1995-01-01: The Greek Way

The Greek Way (1943)

by Edith Hamilton (1867-1963)

Hamilton’s primary theme is mind and spirit, attitudes toward mind and spirit, or life as influenced by mind and spirit. Throughout, she extols the ancient Greeks’ achievement of a “good” balance between these, and the subsequent loss of that balance in the Western world.

In Chapter 1, East and West, she draws the earlier, “oriental” attitude toward the individual and the world, in which the great mass of people merely served the whims of the powerful, and the world was a mysterious, threatening collection of divine influences that must be propitiated, primarily by the magic intercession of the priestly community. It is perhaps slightly ironic that intellectual achievement, the achievement of mind, was primarily in the hands of, and jealously controlled by, the priestly community, which we ordinarily think is preoccupied with the spirit.

By contrast, the Greeks emphasized the importance and worth of the  individual. No one was so much better than any other that he was justified in exerting his will over the other. With such beliefs, the rule of kings was impossible to sustain, and the Greeks threw them off early.

Of course, the collection of memes we call ancient Greece, or Athens’ golden age, did not hold together very long. When its influence waned, other powers rose up and subjected the Greek world and its ideas. Hamilton sees the Romans as the cultural descendants of the oriental world, rather than the Greek world.

In Chapter 2, Mind and Spirit, she points out that the Greeks were the only ancient people who played. Others, such as the Romans, had spectacle rather than sport (much as we are tending). As for what she means by the terms mind and spirit, she is not very clear. (But who is?) Consider this passage:

One of the earlier Greek philosophic sayings is that of Anaxagoras: “All things were in chaos when Mind arose and made order.” In the ancient world ruled by the irrational, by dreadful unknown powers, where a man was utterly at the mercy of what he must not try to understand, the Greeks arose and the rule of reason began. The fundamental fact about the Greek was that he had to use his mind. The ancient priests had said, “Thus far and no farther. We set the limits to thought.” The Greeks said, “All things are to be examined and called into question. There are no limits set to thought.”

Most of the book’s chapters address a single author or aspect of Greek life. In the chapter on Aeschylus, Hamilton describes him as the inventor of tragedy (as an art form), one of only four great tragedians, with Sophocles, Euripides, and Shakespeare.

Based on her portrait of Aeschylus, it might be interesting to write a story about him, beginning with a conventional Greek religious outlook, up to the battle at Marathon. The expectations and events surrounding that battle might have been sufficient to change his outlook, and to establish the idea of the freedom-fighter’s superiority over the professional slave-warrior, eventually leading to Athens’ democratic ideals. He evidently wrote about ninety plays, with only seven surviving. There should be plenty of room for speculation there.

Her description of Sophocles, only twenty years younger than Aeschylus, is set in a completely different time in Athens’ development, when the temptations of power are too great. He is pessimistic about the current state of the State.

She treats Euripides as the first “modern mind”. I interpret this in terms of the reflective stance. He expresses pity for the ordinary suffering of ordinary people. This is certainly a thread in the meme-complex of the “liberal mind”.

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