Friday, August 25, 2006

Edith Hamilton

Over the past nine months or so I’ve read two books by Edith Hamilton: The Greek Way and The Roman Way. I thoroughly enjoyed both and highly recommend them to anyone interested in a general survey and appraisal of Greek and Roman cultures respectively.

The principal quality which attracts me to these works is Ms. Hamilton’s willingness to generalize and to make value judgments on each of the cultures as a whole. (Anyone who needs a footnote for every observation and conclusion should shy away from these books.) She is able to do so successfully and convincingly because, as far as I can tell, she has read and re-read every existing ancient text in their original languages. (She began teaching herself Greek at the age of seven and her father taught her Latin when she was nine – after which she read classics in both languages until the time of her death at the age of 96!) She is also very familiar with the corpus of post-Renaissance literature, which enables her to draw very interesting comparisons, noting both similarities and differences between the literature of Ancient Greece, Rome and (modern) Europe.

Another virtue of her works is that, contrary to most histories, they do not focus on wars and military campaigns as the essential causes and explanation of events. Instead she often explains events and the cultural development as the result of the ideas dominating the period. I still don’t know enough about classical civilization to judge whether she is consistently right or not, but her approach is refreshing and engaging.

The first two chapters of The Greek Way, which deal with the essential difference between Greece and all that came before it, are probably my favorites; and if time is limited, they can be read as stand-alones (I’d say they’re worth the price of the book on their own). Here are a few, more or less randomly chosen observations from those chapters:

By universal consent the Greeks belong to the ancient world. … The ancient world, as far as we can reconstruct it, bears everywhere the same stamp. In Egypt, in Crete, in Mesopotamia, wherever we can read bits of the story, we find the same conditions: a despot enthroned, whose whims and passions are the determining factor in the state; a wretched, subjugated populace; a great priestly organization to which is handed over the domain of the intellect. … This state and this spirit were alien to the Greeks. None of the great civilizations that preceded and surrounded them served them as model. They were the first Westerners; the spirit of the West, the modern spirit, is a Greek discovery and the place of the Greeks is in the modern world.

Greek thought, science, mathematics, philosophy, the eager investigation into the nature of the world and the ways of the world which was the distinguishing mark of Greece, came to an end for many a century when leadership passed from Greece to Rome.

Before Greece the domain of the intellect belonged to the priests.

The Greek kept his formal religion in one compartment and everything that mattered to him in another. He never went to a priest for guidance or advice.

Homer’s hero who cried for more light even if it were but light to die in, was a true Greek. They could never leave anything obscure. Neither could they leave anything unrelated.

Up and down the coast of Asia Minor St. Paul was mobbed and imprisoned and beaten. In Athens “they brought him unto the Areopagus, saying “May we know what this new teaching is?”

[Following a quote from Aristotle on why it is noble to study living creatures] Did ever scientist outside of Greece so state the object of scientific research? To Aristotle, being a Greek, it was apparent that the full purpose of that high enterprise could not be expressed in any way except the way of poetry, and, being Greek, he was able so to express it.
I should also note that I highly enjoyed both books, despite the fact that I am probably the least artistic person on Earth (both in aptitude and in ability to get at its deeper meaning) and much of her discussion revolves around art and literature. Thus I suspect that most who read her will get even more out of the books than did I.

I will also caution that Ms. Hamilton seems to be a Platonist, and some of her analysis is couched in platonic language, but her points can be easily re-cast so that these references become nothing more than a slight distraction.

I hope to take up a few of Ms Hamilton’s more specific observations and conclusions in future posts, but for now I hope that I have conveyed a bit of my appreciation for her books and perhaps encouraged a few of you to check them out for yourselves.


Anonymous Lucy said...

Thanks for this interesting post. I've read bits and pieces of these while writing papers for a few Classics courses way back when, but I don't think I ever got around to reading them in full, cover to cover. Now I am inspired to do so.

One thing jumped out at me, too: Reading the first section quoted, esp. "By universal consent....the domain of the intellect," yes, one is reminded of what most ancient societies looked like in terms of power structure. But it's also pretty relevant to today's political and intellectual climate. Is it too much of a stretch to see that description as a premonition of where every nation that denies reason and rights is headed?

What's the Franklin quote? "A republic, if you can keep it?" And, of course, Jefferson's "eternal vigilence...." It' going to take almost as much heroic effort on our part to "keep it" as it took the Greeks to discover it.

5:50 PM  

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