Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea
Why the Greeks Matter (2003)
by Thomas Cahill (1940-)
This is Volume 4 of Cahill’s Hinges of History series, with three to go. Chronologically it is mainly earlier than Volume 3, though Volumes 2 and 3 go naturally together. Cahill suggests that those who haven’t already read Volume 1 read that volume after Volume 4. I enjoyed this book, and probably marked more passages than in the earlier volumes of the series; I will certainly read the next volume, and look forward to the two that are supposed to follow that.
Cahill’s introduction explains his views on history. Here is the beginning of it:
History must be learned in pieces. This is partly because we have only pieces of the past – shards, ostraca, palimpsests, crumbling codices with missing pages, newsreel clips, snatches of song, faces of idols whose bodies have long since turned to dust – which give us glimpses of what has been but never the whole reality. How could they? We cannot encompass the whole reality of the times in which we live. Human beings never know more than part, as “through a glass darkly”; all knowledge comes to us in pieces. That said, it is often easier to encompass the past than the present, for it is past; and its pieces may be set beside one another, examined, contrasted and compared, till one attains an overview.
Like fish who do not know they swim in water, we are seldom aware of the atmosphere of the times through which we move, how strange and singular they are. But when we approach another age, its alienness stands out for us, almost as if that were its most obvious quality; and the sense of being on alien ground grows with the antiquity of the age we are considering.
Cahill quotes Hanson critiquing Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel): “The efforts of those who seek to reduce history to biology and geography deprecate the power and mystery of culture, and so often turn desperate. . . . Land, climate, weather, natural resources, fate, luck, a few rare individuals of brilliance, natural disaster, and more – all these play their role in the formation of a distinct culture, but it is impossible to determine exactly whether man, nature, or chance is the initial catalyst for the origins of Western civilization.” (Cahill’s emphasis)
Having described the Greek approach to warfare, and the related reliance on citizen participation, he goes on: “To inquire into the ways in which an unpredictable historical combination – in this case, the combination of dogged military practicality with unprecedented citizen responsibility – may generate a new cultural force that has tremendous impact on the world over many centuries brings us as close as we are likely to come to the deep mysteries of the historical process.”
Naturally starting with Homer, he quotes Oliver Taplin: “The poems [of Homer] seem to emerge … as a kind of opener of discussion, an invitation to think about and scrutinize the structures and allocations of power and of respect. Thus, while everyone in the poems agrees that honour … should be given where honour is due, they do not agree on the criteria for its allocation. So while Homer does not positively advocate any particular kind of political change, this is surely not the poetry of political conservatism or retrenchment either. It is part and parcel of an era of radically widening horizons; and it is a catalyst to change.” Cahill contends that this change continue from Homer’s day until Greece gave way to Rome, about 500 years. Early along the way (c. 550 BC), Solon established a code of laws. He is credited with the saying, “Men preserve the agreements that profit no one to violate.”
Cahill quotes Aristotle, showing what Greeks thought of themselves: “Europeans, as well as peoples who live in cold climates generally, are full of spirit but somewhat lacking in intelligence and skill; and because of these deficiencies, though they live in comparative freedom, they lack political organization and the ability to rule others. Asians, on the other hand, though intelligent and skilled by nature, lack spirit and so are always subject to defeat and slavery. The race of the Greeks, however, which occupies the center of the earth, shares the best attributes of West and East, being both spirited and intelligent. Thus does this race enjoy both freedom and stable political institutions and continue to be capable of ruling all humanity.” Cahill asserts that for the Greeks, everything was a competition.
Competition apparently ruled relations between the sexes as well, and men considered women distinctly inferior, and valued relations between men as superior to relations between a man and a woman. Cahill made a point of Homer’s extolling the long-term love between Hector and Andromache, and between Odysseus and Penelope, and now points out that such insights “are never spoken of again in Greek literature”.
In the chapter on philosophers, Cahill mentions Democritus’s On Cheerfulness. An online source says that Democritus traveled widely, might have been to India. The three paragraphs immediately available certainly indicate a common attitude between Democritus and Buddhist thought. One story of his death makes him sound very much like a Zen master. Another point of similarity between Greek and Indian thought is in the organization created by Pythagoras, which Cahill says has aspects of monastic life, as developed in India.
Understandably, Cahill admires Thucydides, saying he, “following the path blazed by Herodotus, had succeeded in creating an entirely new mode of knowledge, independent of philosophical inquiry. No longer would knowledge be the sole province of scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers, those who observed natural phenomena or tried to discover the essences of things or contemplated a world beyond the world. Close attention to human activity – society and politics, war and peace – could yield another kind of knowledge. And this knowledge, the result of meditation on the past and close consideration of human affairs, could yield new principles, quite unlike anything established by philosophy or the sciences to guide humanity in the future.”
In discussing art, and in particular the way that the serenity and confidence apparent in Athenian sculpture waned after a series of catastrophes at the hands of Sparta, Macedon and Rome, Cahill says, “It is a general rule of culture that new ideas appear first in literature, only later in the visual arts. This is probably because ideas are so intimately linked to words, which are their primary vehicles, and because the tools of literature are so negligible and transportable, compared to what an artist must use.
While writing these notes, and working through the passages I had marked, I discarded many of them, more than I usually do. Apparently I was in a somewhat enthralled state of mind while reading the book. That excitement has calmed somewhat, but it is a good quality of a book. I recommend the book.