5.3 Greek Thinkers, Artists, and Writers

Even in the midst of wars and political turmoil, Greeks had confidence in the power of the human mind. Driven by curiosity and a belief in reason, Greek thinkers, artists, and writers explored the nature of the universe and the place of people in it. To later admirers, Greek achievements in the arts represented the height of human development in the Western world. They looked back with deep respect on what one poet called “the glory that was Greece.”

Mosaic with several bearded men in togas seated in discussion, with trees and columns in the background.

About 388 B.C. Plato led discussions with students in an olive grove outside Athens, seen in this 1st-century floor mosaic from Pompeii. Plato may be third from the left.


  • Analyze the political and ethical ideas developed by ancient Greek philosophers.
  • Understand how balance and order governed ancient Greek art and architecture.
  • Identify the themes explored by ancient Greek writers and historians.

Key Terms

  • philosopher
  • logic
  • rhetoric
  • Socrates
  • Plato
  • Aristotle
  • Parthenon
  • tragedy
  • comedy
  • Herodotus

Philosophers and the Pursuit of Wisdom

As you have read, some ancient Greek thinkers challenged the belief that events were caused by the whims of gods. Instead, they used observation and reason to find causes for events. The Greeks called these thinkers philosophers, meaning “lovers of wisdom.”

Greek philosophers explored many subjects, from mathematics and music to logic, or rational thinking. Through reason and observation, they believed, they could discover laws that governed the universe. Much modern science traces its roots to the Greek search for such principles.

Debating Morality and Ethics

Some Greek philosophers were interested in ethics and morality. They debated such questions as what was the best kind of government and what standards should rule human behavior.

In Athens, the Sophists questioned accepted ideas. To them, success was more important than moral truth. They developed skills in rhetoric, the art of skillful speaking. Ambitious men could use clever and persuasive rhetoric to advance their careers.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments