The Hellenic Period During the Greek Golden Age, art and philosophy expressed hellenic “weltanschauung”, their unique outlook on the world and way of life. Through the works of artists, playwrights, and philosophers, one can see both sides of the conflicted systems of the world, such as; good vs. evil, order vs.
chaos, stability vs. flux, relativism vs. absolutism and balance and harmony. The Greeks were materialists.
They adopted the philosophical doctrine which says that physical matter is the only reality in the universe; everything else, including thought, feeling, mind and will can be explained in terms of physical laws. Their materialism was expressed in an excessive regard for worldly, beautiful material things and concerns. They used their art to show the glories of humanity and man. The sculptors of the Golden Age aimed to create graceful, strong and perfectly formed figures. Their art showed natural positions and thoughtful expressions rather than abstract art forms.
Their standards of order and balance became standards for classical art in western civilization. The Greeks were proud of their temples and other architecture, made to honor the gods and beautify the polis (city-state). Their famous architectural styles were the heavy Doric columns and the slender scrolled Ionian columns. The Parthenon, the Greek temple for the goddess Athena, is a impeccable example of symmetry and proportion. The sides of the Parthenon give an optical illusion of perfect balance on all sides.
Their desire for balance in art and architecture represents the balance of the world; order and moderation are expressed in the simplicity of lines and shapes. The resulting overall structure works together to achieve harmony. In ancient Greece, public drama was more than entertainment. It was a form of public education. It dealt with issues of importance to the people, such as; the authority of the leaders, the power of the people, questions of justice, morality, wars, peace, the duties of the gods, family life and city living.
Aeschylus wrote about the furies and how they punished man for wrongdoings. This shows that he believed that chaos would be punished because order (and law) is the ideal state. Sophocles is best known for his plays of Oedipus. Those plays dealt with family and civic loyalty. The Greeks emphasized, particularly in their plays, the importance of loyalty as a goal to strive for.
We learn a lot about Greek views through their philosophy, which literally means the love of knowledge. The Greeks educated through a series of questions and answers, in order to better teach about life and the universe. The first philosopher was Thales. He believed in absolutism and eternal matter. He said that water was the original matter and that without it, there would be no life. Parmenides stated that stability and permanence were the underlying conditions of the universe.
He believed that change is only an illusion and that one’s senses can only grasp superficial realities of change. Heroditus argued with Parmenides saying that change was the basic condition of reality. He further claimed that all permanence was false. Thus he saw things as naturally being in flux rather than a stable state. Democritus argued with both Parmenides and Heroditus.
He insisted that there is nothing spiritual and that only matter existed. He then went on to say that everything is made of little invisible particles, hooked up in different arrangements. He was an atomist. The Greek philosophers went on to question the nature of being and the meaning of life.
Pythagoras was the first metaphysicist, one who studies beyond physical existence. He believed in a separation between spirit and body, an opposition between good and evil and between discord and harmony. In the 5th century, the Greeks learned from Sophists, who believed that the views of society are standards and the sole measurement of good, truth, justice and beauty. Protagoras was a sophist. He said that, “man is the measure of all things.” He believed in a constant flux, and that nothing is absolutely right or wrong, but subject to change. His view is much like that held by Parmenides.
The philosophers then asked a question such as; what would happen if things that were wrong were seen by society as acceptable? What, for example, if society condoned murder? Socrates was one who argued this point of view. He stressed truth as absolute, not changeable depending of the thinking of society as a given time. He believed in set standards of ethics. He said that right and wrong can be figured out on an absolute level. If one understands the truths, he can live a good life, without evil.
Plato agreed with Socrates. He, too, said that morals, ethics, as well as matter, were absolute. He stated two levels of existence; the physical world of “shadows” and the real world of “ideas”. Plato wanted a philosopher-king who would stress harmony and efficiency, as Plato did. Another philosopher, Aristotle, believed in a world of moderation and balance. He disagreed with Plato’s two levels of existence.
Instead, Aristotle said that all functions of the soul die with the body and that there is no afterlife. Aristotle also said that truth followed logically from other truths. One must reason, step by step, before reaching conclusions. Greek thinkers assumed that the universe was put together in an orderly way. They insisted that people could understand their laws, merely, through the process of reason.
There were many conflicting ideas among the elite of ancient Greece, of what the “Greek outlook” is. Our western society has learned a lot from the Greeks. We inherited their art and love of symmetry, their literature and understanding of man, their philosophies which stimulate our thinking, causing us to ask questions about our existence. As modern and knowledgeable as we are today, we would not be nearly as sophisticated if not for our ancestors the great thinkers of Greece in ancient times. Bibliography Jantzen, Steven L., Krieger, Larry S., Neill, Kenneth. World History, D.C.
Health & Company: Massachusetts, 1988. The American Heritage Dictionary, Dell Publishing Co. Inc., New York, 1986.