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H.G. Wells (1866–1946). A Short History of the World. 1922.


The Splendour of Greece

THE CENTURY and a half that followed the defeat of Persia was one of very great splendour for the Greek civilization. True that Greece was torn by a desperate struggle for ascendancy between Athens, Sparta and other states (the Peloponnesian War 431 to 404 B.C.) and that in 338 B.C. the Macedonians became virtually masters of Greece; nevertheless during this period the thought and the creative and artistic impulse of the Greeks rose to levels that made their achievement a lamp to mankind for all the rest of history.

The head and centre of this mental activity was Athens. For over thirty years (466 to 428 B.C.) Athens was dominated by a man of great vigour and liberality of mind, Pericles, who set himself to rebuild the city from the ashes to which the Persians had reduced it. The beautiful ruins that still glorify Athens to-day are chiefly the remains of this great effort. And he did not simply rebuild a material Athens. He rebuilt Athens intellectually. He gathered about him not only architects and sculptors but poets, dramatists, philosophers and teachers. Herodotus came to Athens to recite his history (438 B.C.). Anaxagoras came with the beginnings of a scientific description of the sun and stars. Æschylus, Sophocles and Euripides one after the other carried the Greek drama to its highest levels of beauty and nobility.

The impetus Pericles gave to the intellectual life of Athens lived on after his death, and in spite of the fact that the peace of Greece was now broken by the Peloponnesian War and a long and wasteful struggle for “ascendancy” was beginning. Indeed the darkling of the political horizon seems for a time to have quickened rather than discouraged men’s minds.

Already long before the time of Pericles the peculiar freedom of Greek institutions had given great importance to skill in discussion. Decision rested neither with king nor with priest but in the assemblies of the people or of leading men. Eloquence and able argument became very desirable accomplishments therefore, and a class of teachers arose, the Sophists, who undertook to strengthen young men in these arts. But one cannot reason without matter, and knowledge followed in the wake of speech. The activities and rivalries of these Sophists led very naturally to an acute examination of style, of methods of thought and of the validity of arguments. When Pericles died a certain Socrates was becoming prominent as an able and destructive critic of bad argument—and much of the teaching of the Sophists was bad argument. A group of brilliant young men gathered about Socrates. In the end Socrates was executed for disturbing people’s minds (399 B.C.), he was condemned after the dignified fashion of the Athens of those days to drink in his own house and among his own friends a poisonous draught made from hemlock, but the disturbance of people’s minds went on in spite of his condemnation. His young men carried on his teaching.

Chief among these young men was Plato (427 to 347 B.C.) who presently began to teach philosophy in the grove of the Academy. His teaching fell into two main divisions, an examination of the foundations and methods of human thinking and an examination of political institutions. He was the first man to write a Utopia, that is to say the plan of a community different from and better than any existing community. This shows an altogether unprecedented boldness in the human mind which had hitherto accepted social traditions and usages with scarcely a question. Plato said plainly to mankind: “Most of the social and political ills from which you suffer are under your control, given only the will and courage to change them. You can live in another and a wiser fashion if you choose to think it out and work it out. You are not awake to your own power.” That is a high adventurous teaching that has still to soak in to the common intelligence of our race. One of his earliest works was the Republic, a dream of a communist aristocracy; his last unfinished work was the Laws, a scheme of regulation for another such Utopian state.

The criticism of methods of thinking and methods of government was carried on after Plato’s death by Aristotle, who had been his pupil and who taught in the Lyceum. Aristotle came from the city of Stagira in Macedonia, and his father was court physician to the Macedonian king. For a time Aristotle was tutor to Alexander, the king’s son, who was destined to achieve very great things of which we shall soon be telling. Aristotle’s work upon methods of thinking carried the science of Logic to a level at which it remained for fifteen hundred years or more, until the mediæval schoolmen took up the ancient questions again. He made no Utopias. Before man could really control his destiny as Plato taught, Aristotle perceived that he needed far more knowledge and far more accurate knowledge than he possessed. And so Aristotle began that systematic collection of knowledge which nowadays we call Science. He sent out explorers to collect facts. He was the father of natural history. He was the founder of political science. His students at the Lyceum examined and compared the constitutions of 158 different states.

Here in the fourth century B.C. we find men who are practically “modern thinkers.” The child-like, dream-like methods of primitive thought had given way to a disciplined and critical attack upon the problems of life. The weird and monstrous symbolism and imagery of the gods and god monsters, and all the taboos and awes and restraints that have hitherto encumbered thinking are here completely set aside. Free, exact and systematic thinking has begun. The fresh and unencumbered mind of these newcomers out of the northern forests has thrust itself into the mysteries of the temple and let the daylight in.