10/26/2012 04:59 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

A Greek Movement for a Better World

The Greeks invented epic and tragic poetry, history, philosophy, science, political theory and democracy, the civilian control of the military, secular literature, theater, and athletics like the Olympics. They also made substantive contributions to technology, inventing the Antikythera Mechanism, the world's first analog computer.

That's why people should care about the Greeks. They are our intellectual ancestors, models of insight and behavior, and civilization.

Even their religion, which Christianity destroyed, is still a world of wonder and values. The religion of the Greeks was polytheistic, but it was a religion without dogmas, holy books or clergy. It was a religion of free, responsible, and democratic people. Publishers Weekly noted says that it is a 'religion for adults' based on Mary Lefkowitz's book, Greek Gods, Human Lives.

The religious speculation of the Greeks about the gods and the cosmos, an ordered system, found expression in their poetry, mythology, cosmology, literature, dramatic theater and politics. The Greek gods were part of nature and the cosmos. The Greeks used the gods to probe the cosmos, the causal laws in nature leading them to the invention of philosophy and science.

Greek thought became the foundation for our civilization.

The Greeks were by no means perfect. They fought with each other in too many wars. They had slaves and did not give women the same rights they gave to men. So they did not live up to their ideals -- and, in that failure, they mirror the tragic human condition.

But they understood the injustice of slavery. Alcidamas, a teacher of rhetoric born in the last quarter of the fifth century BCE, said the gods gave all men freedom and "nature has made no man a slave."

Greek tragic poets gave intelligent and heroic roles to women. Antigone defended the noblest virtues of Greek culture, the love of a sister for her brother, and the superiority of divine over arbitrary human conventions. It was from this understanding of the Greeks -- that Greek and non-Greek and male and female, shared a common humanity -- that convinced the West in the eighteenth century to end slavery and, a century or so later, to close the gap in the inequalities between men and women.

The road to human rights starts with the Greeks. They were the first people who lived the "examined life" of Socrates, their greatest moral philosopher. They also appreciated the culture of foreign people like the Egyptians and Ethiopians.

Herodotus, the fifth-century Greek historian, wrote some of the most exciting pages of Egyptian and Persian history. When Herodotus and the Greeks talked about barbarians they meant people who were living the lives of slaves.

So the Greeks were, and continue to be, controversial. It is almost fashionable in American universities to dismiss and hate the Greeks for a variety of political reasons and careerist objectives. Indeed, this narrow dislike of the Greeks has become a torrent of abuse now that Greece is under the thump of foreign bankers. Such disparagement of the Greeks is as old as the Greeks.

A more balanced view of the Greeks is also ancient. The British classical scholar Gilbert Murray put it like this in 1921:

It seems quite clear that the Greeks owed exceedingly little to foreign influence. Even in their decay they were a race, as Professor Bury observes, accustomed 'to take little and to give much'. They built up their civilization for themselves. We must listen with due attention to the critics who have pointed out all the remnants of savagery and superstition that they find in Greece: the slave-driver, the fetish-worshipper and the medicine-man, the trampler on women, the bloodthirsty hater of all outside his own town and party. But it is not those people that constitute Greece; those people can be found all over the historical world, commoner than blackberries. It is not anything fixed and stationary that constitutes Greece: what constitutes Greece is the movement which leads from all these to the Stoic or fifth-century 'sophist' who condemns and denies slavery, who has abolished all cruel superstitions and preaches some religion based on philosophy and humanity, who claims for women the same spiritual rights as for man, who looks on all human creatures as his brethren, and the world as 'one great City of gods and men'. It is that movement which you will not find elsewhere, any more than the statues of Pheidias or the dialogues of Plato or the poems of Aeschylus and Euripides.