The Athenian Cultural Development and Its Limitations

Ancient Athens has been recognized as a culture of high standing with respect to art, philosophy and the development of the intellectual powers of life.  As opposed to ancient Sparta, it focused on the development of what we call the humanities, rather than on the development of an ethical culture of discipline and privation.  For all the height and intensity of the Athenian culture, it represented an extreme and thus, could not survive long.  A beautiful outflowering of the human intellect and aesthetic sense, the flower once spent, fell into decay, leaving behind the memory and part of the cultural heritage for future generations to appreciate.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “On the other hand, we are tempted to give the name of a full culture to all those periods and civilisations, whatever their defects, which have encouraged a freely human development and like ancient Athens have concentrated on thought and beauty and the delight of living.  But there were in the Athenian development two distinct periods, one of art and beauty, the Athens of Phidias and Sophocles, and one of thought, the Athens of the philosophers.  In the first period the sense of beauty and the need of freedom of life and the enjoyment of life are the determining forces.  This Athens thought, but it thought in the terms of art and poetry, in figures of music and drama and architecture and sculpture; it delighted in intellectual discussion, but not so much with any will to arrive at truth as for the pleasure of thinking and the beauty of ideas.  It had its moral order, for without that no society can exist, but it had no true ethical impulse or ethical type, only a conventional and customary morality; and when it thought about ethics, it tended to express it in the terms of beauty, … the beautiful, the becoming.  Its very religion was a religion of beauty and an occasion for pleasant ritual and festivals and for artistic creation, an aesthetic enjoyment touched with a superficial religious sense.”

“But without character, without some kind of high or strong discipline there is no enduring power of life.  Athens exhausted its vitality within one wonderful century which left it enervated, will-less, unable to succeed in the struggle of life, uncreative.”

An attempt at the development of ethical development followed, but was primarily effective only later in the Roman world with the development of the stoic philosophy.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 10, Aesthetic and Ethical Culture, pp. 99-100