Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Life of Greece

The Life of Greece
© 1939 Will Durant
754 pages

Ancient Greece is the nursery of Western civilization, and has fascinated me ever since childhood. That fascination grew with age, especially after I began to study Greek philosophy -- so I dove eagerly into The Life of Greece. Like Our Oriental Heritage, it is impressively large, and for the same reason: it is a history of not only the political and martial history of Greece, but of its literature, philosophy, art, industry, and religion. Beginning with the migration of various peoples to the portion of the Med. that eventually became known as Greece, Durant follows the evolving cultures on the Greek islands and the cultures they influenced until the arrival of Rome. Nomads become farmers, trading posts become booming towns filled with industry and debate, and men sail into uncharted seas of thought.

Like Oriental Heritage, Life of Greece is most notable for Durant's wide approach. No section is without chapters on poetry, sculpture, music, architecture, industry, economic approaches, and literature. His approach gives the reader an opportunity not just to examine literature or philosophy within the context of their time, but to track their development as the centuries pass.  The scope of Durant's book allows the reader to gain a sense of a culture evolving through time, slowly changing. The book impressed upon me that every civilization is constantly haggling with the cosmos:  every approach the Greeks tried in ruling themselves had its   successes and weaknesses.

This is the essential strength of the book, although Greece remains a compelling subject no matter the approach taken. Additionally, Durant touches on the people the Greeks influenced, particularly the Egyptians and Jews in the days following Alexander. Greece has borne the world many gifts. Durant's pragmatic appreciation of religious primacy and monarchy are a touch distasteful to the modern mind, and he continues with his odd use of 'epicurean' and the nebulous 'stoic'. It's decidedly odd in a book that dedicates a chapter to Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, in which Epicures is described several times as living stoically and creating a philosophy that was Epicurean "in name only".  The poor man is denied his own name!

While not without weakness, the book's subject ought to remain of interest to modern minds, especially those of Europe and the United States who can look to old Athens as an intellectual and cultural ancestor.


  • The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton. Hamilton uses literature to draw conclusions about the culture that created it. 
  • The Echo of Greece, Edith Hamilton. Emphasis on Athens. 

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