This month has been one of learning: I’ve gone through both Durant’s “Our Orientatal Heritage” and “The Life of Greece” and I’ve learned more than I can possibly remember, and I’ve forgotten more than I know I could ever learn. Nevertheless, it’s creating a map in my mind of one way of looking at the world (surely not the only way), and regardless, Durant oozes with style making the listen incredibly pleasant.
As I move from “The Life of Greece” to “Caesar and Christ” I feel the necessity to quote the last few paragraphs of “The Life of Greece” if for nothing else their verbal pantomimic generosity.
As a writer Durant is a master at the peroratio, fully bringing his thoughts into form in a beautiful and holistic framework while showcasing his love of words and his passion for history. This short excerpt is an example of great writing, that I hope at some point to emulate in my own skill.
GREEK civilization was not dead; it had yet several centuries of life before it; and when it died it bequeathed itself in an incomparable legacy to the nations of Europe and the Near East. Every Greek colony poured the elixir of Greek art and thought into the cultural blood of the hinterland- into Spain and Gaul, Etruria and Rome, Egypt and Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor, and along the shores of the Black Sea. Alexandria was the port of reshipment forideas as well as goods: from the Museum and the Library the worksand views of Greek poets, mystics, philosophers, and scientists were scattered through scholars and students into every city of the Mediterranean concourse. Rome took the Greek heritage in its Hellenistic form: her playwrights adopted Menander and Philemon, her poets imitated the modes, measures, and themes of Alexandrian literature, her arts used Greek craftsmen and Greek forms, her law absorbed the statutes of the Greek cities, and her later imperial organization was modeled upon the Greco-Oriental monarchies: Hellenism, after the Roman conquest of Greece, conquered Rome even as the Orient was conquering Greece. Every extension of Roman power spread the ferment of Hellenic civilization. The Byzantine Empire wedded Greek to Asiatic culture, and passed on some part of the Greek inheritance to the Near East and the Slavic north. The Syrian Christians took up the torch and handed it to the Arabs, who carried it through Africa to Spain. Byzantine, Moslem, and Jewish scholars conveyed or translated the Greek masterpieces to Italy, arousing first the philosophy of the Schoolmen and then the fever of the Renaissance. Since that second birth of the European mind the spirit of Greece has seeped so thoroughly into modern culture that “all civilized nations, in all that concerns the activity of the intellect, are colonies of Hellas” today.
If we include in our Hellenic heritage not only what the Greeks invented but what they adapted from older cultures and transmitted by these diverse routes to our own, we shall find that patrimony in almost every phase of modern life. Our handicrafts, the technique of mining, the essentials of engineering, the processes of finance and trade, the organization of labor, the governmental regulation of commerce and industry- all these have come down to us on the stream of history from Rome, and through Rome from Greece. Our democracies and our dictatorships alike go back to Greek exemplars; and though the widened reach of states has evolved a representative system unknown to Hellas, the democratic idea of a government responsible to the governed, of trial by jury, and of civil liberties of thought, speech, writing, assemblage, and worship, have been profoundly stimulated by Greek history. These things above all distinguished the Greek from the Oriental, and gave him an independence of spirit and enterprise that made him smile at the obeisances and inertia of the East.
Our schools and universities, our gymnasiums and stadiums, our athletics and Olympic games, trace their lineage to Greece. The theory of eugenic mating, the conception of self-containment and of self-control, the cult of health and natural living, the pagan ideal of a shameless enjoyment of every sense, found their historic formulations in Greece. Christian theology and practice (the very words are Greek) stem in large part from the mystery religions of Greece and Egypt, from Eleusinian, Orphic, and Osirian rites; from Greek doctrines of the divine son dying for mankind and rising from the dead; from Greek rituals of religious procession, ceremonial purification, holy sacrifice, and the sacred common meal; from Greek ideas of hell, demons, purgatory, indulgences, and heaven; and from Stoic and Neo-Platonic theories of the Logos, creation, and thefinal conflagration of the world. Even our superstition is indebted to Greek bogies, witches, curses, omens, and unlucky days. And who could understand English literature, or one ode of Keats, without some tincture of Greek mythology?
Our literature could hardly have existed without the Greek tradition. Our alphabet came from Greece through Cumae and Rome; our language is littered with Greek words; our science has forged an international language through Greek terms; our grammar and rhetoric, even the punctuation and paragraphing of this page, are Greek inventions. Our literary genres are Greek- the lyric, the ode, the idyl, the novel, the essay, the oration, the biography, the history, and above all the drama; again nearly all the words are Greek. The terms and forms of the modern drama- tragedy, comedy, and pantomime- are Greek; and though Elizabethan tragedy is unique, the comic drama has come down almost unchanged from Menander and Philemon through Plautus and Terence, Ben Jonson and Moliere. The Greek dramas themselves are among the richest portions of our inheritance.
Nothing else in Greece seems so foreign to us as its music; and yet modern music (until its return to Africa and the Orient) wasderived from medieval chants and dances, and these went back in part to Greece. The oratorio and the opera owe something to the Greek choral dance and drama; and the theory of music, so far as we know,was first explored and expounded by the Greeks from Pythagoras to Aristoxenus. Our debt is least in painting; but in the art of fresco a direct line can be traced from Polygnotus through Alexandria and Pompeii, Giotto and Michelangelo, to the arresting murals of our own day. The forms and much of the technique of modern sculpture are still Greek, for upon no other art has the Hellenic genius stamped itself so despotically. We are only now freeing ourselves from the fascination of Greek architecture; every city in Europe and America has some temple of commerce or finance whose form or columnar facade came from the shrines of Greek gods. We miss in Greek art the study of character and the portrayal of the soul, and its infatuation with physical beauty and health leaves it less mature than the masculine statuary of Egypt or the profound painting of the Chinese; but the lessons of moderation, purity, and harmony embodied in the sculpture and architecture of the classic age are a precious heirloom for our race.
If Greek civilization seems more akin and “modern” to us now than that of any century before Voltaire, it is because the Hellene loved reason as much as form, and boldly sought to explain all nature in nature’s terms. The liberation of science from theology, and the independent development of scientific research, were parts of theheady adventure of the Greek mind. Greek mathematicians laid the foundations of trigonometry and calculus, they began and completed the study of conic sections, and they brought three-dimensional geometry to such relative perfection that it remained as they left it until Descartes and Pascal. Democritus illuminated the whole area of physics and chemistry with his atomic theory. In a mere aside and holiday from abstract studies Archimedes produced enough new mechanisms to place his name with the highest in the records of invention. Aristarchus anticipated and perhaps inspired Copernicus; and Hipparchus,through Claudius Ptolemy, constructed a system of astronomy which is one of the landmarks in cultural history. Eratosthenes measured the earth and mapped it. Anaxagoras and Empedocles drew the outlines of a theory of evolution. Aristotle and Theophrastus classified the animal and plant kingdoms, and almost created the sciences of meteorology, zoology, embryology, and botany. Hippocrates freed medicine from mysticism and philosophical theory, and ennobled it with an ethical code; Herophilus and Erasistratus raised anatomy and physiology to a point which, except in Galen, Europe would not reach again till the Renaissance. In the work of these men we breathe the quiet air of reason, always uncertain and unsafe, but cleansed of passion and myth. Perhaps, if we had its masterpieces entire, we should rate Greek science as the most signal intellectual achievement of mankind.
But the lover of philosophy will only reluctantly yield to science and art the supreme places in our Grecian heritage. Greek science itself was a child of Greek philosophy- of that reckless challenge to legend, that youthful love of inquiry, which for centuries united science and philosophy in one adventurous quest. Never had men examined nature so critically and yet so affectionately: the Greeks did no dishonor to the world in thinking that it was a cosmos of order and therefore amenable to understanding. They invented logic for the same reason that they made perfect statuary: harmony, unity, proportion, form, in their view, provided both the art of logic and the logic of art. Curious of every fact and every theory, they not only established philosophy as a distinct enterprise of the European mind, but they conceived nearly every system and every hypothesis, and left little to be said on any major problem of our life. Realism and nominalism, idealism and materialism, monotheism, pantheism, and atheism, feminism and communism, the Kantian critique and the Schopenhaurian despair, the primitivism of Rousseau and the immoralism of Nietzsche, the synthesis of Spencer and the psychoanalysis of Freud- all the dreams and wisdom of philosophy are here, in the age and land of its birth. And in Greece men not only talked of philosophy, they lived it: the sage, rather than the warrior or the saint, was the pinnacle and ideal of Greek life. Through all thecenturies from Thales that exhilarating philosophical bequest has comedown to us, inspiring Roman emperors, Christian Fathers, Scholastic theologians, Renaissance heretics, Cambridge Platonists, the rebels of the Enlightenment, and the devotees of philosophy today. At this moment thousands of eager spirits are reading Plato, perhaps in every country on the earth.
Civilization does not die, it migrates; it changes its habitat and its dress, but it lives on. The decay of one civilization, as of one individual, makes room for the growth of another; life sheds the old skin, and surprises death with fresh youth. Greek civilization is alive; it moves in every breath of mind that we breathe; so much of it remains that none of us in one lifetime could absorb it all. We know its defects- its insane and pitiless wars, its stagnant slavery, its subjection of woman, its lack of moral restraint, its corrupt individualism, its tragic failure to unite liberty with order and peace. But those who cherish freedom, reason, and beauty will not linger over these blemishes. They will hear behind the turmoil of political history the voices of Solon and Socrates, of Plato and Euripides, of Pheidias and Praxiteles, of Epicurus and Archimedes; they will be grateful for the existence of such men, and will seek their company across alien centuries. They will think of Greece as the bright morning of that Western civilization which, with all its kindred faults, is our nourishment and our life.