The Beautiful and the Good

My early hopes of finding long-term happiness in America were illusions of a young man who knew nothing about the United States, save for giving opportunities to immigrants from Greece.

The crisis of America

In 2021, American politics and Constitution are on the verge of civil war. The Democrats and Republicans are irreconcilable. The Democratic Party represents for the most part the white middle class, including non-white minorities. The Republican Party, a subsidiary of Trump, fights for the interests of an oligarchy of rich and powerful whites.

Behind both of these gigantic parties, and the national political divisions they generate, there lurk the few billionaires that pull the policy strings, including those of the January 6, 2021 insurrection. The Republicans obey Trump who instigated the invasion of the Capitol in the January 6, 2021 insurrection; he and many Republicans keep repeating the lie that the Democrats stole the 2020 election.

Searching for my Ithaca

Nevertheless, for more than half a century, I have been living in this perplexing, nay ungovernable country. Now I understand how Greek scholars like Polybius, Plutarch, Lucian, Athenaios, Galen, Ptolemaios and Ammianus Marcellinus felt living in Rome, especially in imperial Rome.

Yet I have little if any chance to go back home to my Ithaca, Hellas / Greece where I was born and brought up. My Odyssey has been much longer than that of Odysseus. The time of happy return (nostimon emar, νόστιμον ἦμαρ) is over. With the passing away of my parents, things became less and less familiar. Taxi drivers in Athens would remind me I spoke Greek with a foreign accent.

I pay no attention to the taxi drivers. I am certain, however, I have a Hellenic accent in everything I do. This is because I discovered, the hard way, that the Greeks had insights, even answers, to the problems wrecking America – and the world.

The Hellenic paradigm

Hellenic democracy, science, technology, laws, art, theater, the Olympics, and literary and philosophical discussions have been pillars of civilization.

In the third edition of his book, Early Greek Philosophy, and as early as 1920, the British classical scholar John Burnet said that science is “thinking about the world in the Greek way.”

He was right. More than two and-a-half millennia ago, the Greeks investigated the cosmos, invented political theory and the polis, a large village laboratory for discovering and practicing the good life. Arts and crafts and theater thrived in the polis. And so did the study of human beings, animals, and the natural world.

Some Greeks like the Athenians practiced direct democracy. Large citizen juries administered justice. Citizens elected at random for a year governed the polis.

Other Greeks like those of Alexandria, Egypt, in the post-Alexander the Great era, third century BCE and after, perfected mathematics and astronomy and invented modern-like advanced technology for geared devices like the astronomical Antikythera Mechanism, without doubt a computer of genius.

Such theoretical and practical work, and centuries of living in the  polis in which the Greeks learned to rule and be ruled, helped them gain knowledge and principles that explained the workings of the world, something like what we call science.

Aristotle’s monumental contributions to several fields of knowledge (logic, poetics, ethics, rhetoric, politics, metaphysics, meteorology, the soul, the heavens, physics, and biology) set the foundations of science. This happened in the fourth century BCE.

Archimedes in the third century BCE expanded Aristotle’s invention of zoology to mathematical physics and dazzling engineering. His mathematical physics became the backbone of the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Galileo and Newton would be inconceivable without the legacy of Archimedes. In his book Calculus Gems (1992, 43), the American mathematician George F. Simmons says Archimedes was “a great civilization all by himself.”

It was this Hellenic science paradigm that, first of all, created Arabic culture out of Greek thought in the eighth to tenth centuries. The Arabs venerated Aristotle. He was The Philosopher.

Sometime in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the first European universities came into being primarily to study Aristotle. Those universities took roots in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford. In the fiftieth century, Aristotle and Archimedes, and numerous other Hellenic thinkers, inspired Europe to create the modern world. The Renaissance was the regeneration of a technical version of Hellenic civilization in Western Europe.

The fate of Greek knowledge in modern times

The Greeks are not responsible for our troubles; that we took Democritus’ Atomic Theory and built a nuclear bomb; that we have corrupted democracy into a species of oligarchy funded by billionaires; that we subverted the sacred natural world to a bottomless pit of extraction and toxic pollution engulfing the planet with impoverishment and grave climate danger.

These are the reasons why I always use a Hellenic metaphor, an idea, or a myth to enrich my articles with meaning. My hope is that it’s never too late to rethink our destructive ways. We know how to rebuild civilization. I keep saying that to my students.

Hellas still remains our model for another regeneration / Renaissance. And the faster we act to grasp the Greek way, the stronger we will be in fighting errors of the past, like our addiction to fossil fuels, manufacturing nuclear weapons and pesticides, and arming our troops with chemical and biological weapons.

Needless to say, we must act together, the entire world, to fight climate change. That’s what the Greeks would have done. Their virtue of the beautiful and good demands we act as one. The danger is all over the Earth.

UN climatologists published their latest report, August 9, 2021. In the words of Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, that report is “Code Red for Humanity.”

Cease burning fossil fuels. Embrace the Sun and wind for alternative energy. Make agriculture hospitable to democracy, ecology, and small family farmers – and the Earth.

In his cosmological dialogue Timaeus (40), Plato says the Earth, maker of days and nights, is both our foster mother and the first and oldest of the gods.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.