Monday, December 22, 2008

The Echo of Greece

The Echo of Greece
© Edith Hamilton 1957
224 pages

About two years ago I read The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton, which was an exploration of the Greek mind as reflected in law, philosophy, art, and more. The book introduced me to the works of Pindar, and I generally remember the book favorably. While poking around in the classical literature shelves, I spotted another book by Hamilton, and upon seeing that it included a chapter on the Stoics I wanted to read it. The book concerns itself with the twilight of Greece civilization (prior to being absorbed into the Roman Empire): the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. She begins it:

Fourth century Athens is completely overshadowed by Athens of the fifth century, so much so that it is little considered. Any brief history of Greece will more likely than not end with Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian war in 404 B.C.There will be references, perhaps, to Demosthenes and Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, all too important to be omitted, but no account of the time they lived in will be thought necessary. Real interest in Greece ceases with Sparta's victory over Athens. Plato and Aristotle live in a timeless word of philosophy without any local inhabitation, and are hardly thought of us Greeks but as intellectual forces. And yet, their century, the fourth century, has a special claim on our attention apart from the great men it produced, for it is the prelude to the end of Greece, not only of her glory, but of her life historically.

The book is divided into ten chapters. The first two chapters ("Freedom" and "Athens' Failure") concern themselves with events of the fifth century before the birth of Jesus. In "Freedom", Hamilton writes about the Athenian mind and its focus on individualism and moderation, contrasting it to the grandiose and authoritarian ideas of its neighbors. In "Athens' Failure", she addresses the consequences of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, wherein the ideals and freedoms that Athens once stood for are betrayed by its new-found obsession with power.

In the next two chapters ("The Schools of Athens" and "The School Teachers") Hamilton writes on the intellectual life of Athens. It is in this chapter that the reader learns a bit about Greek philosophy, which is focused less on ethics and more on the substance of what is (epistemology) and politics. We are told about Plato's Academy and Isocrates' Lyceum, as well as another school. The next two chapters ("Demosthenes" and "Alexander the Great" are historical in nature and are a narrative of Macedonia's rise, the defense of Greece against the designs of Alexander, his triumph, and the waxing and collapse of his world-empire. Hamilton examines the way Greek philosophy (through Aristotle) shaped Alexander's mind, how his actions impacted the Greek and Athenian mindset, and how his actions transmitted Greek thought across a wider portion of the map. The next chapter, "Menander", uses the life of a playwright to observe how Greek culture is changing in response to the various political changes that Greece is going through.

The next chapter is on the Stoics, and I enjoyed it immensely. While Hamilton writes about many of of the known Stoics, the three she concentrates on are Zeno (the founder), Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Hamilton's narrative has Stoicism and the other new schools of thought being created because of Greece's newfound domination by Alexander (and later, Rome):

The people who listened to Zeno were afraid and very evil things kept happening to them. [...] the great majority were in a state of confusion and fear, thrown off their base by events never dreamed of before by any Athenian. Their city, the only place in the world where they could look to any well-being, which had been the freest city and the proudest, and suddenly been cast down helpless. [...] To the Athenians [Stoicism] was a message of hope to the despairing, of liberty to the conquered, of courage and self-reliance.

Hamilton writes at-length about the Stoics, often comparing it to Christianity -- which came three hundred years later. On page 166, she writes 'Stoic sayings again and again recall Christ's teachings. He too preached a hard doctrine and disregarded nonessentials". Given the chronology, that might be better worded "Christ's teachings again and again recall Stoic sayings".  In the next chapter, "Plutarch", Hamilton looks at the historical books of Plutarch and at his way of looking at things to get an insight as to how the Greeks perceived their own history.

In the last chapter, "The Greek Way and the Roman Way", she compares the Greek/Athenian mind to the Roman mind: individualism and idealism compared to authoritarianism, a contemptuous attitude toward the public, and a penchant for brutalism. She then laments that the Catholic church choose the Roman way rather than the Greek way, and attributes the cruelties and dogma of the Roman Catholic Church to its adopting that viewpoint. In her view, it was the Greek way that was closest to the teachings of Christ.

"In all Athens' history, Socrates was the only man put to death for his opinions. His executioners killed him by giving him a poison that made him die with no pain. They were Greeks. The Romans hung Christ upon a cross."

All in all, I enjoyed the book immensely. She uses primary sources materials extensively, giving the reader the opportunity to sample quotations from plays, lectures, and so on. Hamilton is a gifted writer, I think. Some of her phrasings border on poetic, at least in my estimation. I do have three objections:
  • Firstly, her narrative seems to be to be very romanticized. I like the classical Greeks and I will praise and defend them when appropriate. I do not, however, believe that the Greeks were as exquisite examples of humanities as they are painted here. While there is much to be admired about the classical Greeks (more than their contemparies, fans like myself would argue), they were people and they were undoubtedly given to the same mistakes as everyone else.
  • Secondly, while this book is about Greece, it is Athens that features most promimently and I am concerned that the casual reader might be given the impression that the Athenian mind and the Greek mind were identical. They were not, and couldn't be. While there were undoubtedly shared cultural norms, Hamilton herself points out the extreme differences between Athens and the rest of the poleis in "Athens' Failure".
  • Thirdly, I think Hamilton's translation of various Greek phrases into "God" is slightly misleading, in that depending on the source they could be referring to deities, a sense of Cosmic Order, or a monotheistic supreme being.
That said, I reccommend the book to any who are interested in the subject at hand.

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