1997-10-05: The Echo of Greece

The Echo of Greece (1957)

by Edith Hamilton (1867-1963)

This book is later than Hamilton’s The Greek Way and The Roman Way, and concentrates on the literature of Greece after Athens’ golden age, before the Mediterranean world was dominated by Rome. Her chapters are:

  • Freedom
  • Athens’ Failure
  • The Schools of Athens
  • The School Teachers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle
  • Demosthenes
  • Alexander the Great
  • Menander
  • The Stoics: Zeno and Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius
  • Plutarch
  • The Greek Way and the Roman Way

The first two pages are missing from the first chapter in the library book I read, but the theme is plain: the Greeks were the only people with a sense of being free. In all other civilizations, the masses were effectively enslaved by their leaders. As she says:

The ancient civilizations were alike in one respect, in a refusal to recognize limits. Exaggeration was stamped upon them, a rejection of the limits of reality. It is plain to see in their art, in the monstrous Assyrian bird-and-beast statues, in the pyramids and the colossal images and the tremendous temples of Egypt, in the hanging gardens of Babylon. It is apparent, too, in the showers of barbaric pearl and gold, the heaped-up treasures on one hand and wretched, helpless multitudes on the other, incredible magnificence side by side with incredible squalor. Eastern life was lived at extremes.

Freedom, the power to live under one’s own control and not another’s, is unthinkable in such an atmosphere. Unlimited freedom is chaos. It would destroy mankind. Any order, by whatever means, is preferable. The East had an endless succession of despotisms because it never conceived of order in any other way. The West discovered a way to order through freedom. It was a Greek discovery. Why the idea came to a little country poor and sparsely settled, and not to majestic Egypt or Babylon the Great may seem at first sight strange, but the reason is not hard to find. It lies in the very nature of freedom. Freedom was born in Greece because there men limited their own freedom.

Fundamental in the Greeks was their conviction that limits were good. Exaggeration was foreign to them. They detested extremes and the idea of the limitless repelled them. …. The Greeks did not want the transcendental and the mysterious. They wanted the truth and they never thought it could be found by escaping from the real. ….

The quality they valued most – the Greek word is sophrosuné – cannot be expressed by any single English word. It is oftenest translated by self-control, but it meant more than that. It was the spirit behind the two great Delphic sayings, “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess”. Arrogance, insolent self-assertion, was of all qualities most detested by the Greeks. Sophrosuné was the exact opposite. It had its nature, as Aristotle would say, in the excellent and it meant accepting the bounds excellence laid down for human nature, restraining impulses to unrestricted freedom, shunning excess, obeying the inner laws of harmony and proportion. This was the virtue the Greeks esteemed beyond all others not because they were moderate lovers of the golden mean, but because their spontaneity and ever-changing variety and ardent energy of life had to have the strong control of a disciplined spirit or end in senseless violence.

The rest of the book could be called The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Ideal. Even when discussing the great teachers, she places them in context of a declining city, where every man pursued his self-interest, even expecting the state to recompense for the activities that were seen as honorable duties in Athens’ greater age. Hamilton’s description of Alexander  is a story of the conquest of the Greek ideals implanted by his teacher Aristotle, by the Eastern ideals of the all-powerful divine ruler.

The most attractive figure in this book is Plutarch. Hamilton’s praise makes me want to read him, though not in Greek.

Her last chapter is about the effect of the two Ways on the young Christian organization. She clearly laments the rigidity introduced by the Roman Way on the nature of the Church, later manifested in the Inquisition and other terrors. But plainly the Greek Way could not out-organize the Roman.

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