Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 15: The Greek Way , Chapter 2

11/10/2016 01:50 am ET

1. How did the geography of Greece affect the Greek character?

Does a tough environment make a tough and resilient people? Will a hardscrabble childhood better prepare you for life than a soft life in the Land of the Lotus Eaters? Do farm boys make better soldiers than city boys, or vice versa, or does it all depend? Do northern Europeans have a different perspective on life from those in the south? If you're raised on the Great Plains of Kansas or the streets of New York, in a warm or cold climate, in a hunting or farming society, would you be the same person with the same general outlook and character traits? Is geography destiny? Is environment king -- or your reaction to it?

2. Why is play so important to the human spirit?

What happens to time when you're playing? What happens to your problems and worries? Beyond a sound mind in a sound body, physical fitness as training for war, testing one's limits by competing with others, what drove the Greeks to celebrate the beauty of struggle in play?

The Greeks were well acquainted with sickness, suffering, hardship, and death, yet, on the precipice of extinction itself, they rapturously danced their addiction to life. Friedrich Schiller summed it up briefly: "Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays." It is only in play that he breaks through the socially imposed barriers that constrain him in life and becomes fully human, an insight later developed in Johan Huizinga's seminal study of the human being at play, Homo Ludens: A Study in the Play-Element in Culture.

3. Contrast the Greek and Roman ideas of play.

The killing of animals and human beings at the Roman games couldn't help but coarsen and brutalize the Romans who relished this carnage, while the Greeks were appalled by it. Understand this, and you understand the abyss that separated these two very different peoples.

4. How did life's uncertainties affect the Greeks?

If your country were convulsed by political turmoil, defeated in war and your people enslaved and deported, would you be depressed, indifferent, or accept your fate with dignity? Are life's uncertainties one of life's certainties, a permanent part of human existence? Is it wise to plan or to take life as it comes? Are there things about which you wouldn't want to be certain?

Role-play someone who prides himself in having all the right answers to all the enigmas of life. How would you deal with someone who insisted that he had all the right answers and wanted to convince you that you were wrong? What would be the advantages of being absolutely convinced that one had all the right answers? What would be the disadvantages? Would meeting your mirror image be a curse or a cure? Is living with uncertainty a sign of weakness or strength?

5. Why was theater so important to the Greeks?

Greek plays explained the myths by offering new interpretations of them, or, as with Euripides, iconoclastic readings that shocked his audience as Higher Criticism once did 19th-century Bible readers. While Aeschylus and Sophocles reworked the myths to reveal their relevance to 5th-century classical Greece, Euripides demythologized them completely by suggesting that their anthropomorphic depictions of the gods couldn't be true since their immoral behavior insulted the gods. Whether confirming or challenging these ancient traditions, these plays made Greeks realize their common identity and heritage within an ever-changing and threatening world.

Theater offered not only the social cohesion of a common worldview, but presented these tales in ways that transfixed their audiences with gripping power. One early tradition relates that so terrifying was the appearance of the Furies at the initial performances of the Eumenides of Aeschylus that some women fainted and another miscarried.

Going to a Greek play, then, was not your typical night out on the town for dinner and theater, but a religious act where the congregation experienced riveting re-enactments of stories which erupted at times with frightening intensity. This was a different world, a different time, and a different sensibility that hungered for the transcendent themes of high art that for a few brief moments transported the audience out of themselves and returned them awed, inspired, and shaken. Even the opening night of Olivier's Hamlet, Hoffmannsthal's Jedermann (Everyman) about the Four Last Things before the cathedral doors at Salzburg, or a Hans Hotter recital of Bach's "Ich habe genug," Simeon's moving prayer for release from this world, pale when compared to such searing experiences.

6. Why didn't priests play a prominent role in Greece?

Apart from performing religious rites and the taking of omens before going to war, priests played no part in the political life of Greece. This raises the question of whether a culture is better off without its clergy in politics. The Greeks, who laid the foundations of free thought in the West, could do so in safety without fear of persecution by priests whose religious tradition, they believed, embodied the will of the gods.

History offers examples of what happens when the clergy play a role in public affairs: turning governments into religious theocracies; the Jesuits, as the confessors of kings, influencing the political destinies of Europe; religion blocking social and scientific progress for centuries; the heresy trials of the Inquisition, witch hunts, and the Albigensian Crusade in southern France; the Index of Forbidden Books that deterred the reading of many of the classics; the clergy suggesting to their congregations how they should vote; and apocalyptic End-Times theology guiding foreign policy from the White House.

On the other side of the ledger, however, are religious leaders viewed as the conscience of their times: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Daniel Berrigan, William Sloan Coffin, Martin Buber, Reinhold Niebuhr, Albert Schweitzer, Pope Francis, John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa, to name but a few.

7. What was the Oracle of Delphi?

The means for controlling the mind of Greece by bribed priests working through informants? Lucky guessers or masters of ambiguity as Croesus would attest? Exploiters of widespread credulity? Enjoyers of great political power and riches from grateful petitioners? Why did the priests interpret the oracles instead of letting the prophetesses who actually delivered them explain them themselves? Did they distrust women whom they felt they couldn't control? Did Socrates merely pretend to believe in the Oracle to lend it credibility? Does the modern world have its "Oracles"? Do people need reassurance from beyond this world?

8. What is the meaning of "Know thyself" and "Nothing in excess"?

Why are these admonitions important? Do they imply that the Greeks didn't practice them and needed reminders? It's been said that only the shallow know themselves. Explain. What's the biggest obstacle to knowing oneself? Does human vanity make this difficult, if not impossible? Is "accepting the shadow" part of this process? Does "psychological projection" play into this? Is this what the myth of Medusa is about? William Blake said that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Why does human nature gravitate toward extremes?

9. Why is the accomplishment of the Greeks viewed as greater than that of Galileo?

Is this a "complex question" because it already assumes that something is a fact even before asking why it is? Is the assumption true that the accomplishment of the Greeks was, indeed, greater than that of Galileo? Are Hamilton's reasons why their accomplishment was greater convincing? Are all "why" questions complex questions? What did Galileo have to contend with that the Greeks didn't? Why is he considered the symbol of free inquiry? Why do scientists encounter so much resistance? How can they sometimes be willingly silenced? Are some hired guns?

10. What does the satire of Aristophanes say about the tolerance of Athens?

Was he a courageous whistleblower who mocked Socrates because he believed that he was a fraud and destroying the foundations of Athenian society, or a bigoted playwright who couldn't comprehend the greatness of Socrates and sought to discredit him? Should everyone and everything in public life be fair game to the satirist? Harry S. Truman once said that "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Good advice? Who or what are modern versions of Aristophanes?

11. Why was philosophy important to the Greeks?

Every culture has its "official explainers," who provide answers to the great questions and misfortunes of life. These answers are traditionally given by religion. What are the advantages of having only this source? What are the disadvantages and dangers?

"A philosophy or theology that purports to make judgments about the meaning and purpose of life and the universe is simply the product of that philosopher's or theologian's imagination." How would you go about proving this claim? Is this an ad hominem fallacy? Explain your answer.

Some would argue that philosophy is a waste of time, fit only for dreamers, and since one cannot prove anything anyway, why even bother to question at all? Or is this also a philosophy which cannot be proven?

The meaning of life is found in one's religious tradition. The meaning of life isn't found anywhere but created oneself. Which of the two preceding statements is true and why?

Is the previous question a black-and-white fallacy or not? How would you verify the truth of either contention?

Does religion need philosophy?

Does philosophy need religion?

Is each self-sufficient or complementary?

Are they mutually exclusive or antagonistic?

Should they co-exist as equals, or should one be subordinate to the other? If so, which one?

Are they both different forms of poetry for two different kinds of people?

Can poetry be a form of religion and philosophy?

Or are all three different and thrive in their own way?

The Greeks had no official religious doctrines about the nature of the gods or moral behavior, apart from an informal code of conduct embodied in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, reflecting an out-of-date warrior ethos outgrown by the 5th century BCE. This partially explains the rise of the different philosophical schools of thought.

Q. Why is there so much disagreement among these various schools?

A. Because honest men can differ honestly. Philosophers surrender themselves to mystery, and, immersed in that mystery, begin to grope their way toward answers.

Q. This may well be, but isn't it confusing since they all cannot be right?

A. The important thing is that they believe that they are and offer evidence for their claims. Why is it assumed that there need be agreement since it's enough that they live in accordance with their convictions?

Q. But isn't it better to have only one view and avoid error and discord?

A. There is no discord, and who's to say what error is, since the one making that claim would also be open to that same objection? And what is wrong with disagreement? Isn't there a much greater danger when only one view has a monopoly and enforces that monopoly by the power of the state to persecute or suppress other views which keep one another honest with mutual criticism? Is government about seeking truth or maintaining power and control? Isn't it better that each view has a chance to present its own case and defend itself in open debate in the marketplace of ideas?

Critique the above Q&A exchange.

Why is critical thinking dangerous for some and healthy for others?

If you have firm answers to the above questions, does that mean that you're closed-minded or a person of conviction, or both?