Cahill, author of the popular (and excellent) How the Irish Saved Civilization has embarked on a seven volume set of Western history. This volume explores the foundations of Western culture constructed by the Greeks. Cahill quotes liberally from many sources, but describes Greek history and values through a tour of their major artistic genres: war-poem, love of home poem, party poetry, political commentary in the form of tragedy and comedy, philosophy, and sculpture.

The original Greeks were warrior tribes who invaded what is now Greece, and war remained the glory of of man for centuries. Homer’s Iliad is the quintessential war-poem, which although it describes events 500 years before its writing, is a mix of values from the original time and Homer’s own time. Cahill notes that rage is a major theme: all the characters in the Illiad are mad, with Achilles sitting in his tent for most of the book because Agamemnon took his concubine. Homer portrays war as the most glorious human achievement (as well as deepest suffering). However, Homer also is the first author, ever, to describe a loving family (Hector and Andromache). He also describes a nascent democracy, the battle-council where everyone had a voice and issues were candidly discussed by the whole army. And despite the glory of fighting courageously, there is the constant thread that people are not in control of their destiny; their end is whatever the gods have decreed, and no man can escape it.

Homer’s Odyssey is quite unlike the Iliad. In contrast to battle, where strength is king, Odysseus (and his wife Penelope) are shrewd and cunning. Among warriors, being called a woman is the deepest insult, but Odysseus and his men weep freely for their homes and families. It is cunning Odysseus, not mighty Achilles who wins the war. Here Homer portrays a love of home and family as the highest form of living, with the poem concluding with Odysseus reunited in love. Cahill concludes that the contrast between the two, and the fact that the Odyssey is the younger poem, suggest that Homer values the values of Odysseus, not the values of Achilles. However, up until a few hundred years ago, it was typically the Iliad that captured men’s hearts, not the Odyssey.

Along the way Cahill makes several observations about Greek culture of Homer’s time. First, the alphabet, imported from Hebrew, enabled wide-spread literacy. Homer lived in the transition from oral to written storytelling, so his poems draw from the oral tradition, but the written medium enabled Homer to be more descriptively concise and elegant than if he had to rely only on memory. Second, there is no sense of homosexual interest; Homer’s characters are “aggressively heterosexual.” Finally, while Penelope is faithful and chaste, Odysseus is not: he lived with Calypso and slept with Circe. However, no one would have expected him to be chaste, not even Penelope. While not fully faithful to our way of thinking, nonetheless, he is faithful: he doggedly pursues home and family, despite the challenges.

Throughout ancient times Greeks had a love for music and dance. To not be good at either would be to have missed out on life. With the advent of writing came more personal poetry, and poetry celebrating wine, women, and song. Well, wine and song, at least. Some of these poets are even women, the most notable being Sappho, who has some personal poetry along with the jovial party-poetry. From the party-poetry we learn about how Greeks sought respite from the rage and the terror of war: symposia.  Unlike the academic event it has now become, a symposium consisted of a bunch of men drinking and doing all sorts of crazy things. The evening would start with a libation poured out to Dionysius, and then a song and dance to Dionysus, the dithyramb. Guest would recline on low couches, and were served food and wine by serving girls and boys, who also served as sexual partners after the wine had flowed for a while. These parties tended to last well into the night, and be the epitome of excess.

Greece was originally a collection of chieftains and their kingdoms, but as the experiment of cities started, so too did the experiment of government. Originally rulers of the city (the tyrannos) was a non-hereditary king. Unlike many, who became a tyrant unconcerned with the citizens, Solon was one who influence Athens for centuries. Athens elected a ruler from among the aristocracy for a year, and Solon used his year to build a system on the idea that “men preserve agreements that profit no one to violate.” He got rid of slavery as a result of debt, and created four tiers based on income. He made political engagement conditional on wealth, not birth. Every citizen got a seat in the Assembly (the ekklesia), the final authority in Athens. The middle two tiers could run for political office, and the wealthiest (only five times more than the poorest, quite unlike today) was eligible for the position of archon (ruler-for-a-year). Slaves, which were potentially almost half of Athens’ population, had almost no rights. Female slaves had to be tortured before they could give evidence in court. Slaves also mined the silver that gave Athens its wealth, where they were pretty much worked to death. There was also a population of foreigners, possibly about 40%, leaving only about 20% of Athens as citizens.

Athens had two major festivals (both dedicated to Dionysus). Originally there was a musical chorus that sang the story of a god or hero while audience watched. This liturgy slowly evolved into the Greek drama (much like the Latin church liturgy evolved into modern drama). Thespis (hence thespian) made the soloist a character by use of a large mask. Aeschylus added a second actor, but it was still a liturgical retelling of a story. He did, however, use it as social commentary. Sophocles added a third character (which Aeschylus copied) and was even more political.

Greeks were highly competitive so eventually the spring festival quickly turned into the Dionysia, three days of tragedies. (The winter festival presented comedies.)  The tragedies were in the trilogies, and presented back-to-back, and a best-of-show was elected. The tragedies often critiqued society, as in Euripides’ Medea, where she candidly talks about the wretched state of women—they save up to buy a husband, who lords it over them, they cannot divorce him, but if he gets tired of her he goes out and finds satisfaction elsewhere. Greek life had a distinct winner-loser character: either you were the winner, or you were the loser, which Cahill describes with a colorful phrase related to the giant phalloi that were paraded in at the start of the Dionysia. Euripides did not win the Dionysia with that play.

The Greeks were a curious bunch, and the philosophers started by being curious about what made the universe work. They assumed that the kosmos (“elegant order”) was eternal. Yet, the eternal world sure had a lot of change going on in it, so there must be some underlying unchanging thing. Thales of Miletus thought it was water. Heraclitus of Ephesus asserted that there was no unchanging thing; “all things flow,” and just like the same river always has different water, so the world was full of change yet changeless. Parmenides argued that the universe had to be stable and permanent, otherwise it would not make any sense. His teacher, Xenophanes argued that a pantheon of gods with human passions was nonsense, that god was one, and unchanging, affecting things only through his mind (and, on observing fossils on mountains concluded that the earth was covered with water in the past, and, things being cyclical, would be covered again). Empedocles of Sicily suggested that the eternal substance was really four things: earth, air, fire, and water. Anaxagoras of Ionia generalized this into everything being made of different kinds of “seeds” and he argued that there had to be a mind, or principle, capable of organizing all the patterns of mixtures of seeds. Leucippus and Democritus took this and created the idea that the thing the universe was composed of was unchanging, and too small to be seen (a-toma, uncuttable). Since people are created of these atoms and entirely a physical process, there were no gods, and seemed to be a man who pursued joie de vivre.

Philosophers were not just abstract thinkers. Thales brought back land measurement techniques from a visit to Egypt, and he abstracted the principles into geometria (“land measurement”). Pythagoras likely incorporated eastern thought from Babylon and India, into a guru personality cult. He founded a community isolated from the world (monasticism being essentially an eastern idea rather than an idea that Jesus would have had). He taught reincarnation of souls, and that the immutable human soul was really a immortal deity fallen down from heaven and imprisoned in the flesh; Pythagoras taught how to make good choices that would reincarnate your soul to a better body. He also thought that numbers held deep meaning. He noticed that the strings of a lyre had distinct ratios, which he felt must be a deep design of the universe, the “music of the spheres” that we can’t hear because it is all around us and there is no silence to allow us to distinguish it. (Of course, Pythagoras could hear the music.)  He also played with numbers and triangles, arranging the numbers in the ratios of music (1, 2, 3, 4) as a triangle of dots: one dot on the first line, two dots on the second, etc. From his experiments with triangles he developed the Pythagorean theorem.

Plato is one of Greece best known philosophers, who wrote philosophy in question and answer dialogues with Socrates. Socrates did not write anything down, but he did ask lots of questions. Troublesome questions, that tended to show that the people running Athens could not provide solid reasons behind their assertions. This naturally attracted the youth of the city, who delighted in seeing their elders humiliated. The elders had the last laugh, though, and convicted him on questionable charges and offered him his choice of punishment, expecting he would take exile; he chose death instead. Plato took his method of finding answers by questioning assumptions, and elevated it to a literary form by turning it into dialogues, almost theater pieces. There are even such random digressions as one might expect from a conversation. Plato even started a school, which had as one of its students the other influential Greek philosopher, Aristotle.

Plato believed that there was an ideal Form that existed, of which material instantiations were only copies. Plato was an idealist, that is, ideas are a higher reality than material things. Thus, there is a Form of a Chair, of which all material chairs are derived. Aristotle, in contrast, was a materialist (with an exception for the immortality of the rational part of humans). There is no abstract Chair, other than the generalization in the mind of the creator of the chair. In fact, the abstraction is derived from the chair, rather than vice-versa.

Greek art started off in the world of Forms. The first statues, kouroi, of boys, were just on the cusp of manhood, and because they were the eternal Form, they were naked. (Likely this was because nudity in certain quasi-public spaces was accepted, although certainly one would not be naked in public. This is a contrast with almost all other cultures, which have viewed nakedness in public as vulnerability and weakness.)  There were no female Forms, because the was no ideal time for a woman; she was less than a man in all ways. Greek art contains lots of explicit images, but these were for private, not public use.

After the kouroi, the statues move into the material world, as the statues depict boys in their actual, not idealized shape, and in natural positions. Women are similarly depicted, but always clothed. The ideal woman is the secluded matron. But Cahill notes that the Greeks did not like Otherness. So women were the opposite of men: not rational, not man, not truthful (hence the requirement to torture female slaves before they gave evidence). Yet, the Other (women and foreigners) are not so different, and in the particular case of Woman, the man needs this Other, even though she is foreign to him. Which is a problem, because the Other reminds him of some things in himself that he does not want to admit to, and so he must make an even larger barrier to Otherness. In doing so, he actually begins to define himself in terms of not-Other. Another reason women were clothed was that Aphrodite would kill anyone who caught her naked. Over time, though, the view of the gods changed, and Aphrodite was sculpted, which opened the floodgates for naked women as well as naked boys.

After Athens’ was defeated, there was a vacuum in society, and art began to be realistic simply for arousal. Sometimes art was in protest, as the statue of Demosthenes who unsuccessfully warned Athens of the dangers of Macedonia silently protested Athen’s conquest by Alexander the Great of Macedonia. The philosophers did not debate existence any more, but strategies of living: how to win an argument (Sophists), self-sufficiency (Cynics), detachment from the material world (Stoics), and pleasure is how you live happily (Epicureans).

Why do the Greeks matter? Primarily because everyone afterwards used their ideas and literature. The Romans copied Greek religion and literature, because they were not so much an artistic culture. Virgil models the Aeneid after Homer, because he had nothing else. For thousands of years the Iliad has stirred the hearts of men, and the Odyssey has been the basis of many modern adaptations, including James Joyce’s Ulysses. Greek philosophy created our foundation for mathematics, logic, and science. While Christianity rejected Greek morals wholesale, it was took much of Greek thought, leading to the sacred/secular divide (not an idea of Jesus), among other things. St. Augustine was particularly influenced by Greek thought, and monasticism may have been derived from the Greeks; certainly it started in the Greek-speaking eastern empire and Pythagoras had introduced the precedent. Greek thought in the form of Plato and Aristotle held sway over Western thinking for over a millennium. One author has commented that Western philosophy is just a bunch of footnotes to Plato; Greek philosophy matters because it laid such a thorough foundation.

Cahill gives a whirlwind tour through Greek literature and art, deducing Greek culture from it. He focuses on the person and the ideas, rather than just the history. However, although the series is titled “Hinges of History,” the ideas are scattered throughout with little coherence in how they formed Western culture. An individual idea is sometimes traced to today, but rarely are the ideas themselves woven together.

Cahill describes Greek culture and values in a way that gives an actual flavor of what it might have been like to live there, which is nice. Although each Greek city had a different culture, he focuses on Athens because it had the most influence. So he gives the background of some of the cultural events of Athens, like the Dionysia and the experience of watching a tragedy. He is certainly not shy in talking about Greek sexual mores; on the contrary, he seems to revel in it, which is a little unbecoming to my mind. It certainly does reveal why the pious Jews, and later, Christians, had so much animosity and disgust towards Greek culture, with its drinking parties and sex as entertainment.

Cahill does a pretty good job of describing Greek culture and an excellent job of excerpting Greek literature into the highlights. However, he does not solidly answer the question of the subtitle of the book, “Why the Greeks Matter.” Apart from glimpses into how Greek thought affected modern culture, his goal seems like it is to give the flavor of Greek culture, rather than to trace its influence down to the present day. His preoccupation with sex feels borderline-lewd and like it missed opportunities to include more diversity of what Greek life looked like, but I feel like I have a solid understanding of the basics of classical Greek culture.

Review: 6
Cahill is very engaging and very widely read. He does a great job of highlighting themes and values of Greek culture over a five hundred year period, which is a difficult task. His almost reveling in describing the sexual mores is too much, and it harms the book. An important topic, but too prominent. Apart from that, the themes he raises are not tied into a cohesive framework, they are just scattered wherever he finds them. So I walk away with a feeling for Greek culture, but not really an understanding of it.