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III. The Arts in Ancient Greece


In the first lesson, we considered the philosophical foundations of the classical liberal arts curriculum and tracked its earliest progress. In the second lesson, we considered the development of the liberal arts in ancient Israel in the lives of David and Solomon. We reflected upon the fact that while the liberal arts curriculum was not yet organized into a deductive system, it was nevertheless present as a less organized whole in the minds of ancient wise men. Moreover, we will see that throughout classical Greece and Rome the desire was to understand and teach the ideas of the ancients but rarely to promote their own.

Making assertions like this is easy, but how may we prove them? In this third lesson we will consider the liberal arts curriculum as it continues to develop among the Greeks, demonstrating that the wisdom of the Greeks was in their honoring the ancient wisdom of Egypt and Israel. We must begin by recalling the testimony of Scripture that Solomon’s wisdom filled the nations. We will see that, while many modern scholars admire the Greeks yet despise the ancient religious traditions, the Greeks were themselves eager to preserve and practice the wisdom of the ancients.

The Origin of Greek Wisdom

Plato and Aristotle
Plato and Aristotle, the masters of Greek Philosophy.

Modern educators despise the humility and contentment of ancient Jewish philosophers like Solomon, who fail to honor the relatively insignificant “inventions” of modern society. Nevertheless, many modernists maintain a respect for the Greek philosophers believing that the wisdom of the Greeks stands as some sign of human greatness. It is suggested that the cultural and philosophical achievements of Greece prove that the Jews received no divine revelation but only called “divine” that which was within the reach of human achievement. Unfortunately for them, this respect reveals an ignorance of the order of events in ancient history and the actual teachings of the Greeks, for the greatest of the philosophers (i.e, Pythagoras, Plato) eagerly promoted the study of ancient wise men.

This notion among modernists that an argument against Sacred Scripture might be found in Greece is not new. In his work, On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine faced similar opponents in his day of whom he spoke the following (read it carefully):

“When the readers and admirers of Plato dared calumniously to assert that our Lord Jesus Christ learned all those sayings of His, which they are compelled to admire and praise, from the books of Plato? because (they urged) it cannot be denied that Plato lived long before the coming of our Lord!? did not the illustrious bishop [St. Jerome], when by his investigations into profane history he had discovered that Plato made a journey into Egypt at the time when Jeremiah the prophet was there, show that it is much more likely that Plato was through Jeremiah’s means initiated into our literature, so as to be able to teach and write those views of his which are so justly praised? For not even Pythagoras himself, from whose successors these men assert Plato learned theology, lived at a date prior to the books of that Hebrew race, among whom the worship of one God sprang up, and of whom as concerning the flesh our Lord came. And thus, when we reflect upon the dates, it becomes much more probable that those philosophers learned whatever they said that was good and true from our literature, than that the Lord Jesus Christ learned from the writings of Plato?a thing which it is the height of folly to believe.”

Thus we find St. Augustine, a great classical scholar and one-time Platonist himself, working in his day to explain the Greeks’ indebtedness to the Jews. We would do well to seek out this discovery of St. Jerome, which supplies our assertion with no less support than that of two doctors of the Church, explained in a letter to a fellow bishop in 394 AD (Letter 53 to Paulinus).

“We read in old tales that men traversed provinces, crossed seas, and visited strange peoples, simply to see face to face persons whom they only knew from books. Thus Pythagoras visited the prophets of Memphis; and Plato, besides visiting Egypt and Archytas of Tarentum, most carefully explored that part of the coast of Italy which was formerly called ‘Great Greece’. In this way the influential Athenian master with whose lessons the schools of the Academy resounded became at once a pilgrim and a pupil choosing modestly to learn what others had to teach rather than over confidently to propound views of his own.”

Now, with this testimony of Sts. Augustine and Jerome, we would have quite a case for our argument that the Greeks merely continued the ancient and divinely inspired philosophical tradition, but we need not settle there. We have direct testimony from the Greeks themselves in their own writings.

In the Phaedrus, Plato writes of Socrates telling an Egyptian tale that explained why the Egyptians did not give great attention to writing. The tale is met with a snobbish reply from Phaedrus, and he is reproved by Socrates for discriminating against the source of the wisdom, rather than its truthfulness. The snobbery of his companion demonstrates an attitude present in Plato’s day similar to that in our own, while Plato’s reproof displays the philosopher’s demand that the ancients be revered.

Again, in the Timaeus, we find the telling of “an old-world story” learned by Solon, the famous Athenian law-giver. The story is the source of our knowledge of the lost city “Atlantis”, but more importantly speaks to us of the link between the Egyptians and Greeks that was known and discussed in Plato’s day. Solon, visiting the city Sais in Egypt, was received with honor and spoke eagerly with the Egyptian priests. The priests revealed ancient secrets to Solon–secrets of the beginning of the world, the first man and the great flood. The Egyptian priests left Solon with a criticism of Greek thought (which Plato is eager to relate):

“O Solon, Solon. You Greeks are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you….In mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition.”

Plato continues to explain that the destructions and wars that disturbed the Greek cities through history never allowed them the continuity necessary for the cultivation of wisdom. This wisdom was found in Egypt, where the Nile protected them from foreign invaders and natural catastrophe.

The point in all of this is that, confirming St. Jerome’s argument, we find a great sense of admiration in Plato for the ancient Egyptian philosophers. We see the influence of near eastern religious traditions on the mind of Greece’s great theologian. Rather than rebelling against the ideas of the ancients as modernists do, Plato is commending them to his fellow Greeks and to us today. Their antiquity and continuity is the strongest argument for their importance and the novelty and instability of modern societies is the strongest argument against theirs.

The significance of all this is that when we come to Greek philosophy, we find them working to recover and reflect upon the ancients! Greek ideas are not new, but are simply a continuation of the learning of the Egyptians, which we saw was the foundation of Moses’ great wisdom. Solomon was not in error: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

The Organization of the Arts

Having now demonstrated that in Greece the ancient traditions were continued, what we find there is more truly understood not as something new, but as something ancient arranged more perfectly.

For the classic discussion of the classical liberal arts, we must attend to the seventh book of Plato’s Republic, written around 360 BC. There we find Socrates inquiring after the ideal education, which does not produce this or that special skill, but “something which all arts and sciences use in common”. This “something” is nothing other than the Wisdom about which Solomon wrote, and which was urged upon him by his father David. What Socrates seeks–and what Plato describes–is the normal path to wisdom that forms the classical educational curriculum.

The first aim in education is to elevate the soul from the material to the immaterial, from the becoming to being, and for this, Socrates recommends Arithmetic. Socrates explains:

“Arithmetic appears to me to be a study of the kind which we are seeking, and which leads naturally to reflection, but never to have been rightly used; for the true use of it is simply to draw the soul towards being.”

Secondly, Socrates goes on to ask of Arithmetic’s sister, Geometry. He discourages his friend from contemplating the practical uses of Geometry and urges him to look further than the superficial. He says,

“the knowledge at which Geometry aims is knowledge of the eternal, and not of anything perishing and transient…Geometry will draw the soul towards truth and create the spirit of philosophy.”

Next in the discussion is Astronomy, the “motion of solids” which, in lifting the eyes from the Earth to the heavens, seems to be of obvious value to the philosopher. However, Socrates warns that this lazy idea of philosophy must be avoided, for it is not the lifting of the eyes that we intend through education, but the soul. Socrates explains that the celestial bodies we observe with the eyes provide us with “a pattern and with a view to that higher knowledge.”

While on this topic, we should note a very important comment made by Socrates on natural science. The Classical Liberal Arts Academy is hammered daily with questions about the natural sciences. It seems obvious to all that the study of the physical world is of the utmost importance–but it was not so admired by Plato. Socrates makes the following comment that must inform our understanding of the value of the natural sciences:

“a true astronomer…will never imagine that the proportions of the night and day…or of the stars to one another, and any other things that are material and visible can also be eternal and subject to no variation–that would be asburd; and it is equally absurd to take so much pains in investigating their exact truth.”

The natural sciences as we know them today were not unknown to the ancients, they were undesired. As the study of the wisdom-seeker was directed at the elevation of the soul, the value of the study of the physical world was understood to be limited. This is the source of the necessary balance in science education. Let’s move on.

Socrates then turned to Music and explained again the spiritual and eternal aim of true musical studies. The error of most music teachers is that they “compare the sounds and consonances which are heard only.” Socrates recommends to us the seeking not merely of the knowledge of the numbers of harmony, but why some are harmonious and other not.

Fifthly, Socrates discusses Dialectic, more commonly known as the “Socratic Method” or strategically asking and answering questions, by which

“a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, and finds himself at the end of the intellectual world.”

That’s some heavy stuff, but it’s the foundation of all true philosophy!

Here again, we find the contrast between the classical and modern curriculum–and the superiority of the former. All of the physical sciences, with all their information, observations and discoveries, lead us no further than the present life. The greatest achievements in science are mere shadows when compared with the brilliance of philosophy and theology. An education founded upon the sciences is incompatible with human nature and degrading to mankind. God intended greater things for us.

Having seen now these five arts, we may ask, “What of Grammar and Rhetoric?”. After all, they are included among the seven liberal arts, but are missing from Socrates’ list. The first, Grammar, is omitted because of its obvious necessity for any of the arts mentioned above. It is absurd to prove that the knowledge of reading, writing and speaking is important and to describe such would make for boring reading–especially among men who are already able to read and speak well!

Aristotle & “Classical Textbooks”

If we only read Moses, David, Solomon and Plato, we would have an education that rivaled history’s greatest scholars. However, the efficiency of instruction desired to make as many wise students as possible is not to be found among the early masters. Moses left us laws and narratives. David left us a variety of Psalms. Solomon left us lists of Proverbs. Plato added his provocative dialogs. Unfathomable wisdom is to be enjoyed in them all, but very few would possess the time and leisure to swallow and digest their teachings in a manner that led to a well-ordered mind.

To meet the challenge of instruction and efficiency, God raised up for us Aristotle, who was taught by Plato. “The Philosopher”, as St. Thomas calls him, did the work of organization for us. His works provide the textbooks for much of the classical liberal arts curriculum, summarizing and systematizing for us the wisdom of the ancient world. Aristotle’s works include:

  • The Organon (Reasoning)
  • The Art of Rhetoric
  • Physics (Natural Philosophy)
  • Metaphysics (Sacred Philosophy)
  • Ethics (Moral Philosophy)

When we add to these the Arithmetic of Nicomachus, the Geometry of Euclid and Astronomical works of Ptolemy, we possess the full canon of classical liberal arts textbooks. Because these authors merely summarized and systematized the wisdom of the ancient world, their works are timeless and irreplaceable in classical education. Attempts to redesign or improve fail to demonstrate any advantage and often proceed from an intent to tacitly disapprove of the original authors rather than promote sound philosophical studies. Rarely has a Catholic author judged it necessary to alter or replace the classical authors with books of their own, which should reveal something about the theological, philosophical and financial motives of those that do.


In the first lesson, we considered the philosophical foundations of the classical liberal arts curriculum and tracked its earliest progress. In the second lesson, we considered the development of the liberal arts in ancient Israel in the lives of David and Solomon. We reflected upon the fact that while the liberal arts curriculum was not yet organized into a deductive system, it was nevertheless present as a less organized whole in the minds of ancient wise men.

In our study of the Greek philosophical tradition, we have seen that there is nothing new under the sun. Heavily influenced by ancient near eastern philosophy, the Greeks identified and arranged the classical liberal arts. These arts provided a normal path to wisdom and allowed the quest for wisdom among good men to become clearer and more systematic. In our next lesson, we will study the maturation of the art of Rhetoric among the Romans: Caesar, Cicero and Quintilian.

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