Historical Antecedents I- The Greeks, the Stoics, and the Renaissance

Death of General Wolf by Benjamin West (1770)

Although, as we have previously seen, the ancient Greeks saw human nature as flawed and sometimes tragically blind and self-deluded, the Greeks also found much that was beautiful, wise, and inspiring in human life. Greek sculpture expressed a view of the human body and character that depicted strength, nobility, beauty and that celebrated the balance and perfection of the human anatomy. The Greek’s development of an unusually curious and intellectually vigorous culture was evident in the prolific and sophisticated writings of philosophers, playwrights, and poets. The Olympic games expressed a keen interest in the cultivation of athletic excellence. Both Plato and Aristotle embraced the notion of Eudaimonia or “human flourishing” which comes from the practice of excellence and virtue. In many ways, the ancient Greeks were proponents of the first human potential movement in which citizens were encouraged to improve themselves through literacy, lively discourse, and civic engagement with the twin goals of achieving wisdom and avoiding excess. Within this vision, the good life was obtainable through a combination of luck, moderation, and the cultivation of intelligence and virtue.


This quest for the good life was further reflected in the development of movements practical philosophy that advocated the application of various insights, attitudes, and practices in order to achieve the good life. For the Stoics, inner peace and harmony with ones fellow man could be achieved by cultivating reason and controlling various desires and strong emotions. Similar to Buddhism with its “Four Noble Truths”, Stoicism held that much human suffering comes from excessive and unrealistic desires which could be tamed through reason and calming the mind through regular meditation. Anticipating the cognitive behavioral therapies of today, the Stoics believed that mind and its perceptions controlled emotion as expressed in Epictetus (c.55-c.135) maxim “Man is disturbed not by things but by the views he takes of them”.


With the decline of ancient Greek civilization and the final fall of the Roman Empire (476), Western civilization entered an extended period of economic contraction, minimal trade and communication, and low literacy. Throughout these “Dark” or “Middle Ages”, Christianity became the sole unifying force that tied the linguistically and culturally diverse peoples of the West together. Life became localized and culturally narrow. Preoccupation with worldly suffering and escape from such suffering through death and elevation into heaven were dominant motifs in the rather primitive Christian art of the Middle Ages and reflected its pessimistic outlook on human life. As increased trade and commerce eventually lead to improvements in the standard of living and a more optimistic view of human prospects, Europe began to experience the cultural rebirth now referred to as the Renaissance which began around the 13th century. Renaissance writers and artists rediscovered and took inspiration from classical (i.e. ancient) Greek and Roman cultures. A new spirit of humanism emerged which, in contrast to the outlook of the Medieval Christianity, stressed the beauty and intrinsic worth of human life.


This new celebration of human life and potential was powerfully reflected even in the religious art of the day in which the baby Jesus appeared increasingly vital, well fed, and happy and the biblical figures that Michelangelo painted onto the ceiling of Sistine chapel were muscle bound, physically vigorous, and depicted complex human emotions and attitudes. The humanistic spirit and economic and cultural growth that emerged during the Renaissance was carried forward in the history of the West into Reformation, the Age of Exploration, and finally the rise of Democracy and the Industrial Revolution. Together, they resulted in the sense of forward historical motion and cumulative economic and cultural change that gave rise to the uniquely Western notion of progress. In turn, his belief in the progressive development of society became a key element in the Western view of human nature and its progress through the processes of human development.