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SAILING THE WINE-DARK SEA by Thomas Cahill Kirkus Star


Why the Greeks Matter

by Thomas Cahill

Pub Date: Oct. 28th, 2003
ISBN: 0-385-49553-6
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday

In highly readable fashion, Cahill explores the Greeks’ great gifts to Western civilization, along with some less benign bequests that continue to grieve us.

It might be hard for us retroject ourselves into the Greek consciousness, suggests Cahill (How the Irish Saved Civilization, 1995, etc.), who proceeds to make it simple, situating many of our most knee-jerk responses to social, political, religious, and ethical life within the orbit of the Greek worldview. Americans, too, are a blend of circumstances and the refinement or debasement thereof: still a warrior culture (“males always primed for battle and sexual conquest”), still a bellicose society ready for war (“terrible but innate to civilization”), still Greek-dependent for our views of morality and justice in a fated universe ruled by passion. We too strive for the resourcefulness of Odysseus, tempered by “the ability to sympathize, to mourn, and to cherish familial relationships,” elevated for the Greeks by the influence of wonderful Sappho. We’re pursued by the Furies of guilt, take pleasure in conviviality (think keggers, for the lowest common denominator), believe in innocence by dint of hung jury, question taboos by deliberation and choice. Yes, Cahill notes, the European Enlightenment was critical, but so was Athens’ “wildly participatory” democracy, likely the fallout of an alphabet that spread literacy, demystification, and irreverence. The author parades a rogue’s gallery of true subversives, from Homer to Solon (“a sort of Athenian Franklin D. Roosevelt, an innovative though basically moderate statesman”), from pre-Socratic notions of atomic theory and mystery to Socrates’ questing and questioning to Plato’s ultimate forms. Then, late in the Grecian formula, Pericles’ resolve: “The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart.” Like all things Greek, highly interpretable, allowing “the Greco-Roman turn of mind combined with Judeo-Christian values.”

Like having a worldly, well-versed, and imaginative uncle tell you a good story, tendering the known while fearlessly filling in the gaps with seamless, colorful graftings.