Greek Legacy: Classical Origins of the Modern World

Course No. 464
Professor Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D.
Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University; Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University
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Course No. 464
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Course Overview

Matthew Arnold, English poet and literary critic, observed a century ago when considering our Darwinian ancestor—that "hairy quadruped with pointed ears and a tail..."—there seems to have been something in him "that inclined him to Greek." Arnold was suggesting that our basic assumptions about virtually all of the major building blocks of our culture (law, government, religion, science, medicine, drama, architecture, and more) derived ultimately from the ancient Greeks.

In this course of 12 lectures you explore the continuing influence of the classical Greek achievement on contemporary life. The point of the lectures is not the often tedious claim that there is nothing new under the sun. Rather, it is to underscore the remarkable continuity of the Greek perspective and ethos preserved over several millennia.

Your guide to the Greek achievement is Professor Daniel N. Robinson, a member of the Philosophy faculty at Oxford University, where he has lectured annually since 1991. He is also Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at Georgetown University, on whose faculty he served for 30 years. He was formerly Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Columbia University.

In his introduction, Professor Robinson traces the rise, fall, and return of Greek influence on Western culture. He then explores the "Greek Legacy" in specific aspects of our lives.

Literature and the Arts

Literature. Professor Robinson explains the profound Greek contribution:

"The great literary themes that have dominated creative writing over the past two millennia were developed and bequeathed to us by a handful of ancient Greek poets and dramatists. There is scarcely a corner of the 'human dilemma' not first uncovered and then illuminated in the works of Greek antiquity.

"To achieve this abiding influence, the literary minds of that culture must have understood what is virtually universal in the human experience—that is, what transcends time and place and lends itself to ready translation across cultures. In longing to know themselves and the world, Homer and his successors marked out the contours and dimensions of the human condition, and they created a literature that was at once diagnostic and therapeutic, individuated and trans-cultural."

In art and architecture, the Greeks remain an ideal. At the end of his illustrious life, Leonardo da Vinci complained that in all of his efforts he had failed to achieve "that one thing necessary": the symmetria prisca ("pure symmetry") of the ancient Greek world of art and architecture. You'll study this pure symmetry, its source, its influence on art, architecture, and even politics.

Learning, Science, and Medicine

Learning. You examine with Professor Robinson the Greek ideals in scholarship and the relationship they saw between what you study and who you become.

Science and Medicine. You study the origins of the modern scientific method in the mathematical deductions of Pythagoras and the explosively productive inductive inquiries of Aristotle.

You explore the origins of modern clinical medicine in the work of Hippocrates of Cos and the Greek writings of Galen.

The State and the Self

Government.You see what drove the Greeks to create trial by jury—and how this system created a new emphasis on individual responsibility.

And you study statecraft. Professor Robinson offers an overview of Greek achievement as follows:

"Contemporary notions of freedom, self-government, virtuous leadership, and a decent and flourishing civic life have their origins in the Athens of Pericles, Plato, and Aristotle. These men shaped the problems and possibilities of governance into nothing less than a political science, the terms of which have been remarkably preserved from their original understandings in ancient Athens.

"Nonetheless, our rather romantic conception of ancient Athenian 'democracy' conceals the bitter resentments that obtained among political factions in Athens, as well as the principled reservations about democracy recorded by Plato and Aristotle."

The Individual. In these lectures, you study:

  • the central importance of "character" in the Greek view of the individual—character which was evident early in life, which followed "types," and which greatly determined the course of one's behavior and life
  • "invention" of an ethical system that was not derived from received religious authority
  • the polis, the city, as the fundamental unit of human being.

The Perfectionist Ideal

The course examines the Greek ideal of perfection, a theme that runs through Greek art and architecture, drama and philosophy, and even to the Greek view of body and mind.

Though the perfectionist ideal remains summoning and central to us today, Professor Robinson examines its limitations. In striving for the ideal, the Greeks:

  • were often hostile to what was merely practical; while their abstract undertakings in science were remarkably inventive, experimentation and technology were undeveloped
  • showed a tendency to require life to justify its own existence—the elitism of the ideal can foster an instrumental view of life and the devaluation of lives that do not meet the standard
  • often depreciated the common sense of ordinary citizens
  • often depreciated the little pleasures of daily life that provide joy, if not transcendental meaning.

As Aristotle said in his Nichomachean Ethics: "The pleasure arising from thinking and learning will make us think and learn all the more." This course brings those joys in every lecture.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    "Depth Psychology" From the Dance to the Drama
    Perhaps the most important legacy of the Greeks is their foundational injunction to "know thyself." The Greeks conceived a deeply introspective and humanistic perspective on human life and the human dilemma. Greek literature generated a philosophy of perfectionism. Its constant theme is the impulse to set things right, to restore balance and proportion, to return to one's natural and proper state. x
  • 2
    The Aesthetics of Harmony
    At the end of his illustrious life, Leonard da Vinci complained that in all of his efforts he had failed to achieve "that one thing necessary": the symmetria prisca of the ancient Greek world of art and architecture. What was this "pure symmetry," and what was its source? x
  • 3
    The Invention of Scholarship
    Plato's Academy was the school that first established the essential character of scholarly inquiry. Socrates and his students, Plato among them, were not content with perfecting clever argumentative devices, nor did they rely on any "sacred text" whose deeper meaning summoned the assembly. Rather, it was the examined life that provided the subject matter for those who committed themselves to following the light of reason. x
  • 4
    Science and the Nature of Things
    Although earlier civilizations had made considerable advances in technology, it was chiefly Greek scientists and thinkers from the late 6th century B.C. who established the foundation of scientific inquiry. Aristotle, in particular, moved toward an objectification of the natural world, rendering it fit for a disinterested inquiry into the nature of things. x
  • 5
    The Hippocratics
    Ancient Greek medicine featured two dominant and competing schools of thought: the Empiricists (including leading members of the Hippocratic school) who tied treatment to findings, and the Theorists, who based remedies on a "hypothetical-deductive" mode of reasoning. Ultimately, it was the Hippocratics who prefigured modern medical science in giving medicine a more naturalistic and practical orientation. x
  • 6
    The Rule of Law
    The Shield of Achilles offers Homer's rendition of the means by which disputes were settled in the pre-Classical (Mycenaean) world of the Greek people. Two centuries later, the Athenian magistrate Solon was sought as the ideal lawgiver because his judgment was regarded as "straight" by a people already exercising the power and duties of self-government. The jury system, the end of phratric (clan) justice, and the discovery of human rights are but three of the great contributions of the ancient Greek world to the rule of law. x
  • 7
    The ancient Greeks invented both the state—the polis—and statecraft. Indeed, contemporary notions of freedom, self-government, virtuous leadership, and a decent and flourishing civic life have their origins in the Athens of Pericles, Plato, and Aristotle. These men shaped the problems and possibilities of governance into a political science—the terms of which have been remarkably well preserved from their original understanding in ancient Athens. x
  • 8
    Ancient Greek Religion
    Although the ancient Greek world had no official religion, the polis was never entirely secular. A diffuse but unmistakably religious cast of mind is evident in ancient Greek life and literary works. x
  • 9
    Character and Personality
    From the time of Homer, Greek thought focused on character (the vanity of Helen and the anger of Achilles, for example) and the fact that character is destiny. Later, Plato and Aristotle both examined human personality in depth, and their ideas laid the foundations for later psychological theories and the broad framework that continues to influence research and theory. x
  • 10
    The Moral Point of View
    What are the grounds on which actions are classified as good or evil, right or wrong? In addressing such questions the ancient Greek philosophers not only founded the subject of moral philosophy, but provided the conceptual resources that today remain central to moral discourse. x
  • 11
    The City and the Civic Life
    The strong sense of individual identity assumed by the ancient Greeks was grounded in civic life. One's loyalty was to the polis. The most tragic figure in Homer is the "stateless" man—one without a civic grounding, a civic identity. x
  • 12
    Perfectionism and the Greek Ideal
    A persistent theme is found in Greek art and architecture, in Greek drama and moral philosophy, in Greek games and festivals, and in Greek religion: perfection. The perfectionist ideal was applied to body and mind, to art and science, to life in both its personal and civic dimensions. Perfection was at the foundation of the classical achievement and, to some extent, was also the cause of the collapse of that extraordinary civilization. x

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 56-page digital course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

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Your professor

Daniel N. Robinson

About Your Professor

Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D.
Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University; Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University
Dr. Daniel N. Robinson (1937–2018) was a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University, where he lectured annually since 1991. He was also Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at Georgetown University, on whose faculty he served for 30 years. He was formerly Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, and he also held positions at Amherst College and at Princeton University. Professor Robinson earned...
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Greek Legacy: Classical Origins of the Modern World is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 49.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding course! Prof. Robinson is one of the most engaging, interesting, and articulate lecturers in the Great Courses's stable of instructors, and he is in good form in this short course concerning Greek Legacy. The course material is well-chosen, and Prof. Robinson's insights and perspective make each lecture a delight. The audio version is entirely adequate. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2020-01-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Delightful introduction to Hellenic world I had a very basic understanding of Classical history and purchased this course as an entry point into this world. I had read reviews here that recommended some prior knowledge of Greek history to appreciate the course, but I decided to take the risk (and the price was right!). I'm so glad that I did choose this course as an introduction. Professor Robinson is one of a kind. He is brimming over with love of this topic, and without understanding some of the references to specific individuals, gods, and places, I still found myself swept up in the stories and captivated by the connections he makes between the Hellenic world and the modern world (which he argues is so steeped Hellenic influences that it is quite impossible to objectively observe them). The course was recorded over 20 years ago, and so there are some parts that seem a bit dated and some concepts that perhaps would be presented differently today (he gives rather short shrift to multiculturalism, which feels a bit out of sync with the current public discourse). But I viewed these lectures as an artifact of the time in which they were recorded and accepted them as that. I listened to the audio download on my commute. At the conclusion of a few of the lectures, I sat in my car and let the lesson soak in a bit longer. Professor Robinson has a singular way of threading together facts, stories, his own (admittedly biased) opinions, and a little poetry to weave a beautiful 30-minute lecture that deserves to be savored. I think my next course will be a more factual, chronological Greek history, but I am so glad the foundation of my learning started with this sweeping survey of the Hellenic world and its profound impact on the world today.
Date published: 2019-02-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exact and captivating title The course delved into the ideas and ideals emanating from classical culture, identifying authors and making the selections accessible to the listener. While many are familiar, speaking for myself, they not brought into modern discourse as often as they should be. Professor Robinson elaborated on the ideas and their sources and juxtaposed them against the modern world. I especially appreciated the "tyranny-fear, monarchy-honor, and democracy-virtue conjunctions Once again I've recognized we know and are confronted with more about what is unimportant than ideas that have depth and guidance.
Date published: 2018-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Course Like No Other This is not a course to zip through and cross off one’s to-do list. Doing that will just lead to frustration and likely a one-star review for the “Greek Legacy”. Nor is this a course for those without some familiarity with ancient Greek history, though I believe for those willing to listen attentively to Professor Robinson, these lectures might prove a quite useful orientation to future study. Finally, this is not a course with a highly structured and clearly cut series of lectures typically employed by TC academics, but is delivered more like ruminations (and of a high order) on key aspects of ancient Greek life and culture. I listened to the course twice right through, and then went back to several of the lectures. This was helpful in appreciating the richness of the content. Having taken a great number of TC courses on the ancient Greeks, I found this one refreshing and surprisingly interesting and enlightening. I learned a great deal which I had not picked up in other courses and/or had not fully appreciated, such as the wider importance of “know thyself” to the ancient Greeks; the nature of the foundational polis (how radically different it is from the usual way it is depicted!); why there was a great concern for the quality of the visual and musical in daily life; as well as acknowledgement of such negative elements as the conflict-ridden/litigious nature of life in classical Greece (often as bad or even worse than what we experience today) and prevalent xenophobia and disdain for the practical. These are just a sampling, leavened by Professor Robinson’s reference to many of the literary and historical works of the ancient Greeks. He especially references myths; Homer (where, for instance, he contrasts Helen and Penelope on the matter of character); the tragedians; Plato and Thucydides; and, with pride of place, Aristotle. In addition to ruminating on the ancient Greeks to great effect, there is a lot of the curmudgeon on display with some slighting comments about political correctness, vintage 1998. So, if you are turned off by such comments, be warned. There is also a good deal of dry humor. My favorite is Professor Robinson’s comment to an Irish friend about how medieval Irish monks played a key role in preserving the classical tradition and thereby western civilization, to which his friend replied, “Ah, so they are blaming us for that too!” While this course brings out very well the continuing influence of classical Greek achievement on contemporary life, it ends on a cautionary note: “In our practical, down-to-earth fashion we have achieved technical feats far beyond anything the ancients could imagine, but that progress is accompanied by insecurity, rootlessness, and anomie…We have largely abandoned the notion that government should cultivate the civic dimensions of life…We are also losing our Hellenic-derived sense that all human beings are united by shared natural traits. Multicultural preoccupation can eclipse the universal elements that give substance to our shared humanity.” (Course Guidebook, Page 48). The 52-page guidebook for this 1998 course is fine, but I would have appreciated fuller course summaries. The timeline is helpful and the one-page bibliography points one in the right direction for further study, despite the entries being quite dated. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2018-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unlike Most Other Courses (in a good way) I wish more courses like this were available. It is not an introduction, but something more like a second-year course. It does assume some knowledge of the ancient world, and some of the other reviewers have noted that with some if it's the professor's fault for gaps in their knowledge. How anyone can have a university education without a basic knowledge of the classical world is a bit baffling to me. Isn't much of this material covered in high school? I'm 174 years old, and maybe things have changed since I was in high school. I don't know. Most days I'm pretty confused. There are lots of introductory courses on the Ancient Greek World. Listen to them and then move on to Robinson. I see that Robinson has some other courses. As soon as I get some drachmas together, I'm going to buy them. Alas, that might take a while: my slow-cooker caught on fire while I was cooking some chili, and I have to replace that first. I listened to this course a second time to see if the Greeks had any advice about modern kitchen appliances, but they didn' least nothing explicit. But they had a bunch of other great ideas, and I suspect if the designers of my slow-cooker had been Hellenophiles, my recent disaster could have been avoided.
Date published: 2016-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Modern World Philosophy intoduced well. The best overall Philosophy course presented in an adequate/professional manner.
Date published: 2016-07-19
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Assumes knowledge of ancient Greek history He refers to people and events but never gives dates. I usually did not know what century he was talking about. He assumes the listener knows all about the ancient Greek philosophers, the plays and playwrights, the history, and the religion. This course appears to have been recorded 15 or 20 years ago. At one point the professor mentions buying something at Woolworth's, which went out of business in the 1990's.
Date published: 2016-06-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Poor Pedagogy I wonder whom the professor takes his audience to be, as the content of the course doesn't seem appropriate either for those familiar or unfamiliar with Ancient Greece. To those familiar with it, the lectures are useless, 30-minute rants in which the professor speaks in frustratingly general terms about a part of ancient Greek life (e.g., law, aesthetics, etc.) Those unfamiliar with it will come away with (as I've just said) the most general ideas about the course's topic and unable to say anything interesting about it, aside from something like, "The ancient Greeks appreciated beauty." My complaint here can be extended to this professor's other courses. He is no doubt very knowledgeable, intelligent and eloquent, but his courses would be much better if they were scripted (to be able to include more information), if his claims were substantiated with more quotes, specific references, and context, and if he refrained from so much editorializing. His opinions are often very interesting. The problem is that in a single lecture he gives the same opinion over and over again with insignificant variations.
Date published: 2016-03-04
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