Textbook Leftovers

An Evening In Greece

Posted on: March 23, 2011

After leaving the Bible, Norton moves on to the next big thing in ancient history: Greece!

It seems that, in the deep dark past of Greek history, there was a great deal of prosperity. The Minoan ruins on Crete, the great city of Mycenae, and the epic palace of Pylos show all the signs of a flourishing, wealthy civilization. But then, there was a great catastrophe. It doesn’t seem that anybody knows what exactly happened, but the entire civilization was nearly lost. Greece was illiterate for centuries. (The catastrophe has to be bad if the entire population forgets how to read and write.)

All was not lost, however. During this dark age, memory remained. The oral histories were passed down and eventually came into the keeping of the man we call Homer. He seems to have recorded his epics during the 8th century BC, “which is incidentally, or perhaps not incidentally, the century in which the Greeks learned how to write again.” From there, these poems became the primer from which everyone learned, basically – a veritable cornerstone of their entire society.

There is an intriguing and fascinating discussion here about the differences between Hebrew and Greek religion. Here’s a pair of quotes to summarize:
“The Hebrew conception of God emphasizes those aspects of the universe that imply a harmonious order. The elements of disorder in the universe are… blamed on humankind, and… the evidences of disorder are something the writer tries to reconcile…”
“The Greeks conceived their gods as an expression of the disorder of the world in which they lived. The Olympian gods, like the natural forces of sea and sky, follow their own will even to the extreme of conflict with each other, and always with a sublime disregard for the human beings… It is true that they are all subjects of a single more powerful god, Zeus. But his authority over them is based only on superior strength… And Zeus… knows limits to his power too… Behind Zeus stands the mysterious power of Fate, to which even he must bow.”
I’m including these quotes because I think it is essential to understand the Greek conception of a god if we are to understand Homer. I do not want to start some sort of religious debate, especially based on two quotes from a historical summary, without the accompanying context.

After this philosophical interlude, we take a history lesson. The main thing I took away from it was that Greek culture gave us a lot of great stuff!
1. the Alphabet – Greek colonies in Asia Minor adapted the Phoenician writing system to suit their own language, adding in symbols for vowels, making it fully functional in modern terms. It was first used for record keeping and the like, but by the 7th century BC, there were literary works on rolls of papyrus.
2. Democracy, and some form of civic equality – the Athenian populace was finally able to govern itself! The effect that this freedom has had on the world cannot be estimated. And while it is true that only the adult Greek men had any sort of rights, they were no longer subjugated under a “ruling class” or a king. It was a weak beginning, but this is where the journey to a truly equal society began.
3. Education – Athens, again, gave us one of our most valuable professions – the professional teacher. The Sophists taught a limited curriculum, and of course only to the wealthy young men, but once again we see the humble beginnings of an essential part of our modern world.
4. Philosophy – Socrates. Aristotle. Plato. Do I need to say more?

The takeaway from all this is that the Greek culture went from prosperity, to catastrophe, to utter darkness, and came out with a long memory and hit the ground running to become a huge part of the modern world. We might look back now and see something alien in their religion and culture, but we’re comparing apples to oranges. The key to understanding them is to study their deepest memories – the epics of Homer.

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