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Greek Legacy: Classical Origins of the Modern World

Greek Legacy: Classical Origins of the Modern World

Professor Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D.
Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University; Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University

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Greek Legacy: Classical Origins of the Modern World

Course No. 464
Professor Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D.
Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University; Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University
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4.2 out of 5
44 Reviews
59% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 464
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Course Overview

Matthew Arnold, English poet and literary critic, observed a century ago when considering our Darwinian ancestor—that "hairy quadruped with pointed ears and a tail..."—there seems to have been something in him "that inclined him to Greek." Arnold was suggesting that our basic assumptions about virtually all of the major building blocks of our culture (law, government, religion, science, medicine, drama, architecture, and more) derived ultimately from the ancient Greeks.

In this course of 12 lectures you explore the continuing influence of the classical Greek achievement on contemporary life. The point of the lectures is not the often tedious claim that there is nothing new under the sun. Rather, it is to underscore the remarkable continuity of the Greek perspective and ethos preserved over several millennia.

Your guide to the Greek achievement is Professor Daniel N. Robinson, a member of the Philosophy faculty at Oxford University, where he has lectured annually since 1991. He is also Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at Georgetown University, on whose faculty he served for 30 years. He was formerly Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Columbia University.

In his introduction, Professor Robinson traces the rise, fall, and return of Greek influence on Western culture. He then explores the "Greek Legacy" in specific aspects of our lives.

Literature and the Arts

Literature. Professor Robinson explains the profound Greek contribution:

"The great literary themes that have dominated creative writing over the past two millennia were developed and bequeathed to us by a handful of ancient Greek poets and dramatists. There is scarcely a corner of the 'human dilemma' not first uncovered and then illuminated in the works of Greek antiquity.

"To achieve this abiding influence, the literary minds of that culture must have understood what is virtually universal in the human experience—that is, what transcends time and place and lends itself to ready translation across cultures. In longing to know themselves and the world, Homer and his successors marked out the contours and dimensions of the human condition, and they created a literature that was at once diagnostic and therapeutic, individuated and trans-cultural."

In art and architecture, the Greeks remain an ideal. At the end of his illustrious life, Leonardo da Vinci complained that in all of his efforts he had failed to achieve "that one thing necessary": the symmetria prisca ("pure symmetry") of the ancient Greek world of art and architecture. You'll study this pure symmetry, its source, its influence on art, architecture, and even politics.

Learning, Science, and Medicine

Learning. You examine with Professor Robinson the Greek ideals in scholarship and the relationship they saw between what you study and who you become.

Science and Medicine. You study the origins of the modern scientific method in the mathematical deductions of Pythagoras and the explosively productive inductive inquiries of Aristotle.

You explore the origins of modern clinical medicine in the work of Hippocrates of Cos and the Greek writings of Galen.

The State and the Self

Government.You see what drove the Greeks to create trial by jury—and how this system created a new emphasis on individual responsibility.

And you study statecraft. Professor Robinson offers an overview of Greek achievement as follows:

"Contemporary notions of freedom, self-government, virtuous leadership, and a decent and flourishing civic life have their origins in the Athens of Pericles, Plato, and Aristotle. These men shaped the problems and possibilities of governance into nothing less than a political science, the terms of which have been remarkably preserved from their original understandings in ancient Athens.

"Nonetheless, our rather romantic conception of ancient Athenian 'democracy' conceals the bitter resentments that obtained among political factions in Athens, as well as the principled reservations about democracy recorded by Plato and Aristotle."

The Individual. In these lectures, you study:

  • the central importance of "character" in the Greek view of the individual—character which was evident early in life, which followed "types," and which greatly determined the course of one's behavior and life
  • "invention" of an ethical system that was not derived from received religious authority
  • the polis, the city, as the fundamental unit of human being.

The Perfectionist Ideal

The course examines the Greek ideal of perfection, a theme that runs through Greek art and architecture, drama and philosophy, and even to the Greek view of body and mind.

Though the perfectionist ideal remains summoning and central to us today, Professor Robinson examines its limitations. In striving for the ideal, the Greeks:

  • were often hostile to what was merely practical; while their abstract undertakings in science were remarkably inventive, experimentation and technology were undeveloped
  • showed a tendency to require life to justify its own existence—the elitism of the ideal can foster an instrumental view of life and the devaluation of lives that do not meet the standard
  • often depreciated the common sense of ordinary citizens
  • often depreciated the little pleasures of daily life that provide joy, if not transcendental meaning.

As Aristotle said in his Nichomachean Ethics: "The pleasure arising from thinking and learning will make us think and learn all the more." This course brings those joys in every lecture.

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12 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    "Depth Psychology" From the Dance to the Drama
    Perhaps the most important legacy of the Greeks is their foundational injunction to "know thyself." The Greeks conceived a deeply introspective and humanistic perspective on human life and the human dilemma. Greek literature generated a philosophy of perfectionism. Its constant theme is the impulse to set things right, to restore balance and proportion, to return to one's natural and proper state. x
  • 2
    The Aesthetics of Harmony
    At the end of his illustrious life, Leonard da Vinci complained that in all of his efforts he had failed to achieve "that one thing necessary": the symmetria prisca of the ancient Greek world of art and architecture. What was this "pure symmetry," and what was its source? x
  • 3
    The Invention of Scholarship
    Plato's Academy was the school that first established the essential character of scholarly inquiry. Socrates and his students, Plato among them, were not content with perfecting clever argumentative devices, nor did they rely on any "sacred text" whose deeper meaning summoned the assembly. Rather, it was the examined life that provided the subject matter for those who committed themselves to following the light of reason. x
  • 4
    Science and the Nature of Things
    Although earlier civilizations had made considerable advances in technology, it was chiefly Greek scientists and thinkers from the late 6th century B.C. who established the foundation of scientific inquiry. Aristotle, in particular, moved toward an objectification of the natural world, rendering it fit for a disinterested inquiry into the nature of things. x
  • 5
    The Hippocratics
    Ancient Greek medicine featured two dominant and competing schools of thought: the Empiricists (including leading members of the Hippocratic school) who tied treatment to findings, and the Theorists, who based remedies on a "hypothetical-deductive" mode of reasoning. Ultimately, it was the Hippocratics who prefigured modern medical science in giving medicine a more naturalistic and practical orientation. x
  • 6
    The Rule of Law
    The Shield of Achilles offers Homer's rendition of the means by which disputes were settled in the pre-Classical (Mycenaean) world of the Greek people. Two centuries later, the Athenian magistrate Solon was sought as the ideal lawgiver because his judgment was regarded as "straight" by a people already exercising the power and duties of self-government. The jury system, the end of phratric (clan) justice, and the discovery of human rights are but three of the great contributions of the ancient Greek world to the rule of law. x
  • 7
    The ancient Greeks invented both the state—the polis—and statecraft. Indeed, contemporary notions of freedom, self-government, virtuous leadership, and a decent and flourishing civic life have their origins in the Athens of Pericles, Plato, and Aristotle. These men shaped the problems and possibilities of governance into a political science—the terms of which have been remarkably well preserved from their original understanding in ancient Athens. x
  • 8
    Ancient Greek Religion
    Although the ancient Greek world had no official religion, the polis was never entirely secular. A diffuse but unmistakably religious cast of mind is evident in ancient Greek life and literary works. x
  • 9
    Character and Personality
    From the time of Homer, Greek thought focused on character (the vanity of Helen and the anger of Achilles, for example) and the fact that character is destiny. Later, Plato and Aristotle both examined human personality in depth, and their ideas laid the foundations for later psychological theories and the broad framework that continues to influence research and theory. x
  • 10
    The Moral Point of View
    What are the grounds on which actions are classified as good or evil, right or wrong? In addressing such questions the ancient Greek philosophers not only founded the subject of moral philosophy, but provided the conceptual resources that today remain central to moral discourse. x
  • 11
    The City and the Civic Life
    The strong sense of individual identity assumed by the ancient Greeks was grounded in civic life. One's loyalty was to the polis. The most tragic figure in Homer is the "stateless" man—one without a civic grounding, a civic identity. x
  • 12
    Perfectionism and the Greek Ideal
    A persistent theme is found in Greek art and architecture, in Greek drama and moral philosophy, in Greek games and festivals, and in Greek religion: perfection. The perfectionist ideal was applied to body and mind, to art and science, to life in both its personal and civic dimensions. Perfection was at the foundation of the classical achievement and, to some extent, was also the cause of the collapse of that extraordinary civilization. x

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Your professor

Daniel N. Robinson

About Your Professor

Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D.
Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University; Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University
Dr. Daniel N. Robinson is a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University, where he has lectured annually since 1991. He is also Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at Georgetown University, on whose faculty he served for 30 years. He was formerly Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, and he also held positions at Amherst College and at Princeton University. Professor Robinson earned his Ph.D. in...
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Greek Legacy: Classical Origins of the Modern World is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 44.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unlike Most Other Courses (in a good way) I wish more courses like this were available. It is not an introduction, but something more like a second-year course. It does assume some knowledge of the ancient world, and some of the other reviewers have noted that with some if it's the professor's fault for gaps in their knowledge. How anyone can have a university education without a basic knowledge of the classical world is a bit baffling to me. Isn't much of this material covered in high school? I'm 174 years old, and maybe things have changed since I was in high school. I don't know. Most days I'm pretty confused. There are lots of introductory courses on the Ancient Greek World. Listen to them and then move on to Robinson. I see that Robinson has some other courses. As soon as I get some drachmas together, I'm going to buy them. Alas, that might take a while: my slow-cooker caught on fire while I was cooking some chili, and I have to replace that first. I listened to this course a second time to see if the Greeks had any advice about modern kitchen appliances, but they didn' least nothing explicit. But they had a bunch of other great ideas, and I suspect if the designers of my slow-cooker had been Hellenophiles, my recent disaster could have been avoided.
Date published: 2016-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Modern World Philosophy intoduced well. The best overall Philosophy course presented in an adequate/professional manner.
Date published: 2016-07-19
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Assumes knowledge of ancient Greek history He refers to people and events but never gives dates. I usually did not know what century he was talking about. He assumes the listener knows all about the ancient Greek philosophers, the plays and playwrights, the history, and the religion. This course appears to have been recorded 15 or 20 years ago. At one point the professor mentions buying something at Woolworth's, which went out of business in the 1990's.
Date published: 2016-06-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Poor Pedagogy I wonder whom the professor takes his audience to be, as the content of the course doesn't seem appropriate either for those familiar or unfamiliar with Ancient Greece. To those familiar with it, the lectures are useless, 30-minute rants in which the professor speaks in frustratingly general terms about a part of ancient Greek life (e.g., law, aesthetics, etc.) Those unfamiliar with it will come away with (as I've just said) the most general ideas about the course's topic and unable to say anything interesting about it, aside from something like, "The ancient Greeks appreciated beauty." My complaint here can be extended to this professor's other courses. He is no doubt very knowledgeable, intelligent and eloquent, but his courses would be much better if they were scripted (to be able to include more information), if his claims were substantiated with more quotes, specific references, and context, and if he refrained from so much editorializing. His opinions are often very interesting. The problem is that in a single lecture he gives the same opinion over and over again with insignificant variations.
Date published: 2016-03-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brush Up Your Plato audio download version and your Homer and your Aristophanes and your Aristotle and more. As other reviewers have mentioned, following Dr. Robinson, his style and these lectures takes a reasonable amount (even if surface) of background knowledge not only about the classical Greek era, but also of what used to be considered a liberal education. For example at one point Professor Robinson makes a passing reference to John Stuart Mill, just as though his students were familiar with his writings. This sent me back to check "On Liberty" just to make sure my memory was correct, or perhaps to refresh my memory. So even if this might seem to be a survey course, I think that its riches are aimed at those who have already taken a survey course on classical and Homeric Greece. For me, I was initially put off on the first lecture, wondering, "what's up with this" and "where is he going and why?" But having invested a modest amount I kept it up for a couple of more lectures and was rewarded. To the point that I went back and listened again to the first two lectures. I can understand those who do not care for Dr. Robinson's lecture style. His use of language may seem pedantic, always choosing a 5 dollar word when a 5 cent one might be available. Still, like many academics, he always chooses the correct (or might I say) exact word. As an example he mentions that his next lecture will be the penultimate one, an accurate word, not in common usage outside, perhaps of bridge. His style is also amusing, wry and very much tongue-in-cheek, something he mentions directly in a middle lecture, just in case we have not yet seen the point. Further his style reminds me of favorite professors who might bring students for discussion around a dinner table on in a pub, rather than presenting hard facts. One reviewer mentioned that his style is discursive. I concur, enjoyably. If this starts slowly for you (and it may not), have patience and give the good professor a chance to draw you into the world of the Athens of Pericles. For me I ordered courses on the Iliad and Odyssey, which I have not read for many, many years. Clearly I need to brush up my Homer. I picked up the Aeneid as well, given my surface knowledge of that work. Highly recommended, but I think that some background is needed.
Date published: 2015-12-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Mildly Recommended, with Caveats This course will appeal to those interested in classical Greece, but it comes with some limitations. First, it requires some advance knowledge of famous Greek men, including Socrates, Pericles, Aristotle, and Sophocles. Second, each lecture is loosely organized and wide-ranging, and Professor Robinson does not give a short overview at the beginning. Third, the course is at least as much about our differences from classical Greece as what we have inherited from it. Our science, for example, derives from the work of Euclid, Democritus, Archimedes, Aristotle and Galen among others, but it rules out concern with “final causes” or the purpose of things, that were important to the Greeks. Unlike our monotheistic religion, the Greeks had no priestly class and no sacred texts; what they did have was a tension between the rational Apollonian outlook and the ecstatic Dionysian. Finally, Robinson is an unabashed antiquarian and Hellenophile who emphasizes the strengths of that culture against what he views as the weaknesses of ours. In particular, the Greek polis provided its citizens with an organic unity of citizen rights, politics, religion, architecture, music and drama that we lack today. As he points out in Lecture 12, one cannot have a polis of 280 million (today 300 million) citizens. He views the “multiculturalist” attack on Greek universalism as a denial of our shared humanity. Our vast technical progress as compared to the Greeks has come at the price of rootlessness, insecurity and anomie. I never knew our modern era was so terrible compared to ancient Athens. But hey, for all the 1-star reviews others have given this course, I’m satisfied with my purchase. How much can you really expect for $16?
Date published: 2015-09-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Donald Trump explained? As I write this Mr Trump is all the rage in the media...I'll return to him in a minute. This is the second time through this lecture set. Like many reviewers, I just didn't really get it the first time. Was this a history course or just an obscure philosophical discourse on the classical Greek world? Then I (I think) began to take on a different meaning to Dr Robinson's discussion...his lectures provide a very clear insight to the way we, in the western tradition, think, right down to our most basic value system of what is good (and evil), desirable and pleasurable...what makes us us. The lectures deal with how the Greeks (mostly just the Arcadians) thought about science, religion, the arts, other peoples, the rule of law...just refer to the lecture titles. These were a patriarchal people, with rigid laws, high standards of morality, secular, for the most part, yet highly pious in their outlook. Yet they were highly xenophobic and fickle...perfectly happy to keep to themselves and sue each other at the drop of a hat. Had it not been for Alexander the Great (and his interpretation of Aristotle and Homer), the Greeks might never had been known or remembered after the Peloponnesian War...Homer's memory might well have faded. Alexander spread the word of the Hellenes and established an ideal that many, if not all, subsequent western civilizations have to some extent least in the 'ideal' format. The US was established as a secular state, based on the ideals of the democratic society of Athens in which everyone participated in the governing of their state (polis), incorporating values that were both good and bad. We were both patriarchal and pious, with a high sense of morality and piety. We promoted equality, yet encouraged slavery of the worst kind. We were democatic, but restricted voting rights via material criteria (land ownership) and, of course, women. We seem to have those Greek characteristics inbred to us (mostly since we were a product derived from western Europe). We still have many of those characteristics, even though we more often don't 'walk the walk'. This brings me back to 'The Donald' (I hope to the gods that he hasn't been anything). In the ancient Greek world he would have rocketed to the top of the heap based purely on his xenophobic diatribe, faux-piety, as well as his misogynistic rhetoric...particularly in his views on immigration and women, in general. In our sub-sub conscious he appeals to all that's 'Greek' in us...he is our Alcibiades. We know he's in it for his own gain (POWER) and not for any benefit of society, but many support him anyway just because he is audacious. Enough of the rant...The lectures are well prepared and delivered. I may have misinterpreted them entirely, but I had a great time doing it. Highly recommended, do you see, because they made me think! Wait for a sale and a coupon, do you see?
Date published: 2015-08-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Dog's Breakfast Judging this course, it may be helpful to keep in mind that anyone who has written 40 books probably doesn't give much thought to anything he says. As entertainment, I suppose the set was good enough to beguile away an idle hour but as learning, I'd rank it online teaching experiences I've ever endured, at Teaching Co or indeed elsewhere. It's as potpourri, a random scattering, dog's breakfast. At the very least, I'd have the devil's own time coming up with any takeaways: what, /exactly/ he thinks the Greek Legacy for the modern world and why he might think so. I'm not even certain exactly what he means by "the Greeks;" does he mean to focus our attention on the so-called Golden Age of the 5C-4C? Or also to reach back to the (rather different) poets and philosophers of the 6C-7C-? Or forward to the (much more different) Hellenistic Age that succeeds Alexander? Concerns like this don't seem to bother our lecturer who seems at liberty to wander freely over the entire landscape, tucking in whatever may pass for an insight as it may happen to cross his mind. In the same vein, I'd have to wonder exactly what audience he had in mind. I'd think a beginner would be bewildered as our lecturer rambles freely back and forth across ages, genres, authors and such like. I should think a more experienced listener would find it so full of gaps, oversimplifications and inconsistencies that he'd have trouble restraining his frustration. I guess I'd give him for a half point for a moderately focused and interesting discussion of Aristotelean "character ethics" in one of his later lectures. But here, perhaps especially, I thought he might want want to explore more carefully the matter of modern reception-- to spend some energy trying to understand the (highly contentious) place of the Aristotelean tradition in the larger context of modern ethical theory. Not quite a total waste of time, then, but way below par. A final note--reading other reviews, I can see that tastes differ; no matter; somebody has to set the record straight.
Date published: 2015-07-25
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