A brief conversation on the origins of Western thought

  1. Allen Wilson

    The Greek search for universal order and principles doubtlessly also led them to make the innovation which they are known to have made with the alphabet, the vowel letter. It made logical sense to make such an innovation, and I wonder if their development of it was connected with their development of grammar and logic.

    Hesiod’s moral understanding of the universe seems to indicate a mindset which in future times would be capable of adopting the Christian moral understanding, and also refine that understanding using the tools which that mindset had already produced: logic, rhetoric, and philosophy.

  2. Ken Rosenberger

    Good post, Mr Wilson. What is finally penetrating my thick skull is the early moral and intellectual formation of the Greeks. The fact that they were already figuring out how to order their world, get on toward even more aesthetic pursuits (I know I’m saying this badly). With Hesiod, we’re still 3 or 400 years from Aristotle, 7 centuries before the birth of Christ. I loved Work and Days. He’s already bemoaning encroaching modernity and longing for the simpler life. God(s) is good and should be heeded. Life was made hard to make us better people. What a refreshing change from the great number of people one meets, ever since I was born, who became atheists because a “just” God wouldn’t permit pain and suffering.

    And the man was a poet in the bargain. Heck, they were all poets. A good few anyway.

  3. Thomas Fleming

    First, if one compares the intellectual life of the Middle East with that of the Greeks, a contrast quickly emerges, and the same thing happens if we compare Greeks with their cousins in India who wrote Sanskrit. While the Akkadians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Jews, et al., were very observant in both sense of the word–that is they noted the details and peculiarities of whatever they examined, whether the stars or the weather or human customs and they carefully maintained religious obligations–they were not so quick to pick out broad patterns or seek explanations. The Babylonians, by patient observation, were able to predict years in which a solar eclipse would take place and they could by repeated trial and error come close to an irrational number, they had no general theory of the solar system or set of formulas to explain and predict phenomena, nor did they develop true geometry, algebra, etc. The same is true of their art. The Greeks seem always to be seeking the kanon, that is, the rule, which is a set of proportions that both approximates the natural but yet is more perfect.

    Second, one can observe the development of kanons of perfection in the progress of Greek sculpture, tragedy, and understanding of human nature. What I wonder is to what extent this affected the development of the notion of literary canons, and, to what extent the canons of Greek tragedy, comedy, oratory affected the notion of the canon of OT Scriptures, which seem certainly to be developed by the composition of Greek translation of the OT.

    Third, one important object in studying the classics, particularly in studying the development of Greek thought and art from Homer to Aristotle is the opportunity it gives us to relive the history of our thought, much as we relive the infancy of human society when we go trooping through the woods in the boy scouts–or I should say we used to. Today, too many people read Aristotle either as the author of a now discarded system or as the creator of a system that approaches the perfection of the early 20th century’s reinterpretation of Saint Thomas. But if we read Aristotle within the tradition of the Ionian and Eleatic philosophers plus Plato, we can glimpse a real human being grappling with questions posed by his predecessors and, when we consider his ethical works, grappling with the human world in which he lived. This is an inestimable advantage, because we escape from the ideological treatment the philosophy suffers from in our world.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina