All posts by George Kokkos

Born in Athens, George studied Ancient History and Archaeology in Britain and in Greece. A history buff that specialises in the development of the Athenian Democracy.

Ten Ancient Greek Philosophers you should definitely know

  1.  THALES (624-546 BC) Born in Miletus. One of the ‘Seven Sages’. He is considered to be no less than the father of Philosophy. He believed that all natural phenomena should be explained using scientific methods, and even managed -using astronomical observations- to predict a solar eclipse!
  2. PYTHAGORAS (570-496 BC) Born in Samos island. He believed that the only way to discover the secrets of the universe is to use mathematics. Famous for one of the most fundamental theorems of geometry, as we all know. All musicians in the world should thank him too: he laid down the basic principles of music theory including scales, modes and harmonies.
  3. DEMOCRITUS (460-370 BC) Nicknamed as the ‘laughing philosopher’, he is super-famous for introducing his incredible ATOMIC THEORY. ‘Different arrangements of atoms give rise to the various macroscopic substances in the world’. Not bad for someone that lived 24 centuries ago…
  4. SOCRATES (469-399 BC) Socrates is so important that all the philosophers that lived before him are just called ‘pre-Socratic’. On a day that will live in infamy, the Athenian Democracy put him to death. Famous for his Socratic Method of Teaching, he believed that “The un-examined life is not worth living.”
  5. PLATO (427-347 BC) Plato was one of Socrates’ students and after the execution of his teacher, he created the most famous institution of higher learning in History: the Academy. Alfred Whitehead wrote: “The safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
  6. DIOGENES (404-323 BC) One of my favorites. Foul-mouthed, always ready to criticize hypocrites and show-offs he founded the famous Cynic school. Once he passed outside the house of an Athenian who was of  a notoriously bad character and had a sign installed over his porch: ‘NO EVIL MAY ENTER HERE’. Diogenes knocked on the door and asked that guy: “How did YOU get in?”
  7. ARISTOTLE (384-322 BC) The great G.Hegel once declared: “Since then no man like Aristotle has ever been born. Nor will ever be born. Aristotle was referred to as just ‘THE Philosopher’, the realization that a single mind created so much scientific work and ideas so influential, is still difficult to grasp. From the creation of logic to the method that we use to write essays in school it’s him that you should thank (or blame…)
  8. EPICURUS (341-270 BC) Born on Samos island his philosophical school and ideas became immensely popular in the Roman times. He believed that the aim of philosophy is not all these things that Plato and Aristotle told us. The important question that we should ask is how to achieve happiness. His answer was: by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. And for the Epicureans, the highest pleasure was obtained by knowledge, friendship, and living a virtuous and temperate life.
  9. EPICTETUS (50-120 AD) The personification of Stoicism. Born as a slave, he was to become a saint-like figure for the Greeks and the Romans. Poor, homeless he struggled with super-human energy and dedication to ease the pain of the sufferings of humanity through his teachings, reminding us that “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
  10.  HYPATIA (370-415 AD)  1000 years of Greek Philosophy end with a heroic woman from Alexandria. Head of the University and Library of Alexandria, Hypatia was a lone beacon of light to the fast approaching Dark Ages. Her areas of specialization, like conic sections and Diophantine equations, remain important for learning math, in applied mathematics, and as tools in physics and other disciplines in science.

all 10

 

Stoa of Attalos

The Stoa of Attalos is the only example of a fully restored ancient shopping arcade. It was built by and named after Attalos II, King of Pergamon, as a gift to the city that gave him his higher education.

It’s an impressive two-storey building, 116 m x 19.4 m (381 ft x 63 ft 8 in), with a Doric colonnade on the ground floor, and an Ionic colonnade on the upper floor. There were 21 shops at the back of both floors. Today it houses the museum of the Ancient Agora, and part of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Stoas were really important for the ancient Greeks and the Romans as it was there that they used to meet, walk, shop and do business. It was completely destroyed in 267 AD by a savage tribe, the Herulians but in the 1950s, thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation, the Stoa of Attalos, using the original materials found on site, was fully reconstructed on the original foundations!

This reconstructed ancient building is also of great significance for modern European history as on 16 April 2003 the ceremony of the signing of the 2003 Treaty of Accession of ten new countries to the European Union was conducted there.

STOA OF ATTALOSs2

Influencing the vote

Our democracies today are representative. We elect politicians, politicians govern us. In Ancient Athens, you were ruling yourself.

Participation was seen as a fundamental element of Democracy. Athenians that behaved as ‘private citizens’ were seen through a negative eye and actually the Greek word for private citizen is “idiotes”, which is where the word ‘idiot’ comes from!

Assembly

 

Plato wrote that ‘one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.’

It was a direct, in-your-face democracy.

So, what affected the vote of a citizen, really mattered…

vote influence

The Nine Muses

Have you ever wondered where does the word ‘museum’ come from? No? Ok… I’ll tell you anyway: It’s connected with the Muses! The Nine Muses were deities who ruled over the arts and sciences and gave humans the necessary inspiration for creation.

According to Hesiod, Zeus slept with the young and beautiful Mnemosyne. Mnemosyne (the Greek word for ‘memory’) held a special importance in ancient times, when there were still no written records and manuscripts, so poets had to carry their work in their memory.

The offspring of the love affair between Zeus and Mnemosyne? The Nine Muses. God Apollo took them under his protection and when the Muses grew up they showed their tendency to the Arts. An epithet of Apollo was ‘Mousagetes’, meaning ‘leading the Muses’ and those young deities soon decided to dedicate their lives to the Arts:

1. Calliope : Epic poetry
2. Clio : History
3. Euterpe : Lyric poetry and flutes
4. Erato : Love poems
5. Melpomene : Tragedy
6. Polyhymnia : Sacred hymns
7. Terpsichore : Dance
8. Thalia : Comedy and pastoral poetry
9. Urania : Astronomy

Ancient writers, as early as Homer, appeal to the Muses at the beginning of their work. Homer appeals to the Muses both in the Iliad and Odyssey and until today, the Muses are symbols of inspiration and artistic creation. In the Ancient Graeco-Roman world, authors, statesmen, artists, philosophers they all believed they were successful because one or more of the nine Muses were guiding them.

Every learning institute with respect for itself had an altar to honor the Muses. The Ptolemies in Egypt dedicated the famous Library of Alexandria to the Muses. The word “museum” literally means a shrine dedicated to the Muses and you must have guessed by now the origins of the word “music”, too.
In modern times we tend to call someone who inspires an artist “a muse”!

9 Muses
The famous ‘Dance of Apollo and the Muses’ by the Italian architect and painter, Baldassare Tommaso Peruzzi.

What makes us moral? (The Euthyphro Dilemma)

In a lesser known book of Plato, we find Socrates in the Athenian Agora coming across Euthypro – a soothsayer he knew well – and the two men engage in a short conversation just outside the Royal Stoa. After sharing their news, the two men engage in an argument about morality.

Their conversation ended abruptly after Euthyphro felt a bit cornered and found an excuse to leave Socrates with the promise to finish their discussion some other time. Well… Can you blame him? It’s not just that Socrates wouldn’t let go easily… It’s also that the challenge Euthyphro was facing was a difficult one and remains so up until today.

Socrates asks Euthyphro whether something is moral because God commands it, or does God command it because it is moral? This simple question of Socrates has exercised tremendous influence in the history and study of morality.

The Royal Stoa was where the King Archon had his office. He was the official responsible (among others) for religious matters

The Euthyphro dilemma is technically an argument against the divine command theory, aimed at disproving God’s existence by raising an issue of morality. This isn’t of course explicitly declared by Socrates but I’m sure people like Epicurus would smile and nod when reading this part of the book. On the other hand, some religious people reject it as a ‘false dichotomy’ (google that) but this is actually up until today a persisting problem which also applies to meta-ethics.

Relax… We’re not going to embark on this now. I’m going to focus on an interesting detail that is somewhat irrelevant: the place that this conversation took place. Would you believe that we can pinpoint today the spot that Socrates was hanging out when he met Euthyphro?

Remains of the Royal Stoa today, outlined with red

 

Let’s see how the dialogue starts…


Euthyphro: Why have you left the Lyceum, Socrates? and what are you doing in the Royal Stoa? Surely you cannot be concerned in a suit before the King Archon, like myself?

Socrates: Not in a suit, Euthyphro; impeachment is the word which the Athenians use.

Euthyphro: What! I suppose that someone has been prosecuting you, for I cannot believe that you are the prosecutor of another.

Socrates: Certainly not.

Euthyphro: Then someone else has been prosecuting you?

Socrates: Yes.

Euthyphro: And who is he?

Socrates: A young man who is little known, Euthyphro; and I hardly know him: his name is Meletus, and he is of the deme of Pitthis. Perhaps you may remember his appearance; he has a beak, and long straight hair, and a beard which is ill grown.

Euthyphro: No, I do not remember him, Socrates. But what is the charge which he brings against you?

……………..

The conversation goes on. So, as we read, this dialogue takes place just outside the ‘Royal Stoa’ (Basileios Stoa). Guess what. -This stoa was excavated by American archaeologists and the traces of the building are there today! The first steps of the stoa have been unearthed.

Few passers-by today notice that quiet corner next to the busy Adrianou street but -unknowingly- countless people have had their drinks next to those same steps that Socrates was sitting, waiting for his turn outside the Royal Stoa.

The Flight of Icarus

Stories told in Greek Mythology are just that: stories. They’re not parables. You can read it or hear it and then you draw your own conclusions. Maybe even change your mind later.  You may conclude that the moral of a myth applies well to your own concerns but this may not be the case for someone else. The reader / listener is never presented with a ‘moral lesson’ at the end. The story ends. Period. You understand and see the myth through your own eyes.

The story of Daedalus and Icarus is still super-famous because they were the first humans that managed to fly! Not by using magic or through the grace of God. They did it through their human ingenuity.

Pre-WW2 stamp issued to fund the Greek Air Force

Icarus is considered to be even more famous than his father today, even though it was Icarus that perished. This seems a bit odd… Well, people since the ancient times, interpreted Icarus’ death as caused entirely by his own hubris.

For most people the moral of this story can be summarized in just 3 words:

Obey the rules.

That’s it. Simple. If you don’t, this will lead to your demise.

The vast majority of people from Plutarch to the latest YouTube creator believe that the story of Icarus teaches us one or all of the following:

  • Listen to your parents or you will fail
  • Respect the Gods or you will be punished
  • Restrain yourself or you will perish
  • Hear the warnings or you will die

At first glance, this meaning seems to make sense.

Some others believe that’s just the surface of the myth.

Delving deeper, I see Icarus as a symbol for people of action… Adventurers dare,  they impulsively rush into the unknown. They go further and higher where everybody else thinks is foolish to do so. That is the spirit of great explorers.

Imagine if James Cook said… “Nah… I’d rather not do this. Sailing into the unknown is not such a good idea.” It wasn’t. But he sailed anyway! Roald Amundsen could have said “On second thoughts the Antarctic is way too cold. Humans can’t live there anyway, so screw this… I’m stayin’ home” Well guess what: he didn’t.

It’s this characteristic that only a tiny percentage of the population possesses. Not to heed warnings of danger and to follow temptation, even if you know that you may perish. To chase dreams and achieve the impossible. Yes, we can learn by the mistake of Icarus and at the same time be inspired by his daring legendary flight.

Athens’ Royal Gardens

Did you know that most ornamental plants of the National Gardens come from Genova, Italy?

King Ludwig I of Bavaria
King Ludwig I of Bavaria

When King Ludwig of Bavaria came to Athens to visit his son (King Otto), he was surprised by the complete lack of green areas in the little town of Athens!
Queen Amalia, consort of King Otto, worked tirelessly to lay out and complete the Royal Gardens. With the help of the great Bavarian architect Friedrich von Gartner, the gardens start to take shape. The aim was to find plants that could flourish on the ancient, relatively dry soil of Attica.

Friedrich von Gaertner
Friedrich von Gaertner

In autumn 1839, the Greek sail ship ‘Phoenix’ sailed from the port of Genova, heading straight to the port of Peiraeus. The ship carried 15,000 ornamental plants!Royal Gardens palm

Royal Gardens flowers Thousands of flowers, trees and seedlings from Genovese gardens were brought to Athens and the Bavarian gardener Schmarat, with the help of the Prussian gardener Friedrich Schmidt, gathered more local plants and flowers from the south part of Attica (Sounion). Their vision was to create the most beautiful gardens at the south of Europe.

Queen Amalia planted herself seeds of palm trees that in 1842 she brought from the United States (a genus of palms native to the southwestern US). Most of them still stand tall today!