The Greek Way

by Edith Hamilton

Rating: ★★

Hamilton wants people to engage with the examples of ancient Greece. Well, just this year I have read Plato's Republic, Xenophon's Anabasis and Cyropaedia, some ancient Greek tactics manuals and jokes, as well as listened to a number of discussions on Hesiod, Homer, Pindar, and the major tragedies of Greek theatre. Heck, I'm even currently halfway through Plutarch. So I certainly don't disagree with her that there's a lot of value to be extracted from ancient Greece. Yet despite this, I didn't enjoy reading her exhortations here.

Part of what rankled was her style. Hamilton adopts a lofty, forceful voice. When you agree with her it is soaring, powerful -- lines you might clip and repeat to others as expressing a sentiment well.

It is worth our while in the confusions and bewilderments of the present to consider the way by which the Greeks arrived at the clarity of their thought and the affirmation of their art. Very different conditions of life confronted them from those we face, but it is ever to be borne in mind that though the outside of human life changes much, the inside changes little, and the lesson-book we cannot graduate from is human experience.

When you are less sure, or less interested, the tone feels bombastic, a thin skin of argument being puffed up. It leads her into making careless statements. Some frivolities, like

The Greeks were the first people in the world to play

are perhaps forgivable under artistic licence, but others seem to be presented more seriously despite being farcical. For example, Hamilton claims that the idea of men like the Greek generals -- as able to criticise poetry as storm a city -- is unique to ancient Greece, a conclusion that seems utterly bizarre and divorced from an understanding not only of history, but modernity. Does she truly doubt that the martial and the artistic coexist in her own time, and throughout all others?

I also didn't enjoy some of the content very much, somewhat independent of how it was presented. Hamilton is very interested in art, plays and poetry, and the majority of the text is located there. I understand the relevance of these topics to Hamilton's aim, but their importance did seem slightly inflated, and her approach to them was a little repetitious -- I was surprised to find the same quotations popping up in multiple chapters, and a little wearied that the comparison between the Athenian golden age and Elizabethan England was also drawn out independently multiple times. I should mention, though, that these topics just aren't very interesting to me. I like to watch plays, not read them, and I have extremely little tolerance for (non-epic) poetry. If you differ you might enjoy this book significantly more.

I also admit a certain fundamental suspicion of Hamilton's romanticism of ancient Greece (or rather, Athens -- she says the former but almost always means the latter). I can reject the postmodern approach that all cultures are equally valuable without having to abandon all critical distance. It's sometimes easy to forget that other cultures, even ones with many parallels, can be extremely weird. Hamilton tries to draw out Greece as properly curtailing religion, pointing out the limited role of priests in public life. True enough. But what she skips past is the extreme importance of prophecy and prophetic sacrifice to the Greek. Events in the ancient world quite commonly depended upon the movement of entrails from sacrificed animals. Entire armies have paused, refusing to move for weeks because the repeated animal sacrifices gave negative omens. If accounts are to be believed, armies have even held position on the battlefield, suffering the missiles of their foes, and still not moving until the general, sacrificing animal after animal, finally receives the indication he has been looking for, and can order an attack. Modern Westerners struggle to understand even contemporary religious mindsets, and I am wary whenever I see a 'real explanation' projected back to an older brain -- and while it is not all as suspect as her treatment of religion, this kind of grappling with a mindset is what Hamilton is doing. Not merely understanding, either, but drawing on it as something still with us, a spirit of pragmatic rationality.

While it throws up sometimes unexpected hurdles, I don't think understanding the communities of the past is impossible, and it is clear that a form of Hamilton's argument is true. The Renaissance was founded on Greek seeds, and even before it Greek thought had carried currency in the Church. We in the West are their inheritors, and there are connections to draw from modernity to their thought and culture beyond just human universals. But I would prefer to go in open-eyed, to see the alien in them as well as the familiar, and relish both, rather than sweeping them to a summit and lamenting that we ever climbed down.

That has all been quite negative. To capture a couple of the quotes that I did like: Hamilton articulates well the appeal and the trap of the old Eastern religions.

The circle is complete: a wretched populace with no hope save in the invisible, and a priesthood whose power is bound up with the belief in the unimportance of the visible so that they must forever strive to keep it an article of faith. The circle is complete in another sense as well: the wayfarer sheltering for the night in an abandoned house does not care to mend the roof the rain drips through, and a people living in such wretchedness that their one comfort is to deny the importance of the facts of earthly life, will not try to better them.

And also a nice line on the perils of geography for any emperor.

The absolute monarch-submissive slave theory of life flourishes best where there are no hills to give a rebel refuge and no mountain heights to summon a man to live dangerously.