Book review: “The Greek Way” by Edith Hamilton

I’ve had Edith Hamilton’s “The Greek Way” on my bookshelf for a few years. The first time I tried to read it, I was a bit put off by her East-West binary, which feels anachronistic and oversimplified. But the book will inevitably be a product of its time, as we all are, to some extent, and this does not mean it has nothing valuable to contribute. Anyway, I finally read it earlier this month, and it was an interesting experience.

Some parts felt like they missed the mark, like she could not find a language to transcend her asssumptions. For example, she seemed aware, on some level, that we cannot speak of the ‘individual’ as a meaningful unit pre Plato (at the very earliest), but on the other hand, she kept using the word individual in the context of classical Athens. Similarly, she seems to understand that ‘Athenian’ is not interchangeable with ‘Greek’ in the classical world (or ever), but still has a tendency to extrapolate from ‘Athenian’ to ‘Greek’ and from ‘Greek’ to ‘European,’ which is quite the romantic leap.

But there were also moments that were acutely thought-provoking, where she sees something that has been hovering in my peripheral vision, and she brings it into focus and makes me think more about it. Here is one such passage:

“The Greeks were pre-eminently realists. The temper of mind that made them carve their statues and paint their pictures from the living human beings around them, that kept their poetry within the sober limits of the possible, made them hard-headed men in the world of every-day affairs. They were not tempted to evade facts. It is we ourselves who are the sentimentalists. We, to whom poetry, all art, is only a superficial decoration of life, make a refuge from the world that is too hard for us to face by sentimentalizing it. The Greeks looked straight at it. They were completely unsentimental. It was a Roman who said it was sweet to die for one’s country. The Greeks never said it was sweet to die for anything. They had no vital lies.”

I’d love to hear, in the comments, your thoughts on this passage and/or about nonfiction that you have found thought-provoking 🧡

Leave a Reply