What Athens Gave Us

by Conor Friedersdorf

An essay by Andre Glucksmann celebrates their audacity:

The Athenians demonstrated incredible audacity in affirming that human freedom must be understood without the gods, who are held not to be implicated in human affairsno longer at the helm, so to speak. That affirmation is the source of philosophy, as we learn from Plato’s Apology. Socrates was “the wisest of men,” announced the Delphic oracle. Perplexed, Socrates neither affirmed nor denied this, but began an inquiry...

He questioned all claims to knowledge, whether religious, sophistic, traditional, or moral, including those concerning the ultimate ends of the community, which everyone claimed to know, even though they only approached such subjects superficially or arbitrarily. Socrates popped the mental bubbles that imprisoned those who claimed, with arrogant certainty, to possess absolute knowledge... Socrates’s uncertainty revealed a rupture that gave birth to philosophy. The divine word is a mystery; it can mean everything or nothing. Zeus neither speaks nor holds his tongue but makes a sign, as Heraclitus said. Man discovers that he himself is responsible for giving meaning to this sign. The word from above, or from elsewhere, must be deciphered. This is the Greek genius: the separation of heaven and earth.