By Anastasia Kaliabakos
Freedom. Such a simple word, but one that has millennia worth of meaning—the core principle of our nation, the very fabric that holds society as we know it together. It is what allows us to debate principles, express our ideas, and go through our lives with the ability to think for ourselves. America’s founding was so momentous and inspiring because of freedom. The American Revolution sparked a fire inside so many other nations to fight for their own freedom of expression, and July 4th, Independence Day, serves as a reminder of this every year. However, our Founding Fathers and the framers of the Constitution did not emphasize the ideal of freedom by chance: their underscoring of freedom has its origins in Greek Philosophy and Natural-law theories developed by the Ancient Greeks thousands of years ago.
Long before the concept of America was even brought into existence, famous Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle established their own theories of natural law. By means of this theory, everything was assumed to have an inherent purpose. Going through life, man would be able to imitate those who already were aware of their purposefulness, moving towards their own perfection through the “chain of being.” Using his intellect and reason, man was significantly and uniquely poised to grasp his own nature and perceive his natural good. This originally Greek concept of natural law became integrated into Western Christian thought by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, although it did undergo development and some change upon contact with the Catholic church. Whether natural law could exist in the same way if a God existed simultaneously was brought into question, but, ultimately, the consensus was that the Greeks had begun a widespread revolution of ideas that had deep implications in the functionality of what was becoming modern society.
The Greeks were the first people to really think about these significant issues regarding knowledge—that is, the relationship between the knower and the known. Their grasp of rationality influences every aspect of Greek thinking and contributed greatly to Greek political thought. Before the Greeks, government had been something almost arbitrarily in place that was primarily held together by beliefs in religion. Governments were despotic, unpredictable, and often short-lived. The Greeks transformed how governments were structured into what we know as ancient democracy—still imperfect, sure, but a huge step on the long road to establishing the mostly-stable democratic world governments we see in place today.
America’s founders were undoubtedly influenced by the Greek perspective on government. Many were well-versed in the classical tradition and it was from there that they gleaned their sense of law and what a government should look like. In fact, the Second Continental Congress had the theories of natural law in the front of their minds when developing the document demanding freedom from their British overlords. They believed that the British had violated natural laws and, therefore, their revolution was justified by the laws of nature.
America is undoubtedly unique in many ways, but the radical ideas found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were not entirely new—they were preceded by the supreme and great Greek thinkers of Athens who came along thousands of years ago. The ideals and practices that eventually led to the American democratic republic that was established after July 4th, 1776, owe themselves to Ancient Greece. Morality, ethics, independence, the separation of powers, mixed government, the significance of natural law, and freedom—these are what have molded America into what we celebrate today. So, this fourth of July, do not only remember the heroes of the American Revolution and our Founding Fathers, but also remember our ancient Greek fathers who continue to influence the world we live in today.