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2.1: Philosophical Origins in Greek History, Theater, and Culture

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  • Greek Culture and History

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Copy and Paste Caption here. (Copyright; author via source)

    The Greeks wanted a good life. The question then, as well as now, is how to know what the good life is? How does one recognize the good life? The "good" itself? How does one gain the knowledge needed to pursue the good life and distinguish it from another that is less good or even not good but appearing as good for those who are foolish, impetuous and ignorant, lacking in wisdom?

    The Greeks at the time of Socrates and Plato were undergoing a major change in the way in which they would think about the world, themselves and reality itself. Greek culture rose to great heights in the period from 525 BC to 350 BC, the period that brackets the lifespan of Socrates and Plato. In this period Athens, the Greek city-state, would rise to the height of its political and military powers and would come to represent the height of Greek cultural achievement as well. The Greeks during this time, and particularly in Athens, were moving from an oral to a literate culture and from a foundation of religious belief and mythology to another based upon the inventions and creations of artistic endeavor and rational thought.

    The Greeks, prior to Plato, had a culture (the way a people learn to think, feel and act from the previous generation) that was transmitted orally. Few could read or write. There was little material to write upon. Papyrus from Egypt would be arriving and be popularized after Socrates death. If the average Greek were to learn about anything it would need to be through hearing whatever it was spoken about. What they heard they made every effort to remember and then repeat. This pattern for transmitting information became a pattern for life itself. The tales of the gods and goddesses, the titans, heroes and heroines were placed in rhyme and meter to make it easier to remember. What they remembered of the tales they endeavored to repeat not only in the telling of the tales but also in their lives. The gods and goddesses supplied the examples, the paradigms, and the models for behavior. If the gods did it, it must be good and so I should do it as well: so went the thinking. When faced with a conflict or problem the Greeks had sought answers in the stories that they heard as they grew and which they believed were true and served as guides through life for each of them. By the time of Socrates there had grown a considerable amount of doubt about the stories. There was skepticism and outright denial as well.

    The tales when examined often displayed a number of troublesome features including contradictions amongst the many stories and examples of divine beings acting in a morally outrageous manner, such as involving murder, patricide, matricide, rape, theft, lies etc… The playwrights were encouraging audiences to reflect upon the tales and consider the values and morality within them. Orators were distorting the tales for personal gain and some, such as Socrates, were examining the entire basis for the moral order.

    The tales appear to describe a number of gods and goddesses who have each an assigned place in a general hierarchy. As the divine beings had an order, so too should the human community have an order. The question had arisen: upon what was the order to be based? Should it be based upon moira, fate or destiny, as with the gods or upon something else? The Greeks, as with most humans, hated chaos, disorder. As the gods enjoyed a cosmos, order, so too should humans have an order. The Greeks look for the order in the tales of the gods but by the time of Socrates that approach was no longer working.

    Greek culture was mythopoetic, based upon myths and transmitted through poetry. These tales had an imaginative character and an emotional one as well. The myths proclaim a truth, which transcends reasoning. These myths try to bring about the truth that they proclaim: the moral truths. The myths are a form of action or ritual behavior, which must proclaim and elaborate a poetic form of truth. The logic of the events, the order of causality, is anthropomorphic. If one asks "why" things are as they are , then the answer will be in the form of "who" is responsible or the agent behind the events. The function of these myths, as in most cultures, is to explain, unify, and order experience. The myths dispel chaos. They reveal a structure, order, coherence and meaning not otherwise evident.

    The tales spoke of Zeus, Chronos, Poseidon, Hera, Athena and dozens of other divinities, each with a genealogy and an assigned place in the pantheon or general organization of the divine community. The divinities did not get along all that amicably. The tales told of terrible and violent conflicts. This is probably due to the coming together of the tales and divinities of two different peoples that became the Greeks of Plato’s time. There were the original peoples of the land now called Greece and there were the Aryan invaders, the Ionians and Dorians. These peoples had different conceptions of the world and of the realm beyond it. The indigenous peoples were matriarchal with theriomorphic divinities. They tended to be pacific and agrarian. The Aryans, from Anatolia, were patriarchal with anthropomorphic deities. They were nomadic and belligerent. The tales of Homer and Hesiod contain an amalgamation of tales in which the deities (many female) are woven into the tales of the invading peoples in order to accommodate the belief systems of the indigenous peoples. For example, while Zeus is placed at the top of a hierarchy of deities, he has a wife, Hera, who is supposed to be by his side, but whom he regularly disrespects or insults. Hera is she who has no specific name; “she” or “her” the name for the highest female deity of the indigenous peoples. Athena, one of the highest of the native deities (the “th” indicates she was a deity of the indigenous peoples) is given a place very high in the order. Athena is reported to have been born or to have emerged directly from the head of Zeus, knowing no woman as mother Athena, the protective deity of Athens, represents wisdom (what philosophers seek) and she also offers assistance to warriors. She takes on the form of an owl to bring information and advice to humans. (Owls are associated with wisdom in much of the western world to this day.)

    The physical conflicts between the two peoples who merged into the Greeks is mirrored in the tales of the deities. Zeus takes several wives and has affairs, possibly to appease the indigenous peoples beliefs in the high order of their female deities. The deities of the indigenous peoples are transformed, metamorphosed, into human like beings with super human qualities.

    The tales organized under Homer and Hesiod were used by the people as an encyclopedia, as the foundation of the educational system. The tales were entertaining, containing stories of adventure. There was a great deal of sex and violence in them as well. They held the interest of generations of listeners and offered instruction on how to conduct war, raise children, administer assistance to the wounded, resolve family conflicts and much more. The tales, epic works, gave the Greeks a sense of history and their place in the general scheme of things. The myths provided a set of moral exemplars, which each Greek was to follow. Each Greek was to be the best that they could be, pursue virtue (arête), accept fate and prepare for the next life.

    The vocabulary was not advanced and often the Greeks would think in terms of the stories and the characters in them rather than in the abstract. For example, if one were to call for justice the Greek would call upon the female deity who represented justice to come and settle the matter in some way. The figure of a robed woman with blindfold holding a scale in one arm, is the representation of the goddess whose actions are what the Greeks had thought of as Justice. Themis, the Divine Right or Divine Justice and Dike, human Justice, were the deities whose actions constituted the Greek idea of the Right or Justice. It is in Socrates' time that the Greeks are seeking an answer without recourse to those stories and without the picture thinking methodology of the mythopoetic culture, which was rapidly waning.

    The Greeks at the time of Socrates and Plato had experienced a criticism of the tales and the morality of the gods in their dramas performed in public amphitheaters. There was a raising of questions concerning the moral foundation that was disturbing the order. Chaos was threatening. There was a noticeable breakdown of traditions. There was a decline in respect for both the tradition and the laws. The Greeks were familiar with speculation about the nature of the universe that did not involve the deities. They had experienced a development in technology that afforded a much higher quality of life than known by their ancestors. Through trade, travel and warfare they had come to know of other peoples, their history and cultures; their belief systems and values. The Greeks were undergoing a shift in their worldviews and along with that a change in their values, their ethical orientation and conceptual frameworks. In these ways the Greeks of 400 B.C. are like the peoples of advanced technological societies today in a post-modern era.

    The key question for humans was and is: how to live a "good" life? Before 500 BC the Greeks answered that by thinking that the way was to follow the gods and to accept moira. After 400 BC the answer was not so clear at all. What had happened? This is something worth examining for what it may offer those in our time. Before 1800 the answer to the question in the West had been to obey God’s commandments and accept God’s will. Today that answer does not appear to be the actual approach in practice. There does not appear to be any commonly accepted answer to the question. In a post-modern age the general respect for the laws of God, the truth of science, the traditions of our ancestors all seems in doubt. Ideas of an objective truth and single standard for justice are regularly derided in discussions of the judicial system. Ideas of relative truths and morality are very popular.

    The Greeks were clustered due to conditions of geography and geopolitics. They lived in city-states, polii. (The term ” politics” comes from this condition.) They often quarreled and went to war with one another. The various city-states were organized under different forms of government. There were several: tyranny, military dictatorship, Oligarchy, Autocratic, Aristocracy and Democracy. These forms might change over time. Indeed, in Athens prior to Plato the Athenians had experienced several transitions; arriving at a form of democracy that would put Socrates to death and motivate Plato to become a philosopher and write about an ideal polis or state in his work , the Republic. The Greeks preferred any form of government and thus order to chaos or disorder as would be present with tyranny (no rule of law or constitution).

    Athens had defeated great city-states and foreign empires in several wars; sea war in particular. Athens enjoyed a great prosperity as a result that brought many public works, theaters, temples, buildings, water works, streets, commerce, festivals, foreign “teachers” or speakers. Athens represented an open city and a way of life that was open to ideas, foreigners, trade etc.. Athens principle threat at the time of Socrates death was Sparta. If Athens represented the way of adventure , Sparta represented the way of safety. I the quest after cosmos over chaos, Sparta had become an oligarchic state with a strict disciplinary code and a great deal of uniformity. Sparta had a totalitarian government. Athens created a democracy. Just prior to Socrates trial and death, Sparta defeats Athens in battle and imposes a rule by thirty young men who would become the tyranny that would be overthrown an democracy put in its place. Socrates lived and died in Athens. He embodied much of its spirit. He was open minded and questioned all. His life in pursuit of the "good" was also one of intellectual adventure. The chaos that threatened Athens in 399 BC was associated with the openness of the preceding years. In an attempt to restore an order, to fashion a cosmos again, Socrates appears as a thereat to the rulers of Athens and that threat must be removed. In the lives of many humans there often come moments when a choice must be made between the path of adventure versus that of safety. Athens and Sparta represented those paths.

    The Greeks were moving from pre-history and the mythic time to history. They recorded events and preserved them and transmitted them. The Greeks were moving from the mythic mode of thought as well. Instead of accepting and repeating the tales they were starting to reflect upon them, to examine them closely and even to question, doubt and disbelieve. A clear indication of the process of rational reflection upon the mythic epics is given in the works of the playwrights. This is the material of the next section.

    For more information see The Greeks; Crucible of Civilization on PBS

    Greek Theater

    Throughout the year there were public performances of plays in all the Greek city-states. There were festivals that would last for several days and plays would be performed. Families would attend with children and servants. They would bring food. If the play met with disfavor the audience would shower the stage with food to drive the actors off the stage. Often prizes were awarded for the best play of the festival. Afterwards there would be a party for the winner. It was not too dissimilar to the parties after the Emmy Awards or the Oscars or Tony's.

    The large amphitheaters would hold from 10 to 20,000 people. Almost an entire town would fill the theater to watch and listen to the plays. The acoustics are still to this day, amid the ruins, simply amazing. All those in the theater could hear the actors on stage. Assisting in the seeing of the action and the emotion of those on stage were large masks held before the faces of the actors; one mask with a smile representing joy the other with a frown for sorrow. These masks were the persona (or personalities) of the actors made more visible for the audience to see.

    The following playwrights will be discussed in brief to permit an understanding of the type of thought being promoted by these artistic works. For more information see:

    Greek Theatre History and Archeology and Architecture Listing


    His plays appear to focus upon justifying the way of the gods to humans according to human notions of justice. He attempts to promote harmony and cooperation. In his plays he demonstrates how violence begets violence begets more violence until reason enters to settle the discord. He demonstrates that the principles which govern the gods are above those of humans. He favored the civilized life in which reason prevails over violence. He encourages humans to avoid the sin of pride (hubris) and be mindful of the proper place for everyone. He indicates that the state is the champion of justice and it promotes reasoned reconciliation.


    Sophocles tragedies are concerned with the fate of human heroes. He accepts the principles of the gods but focuses on the human response to the actions of the gods. The hero is a human who has an extraordinary career, which pushes back the horizons of what is possible for a human. The hero is not a flawless character but a virtuous character. Sophocles acknowledges the power of the gods but he does not assume that their standards are the same for humans. The human hero takes responsibility for the action of the human. Oedipus could easily claim that he did not know that the man that he killed was his father and neither did he know that the woman who was the mother of his children was also his mother. Oedipus could have claimed it was all a matter of fate, the work of the gods. He could have offered excuses and "copped a plea". Instead, Oedipus takes responsibility for what he has done and acknowledging the horror of it all, he plucks out his eyes and abandons the palace and his kingship.


    While Euripides appears to have won fewer prizes in his lifetime than others, more of his plays survive to this day and are enacted in the principle cities of the Western world every year. His tragedies are very dark. They challenged the audience to radically reconsider some of their most cherished notions. He reduced the heroes to the level of the contemporary. He demonstrates that gods who do evil deeds are not to be considered as gods! Euripides encouraged his audience to criticize antiquated conventions and the restraints of the social order- a human made order.

    Euripides' work promotes a psychological understanding or perception of events. The plays move from darkness to light. He promotes a questioning of the gods, often displaying their actions in a fashion so that they appear ludicrous or at least questionable. He illustrates how the gods whatever they may do are not responsible for human motivation. His human personages are seen struggling simply to survive in some tolerable manner. Euripides illustrates how human laws deny basic human rights to women, bastards, foreigners and slaves. His plays show the consequences of accepting those laws without question. He illustrates how the heroic deeds of the legends look when carried out by contemporary humans. Euripides discredits belief in the gods that promotes horrors. In his play Medea, he shows a horrible act of a mother killing her children in the light of unjust and inhumane conventions that drove her to such a horrible act. In the Trojan Women he shows the Athenians how their victory over the Trojans looked to the women and children of Troy who were raped and killed. The Greeks were made to think by Euripedes' works, to think and to question.


    Aristophanes was a comic playwright. He was a conservative minded artist. He liked to poke fun at man and his foibles. He delivered hilarious indictments concerning the politics, morality, law, economic theories and educational practices of his time.

    His plays are an example of old comedy: burlesque, farce, comic opera, pantomime. It was fun with a serious intent to it.

    In one play the Lysistrata, the men of a Greek city-state are off at war. The women are lamenting their fate as they await news of the war and learning whether their husbands and sons are still alive or not. The women do not like their station in life, the folly of war and the devaluation in the eyes of men. They are aware that the men appear to have only one interest in them. They use this as part of a scheme. The women send word to the front lines that no woman of the polis will have sex with the men while there is still a war going on. When word of this strike reaches the men at war not much times goes by before they have settled the matter and are at peace again. This play was greeted with much laughter by the audience for several reasons. It was Aristophanes way to condemn both the impatience to go to war and the narrow interest that men appear to have had in women.

    In another of his plays, the Clouds, Aristophanes is poking fun at the Sophists. These public speakers, debaters, lawyers and educators were respected, feared and despised by many. The Sophists were destroying respect for the traditions, including the family. They taught a form of skepticism, atheism, cynicism and relativism that was undermining the foundations of the moral and social order. They did have tremendous skills as orators. It is connection with Socrates that this play becomes very important. Aristophanes play The Clouds was first produced in the drama festival in Athens—the City Dionysia—in 423 B.C., where it placed third. In this play, the author, a friend of Socrates, uses his name in a comedy that criticizes the Sophists. Many who see the play do not realize that the character named “Socrates” in the play did not depict the actual thinking of Socrates. It was burlesque and farce; an exaggerated comic depiction. For additional information on this playwright:

    On Satire in Aristophanes's The Clouds a lecture by Ian Johnston

    Aristophanes and Socrates were well known to one another. They were friends of a sort. They dined together as reported in the Symposium of Plato and Zenophanes. It was in the manner of a Friar's Club Roast were the host of honor is lampooned and kidded by his friends that Aristophanes thought that he would poke a little fun at Socrates. Aristophanes used the name of Socrates for one of the characters in his play. He made him the head of a school. It was a school of sophistry, something that in real life Socrates not only would have no part of but also would criticize. In the play the character Socrates spends his time suspended in air above the stage looking heavenward in contemplation of the clouds and the heavens and divine nature of things. Because of this association with the Sophistry, many who saw the play but who had never met Socrates or who had not learned of his actual works, his questioning and questing after virtue and wisdom, these people would mistakenly associate Socrates with being a Sophist and thus the animus born toward the Sophists was directed to Socrates. Some of the jurors at the trial of Socrates were probably in that group who knew of Socrates only indirectly and through the play. People today born after the events depicted in an Oliver Stone film might take the film to be an actual depiction of the events as they did occur. Those who were alive and experienced those events now that this is not the case.

    In the Clouds, Aristophanes satirizes the intelligentsia of his day and decries the new educational programs of the Sophists. The play opens with a father confronted by his son who is begging for more money to pay off gambling debts. The father is a well-to-do businessman who wanted his son to assist him in business instead of going off entertaining himself and gambling. The father agrees to pay off the debt one last time if the son will agree to make something of his life, go off to school and learn how to assist his father in the business. The son must agree as the debtors are threatening. The father takes his son into town where he knocks on a door and enters a "school" where his son will be taught how to speak well so that he can conduct business, take up legal matters in a court and become educated. In the school the actor named Socrates appears above the stage engaged in reflections upon heavenly matters. The son is given a course in oratory, rhetoric and sophistry. The son returns home to meet his father. The father greets his son and expects him now to assist the father. The son, using his new speaking skills, attempts to convince the father that the father should turn over his business to his son in payment for what the father owes the son. The father is most distressed by this and expresses his concern about how his wife will receive this news of their son's attitude. Upon hearing this, the son proceeds to say insulting things about his mother which the father becomes enraged upon hearing. So enraged in fact, that the father drives the son away and then proceeds into town where he burns the school down. The audiences who feared the Sophists enjoyed seeing them made fun of and receive their just deserts at the hands of the father. Unfortunately, while entertaining to the general public Aristophanes, unwittingly contributed to the negative assessment some had of Socrates.

    In the Greek theater there was a considerable amount of thinking going on. The dramatists and comedians were encouraging their audiences to consider and reconsider their accepted truths, their traditions and their laws, customs and values. It was not only on the stages that encouragement was given for thought. The Sophists were at work with their questioning process as well.

    Philosophical Application

    Discussion Questions

    1. Identify the social conditions and cultural upheavals that were going on in Athens in the time of Socrates and Plato, from 440 to 370 B.C.
    2. What conditions from above can you identify as similar today?
    3. Compare and contrast at least 2 of the situations you identified.
    4. For example, do you think that there is a decline in belief in god and the influence of religion over our lives? If so, where do you think people are getting the foundation for their morality?
    5. Are there other ways in which the USA or the world today is similar to Athens in 399 BC?


    Vocabulary Quizlet 2.1