some of its greatest works.

– Abagond, 2008.

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St Nicholas

Picture of St Nicholas from the early 1200s

Picture of St Nicholas from the early 1200s

Saint Nicholas (early 300s) was the Christian saint that Santa Claus comes from. He is one of the best loved saints, especially among the Eastern Orthodox. Because of him Nicholas is a common name. Because of him people get presents on Christmas.

Nicholas once knew a nobleman who was poor. He had three daughters but no money to marry them off. Nicholas could have just given him the money, but he was too proud to accept it.

Nicholas had an idea. In the middle of the night he secretly put gold into the daughters’ stockings that hung by the fire to dry. They all got married off.

This is where the idea of Christmas stockings come from. It is the one bit of Christmas that comes from the life of Nicholas.

The Dutch in New York gave their children gifts on St Nicholas’s Day, December 6th. The English liked the idea but did not believe in saints. So instead they gave their children presents three weeks later on Christmas. And over the years St Nicholas himself was changed from a Christian saint into a department store Santa.

St Nicholas was bishop of Myra in Lycia on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. In those days, before the Turks came, it was a Greek land ruled by Rome.

He was the only child of rich parents. They died when he was a boy. The ships that came from Egypt carrying grain to Rome stopped at Myra. One day they brought a terrible disease from Egypt. The plague killed his parents but not him. His uncle, the bishop, brought him up.

When he was a young man his uncle died too. The other bishops of the region came to Myra to choose a new bishop. One of them had a dream: God told him to choose the first man named Nicholas who came to church the next morning. That was how Nicholas became bishop even though he was so young.

In his day some still worshipped Diana, the old Greek goddess. They did it under a particular tree that was sacred to her. Nicholas had the tree cut down.

To get back at Nicholas, the story goes, Diana assumed the appearance of a holy woman and gave oil to some pilgrims on their way to his church. She told them to paint the walls of the church with it.

It was a trick. Just then a man who looked like Nicholas appeared and took the oil and threw it into the sea where it burst into flames, burning on the water for hours, saving the church and the lives of the pilgrims.

Most of his miracles were just like that: he appears at just the right time to save the day – to save men about to be lost at sea, to save princes about to have their heads cut off, and so on. But these appearances were just that: appearances. Nicholas himself was always far away at the time.

Feast day: December 6th.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Hipparchus (-190 to -120) was the greatest ancient Greek astronomer. He took astronomy almost as far as it would go before the invention of the telescope some 1700 years later.

Ptolemy is more famous but most of his astronomy is warmed-over stuff he got from Hipparchus, whom he called a great “lover of truth”.

Hipparchus was born in Nicaea and lived on the island of Rhodes where he studied the Sun, the Moon and the stars.

Hipparchus was the first to find out how far away the Moon is. In order to work out the answer, he came up with a new field of mathematics: trigonometry.

Hipparchus made the best star map of ancient times, with some 2,000 stars.

  • It was so good that his practice of using latitude and longitude has been used to map the heavens and the earth ever since.
  • It was so good that it had Uranus on it, a planet that was not discovered till 1900 years later.
  • It was so good that he discovered the precession of the equinoxes: that the sun does not appear in quite the same position on the first day of spring every year. Instead it moves backwards against the background of the stars, going all the way round in 26,700 years.

He started his map in -134 after seeing a new star in the constellation of Scorpio. He thought it was new, but could not be sure. He checked the star maps of Eudoxus and Erastosthenes. They did not have the star, but then he saw how bad their maps were. So he made his own.

The Greeks thought the heavens were perfect and unchanging, so finding a new star was a serious matter.

Hipparchus was the first to measure stars by their brightness. The 20 brightest stars he called first magnitude stars, the next brightest stars he called second magnitude and so on.

Most of what you see in Ptolemy comes from Hipparchus. Those circles within circles (the epicycles) and even most of the numbers. Hipparchus put the Earth at the centre because that is what the best science of the day said: Aristotle’s.

The Earth-centred model of Hipparchus was so good at working out where planets would be on any given day that few doubted it.

His model was just that: a model. But it worked so well that most mistook it for the truth.

Hipparchus and many others knew that Aristarchus had put the Sun at the centre, but it went against common sense (the Earth does not seem to be moving), the best science (Aristotle) and, besides, no one had worked it up into a model as good as that of Hipparchus. Not Aristarchus, not even Copernicus himself over 1600 years later.

Hipparchus was not overthrown till the 1600s when Aristotle was overthrown by Newton. And not until Kepler made some changes to the model of Copernicus.

All but one of his books are lost. Most of what we know of his work comes through Ptolemy.

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Archimedes (-287 to -212) was a Greek mathematician from Syracuse, Italy, back when the city was still Greek. He was one of the greatest minds of the ancient world. He gave us the word “Eureka!” and worked out how levers work, but most of all he showed us how you could use numbers to do science.

His use of numbers in science did not catch on in his own time, but it did later when his writings came out in Latin in 1544. Galileo read them and used the same approach, which led to the rise of Western science and our faith in numbers.

Even today Archimedes is worth reading because of how sees and understands the world through number and shapes, through geometry.

He used number and measurement to work out how levers work and how strong they are in different cases. From this he knew there was no limit to what they could do. He said he could move the whole world if he had a place to stand.

Archimedes worked out pi to two places: 3.14. He knew it was somewhere between 3.141 and 3.143.

The word “Eureka!” comes from the time when the king asked Archimedes to find out whether his crown was made of pure gold.

Gold was the heaviest metal known in those days: for a given size, nothing else was so heavy.

The easy way to find out if the crown was pure gold would be to melt it down to a block and compare it to a block of pure gold of the same weight. If the melted down crown was larger, then something was added to the gold. It was not pure.

But Archimedes could not destroy the crown. So he had to find out how much space it took up some other way.

But how?

One day as he was getting into his bath he saw the water flow over the sides.

When he saw that he jumped out of his bath and ran through the streets naked shouting “Eureka! Eureka!”, which is Greek for “I have found it! I have found it!”

Meaning he had found out how to measure the size of the crown: by putting it in water and seeing how much water it pushes out. The water it pushes out had to be the same size as the crown.

Archimedes found out the crown was not made of pure gold and the king put the goldsmith to death.

Later the Romans made war on Syracuse for siding with Carthage. To defend the city Archimedes came up with different inventions, like one that turned over ships. It came from his work with levers. The Romans grew to fear him.

When Syracuse was falling, Archimedes was drawing circles in the sand, working on something in geometry. He asked a Roman soldier not to mess up his circles. In spite of orders to take him alive, the soldier killed him.

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Thales (-640 to -562) was the first Greek philosopher and scientist. He was the first to try to find out how the world works through observation and reason, not through old stories about the gods.

Thales said everything comes from water in the end, just as we say everything is made of atoms in the end.

He was wrong about the water bit, but that style of thinking, of looking for a root natural cause of everything, is still with us and it started with him.

He was on everyone’s list as one of the seven wise men in ancient Greece. So was Solon, the great lawmaker of Athens, who lived at the same time across the Aegean sea. We still have a letter that Thales wrote to him.

Thales was the first to say “Know yourself”. He said it was the hardest thing in the world to do. The best way to make yourself better is to avoid the faults you see in others. Time was the wisest thing of all because it brought all to light.

But Thales was less interested in men than in the stars. He was the first Greek to know when an eclipse would take place. He said there would be one on May 12th -585. On that day, right in the middle of a battle, the moon covered the sun just like he said it would. It made him a wonder in the Greek world.

He wrote little. We know of only two books, both on the motion of the sun: “On the Solstices” and “On the Equinox”. Both are lost.

Perhaps he wrote so little because he was too busy travelling the world to learn all he could: Crete, Egypt, Asia and throughout the Greek-speaking world.

Although to the Greeks he seems to have made great discoveries about the sun, the moon and the stars, it is likely that he “discovered” most of them not in the skies but in talking to the priests of Egypt, who even then had records going back thousands of years.

Even so Thales did not find philosophy and science being practised anywhere in the world. They are his invention. He certainly did not find it in Egypt, a land ruled by priests.

Thales came from Miletus, a town Athens settled on the other side of the Aegean sea. It was then a part of Ionia, which ran down the west coast of what we now call Turkey. It produced most of the early Greek thinkers, even Pythagoras who later moved to Italy. Athens did not become the centre of Greek thought till 200 later in the time of Plato and Socrates.

He once measured the height of a pyramid: he waited till his shadow was as long as he was tall. Then he measured the shadow of the pyramid.

Some say he died by falling into a hole while looking up at the stars.

– Abagond, 2007.

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