Friday, June 10, 2005


The Ancient Greeks

H.L. Mencken, from a review of volume V of The Cambridge Ancient History in the American Mercury (October 1927):
The Greeks of the palmy days remain the most overestimated people in all history. Ever since the Renaissance it has been a high indecorum to question their genius, and never a month passes that another book does not come out, praising them in loud, astounding terms. More men of the first rank were assembled in the Athens of Pericles, we are told, than any other city, or even any other nation, has ever housed. Going further, we are told that they remain unsurpassed to this day, in quality as in quantity.

Greek science is depicted as the father of all modern science. Greek art as the Ur-art, Greek philosophy as the last word in reason, and the Greek government of Pericles' time as democracy made perfect. In all this, alas, there is mainly only buncombe. The plain facts are that Greek science, even at its best, would be hard to distinguish from the science prevailing among Hottentots, Haitians and Mississippi Baptists today, that Greek art was chiefly only derivative and extremely narrow in range, that Greek philosophy was quite as idiotic as any other philosophy, and that the government of the Greeks, even at its best, was worse than the worst of Tammany.

One discovers plenty of proofs of all this in the present massive volume. It was written by scholars sharing the usual academic prejudice in favor of everything Greek, but nevertheless they manage to tell the truth in it, at least between the lines. They show that the salient Greek philosophers of Pericles's time were almost identical with the chautauqua orators of bucolic America, and that the more enlightened Greeks regarded them as public nuisances. They show that beauty, to the Greeks, was not something for everyday, but a rare luxury and means of display. They show that the Greek government was knavish and incompetent -- that it was constantly engaging in crooked enterprises abroad, and frequently became so corrupt and oppressive at home that the decent people of Athens had to rise up and reform it. And they show that most of the genuinely intelligent Greeks were foreigners, and that such natives as showed sense, e.g., Aristophanes, were commonly thrown out of the country.

The Greek language was the first lost tongue recovered in modern times, and the men who recovered it naturally made as much as they could of the ideas that came with it. Ever since the Renaissance it has been a mark of intellectual distinction to know Greek, though there is no record that knowing it has ever helped any man to think profitable thoughts. That distinction, to be sure, now begins to fade and wear thin, but there was a time, just before the beginning of the current rapid increase of knowledge, when it rose above all other forms of intellectual eminence, and it was during that period that the world was saddled with the exalted view of Greece and the Greeks that still survives.

In so far as it is not a mere sentimentality, it is grounded, I believe, upon the scantiness of our records of other peoples, contemporaneous with the Greeks or preceding them. If the history of Greek philosophy were known accurately, it would probably turn out to be no more than an imitation of some earlier philosophy, now forgotten and maybe abandoned by its inventors as nonsense. In architecture and the other arts, it is certainly absurd to say that the Greeks invented anything. They got the column from the Egyptians, who had perfected it a thousand years before the Parthenon, and they slavishly followed the Egyptians in their neglect of the arch. Their excellent materials were accidental, and in working them they showed no originality.

Was the Greek drama really indigenous? I shall believe it when it is proved that the Sanskrit drama was also indigenous, and not an imitation of some Persian, or maybe even Assyrian prototype. Were the Greeks scientists? Then so are the modern chiropractors. What they had of exact knowledge, in fact, was mainly borrowed, and most of it was spoiled in the borrowing. And the Greek religion? The best that one may say of it is that none of the intelligent foreigners who frequented Athens believed in it, and that many of them were jailed, exiled and even put to death for making fun of it. As for the Greek genius for politics, it revealed its true measure in the fact that no Greek form of government ever lasted for more than a century, and that most of them ended in scandal and disaster.

Here I make no fatuous attempt to read the Greeks out of court altogether. They were, for their time, an enterprising and progressive people, and they left us an immensely rich heritage, partly of sound ideas and partly of pleasant delusions and superstitions. But we probably owe a great deal more to the Egyptians, and quite as much to the lesser peoples who infested the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, notably the Phoenicians, the earlier Minoans, the Jews, and the forerunners of the later Arabs.

The one genuinely solid contribution of the Greeks to human progress lay in their attempt to synthesize and organize whatever knowledge was afloat in the world of their day. This business they achieved with great skill. But out of their own heads they produced little that is valid and important to modern man, save perhaps in the dreams of pedagogues seeking to astonish schoolboys. The Greeks themselves, restored to earth, would laugh at the pretension to the contrary, as they laughed at the Grecomaniac Romans.

If they had any virtue above all others, it was the virtue of skepticism. They were, in that department at least, the first of modern men. The barbaric surges and thunders of the Odyssey, in these twilight days of Christendom, are moving only to professors of Greek -- which is to say, to men whose opinion on any other subject would be rejected even by their fellow professors -- and the enjoyment of Greek tragedy, that unparalleled bore, is confined almost wholly to actresses who have grown too fat for Ibsen; but the ideas of Lucian and Aristophanes still live, and so do those of the Four Hundred.

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