Greece: The Cradle of Western Civilization
The Olympic Torch from Athens to London
Our trip to holy places in Greece and Turkey was organized by twelve friends of the Laguna Woods Village after a considerable study of the area. We chose to tour by ground transportation instead of cruising by ship to the surrounding ports. It was logistically easier to visit the areas.
We landed in Athens, the capital of Greece and the birthplace of the Olympic Games, democracy, and Western philosophy. As we were traveling from the new airport to the central part of this historical city on May 16, 2012, we were told by a Korean tour guide that “people here are very proud of their history, but they need a national determination to develop economically.” Greece is in a terrible financial dilemma and their leaders were thinking about moving out of euro dollars, since the country wasn’t ready to par with developed countries such as Germany and France.
The first place we visited was the Olympic stadium, where the final rehearsal for sending the Olympic Torch from Athens to London was going on. The official ceremony would be held the next day. We were pleased to see the Korean national flag displayed in honor of hosting of the 1988 Games—one of nine flags from countries that had recently hosted the Olympics.
Olympic Stadium with the Korean flag
However, there is increasing criticism that the Olympics may not longer serve the original objectives and spirit, which were to promote peace and harmony among nations through sports. Like many other international competitions, the Olympic Games became commercial events, offering monetary gain and exploiting athletes according to race, gender, or even religious beliefs.
The Parthenon and Democracy
The Parthenon was amazing, since it was an important part of the great history of Greece more than 2,500 years ago, when other parts of the world were dominated by kings and queens, who built castles and lived luxurious lives at the expense of their subjects.
The Parthenon is an enduring symbol of Ancient Greece and Athenian democracy, which developed around 508 B.C. Greece remains a unique and intriguing experiment in direct democracy, a political system in which the people don’t elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote on legislation themselves.
As a member of the freshman class of Political Science at Korea University in 1957, I heard lectures about various political systems, and Athenian democracy was one of the first items on that list. After fifty-five, I was finally looking at the actual historical monuments I had heard about.
The Parthenon was originally constructed as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, whom the people of Athens considered to be their virgin patron. Its construction began in 447 B.C., when the Athenian Empire was at the height of its power. It was completed in 432 B.C.
It is the most important surviving building of Classical Greece, generally considered to be the culmination of the development of the Doric order. Its decorative sculptures were some of the highest points of Greek art.
Like most Greek temples, the Parthenon was also used as a treasury. For a time, it served as the treasury of the Delian League, which later became the Athenian Empire. In the fifth century A.D., the Parthenon was converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
After the Ottoman conquest, it was turned into a mosque in 1460 and had a minaret built onto it, but Ottoman ammunition inside the building was later ignited by a Venetian bombardment. The resulting explosion severely damaged the Parthenon and its sculptures. However, it remains a magnificent monument to the history of mankind.
The Areopagus is located between the Agora and Acropolis. During the monarchical period, the college of the state Supreme Court was presided over by the king, but around 624 B.C., that power transferred to an assembly of elders (former rulers). Its main function was to deal with the violation of laws and blood crimes. Its membership was consisted of members of the aristocracy, through seniority or hereditary. However, the Areopagus lost control of public life with the rise of democracy and began to decline after 487 B.C.
The Areopagus Philosophy
In the sixth century B.C., Greece was the origin of a number of Western philosophical traditions. The first philosophers were called “Pre-Socratic,” which indicates that they developed before the time of Socrates. The Pre-Socratic philosophers came from various Greek colonies, and only fragments of their original teachings survive.
A new period of philosophy started with Socrates (469 – 399 B.C.), who rejected the physical speculations his predecessors had indulged in and made the thoughts and opinions of people his starting point. The teachings of Socrates were compiled by Plato, who combined them with many of the principles established by earlier philosophers and then developed the material into a comprehensive system.
Aristotle of Stagira, the most important disciple of Plato, shared the title of the greatest philosopher of antiquity with his teacher, but while Plato had sought to elucidate and explain things from the supra-sensual standpoint, Aristotle preferred to start from the facts people learn by experience. Other schools of Greek philosophy included Stoicism, Skepticism, Neo-Platonism, and Epicureanism.
The Prison of Socrates
Tucked away and little noticed in Athens is the Prison of Socrates. Located on the Philopappou Hill, home to the monument of Philopappus at the summit, is set of caves—many with bars on them. Popular tradition says that this was where Socrates was held and where he was forced to drink the hemlock that killed him.
Through his portrayal in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates has become renowned for his contribution to the field of ethics, and it is this Platonic Socrates that lends his name to the concepts of Socratic irony and the Socratic Method, or elenchus. The latter remains a commonly used tool in a wide range of discussions and is a type of pedagogy in which a series of questions are asked, not only to draw individual answers, but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand.
It is Plato’s Socrates that also made important and lasting contributions to the fields of epistemology and logic, and the influence of his ideas and approach remains strong in providing a foundation for much of the Western philosophy that followed.
Epicurus on Happiness
The Changs in Front of the Parthenon
I always get nostalgic when I visit historical towns and think about the great and fulfilling life I’ve had—and that I’m having even now. I’m so grateful to all of those people I have met and with whom I’ve shared wonderful memories. As I moved around the philosophical areas, I wondered how we define our happiness.
Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) was a philosopher and the founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism. For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by peace, freedom from fear, absence of pain, and the opportunity to live a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of good and evil, that death is the end of the body and the soul and should not be feared, that the gods don’t reward or punish humans, that the universe is infinite and eternal, and that events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving through empty space.
Epicurus’ philosophy was based on the theory that all good and bad derive from the sensations of pleasure and pain. Pleasure and pain were ultimately, according to Epicurus, the basis for the moral distinction between good and bad. What is good is what is pleasurable, and what is bad is what is painful. If pain is chosen over pleasure in some cases, it is only because it will ultimately lead to greater pleasure.
Although Epicurus has been commonly misunderstood to advocate the rampant pursuit of pleasure, what he was really searching for was the absence of pain and a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods. According to Epicurus, when we don’t suffer pain, we no longer need pleasure and enter a state of perfect mental peace.
Genuine pleasure doesn’t come from parties with lavish food, drink, and sex. Pleasure is the freedom to choose what is good over the bad and to abandon wrongful thoughts when a person isn’t clear in his mind. For example, those who want more money, political power, and social recognition will suffer without getting true satisfaction from what they already have, while wise people refrain from excessive greed and are content with having their reasonable needs satisfied.
Koreans achieved the status of a world economic power in a limited time and seemed to enjoy the pleasure of winning competitions for more money, political power, and social recognition. The spirit of winning by any means helped Koreans develop new technologies and encourage entrepreneurship in many fields. However, they need to know what genuine pleasure in life is and to develop a culture that balances healthy minds and physical conditions. Koreans of the past developed a way of life as through a harmonious state of mind, derived from Confucius’ teaching and Buddhist meditation. That state of mind should be revived for those who would like to have a genuinely pleasurable life as described by Epicurus.
Epicurus also believed that death was not to be feared. When a man dies, he doesn’t feel the pain of death because he no longer is and therefore can feel nothing. As Epicurus told his followers, “Death is nothing to us.” When we exist, death is not, and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death, so in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from a false belief that there is awareness in death.
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” Epicurus didn’t deny the existence of the gods. Instead, he stated that what gods there may be do not concern themselves with human beings, and thus don’t seek to punish us, in this or any other life. Epicurus also emphasized friendship as an important ingredient of happiness, and his school in many ways resembled a community of friends living together.
Meteora’s Ascetic Life
Our tour guide offered me a statement on religion, obtained from a religious scholar. “Religions claim that gods created humans, but humans created gods. The weakness of mankind against natural disaster, uncontrollable disease, and unattainable greed needed gods and religions to rely on, and human beings have tried to live under religious categories and rituals for thousands of years. Many martyrs even sacrificed their lives for their beliefs.”
The Meteora is one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece, second only to Mount Athos. The six monasteries are built on natural sandstone rock pillars at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios River and Pindus Mountains in central Greece. The nearest town is Kalambaka. In the ninth century, an ascetic group of hermit monks moved to the ancient pinnacles. They were the first people to inhabit Meteora.
They lived in hollows and fissures in the rock towers, some of which reach 1,800 feet above the plain. This great height, combined with the sheerness of the cliff walls, kept away all but the most determined visitors. Initially the hermits led a life of solitude, meeting only on Sundays and special days to worship to pray in a chapel at the foot of a rock known as Dhoupiani.
The exact date of the establishment of the monasteries is unknown. By the late eleventh and early twelfth century, a rudimentary monastic group called the Skete of Stagoi was based in the still-standing church of Theotokos (Mother of God). By the end of the twelfth century, an ascetic community had blossomed in Meteora.
In 1344, Athanasios Koinovitis, from Mount Athos, brought a group of followers to Meteora. From 1356 to 1372, he founded the great Meteoran monastery at Broad Rock, which was perfect for the monks. They were safe from political upheaval and had complete control of the entry to their monastery. The only means of reaching it was by climbing a long ladder, which was drawn up whenever the monks felt threatened.
Saint Stephen Monastery
At the end of the fourteenth century, the Byzantine Empire's 800-year reign over northern Greece was being threatened by Turkish raiders who wanted control over the fertile plain of Thessaly. The hermit monks, seeking a retreat from the expanding Turkish occupation, found the inaccessible rock pillars of Meteora to be an ideal refuge. More than twenty monasteries were built, and six still remain today. There is a common belief that Athanasius (founder of the first monastery) didn’t scale the rock but was carried there by an eagle.
Of the six remaining monasteries, four were inhabited by men and two by women. Each monastery has fewer than ten inhabitants currently. The monasteries are now tourist attractions.
During our trip, I made many new friends, including a Caucasian and Buddhist scholar named Peter, who was very knowledgeable about Buddhism, even though he never admitted to being a Buddhist himself.
Peter, who shared common interests with our traveling group, added value to our trip. He made a clear distinction between religions and emphasized that Christianity is based on an absolute god, while anyone can be a Buddha (the awakened one), after a series of self-awakening meditations.
When I asked why he wasn’t a Buddhist, Peter had a prepared answer: Buddhism has been contaminated with shamanism like other religions that have spread widely and lost their main principles, which in the case of Buddhism is meditation in a secluded monastery deep in the mountains. Nowadays, Buddhist temples are in the main parts of cities and towns, and many monks act like priests, delivering sermons and encouraging chants to worship Buddha, who was ever meant to be a god.
“I may be a Buddhist who has been meditating alone, but nobody needs to know about my belief and practices,” Peter told me. Buddhism, according to Peter, began on the Indian subcontinent and encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama (who is commonly known as the Buddha), who lived and taught in the eastern part of Indian subcontinent sometime between the 600 and 400 B.C. Surprisingly, Peter told me that he hadn’t found significant traces of Buddhism in the area of its origin, which he had visited.
I was impressed with Peter’s knowledge. As society gets more complex, Christianity has become a vital social institution in Western culture and has spread in Korea and China, while Buddhism has yet to be widely accepted by Western society. Peter pointed out that one needs to be a recognized member of such institutions in order to function smoothly within the social needs of families, such as weddings and funerals.
New Corinth was found in 1858, after an earthquake destroyed the existing settlement that had developed in and around the site of ancient Corinth and its port, located north of the city center and close to the northwest entrance of the Corinth Canal, which serves the needs of industry and agriculture. It is mainly a cargo exporting facility.
The port of Corinth is an artificial harbor (approximately thirty feet deep), protected by a concrete mole. A new pier, finished in the late 1980s, doubled the capacity of the port. The reinforced mole protects anchored vessels from strong northern winds, and sea traffic is limited to trade in the export of local produce—mainly citrus fruits, grapes, marbles, aggregates, and some domestic imports.
We were looking for traces of Paul the Apostle, who was five years younger than Jesus and was perhaps the most influential early Christian missionary. The writings ascribed to him form a considerable portion of the New Testament. Paul’s influence on Christian thinking was significant, due in part to his position as a prominent apostle during the spreading of the gospel in early Christian communities across the Roman Empire.
Paul was educated in Jerusalem in law and shipbuilding, which helped finance his missionary work. He also worked with church organizations, initiating moves, supervising the process, and rechecking projects by writing thoughtful religious letters.
Philippi City Center
According to the New Testament, Paul was known as Saul prior to his conversion and was dedicated to the persecution of the early disciples of Jesus in the area of Jerusalem. While traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus on a mission to “bring those which were there bound unto Jerusalem,” the resurrected Jesus appeared to Saul. Saul was struck blind during that encounter, but after three days his sight was restored by Ananias of Damascus and Paul began to preach that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah and the Son of God.
Paul spent eighteen months in Corinth. The reference in the biblical book of Acts to proconsul Gallio helps ascertain that date. Paul met Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth. They became believers and helped Paul with his missionary journeys, following him to Ephesus, where they founded one of the strongest churches of that time. In 52 A.D., the missionaries sailed to Caesarea to greet the church there and then traveled north to Antioch, where they stayed for about a year before leaving on their third missionary journey.
In 49 or 50 A.D., Paul visited the city of Philippi during his second missionary journey. According to the book of Acts, he was guided there by a vision of “a man of Macedonia.” Accompanied by Silas, Timotheus, and Luke, Paul preached in Philippi. The Jewish community there seems to have been small, but Paul and his friends found a group of Jewish women gathered at a river to the west of the city on the Sabbath. Paul baptized Lydia, a purple dye merchant, who invited the missionaries to stay at her home.
Church Site of Philippi
In another account recorded in Acts, Paul drove an evil spirit out of slave girl who had been working as a fortune-teller. Her owners became angry and dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace, where they complained about them before the magistrates. A crowd joined in the condemnation and the missionaries were stripped and flogged, then thrown into prison.
At midnight, however, a great earthquake shook the earth and the prison doors flew open. The jailer nearly killed himself over the incident, but Paul talked him out of it and converted him. The next morning, the magistrates released Paul and Silas and ordered them to leave the city.
Paul visited Philippi on two other occasions, in 56 and 57 A.D. His epistle to the Philippians dates from around 54 A.D. and shows the immediate impact of Paul’s preaching. The subsequent development of Christianity in Philippi is well documented, notably in a letter from Polycarp of Smyrna addressed to the community in Philippi around 160 A.D. and in various funerary inscriptions.
Saint Lidia’s Baptistery
Lydia was baptized, along with her entire household, and Paul stayed at her home while living in Philippi. The Bible states: “Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple, from the city of Thyatira, who worshipped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her house were baptized, she begged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ And she constrained us.”
Lydia was a woman of great hospitality and faith. As a successful businesswoman, she most likely had a home spacious enough to welcome guests and to use as a Christian center where people could gather for the Holy Mass and prayer. After Paul and Silas were released from prison, they immediately went to Lydia’s house to encourage the believers gathered there.
Our tour guide had a close friendship with the baptistery manager, who was waiting for us even after the regular closing hour. We had a friendly tour of that holy place and the manager later told us that his grandfather had fought in the Korean War.
Jae Sun Lee and Baptistery Manager
After the visit to Lydia’s Baptistery, which was the last agenda item on our tour in Greece, we checked into a modern hotel in Neopolis (Kavala), the seaport of the Philippi that was used by Paul. Our trip to Greece was a gratifying experience for me to look back on the cradle of Western civilization in relation to my own life.
I also came to realize what genuine pleasure in life is and am determined to develop a culture that balances healthy minds and physical conditions. Koreans of the past developed a way of life as through a harmonious state of mind derived from Confucius’ teachings and Buddhist meditation. I need to revive that state of mind in order to have a genuinely pleasurable life as described by Epicurus.
Picture and story by Wonho Chang - May, 2012