This week we began Greek civilization.
We began where we began where we began our look at Egyptian civilization, with geography.
Greek geography has three dominant features I wanted the students to notice: water, mountains, and climate (below is rough topography of the region)
I believe water had a few key impacts on the Greeks:
1. Psychological — it is nearly universal human reaction to be drawn out by large bodies of water. At least I tend to think it is. Most of us have probably vacationed at the beach before. Have most of you, like me, stood looking at the horizon of the sea and thought, “One day I shall go forth and seek out boldly new lands and new places”?
Alright, maybe not for everybody.
But why does waterfront property sell at such a high price? Water may not call us all to adventure, but it does seem to impact our psyche in some way.
2. Water also serves as a means to communicate and interact with others. So those that live near water tend to explore and trade, and this in turn creates vibrant economies and cultures. England, the Netherlands, and Venice might be examples of this.
In the end, we can see why great cultural explosions often come from places near water if we combine the possible psychological and obvious practical effects (Greece, Renaissance Italy, the Dutch, England) Of course like most things, this has its limits. Witness, for example, classical music from Bach though Strauss, Russian music and literature, etc. in essentially land-locked places. Still — it seems to me that there may be a connection between water and a civilization’s creativity. I expand on these possibilities here for those interested.
Mountains and Soil
1. Greece had farmers, but in general the soil was rockier and poorer than in the Fertile Crescent. This in turn, of course, might only serve to push them outwards all the more.
2. The mountains divided them geographically, which in turn divided them politically. These mostly independent communities may have helped originate, or at least broaden, the concept of self-government. All of the civilizations we have studied so far have chosen the ‘big’ route to success, partly through choice and partly through circumstance. In contrast, the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed the ideal political community should have more than 5000 citizens.
If most people could pick their ideal climate it would probably be between 50-80 degrees, light breeze, low humidity. This would be a general description of a Mediterranean climate, and one impact this had on the Greeks was that they lived life outdoors. So — as they interacted with other areas throughout Greece and the Mediterranean, they also interacted a lot with each other, and this too might have helped contribute to the creativity of ancient Greek civilization.
After looking at geography we went to another key foundation of ancient Greece and looked at their concept of ‘Arete,’ which I think can be best translated as ‘excellence.’ ‘Excellence’ is an amoral concept. The Greeks admired people who were ‘excellent’ people. Odysseus was excellent at cleverness and like a cat, always landing on his feet. Achilles is admired because no one can best him in battle. But neither would be considered moral people in any Christian sense. Arete tells you to continually pursue excellence, to never rest on one’s laurels. One of the problems with arete, however, is that it does not tell you when to stop, something that we will see working itself out in Greek civilization.
We have discussed before that what a civilization worships is what it follows after at all costs, and this may not be found ultimately in the gods themselves. One question I posed to the students was, which came first, the Greek gods, or Greek arete? Greek gods have power and beauty, but not morality. In Greek sculpture their is not much difference between how gods and men are depicted. This one is of Poseidon:
And another famous one of the discus thrower (stance obviously different, but the ‘body’ is the same:
I should say that the students were right to point out some minor differences, as the gods usually tend to look more imposing or regal, but in general the gods were just somewhat better versions of mankind.
We can contrast this with the Egyptian gods.
The difference is more than mere artistic technique. When they wanted, the Egyptians could be quite expressive, as this tomb painting with birds shows.
Often times the Greeks depicted the gods in motion, perhaps reflecting the fluid nature of their civilization. The Egyptians, in contrast, often showed their deities in a static posed, often with arms crossed, reflecting the more stable, tradition oriented nature of the Egyptians.
Next week we will look at the Trojan War and the possible historical roots of the conflict.