The Ideal and the Realty of Classical Athens Discovering the Western Past Introduction: Athens during the fifth century B. C. Is often identified as one of the main sources of Western values and standards. Later Europeans and Americans regarded the Athenians as the originators of democracy, drama, representational or realistic art, history, philosophy, and science. At different times over the past 2,500 years they have attempted to imitate this “Golden Age” of classical Athens in everything from buildings to literature.
Many U. S. State capitols and government buildings are modeled On the Parthenon or there temples, complete with statuary of former governors in the manner of Greek gods. We still divide, drama into tragedies and comedies in the same way the Athenians did, though now we sometimes use a prerecorded laugh track instead of grinning masks to indicate that a given work is a comedy.
During some historical periods, such as the Renaissance, thinkers and writers made conscious attempts to return to classical ideals in all areas of life, combing the works of Athenian authors for previously overlooked material in their quest to draw guidance and learn everything possible from this unique flowering of culture. Even more than as a model for literature and art, classical Athens has continued to serve as a relevant source for answers to basic questions about human existence.
Though all cultures have sought to identify the ultimate aim and meaning of human life, the ancient Greeks, especially the Athenians, were the first in the West to provide answers that were not expressed in religious or mythological terms. Their thoughts on these matters grew out of speculations on the nature of the universe made by earlier Greeks, particularly Thales and. His followers Misbranded and Heraclites. These thinkers, living in the seventh and sixth centuries B. C. Theorized about how the universe had been formed and what it was made of by means of rational explanations drawn from observation rather than from myth or religious tradition. Because they believed the natural universe could, be explained, in other than supernatural terms, they are often termed the first true scientists or first philosophers. During the fifth century B. C. , several Athenian thinkers turned their attention from the world around, them to the human beings living in that world. They used this new method of philosophical inquiry to question the workings Of the human mind and the societies humans create.
They asked such questions as. How do we learn things? What should we try to learn? How do we know what is right or wrong, good or bad? If we can know what is good, how can we create things that are good? What kind of government is best? This type of questioning is perhaps most often associated with Socrates (469-390 B. C. ) and his pupil Plato (427-347 B. C. ), who are generally called, the founders of Western philosophy. Thales and his followers are thus known as the pre- Socratic; and a twentieth-century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, noted-?only half jokingly-?that “the European philosophical tradition .. Insists of a series of footnotes to Plato. ” Both Socrates and Plato believed that goodness is related to knowledge and that excellence could be learned. For Plato especially, true knowledge was gained not by observation of the world but by contemplation of what an ideal world would be like. In their view, to understand goodness, justice, or beauty, it is necessary to think about what pure and ultimate goodness, justice, or beauty means. Plato thus introduced into Western thought a strong strain of idealism and was the first to write works on what an ideal society or set of laws would look like.
He also described the education required to train citizens for governing this Ideal state and the social and economic structure necessary to keep them at their posts. Though he probably recognized that these standards could never be achieved, he believed that the creation of ideals was an important component of the discipline of philosophy, a sentiment shared by many Western thinkers after him. Plat’s most brilliant pupil, Aristotle (384-322 B. C. ), originally agreed with his teacher but then began to depart somewhat from idealism.
Like the pre- Socratic, Aristotle was fascinated by the world around him, and many of his ratings on scientific subjects reveal keen powers of observation. Even his treatises on standards of human behavior, such as those concerning ethics and politics, are based on close observation of Athenian society and not simply on speculation. Aristotle further intended that these works should not only describe ideal human behavior or political systems, but also provide suggestions about how to alter current practice to conform more closely to the ideal.
Thus, although Aristotle was still to some degree an idealist, both the source and the recipient of his ideals was the real world. In classical Athens, human nature was a subject contemplated not only by scientists and philosophers, but also by historians, such as Herodotus and Discusses. They, too, searched for explanations about the natural order that did not involve the gods. For Herodotus and Discusses, the Persian and Peloponnesus wars were caused by human failings, not by actions of vengeful gods such as those that Homer, following tradition, depicted in the Iliad as causing the Trojan War.
Like Aristotle, they were interested in describing real events and finding explanations for them; like Plato, they were also interested in the possible as well as the actual. History, in their opinion, was the best arena for observing the true worth of various ideals to human society. To the Athenians, war was the ultimate test of human ideals, morals, and values, but these could also be tested and observed on a much smaller scale in the way people conducted their everyday lives.
Although for Plato the basis of an ideal government was the perfectly trained ruler or group of rulers, for Aristotle and other writers it was the perfectly managed household, which they regarded as a microcosm of society. Observing that the household was the smallest economic and political unit in Athenian society, Aristotle began his consideration of the ideal governmental system with thoughts on how households should be run. Other writers on politics and economics followed suit, giving advice after observing households they regarded as particularly well managed.
Whereas Plato clearly indicated that he was describing an ideal, in the case Of Aristotle and other Athenians, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether they were attempting to describe reality, what they wished were reality, or a pure ideal. Your task here will be to examine the relationship between ideal and reality in the writings of a few Athenian philosophers, historians, and commentators. What ideals do the writers set forth for the individual, the household, and the government?
How are these ideals reflected in more realistic descriptions of life in Athens and in the way Athenians built their houses and their city? Sources: All the written sources we will use come from Athenians who lived during the classical period and are thus what we term original or primary sources. They differ greatly from modern primal sources, however, in that their textual accuracy cannot be checked. Before the development of the printing press, the only way to obtain a copy of a work was to write it out by hand yourself or hire someone to do so.
Therefore, each manuscript copy might be slightly different. Because the originals of the works of Aristotle or Discusses have long since disappeared, what we have to work with are translations of composites based on as many of the oldest copies still in existence after 2,500 years that the translators could find. The problem of accuracy is further complicated with some of the authors we will read because they did not actually write the works attributed to them. Many of Aristotle works, for instance, are probably copies of his students’ notes combined with (perhaps) some of his own.
If you think of the way in which you record your own instructors’ remarks, you can see why we must be cautious about assuming that these secondhand works contain everything Aristotle taught exactly as he intended it. Socrates, in fact, wrote nothing at all; all his ideas and words come to us through his pupil Plato. Scholars have long debated how much of the written record represents Socrates and how much represents Plato, especially when we consider that Socrates generally poke at social gatherings or informally while walking around Athens, when Plato was not taking notes.
These problems do not mean that we should discount these sources, they simply mean that we should realize that they differ from the printed documents and tape-recorded speeches of later eras. We will begin our investigation with what is probably the most famous description of classical Athens [Source 1]: a funeral speech delivered by Prices. Prices, one of the leaders of Athens when the Peloponnesus War opened, gave this speech in 430 B. C. In honor of those who had died during the first year of the war. It was recorded by Discusses and, though there is some disagreement over who actually Wrote it, reflects Prices’ opinions.
Read the speech carefully and be prepared to answer the following questions: (1) Is Prices describing an ideal he hopes Athens will achieve or reality as he sees it? (2) How does he depict Athenian democracy and the Athenian attitude toward wealth? (3) How does he compare Athens with Sparta? (4) How does Athens treat its neighbors? (5) What role does Prices see for Athena Ian women? Source 2 comes from a later section of Discusses’ Peloponnesus War, and it ascribes Athenian actions in the sixteenth year of the war. As you read It, think about the virtues that Prices ascribed to the Athenians. 1 ) Are these virtues reflected in the debate with the Menials or in the actions against them? (2) How do the Athenians justify their actions? Sources 1 and 2 from Discusses, History of the Peloponnesus War, translated by Richard Crawler (New York; Modern Library, 1951) up. 103-106; p. 109. 1. Prices’ Funeral Speech, 430 B. C. That part of our history which tells of the military achievements which gave us our several possessions, or of the ready valor with which either we or our ethers stemmed the tide of Hellenic or foreign aggression, is a theme too familiar to my hearers for me to dilate on, and I shall therefore pass it by.
But what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form Of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang; these are questions which I may try to solve before I proceed to my panegyric (festival assembly) upon these men: since I think this to be a subject upon which on the present occasion a speaker may properly dwell, and to which the whole assemblage, whether citizens or foreigners, may listen with advantage. Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves.
Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is’ called, a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom, which we enjoy in our overspent, extends also to our ordinary life.
There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be Offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to hat code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.
Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbor, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own. If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists.
We throw open our tit to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality: trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness,
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