a Greek trilogy

Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way (New York: WW Norton, 1964)

First published in 1930 and revised in 1943, Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way is a classic of its genre. In just over 200 pages, she covers Pindar, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in a most engaging fashion. Hamilton's comparisons of Aristophanes to Gilbert & Sullivan and Aeschylus to Shakespeare are thought-provoking, and her comparison of the three versions of Electra (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides) made me want to delve right into the original texts.

Cahill, Thomas. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (New York: Doubleday, 2003)

Somewhat shallower than Hamilton's The Greek Way--but significantly broader--is Thomas Cahill's Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, which covers epic poetry (Homer's Iliad and Odyssey), lyric poetry (Sappho's fragments), Solon and the origins of Athenian democracy, the pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato's Symposium and Republic, and Pericles' entire funeral oration. Cahill's ten-page section on "Notes and Sources" delves--briefly, but very well--into the translations he used and the references upon which he relied. His application of ancient Greek wisdom to contemporary problems resonated strongly, particularly this example:

He [Pisistratus] made a sensational return in a golden chariot accompanied by an extraordinarily tall and beautiful young woman dressed in full battle armor, who he announced was the goddess Athena come to restore order to her city. Simple people knelt along Pisistratus's parade, raised their arms, and gave thanks in the streets. Though only the most credulous members of the Assembly could be counted on to swallow such nonsense, there were, as there often are, quite enough of them to ensure initial political victory to an unscrupulous liar who piously invoked the powers of heaven. Only later, when the damage is done, do such dodos of democracy regret allowing themselves to be so easily taken in. (pp. 112-3)

Bertman, Stephen. The Eight Pillars of Greek Wisdom: What You Can Learn from Classical Myth and History (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007)

In The Eight Pillars of Greek Wisdom, Stephen Bertman also illustrates the eternal applicability of Greek thought, relying mainly on mythology to illuminate the following principles:

Humanism: "Be proud of your human abilities and believe in your capacity to achieve great things."
The Pursuit of Excellence: "Try to be more today than you were yesterday, more tomorrow than you were today."
The Practice of Moderation: "Beware of going to extremes, because in them lies danger."
Self-Knowledge: "Identify and understand your weaknesses and strengths."
Rationalism: "Search for the truth by using the power of your mind."
Restless Curiosity: "Seek to know what things really are, not merely what they seem to be."
The Love of Freedom: "Only if we are free can we find fulfillment."
Individualism: "Take pride in who you are as a unique individual." (pp. 7-8)

Bertram spends the most time on his third chapter, Moderation, weaving in many of the examples that enliven his book. (This chapter is, in fact, so good that it makes several of the others--especially the first two--seem rushed and perfunctory by comparison.) His book concludes with a primer on the Greek-to-Roman transition, along with other nearby myths from the story of Gilgamesh to the Egyptian traditions.

Reading three books that largely tread the same terrain can be an exercise in repetition, but the overlap between Hamilton, Cahill, and Bertram is surprisingly slight. One example is this praise for not just the creators of ancient Greek culture, but also its audience; here are two examples:

There is no other proof so convincing of the general level of intelligence and cultivated understanding in Athens as the fact that Sophocles was the popular playwright. But however great and sad the difference between the taste of the theatre public then and now, in one respect they are the same: general popularity always means warmth of human sympathy. (The Greek Way, p. 161)

It is a testament to the intellectual level of the ancient Athenians that these plays were attended not only by an elite coterie of theater-goers, but also by a city-wide public that packed the seats of Dionysus's theater at festival time. (The Eight Pillars of Greek Wisdom, p. 32)

Under capitalism, we get the culture we deserve--as determined by the expenditure of our dollars in the marketplace. That axiom teaches a somewhat painful truth about our values and ourselves, but it is for precisely that reason that it must not be ignored.

Reading these three volumes has increased my book-lust for Penguin's Complete Greeks and Romans collection (102 volumes, $800), although my disposable income and free time are not keeping pace. With an ample supply of the latter two, I would enroll in a "Great Books" program (such as the one at St John's College, with their swoon-inducing reading list) quickly enough to make your head spin, but--barring any miracles--I'll just have to muddle along a little bit at a time.


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I don't know how any so-called college can have a reading list it considers complete without any Stephen King. Geez.

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