Think of Classic Greece–marvelous temples and edifices dedicated to the gods; brutish, highly trained Spartans fighting the Persians; and old, graying men arguing about ethics. But what about these ancient pioneers gave them the guidance to make such modern advancements in medicine, philosophy, science, politics, and architecture? While there is no direct answer, there were several factors that made this civilization so ahead of their time.
One thing the Greeks were great at was observing the natural world. It is as simple as that. Strangely enough, their observations lead to the creation of two opposing concepts: Greek mythology and science. History, mathematics, philosophy, literature, and mythology came from simply observing our world. Homer would be the first writer of Greece you would think of, and rightly so. The Illiad and the Odyssey were just as important to the Greeks as they are to us. This mysterious writer would have one of the biggest impacts in literature. Both stories are based on a proposed war between Greece and Troy. Herodotus was the first historian that wrote about the Persian Wars. His works inspired Thucydides, who revolutionized history further by documenting the Peloponnesian Wars. Mythology came from the inability to understand how the world functioned. To provide answers, the Hellenes created a universe of Gods and mythical figures that influenced worldly events. Astronomy was also birthed from mythology; as many of its stars, planets, and constellations come from Greek and Roman mythology. This dependence on divinity would ironically lead to the diverse world of science. Great mathematicians and inventors such as Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Euclid, and Pythagoras would make monumental steps in geometry and other subjects. Eratosthenes managed to approximate the Earth’s circumference! Pythagoras was also a philosopher who studied music and geometry and created a cult devoted to numerology. However, his credit for the famous Pythagorean Theorem is still being debated. Each of these early scientists used the world for inspiration. Eratosthenes thought of the Earth itself, Pythagoras stumbled upon music after listening to an anvil, and Archimedes found pi by looking at circles. He also created an enormous ship that weighed almost 1,700 tons (and actually floated!)* after apparently stepping into his bathtub. While I won’t go into philosophy too much (that’s a post for another time), I will brush up on some of the ideas. The monist pre-Socratic philosophers (before Socrates) steered away from the supernatural and attempted to explain the world through forces of nature. Aristotle, the “father of antiquity,” was a groundbreaking philosopher and scientist. His studies in ethics, biology, astronomy, rhetoric, and metaphysics are still influential today. He is best known for his logical concepts, studies of morals and politics, and his criticisms of his teacher, Plato. Each of the aforementioned scientists, including Herodotus, have theorized the notion of a spherical Earth (take that Columbus!) So far, in my quest to discover why the Greeks were so smart, I have discovered that war, politics, and nature have contributed to the immense knowledge and ingenuity of the Greeks.
This is part two of “What Made the Greeks so Genius?” More topics will come out in the future, so make sure to follow and share this with your friends!
*The ship was called the Syracusia
For further reading: It’s All Greek to Me by Charlotte Higgins (2008)