Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Athenian World View / Our Heratige


The Athenian World View


Even before the ancient Greeks made their intellectual impact on the western world, serious discussion of the concept of free will versus determinism found open expression among thinkers.  What is free will?  Is it the process of choosing between alternatives, i.e., the process of decision-making? Is it the process of choosing between predetermined alternatives? Are we free as humans to choose our own destiny or are we forced by circumstances to make the very choices that we deem to be of our own volition but in reality are those choices that are predetermined by circumstances beyond our own control?

 Do we believe we are exercising free will when in fact we are not?  Do we at times elect certain options by our own choice that will force some predetermined outcome on us, thus, in reality limiting our freedom of choice to various sets of circumstances? 

What is determinism?  Is it the unalterable set of circumstances that determines the outcome of events in such a way as to preclude all other possibilities?  Or is it a specific intended event or set of events that is set in motion by design for some intended purpose by agents or agencies unknown to us, or beyond our reach?  Such profound questions as these occurred to the ancient Greeks while they were yet only a collection of independent city states.  The profound depth of their intellectual prowess and achievement is impossible to over assess. 

The Greeks raised such questions brilliantly in the prolific and monumental drama and literature that continues to excite our imagination and stimulate our intellectual inquiry today[1].  It could be argued with some confidence that as a civilization we have not yet exceeded the intellectual achievement of the ancient Greeks.  More to the point, we continue to build intellectually on the foundation laid by them centuries ago. 

For the ancient Greeks, man was forced to confront life by circumstances beyond his own control, by the whims of gods he did not choose and by chance circumstances he could not even imagine.  He was forced to accept life as it came; a life he did not choose and a life in which he was constantly being tested by the gods on the one hand, and by his own resourcefulness, on the other.  Could man by his ingenuity direct his own destiny?  What choices were open to man that he could become the master of his own fate? 

For Protagoras, man was the measure of all things. For Homer, man was endowed with the favor or disdain of the gods.  Man’s actions were the measure of his epic struggle.  For Odysseus, free will was the ability to employ the gifts of the gods to one’s own advantage.  Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom was his benefactor. 

Odysseus demonstrates both his ingenuity and the curiosity that feeds it when he instructs his crew to bind him to the mast of the ship and to plug their own ears with wax as they sail past the enchanting island of the Sirens.  He could listen to the enchanting sound of the Sirens without being drawn to them and into his own demise.   Here is but one example where he is tested by his own ingenuity and by the forces of the gods as well.  By the wise use of his intellect he managed to prevail in his struggle against Poseidon to return home, but only with the aid of Athena. 

There are many plots and sub plots in the Odyssey, but the salient theme throughout this great epic is the question of Odysseus’ destiny.  In the beginning of the epic questions about Odysseus are raised.  Is he dead?  Is he alive?  Where is Odysseus? Will he return?  The underlying question is; could he by his own ability overcome the forces against him, and determine his own destiny?  The concluding narrative leads us to believe that he could but not without some divine intervention on the part of Athena.  In the Greek worldview man could not escape the forces of the gods.

 Greek drama is filled with tragedy and irony.  Yet the idea of man’s destiny is an issue that sometimes appears on the surface and sometimes rides as an undercurrent quietly beneath the action.  In Oedipus Rex, king Oedipus tries to escape his destiny by leaving his home.  It was foretold that he would murder his father, the king.  Unknown to him was the fact that he was an adopted son of the king, so he leaves home in an attempt to alter his destiny.  But he kills a traveler who was leaving a city that was cursed. He answers the riddle of the sphinx, which then lifts the curse, and the famine in the city is ended. He is made king for his deed and marries the queen.  He later learns that it was his real father that he slew and his real mother that he married.  The salient point here is that despite his efforts to alter his destiny, he was trapped by it in an unspeakable irony.  It was a destiny fulfilled here on earth that had a real impact on man.

 There are many such illustrations of man’s concern with his destiny in Greek drama and literature as it relates to the present life and to a lesser degree, perhaps, to the nether life.  Achilles, king of the netherworld, confesses that he would rather be a simple man than king of Hades.  Essentially, he raises questions about the status of hero in terms that are meaningful to man’s earthly struggle. 

There is a subtle nexus in Greek drama between the heroes and the gods that elevates man to a plane that is perceptively higher than human. Sometimes the heroes are even powerful enough to compete with the gods. There are even some hybrids, part god and part human. Achilles, for example, is part human and part divine.  The line of separation between god and man is often a nebulous one. 

It remained for Socrates to question the reality of these anthropomorphic gods.  Socrates was born in Athens in 469 B.C.E.  He took a sober look at the idea of gods intervening in the daily affairs of men, let alone in man’s destiny.  Socrates placed the economy of man’s destiny entirely on the real circumstances of man’s activities, his behavior, his ability to reason and his fortune.  He is the most influential, and perhaps the most widely known, thinker of the 5th Century B.C.E. Socrates questioned the apothegms on which traditional Greek morality rested and for that he was charged with crimes against the state.  Following the Oligarchy of the 30 tyrants after the Peloponnesian war, some semblance of stability returned to Athens by 403 B.C.E.  Socrates was brought to trial for impiety and subverting the existing moral traditions.  He was executed in 399 B.C.E. by drinking the hemlock. 

But his influence on Greek intellectualism and culture was not extinguished by his death. Socrates’ most promising student Plato (427-347 B.C.E) carried on Socrates’ influence after his execution.  Plato was the son of wealthy Athenians.  He studied under Socrates and wrote extensively on his methods and teachings.  After Socrates’ death Plato traveled to Egypt and then to Italy and studied with the Pythagoreans.  He eventually returned to Athens where he started a school called the Academy. Aristotle, Plato’s most brilliant and famous student, attended the Academy and later started his own school called the Lyceum. 

The conservative elements that condemned Socrates to death for crimes against the state proved to be only a temporary rainstorm.  But the impact of Socrates on the future social and intellectual landscape of Greece was comparatively like the thunder Bolt of Zeus. 

The anthropomorphic gods whose authority Socrates questioned also tells us something about the Greek mentality.  That is the humanistic gods tells us something of the Greek ideas about being and reality.[2]   We refer to these ideas about being and reality as their ontological perspective; how they perceived the “real” world as opposed to the abstract world of imagination.   It was the real and present world that they had to confront day-by-day--- wars of defense, battles of conquest, pain and death, the disruption of families. These indeed were challenges even for heroes.  Is it really surprising, then, that their drama packs so much tragedy and irony?   We see tragedy from the very beginning of the Iliad.

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another. [3]

The genius of these great people is in their celebration of victory over defeat, not victory over death.  The Funeral Oration of Pericles in honoring the patriotic souls that fell in defending Athens is more than praise for the soldiers.  It is praise as well for the greatness of Athens and to the greatness of her citizens.  It too is a celebration of the victory over defeat and not victory over death.  The death of these fallen patriots of whom Pericles speaks was not in vain but for the great ideals upon which Athens rested. 

Although the Greeks could not avoid tragedy, as is abundantly clear from their drama and literature, they could rise above it. What a magnificent legacy and inspiration they have left.  We see that these Athenian citizens of the Golden Age of Greece have sent down through the ages much more than art, science, literature, music, mathematics and drama.  Their outstanding achievements are a celebration of freedom of the human soul.

We still ask the same questions today about free will and destiny.  We face the same unpredictable world of chance.  But we can turn to the ancient Greeks for they have sent down through the ages a worldview that is timeless, and their inspiring message is above all that freedom of the human soul transcends all adversity. These remarkable people have sent us a wonderful inspiring message about life. Tragedy is timeless and present in the world but man rises above it. 

John Bodenet

[1] When referring to the Ancient Greeks, here, it should be noted that it refers more to the Athenians.
[2] Even the Greek creation myth leads ultimately to the anthropomorphic gods on Mount Olympus and further to the entourage of Greek Heroes.   The heroes are not followers; they are the leaders, they inspire, they are the role models for young Greeks to follow.  They are men of the earth and in some cases, like Achilles, even descendents of the gods. 
[3] The Iliad, Book 1, pp7, Walter J. Black, Roslyn, NY 1970

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