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The Roots of the West

The Roots of the West

10 Mins
October 13, 2010

December 2001 -- Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization . By Bruce Thornton. (San Francisco, California: Encounter Books, 2000. 198 pp. $24.95.)

The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance .  By Anthony Gottlieb. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. 352 pp. $27.95.)

At the heart of a culture lies philosophy: the broad abstractions on the nature of man and existence that fundamentally shape how we live and what we see as worth achieving. Lately, our modern, Western civilization has come under attack by terrorists professing a medieval version of Islam. Internationally and across the spectrum of political opinion, Westerners have come together with a renewed sense of their common culture. If we are to preserve and exploit the realization that the West does stand united, we will need a clearer sense in our culture of what the West is, what it stands for that is worth defending and promoting.

The true nature of proper civilization, Ayn Rand notes, is to "set man free from men."


If you live in Europe or the Americas, then by geography you are a Westerner. But nevertheless, is there anything about the West that deserves your support or appreciation? Like any known culture, Western civilization is not all of a piece. Western history spans more than three millennia. It incorporates all manner of institutions underwritten by all manner of ideas. It is the culture of Britain's Royal Society, which created science as we know it; it is also the culture of the Spanish Inquisition, which committed torture and murder for the sake of mystic dogma. It is the culture that practiced slavery on a massive scale. It is the culture that abolished slavery. It is the culture of democracy, but also of dictatorship. Famously, the West is said to be the civilization of two cities: Athens and Jerusalem. Athens stands for the Ancient Greek philosophies that flourished there and the relative freedom its people knew. Jerusalem stands for the Judeo-Christian religious viewpoint that became fused into Western thought during the late Roman period, with its doctrines of faith, pity, renunciation, and individual salvation.

The history of the West is full of the human vices and human achievements, the good ideas and bad ones that other parts of the world have known as well. Monotheism is not distinctively Western, for example, nor is imperialism. So if the West is admirable and especially worth defending, it is worth defending for its distinctive merits. That is the West that pre-modern—and post-modern—ideologues seek to destroy, the West of toleration and secularism, of materialism and individualism, of liberal democracy and industrial capitalism.

This West is essentially the culture of reason, the culture of rational inquiry and of the application of knowledge to the problems of human life, and it is spreading throughout the world, revolutionizing the fortunes of humanity. Reason is a universal human capacity, but it is not universally exercised. Historically, the culture of reason is the fruit of the European and American Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and it remains strongest in the countries where that philosophy flourished. Geographically, that makes it Western. But its basic premises have also been Western, because they originated in the Greek lands around the Mediterranean Sea in the first millennium B.C., to the West of the great empires of the Middle East and Asia. The roots of that in the West worth treasuring, then, lie symbolically with Athens.


Two new resources are available for those curious to explore the peculiar genius of this West for which Athens is the symbol. Greek Ways, by Bruce Thornton, is a clear-eyed appreciation of the distinctive ideas and cultural practices of Ancient Greece, that sets them in historical context and urges their relevance for modern life. The Dream of Reason, by Anthony Gottlieb, is a lively, one-volume "history of philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance." Its theme is that modern civilization rests on the quixotic but ultimately fruitful vision of Western philosophy, the dream of a world understood exclusively through hard-nosed, rational inquiry.

Bruce Thornton is a professor of classics at California State University at Fresno. Greek Ways is in essence a cultural tour for the general reader, focused on the Greek world from around 500-330 B.C. He presents his subject in context and is highly sensitive to the differences between modern life, with all its wealth, freedom, and conveniences, and the world of the Greeks, which was far poorer, rife with slavery and other oppressive practices, and often the scene of suffering. Thornton is at pains, from his introduction onward, to refute the charges of fashionable postmodernists and multiculturalists, who attempt to equate the Greeks' achievements with those of every other culture and who denigrate the Greeks for not having lived up to the political and moral ideals of the modern Left. Thornton, who has authored a separate book-length attack on multi-culturalism, writes in Greek Ways that "multi-culturalism, for all its talk of celebrating cultural diversity, is at heart a species of anti-humanist and anti-liberal identity politics. . . . ," one that revels in performing a "therapeutic melodrama" of moral denunciation while at the same time ardently embracing the contradictory doctrine of moral relativism (4-5).

Despite this emphasis, Greek Ways is essentially expository, not polemical. Thornton focuses each chapter of his book on a key issue to which the Greeks brought their "'critical spirit,' the way they made everything they encountered an object of thought to be discussed and analyzed free from the constraints of religion and government" (188). It is this "critical spirit" that makes the Greeks historically unique, morally admirable, and still influential after 2,500 years.

The issues Thornton focuses on are universal human concerns. In each chapter he underscores the ways in which the Greeks engaged these concerns, ways that were unheard of among their contemporary cultures and which are still relevant today. For example, one chapter addresses the Greek view of sexual desire. Another points out that though the writers who are "the Greeks" to us were mostly male and all to some degree upper class, they treated the status of women with sensitivity and saw women as possessing both the best and worst in human nature. Another chapter concerns slavery and the birth of the idea of universal human freedom. Slavery was a universal fact of the ancient world, but Thornton shows that the Greeks called it into question, and argues that they were unique in doing so. Thornton makes many assertions of the singularity of Greek thought, and offers some examples from Egyptian, Persian, and Mesopotamian writings to buttress his claims. I glanced through some ancient Chinese philosophy texts to see if Thornton's view held true for them, and at least as regards slavery it did. But it would take a far more extensive survey of non-Western thought to make the comparative claim entirely convincing.

If the distinctive character of the West first flowered at any particular time and place, that place is the Greek city-state of Athens and that time is the fifth century B.C. Here for the first time democracy was put into practice, freedom of speech was the custom of the country, and the rule of law superceded the rule of particular men. The arts and trade flourished, and so did philosophical inquiry.

The social, political, and intellectual life in Athens and throughout ancient Greece was essentially public in character, "carried out verbally in the open, sunlit spaces of the city" (189). It was in the public spaces that the theater flourished, laying out for all to see the nature of human suffering, the glories of human heroism, and the vices and absurdities of the city's politics and culture. In his comedy Clouds (423 B.C.), for example, Aristophanes ridiculed the philosophers who congregated in Athens. But the theater offered sober reflections as well. "In the tragedies of Euripides produced during the brutal Peloponnesian War," Thornton notes, "we find the most searching criticism of violent conflict and a recognition of the senseless suffering, moral corruption, and dehumanizing passions that war unleashes" (101). And this was not for an elite, but for the public to consider, in time of war.

Thornton's account is full of gritty details of Greek life. He offers a catalog of common insults aimed at passive homosexual men, for example, while assessing the mixed view of homosexuality that survives in the Greek writings. In a chapter on war-fighting, he focuses on the hoplite, the Greek citizen-soldier who was likely to till his own field or work his own trade, take part in the political debates in his city, and stand foursquare with his fellows in the phalanx during war. The hoplite fought for his own benefit and his own land's defense, Thornton explains. This independence, combined with the heavy weaponry that he carried, were the keys to "an ethic and technology of fighting unparalleled in the ancient world, a way of waging war that gave the Greeks an influence in the Mediterranean well out of proportion to their numbers and natural resources" (85). Not least, this military prowess kept the Greeks free from Persian imperial domination and allowed political diversity to flourish for a time.

All this is in aid of putting the Greeks in context. Consider Greek democracy: Thornton acknowledges that "perhaps only one of ten of the residents of Athens—including slaves, women, and resident aliens—were citizens, free males over eighteen both of whose parents were Athenians" (125). This is the sort of fact that postmodernists sling at the Athenians to denigrate their democratic credentials; after all, modern democracies count all nationals as citizens, and of course women's suffrage is universal in democracies today. But as Thornton notes throughout his book, it is dropping the context to see the Greeks only in light of modern developments. After all, it is less than a hundred years since women won the vote even in England and the United States, and less than two hundred years since slavery began to be abolished by the Western powers. "In some sense all the governments (of Greek city-states) were oligarchies. . . ," Thornton notes,

since citizenship was restricted to native free males and thus excluded the majority of the people living in the polis. . . . Yet more significant in the context of the ancient Mediterranean was the idea of citizenship (politeia) itself—a civic identity not dependent on birth or wealth or clan, with equal rights and responsibilities and control over public authority and military force (122).

This idea of participatory citizenship was "virtually unheard of elsewhere in the ancient world" (128).

At the core of the Greek achievement was, as Thornton puts it, "the birth of rational man" (139). Of course there was knowledge and there were techniques for achieving results in areas such as architecture and astronomy before the Greeks. But, Thornton notes, "as far as we know, [the Greeks] invented an explicit theoretical and abstract view of nature" (141). The details of how they did so, and how those philosophical ideas lived on to shape the modern age, is the subject of Anthony Gottlieb's The Dream of Reason.


The Dream of Reason is "a history of Western philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance." This is an oft-surveyed territory. The tale begins around 600 B.C. with the "Presocratic" philosophers. It settles down in Athens with the Sophists, Socrates, and those who followed Socrates, most notably Plato and Aristotle. It discusses the great schools of Hellenistic philosophy: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Scepticism. It lingers through the heat-death of Western philosophy in late antiquity and the Dark Ages and enjoys its rebirth in the High Middle Ages and its ultimate impact on the creation of modern thought in the Renaissance. The story peters out with a sketch of a few early modern thinkers, leaving one to suppose that a fuller treatment waits for a sequel that will carry on through to the twentieth century.

Gottlieb is an editor of The Economist newsmagazine and promises in his introduction to approach the great texts of the West as a journalist would, judging the material first-hand and setting aside received wisdom. It was difficult to judge to what degree he achieved this goal. Although textual interpretation is a problem for reading ancient texts, Gottlieb almost never discusses it, and indeed it is not clear whether his readings were based entirely on translations or whether he was competent to read the originals. A professional scholar might have provided more of an interpretive apparatus, and I would have found this welcome, as I could not judge easily on what basis Gottlieb reached some of his conclusions. A more thorough set of notes on the text would have been a valuable resource for the reader. Notwithstanding these concerns, the result of Gottlieb's ten-year labor is a fresh interpretation of familiar topics, one that, perhaps because of its non-academic character, breathes life into the figures it discusses and gives weight to their ideas.

The writing in The Economist is notable for its pithily opinionated and analytical style, and this is very much the manner in which Gottlieb presents his subject. His opinion seems to rest on an ill-defined, distinctively Anglo-American set of certainties: that we do have knowledge, that critical thought is liberating, that the West has been advancing toward some kind of wiser, more liberal order. Thus when he writes: "there is no such thing as philosophy. . . . [P]hilosophy is more . . . a sharply inquisitive cast of mind than . . . a sharply defined discipline" (viii), Gottlieb is not even flirting with a nihilistic postmodern pose. Rather, his point is that "philosophical thinking can easily seem to be unusually useless, even for an intellectual enterprise. This is largely because any corner of it that comes generally to be regarded as useful soon ceases to be called philosophy" (viii-ix). Thus, philosophy is not idle speculation, but a rich mine for true and useful ideas.


Philosophy must have seemed particularly useless at the time of its birth. Indeed, it is hard for an Objectivist, to whom reason is fundamentally a means to survival, to enter into the cast of mind of the Greek philosophers, who did not see reason as a tool for acquiring power over nature. Rather, they sought simply to understand. "Philosophy" means "love of wisdom" in Greek, and it was peculiar to the Greeks to realize that true wisdom would be a rational wisdom, a body of truths justified by appeals to what seemed to be certain truths. Thus Gottlieb notes that despite the seemingly arbitrary character of Thales' metaphysical speculations, the first philosopher was at pains to offer a simple account of nature and to give reasons in its favor. This was the hallmark of the thinkers that Gottlieb, following Aristotle, calls "physici." In contrast to the ancient physici stood the theologi, those who looked to tradition and religion for an account of the world. The West, in the best sense, is the civilization of the heirs of the physici.

One of the striking characteristics of the Greek philosophers is how well they quartered the theoretical landscape. They hinted or even sketched out most of the basic theories now accepted as modern sciences. For instance, the fifth-century philosopher Empedocles mooted evolution through natural selection as the means by which the complex structures and organisms of the world had come to be. Democritus (c.460-c.370 B.C.) concurred, and posited that, underlying everyday experience, were tiny unchanging particles operating in a void—that is, atoms. The Greeks also sketched out theories we now find ridiculous as well: Parmenides (another who flourished in the fifth century B.C.) held that, despite appearances, nothing ever changes in the least degree; his student, Zeno, held that empirical reasoning always leads to paradox, with the implication that the modern scientific method is flatly impossible. There were many more doctrines, covering all shades of opinion, and there were always mystics, theologi, too.

There has been a tradition that reduces the history of Western philosophy to essentially Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Gottlieb gives each of these thinkers ample treatment, but neither does he slight the Sophists to whom Plato gave such bad press in his dialogues, nor does he neglect the schools of philosophy that followed the three great Athenian teachers. Ayn Rand often credited Aristotle with the near single-handed creation of the worthwhile aspects of Western thought; by contrast, early modern philosophers such as Bacon and Descartes weighed in against "the master of those that know" as the author whose theories were dogmatized by the medieval church into the official doctrine on physics, cosmology, and biology. While setting Aristotle in context, Gottlieb clearly admires him. He lauds Aristotle as the first true scientist and as the polymath who invented formal logic while mastering a dozen other fields, and he defends Aristotle against the detractors who failed to see the master's endorsement of experience over theory, of data over dogma. Gottlieb also makes sense of the medieval interpretation of Aristotle by explaining how the types of texts handed down into the middle ages gave a deductive and dogmatic cast to this most empirical of thinkers.

Despite his admiration, Gottlieb makes clear the extent to which Aristotle was but part of a larger movement. In the Hellenistic period, the Greek sciences continued to develop, including the first empirical and rational medical teachings and substantial advances in physics. Philosophy, too, refined the classical teachings into competing schools aimed at teaching practical skills for achieving happiness. The Epicureans taught a rational and long-range pursuit of happiness and carried on Democritus' metaphysical doctrine of atomism. The Stoics taught the importance of virtue and hallowed the individual conscience. And the Sceptics, at least the moderate ones, counseled a healthy mistrust of dogma and speculation, insisting on factual, empirical reasoning and each individual's need to establish the truth through experience. The ingredients of the modern world-view seem to all have been there, but something was missing, and the dream of the physici failed.


It is the paradox of Western philosophy that modernity simply recycled Greek philosophy, while the Greeks hardly took the first steps to developing their ideas into the mighty sciences we know today. Gottlieb points to the missing ingredient: the lack, in the ancient world, of a drive to apply reason to material problems. Many Greek philosophers, from the number-worshiping, bean-eating mystic Pythagoras to Plato, who saw the material world as a dark cave, seem to have yearned for a non-material truth, salvation, or form of being. Aristotle himself was a great empirical researcher, especially in biology, but he too endorsed the ideal of contemplative life and pursued his research for its own sake, without any clear practical aim in mind. Gottlieb speculates that the first philosophers were "practical men" and "industrious traders" (20). But that practicality fell away over time. In the Roman period, philosophy turned more mystical, until it had for all purposes abandoned the aims and most of the methods of the physici. By the time Christianity conquered the Romans, it was to a large degree mounted on scaffolding of the neo-mystical ideas that already dominated philosophy.

Perhaps the political environment contributed to the failure of ancient philosophy, as the prevalence of slave labor may also have done. The Greek polis, or city-state, effectively lost its independence in the fourth century B.C. with the rise of the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great. Warfare among the Hellenistic successor kingdoms followed, and Greece was eventually subdued and looted by the Romans. Tyranny had always been a threat and problem in Greek politics, and now it held the entire Mediterranean under its sway. Roman thought was eclectic and less rigorous than that of the Greeks of the golden age, and this helped foster the turn to mysticism. When Rome fell to barbarian invaders in the fifth century A.D., the philosophy of reason ceased to exist for a time. When learning slowly clawed its way back in the Middle Ages and the Greek thinkers were rediscovered, it took centuries for civilization to advance enough for the debates of the physici to have relevance.

In the late Middle Ages, by a twisty path that leads through occultism and alchemy, the idea was born that knowledge could be power. When Bacon wrote, at the opening of the seventeenth century, "nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed," he was sounding the trumpet of an idea that had taken lively hold in the culture of Europe. A combination of labor-saving technological advances and the invention of the printing press made it possible for the ancient philosophic ideas to reach a wide number of people, including practical men seeking the keys to power over nature. As Gottlieb tells the story, the rediscovery of the writings of the Epicurean atomists and the ancient Sceptics in the sixteenth century ignited the fire that would not burn in antiquity. "Some . . . revolutionary ideas that were credited to Galileo . . . were in fact largely restatements of the words of Democritus" (95). Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and many others refined and reconfirmed the discoveries of the ancients, and, in doing so, they created modern science. The dream of reason was at last to be fulfilled.

Like Thornton, Gottlieb takes care to consistently relate his material to modern issues in a manner that is sensitive to the context of the past. He always assesses the ancient thought in light of modern knowledge, and often pauses in his account of a given thinker to flesh out the history of a line of inquiry anticipated or initiated by that thinker, such as the development of formal logic or the theory of evolution,. Gottlieb does not credit the Greeks with knowing more than they did, as indicated by asides like: "Democritus made it all up and luckily turned out to be right" (95). But he makes it clear to what a profound extent the modern, Enlightenment world-view is indebted to the Greek physici. And, as both Thornton and Gottlieb point out, even our culture's dissidents against reason, science, self-fulfillment, and the other hallmarks of modern life can trace their lineage back to the thinkers of the West.

These books teach us that, if we seek an understanding of what is truly at the heart of greatness of our culture, then we must turn ultimately to the tradition of Athens. If our culture were to abandon its roots and become ignorant of the distinctive value of the secular and rational culture created by the ancient Greeks (as some would have us do), then, fundamentally, the West would become a hollow shell, just another place, with no essential superiority to any other culture. If our now heightened consciousness of anti-Western sentiment teaches us only one lesson, it is that we must seek to be true to that which is truly remarkable about the West. To that end, these lucid and engaging histories deserve many readers and much thoughtful reflection.

This article was originally published in the December 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.  

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