23 October 2010

The Echo of Greece

I'm reading The Echo of Greece by Edith Hamilton and am not finding it quite as compelling as I had hoped it would be. After the first chapter of this books, I can tell that by "the Greeks," Hamilton means only the Athenians and only after the 5th century B.C. Though she gives lip service to Homer, she clearly wouldn't consider Achilleus, Agamemnon, or Odysseus to be "Greek" heroes by her statement, "arrogance, violent self-assertion, was of all qualities most detested by the Greeks." Using her curiously narrow definition of "the Greek mind," which also excludes Sparta and Corinth, she uncritically lavishes praise on a Greek mindset, held by a minority of Greeks for a few centuries, that is reflective of her own preconceived ideas of what a good society should look like.

The beauty of this approach is that one can dismiss almost any counterexample as "not really Greek," as Hamilton does with art: "Greek art at its best and most characteristic is kept within the limits of the real world." Presumably this means that the famous vase painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx is not characteristically "Greek" and is more like the "monstrous Assyrian bird-and-beast statues." Such a damn-the-facts approach may make for great moralizing, but it also makes for weak history. Add to this the fact that she misrepresents the cultures of the ancient near east and her wildy exaggerated claims about the uniqueness of various cultural achievements of the Greeks. It appears that she knew what she was looking for, and through the miracle of confirmation bias she found it and missed all the particular evidence to the contrary.

To be fair, there is much of value here as well, and I will definitely finish the book. However, so far her very narrow definitions of "the Greek mind" and her extremely broad generalizations often fly wide of the mark. A much more careful and balanced introduction to the Greeks on a popular level is H.D.F. Kitto's fine work entitled simply The Greeks.

1 comment:

Erica said...

I suppose she is very careful to point out that "real" Greeks were of course never late for anything just as they never are today....Wait.