Characteristic of this period is the centering of culture almost exclusively in Athens. The greatest poet of Doric (or choral) lyric was Pindaro, exalted by the ancients for the incisiveness of the gnome and for the art of recalling the great scenes of the myth in very vigorous foreshortenings; it is also the only Greek lyricist of which part of the opera (the epinics) remains in direct tradition. The other two representatives of choral poetry were Ionic (by CEO): Simonides and Bacchilides. Among the poems of the latter, a dithyramb (the Theseus ) has the form of a lyrical dialogue between the choir (the Athenian people) and the corifeo (the Aegean king): if, as probable, this is not an invention of Bacchilides but is inspired by more ancient forms, it can give us reason for the the way in which the tragedy could have originated from the dithyramb according to Aristotle’s theory.
The tragedy is perhaps the highest creation of the Greek spirit, which took place in Athens where it was consecrated by the state as a religious function connected with the cult of Dionysus. That it derives by evolution from a form of choral poetry seems to be attested by the part that the choir has in it. The theme of the tragedy is mainly the great events of the myth that confronted the great problems of human responsibility and divine justice. Aeschylus (525-456 BC) identifies in hỳbris(haughtiness, arrogance) a human guilt that has repercussions in other hỳbris, until the broken equilibrium is re-established by divine justice; the tragic tension, very high in the whole work of Aeschylus, arises from a continuous contrast between man’s action and this superior justice that must be accomplished in spite of or through that action. In Sophocles (497-406) the conflict is internalized, it releases violently from internal fractures in the soul of the characters, often solitary and magnanimous, characterized with psychological finesse. Euripides (480-406), sensitive to the anxiety of an age close to its decline, breaks the tragic unity, pursuing theatrical effects with an exquisite sense of the pathetic and with anti-heroic attitudes that anticipate the next age. Del satyr play there remains as the Cyclops of Euripides and fragmentary Ichneutài of Sophocles: similar to tragedy in its structure, it was inspired by the fairy-tale motifs of popular mythology with an accentuation of the funny and grotesque tones.
The play had its official consecration rather late (the first historical date is the victory achieved by Chionides in 486 BC). Of it we know only the ripe fruits, in the work of Aristophanes (only fragments of Cratinus and Eupoli). Starting from personal, literary or political satire, the comedy presents itself as a creation linked to the living conditions of the pòlis Athenian: material closeness of the environment and wide cultural openness, absolute freedom of criticism and speech, total participation of the individual in the life of the community. With the changing of these conditions, due to the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian war, the middle comedy began, of which not a single work has reached us whole. The so-called new comedy that arose at the end of this period is quite another thing: Philemon, Diphilus, Menander (342-292), whose work falls chronologically in the Alexandrian period. The new comedy, exercising satire generically by types, frees itself from the bonds of the contingent, starting what will henceforth be the comedy for all European classicism.
Even in the prose Athens elaborates with genius elements of various origins. First of all, the logographic tradition of Ionia to which Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484-425 BC) reconnects. Ionic is the dialect, Ionic is the interest in geographic-antiquarian research and the curiosity carefully addressed to the manifestations of the supernatural.
In Athens, the action of the Sophists (Protagoras, Prodicus, Hippias, Gorgias) was especially decisive. Of various origins and backgrounds, they agree in an attitude of reaction to the Ionian philosophy, denying the possibility of an objective knowledge of the world and on the other hand exalting the individual capacity to impose one’s own truth and to act in the practical field. They created the ‘prose of art’, laid the foundations of rhetorical teaching, initiated criticism in all fields of human activity. Their influence is noticeable in Thucydides (about 460-396), with whom history becomes the narration of human facts, investigated in the relationship of cause and effect.
Eloquence, thanks to the sophistication, was considered not only as a practical necessity but as an art. Among the orators that the grammarians of the later age chose to represent eloquence in the so-called ‘Alexandrian canon’, Demosthenes(384-322) represents the strong political passion, in the defense of Athens’ freedom against Macedonia.
In the field of philosophy, the merit of having drawn attention to the problems that most closely affect man, determining the development of subsequent speculation, aimed mainly at morality and metaphysics, belongs to the sophistry. Socratesreconnects and opposes the Sophists ; In fact, the various philosophical schools are linked to his name: megaric, cynical, Cyrenaic, academic, peripatetic. Founder of the academic school and maximum among the pupils of Socrates was Plato (427-347), whose work represents the dramatic search for philosophical truth, as a requirement that arises from life itself. With the conception of ideas, eternal and immutable models of reality, Plato gave philosophical awareness to the idealizing tendency already alive in Greek literature and art. Aristotle (384-322) then departed from the academic school who, among the Greek thinkers, was the one who most durably and profoundly influenced the philosophical and scientific development of future ages. After Aristotle, with the philosophy of Epicurus an individualism is affirmed which by now denounces the end of the social and political ideals of the polis.