Friday, June 22, 2012

Ode to the Greek Spirit

To my readers: the following is a book review I wrote some years ago, but I find it as relevant (and as surprisingly well written) as when I originally published it.


Who were the ancient Greeks and why do they still move us? Their society is as alien to us as their language. Yet Greece still beckons us more than two millennia since the fall of Athens. The pinnacle of Greek culture lasted a mere century, yet it has left its mark on all of western society. The great intellectual institutions, such as philosophy, science and literature, originated in Greece. Beyond these marvels, however, lies a value so fundamentally important - and enduring - that a basic understanding of the Greeks is as important today as ever.
In The Greek Way, author Edith Hamilton covers the height of Greek culture in the 5th century BC. She begins by contrasting the east and west - an approach that becomes clear as one reads along. The east, according to Hamilton, stood for faith and force, while Greece embodied the opposite values of reason and freedom. Early in the book, Hamilton writes: ‘In a world where the irrational had played the chief role, they (the Greeks) came forward as the protagonists of the mind’. Thus, the Greeks introduced to the world the idea that the universe was orderly, that man's senses were valid and, as a consequence, that man's proper purpose was to live his own life to the fullest. These are discoveries that many westerners take for granted today, but not Edith Hamilton. Throughout the book, she constantly reminds the reader of the awe and beauty of the Greek spirit.
An important corollary of the Greek view that the world is knowable was their belief in the supremacy of independence. Hamilton paints a vivid portrait of the major Greek writers, statesmen and philosophers, all of whom possessed just such an intransigent commitment to independence. She writes: ‘Authoritarianism and submissiveness were not the direction it (the Greeks' spirit) pointed to. A high-spirited people full of physical vigour do not obey easily…’ and further: ‘...each man must himself be a research worker in the truth if he were ever to attain to any share in it…’
5th century Athens was also the birthplace of political freedom. Though Hamilton does not provide a thorough analysis of this great development, she does offer hints throughout. In her chapter on the historian Herodotus, she explains his view of the Greeks during the war against the Persians: ‘A free democracy resisted a slave-supported tyranny’. ‘Mere numbers were powerless against the spirit of free men fighting to defend their freedom’. Why did Herodotus believe that free men were more powerful? Hamilton answers: ‘The basis of Athenian democracy was the conviction...that the average man can be depended upon to do his duty and to use good sense in doing it. Trust the individual was the avowed doctrine in Athens, and expressed or unexpressed it was common to Greece’.
The Greeks, contrary to popular myth, were not a particularly religious people. While it is true that they had their gods, it is important to note that they did not place great importance on mystical beliefs. Indeed, what gods they did revere were the opposite of the Christian doctrine that man was made ‘in God's image’. The Greek gods were made in the image of man. They were neither omnipotent nor omnipresent. Hamilton contrasts the Greek and eastern views of religion: ‘Before Greece, all religion was magical’. She further illustrates that mystical beliefs were based on fear of the unknown, whereas the Greeks ‘changed a world that was full of fear into a world full of beauty’.
A minor flaw in Hamilton's book is her overuse of examples, particularly in the chapters where she discusses the playwrights Aristophanes, Æschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Though she deftly contrasts the Greek way of writing with the eastern and modern approaches, the reader drowns in the minutiae. Hamilton was perhaps attempting to impress the reader with her depth of knowledge, but given the tone of the rest of the book, these examples disrupt her otherwise clear and concise writing.
The Greek Way is a joy to read. In it, Hamilton presents an integrated view of ancient Greece and the important legacy left for modern man. She successfully shows that the Greeks were rational, purposeful and happy people, intent on achieving their values in this world. If one could choose a single expression that characterises the essence of Greek values, it is man worship. The Greeks worshiped man for what he was and what he could be. In Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way, we see that spirit shine brightly down through the ages. 

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