Despite their current economic predicament, the Greeks
have had unarguably a greater influence on western civilisation than any other
nation. Last week, we witnessed a solar
eclipse and Dr Calverley told us a bit more about why we ought to look up in
the evening, rather than down at our mobiles.
Solar eclipses do not happen very often.
However, the first predicted solar eclipse happened on May 28th,
584BC, in the middle of a battle between two neighbouring empires from the
Persian side of the Aegean sea – the Medes (from current day Iran) and Lydia
(modern day western Turkey). The Ancient
Greek Historian, Herodotus, tells us that amazingly the eclipse had been
predicted for that year by a philosopher called Thales, though he could not
tell the precise time when it would happen.
The armies, we are told by Herodotus, who had already been fighting for
five years, were so fearful when day apparently turned to night that they came
to an immediate truce, agreed upon new boundaries and intermarried the
respective royal families.
In common with other ancient philosophers, Thales was not
really a philosopher in our sense of the word.
He was attributed with being the first person to try to explain natural
phenomena without recourse to mythology.
Until the time of Thales, volcanoes, the path of the sun from east to
west, different species of animal, were all explained by various mythological
stories. Philosophy literally means
“lover of wisdom” and Thales was in fact more of a scientist than a
philosopher, indeed dubbed by many the “Father of Science”.
Herodotus himself was a remarkable historian. He wrote a history of the great wars between
Persian and Greece of the early 5th century BC; they were billed as
the first major contests between East and West, where the West (in the guise of
Athens and one or two other small city-states) defeated an army of Persians
supposedly numbering 1.7 million men. But
instead of writing simply an account of the war, Herodotus set off on a major
tour of the East, working his way down to Egypt and following the Nile, telling
stories about all he saw, in an attempt to try to get to the heart of the
differences between the minds and lifestyles of the two combatants. In many ways it was a social history and an
enquiry into why the two nations had fought against each other in the first
place. The Greek word “historia”
literally means enquiry, and history as we know it, therefore, was born from
The Greeks were amazing in other ways too. They are widely accredited with the invention
of modern theatre. Troops of choruses
used to travel the Greek countryside to sing songs of tales gone by; but it was
a Greek man called Thespis, who was the first person to get up and tell a story
in plain words to an audience in front of such a chorus; and it was
subsequently Greek playwrights who introduced additional characters, to form
what we would now know as a play.
The Greeks also invented democracy – the Greek word
itself means rule of the people and theirs was a radical democracy, meaning that
all citizens had an equal right to speak in their equivalent of parliament and all
citizens had to vote on all measures that went before the people. One of the most remarkable statistics of this
era was that there were no two consecutive years in the 5th century
BC when Athens did not go to war; and yet everyone had to vote for war and
there was no professional army – so when they did vote to go to war, they
literally had to go themselves to fight.
But they believed wholeheartedly in democracy. The English word “idiot” comes from the Greek
word “idiotes” which means private person.
An idiot in Ancient Greek therefore was someone who played no part in
public life and this usually was characterised by self-centredness or a lack of
Partly because of their system of radical democracy, the
Greeks also fathered oratory as we know it.
Indeed their whole tertiary education system was devoted to the study of
the oratorical arts. Demosthenes, the
great speaker of the day, used to practice his oratory by going down to the
beach, filling his mouth with pebbles and practising his speeches to the
sea. He felt that if he could be heard
and understood under those circumstances above the roar of the waves, then the
law courts would be straightforward.
If you add in the advances of law, architecture, sport
and leisure at that time; and you then understand that all of this happened in a
period of only a hundred years, the 5th century BC, and largely out of only one
city, Athens, of only 50,000 citizens, then you can easily reach the conclusion
that the Ancient Greeks were the most inventive and successful people of all
time. Self-evidently, the core value of
this assembly is curiosity; curiosity is the catalyst for advancing
civilisation, and without it, we would not be where we are today.