XXIII. The Greeks
The Greek cities grew in trade and importance, and the quality of their civilization rose steadily in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. Their social life differed in many interesting points from the social life of the aegean and river valley civilizations. They had splendid temples but the priesthood was not the great traditional body it was in the cities of the older world, the repository of all knowledge, the storehouse of ideas. They had leaders and noble families, but no quasi-divine monarch surrounded by an elaborately organized court. Rather their organization was aristocratic, with leading families which kept each other in order. Even their so-called "democracies" were aristocratic; every citizen had a share in public affairs and came to the assembly in a democracy, but everybody was not a citizen. The Greek democracies were not like our modern "democracies" in which everyone has a vote. Many of the Greek democracies had a few hundred or a few thousand citizens and then many thousands of slaves, freedmen and so forth, with no share in public affairs. Generally in Greece affairs were in the hands of a community of substantial men. Their kings and their tyrants alike were just men set in front of other men or usurping a leadership; they were not quasi-divine overmen like Pharaoh or Minos or the monarchs of Mesopotamia. Both thought and government therefore had a freedom under Greek conditions such as they had known in none of the older civilizations. The Greeks had brought down into cities the individualism, the personal initiative of the wandering life of the northern parklands. They were the first republicans of importance in history.
And we find that as they emerge from a condition of barbaric warfare a new thing becomes apparent in their intellectual life. We find men who are not priests seeking and recording knowledge and enquiring into the mysteries of life and being, in a way that has hitherto been the sublime privilege of priesthood or the presumptuous amusement of kings. We find already in the sixth century B.C. - perhaps while Isaiah was still prophesying in Babylon - such men as Thales and Anaximander of Miletus and Heraclitus of Ephesus, who were what we should now call independent gentlemen, giving their minds to shrewd questionings of the world in which we live, asking what its real nature was, whence it came and what its destiny might be, and refusing all ready-made or evasive answers. Of these questionings of the universe by the Greek mind, we shall have more to say a little later in this history. These Greek enquirers who begin to be remarkable in the sixth century B.C. are the first philosophers, the first "wisdom-lovers," in the world.
And it may be noted here how important a century this sixth century B.C. was in the history of humanity. For not only were these Greek philosophers beginning the research for clear ideas about this universe and man's place in it and Isaiah carrying Jewish prophecy to its sublimest levels, but as we shall tell later Gautama Buddha was then teaching in India and Confucius and Lao Tse in China. From Athens to the Pacific the human mind was astir.