Day 92: Why the Greeks?

Classicist Edith Hall, writing in The Guardian on the ancient, pre-Christian Greeks:

What bound the Greeks together was an enquiring cast of mind underpinned by a wonderful shared set of stories and poems and a restlessness that made them more likely to sail away and found a new city-state than tolerate starvation or oppression in a mainland metropolis. The diasporic, seafaring Greeks, while they invented new communities from scratch and were stimulated by interacting with other ethnic groups, made a rapid series of intellectual discoveries that raised the Mediterranean world to a new level of civilisation.

My question is, Why the Greeks? Why did they invent shared stories that were better than contemporary people around the ancient globe? What made them restless? Why wasn't everyone equally restless? Why were they more inclined to interact with other ethnic groups, rather than keep their distance or create violent confrontations?

Then Hall says this:

It has become a new orthodoxy that the Greeks were very similar to their Ancient Near Eastern neighbours, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Levant, Persia and Asia Minor. Some scholars have gone so far as to ask whether the Greeks came up with anything new at all, or whether they merely acted as a conduit through which the combined wisdom of all the civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean was disseminated across the territories conquered by Alexander the Great, before arriving at Rome and posterity. Others have seen sinister racist motives at work and accused classicists of creating in their own image the Oldest Dead White European Males; some have claimed, with some justification, that northern Europeans have systematically distorted and concealed the evidence showing how much the ancient Greeks owed to Semitic and African peoples rather than to Indo-European, “Aryan” traditions.

Oh. Okay. But then:

I do not deny that the Greeks acted as a conduit for other ancient peoples’ achievements. But to function successfully as a conduit, channel or intermediary is in itself to perform an exceptional role. It requires a range of talents and resources. Taking over someone else’s technical knowledge requires an opportunistic ability to identify a serendipitous find or encounter, excellent communicative skills and the imagination to see how a technique, story or object could be adapted to a different linguistic and cultural milieu.


The Greeks, more even than the Romans, show us how to question received opinion and authority. The earliest myths reveal mankind actively disputing the terms on which the Olympian gods want to rule them, and the philanthropic god Prometheus rebelling against Zeus in order to steal fire – a divine prerogative – and give it to mortal men.

I do like this bit. Why the Greeks? Because they knew how to question authority and received wisdom. I've been doing that since grade school, and now I feel like a clever fellow indeed.

I have heard Hall say, in a discussion of her latest book, Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life, that there is evidence that Aristotle wrote a great deal of material for the lay reader, but it has been mostly lost because the people who preserved his texts by copying them were scholars and monks who were inclined to preserve only the deep, difficult, sophisticated philosophical material. The texts written for a broader audience were deemed unimportant and so not preserved. The price, yet again, of scholarly disciplines and academies acting as arbiters of meaning, wisdom, and value and dismissing the common mind. Thanks for that, fellas.