How the Greeks Explained the World

05/20/2015 12:11 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

Looking at civilizations of Greek and Roman antiquity, we feel confident we can judge them. Were the people of antiquity better or worse off than us? Did they live under authoritarian or democratic governments? Did they cultivate the sciences? Did they live in harmony with the natural world? And what was their legacy?

Depending on our education, each one of us living in the twenty-first century may have something to say or can probably answer these questions.

In my case, I am slightly biased in favor of Greek antiquity because I lived that antiquity, though more than two thousand years later in modern Greece. My additional bias comes from living in America, the antithesis of the ancient and the super model of the modern.

In the fifth century BCE, the Greeks had about a thousand-five hundred poleis (states) all over the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. They invented and practiced democracy, other forms of government, and political theory.

But, above all, the Greeks produced civilization. They settled in poleis where they developed agriculture, laws, architecture, education, theater, national identity, poetry and literature. Their small poleis provided security and schooling in the arts and crafts of civilization. They were hives of festivals and athletic games like the Olympics honoring their gods.

Curiosity led the Greeks to philosophy. They explored the natural world and the cosmos and discovered laws, order and harmony. Accepting the world as is inspired them even more to science.

The Greeks put to use their science and cunning craftsmanship in the building of the Parthenon in the fifth century BCE. That beautiful temple dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom, was also a paradigm of how to construct and explain the world.

After the Parthenon we have Plato and Aristotle who constructed philosophies of moral and scientific wisdom for a real understanding of the world. In fact, Aristotle invented the scientific method. He also invented zoology.

Then came Alexander the Great who spread Greek culture all over the Mediterranean. He founded Alexandria in Egypt as his new capital. For some three centuries down to 30 BCE, Alexandria expanded the Greek vision of how to know and explain the world. The Greek kings of Egypt and other Greek rulers of kingdoms in the Middle East funded science and technology as never before. The great Library of Alexandria and the Mouseion (Temple of the Muses, goddesses of learning) became a university for advanced studies in the humanities and the sciences.

The chief legacy of the Alexandrian age was the world's first computer known as the Antikythera Mechanism. This second century BCE computer with gears connected the Greeks' social and heavenly vision: predicting the eclipses of the sun and the moon and synchronizing the citizens' responsibilities of sowing and harvesting crops, offering sacrifices to the gods, and attending the Pan-Hellenic games like the Olympics. This computer was a product of scientific technology. And, without doubt, it is the greatest achievement of the Greeks.

But, over all, the legacy we inherited from the Greeks was that of democracy and science and know-how that explained the world and, in a sense, made us who we are.

Yet, we selectively abandoned the Greek model of natural philosophy, living in harmony with the natural world, for the illusion of becoming the masters of the natural world and the cosmos.

This is the reason I am apprehensive with the entire experiment of modernity, its perverted mechanical model of the cosmos, and its material, strategic, and scientific expression in the obscene weapons we call nuclear bombs. Equally distasteful to me is our plunder and impoverishment of the natural world, acting like we have several Earths lined up for rape.

But, of course, there's just only one Earth. Time has come to put this Earth in our dreams and daily work. Our responsibility should be to protect its integrity by cleaning up and terminating our pollution and mistreatment and poisoning of nature.

All those who study science and all scientists must marshal their talent and knowledge in defense of the Earth.

A new civilization is being born. Future historians will give it an appropriate name. But no matter the name, its model is small farms, villages, small towns, and small communities in gigantic cities.

We hear voices of scientists calling themselves agroecologists because they work with peasants and small-scale family farmers. This is a sign people are awakening to the emergency of an ailing Earth. They have the good sense of treating the disease with a dosage of ancient agrarian knowledge.

Agroecologists advertise the science of relations and connections in the natural world known as ecology. So, potentially, a civilization grafted on ecology, ecological civilization, is likely to be about questioning the malpractices of giant institutions lording over the natural world and billions of people.

But, above all, should ecological civilization take roots, it will be a signal of a shift in how people understand and explain the world.

Ancient Greeks are the answer.