Are we tied to our historical ancestors?
A brilliant book by Edith Hall on Introducing the Ancient Greeks is a great source on current archeological research and unique in its perspective. She frames the ancient Hellenes as inquisitive and restless seafarers, who were “argumentative, inspirational, beauty-loving, and hedonistic”. By comparison, lets examine a caricature of Greeks in their “ideal” modern moment. The year is 2004, the Olympics are held in Athens, and national pride and general euphoria are in abundance. So, inquisitiveness has transformed to a sedentary life; argumentativeness has transformed to belligerence; beauty is neither in evidence nor in production; while hedonism lacks refinement and is exhausted on shows of conspicuous consumption. Of all that was “good”, being inspirational is the only trait that is maybe still in evidence. The intervening hangover and wanton financial destruction since 2007 complicates the picture – and makes any further comparisons unfair to contemporaries.
Edith Hall’s book may be particularly instructive for those that claim historical ties to the Hellenes. Ancient democracy was not settled nor was it unique to city-states, like Athens. Institutions were in constant flux and political ideas contested. Even the most fundamental political principles, such as isonomia (equality under law) had to be continuously defended and redefined. It is also fascinating how, at the time of decay, the original concepts were reinterpreted and diluted by dynastic powers such as the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Romans. It is also instructive to assess how their ideas were eventually subverted and undermined by a messianic sect that found in the Hellenic world a fertile ground to proselytize, dominate and eventually negate.
An idea attributed to Isocrates deserves a special mention: what does it mean to be an educated person? “Greeks…were not united by blood but by a frame of mind (dianoia) which could only be acquired through education in Greek culture (paideusis) not by some process of nature” (Hill, 2015:233). So, maybe paideusis can lead us beyond appreciation to understanding and remains therefore the only meaningful tie to the ancients.
I am following my own advice by now reading a book on why Homer still matters by Adam Nicolson which looks trully fascinating – Tom, thanks for the recommendation.