Some Half-Truths About the Ancient Greeks

Posted on February 21, 2010


The Greeks liked garish colours, and they painted those elegant marbles. The Venus de Milo should have tan lines.

The present population of Greece is only 15% genetically related to the people of Classical Greece.  Referring to the Ancient Greeks by the same name, almost makes geographic sense, except that many of the Ancient Greeks did not come from Greece.  Greek civilization, as it is discussed by classical scholars, also includes all the areas that Greek civilization conquered, which is essentially the entire coast of the Eastern Mediterranean.

And Ancient Greeks from outside of Ancient Greece are quite likely to be not entirely Greek either, since the conquering armies that Greece sent out—once their farming methods had largely destroyed the soils of their homeland—didn’t bring women with them.  Thus, after the first generation, most overseas Greeks were half-breeds.

Anyway, however you define them, let’s talk about those guys.  From then.

First off, let’s recognize that the Ancient Greeks aren’t that ancient in the larger scheme of things.  Agricultural civilization began about ten and a half thousand years ago.  Writing was invented five and a half thousand years ago.  Greek civilization, in the eras we like to talk about nowadays, flourished about two and half thousand years ago.  The Ancient Greeks are much closer in time to us than they are to the beginning of the civilization we live in.  They are even closer to us that they are to the people who developed writing.  In the civilization race, Greeks are Johnny-come-latelies.

Let’s talk about an Ancient Greek who did not live in Greece, Thales, who according to many accounts invented science.  Clever chap.  He did so by proposing that the world was composed of water.  Nobody really knows what he meant by that.  But it’s a really important thing to say, apparently, science being so important and all.

Of course, there is the problem that science was being practiced thousands of years before, according to archaeological evidence, by hunting and gathering peoples using fire strategically (and according to careful formula) in order to change the properties of stone.  The hunting and gathering form of science had the advantage over the Greek of being somehow related to the real world.  You know, the one that is not composed of water.

And let’s us not forget nutritional biochemistry, where the scientific notion of reproducable results originated.  You know, cooking, invented by humanity’s premodern ancestors.  And recipes.

In school, we hear that the Greeks invented humanism, and that this was expressed in their idealization of the human figure in sculpture.  Except that Greeks didn’t idealize the human figure per se, only the figures of Greek citizens.  It didn’t apply to foreigners or slaves.  Therefore humanism as a term doesn’t quite describe the concept as practiced at the time.  Let’s say humanism-with-some-prejudice-and-racism-added-in-ism.

Don’t you much prefer accuracy?

And then we have Zeno who, I learned in school, proved that atoms existed.  He did so by describing a footrace between Achilles and a tortoise.  The tortoise has a head start.   In order to catch the tortoise, Achilles must first halve the distance to the tortoise.  Then he must halve the distance again.  And again.  This continues infinitely, and he never catches the tortoise.  Or there is some small indivisible unit, which serves as a period to this apparently infinite process, and that is the atom.  This allows Achilles to catch the tortoise.

Personally, I think if Achilles wanted to catch that tortoise, a little training and exercise would have served better.  There is no point talking to Ancient Greek philosophers like Zeno who don’t realize that concepts like half—at least absolute concepts as used in the footrace—don’t exist.  And something that doesn’t exist is a very uncertain guide to what does exist.  Zeno proposed the existence of atoms, but did nothing to prove their existence except in the minds of school teachers who don’t know the difference between abstraction and the real world.

And then we have Pythagoras.  A Greek who lived in Egypt (and of course, being Greek, must have taught the Egyptians rather than learned from them.)  You remember him as the chap who invented the Pythagorean theorem (the sum of the squares of the two perpendicular sides of a right angle triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse.)  Except he didn’t.  People made use of his formula centuries before he was born.

But Pythagoras was really good at geometry and he invented numerology—the mystic philosophy of numbers.  Good for him.  Too bad he didn’t listen to those Egyptians, though.  (If he didn’t.)  They came up with a lot of the ideas he wrote about themselves, and if he had listened, he wouldn’t have had to reinvent them.  If he did reinvent them.

Now you see, that’s one of the problems we have with the Greeks.  They wrote things down.  They repressed other civilizations and thus prevented them from writing things down.  We don’t really know, therefore, whether the ideas they wrote down are their ideas or the ideas of the people they conquered.

Since we don’t really know, we have to guess.

And we call those guesses history.

Posted in: history