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Ancient Greek Environmentalism: What Can We Learn?

The academic study of classics sheds new light on how Western Civilization established itself. Ancient Greek philosophers wrote extensively on human behavior and their place in the world. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are the most influential, but many lesser-known philosophers provided valuable lessons on the relationship between humanity and nature. This work is believed to be one of the first instances of environmentalism in pre-modern history, and its influence carried on millennia after ancient Greek civilization was gone. 

Clara Bosak-Schroeder, professor of classics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently wrote a book about how ancient Greek culture was influenced by their natural environment and how it relates to the modern ecological crisis. Her writings focus heavily on two philosophers, Herodotus and Diodorus. 

They wrote extensive ethnographies — or travel writings — depicting the culture and customs of other peoples in Africa, the Middle East, and India. As the Greeks expanded south and east, they encountered new foods, languages, landscapes, and types of governance. 

The writers spent a lot of time talking about diet and health. Food was often the most important aspect of the ancient world’s understanding of the environment. However, different cultures showed higher levels of respect for animals. Bosak-Schroeder paid close attention to this in her research.

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Diodorus wrote a story about an African community that hunted with seals in tandem. They even shared child care. Although a fabricated tale, it highlights the relationship between humans and the animal kingdom. He also wrote about how Egyptians honored their sacred animals by giving them “rich, refined foods.” There was a level of respect for animals among Greek philosophers.

“The idea underlying the story is that we can live richer, fuller lives if we take the well-being of other species into account,” Bosak-Schroeder said in an interview with the university news bureau. “The Greek writers were not environmentalists and not interested in animal welfare for its own sake, but they saw humans depending on other species. It was a pragmatic approach to their own well-being that was connected to other beings on the planet.”

While the Greeks were not environmentalists, they understood that nature was powerful. In Homer’s “Iliad and “Odyssey,” the protagonists constantly fight the weather, the sea, and themselves.

Most scholarly studies of these epic poems outline early understandings of geography, cultural blending, and complex human interactions and emotions. 

However, mythological symbolism like the Cyclops and the wrath of Poseidon detail how the natural world is violent. The Trojan Horse can serve as a lesson about consumption, hubris, and greed. Some academics believe these writings also contain agroecological lessons that can improve modern agriculture. 

John W. Head, a Wagstaff distinguished professor of law at the University of Kansas, wrote a book explaining the environmental lessons in Homer’s work.  

Photo Courtesy Constantinos Kollias

“For instance, I see in the notion of ‘nostos’ — homecoming — that plays such a central role in the ‘Odyssey’ an inspiration for our own ‘homecoming’ as a species eager to return to a much more integrated place in the natural systems that make our Earth a living planet,” he told the KU News Service.

“Likewise, I draw from the notion of ‘moira’ — fate, or destiny — to propose that we regard our own fate (as a species) to restore our planet to one that will continue to be habitable for our descendants and for other species with which we share it,” Head continued. “In my view, these ideas of ‘homecoming’ and of intergenerational equity and interspecies equity can seem quite abstract unless we somehow link them to a compelling narrative. In the book, I call for ‘a new Homeric epic’ that will provide that narrative.”

Plato and Aristotle also wrote heavily on respecting nature. They prophesied that humanity was superior to nature based on our rational character. Plants and animals don’t have higher thought or the art of reason, thus putting humanity higher in the “creaturely hierarchy.” Plato’s tripartite view of the self (reason, spirit, and appetite) distinguishes humans from wild animals. 

These philosophers understood that ecological exploitation could harm species. Aristotle outlined how reproduction works in nature. Human influence could make it harder for animals to repopulate if they overhunt or slaughter too many. However, the Greeks didn’t understand the concept of extinction and that humanity could permanently affect the environment. 

Scholar J. Donald Hughes wrote that ancient Mediterranean ecology was affected by the Greek civilization’s expansion. His book uses first-hand accounts of landscape data from Greco-Roman writers like Strabo, Xenophon, Horace, Thucydides, and Pliny the Elder. From 600 B.C.E. to 300 C.E., the physical landscape changed due to war, urban expansion, climate change, farming, disease, and deforestation.

It suggests the Greeks — and later the Romans — did not fully understand how the environment contributed to the rise and fall of these civilizations.

What’s the lesson to take so far? The Greeks established a basic understanding of our relationship with nature. They realized that humans were mentally superior to animals, but there are limits to how much control one can have over the natural world. 

These lessons proved valuable to the Romans and the papacy. Renaissance-era artists made revolutionary scientific discoveries based on classical literature. The Greeks laid a foundation for Western civilization to understand Mother Nature, and they referred to the planet as such in their myths.

Photo Courtesy Wikimedia

If Bosak-Schroeder says they weren’t environmentalists, what were they? They were knowledgeable and probably the most advanced area of Europe for two millennia. The Greeks take credit for creating democracy and philosophical discourse. They also created military dictatorships and expanded beyond the Aegean Sea. 

They also influenced the Mediterranean region to adopt their phonetic system, philosophies, types of government, and social hierarchy. The Greeks were knowledge-spreaders, but it’s unclear if they imposed respect for nature on their conquered subjects. 

In the ancient Roman environmentalism piece, it was noted that modern ecologists believed the Romans failed the sustainable development test because of their overly ambitious plans of conquests. The Greeks would fail it, too, but not for that reason. 

Ancient Greece lacked central authority. A loose network of city-states who consistently warred against each other failed to create and maintain a large empire. Athens wasn’t concerned about Sparta flooding and losing its grain supplies, and vice versa. Thus, each city had its own culture and style. It wasn’t like the Romans who took over vast sections of land and forced the people to adhere to their customs. 

However, one era of Greek philosophy somewhat aligns itself with today’s environmentalism movement. Stoic philosophers like Seneca described how humans can seem narrow-minded in their approach to nature while basking in its glory. He said that humans are exploitive, noting how wealthy Greek elites paved over the earth and dug mines for gold. These arguments align well with modern ecological protection discourse. 

The Greeks were incredibly intelligent and influential in forming the early foundations of Western Civilization. While they were not overly concerned with protecting their environment, their scholars understood nature had to be respected. The lesson they taught is we can’t exploit our advantages over animals and the world without checks and balances.

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