Darkness brings fear, so we seek light, but not always the same light. At the beginning of our civilisation, in 399BC, Socrates was condemned to death. He carried a torch, the torch of reason, using it to examine everything, but some things are best left unexamined. You could not expect to examine your gods and get away with it, so he paid a price. But the light he lit was not put out. His disciple, Plato, picked up the torch, as did Aristotle after him. With each step the light increased, gaining in richness and complexity. It was not the only torch that had been lit. The Athenians also lit a torch, this time for democracy, a light to prevent tyranny. Within the Greek corner of the globe light burned strong.
Meanwhile, another Greek was worrying about establishing his kingdom. Then, just as he achieves his goal, he dies, leaving his son with a vast army. Not knowing what else to do with them, Alexander decides to conquer the world. Something he proves remarkably good at, bringing with him the light of the Greeks. Alexander died young, leaving a vast empire ready for the might of Rome to take over and so, the Romans ended up consolidating an Empire around their might and the wisdom of the Greeks.
Now, in a world with many gods there is always room for one more. Consequently, the Romans were more than a bit puzzled by the attitude of the Christians, so, they tried forceful persuasion, but the Christian community just grew. Then in 312 AD Constantine unexpectedly won a major battle at Milvian Bridge, which he credited to the Christian God. So, he stopped oppressing the Christians and changed sides. To be sure, his was an odd conversion, but it led to a massive patronage of the Christian Church. By the end of the fifth century, what was left of the Empire was Christianised – by force where necessary. It may not have been a Christianity that the early church would have recognised, but paganism was dismissed, and for the next thousand years the light of the Greeks was all but forgot.
This all changed in the fourteenth century when the Black Death killed nearly half the world’s population. In Europe it had the curious effect of concentrating wealth into fewer hands, fewer hands that now had money to spend on art, new buildings and literature – reviving an interest in the learning of the Greeks. Ironically, it was the Church that preserved that literature, not always carefully, in its vaults. And it was from these vaults that the world began to rescue that light from obscurity and neglect. Whereas, to be civilised, it was once enough to be able to sign your name and balance your accounts, now it was essential to know Plato and Cicero, and with it people’s attitudes changed. Man’s reason had become the measure of all things and a new humanism emerged with a Christian veneer. And thanks to the printing press, these ideas were now made permanent.
In the sixteenth century men like Newton showed what was possible with this new learning, encouraging others to apply the Greek light to all areas of life. By the seventeenth and eighteenth century it had become the bedrock of the Enlightenment. With the truths of the church increasingly seen as part of a superstitious and ignorant past. And so, the light of the Greeks came again to Europe. Yet have we ever really asked where the light comes from?