By John David Lewis
The apex of classical culture is the intellectual revolution of fifth-century Athens. She was the intellectual center of the Greek world, the "school of Hellas." The political context for this development was set by the establishment of the Athenian democracy (ca. 508 BC), and the successful defense of Greek independence against the Persians (490–479 BC). These events form the background to the rise of the world's first self-government and the assertion of sovereignty by its citizen Assembly; the creation of the greatest navy heretofore seen; and Athens's leadership in an alliance that spanned the Aegean Sea. But the city's strained and sometimes violent relations with allied cities—and the failures of an unrestrained democracy—set the stage for a tragic result: a suicidal war that swept the Greek world, and resulted in the defeat of Athens (the Peloponnesian War, 431–403 BC). Within a few months the Athenians reestablished their citizen government, and set out to regain their preeminent position in the Hellenic world.
These political events frame the main outline of this course. But the deeper importance of Athens is its intellectual revolution, by which two generations of Greeks in the fifth century created architectural, dramatic, medical and philosophical achievements on a scale that has never been surpassed. Through this intellectual revolution, the Athenians created the first philosophical culture, and injected new and critical methods of thinking directly into political affairs. But a clash between the new learning—epitomized by the relativism of the Sophists and their challenges to traditional standards of law and morality—led to a conflict between religion and philosophy in the last three decades of the century, and an intellectual crisis that was embodied in the death of Socrates. The last session of this course demonstrates how these philosophical developments lay at the root of Athens's greatest successes as well as its greatest failures. (Recommended reading: Aristophanes's Clouds)
This lecture was recorded at the 2010 Objectivist Summer Conference in Las Vegas, NV.
(MP3 download; 4 hrs, 2 min, with Q & A, 127 MB)