Although the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations are illustrious models of social organization, it is often the Greek and Hebrew traditions that Westerners recognize as the source of Western thought. This notion is changing--being revised--as scholars come to realize the dynamic impact of Mesopotamian myth on the ideology of the western world. Yet the Greeks and their stories and their art are undeniably impressive. What ties us to the Greeks and their vision of humanity? To begin with, we can underscore the Greeks' insistence that humans--with their ability to reason--can master and codify the known and unknown world. Oedipus' answer to the Sphinx's question epitomizes this anthropocentric inclination toward reason and inquiry--MAN is the answer to the riddle of life; the sphinx, as a signifier of superstition, is forever cast into the abyss. We begin to redefine the sources of affliction,using our cognitive powers to increase our control over self-destructive human behavior.
In the beginning of Homer's Odyssey, Zeus looks down from Olympus and proclaims that mortals have, for too long, blamed the gods for human misery and suffering. In the first narrative moment of Western Civilization, humans are asked to take responsibility for their own actions. We become sociopolitical animals, accepting that happiness is best achieved through living in an interdependent relationship with other members of a community. We begin to live inside stories that dramatize the pitfalls of greed, arrogance, and folly.
CIVILIZATION, 1900--1100 BC
A warrior cult defines the entire Pelponnesus; Mycenaean civilization is structured somewhat like the feudal system which appears later in the fifth century BC, most prevalent in the Hellenistic age when the Greeks created political systems larger than the city-state. When the citadels on the island of Crete fall in 1380 BC, the mainland Greeks extend their warrior kingdoms throughout the Mediterranean. In 1250 BC, Greek warriors (in legend and in history) attack Troy. Three hundred years later in the Archaic Age, the Trojan War will become the inspiration of the Homeric epics, an oral tradition of storytelling transformed into written poetic records of mythology through Homer's use of a revolutionary phonetic Greek alphabet. In 1100 BC the Dorians invade Greece from the north and the age of Mycenaean rule comes to a mysterious end. A three century hiatus know as the Dark Ages--characterized by an absolute void of information about life on the Greek peninsula--exists between the age of the living Mycenaean civilization in the early twelfth century before the fall of Troy and the age in which Homer's epic poems the Iliad and Odyssey were written.
The Mycenaeans are presented by Homer as having a heroic code, which became a catalyst for developing ethics and philosophizing about human experience.
THE DARK AGES, 1100 BC--800 BC
Life reverted to simpler patterns. There is no writing--oral culture only.
THE ARCHAIC AGE 800 BC--479 BC
The Age of Homer. At the end of the Dark Ages, the Greeks emerge into a political and cultural experiment. They develop a common phonetic language. This age is sometimes referred to as the rebirth of Greek culture and Western Civilization, whereby we see the foundations of a new world order: the Polis, a small defined city/state. Aristocratic oligarchies exist as the form of government. The Homeric age is, in contrast to the classical age of Athens, markedly heterosexual. Slavery is common. The Greeks develop a variety of literary, philosophical, and artistic forms to probe the meaning of life. This gives rise to what we call the "humanities"--through the employment and teaching and study of worthy models, through artistic expression, savvy dialectics, and the conscious recognition of social and political responsibility, the Greeks aspire toward cultural excellence.