Edith Hamilton on “The Greek Style of Writing” – William Lonn

From America’s founding to Truman’s presidency, David McCullough, pictured here in 2007, is a frequent speaker at the University of Oklahoma.

On topics ranging from America’s founding to Truman’s presidency, David McCullough, pictured here in 2007, is a frequent speaker at the University of Oklahoma.

During the panel discussion at this year’s Teach-in, the gathered scholars addressed the importance of studying history and its related fields. Art history was among the subsidiary fields considered. After describing the delineation between History and Art History as a trivial distinction, David McCullough, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Truman and John Adams, remarked that often the only available records of a civilization that a historian can study are works of art. Although this is not true of ancient Greece, Edith Hamilton’s approach to studying Greek writing in The Greek Way indicates how intertwined the study of a people’s art is with the study of their history.

In other forms of art, such as sculpture and architecture, the Greek forms have been at the forefront of the Western aesthetic for centuries. The unadorned, monolithic buildings and statues are not only perpetually physically present but their affect on other schools of art is readily comprehended. Greek writing shares no such similarity. The style of Greek prose, Hamilton remarks, is so austere as to appear clinically cold to the modern reader. The effusively descriptive English style of writing tends to the overtly personal, attempting to portray the feeling of the author rather than the reality of the subject. As discussed in previous Don Quijote essays on Hamilton, the Greeks were unique in the ancient world because they valued observation over superstition. The Greek’s perceptual understanding of the world acted as an incentive for the author to recreate his observation while excluding the feeling this observation elicited. The simplistic, declarative nature of Greek writing coincides and enhances our understanding of their worldview.

One of the most burdensome obstacles to appreciating Greek style is, of course, the language barrier between them and us. English has developed (mostly by stealing from other languages) into an exceedingly particular language; furthermore, through use, English has become increasingly metaphorical and abstract in its explanations. Although ancient Greek was nuanced and employed a plethora of “delicately modifying words,” Hamilton notes that when translated into modern English, ancient Greek prose seems unacceptably bare. The bias towards emotionally descriptive writing of the modern audience has left the translator of Greek texts with the difficult task of choosing between being loyal to the text she loves and impressing on her audience that text’s beauty. Within this difficulty Hamilton expresses the difference between the artist and the historian: Greek, when translated into modern English (with all its implicit distinctions), is no longer Greek.

Although Hamilton’s investigation into Greek writing is undoubtedly and laudably historic, her explanation is truly artistic. In a clever exploitation of writing about writing, Hamilton uses her own style of prose to examine Greek prose on a meta-level. She introduces the topic of Greek writing after discussing Greek art in general by writing:

The art of literature of Greece stands in singular contrast to these, isolated, apart. The thought of the Greeks has penetrated everywhere; their style, the way they write, has remained peculiar to them alone. In that one respect they have had no copyists and no followers.

I caught this beautiful exposition on my second read through, having internalized Hamilton’s report that Socrates once critiqued a contemporary for repeating himself and for being “ambitious to show that he could say the same thing over in two or three ways.” Look at how very un-Greek Hamilton’s first three sentences on Greek writing are. Each one has the same meaning, specifically: writing in Greece is the exceptional aspect of Greek culture that has not had a great effect on proceeding societies. Furthermore, within the sentences themselves is an adept implementation of repetition: “isolated, apart”; “their style, the way they write”; “no copyists and no followers”. None of these redundancies seem out of place on the English speaker’s first reading; however, after pondering the Greek style and then rereading the chapter, these restatements are patently unnecessary. Hamilton manipulates the sensibilities of her audience to facilitate comprehension of how Greek style contrasts with that of English.

Further exemplifying the importance of understanding art regarding historical argumentation, Hamilton compares writers’ description of mountains from across two disparate cultures and centuries to elucidate her point on the development of style. Because the comparison is incredibly well-made I reproduce them here:

Thomas Phillips c. 1824. George Gordon Byron, 1788 – 1824, was a English nobleman and leading poet in the Romanticism movement. Coincidentally, given the topic of this essay, Lord Byron died after contracting a fever in Missolonghi, Greece.

Thomas Phillips c. 1824. George Gordon Byron, 1788 – 1824, was a English nobleman and leading poet in the Romanticism movement. Coincidentally, given the topic of this essay, Lord Byron died after contracting a fever in Missolonghi, Greece.

[…] the monarch of mountains.
They crowned him long ago
On a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds,
With a diadem of snow.
-Lord Byron, 18th Century England

the mighty summit, neighbor to the stars.
-Æschylus, 5th Century BCE Greece

like some sweet beguiling melody,
So sweet, we know not we are listening to it […]
-Samuel Coleridge, 18th Century England, writing about Mont Blanc

Frost-white Ætna, nurse all year long of the
sharp-biting snow.
-Pindar, 5th Century BCE Greece

This very specific situation (conveying the experience of beholding a great mountain) provides the most accurate comparison of the different styles. The constrained circumstance acts as an experiment by keeping constant as many variables as possible, allowing the reader to acutely perceive the distinctive elements of the two societies’ styles. These examples serve the additional function of reinforcing the intellectual cultivation aspect of Don Quijote’s purpose. Edith Hamilton would be unable to make such compelling arguments without her extensive collection of cultural references.

Civilization is a multidisciplinary study. Conversations, whether between people or generations, become proportionally more interesting and comprehensible as their bases widen. The Greek Way attempts to engage the modern reader in a conversation on methodology. Hamilton’s coverage and exaltation of Greek modes of living, thinking, and production force her audience to consider their unquestionably accepted way of life. Following Hamilton’s argumentation in her chapter on writing, the most ideal way of writing seems to fall between the objective, simplicity of Greek and the emotional, ornamentation of English. Not only does Edith Hamilton inform modernity of antiquity’s merits; but also, through studying her own writing style, we can become better writers ourselves. Understanding what was made in the past, and why it was made, is essential to creating better art in the present.

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