The School of Ancient Greece for Science, Civilization, and Planetary Governance

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Alexander the Great attacking the Persian King Darius in the Battle of Issus, Nov. 5, 333 BCE. Pompeii mosaic. Naples National Archaeological Museum. Public Domain

Prologue

Alexander the Great accomplished so much so soon so young that he rightly earned the honor of heroic greatness. He was definitely a hero and a genius. His mother Olympias tried to convince him he was the son of Zeus. Alexander loved and trusted his mother. He probably assured himself he was the son of Zeus. His hero, Achilles, was the son of goddess Thetis.

But the young man loved Aristotle who tutored him in Greek history, politics, philosophy, and international affairs. In addition, Aristotle passed on to his pupil his enormous knowledge and respect for Homer, the teacher of the Greeks for millennia. He edited the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer for Alexander. He urged him to unite the Greeks and to eliminate the Persian danger. Alexander did both. He was inspired by Aristotle. The result was unprecedented in history. His general Ptolemaios / Ptolemy, who was also a student of Aristotle, became king of Egypt and materialized the dream of Aristotle. He built a Mouseion-university and the Library of Alexandria. He opened the doors of these great institutions to the best Greek minds. The enlightenment that emerged in Alexandria was astonishing. It made our world. Alexandria became the capital polis of civilization for several centuries in the Mediterranean. And that really was the legacy of Homer, Aristotle, and Alexander.

Alexander’s dream

The other dream of Alexander was to create a united ecumene, in effect a world society and government under the rule of reason and his hegemony. This interpretation of Alexander comes from a Greek living in the Roman Empire that had abolished Greek freedom, conquering Greece in 146 BCE and making it a province of Rome. Plutarch was that voice. He was a Greek philosopher, prolific writer, and a priest of Apollo. He lived from about the second half of the first century to the first twenty of so years of the second century of our times. He served Rome but remained Greek.

“Plato, Aristotle, and other thinkers,” Plutarch said, “wrote and taught how to live in ideal cities but never translated their ideas into political reality. Alexander did. He conquered Asia, but his purpose was more than control and warfare. He dressed like the Asians did. He tried convincing his officers to marry Persian women. He married a princess from Afghanistan. He also established more than 70 Greek cities in Asia, all of them governed by justice and the rule of law, thus eliminating injustice in large regions of his empire. Plutarch argues correctly that the conquest of Alexander brought peace, justice, and civilization to Asia. It was by living as citizens of these cities that the bad and unacceptable were extinguished. The lives of the citizens improved by familiarity with better ways of living. Alexander succeeded in reforming the institutions of several nations. He certainly is a great philosopher…. Alexander believed that the gods sent him to unite the world and create one commonwealth of equality and justice and civilization.”[1]

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Alexander the Great, left, and Nike, goddess of victory, right, is crowning his victories. Gold stater, dated about 322 BCE. The gold stater came out of Sardes (Sardeis), key city of Lydia, which became a province of Persia. Alexander used Sardes for his mint. Courtesy Numismatic Museum, Athens.

Alexander was a revolutionary. In trying to reform his empire, adding, for instance, non-Greeks to Greek culture, he faced resistance from his Greek officers and the local elites in Asia. After all, for the first time in history a conqueror abandoned violence as a governing principle. Alexander wanted to convince the vast majority of the conquered people he was their friend. He joined Europe and Asia by marriages, similar clothing, and the equal administration of justice and by founding Greek cities all over Asia so Asians could see the difference.

After Alexander

Unfortunately, Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BCE. He was barely 33 years old. He and his successors ignored the rising power of Rome. This turned out to be a fatal error. Romans learned from the Greeks. But the wars among Alexander’s successors weakened them and gave the Romans a free hand in the West. They dismembered Macedonia and Greece and, by the end of the first century BCE, the main kingdoms of Alexander in Asia and Egypt were provinces of Rome. The Roman republic became Roman empire, a vast territory that included Alexander’s empire and Europe. Some of the Roman emperors were responsible leaders, but most of the remaining emperors were ruthless and corrupt. One of them, Constantine, dumped Greco-Roman religion and culture for a messianic and monotheistic religion, Christianity. Such a violent policy turned Greco-Roman civilization upside down. The Roman government and the church in the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, hired northern European barbarians to smash the Greek temples, burn libraries, and otherwise level the magnificent treasures the ancient Greeks had built. The great Alexandrian Library went up in flames in late fourth century. And in 415, Christian monks tore to pieces Hypatia, director of a philosophy school in Alexandria. Her crime was teaching Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy.

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Hypatia, detail from School of Athens by Raphael, 1510. Hypatia, in white robes, is above philosopher Pythagoras, shown writing on a book, and, possibly, next to philosopher Parmenides. Common Domain

Egypt and Greece belonged to the Eastern Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire after the fourth century had fallen to the hands of European barbarians. This political division exacerbated divisions within Christianity, which blossomed to a civilization Schism of 1054. The anathemas hurled by the Pope and the Patriarch and the Patriarch against the Pope, brought the crusades. These religious wars inflicted death and destruction in Christendom and against Islam. The fourth crusade of 1204, instead of going to Jerusalem to fight the Moslems, it turned its wrath against the Greeks. French, German, and Venetian troops captured Constantinople, thus inflicting a giant wound on the security of medieval Greece. The Western crusaders burned the libraries of Constantinople and behaved like barbarians. Their occupation of Constantinople lasted for 50 years, cementing a rising hatred between Christian East and Christian West. The crusaders also captured the rest of Medieval Greece, shredding the country with foreign oppression and culture.

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Victorious religious warriors from Venice, France and Germany enter Constantinople in 1204. Painting by Eugene Delacroix, 1840. Public Domain

Mongol Turks took notice. They took advantage of the protracted Christian civil war. They kept attacking the Greeks. In 1453, they captured Medieval Greece, which also exposed the West to the Mongol Turkish menace.

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Fall of Constantinople, May 29, 1453. Mural from the Cafe of G. Antikas, Skopelos. Picture is depicting the Emperor Constantine Palaiologos on a white horse ready for battle. Public Domain

Greece suffered enormously from the loss of its freedom. Its best scholars left the country for Italy. They were loaded with the surviving manuscripts of ancient Greece. These Greek books were translated into Latin and started the Renaissance and made our world. In 1821, the Greek Revolution brought into being an independent state. In 1828, the European powers, Russia, England, and France, appointed Ioannes Kapodistrias as the first President of Greece.

Hellas, a sacred country, and school for humanity

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Ioannes Kapodistrias, detail of a portrait by Thomas Lawrence, 1818-1819. The portrait shows Kapodistrias while serving as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia. Public Domain

Kapodistrias, 1776-1831, was from the Greek island of Kerkyra in the Ionian Sea. He was educated in philosophy, law, and medicine at the University of Padua. He proved himself a genius in diplomacy. Tsar Alexander I of Russia was so impressed by Kapodistrias he made him Minister of Foreign Affairs. Kapodistrias served in that powerful post from 1816 to 1822. In 1822, he took a leave of absence and set up home in Geneva where he founded the Philomusse Society to raise funds for the Greek Revolution and expand the cause of European Philhellenism.

The rise to power of Kapodistrias disturbed the Chancellor of Austria Klemens von Metternich. He ordered Austrian diplomats and other senior officials to watch him. One of the senior military officers named Joseph Chervenka, interviewed people who knew Kapodistrias. Chervenka summarized the impressions of those who spoke to him about Kapodistrias. On February 13, 1816, he wrote a report and sent it to Metternich. Chervenka said to Metternich that Kapodistrias had quite an agenda for making modern Greece into Hellas. He said:

Kapodistrias expected all European powers unanimously to agree in establishing an independent Hellas with inviolable borders. Hellas would be neutral, not allowing any foreign intervention or influence in the country. Her sole purpose would be to cultivate the sciences and enlightenment for the benefit of humanity. Hellas would send teachers, artists, and laws to all countries. The rulers of those countries would be educated in Hellas. And in concert with their Greek teachers, they would be able to rule their people with fairness and justice in the spirit of Hellenic civilization. The geographical position of Hellas between East and West would help her to maintain a balance of security and peace. Kapodistrias also insisted that humanity would declare Hellas a sacred country.”[2] (emphasis mine)

There are differences in the visions of Alexander and Kapodistrias. These two Greeks dreamt about the power of Hellas in relation to the rest of the world. One of the two, Alexander, had the power of the greatest king and emperor. His word was law. He created the largest empire the world has ever seen. He tried and to some degree succeeded to Hellenize the world, or at least, he put the first stone for an edifice of reason and civilization in a planetary governance. His premature death, however, undermined his original idea for a better world.

Similar misfortune struck Kapodistrias. In 1828, he took over a tiny, impoverished state threatened by Turkey and barely tolerated by the “great” European powers: England, Russia, and France. England was hostile to the new state of Greece. It never wished to see an independent Greece. England occupied the Greek Ionian islands and had strategic ambitions for capturing Cyprus, then occupied by Turkey. Moreover, England kept in its national museum looted Parthenon treasures. England could barely stand the ambitious policies of Kapodistrias to create the foundations of an independent Greek state. Here was a well-educated Greek who had served as Russia’s chief diplomat. But even before Kapodistrias was appointed to be the foreign minister of Russia, he had created an independent and neutral Switzerland and had prevented the division of France after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.

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Kapodistrias Road in Geneva. Sign is thanking Kapodistrias: “Diplomat and politician, defender of the interests of Geneva and Switzerland at the Congress of Vienna [in 1815].” Wikipedia

Moreover, Kapodistrias was a patriot who did not tolerate influence by foreign powers. He established the Greek armed forces, schools, the statistical service, a bank and national currency, and a national service for taxation. This caused resistance among those Greeks that had large estates. But Kapodistrias favored the peasants and tried to eliminate the disparities in the countryside. He used his personal wealth for funding the government. The British watched and supported the Greek resistance to Kapodistrias. British government officials could not tolerate a free and independent Greece governed by such a talented politician. Kapodistrias was the best European diplomat of his age. In all likelihood, the British funded two Greeks from Mani, Peloponnesos, Constantine and George Mavromichalis, who assassinated Kapodistrias on September 27, 1831.

The model of Hellas

The efforts of Alexander the Great and the first President of modern Greece Ioannes Kapodistrias to employ Hellenic civilization for the good of humanity reflect the greatness of ancient Greece / Hellas. Greece had the good fortune of becoming the lighthouse of the world. For several centuries it gave birth to science and civilization of unprecedented beauty, reason, justice, and virtue. This good fortune came into being in the works of the epic poets Apollonios Rhodios, Homer and Hesiod; the tragic poets Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; historians Herodotos and Thucydides, the comic poet Aristophanes; philosophers / scientists who probed the heavens to such detail, that one of them, Democritus in the fifth century BCE, discovered the Atomic Theory and another, Aristarchos of Samos, in the third century BCE, proposed the Heliocentric Theory of the universe. Euclid in late fourth century BCE and Archimedes in the third century BCE pretty much created mathematics. Archimedes also advanced mathematical physics and engineering. Still yet another scientist, Hipparchos, set the foundations of mathematical astronomy in the second century BCE in Rhodes. He also left his fingertips all over the Antikythera Mechanism, an immaculate geared bronze computer of genius, the progenitor of our computers.

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Main fragments (A-G) of the Antikythera Mechanism. Imaged by: PTM (Polynomial Texture Mapping). Fragments seen from both sides. Fragment A incorporates 27 of the 30 surviving toothed gears. X-rays of the front of Fragment A show the Cosmos with Sun at its center. The back reveal an upper spiral of a 19-year Metonic calendar and a lower spiral of an 18-year Saros predictive dial. The Antikythera Mechanism predicts the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. Courtesy Tom Malzbender and Hewlett Packard.

Add to this extraordinary galaxy of intelligence and foresight, Aristotle, tutor of Alexander the Great and inventor of the science of zoology in the fourth century BCE, and you have lasting science and civilization power.

The Greeks lived in poleis (city-states) all over the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, “like ants or frogs in the sea and around a pond,” according to Plato.[3] To make polis living enjoyable and tolerable and to protect themselves from each other and enemies, the Greeks invented political theory, democracy, jury courts, and laws published on acres of stone and marble for all to see and read. They built magnificent temples in honoring their anthropomorphic gods. They sculpted bronze and marble statues of the gods and handsome nude heroes, athletes, and dressed or naked women.

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Reproductions of statues. Aphrodite of Melos, left. Kore (young woman) from the Acropolis, and Aphrodite of Knidos (Phryne) by Praxiteles. Painting by Evi Sarantea.

Greeks also shared the virtues of individuality, courage, the rule of law and justice, often democracy, science, technology, beautiful architecture and arts and crafts, theater, Panhellenic games, and festivals like the Olympics. And despite their conflicts, they created an admirable science-based civilization that became Western civilization.

Without Hellas: Climate chaos

However, the United States, Europe, and several other countries of the world have neglected most of the virtues they inherited from the Greeks (democracy, equality, rule of law, science for the public good and the discovery of truth, and love of the natural world). The result is awful. They are poisoning and damaging the planet and its ecosystems. The worst result of such carelessness and hubris is climate change. It threatens civilization, humanity, and the planet. The main conclusion of the US Fifth National Climate Assessment, Nov. 14, 2024, warns:

“The global warming observed over the industrial era is unequivocally caused by greenhouse gas emissions from human activities—primarily burning fossil fuels. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2)—the primary greenhouse gas produced by human activities—and other greenhouse gases continue to rise due to ongoing global emissions. Stopping global warming would require both reducing emissions of CO2 to net zero and rapid and deep reductions in other greenhouse gases. Net-zero CO2 emissions means that CO2 emissions decline to zero.”

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Edward Munch, The Scream, 1893. National Gallery of Norway. Prophetic icon of the plight of humanity from human abuse of nature, in this instance from rising planetary temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels. Public Domain.

But the most startling and devastating conclusion of the Fifth National Climate Assessment is that the US is beyond the charts. Its obsession with petroleum and petroleum-powered machines (cars, trucks, busses, ships, yachts, airplanes, leaf blowers, military fleets of airplanes and navies) have made the country extremely vulnerable to private greed, and to the forces of nature. Ceaseless dumping in the atmosphere of unfathomable amounts of planet-warming gases are threatening the country with thermal death. “The things Americans value most are at risk,” says the Fifth National Climate Assessment. “More intense extreme events and long-term climate changes make it harder to maintain safe homes and healthy families, reliable public services, a sustainable economy, thriving ecosystems and strong communities… The United States has warmed 68 percent faster than Earth as a whole over the past 50 years.”

Without Hellas: Triumph of nukes

In addition, the United States and a few other countries possess nuclear weapons, the ultimate means of extinction. The intentional or accidental explosion of a single nuclear bomb is certain to cause dramatic and planetary damage and death. Nuclear war is unthinkable. It will destroy humanity, civilization, and the planet. It’s necessary, therefore, to abolish these evil weapons and find an alternative to the dangerous system of state and international governance.

Could Hellas become a school for humanity?

Neither Alexander the Great nor President Kapodistrias could have foreseen the moral abyss of the modern world. The idea of Hellas is still relevant to forestall the resurrection of dark age, or to slow down its spread all over the planet. Kapodistrias knew his age of official slavery, European colonization of the tropics, and monarchies was destined to continue warfare as the only means of resolving conflicts and protecting the selfish interests of the landed oligarchy and governing classes. He thought that ancient Hellas in modern times could become the school for humanity. This thought was uppermost in his mind but did not have the opportunity to translate it into a formal proposal and policy. When he had enormous power, he hoped that Russia, England, and France would bless that idea by securing the territorial integrity and independence of resurrected Hellas. This country would do nothing else but cultivate the sciences for the enlightenment of humanity.

Kapodistrias’ proposal merits support and testing. Would a resurrected Hellas devoted to virtuous activities for the benefit of humanity make a difference? Could this Hellenic polis become the paradigm for for the future of humanity and the planet? I would answer both questions in the affirmative. If some ancient Greek books could trigger the Renaissance among the Arabs in the 8th century and among the Europeans in the 15th century, imagine what a country devoted to enlightenment and the public and environmental good could accomplish. The challenges are two. Convince the large powers of our time, the third decade of the 21st century (the United States, China, Russia, India, and the European Union), to embrace such a new idea and give it a try. This would demand the end of war in Ukraine. The fire of Greek knowledge created the world. It can do it again. The countries of the European Union, the United States, and Russia own their existence to Hellenic civilization.

Second, modern Greece must become Hellas, that is to say, return to its ancient virtues of polytheism, democracy, science, naked Olympics, and political independence guaranteed by the world’s great powers, which will declare the country to be sacred Hellas. The prophetic visions of Alexander the Great and Kapodistrias have enormous attraction and power. The new sacred Hellas can indeed become the school for the planet. With many of its temples restored and schools open for the cultivation of science and enlightenment for humanity, it has a real opportunity to guide humans back to the right path of living in peace and harmony with each other and our Mother Earth.

NOTES

1. Plutarch, On the Fortune of Alexander, Discourse 1, 5-8.

2. Polychrones K. Enepekides, ed., Regas-Hypsilantes-Kapodistrias (Athens: Estia, 1965), 196 (in Greek).

3. Plato, Phaedo 109b.

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.