We think and feel differently because of what a little Greek town did during a century or two, twenty-four hundred years ago. What was then produced of art and of thought has never been surpassed and very rarely equaled, and the stamp of it is upon all the art and all the thought of the Western world.[…]
None of the great civilization that preceded them and surrounded them served them as a model. With them something completely new came into the world.
Very little ancient Greek art and writing has survived, but what has been found still surpasses so much of what has been created since then. This book attempts to answer why the Greek people were able to achieve such monumental feats of knowledge and production in a relatively short time span, an accomplishment made even more amazing when you consider that they were the first Western thinkers who focused on the ideas of self and freedom. Once their time drew to a close, it took several hundred years for it be resurrected again with the European Renaissance. To put things in perspective, the ancient Greeks existed during the time where it was not known how far west Europe went.
The way we think, reason, and see the world is owed to the ancient Greeks. The DNA of our mentality was born with them, in a seemingly spontaneous explosion of thought the world still values over 2,000 years later. Preceding them was a wretched and miserable human existence, of those who believed in spirits and magic and where knowledge was possessed only by the priestly classes who used it as leverage to retain their power alongside the king.
A noble, who had for years enjoyed the royal favor and then had lost it, was invited to dine with the [Persian] king. After he had feasted on the meat placed before him, he was presented with a covered basket. Lifting the lid he saw the head and hands and feet of his only son. “Do you know now,” the king asked pleasantly, “the kind of animal you have been eating?” The father had learned the lesson slaves must master, self-control. He answered with perfect composure, “I do know, indeed—and whatever the king is pleased to do pleases me.” That was the spirit of the East from time immemorial.
Why did the Greeks operate differently? Why did Greek thought happen? The author believes it’s simply because they valued intellect and the mind above all else, shifting their resources to feed that value. What a society most values will define what that society will be like. She goes on to describe the most influential thinkers and creators of the time.
This book starts off strong but degrades into blustering analysis that reads more like a graduate thesis (it seemed to be a contest in how difficult she can construct a sentence without saying much). While there were strong sections, I questioned whether or not to continue it after a powerful start that caught my interest. The author spends way too much time on poetry and theater and not enough on philosophical thinkers, war, and the ways of Greek rule and empire.
The strongest chapters are on Xenophon and Thucydides, especially the latter:
Thucydides wrote his book because he believed that men would profit from a knowledge of what brought about that ruinous struggle precisely as they profit from a statement of what causes a deadly disease. He reasoned that since the nature of the human mind does not change any more than the nature of the human body, circumstances swayed by human nature are bound to repeat themselves, and in the same situation men are bound to act in the same way unless it is shown to them that such a course in other days ended disastrously.[…]
Power, Thucydides wrote, or its equivalent wealth, created the desire for more power, more wealth. The Athenians and the Spartans fought for one reason only—because they were powerful, and therefore were compelled (the words are Thucydides’ own) to seek more power.
I was eager to read analysis of how ancient Greece left its mark on the West, but I was mostly disappointed. It’s not a bad book, but you have to slog through many pages to get to the occasional gem. I reluctantly recommend this book to those who have a strong interest in ancient Greek, but your time is probably better spent going directly to the source instead of reading the author’s analysis.
Things were simple in days of old when the single man had no right at all if a common good conflicted, his life taken for any purpose that served the public welfare, his blood sprinkled over the field to make the harvest plentiful. Then a new idea, the most disturbing ever conceived, dawned, that every human being had rights. Men began to question what had been unquestioned since the world began: a father’s authority, a king’s, a slave-holder’s. Perplexity and division came where all had been plain and simple. The individual had made his appearance and nothing was to be plain and simple again.
Read More: “The Greek Way” on Amazon