"Five hundred years before Christ in a little town on the far western border of the settled and civilizaed world, a strange new power was at work. . . . 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 today are different. . . . What was then produced of art and of thought has never been surpasses and very rarely equalled, and the stamp of it is upon all the art and all the thought of the Western world."A perennial favorite in many different editions, Edith Hamilton's best-selling The Greek Way captures the spirit and achievements of Greece in the fifth century B.C. A retired headmistress when she began her writing career in the 1930s, Hamilton immediately demonstrated a remarkable ability to bring the world of ancient Greece to life, introducing that world to the twentieth century. The New York Times called The Greek Way a "book of both cultural and critical importance."
Original publication date
The author uses parallel examples to highlight similarities between the above writers. I find Euripides to be exceptionally emotional. His play 'The Trojan Women' takes the heroism of Homer's Iliad and turns it completely around to show the anguish of the wives of defeated Troy as they lament their losses of family and home while awaiting the princes of Greece to draw lots for them. I don't think I could read the whole thing, it being just too sad.
The highlight is Chapter 7 (VII to be specific) where the author explains what exactly makes tragedy so difficult, rare and powerful. 'Why is the death of an ordinary man a wretched, chilling thing which we turn from, while the death of a hero, always tragic, warms us with a sense of quickened life? Answer this question and the enigma of tragic pleasure is solved.' An excellent primer for beginning an exploration of a great age in history as well as an exercise in reading good English, a rarity in these days when some guy can publish an entire novel in text message abbreviation.
A case in point is Hamilton's discussion of tragedy in general, defining it as the human capacity for suffering while yet finding in this suffering cause for exaltation. I wonder if the root of tragedy really lies in this capacity for suffering and awe, but I had not wondered very specifically until reading her essay. Hamilton does a bit better in reviewing the separate tragic contributions of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes: apart from overusing superlatives like "no other poet ever touched upon suffering as did Euripedes", her essay uses specific examples from their writings and biography, and are the better for it.
Another example: condemning magic as mere fear and ignorance, or Egyptian civilization as cruel, aristocratic, and unreasonably focused upon the dead rather than the living. It's not so much that these points are without merit, as that they are grossly oversimplified in a way she carefully avoids when reviewing Greek civilization ... unless to heap praise upon it.
Once her perspective is seen for what it is, however: unabashed apologist, Hamilton provides as fine a survey of Greek letters and history as I could wish. It remains only for me correct her on various points by reading further and deeper in those areas she glances over.
Edith Hamilton was sixty-three when she wrote this book and she synthesized a lifetime of knowledge to bring to the reader the world of Athens during this time. Her chapter on Socrates and the growth of philosophy is a delight. Casual conversations become discussions on the nature of virtue. Socrates always asking questions, seeking after truth.
Her comparisons of Herodotus and Thucydides illustrate the different approaches that gave rise to Western history. Herodotus wrote down everything that came his way while Thucydides sought to provide a guide to the future through the story of the past.
The comedy of Aristophanes described by the author as the speaking picture of the follies and foibles of his day illustrates the impulse to make fun of all aspects of life. The concept of tragedy grew out of the ability to look calmly at the pain in life without fear. This grew through the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides developing ideas I cannot say I truly understand. She then moves forward to the works of Shakespeare to show how those beginnings grew.
Underlying this fantastic growth of ideas was the concept of freedom. The gift of the Greeks was that they felt free to think about anything that came to mind. Their thoughts were not constrained by religion or fear of the unknown. That was their great gift to Western Civilization. The ability to use their reason to think allowed them to question freely the world around them. It was their attempts to answer those questions that gave rise to the world we live in.
I feel this was a feeble attempt to bring to the reader some small glimpse of this classic book. I could read it time and again to gain a real understanding of the ideas the author has set forth. I do know that I now have a greater knowledge of who we are and the world we live in.
This book is apparently a classic first written in the 1930s and assigned in many high school and college courses and has been updated and reprinted several times, my version was from 1993. I learned from looking at the negative reviews on Amazon, with plenty of high school students complaining about how "boring" the book was. I did not find it that boring, but wondered what level of expertise Hamilton has on Greek, Macedonian, ancient Chinese, and modern European and Russian cultures that she comments on so readily. As such, I took most of her comments with a grain of salt. There are lengthy excerpts of Greek works to prove her points and that became tedious but it is also classical literature that is worth being exposed to.
For comparison, I recommend Charles Freeman's Egypt, Greece, and Rome that looks at each culture separately and gives the entire historical backdrop. Hamilton chronicles how views of government and philosophy changed as a result of the Peloponnesian War but provides little context for understanding that war. Aeschylus, Herodutus, Plato, etc. and sets up a comparative with each. Aeschylus with the other dramatists; Herodutus with Thucydides and Xenophon, etc.
There are some interesting comparisons and contrasts with the Bible. Hamilton does not claim the Gospels as a work of Greek philosophy, rather she illustrates the differences between ancient Jewish, Greek, and the later Judeo-Christian cultures.
She makes some bold statements that seem...false: "Greeks were the first people in the world to play," for example.
In all, I enjoyed the Freeman-like overview of Athenian culture as a refresher. I read Xenophon and Plato in the past year and want to continue with more Plato and Aristotle this year. 3 stars out of 5.
The first few chapters are
I first read this in my early teens and it was great then. So I'll call it an "all ages" book.
“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... Athens had entered upon her brief and magnificent flowering of genius which so
Her love affair with Greek civilization started at an early age. She was home-schooled, and her father guided her towards studies of the classics, teaching her Latin and Greek. (Her mother, meanwhile, taught the children French and German.)
For most of her years, she was an educator, including a position as head administrator of Bryn Mawr School, a college preparatory school for girls in Baltimore, Maryland. It was only after retiring as an educator in 1922 that she began a second career as an author of essays and best-selling books on ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. She published The Greek Way, her first book and an instant success, when she was 62.
"I came to the Greeks early," Hamilton told an interviewer when she was ninety-one, "and I found answers in them. Greece's great men let all their acts turn on the immortality of the soul. We don't really act as if we believed in the soul's immortality and that's why we are where we are today.”
Her book has become a classic about the Classics. And indeed, the ancient Greeks did contribute many concepts and works of art that are still important and relevant today. However, methinks the lady overstates her case in more than a few instances. For example, she actually asserts, “The Greeks were the first people in the world to play, and they played on a great scale.” This assertion is just plain crazy—even animals play [ask any dog owner]—and I very much doubt that they learned to play from the Greeks. The Greeks did, however, invent the Olympics; but that is not so much play as vigorous competition. In any event, Wikipedia has a detailed rundown of pre-historic gaming here.
Ms. Hamilton is a hero worshipper, and her heroes are aristocrats, both ancient Greek and modern. She imputes to the Ancient Greeks qualities that seem rather less than human, although admittedly she shared that tendency with a great many other admirers of that idealized culture, including most infamously the Nazis. One thinks of, for example, the 1938 film by Leni Riefenstahl, “Olympia,” in which she begins by showing the Athenian Acropolis and statues of Greek athletes, before fading into the scenes from the Berlin Olympics, conveying the message that the glories of Classical Greece were now being expressed by Nazi Germany (at least, once they could get rid of the Jews…)
In any event, Hamilton’s hero worship comes out throughout the book. She makes the error of attributing to most Periclean Greeks the qualities Plato ascribes to Socrates. Plato’s Socrates, as distinguished from the historical Socrates, is pretty heroic, but he is fiction. I suspect the actual Greeks were more accurately described by Aristophanes in his bawdy comedies.
Hamilton also maintains that quality of the plays by three great Greek tragedians—Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides—has been matched only by Shakespeare in the two millennia since they wrote. That’s a mighty aggressive opinion, but one characteristic of the book as a whole.
I don’t mean this review to be totally negative. Her analysis of two Greek historians—Herodotus and Thucydides—is measured and accurate. Her command of the entirety of Greek art and history is truly impressive, although she does give somewhat short shrift to Greek philosophy. And her writing style is excellent. Indeed, her sentence structure and vocabulary are so uniformly superlative that many reviewers have overlooked the enormity of many of her claims. They also, for many years, bought into her contention that the modern spirit of the West was “a Greek discovery” and that the East just wasn’t important.
Evaluation: While I enjoyed her writing and the scope of the book, she consistently praises the merits of her subject matter, occasionally misstates some facts, and consistently valorizes the West in general and the Greeks in particular while ignoring the contributions to civilization of such areas as - well, all of Asia.