Tag Archives: ancient greece

World Map 1689Stuart got a job recently. Well, a part-time job — as adjunct faculty teaching a history course. I’m not sure how he got it; he doesn’t have a degree in history. But he said he talked the department head into it by describing his take on world civilizations. He did his Stuart dance for his dinner.

“Well, I said I wanted to teach world history a different way,” he said to me over lunch the other day. “I wanted to look at it through the lens of geography. It explains so much.”

Mostly, he said, he just wanted to try organizing the Big Picture a different way, because looking at something differently opens a subject up for fresh insights. At least, that’s my stuffy way of saying what he was up to.
aegean sea map

“From even prehistoric times,” Stuart explained, “human cultures have organized themselves in two ways — either around a body of water or in the middle of a chunk of land. These two societies tend to approach the rest of the world differently.

“You can see this in the signal conflict of the classical world — the Persian Wars. We may think of Greece as a nation, like France or Argentina, but back then, Greek civilization was a constellation of cities and islands around the Aegean Sea. It was built facing the water, so to speak, and like the ancient Lake People of Switzerland, they looked across the pond and saw trading partners. They built ships and launched out across the water to find their likeness on the far shore.

“Rome was built around the Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean. In the Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League was all about trade.

Persia satellite view“But Persia was a continental power, built on land, surrounded primarily by land, where other people may have been trading partners, but they were primarily a threat. All through the Middle East, you have one conquering nation after another invading their neighbors. Their gods told them to. Persia, like the standard model continental power, wanted to expand, to push its borders out farther, absorb the neighbors to nullify the threat.

“These are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the outer world, and those two ways govern so much of what happens in history.”

“And this is what you told the department head?” I asked. “And he bought it?”

“She did,” he said — which explained a bit more about Stuart’s persuasiveness. If you know anything about Stuart, you know he approached the world, not so much by riparian or continental cultures, but through the interaction of men and women.

“And so, now you’re teaching world history to students at a two-year school.”

“It’s great, although class is rather early for me: It starts at 10 every Tuesday and Thursday morning. But I can get up for it; it’s been really fun so far.”

“It’s always fun until the grading starts,” I said.

“I haven’t got there yet,” he said. “But I’ve assigned the first paper.”

I remembered my time teaching, and the surprising papers that were turned in. I used to read the really bad ones at dinner parties for fun; we all had a good laugh. Bad grammar, misunderstood concepts, lazy ideas. Once, in an art history class, I had 16 students and 16 different spellings of “Coliseum,” and not one of them correct — despite the fact there were two acceptable spellings: “Coliseum” and “Colosseum.” I knew Stuart was in for a disappointing surprise when those papers were turned in. Indus river map

“Think of all the early civilizations,” Stuart went on. “Egypt on the Nile, the Indus River civilization, the Chinese living along the Huang Ho and Yangtze. Later, you have Vikings around the Baltic Sea and North Atlantic. China is interesting, because it starts as a riparian civilization, but as it grew, it turned continental. It gives a distinct flavor to Chinese history.”

“And the continental?” I asked.

“Think of the Mongolian Hordes,” he said. “Or early American tribes conquering each other. Persia, the Ottomans, Moguls.

“If you look at pre-colonial Africa, you see some cultures are riparian, like Ghana, and some are continental, like the Berbers. The distinctions have been blurred over by the pie-slicing of the continent by its colonial powers into supposed nation-states mimicking those of Europe. Quite unnatural. But they were there: riparian and continental ways of looking at the world.

thirteen colonies“I thought, this explains a lot about us,” he said. “About America. When we were founded, we were an outpost on the other side of the pond. We looked across the Atlantic and saw our compadres there. Europe and the New World were built around the ocean, whether it was England and the 13 colonies, France and Quebec, or Spain and Latin America. It may be a distortion to consider the interrelation between the Old and New Worlds as trade, considering we didn’t really give the native peoples a choice in the matter, but from the point of view of the colonizers, who really didn’t take the original inhabitants seriously, they saw themselves as Europeans trading with their parent nations.

“And for the 13 colonies, when they were still colonies, they were Englishmen trading with England, later making alliance with France. We began, like China, as a riparian society. There were even laws passed to prevent settlers from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains, to keep it a riparian culture.

“But we expanded anyway and became, over time, a continental power. Expansion was seen as not only good, but necessary, even ordained by God. This change explains the current political landscape.”

“How so,” I said, innocently, while waiting for the and blue

“Think about it. Where are the blue states and where are the red? By and large, the blue states are on the edge of the continent, both on the Atlantic and and on the Pacific, or around the Great Lakes. The red ones are in the center, where they remain continental in outlook, fearful of foreigners and the core of isolationism.”

“I thought the difference was between the agrarian states and the urban states,” I said.

xi jinping 2“Certainly. My outlook isn’t the only factor in this. But it is there, not often mentioned, and is in part also the reason the coastal states built their economies on trade and the interior states on farming and ranching. I’m not making the case that this theory explains everything, or that it is the only thing that made us what we are, but I am saying that it helps explain it, and that you can see the same forces acting out elsewhere in the world. Maoism was continental in China, but the coastal cities of China were built on trade. The new China of Xi Jinping has grown as it has seen its place in the larger world — and as a riparian economy, not a continental one. The burgeoning economy is largely a coastal event. The Chinese poor are largely in the interior.

“And so, blue states look outward to the world, the red states are xenophobic.eurasia

“Look at Russia,” Stuart said. “They are a quintessential continental power, hunkering down in the middle of Eurasia. Invaded by Tatars, Verangians, and Teutonic Knights, they came to fear the outside and built a national identity on creating a fortress mentality, and conquered neighboring lands to make redouts to protect the national core from attack. Peter the GreatPeter the Great attempted to turn Russia into a riparian culture by building his capital on the Baltic, hoping to become part of the European world of trade. But since then, the country has retreated to Moscow and glowered out at the rest of the world. It’s how the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics accrued, and after a brief period of glasnost, why PutinVladimir Putin has resumed the essential Russian inwardness, and his need to expand the borders again to build up those protective buffer nations around the national heartland. Lookout, Ukraine.”

I wondered if Stuart taught any of this chronologically, or was the whole course built around this theory. Were there any parts of history unrelated to his bifurcation of world outlooks.

“Oh, I fit all that other stuff in, too,” he said. “But mainly I wanted to explore this idea for myself. Teaching is the best way to learn.”

I couldn’t argue that.

“And your department head thinks this is OK? To use your class for you to explore your ideas?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I moved in with her last week. We’re good.”



Three graces Louvre

The Renaissance is finally ending.

That great rebirth of Classical learning sparked the greatest growth of art, science and technology, but it seems to have run its course: Science is now suspect; pseudoscience gains enthusiastic converts every day. Democracy, misunderstanding the dictum that no one is better than anyone else, has come to believe that the lowest common denominator is also the highest possible intellectual achievement and that the idea of learning from our betters is somehow ”elitist” — or at any rate will depreciate our self-esteem.

Listen to the illiterate sentences of bystanders interviewed on the evening news — heck, listen to the local news anchors themselves — and you wonder whether anyone still knows that sentences require both nouns and verbs, and that together they make for articulate thought.

What has changed, more than anything else, is that we have begun losing touch with that Classical learning that undergirded those 500 years of human glory. Another Dark Age is setting in.

The real problem is the loss of the influence of Classics on the general population. For 500 years, art, culture, even technology, were based on a general acceptance of Greek thought. When we lose that, we lose our connection to our culture — and not merely European culture, but the widening world culture. If Asia or Africa once had cultures without roots in Greece, it is no longer true. Sony could not make electronics equipment without the rational, scientific turn of mind made possible by Greek ideals; budding African democracies owe their politics to the same ideals. Not solely, certainly. And we gain from them as they gain from us. But the world culture is at bottom Classical.

It is not merely, or primarily, a body of knowledge that is important, although that has its place. What is more important, and what is most Greek, is a method of approaching knowledge rather than the mere facts of it. It is the Greek skeptical approach that demands rigorous proof. We owe our medicines and our TVs to such an approach.


Multiculturalists — and I usually count myself among them — sometimes denigrate the Greeks, blaming them for racism, sexism and a host of other ”isms.” And the Greeks are guilty. They were not perfect.

But that misses the point. All human endeavor is imperfect.

We should not be so quick to condemn the failings of our ancestors; better to try to learn from those failings.

The critics are themselves guilty of an ”ism,” which is the moral arrogance of ”presentism,” the belief that the current state of morals and intellect is somehow the ”correct” one and that they may judge the failings of the past from their own certainties. The radical feminist argument is not fundamentally different from that of the Spanish priests who burned the Pre-Columbian codices on the grounds that those writings were harmful to ”their” present.

A little humility, please.

What’s more, even the critics use the dialectics of Classical thought to deconstruct what they object to. It is always ironic to hear a feminist use Greek argument to berate the Greeks. Feminists disparage the Classics as being misogynist — and make no mistake about it, the Greeks valued what they considered ”masculine” virtues and often made little place for women in their theory.

Yet, one only has to open Homer’s Odyssey to see a wealth of women — strong women — and feminist virtues. Other plays, such as the Antigone, present strong, thoughtful women. Greek actuality is much less coercive than is sometimes thought. And that aside, even if we take account of some of the cultural peculiarities of the ancient Greeks, inherent in their thought — and more importantly, in their thinking processes — are the seeds of all current thought, including multiculturalism. It isn’t Eastern thought or Third World thought that values diversity: It is the Greeks who gave us that.

There are at least four important reasons for maintaining our connection with Classical learning.

From least to most important, they are:Derek Walcott

-› Knowledge of Classical myth and literature. Losing the Classical references means that our literature will become increasingly undecipherable, and in consequence, we will lose tradition, our connection with our past — all our pasts — and we will be in danger of repeating old mistakes. It isn’t only Milton: We cannot read Derek Walcott’s Omeros without understanding Homer.

–› Clarity and precision in discourse. Greek thought is about clarity of language, if nothing else. Greek (and Latin) language does not easily permit sloppiness. We would be better writers and speakers if we were exposed regularly in grammar school to the Classics and Classical languages. The anti-Classical cabal is led by the trendily popular deconstructionists. The postmodernists and deconstructionists: Why read them, since, by their own argument, what they write is meaningless?

–› Acquaintance with the tragic view of life, which is the true view. Americans are becoming a nation of slack-jawed optimists who seem to think life is perfectible, whether they are liberals and think government can perfect it, or conservatives and think that private enterprise can perfect it. Both are wrong. Life is made up of impossible choices. We can only make the best choices in the future if we acknowledge the worst choices of the past. Choices made from ignorance or denial breed more bad choices.

The tragic view is that life causes pain, that there is no alternative, that you must do your best to make moral choices, knowing that whatever choice you make will turn out in the end to be immoral. People will die, suffer or at least be disenfranchised. You cannot act without injuring someone, yet act you must. The Greeks can toughen our hides.

The Mahabharata

–› Finally, the Classics can provide us with the deep, satisfying enjoyment that makes life worth living. If we open ourselves up to the Classics, we will find a deep well of pleasure, the powerful aesthetic experience that illuminates our lives. The Iliad, for instance, is the best book I have ever read, and I have read some good ones, including the Mahabharata of India and the Old Testament of the Levant, both of which have their own power.

Still, compared to them, the Iliad is more aesthetically complete. It makes a world from the greatest panorama down to the smallest detail, all filled in by Homer in just the right proportions to convince us of its reality.

In the end, it has nothing to do with dead white males: The Classics include Sappho, to say nothing of the Odyssey, which convincing arguments say was written by a woman. It matters nothing to me. Sappho and the Odyssey have given me some of the greatest pleasure of my life.

Perhaps we must give up the Classics: It is happening de facto if not by choice. But I dread what will replace it: superstition, intolerance, confusion and chaos.

It is a lesson of history: Clarity breeds uncertainty, which in turn leads to humility and therefore tolerance. On the other hand, confusion and chaos tend to invite political takeover by arrogant tyranny: Inclarity in discourse, public and private, masks the sloppy thinking of the self-righteous.

The Classics are not irrelevant.

myron diskobolos