Episode 07: The Rise of Hellenism

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Bust of Pericles by Chiaramonti
Bust of Pericles by Chiaramonti

The events in the Republic were set around 420 BC, at a time when Athens’ grasp on power was already beginning to slip. Pericles had died almost a decade before during the great plague that had killed nearly a third of its population. It was in the midst of a war with Sparta and other city-states on the mainland, and was also facing increased rebellions from its colonies on the Aegean. In a few years, its desire for greater empire would lead Athens to invade Sicily, encouraged by Socrates’ student Alcibiades, which would end in disaster. Athens would fight on, but in 404 it was defeated by Sparta, and the democracy replaced by a Spartan-imposed group of thirty tyrants. In less than a century, Athens had risen from nowhere to become the first great city in the Western world. But in doing so it fell victim to the urge for power that had compelled its own invaders, and would compel others.
With its dreams of expansion crushed, Athens turned back on itself, and looked for scapegoats on whom it could blame its humiliation. One likely candidate was Socrates. To us, Socrates is a revered figure, an archetype of the questioning Western mind. But to many who lived in Athens at this time, he was an annoyance at best, a danger at worst. He himself described his role as that of a gadfly, trying to sting his fellow citizens out of their complacency and preoccupation with wealth and pleasure and power. In the course of doing so, he made many enemies.

In the year 399, when he was 70 years old, Socrates was put on trial, charged with impiety, or introducing new gods, and of corrupting the youth. As mentioned before, insofar as Socrates taught the existence of one supreme being–the Good–he went against the multiple “personal” gods of the Greeks, and was guilty as charged.  There is no record of what his accusers said against him, but Socrates’ defense is recorded by Plato in “The Apology.” But “apology” here has the meaning of “explanation” or “defense.” It has nothing to do with asking forgiveness; in fact, Socrates seems to go out of his way to annoy his judges. It is not surprising then, that they would return a verdict of guilty, and like the prisoners still chained in the cave, sentence him to death.

While verdicts could not be appealed and sentences were usually carried out quickly, Socrates’ trial coincided with a ritual to Apollo that involved sending a ship to the island of Delos. While the ship was away, no executions were allowed, so Socrates’ students had many opportunities to meet with him, meetings which are appropriately concerned largely with the issues of death and mortality. And just as Socrates has argued that above the physical world of change and decay there is something that is permanent and changeless, he now argues that there is something similarly distinct from the human body: an immortal soul. The philosopher, who has cultivated knowledge of his soul, will not then fear death.

Socrates: But the soul, the invisible part which has gone to a place which resembles itself in being fine and pure and invisible—quite literally to the Unseen World—to the good and wise God—to which place, if God wills, my soul too must go very shortly; does our soul, I say, which is of such a form and nature, really get blown away and perish in the very moment of being separated from the body, as most men say? Far from it, dear Cebes and Simmias. The facts are these: let us suppose that it is pure when separated, dragging nothing of the body with it, as having (willfully anyhow) had no dealings with the body during its lifetime, but having shunned it and kept itself to itself, making that its constant aim and practice—which simply means, in fact, pursuing philosophy in the correct manner, and in very truth practicing death; or wouldn’t you call this a “practice of death?”
Then in this state it goes away to the place which is like itself, invisible, to that which is divine and and deathless and wise, and when it arrives there it is its lot to be happy, freed from uncertainty and folly and fears and wild desires and all the other ills from which man suffers, and (as is said of those who have been initiated into the Mysteries) in very truth spending the rest of time in company with the gods?¹

This of course sounds a lot like what we now think of as heaven. But at the time, this was something quite new. In the Greek stories of the gods, they descended into the world of men, but men did not ascend to the level of gods. Socrates was arguably the first to make this claim: that a human being has a soul that can, through its love of wisdom, ascend to the level of gods and realize eternal happiness.

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

At the end of the dialogue, at sunset, when Apollo’s ship has returned from Delos, the bowl of hemlock is brought for Socrates to drink. Phaedo describes it this way: “…he raised the cup to his lips, and showing not the least distaste, quite unperturbed, he drained the draught. Most of us had till then been more or less able to restrain our tears, but when we saw him drinking and then that he had drunk it, would do so no longer. For my part, despite my efforts I found that the the tears flooded down my cheeks; I wrapped my face in my cloak and wept for my misfortune—not for his, but for my own, to think what a friend I had lost.”

With the death of Socrates, the light of the Good was passed on to Plato, who was in many ways very different from his teacher. The most obvious was that he did write down Socrates’ teachings, although even he retains some of his master’s distrust for words. Toward the end of his life, in a work known as “The Seventh Letter,” he speaks of the “unwritten teaching,” agrapha dogmata, which can be transmitted only orally, from teacher to student. Writing about this deepest part of his teaching he says, “ There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject. For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.”

Plato's Academy Archaeological Site in Akadimia Platonos subdivision of Athens, Greece.
Plato’s Academy Archaeological Site in Akadimia Platonos subdivision of Athens, Greece.

Perhaps for this reason, in 387, he also founded a school, on a plot of land a mile north of Athens called “Hekedemia.” There’s not much to look at now. At the time, though, it consisted of a grove of olive trees sacred to Athena, whence we get our phrase “the groves of academe.” In a way it was the world’s first university, although there were not courses of study as we know them now. The goal was to transmit knowledge of the Good through that flame that leapt from one soul to another.

By the time Plato died at his writing desk in about 348 BCE at the age of 80, what is termed the “Golden Age” of Athens was long gone. With the help of some other subject-states, Athens had thrown off the yoke of the Spartans after the Peloponnesian War, and had regained its independence. It even established another mutual defense organization along the lines of the original Delian League. But it produced no leader with the charisma of Pericles, no monument as majestic as the Parthenon, and no clear heir to Socrates’ Ideal. And 10 years after Plato’s death, Athens would be conquered by Phillip of Macedon, and would not regain its independence for another two thousand years.

Plato (left) and Aristotle, from "The School of Athens" by Raphael (1511)

Plato (left) and Aristotle, from "The School of Athens" by Raphael (1511)

But in another sense, a new kind of glory was just beginning. With the founding of the Academy, Plato had assured that the teaching of the Ideal would continue, and in the face-to-face method that Socrates would have preferred. The star pupil of the Academy was Aristotle, about 40 years younger than Plato, who attended the academy from the age of about 18 until Plato’s death. He was a man of catholic interests, although his focus was more on the things and workings of the world rather than the Good. But by becoming the personal tutor of Phillip’s son Alexander, to be known as the Great, he insured that the Greek language and Greek learning would be carried East through what had been the Persian Empire and also into Egypt. Although Alexander never got to live there, he founded his namesake city, Alexandria, in Egypt, which eventually rivaled Athens as a center for learning. So, exceeding Pericles’ description of Athens as “a school for Hellas,” it had become a school to the world. What is usually called the Hellenistic world had begun.

In our next episode, we will look more closely at this world, and be introduced to a true inheritor of the Ideal: Plotinus.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.  Special thanks to Richard G. Geldard.

¹The Classics Archive Unfortunately, this selection is truncated, but most of it is there.