07 November 2010

The Greek Way

Chapters 5-14 of The Greek Way are excellent. Edith Hamilton is at her best when sketching biographies of specific people. She makes historical figures come alive as real humans by examining their writings as well as anecdotes told about them by their contemporaries. One high point for me was the story of Socrates drinking everyone else under the table at the dinner party, and of him being ribbed by his companions about his shrewish wife. Such moments make this book worthwhile for any student of the classics.

However, the first four chapters and the last three share in the same flaws that I noted in my review of The Echo of Greece. When Edith Hamilton discusses the “Greek mind” or the “Greek way” she inevitably focuses on 5th century Athens. The way of the Lacedaemonians, the way of the Corinthians, even the way of earlier Mycenaens or Minoans have no part in “The Greek Way” as far as Hamilton is concerned. When she gives her broad overviews she paints with a big brush, and her depictions of non-Greek cultures are overly simplistic.

Let me give just one example. After stating that Greek art was first and foremost realistic, depicting only life as it is seen with nothing fantastic or unbelievable, she criticizes art of the East and Near East for its depictions of weird human/animal hybrids. (As to the famous amphora painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx which I mentioned in my review of The Echo of Greece there is still no explanation.) Then, when confronting the pyramids, apex of Egyptian art and as natural as mountains or sand dunes, she is caught in a bind. It is certainly realistic and natural in its way. So she instead writes, “All the tremendous art of Egyptian sculpture has something of this unity with the physical world. The colossal statues have only just emerged from the rocks of the hills. They keep the marks of their origin…What Egyptian art would have resulted in if it had been allowed a free development, is one of those questions that forever engage the attention through the realization of an immense loss to the world. But the priests stepped in, and that direct experience of the spirit was arrested at a certain point and held fast.” In other words, yes, Egyptian art is realistic and natural. But it’s still not Greek. Just imagine if the Egyptian priests had not stepped in. Why, the Egyptians may have eventually created Greek art!

This is, once again, the pattern of making a judgment, coming to a conclusion, and then making sure the facts substantiate the conclusion in the end. This is what irks me so much about Hamilton’s writing. She seems totally unable to criticize Greek culture or praise Persian, Hebrew, Roman, or Egyptian culture, except insofar as those cultures share in the “Greek spirit”. Her biographical chapters are wonderful, helpful and extremely engaging. I highly recommend this book if only for those parts. However, her worldview analyses remain problematic for anyone looking for an accurate and less biased overview of Greek history. In short, Edith Hamilton and 5th century Athens just need to get a room.

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