The Ancient Greeks
By Edith Hamilton, 1930
An Excerpt From “The Greek Way”
But for all of her vast and devoted readership, Hamilton (1867-1963) has been ignored by the scholarly community or regarded as a curiosity. There are reasons for this. She “misinterprets Greco-Roman civilization to a significant degree,” writes classics scholar Ward W. Briggs. She idealizes Greece and undervalues Rome. She casually passes over the fact that Greece was a rigid patriarchy corroded by slave-holding and the subjection of women. She fails to mention the anti-democratic tendencies of certain books.
The scholar Helen H. Bacon notes that Hamilton‘s
readings of ancient writers were idiosyncratic….and sometimes marred by distortion or mistranslation. Her certainty about what Aeschylus or Plato really meant, which fascinated the nonscholarly public and reviewers, disconcerted most scholarly reviewers….Her commitment was not the scholar’s commitment to the facts of the past that require demonstration, but to the unverifiable ‘truths of the spirit,‘ which she thought she found in ancient writers. Her life was ruled by a passionately nonconformist vision that was the source of her phenomenal strength and vitality and her almost magical appeal as a public figure and author.
Hamilton, then, is a brilliant advocate – “essentially an inspirational writer,” writes scholar Barbara Sicherman, with a “contagious” enthusiasm for her subjects. (In this regard, she is similar to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.) Her work, writes Helen H. Bacon, gives “meaning and immediacy to a past which had become inaccessible to the general reader” who has little patience for the endless obfuscations and dead prose style of many or most scholars. “The Greek Way” stands as an enthralling introduction to history’s greatest explosion of creativity; “The Roman Way“ is an elegant primer on the men and concepts that riveted the attention of the founders of the United States of America.
Hamilton is perhaps best read in conjunction with a good textbook on the ancient world. See here for information about the interesting book “Who Killed Homer?“ that might also accompany a reading of Hamilton. (By the way, Hamilton is very good on the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides; there’s no better basic introduction to these fathers of history.) – H.F.
Five hundred years before Christ in a little town on the far western border of the settled and civilized world, a strange new power was at work. Something had awakened in the minds and spirits of the men there which was so to influence the world that the slow passage of long time, of century upon century and the shattering changes they brought, would be powerless to wear away that deep impress. Athens had entered upon her brief and magnificent flowering of genius which so molded the world of mind and of spirit that our mind and spirit to-day are different. We think and feel differently because of what a little Greek town did during a century or two, twenty-four hundred years ago. What was then produced of art and of thought has never been surpassed and very rarely equalled, and the stamp of it is upon all the art and all the thought of the Western world. And yet this full stature of greatness came to pass at a time when the mighty civilizations of the ancient world had perished and the shadow of “effortless barbarism” was dark upon the earth. In that black and fierce world a little centre of white-hot spiritual energy was at work. A new civilization had arisen in Athens, unlike all that had gone before.
What brought this new development to pass, how the Greeks were able to achieve all they did, has significance for us to-day. It is not merely that Greece has a claim upon our attention because we are by our spiritual and mental inheritance partly Greek and cannot escape if we would that deep influence which worked with power through the centuries, touching with light of reason and grace of beauty the wild Northern savages. She has a direct contribution for us as well. The actual Greek remains are so few and so far away, so separated from us by space and a strange, difficult language, they are felt to be matters for the travellers and the scholars and no more. But in truth what the Greeks discovered, or rather how they made their discoveries and how they brought a new world to birth out of the dark confusions of an old world that had crumbled away, is full of meaning for us to-day who have seen an old world swept away in the space of a decade or two. It is worth our while in the confusions and bewilderments of the present to consider the way by which the Greeks arrived at the clarity of their thought and the affirmation of their art. Very different conditions of life confronted them from those we face, but it is ever to be borne in mind that thought the outside of human life changes much, the inside changes little, and the lesson-book we cannot graduate from is human experience. Great literature, past or present, is the expression of great knowledge of the human heart; great art is the expression of a solution of the conflict between the demands of the world without and that within; and in the wisdom of either there would seem to be small progress.
Of all that the Greeks did only a very small part has come down to us and we have no means of knowing if we have their best. It would be strange if we had. In the convulsions of that world of long ago there was no law that guaranteed to art the survival of the fittest. But this little remnant preserved by the haphazard of chance shows the high-water mark reached in every region of thought and beauty the Greeks entered. No sculpture comparable to theirs; no buildings ever more beautiful; no writings superior. Prose, always late of development, they had time only to touch upon, but they left masterpieces. History has yet to find a greater exponent than Thucydides; outside of the Bible there is no poetical prose that can touch Plato. In poetry they are all but supreme; no epic is to mentioned with Homer; no odes to set beside Pindar; of the four masters of the tragic stage three are Greek. Little is left of all this wealth of great art: the sculptures, defaced and broken into bits, have crumbled away; the buildings are fallen; the paintings gone forever; of the writings, all lost but a very few. We have only the ruin of what was; the world has had no more than that for well on to two thousand years; yet these few remains of the mighty structure have been a challenge and an incitement to men every since and they are among our possessions to-day which we value as most precious. There is no danger now that the world will not give the Greek genius full recognition. Greek achievement is a fact universally acknowledged.
The causes responsible for this achievement, however, are not so generally understood. Rather is it the fashion nowadays to speak of the Greek miracle, to consider the radiant bloom of Greek genius as having no root in any soil that we can give an account of. The anthropologists are busy, indeed, and ready to transport us back into the savage forest where all human things, the Greek things, too, had their beginnings; but the seed never explains the flower. Between those strange rites they point us to through the dim vistas of far-away ages, and a Greek tragedy, there lies a gap they cannot help us over. The easy way out is to refuse to bridge it and dismiss the need to explain by calling the tragedy a miracle, but in truth the way across is not impassable; some reasons appear for the mental and spiritual activity which made those few years in Athens productive as no other age in history has been.
By universal consent the Greeks belong to the ancient world. Wherever the line is drawn by this or that historian between the old and the new the Greeks’ unquestioned position is in the old. But they are in it as a matter of centuries only; they have not the hall-marks that gave title to a place there. The ancient world, in so far as we can reconstruct it, bears everywhere the same stamp. In Egypt, in Crete, in Mesopotamia, wherever we can read bits of the story, we find the same conditions: a despot enthroned, whose whims and passions are the determining factor in the state; a wretched, subjugated populace; a great priestly organization to which is handed over the domain of the intellect. This is what we know as the Oriental state to-day. It has persisted down from the ancient world through thousands of years, never changing in any essential. Only in the last hundred years – less than that – it has shown a semblance of change, made a gesture of outward conformity with the demands of the modern world. But the spirit that informs it is the spirit of the East that never changes. It has remained the same through all the ages down from the antique world, forever aloof from all that is modern. This state and this spirit were alien to the Greeks. None of the great civilizations that preceded them and surrounded them served them as model. With them something completely new came into the world. They were the first Westerners; the spirit of the West, the modern spirit, is a Greek discovery, and the place of the Greeks is in the modern world.
The same cannot be said of Rome. Many things there pointed back to the old world and away to the East, and with the emperors who were gods and fed a brutalized people full of horrors as their dearest form of amusement, the ancient and the Oriental state had a true revival. Not that the spirit of Rome was of the Eastern stamp. Common-sense men of affairs were its product to whom the cogitations of Eastern sages ever seemed the idlest nonsense. “What is truth?” said Pilate scornfully. But it was equally far removed from the Greek spirit. Greek thought, science, mathematics, philosophy, the eager investigation into the nature of the world and the ways of the world which was the distinguishing mark of Greece, came to an end for many a century when the leadership passed from Greece to Rome. The classical world is a myth in so far as it is conceived of as marked by the same characteristics. Athena and Rome had little in common. That which distinguishes the modern world from the ancient, and that which divides the West from the East, is the supremacy of mind in the affairs of men, and this came to birth in Greece and lived in Greece alone of all the ancient world. The Greeks were the first intellectualists. In a world where the irrational had played the chief role, they came forward as the protagonists of the mind.
The novelty and the importance of this position are difficult for us to realize. The world we live in seems to us a reasonable and comprehensible place. It is a world of definite facts which we know a good deal about. We have found out a number of rules by which the dark and tremendous forces of nature can be made to move so as to further our own purposes, and our main effort is devoted to increasing our power over the outside material of the world. We do not dream of questioning the importance of what acts, on the whole, in ways we can explain and turn to our advantage. What brings about this attitude is the fact that, of all the powers we are endowed with, we are making use pre-eminently of the reason. We are not soaring above the world on the wings of the imagination or searching into the depths of the world within each one of us by the illumination of the spirit. We are observing what goes on in the world around us and we are reasoning upon our observations. Our chief and characteristic activity is that of the mind. The society we are born into is built upon the idea of the reasonable, and emotional experience and intuitive perception are according a place in it only if some rational account can be given of them.
When we find that the Greeks, too, lived in a reasonable world as a result of using their reason upon it, we accept the achievement as the natural thing that needs no comment. But the truth is that even to-day our point of view obtains only within strict limits. It does not belong to the immense expanse and the multitudinous populations of the East. There what goes on outside of a man is comparatively unimportant and completely undeserving of the attention of the truly wise. The observing reason which works on what we of the West call the facts of the real world, is not esteemed in the East. This conception of human values has come down from antiquity. The world in which Greece came to life was one in which the reason had played the smallest role; all that was important in it belonged to the realm of the unseen, known only to the spirit.
That is a realm in which outside fact, everything that makes up this visible, sensible, audible world, plays only an indirect part. The facts of the spirit are not seen or felt or heard; they are experienced; they are peculiarly a man’s own, something that he can share with no one else. An artist can express them in some sort, partially at best. The saint and the hero who are most at home in them can put them into words – or pictures or music – only if they are artists, too. The greatest intellect cannot do that through the intellect. And yet every human being has a share in the experience of the spirit.
Mind and spirit together make up that which separates us from the rest of the animal world, that which enables a man to know the truth and that which enables him to die for the truth. A hard and fast distinction between the two can hardly be made; both belong to the part of us which, in Platonic phraseology, draws us up from that which is ever dragging down or, in the figure Plato is fondest of, that which gives form to the formless. But yet they are distinct. When St. Paul in his great definition says that the things that are seen are temporal and the things that are not seen are external, he is defining the realm of the mind, the reason that works from the visible world, and the realm of the spirit that lives by the invisible.
In the ancient world before Greece the things that are not seen had become more and more the only things of great importance. The new power of mind that marked Greece arose in a world facing toward the way of the spirit. For a brief period in Greece East and West met; the bias toward the rational that was to distinguish the West, and the deep spiritual inheritance of the East, were united. The full effect of this meeting, the immense stimulus to creative activity given when clarity of mind is added to spiritual power, can be best realized by considering what had happened before Greece, what happens, that is, when there is great spiritual force with the mind heal in abeyance. This is to be seen most clearly where the records are fullest and far more is known than about any other nation of antiquity. It is materially to the point, therefore, to leave Greece for a moment and look at the country which had the greatest civilization of all the ancient world.
In Egypt the centre of interest was the dead. The ruling world-power, a splendid empire – and death a foremost preoccupation. Countless numbers of human beings for countless numbers of centuries thought of death as that which was nearest and most familiar to them. It is an extraordinary circumstance which could be made credible by nothing less considerable than the immense mass of Egyptian art centered in the dead. To the Egyptian the enduring world of reality was not the one he walked in along the paths of every-day life but the one he should presently go to by the way of death.
There were two causes working in Egypt to bring about this condition. The first was human misery. The state of the common man in the ancient world must have been wretched in the extreme. Those tremendous works that have survived through thousands of years were achieved at a cost in human suffering and death which was never conceived of as a cost in anything of value. Nothing so cheap as human life in Egypt and in Nineveh, as nothing more cheap in India and China to-day. Even the well-to-do, the nobles and the men of affairs, lived with a very narrow margin of safety. An epitaph extant of a great European noble holds him up to admiration in that he was never beaten with whips before the magistrate. The lives and fortunes of all were completely dependent upon the whims of a monarch whose only law was his own wish. One has but to read the account Tacitus gives of what happened under the irresponsible despotism of the early Roman emperors to realize that in the ancient world security must have been the rarest of goods.
In such conditions men, seeing little hope for happiness in this world, turned instinctively to find comfort in another. Only in the world of the dead could there be found security and peace and pleasure which a man, by taking thought all his life for, might attain. No concern of earthly living could count to him in comparison or be esteemed as real in comparison. Little profit for him there to use his mind, his reasoning powers. They could do nothing for him in the one matter of overwhelming importance, his status in the world to come. They could not give him hope when life was hopeless or strength to endure the unendurable. People who are terrified and hard pressed by misery do not turn to the mind for their help. This instinctive recoil from the world of outside fact was enormously reinforced by the other great influence at work upon the side of death and against the use of the mind, the Egyptian priesthood.
Before Greece the domain of the intellect belonged to the priests. They were the intellectual class of Egypt. Their power was tremendous. Kings were subject to it. Great men must have built up that mighty organization, great minds, keen intellects, but what they learned of old truth and what they discovered of new truth was valued as it increased the prestige of the organization. And since Truth is a jealous mistress and will reveal herself not a whit to any but a disinterested seeker, as the power of the priesthood grew and any idea that tended to weaken it met with a cold reception, the priests must fairly soon have become sorry intellectualists, guardians only of what seekers of old had found, never using their own minds with freedom.
There was another result no less inevitable: all they knew must be kept jealously within the organization. To teach the people so that they would begin to think for themselves, would be to destroy the surest prop of their power. No one except themselves must have knowledge, for to be ignorant is to be afraid, and in the dark mystery of the unknown a man cannot find his way alone. He must have guides to speak to him with authority. Ignorance was the foundation upon which the priest-power rested. In truth, the two, the mystery and those who dealt in it, reinforced each other in such sort that each appears both the cause and the effect of the other. The power of the priest depended upon the darkness of the mystery; his effort must ever be directed toward increasing it and opposing any attempt to throw light upon it. The humble role played by the reason in the ancient world was assigned by an authority there was not appeal against. It determined the scope of thought and the scope of art as well, with an absolutism never questioned.
We know of one man, to be sure, who set himself against it. For a few years the power of the Pharaoh was pitted against the power of the priests and the Pharaoh won out. The familiar story of Akhenaton, who dared to think for himself and who built a city to enshrine and propagate the worship of the only and only God, might appear to point to a weakness in the great priestly body, but the proof is, in point of fact, rather the other way about. The priests were men deeply learned and experienced in human nature. They waited. The man of independent thought had only a very brief reign – did his contests with the priests wear him out, one wonders? – and after his death nothing of what he had stood for was allowed to remain. The priests took possession of his successor. They erased his very name from the monuments. He had never really touched their power.
But whatever their attitude to this autocrat or that, autocratic government never failed to command the priests’ allegiance. They were ever the support of the throne as well as the power above it. Their instinct was sure: the misery of the people was the opportunity of the priest. Not only an ignorant populace but one subjugated and wretched was their guarantee. With men’s thoughts directed more and more toward the unseen world, and with the keys to it firmly in their own grasp, their terrific power was assured.
When Egypt ended, the East went on ever farther in the direction Egypt had pointed. The miseries of Asia are a fearful page of history. her people found strength to endure by denying any meaning and any importance to what they could not escape. The Egyptian world where dead men walked and slept and feasted was transmuted into what had always been implicit in its symbolism, the world of the spirit. In India, for centuries the leader of thought to the East, ages long since, the world of the reason and world of the spirit were divorced and the universe handed over to the latter. Reality – that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes and our hands have handled, of the Word of life – was dismissed as a fiction that had no bearing upon the World. All that was seen and heard and handled was vague and unsubstantial and forever passing, the shadow of a dream; only that was real which was of the spirit. This is always man’s way out when the facts of life are too bitter and too black to be borne. When conditions are such that life offers no earthly hope, somewhere, somehow, men must find a refuge. Then they fly from the terror without to the citadel within, which famine and pestilence and fire and sword cannot shake. What Goethe calls the inner universe, can live by its own laws, create its own security, be sufficient unto itself, when once reality is denied to the turmoil of the world without.
So the East found a way to endure the intolerable, and she pursued it undeviatingly through the centuries, following it to its farthest implications. In India the idea of truth became completely separated from outside fact; all outside was illusion; truth was an inner disposition. In such a world there is little scope for the observing reason or the seeing eye. Where all except the spirit is unreal, it is manifest folly to be concerned with an exterior that is less than a shadow.
It is easy to understand how in these conditions the one department of the intellect that flourished was mathematics. Nothing is less likely to react practically upon life or to intrude into the domain of theology than the world of the idea revealed to the mathematical imagination. Pure mathematics soars into a region far removed from human wretchedness and no priest ever troubled himself about the effects of free inquiry along mathematical lines. There the mind could go where it pleased. “Compared with the Egyptians we are childish mathematicians,” observes Plato. India, too, made notable contributions in this field. But, sooner or later, if the activity of the mind is restricted anywhere, it will cease to function even where it is allowed to be free. To-day in India the triumph of the spirit over the mind is complete, and wherever Buddhism, the great product of the Indian spirit, has prevailed, the illusoriness of all that is of this earth and the vanity of all research into its nature is the center of the faith.
As in Egypt, the priest saw their opportunity. The power of the Brahmans, the priestly caste, and of the great Buddhist hierarchy, is nothing less than stupendous. The circle is complete: a wretched populace with no hope save in the invisible, and a priesthood whose power is bound up with the belief in the unimportance of the visible so that they must forever strive to keep it an article of faith. The circle is complete in another sense as well: the wayfarer sheltering for the night in an abandoned house does not care to mend the roof the rain drips through, and a people living in such wretchedness that their one comfort is to deny the importance of the facts of earthly life, will not try to better them. India has gone the way of the things that are not seen until the things that are seen have become invisible.
That is what happens when one course is followed undeviatingly for ages. We are composite creatures, made up of soul and body, mind and spirit. When men’s attention is fixed upon one to the disregard of the others, human beings result who are only partially developed, their eyes blinded to half of what life offers and the great world holds. But in that antique world of Egypt and the early Asiatic civilizations, that world where the pendulum was swing ever farther and farther away from all fact, something completely new happened. The Greeks came into being and the world, as we know it, began.
Egypt is a fertile valley of rich river soil, low-lying, warm, monotonous, a slow-flowing river, and beyond, the limitless desert. Greece is a country of sparse fertility and keen, cold winters, all hills and mountains sharp cut in stone, where strong men must work hard to get their bread. And while Egypt submitted and suffered and turned her face toward death, Greece resisted and rejoiced and turned full-face to life. For somewhere among those steep stone mountains, in little sheltered valleys where the great hills were ramparts to defend and men could have security for peace and happy living, something quite new came into the world; the joy of life found expression. Perhaps it was born there, among the shepherds pasturing their flocks where the wild flowers made a glory on the hillside; among the sailors on a sapphire sea washing enchanted islands purple in a luminous air. At any rate it has left no trace anywhere else in the world of antiquity. In Greece nothing is more in evidence. The Greeks were the first people in the world to play, and they played on a great scale. All over Greece there were games, all sorts of games; athletic contests of every description: races – horse-; boat-; foot-; torch-races; contests in music, where one side outsung the other; in dancing – on greased skins sometimes to display a nice skill of foot and balance of body; games where men leaped in and out of flying chariots; games so many one grows weary with the list of them. They are embodied in the statues familiar to all, the disc thrower, the charioteer, the wrestling boys, the dancing flute players. The great games – there were four that came at stated seasons – were so important, when one was held, a truce of God was proclaimed so that all Greece might come in safety without fear. There “glorious-limbed youth” – the phrase is Pindar’s, the athlete’s poet – strove for an honor so coveted as hardly anything else in Greece. An Olympic victor – triumphing generals would give place to him. His crown of wild olives was set beside the prize of the tragedian. Splendor attended him, processions, sacrifices, banquets, songs the greatest poets were glad to write. Thucydides, the brief, the severe, the historian of that bitter time, the fall of Athens, pauses, when one of his personages has conquered in the games, to give the fact full place of honor. If we had no other knowledge of what the Greeks were like, if nothing were left of Greek art and literature, the fact that they were in love with play and played magnificently would be proof enough of how they lived and how they looked at life. Wretched people, toiling people, do not play. Nothing like the Greek games is conceivable in Egypt or Mesopotamia. The life of the Egyptian lies spread out in the mural paintings down to the minutest detail. If fun and sport had played any real part they would be there in some form for us to see. But the Egyptian did not play. “Solon, Solon, you Greeks are all children,” said the Egyptian priest to the great Athenia. At any rate, children or not, they enjoyed themselves. They had physical vigor and high spirits and, too, for fun. The witness of the games is conclusive. And when Greece died and her reading of the great enigma was buried with her statues, play, too, died out of the world. The brutal, bloody Roman games had nothing to do with the spirit of play. They were fathered by the Orient, not by Greece. Play died when Greece died and many and many a century passed before it was resurrected.
To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and delightful to live in, was a mark of the Greek spirit which distinguished it from all that had gone before. It is a vital distinction. The joy of life is written upon everything the Greeks left behind and they who leave it out of account fail to reckon with something that is of first importance in understanding how the Greek achievement came to pass in the world of antiquity. It is not a fact that jumps to the eye for the reason that their literature is marked as strongly by sorrow. The Greeks knew to the full how bitter life is as well as how sweet. Joy and sorrow, exultation and tragedy, stand hand in hand in Greek literature, but there is no contradiction involved thereby. Those who do not know the one do not really know the other either. It is the depressed, the gray-minded people, who cannot rejoice just as they cannot agonize. The Greeks were not the victims of depression. Greek literature is not done in gray or with a low palette. It is all black and shining white or black and scarlet and gold. The Greeks were keenly aware, terribly aware, of life’s uncertainty and the imminence of death. Over and over again they emphasize the brevity and the failure of all human endeavor, the swift passing of all that is beautiful and joyful. To Pindar, even as he glorifies the victor in the games, life is “a shadow’s dream.” But never, not in their darkest moments, do they lose their taste for life. It is always a wonder and a delight, the world a place of beauty, and they themselves rejoicing to be alive in it.
Quotations to illustrate this attitude are so numerous, it is hard to make a choice. One might quote all the Greek poems there are, even when they are tragedies. Every one of them shows the fire of life burning high. Never a Greek poet that did not warm both hands at that flame. Often in the midst of a tragedy a choral song of joy breaks forth. So Sophocles, of the three tragedians the soberest, the most severe, sings in the Antigone of the wine-god, “with whom the stars rejoice as they move, the stars whose breath is fire.” Or in the Ajax where “thrilling with rapture, soaring on wings of sudden joy,” he calls to “Pan, O Pan, come, sea-rover, down from the snow-beaten mountain crag. Lord of the dance the gods delight in, come, for now I, too, would dance. O joy!” Or in the Oedipus Coloneus, where tragedy is suddenly put aside by the poet’s love of the out-of-door world, of the nightingale’s clear thrilling note and the stainless tide of pure waters and the glory of the narcissus and the bright-shining crocus, “which the quire of the muses love and Aphrodite of the golden rein.” Passages like these come again and again, lifting the black curtain of tragedy to the full joy of life. They are no artifice or trick to heighten by contrast. They are the natural expression of men who were tragedians indeed but Greeks first, and so thrillingly aware of the wonder and beauty of life, they cold not but give it place.
The little pleasures, too, that daily living holds, were felt as such keen enjoyment: “Dear to us ever,” says Homer, “is the banquet and the harp and the dance and changes of raiment and the warm bath and love and sleep.” Eating and drinking have never again seemed so delightful as in the early Greek lyrics, nor a meeting with friends, nor a warm fire of a winter’s night – “the stormy season of winter, a soft couch after dinner by the fire, honey-sweet wine in your glass and nuts and beans at your elbow” – nor a run in the springtime “amid a fragrance of woodbine and leisure and white poplar, when the plane-tree and the elm whisper together,” nor a banqueting hour, “moving among feasting and giving up the soul to be young, carrying a bright harp and touching it in peace among the wise of the citizens.” It is a matter of course that comedy should be their invention, the mad, rollicking, irresponsible fun of the Old Comedy, its verve and vitality and exuberant, overflowing energy of life. A tomb in Egypt and a theatre in Greece. The one comes to the mind as naturally as the other. So was the world changing by the time the fifth century before Christ began in Athens. ●