The Greek culture shaped the Western thinking and culture as its influence is felt in almost every aspect of human life from medicine, law, art, architecture to science (Noble, 2008). The Greeks, for example, invented geometry as they used it to make sense of the world and specifically to measure distance.
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In everything, Greeks were challenged to define the problem, research it and use some mathematical construct to explain it. Their discovery and use of geometry helped them to create navigational diagrams and maps for trade routes, become master architectures and building and modeling geniuses.
This is said by Tarnas, (1991) to have shaped the Western culture of syllogisms, logic and duality principles among others. Also, in the Greek culture is the rise of individuals who shaped the thought process of the world. Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, laid the ground for the majority of modern philosophical thought, questioning and scientific methodology.
In his philosophy, Socrates taught about relaying heavily on sense as a primary data gathering method while Plato and Aristotle stressed on knowledge and scientific experimentation together with sensory data and logic as the critical methods of conducting an inquiry and rationalization.
The most distinctive influence on the Western culture is the rise and development of democracy. The rise of democratic values and institutions was as a result of measured transformation in the principles guiding distribution of power. It is the Greeks that came up with the idea of a government that is answerable to the governed, civil liberties and trial by jury.
The civil liberties and studies on humans were the cornerstone of ancient Greeks’ culture. This sense of liberty and independence both as individuals and collectively encouraged their endeavors in philosophy, politics and science (Spielvogel, 2010).
Democracy in the modern world is described by Spielvogel, (2010) as several related forms of government with a fundamental feature of a government based on majority rule and put in power through the consent of the governed.
It is also based on the principles of existence of free and fair elections, protection of the minority, preservation of human rights, equality of all in the face of law, following the due process and political pluralism.
This modern view of democracy traces its origin to the ancient Greeks, Romans and South Asia and has spread throughout the world with many nations claiming to adhere to its principles. This has led to a lot of diversity in the concept of democracy making it extremely difficult to define.
It does not, however, apply only to the political state but also in other groups and organizations. In order to understand the Greek culture’s influence to the way Western Europe idea of democracy, the discussion will touch on the history of Greece and the rise of democracy and the influence of Greek philosophy on religion and Western thought and culture (Tarnas, 1991).
The history of Greece
There is not much recorded history of early Greece leading this period to be called the Dark Age of Ancient Greece. The first inhabitants built their settlements along the shores of Greece where they depended on trade and supplies on the Aegean Sea. The Greeks travelled, traded and interacted with many people from different cultures where they learned agriculture and various techniques of metalwork.
This interaction led to development of communities such as Aegeans with their center in Crete, Achaeans with their center in Mycenae and the Pelasgians.
During the 2500 BC period, the Aegeans dominated the region, but around 1400 BC, a volcanic eruption destroyed the island Minoan Thera east of Crete which disrupted Minoan functionality and influence and later they were absorbed by the Mycenaean Greeks (Gress, 1998).
The settlements eventually changed into city-states or poleis which were governed by a council and a king. This structure was unstable due to kings changing to tyrants to their own subjects. The aristocratic people composed of mostly of landowners comprised the council leaving the majority of the people unrepresented in the system which led to uprisings (Gress, 1998).
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The beginning of the Olympic Games around 776 BC marked the start of a Greek culture and the Archaic Period of Greece where the Greek culture was significantly shaped by the foreign culture.
The art works began to explore the human figures and mythology which reached a climax during the Classical Period at around 500 BC during which the art, philosophy and literature that came to influence the world’s societies were at their peak (Noble, 2008).
The period between 490 BC and 197 BC, Greece experienced many wars, which it worn and lost others, and periods when tyranny and democracy were experienced. In 490 BC, Persian Wars against Greece began led by Darius the Great of Thrace.
Greece worn this round but, another one waged in 480BC by Xerxes crushed Athens and the third one, Greece managed to defeat the Persians at Salamis. By 461 BC, Athens had fully democratic governance, which Sparta saw as a threat to their aristocratic rule, and invaded Athens in the start of the Peloponnesian Wars between Sparta and Athenians.
Athens emerged victorious and a truce was called with Sparta, and a peace treaty signed with Persia. In the second Peloponnesian War, Athens lost and the Thirty Tyrants took over Athens and later killed Socrates (Noble, 2008).
In 3359 BC, Philip II rose to power as Macedon king and took control of the Greek Peninsula including the competing Thebes, Athens, and Sparta powers. At his assassination in 336 BC, his son Alexander the Great took over the kingdom and later conquered and occupied Egypt and the entire Persian Empire and divided the whole kingdom into three regions: Ptolemic Egypt, Antigonid Macedonia and Seleucid Syria.
Alexander later died unexpectedly and the kingdoms started conflicts with one another, disabling each other which marked the Greek downfall to Roman Empire, and incorporated Greek culture with its own. The period after Alexander’s death is called the Hellenistic Age (Noble, 2008).
Classical and Hellenistic World
During the Classical Greece period, Greece culture was built on the earlier regional civilizations of Middle East, Egypt, Crete and Mycenae. Invaders from the other parts of Asia and Europe were absorbed and Greek-speakers spread around the Aegean Sea which saw Greek culture, and politics spread widely in Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe and later societies (Noble, 2008).
Greek civilization was centered on small communities with Crete and Mycenae heritage and, which had been majorly influenced by Indo-European culture especially the polytheistic religion that gave rise to societal cultural values. Trade at the eastern Mediterranean flourished due to the introduction of coined money.
This resulted into increased wealth, which triggered growth in population and social change, that led to new political structures. This was followed by adoption of the Phoenician alphabet to write the Greek language and in turn spread of literacy.
With the spread of literacy, commercial and cultural interactions were tremendously encouraged. The Iliad and the Odyssey were written down, where they formed the foundation of the Hellenic culture. Architecture, building and modeling, was enhanced while artistic forms such as sculpture started displaying a more pragmatic depiction of the human body and pottery showed human activity.
The city-state politics
From 800 B.C.E governance units were based on city-state or polis polities which were different in size but comprised of a city and its agricultural hinterland. They were governed by landowning aristocrats who emerged from the Indo-European warriors with the help of a council of free farmer citizens.
Commercial expansion and the development of specialized commercial agriculture became a threat to the aristocratic rule and constantly challenged the situation.
With increased wealth, the difference among the haves and the haves not grew wider and by the 6th century B.C.E pressure groups in urban, commercial centers and dispossessed farmers wanted change.
The tyrants also got a lot of support in their challenge to the aristocratic class interests while reformers such as Solon of Athens worked hard to formulate laws to govern economic relationships. Moreover, democratization of the military service by qualified citizens fuelled the need for reforms.
By 500 B.C.E, many polis had adopted the principles of loyalty to the governed as opposed to an individual ruler. This led to widespread participation of public life by male citizens (Spielvogel, 2010).
Athens was the first to emerge as a democratic polis and adopted Solon’s reforms though some problems still existed. The rise to power of Cleisthenes saw the establishment of a council elected by all citizens which was the sovereign authority.
Also, citizens served as jurors and formed the army and government officials were chosen by lot and answerable to the assembly. However, adult women, slaves and foreigners did not have political rights as it is today; also aristocratic class still retained excessive importance.
The political style, however, gave a lot of importance to individual participation, a centralized system and formal laws (Duiker & Spielvogel, 2010).
In order to relieve the building population pressure, seek grain supplies and markets for Greek products, many polis established colonies along the coast of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. This is well much like what Western European countries such as Britain and Spain did during the colonization of the Americas and Africa as Noble, (2008) says.
The Olympics Games and recognition of the oracle of Delphi acted as the few activities in which the polis cooperated in. They also united and maintained their independence during the Persian invasion in which they defeated Persia.
Athens emerged as dominant city-state through an alliance, Delian League where valuable resources were amassed and which triggered conflicts and political divisions. The conflicts together with a disastrous plague led to the fall of Athens and the dominance of city-state.
The expansion of the Greek empire to Egypt and Middle East by Alexander the great and his father lasted a short period but managed to expand the influence of Greek culture to many regions.
He encouraged intermarriages between Greek speaking people and the local women in the conquered lands, spread Greek officials throughout these lands and founded centers of Greek scholarship. After the death of Alexander, Greek officials remained in these states and became state officials and merchants solidifying the influence of Greek culture and the resulting to new intellectual framework of the much of the civilized world (Tarnas, 1991).
Democracy and personal freedom as a culture propagated by the Greeks are shown in its religion according to Gress, (1998). The Greeks did not establish a major religion in their development like the Chinese and the Indians but embraced a pantheon of wild gods and goddesses who intervened in the human life and activities.
These were mainly borrowed from Indo-European cultures but only adopted them with a human-centered approach. Everybody was free to adopt or worship the gods of their choice. The lack of spiritual passion is said by Duiker & Spielvogel, (2010) to be the cause of the development of alternative “mystery” religions which the people adopted to gratify their needs.
This also created a vacuum in the ethical thought which eventually Greek thinkers to establish a separate philosophical system. It is this effort to understand phenomena through coherent observation that gave rise to the character of Greek and Hellenistic culture, that of a questioning and experimental and discovering culture. Philosophers such as Socrates, Stoics and Aristotle, gave thoughts on morality, balancing religious and political orders, moral independence and political structures among others.
The geopolitical position of Greece favored spread of its culture
Duiker & Spielvogel, (2010) says that the rise of Greece as the epicenter of western thought, and culture was favored by its geopolitical position.
The civilizations around this location were easily accessible through water transport, fertile lands along the region encouraged the growth in population among different groups. These groups exhibited diverse cultures that were highly advanced due to the exchange of ideas.
The Greek-city states were at the center of this ‘information highway’ and their location provided excellent trading ports as many of them relied heavily on trade as their lands were not agriculturally productive especially in Athens, as opposed to many of their neighbors. This meant they travelled and interacted with many cultures spreading their culture and democratic ideas.
Greek thought as distinct in Eastern philosophy
The influence of diverse and advanced cultures in the Asian and North African civilization elevated the Greek culture to achieve a distinct flavor that gave it a life of its own as outlined Duiker & Spielvogel, (2010) again outlines. The Greek culture of inquiry and reason in explaining things gave rise to Philosophers who achieved great status during Socrates era around 5th century BC.
Socrates contributed a lot in the world of philosophy and democracy with his thoughts on ethics, government and law and investigating the nature of knowledge and how to gain it. Plato emerged also as a great philosopher under the studentship of Socrates and established his brand of philosophical thought.
He brought to life the idea of a “spiritual” aspect of the world and began to interpret the things in this light. Aristotle also came with the idea of using senses primarily in the understanding of the world which was a conflicting thought from that of Plato, his mentor.
Many more schools of thought trying to explain things in different disciplines emerged and with different perspectives but with inquiry and reason guiding them. During this time, Eastern and Western thought and culture came into collision as Greek military adventurism came into contact with the Eastern world and left a mark into each other while at the same time bringing out their fundamental differences.
The primary among these differences is the Eastern philosophy of giving more power to the ruling class while the masses are seen as harmonized entity, and both functioning for the good of all. Western ideals propagated by Greek would lead to democratic systems leaning on individual liberties over “state” interests (Tarnas, 1991).
Greek philosophy shaping on Christianity and Judaism
Tarnas, (1991) says that both religions had a enormous philosophical influence from the Greek thought. Christianity became intertwined with Greek philosophy, which then spread to the Western civilizations, putting the finishing touch on the influence of Greek culture’s influence on the Western thought and culture.
It is during the Renaissance period t around 1400s and the Enlightenment period in 1800s that the Dark Ages are finally over, and Greek philosophy advanced, democracy reinvented and scientific discoveries made among other things.
The British Empire was at the helm of these two developments leading in democracy, technological development, which resulted in the industrial revolution, military prowess which is the pictures of the Roman Empire. USA which later emerged as the world power adopted the western philosophies of democracy as the preservation of individual freedoms for its citizens and Christian principles (Noble, 2008).
Greek thought and culture shaped the Western thinking on democracy and culture in general. The Greeks developed ideas on democratic values and institutions as a guide to distribution of power. They developed the idea of a government voted in and responsible to the governed, civil liberties and personal freedoms and the laid basis for the modern judicial system of trial by jury.
The adoption of democratic ideals has varied across the world rendering it impossible to define what democracy is, its Greek origins can not be denied. The development of democracy can be traced in the history of Greece which is divided into three periods: Ancient Greece, Classical Greece and Hellenistic period.
Much of the Greek thought and culture developed during the classical and Hellenistic periods with the rise of city-states, where citizens, that is, adult men, voted their representatives to the Council or Assembly that was answerable to them.
Philosophers also emerged who emphasized on inquiry and reasoning to explain human nature and phenomena and laid the basis for modern democratic ideas. The geopolitical position of Greece coupled with trade as their main economic activity allowed them to spread their culture and ideas.
The Greek philosophy emerged as distinct from the Eastern thought, which though they impacted on each other, had their most notable difference in the idea of democracy and this impacted on how it was adopted by the Western civilizations.
Further, the Greek culture and thought was adopted by the Roman Empire which influenced the main Religions: Christianity and Judaism in Asia. Greek philosophy influenced Christianity and Christianity likewise and which spread to the Western world putting the final touches on the Western thought and culture. After the fall, of Roman Empire, the Western world, led by British Empire reinvented democracy and other aspects of the Greek culture.
Duiker, W., & Spielvogel, J. (2010). The essential world history, volume two: since 1500. USA: Cengage Learning.
Gress, D. (1998). From Plato to NATO: the idea of the west and its opponents. USA: Simon and Schuster.
Noble, T. (2008). Western civilization: beyond boundaries. New York: Cengage Learning.
Spielvogel, J. (2010). Western civilization: a brief history. New York: Cengage Learning.
Tarnas, R. (1991). The passion of the western mind: understanding the ideas that have shaped our world view. New York: Harmony Books.