The apex of classical culture is the intellectual revolution of fifth-century Athens: she was nothing less than the intellectual capital and the exemplar of the Greek world. The political context for this development was set by the establishment of the Athenian democracy (ca. 508 BC) and the successful defense of Greek independence against the Persians (490–479 BC). These events form the background to the rise of the world’s first self-government and the assertion of sovereignty by its citizen Assembly; the creation of the greatest navy yet to be seen; and Athens’s leadership in an alliance that brought unity in the Aegean Sea. But the city’s strained and sometimes violent relations with allied cities—and the failures of an unlimited democracy—set the stage for a tragic result: a suicidal war that swept the Greek world, resulting in the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431–403 BC).

These political events frame the main direction of this course. But as historian John Lewis explains, the deeper importance of Athens is the intellectual revolution by which two generations of Greeks created architectural, artistic, medical, and philosophical achievements on a scale that has never been surpassed. Through this intellectual revolution, the Athenians created the first philosophical culture, injecting new and critical methods of thinking directly into political affairs. But a clash between the new learning and the traditional norms of law and morality led to a conflict between religion and philosophy in the last three decades of the century, a crisis that culminated in the death of Socrates. The last session of this course demonstrates how these philosophical developments lay at the root of Athens’s greatest successes, as well as its greatest failures.

This lecture was recorded at the 2010 Objectivist Summer Conference in Las Vegas, NV.

This course includes a handout.