Chapter 5 The Hellenistic World

Section 1 The Crisis of Greek Civilization  

In the 4th century B.C., Greek civilization underwent a series of challenges from which it was unable to recover. After the disaster of the Peloponnesian War, the city-states of Greece were never able successfully to unite under strong leadership. Ionia once more became part of the Persian Empire. Eventually, a rising new power on the Greeks' northern borders emerged to take control of the Greek city-states of the mainland and the Aegean. Confronted by a growing insecurity, many Greeks began to lose their loyalty to the polis, which had once been the heart of their sense of identity. As they struggled to understand the changes occurring around them, Greek philosophers developed new ideas about human nature and the role of the individual in society.

 The Crisis of Greek Politics

Sparta's defeat of Athens during the Peloponnesian War destroyed the balance of power in the Greek world. In addition to wrecking Athens's empire, the Spartans had also agreed to allow the Persian Empire to take control once more of the Ionian Greek cities in exchange for support against Athens. Yet while the Spartans tried to replace Athens at the head of the late Delian League, they were never able successfully to do so. Sparta's leaders alienated other members of the League through their arrogance and growing corruption. At the same time, the Spartans unwisely decided to intervene in the internal affairs of the Persian Empire on behalf of a pretender to the Persian throne. Having defeated Athens, they now hoped to take back the Ionian cities they had previously left to the Persians.

            In 401, ten thousand Greek mercenaries under Spartan leadership achieved a stunning victory over the Persian army at the battle of Cunaxa in Mesopotamia north of Babylon. The pretender they were supporting, however, prince Cyrus, the younger brother of king Artaxerxes, died during the fighting. Although they had won the battle, with Cyrus�s death the Greeks had effectively lost the war. Nevertheless, the Spartans continued for many years to harass Persia in an effort to regain control of the Greek cities of Ionia. Their efforts were all in vain. In 394, Sparta's ambitions were dashed once and for all at the battle of Cnidus, when a Persian fleet commanded by an Athenian admiral utterly destroyed the Spartan fleet.

            For the next several decades, the Greek city-states fought among themselves for power in the shadow of the Persian Empire. To a considerable extent, this continuing squabbling was due to a skillful Persian diplomacy designed to keep the Greeks divided. In 387 the Persian king himself stepped in as a "mediator" and negotiated a settlement among the warring cities. Under the terms of the so-called "King's Peace" the mainland Greeks finally recognized Artaxerxes� rule over the Ionian city-states. They also agreed that war in Greece itself would cease, and that the city-states would remain separate and independent, without forming either alliances or empires in the future. In fact, the Persian king-of-kings hoped through this arrangement to guarantee a disunited Greece that would no longer be able to annoy his domains.

In Athens, the philosopher and teacher Isocrates grasped the significance of the Persian threat. In his famous Panegyricus he warned his fellow Greeks of Artaxerxes� intentions: 

�He is a despot to whose court we sail to accuse each other. We call him the Great King, as though we were subject prisoners of war, and if we engage in war with each other, it is on him that our hopes are set, though he would destroy both sides without compunction.�[1] 

Isocrates called for the Greeks to settle their own differences and band together against Persia, a position known as pan-Hellenism. As he also insisted on pointing out that the situation in which the Greeks found themselves was largely Sparta�s fault, however, his call for reconciliation between Athens and Sparta as a first step toward Greek unity fell flat.

While the other cities accepted Artaxerxes' settlement, one city, Thebes, refused to go along. With both Athens and Sparta weakened by their constant struggles, the Thebans now hoped to develop their own military strength to take control of mainland Greece. In defiance of the King's Peace, Thebes almost immediately attacked Sparta and drove the Spartans deep into the Peloponnesus. Under the remarkable leadership of Epaminondas, the Thebans eventually were able to "liberate" Messenia, which constituted nearly one-third of Sparta's territory, half of its helots, and most of its farmland. Without Messenia and the helots, Sparta's economic and social structure practically collapsed.

            Thebes's rise did not last long. Although Epaminondas steadfastly refused to follow in the footsteps of Athens and Sparta by creating a Theban empire, Thebes nevertheless began to deal arrogantly with other cities. Soon, the other Greek cities formed a coalition against Thebes. Although Epaminondas achieved yet another resounding military victory, after his death Theban power quickly collapsed.

            The rise and fall of Thebes coincided with the re-emergence of Athens as a major power. By 357, however, Athens's second attempt to turn a coalition into an empire backfired as her allies once again revolted. With the fall of the second Athenian Empire, Greek independence began rapidly to draw to a close. As the cities of the mainland and the Aegean continued to squabble and maneuver for advantage under Persia's eye, a new irresistible power began to look down from the north. Once again, the Greek world was about to be invaded by northern "barbarians," this time from Macedonia.

The Crisis in Greek Society and Culture

The continuing political crisis in the Greek world both reflected and contributed to the erosion of the central element in Greek society, the polis. From the time of the Persian wars and the creation of the Delian League, the old concept of the polis as absolutely independent and self-sufficient had gradually been undermined. The disaster of the Peloponnesian war only accelerated the process. Yet, the polis had provided the basic framework within which Greeks had established their sense of identity and loyalty. As the concept of the polis eroded, so too did the basic certainties and underlying assumptions of Greek civilization.

The Sophists. Perhaps nowhere was the trend of change clearer than in the transformations occurring in Greek philosophy. During the late 400s and early 300s, a new group of philosophers, the Sophists, emerged in the cities of Sicily and in Asia Minor. The Sophists reflected the growing conviction in Greek society that there was no absolute truth to be discovered, but rather that all truths were relative - in other words, the truth of an idea depended on the time and place in which it was investigated.

The Sophists claimed to have the answer to how people could get along in a world that had grown uncertain. Unlike the cosmologists, the Sophists believed it was futile to try to understand the nature of the universe. Instead they taught that people should simply try to improve both themselves and their cities by applying reason to solve their everyday problems. Drawing on the old Greek ideal of aret�, or excellence, which had originally been associated with military skill, the Sophists claimed that they could teach people political aret�, a combination of how to formulate the best laws for a city and how to persuade people through the art of rhetoric, or making public speeches.

  Protagoras. One of the most famous and important of the Sophists, Protagoras of Abdera, spent his life traveling around the Greek world teaching. He became extremely popular and wealthy from his lecturing. In his most famous philosophical work, titled Truth, Protagoras summed up the Sophists' relativist view of the world: 

"Man is the measure of all things, of being in so far as it exists, and of non-being in so far as it does not exist. . . . About the gods I can say nothing, neither that they exist, nor that they do not; many things prevent one from knowing, such as the obscurity of the problem and the shortness of human life."[2]

  With this kind of reasoning, the Sophists questioned many traditional Greek beliefs and values, particularly where religion was concerned.

Although the old mythical element of religion had given way in most cities by the 400s and 300s, it had not been replaced by non-belief. Rather, the gods had simply become less personal over time. Indeed, a growing number of Greeks began to suggest that there was actually only one great god�the other gods just represented different aspects or functions of the one god. Most Greeks continued to believe that their laws and their cities had been divinely ordained, and that the universe was governed by some natural order that came from the divine. The relativism of the Sophists challenged such assumptions. They could teach political aret�, the Sophists argued, precisely because laws and policies governing cities, indeed, the cities themselves, were human creations. Some even went so far as to insist that the gods themselves had been made up by human beings to make sure that others would respect and obey the traditions and laws governing society.

            As such ideas filtered through the Greek world they undermined people's faith in the polis even further. Politics became less important as a civic and religious duty, for example, than as a field for personal ambition and the pursuit of individual power. Demagogues, people who used their skills of oratory, or speech making, to sway crowds by appealing to their fears or by making extravagant promises, began to emerge in politics. Meanwhile, conservative Greeks became alarmed at the moral relativism of the Sophists. If all traditions, laws, and social conventions were purely human in origin, rather than divine, they feared, then people would feel free to disregard them, and social and moral chaos would result. A conservative backlash against such moral relativism soon occurred.

            The backlash was perhaps clearest in Athens in the aftermath of its defeat by Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. The Spartans had not only destroyed Athenian naval and military power, they had also tampered with Athenian democratic institutions by encouraging an oligarchy to take control of the city. Although the Athenians quickly overthrew the new tyranny and re-established democracy, they remained suspicious of all who had known or helped the oligarchs. Many Athenians came to blame their defeat on the teachings of the Sophists, which had seemed to inspire the tyrants. In 399, they took their anger out on the philosopher Socrates. Although not a Sophist, as many Athenians wrongly believed, Socrates had indeed taught many of those involved in the attack on democracy.

Socrates. Born in 470, Socrates was the son of a sculptor and a midwife. Although he had only a little education as a child, as a youth he was driven by an inner voice, which he believed was calling him to discover what was truly good in life, and to teach the good to others. Eventually, Socrates developed a great reputation as a teacher willing to discuss any matter with anyone. He taught by engaging his students in logical discussions, or dialectics. This involved asking questions that forced people to think deeply about any particular problem. As they came up with answers, Socrates posed further questions based on these answers. Today we call this the Socratic method of teaching.

            Socrates' method of logical discussion reflected his own conviction that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Like the Sophists, Socrates was a champion of the intellect, but he rejected the Sophists' concept of relativism, which conflicted with his own conviction that there were such things as absolute truth and goodness. Socrates argued that knowledge and truth were the only things that mattered.  Although the truth might be hard, even ultimately impossible, to find, he insisted, the true philosopher must never stop looking for it. As Socrates submitted even the traditional values and beliefs of Athens to his rational method of inquiry, however, many conservative Athenians also began to fear that, like the Sophists, he was undermining the stability and safety of their whole way of life.

            In 399 Socrates was officially accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, and of refusing to believe in the traditional gods of the city. Both crimes threatened the social order of the polis, and both could carry the death penalty. During his trial, Socrates refused to compromise his own convictions. He denied the charges, and refused to seek forgiveness from the court even after he had been convicted: 

"Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy. . . . Wherefore, O men of Athens . . . do as my accuser bids or not as he bids, and either acquit me or not; but . . . understand that I shall never alter my ways, not if I have to die many times."[3] 

Although the court would probably have preferred to give him a more lenient penalty, faced with his dignified refusal to compromise they ordered him to drink poison. Despite the pleas of his friends and admirers, Socrates refused to escape from Athens and live in exile. Demonstrating his complete adherence to the laws of the city, he willingly drank the hemlock as prescribed by the law, and so died as he had lived, true to his own sense of truth and duty.

Toward a New Greek Identity

Even as he died, Socrates contributed, as had the Sophists, to the final downfall of the concept of the polis. Above all, he represented a new type of human being in the Greek world. In a sense, Socrates was the first real individual in Greek history. Although he loved his city, it was no longer the center of his sense of identity. In its place he had put his own conscience and his own conception of what was good and true. Soon, throughout the Greek world, a similar emphasis on individualism began to mark a transformation of the fundamental values of Greek culture and society. Socrates' accusers had been right�he had intellectually corrupted the new generations, primarily by giving them a new sense of individual identity apart from the polis.

Plato. Socrates' death came as a profound shock to many of his students. Among them was a young Athenian aristocrat named Plato. In fact, it is to Plato that we owe most of our knowledge of Socrates. Socrates himself never left any writings. Plato, however, wrote extensively, and many of his writings have survived. Following Socrates� example, perhaps, Plato�s most famous work is in the form of Dialogues, or conversations consisting of questions and answers between two people.

            Where Socrates was a member of the middle class in Athens, Plato was an aristocrat. He had little use for democracy, which in his own day seemed to many to have gone astray. In part, Plato was simply a product of his times�he grew up during the disastrous Peloponnesian War and his youth was capped by Socrates� execution. Disillusioned, Plato devoted himself to philosophy. After a number of years of self-imposed exile after Socrates� death, he eventually returned to Athens and established a school, called the Academy, where he too gathered students around him.

            Like Socrates, Plato rejected the relativism of the Sophists. He came to believe not only in absolute truth and goodness, but that every visible thing was simply a particular example of a universal �Idea.� Since the senses could be fooled, a true philosopher pursued knowledge of the Idea, which lay beyond the senses, much as an ideal geometrical figure, like a square, could be expressed perfectly as a mathematical formula, though in practical terms it was almost impossible to make a perfect physical square. The same was true, according to Plato, for every other thing or concept.[4]

            For Plato, the realm of perfect Ideas had been conceived by the �divine worker,� or god. The realm of perfect Ideas, he believed, existed apart from the particular physical examples of the Ideas. Influenced by the Pythagoreans, and perhaps by similar ideas from India, Plato saw human beings as consisting of two parts�the soul and the body. The soul, he taught, was the creation of god. It had originally been in direct contact with the realm of Ideas. Once attached to the body, however, it forgot this knowledge, and had to re-learn it through trial and error experiences of the senses. Through birth and re-birth, the soul gradually regained its direct knowledge of the divine Ideas and so returned to its true home in god.

            Applying his idealism, as we now call it, to politics, Plato proposed an ideal alternative to Athenian democracy. Ironically, despite his admiration for Socrates, Plato�s conception of political perfection actually rejected individualism in favor of a more traditional emphasis on the polis as the center of a person�s identity. In a famous book, the Republic, Plato outlined his ideal society as one in which everyone would be placed according to their own natural skills. Most would be workers, fulfilling the necessary functions of farming, craftsmanship, or any other necessary labor for which they were most suited. Above them would be the Guardians, those with above average strength, both of body and mind. Most of this Guardian class would be trained as warriors to protect the state. Some, however, those that exhibited the greatest intelligence and sense of discipline, would be trained as philosophers and would become the rulers of the state.

For Plato, the Guardians were to be a class apart. Workers would live as people had always lived, having children and living together as families. Guardians, however, were to be treated differently. They would be separated from their parents and raised together by the state. They would receive a carefully controlled education to insure the development of appropriate moral values. Marriages among them would be arranged to insure the best possible offspring. Parents would not be allowed to know their own children. Children would be raised in a communal setting. Boys and girls would be treated exactly the same, getting the same education and training, and having the same opportunities to serve the state. All would lead austere lives, without material wealth or personal recognition. Even private property would be prohibited among the Guardians. In many ways, Plato's vision resembled the ideal constitution of Sparta.

            Plato�s ideas on politics, as on many other topics, were never realized. Although he interested himself for a time in the politics of Syracuse, where he tried to become a tutor to the tyrant Dionysius I�s son, his efforts failed. Eventually he returned to Athens where he continued to teach until his death. Ironically, Plato�s best pupil, Aristotle, succeeded where he had failed. Aristotle became tutor to the son of another ruler, King Philip II of Macedonia. Aristotle�s own philosophy, however, soon developed along its own unique lines.

Aristotle. Where Plato had become increasingly interested in the realm of Ideas, Aristotle tried to bring philosophy back down to earth. His own early training had been in medicine, since his father was court physician to the king of Macedonia. Even after going to Athens, he remained interested in natural science. At first he accepted Plato�s conception of the ideal behind all things, but eventually he rejected the notion that the Ideal realm existed apart from the physical realm. Instead, every living thing consisted of two parts: the matter from which its physical existence was made up; and the �form� which was the particular blueprint or Idea of the species to which it belonged. In short, the ideal form and the actual matter existed together not separately�just as a pot only existed once the potter had imposed its ideal form on a lump of clay.

            Aristotle saw the world as divided between inorganic, or strictly material beings, and organisms, which were not only matter but also had souls. Souls themselves came in various types: plants had "vegetative" souls, and animals had "sensitive" or "emotional" souls. Only human beings had in addition to these a third soul, the intellect or capacity for reason. Since the intellect was the most highly developed of the souls, Aristotle thought, it should rule the others and not be subject to them. Overall, however, the best state for any organism, including a human being, was a balance among all its parts. Such balance, Aristotle believed, allowed human beings to achieve the highest goal for which they could strive - happiness. Happiness, he taught, could ultimately be attained only through virtue, or wisdom. Virtue in turn meant keeping a proper balance in all areas of life - the "golden mean."

            Throughout his life, Aristotle investigated and wrote many works on all kinds of subjects. His interests spanned not only philosophy, but also politics, medicine, the natural sciences, and many other areas. Above all, perhaps, he was a great cataloguer and organizer. He tried to fit the things he investigated into what he considered their proper categories. Instead of designing his own ideal system, Aristotle was largely content to observe the political systems being used in his day and to describe both their faults and their advantages.

            In politics as in so many other things, his maxim became "moderation in all things, and all things in moderation." He distrusted tyranny of any kind, whether of a single ruler or of the city mob. He defined tyranny as rule designed to enhance the interests only of the rulers rather than the whole of society. Consequently, he concluded that the best form of government was probably one run by the middle classes, who were neither rich enough nor poor enough to want to tyrannize others. Ironically, perhaps, Aristotle's own most famous pupil, Alexander of Macedon, would eventually overthrow democracy in Greece and lead the Greek world once again into an age of autocratic monarchy.

[1]Saunders, trans., Greek Political Oratory, Penguin Classics, p. 123.

[2]Both Quotes in Paretti, The Ancient World, vol. II, p. 531.

[3]Plato, The Apology of Socrates, quoted in Starr, The Ancient Greeks, p. 204.

[4]EDITORIAL NOTE: Try to use the image of the cave in some alternative format to explain Plato�s theory of ideas.