The legacy of Athens

AthensAcropolisDawnAdj06028Athens, Greece.

Your columnist finds himself surrounded by artifacts of numerous civilizations: Athenian, Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine and Turkish being the most prominent. Athenians feel most positive about the Romans, because Roman leaders became besotted with Athens. It was trendy for leading Romans to have Greek slaves to act as tutors to their children. And those children, of course, grew up even more influenced by Greek ideas. 

And Greek ideas have shaped much of the world, though, sadly, not all of it. There are many heroes of ancient Athens, of course. Thucydides, for example, who invented the rigorous modern notion of history: that the historian should try to distinguish between that which is true and that which is not, rather than just tell the most entertaining tale. Or one could pick out Pericles, who did so much to define Athenian democracy; or Demosthenes who took his stand against Macedonian aggression. 

But the defining figure of ancient Athens was one who still bestrides the western world, and whose legacy I encounter every time I enter a classroom: Socrates. Socrates was born just ten years after the death of another, equally influential, philosopher, though he almost certainly died without ever hearing that man’s name: Kong Fuzi, generally known in the west as Confucius.

These two titans of philosophy were very different. Confucius is generally credited with having authored or edited the Five Classic texts of Chinese philosophy, among many others. Socrates wrote nothing and we know of his ideas only through his students: Xenophon and, especially, Plato.

Confucius advocated respect for one’s elders and ancestor worship. He venerated family and hierarchy. Socrates taught his students to question everything. He claimed “the only thing I know is that I know nothing”, because nothing is certain. But even this made him the wisest man in Athens: he knew that he knew nothing, but others clung to false certainties.

Every academic will tell you stories of Chinese students who need to relearn the art of learning. They hand in work that has copied from textbooks, not because they wish to cheat but because they think what is in the textbook is the right answer. It is not plagiarism to tell me that two plus two equals four. That is simply getting the answer right.

But the western tradition is the Socratic tradition: question everything. There is no such thing as a “right” answer. There is only reason and debate. All education is the ongoing battle between the ideas of Confucius and those of Socrates.

And that is why the Roman conquest of Greece was so important. If you participate in a relay race, your greatest task is not to run as fast as you can (though that is good too), it is to pass on the baton to the next athlete. When Rome conquered Athens, Athens conquered Rome: and Rome passed on the baton of Greek thought to the rest of Europe. The greatest achievement of Rome, therefore, was the conquest of Britain, for it was Britain who carried these same ideas to the world. From Athens, to Rome, to Britain, and to the United States: the baton had been passed again. 

Probably, without the passing of this baton, Confucian thought, not Socratic, would dominate universities around the world. There would be no representative government, no rule of law, no jury trials. These are the legacy of Athens.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

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