Greek Thought and Greek Thinkers: Literature, Religion, Philosophy and Science


  • Syncretic – a mixture, containing elements borrowed from a variety of sources. For example, Apollo and Dionysus were originally Persian gods, borrowed by the Greeks.
  • Mystery Cults: Orpheus and Persephone, Eleusinian mysteries, Osiris, Dionysus
  • Oracles at Delphi: vague prophecies were probably the result of natural gasses produced by the caves under the temple

Literature of Religion:

  • tragoedia (“Goat Dances”) reenactments of Dionysian story were the first staged dramas
  • Homer: Iliad (Achilles at the Siege of Troy) and the Odyssey (Jason and the Argo) brought together many stories of gods and gave them some unity.
  • Hesiod: Theogeny told the story of the gods, making them all related and adding the story of creation (borrowed from Hittite literature)

Literature and Drama

  • Epic poetry: storytelling in verse form, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
  • Lyric poetry: sung rather than chanted, usually more personal and emotional
  • Hesiod: Works and Days a collection of lyric poetry on everyday life, particularly farming.
  • Sappho: the great female poet, passionate and powerful writer who taught women as well as men.
  • Thespis: a slave, the first individual actor in a Greek Drama.
  • Tragedy: drama focused on social and religious values and conflict. Great writers include Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles (Oedipus trilogy).
  • Comedy: Old (political); Middle (domestic); New (social satire and romantic comedy)

Pre-Socratic thinkers: sophoi (“the wise”)

  • All is One: Xenophanes (c. 540 bce) and Parmenides, Zeno (Zeno’s Paradox)
  • Materialists: Milesian school (Thales, Anaximander, etc.) brought together by Empedocles who created the the concept of four basic elements (earth, air, fire, water) interacting by Love and Strife. Empedocles also believed in ressurection. Anaximander argued for evolution of higher animals from lower. Heraclitus argued for a universe of constant change.
  • Atomic Theory: Anaxagoras expelled from Athens for arguing that the Sun was a big burning rock. Democritus argued the world was made up of indivisible tiny particles called atoms.
  • Pythagoras: mathematician and founder of new religion
  • Social Commentary: Aesop (Fables). Use of history as analytical tool pioneered by Herodotus (Persian War) and Thucydides (Peloponnesian War).
  • Sophists and Orators: importance of public speaking, rhetorical skill, use and abuse of logic.


Hippocrates: pioneered observational and rational medicine. Developed the theory of humors in the body — Blood, Phlegm, Black and Yellow Bile — which needed to be in balance, and the theory of hysteria, womens disease associated with uterine disorder. Hippocratic Oath. Great strides in physiology (arteries/veins, sensory/motor nerves, brain as mind-center) that are not added to significantly until 16c. Hippocrates followers split between Dogmatists (dissection and surgery) and Empirics (observation and medicinal cures. Heraclides discovered use of opium for pain).

Philosophers [“lovers of wisdom”]

Socrates: investigation into character and quality. “Life unexamined is not worth living.” Teachings recorded by Plato in the form of dialogues (except for Apology which is a monologue) in which Socrates feigns ignorance to force others to define and defend their values and beliefs, eventually demonstrating their vain and hollow nature. Sentenced to death by suicide for disruptive teachings.

Plato: Socrates’ student and author of his Dialogues. Reality based on pure Forms and Ideas. Philosopher-Kings leading an increasingly educated society. Wrote his own teachings as dialogues, often including Socrates as a character. Created the Academy, where Aristotle studied.

Aristotle: Student of Plato and tutor of Alexander the Great. Logic and evidence, categories and rigorous logic: Aristotle studied everything from natural science to comparative government. Metaphysics emphasized monotheism and basic unity of human and divine souls. Ethics emphasize moderation. Created the Lyceum, which lasted for 1000 years.


  • Cynics, following Socrates, withdraw from politics. Wisdom and virtue measured in deeds, not in learning. Diogenes, seeking simplicity abandoned all vanity (clothing, housing, shame over bodily functions), and searched for the perfectly honest man.
  • Neo-Platonism evolves from idealism through skepticism to a mysticism focusing on Light and Good. Strongly identified with Gods of Light, but also with Christianity. Immensely influential through medieval Europe until displaced by Aristotelean logic.
  • Skeptics, led by Sextus Empiricus, abandon disputation because of the impossibility of certainty.
  • Epicureans believe in a rational secular universe, and the rational pursuit of pleasure, particularly intellectual satisfaction, tranquility through withdrawal from struggle and strife.
  • Stoics argue for equality based on shared universal divinity, a world-state, inner strength allowing one to act virtuously, in accordance with the will of the divine.

Math and Science

  • Aristarchus demonstrated heliocentric solar system, but nobody listens. Instead…
  • Claudius Ptolemy’s Almagest, geocentric astronomy, remains standard until Copernicus.
  • Euclid codifies plane geometry: Elements of Geometry remained standard textbook until 1700s.
  • Eratosthenes calculated circumference of Earth within 200 miles.
  • Archimedes calculated Pi, invented calculus and the water screw, invented hydrostatics (Eureka!) and aided in the defense of Syracuse by means of massive mechanical devices.

© 2003 — Jonathan Dresner