Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Greeks

The Greeks
© 1950 HDF Kitto
256 pages


HDF Kitto's history of the Greeks came highly recommended to me by another author, and I found it utterly delightful.  Here we have history written not by an archaeologist, but by a classicist whose head is brimming over with the life of his subject, who knows not only their stories but their language.  Kitto begins with a political overview,  from the first settlers to the rise of Alexander the Great, before covering the Greek mind in philosophy and myth.  Kitto brings to this little history great affection for his subject, praising the Greeks despite their faults, as he might a friend.  His style makes the reading enjoyable -- affable, readily knowledgeable, and with just the right amount of wry self-deprecation.

Most fundamentally, Kitto appreciates the Greeks for their rustic well-roundness. They valued autarchy, not specialization, which was one of the reasons their governance often filled important positions with amateurs, choosing citizens by ballot to assume offices.  Related to this is the Greek concept of the polis; for them, the polis wasn't merely a city in which they lived, it was the community through which they fulfilled human nature itself.  The polis was a place in full, supplying its own needs, just as the people it created were men in full. Odyessus, the king of Ithaca, prides himself not on his palace but on his straight furrows: he is a farmer first, a man whose own hands produce works he can take pride in.  Greek appreciation for the fullness of the human condition is exemplified by  art and philosophy which took the body seriously, delighted in the senses while never forgetting the higher things. (Plato would change things, of course, with a dualism that scorned the flesh.)  If we condemn them for not abandoning the free nature of the poleis for a greater empire,  Kitto warns his readers, then we should consider how the Soviets view the west. We have refused their planned society in the name of our liberty, so did the Greeks.  And when we hail the Greeks, is it Alexander's underlings we have in mind? Or is the multitude of men who flourished in Ionia and Athens' golden age?  There's a trace of sadness with Kitto; having judged postwar England against Athens, he finds it inferior -- not in material terms, but in those of human flourishing. Specialization brings with it enormous material prosperity, but men are narrower, less experienced with life in the main;  lost is the Greek man in full, one who could farm and think and craft and love, who put to the test every sinew of his body and mind.  GK Chesterton and Wendell Berry's judgment of modernity is much the same.


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9 comments:

  1. Interesting! I should revisit Kitto one of these days. We must be cautious, though, about putting the Greeks on a pedestal. They had plenty of flaws that too many people conveniently overlook. I'm not suggesting Kitto overlooks those flaws. I'm confessing my own errors; each time I reexamine the Greeks, I have to correct my received wisdom.

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  2. a pointed and informational post! many tx... i'm chagrined: i have two, yes, TWO, editions of this book on my shelf and haven't yet read it! must get myself in hand and remedy that immediately if not sooner... i'm glad you posted on this; i've wondered about it from time to time...

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    1. He's a treat if you like old-fashioned erudition, a la Kenneth Clark.

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  3. Kitto doesn't make the mistake of reading Athenian culture as Greek culture; he treats the Ionians, Greeks, and Spartans in separate chapters. That's one of the bigger problems I think modern readers have with studying "Greece"...they're usually just studying Athens.

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  4. Great post! I'm currently in my final year in University as a Classics major, so this one completely grabs my attention. This sounds like quite a fascinating book that I believe I may need to look into. I particular like that you mention Kitto doesn't treats all Greek cultures as one, which is something that many people often overlook. There were many distinct cultures, which is vital to know for any accurate study of the Greeks.

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  5. I like the Greek meaning of idiot.... Someone not involved in the day to day politics of the Polis... [grin]

    The classical Greeks had a lot wrong with them - slaves and the way they generally treated women - but they had a lot of positive qualities too. We can still learn a lot from them.

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    1. Kitto addresses those factors, dissming first the notion that Greek slavery was anything like modern audiences imagine it. Americans invariably think of massive plantations, dehumanizing work, etc -- but according to him, most slaves were household laborers, highly dispersed. Abuse happened when they were concentrated in places like the mines: something about the control of a multitude by a minority always brings out savage behavior. (The Spartans are another example of that..)

      Kitto was skeptical about the evidence for Athenian women being kept shut up in a harem all day, forbidden from civic life altogether; he brings up mention of women in the audiences of certain bawdy plays.

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    2. I have a 'few' books on the period so I'll do some research.... [rubs hands]

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    3. Thanks for a good review of this classic work. The discussion of the Polis is of exceptional importance in understanding the Greeks. I was reminded of this during my current reading of Rousseau's The Social Contract.

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