Greeks seem to occupy a variable space in the average undergraduate education. Most of us are probably aware that, at present, the people of Greece suffer under an economic burden that makes ours look trifling. We also know that somewhere offstage they keep all their headless marble trunks, boring Doric columns, patents to democracy and philosophy: props from some forgotten play, evidently tragic. We have improved upon everything the Greeks gave us, while they have faded into obscurity, and to learn about them now, like with any past cultures, seems rather a Platonic recollection of the way humanity did things before it learned better.
Enter Edith Hamilton. Now long dead, she is yet fresher in the ground than her beloved Greeks, and she too was writing at a time when the popularity of a classical education was in decline. She recognized that the history of the Greeks is the history of all western civilization. But that is a notion we students weary of, received with all the plainness of the Greeks yet none of their art. How does one separate antiquity from the antiquated?
Hamilton sets out first to separate the Greeks from their Eastern counterparts. Reason is easily the thing we take most for granted, regardless of our societal ability to consciously hone and exercise it. Hamilton stresses the uniqueness of this undoubtedly Greek achievement of reason. Recall their civilizational ancestors and contemporaries, the Egyptians. They are not the only contemporaries, of course, but they are emblematic of all the eastern “barbarian” peoples: ruled by a despot, obsessed with things or concepts unseen and quite likely imaginary. In the case of the Egyptians, the preoccupation was with death; their grandest surviving monuments are tombs. This fixation, Hamilton postulates, stemmed from two causes which exist perpetually, if in varying quantities: ignorance and human despondence. Biologically, little difference exists, if any, between us and our counterparts in antiquity, and the terrible standard of living is only the result of inferior technology and standards adjusted to match. What continues to elude our throttling grasp (and this is why history is important) is the trachea of ignorance. In short, the priests in Egypt formed a bureaucracy where the red tape was the mystery of religion. Their livelihood demanded what truth was there to be obfuscated, to make as scarce as possible the brittle keys to the kingdom. Thus in the East, “the idea of truth became separated from outside fact; all outside was illusion; truth was an inner disposition. In such a world there is little scope for the observing reason or the seeing eye.” Not so strangely, this did give rise to the superior mathematicians of the Eastern world.
It is from a pebbled, craggy soil that the Greeks sprung up, and the toil that their land necessitated made it equally necessary that the Greeks play. Our own sports and theatre are directly descended from the Greeks. Our literature happily bears the marks of their poetry, their prose and myth. Most impressively, the will to love life did not give rise to a dogmatic, monotonous art; the Greeks can be as sorrowful and as jubilant as anyone. Moreover, they were equally concerned with the art of living; see Homer: “Dear to us ever is the banquet and the harp and the dance and changes of raiment and the warm bath and love and sleep.” This consummate enthusiasm is toxic to the despot. For the kings of Lacedaemon—there were always two at any time—never was there a question between dying in battle and living as a coward, powerful though the coward may remain, and by such men Xerxes and his massive slave army were forced to retreat back across the Aegean.
These same peoples lived, if a superstitious life, a remarkably secular one by today’s standards. The vagaries of the Delphic oracles (as well their interpretations!) are very familiar, yet the priests in Greek life are almost unknown. There are a few exceptions—perhaps the sequestered virgins of Vesta or the augurs carefully bird-watching. But it was not a priest at Socrates’ bedside when he drank the hemlock. Conversely, when a man wanted to know how to live, he went not to the priests but to Socrates, to Plato, to the sophists and rhetors. Yet despite an overwhelmingly oral tradition, or maybe it was because of it, all Greeks were certainly more familiar with their common myths than, say, the average person claiming Christianity today. Still, these are the people who began developing free thought with such tenacious men as Socrates and Aristotle, and though it was perceived even then as an enemy of the old religious order, the militancy of that order in Athens made a casualty of only Socrates—a far cry from today’s tolls.
So it seems the delights of the Greeks are ours, as well their uncertainties, their aspirations. In so many words (to make a bit of a pun), even their language is ours, but that may come in another chapter. The value I’ve found, sifted out through the majestic prose of Hamilton, is the value of a remembrance disturbing for its timeliness. Elections are coming up. The Greeks were as fond of politics as ever a society has been—they invented the word, after all. I would venture that things today are not so simple as they were in ancient Athens, but politics feels unchanging. Politics feels Egyptian, and I’m curious as to why. Is the skin of our great old men become desiccated through the salt of voters? Mummies cast no ballots, but the riches of their tombs may buy them. The caveat of democracy, that great Athenian invention, lies in the first half of the word; the extent of the kratos is our lot to determine. Like that of the Greeks, it is a hard lot to cultivate, but one that may yield pomegranates in spring. Now how to proceed: as the glyphic human with only half a face, or the dynamic comedian?