10/02/2014 11:07 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

The Greeks Have Dreamt the Dream of Life Best

Every year, about 13 million tourists go to Greece to see the ancient ruins. The decision to go to Greece, in many instances, is a decision to improve oneself. Learning about ancient Greece is a pilgrimage into the heart of civilization. Greek ruins help the visitors fall in love with the land that made their culture possible or, at the very least, help them understand the beauty and achievements of ancient Greece.

The 18th-century German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was right saying: "Of all peoples, the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life best."

Since the Renaissance in the 15th century, the Greeks have been the subject of intense scrutiny and study. Thousands of books continue to be published about them in several Western and non-Western languages. Hundreds of colleges teach ancient Greek in the West and some other countries of the world. Classicists, scholars specializing in Greek and Roman culture, teach ancient Greek and Latin and other facets of Greek and Roman culture.

The verdict is clear: Publishing the Greek and Roman texts, especially the Greek texts, during the Renaissance made all the difference in the Western world. Science, technology and exploration took off and, simultaneously, the Greek-inspired West became the model for the rest of the world.

To some degree, we see the world with Greek eyes and think Greek thoughts because we have been using the ideas of the Greeks to build and manage our world; our civilization's headwaters are Greek, except for a not so minor detail, which is that our morality is not Greek: Western people, including the Greeks of Greece, no longer have a Greek pantheon and cosmos.

The Greek legacy

The Greeks were whole: Their ideas and values were one. They believed in many gods who had a great deal to do with the formation of their character.

Our Greek legacy, while real, is not what it could be, and neither it is coming straightforward from the Greeks, but it is filtered through Christianity. We certainly see the world with Greek eyes, but these eyes wear Christian glasses.

Greek religion

The many gods religion of the Greeks had no dogmas, holy books or clergy. Mary Lefkowitz, a classicist from Wellesley College, says that Greek religion is a religion for adults.

The religious speculation of the Greeks about the gods and the cosmos 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.

Is it not enough knowing that philosophy, science, theater, athletics, politics and democracy have their roots in Greece. We must have an understanding of how the Greeks developed those revolutionary foundations of civilization so we can continue to support and practice them for invigorating our own democratic traditions of civilization.

Is the 21st century becoming an age of fear?

Our time could easily become another dark age. Christianity and Islam are hovering over each other, fighting global crusades in the Middle East.

The horror of the Middle East is played out in the context of an even larger horror: the globalization of ruthless business practices threatening our Mother Earth.

Something is wrong.

Neither crusades nor melting nuclear plants nor the destruction of nature nor undermining of our democracy fit in the Greek way.

The Greek paradigm

The Greeks were not perfect: They fought with each other. They had slaves and did not give women the same rights they gave to men. The Greeks, however, improved themselves. Alkidamas, a fifth century BCE teacher of rhetoric, said the gods made no man a slave.

Greek tragic poets gave intelligent and heroic roles to women.

It was from this understanding of the Greeks -- that Greek and non-Greek, male and female, shared a common humanity -- that convinced the West in the eighteenth century to end slavery and, a century or so later, lessen and, eventually, abolish the inequalities between men and women.

A movement for a global polis of gods and men

"It seems quite clear," says the British classical scholar, Gilbert Murray, in 1921, "that the Greeks owed exceedingly little to foreign influence."

For Murray, "what constitutes Greece is the movement which leads... 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."

We have a long way to go before we feel secure with the legacy of the Greeks.

Writing in the late 1940s, a time after a savage world war and holocaust, another distinguished classicist, Gilbert Highet, said this: "What the Renaissance did was to dig down through the silt [of Christianity] and find the lost beauties [of Greek and Roman culture], and imitate or emulate them."

We have to do the same thing: Dig down through the silt of alarming religious tensions, creeping undemocratic practices, bad science and suicidal public health and environmental policies to rediscover the Greek texts and imitate or emulate the struggle of the Greeks for an honest democratic life lived in freedom and in concert with healthy human beings and a healthy Mother Earth.

The Greek texts may yet inspire us to return to the Greek traditions of reason, the good, the beautiful, and the ecological.