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The Greek Way (1930)

by Edith Hamilton

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,120207,438 (3.81)40
"Five hundred years before Christ in a little town on the far western border of the settled and civilizaed world, a strange new power was at work. . . . Athens had entered upon her brief and magnificent flowering of genius which so molded the world of mind and of spirit that our mind and spirit today are different. . . . What was then produced of art and of thought has never been surpasses and very rarely equalled, and the stamp of it is upon all the art and all the thought of the Western world."A perennial favorite in many different editions, Edith Hamilton's best-selling The Greek Way captures the spirit and achievements of Greece in the fifth century B.C. A retired headmistress when she began her writing career in the 1930s, Hamilton immediately demonstrated a remarkable ability to bring the world of ancient Greece to life, introducing that world to the twentieth century. The New York Times called The Greek Way a "book of both cultural and critical importance."… (more)
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An excellent resource on wrongly representing foreign cultures. I may refer back to it if I want to know what not to do. ( )
  Aidan767 | Feb 1, 2024 |
This is the very first book by the author of "Mythology", a staple in every public library. In "Mythology" Hamilton pays scrupulous attention to the Greek or Roman authors by whom the myths were transmitted to us. In this book, she discusses several of the most prominent of the Greek authors who lived before or during the Peloponnesian War. The two books do complement each other, although not in any very direct way. Most of the excerpts from the works of the various Greek authors seem to be her own translations, which is impressive. She wrote the book in 1930 and published a revised and extended version in 1943, which is the version that I read. She has a profound admiration, not so much for the ancient Greek way of life as such, but for what she sees as its astonishing innovations in a humane culture.

Since the book was republished in 1943 it is, necessarily, a work of scholarly propaganda, in the same way that, e.g., several of C. S. Foresters's novels and short stories were fictional propaganda. These days, when we expect propaganda to be simplistic, on social media, and only originating with the enemy and never "our side", most readers tend not to be able to recognize even the most obvious propaganda in a well-written and scholarly work which is now of limited interest to many modern readers. But the propaganda is intrinsic and ubiquitous and is strongly encouraging us, the readers, to courageously defend that culture, some vital part of which we were so lucky as to inherit from the Greeks. She wants us to understand that we are standing on the shoulders of giants and we ought to be worthy.

She makes a very strong argument for Greek sculpture as being exceptional in its idealized realism. Much other art, associated with other civilizations, she argues is either unrealistic or un-idealistic. I do think that the examination of what art a culture chooses to construct to represent itself does indicate something about the values of that culture. At present, much public art being made in the US seem to lack realism and idealism, sometimes both at once. One also thinks of advertising in the US, the enormous banners in the Boston train station advertising a new medicine for erectile disfunction, and entirely dominating any of its architectural features, for instance.

She compares Greek literature with English in a few ways, focusing mostly on the relative realism and terseness of Greek literature. When she discusses the individual authors, she may often select an English writer to compare to: Pindar is like Kipling in some ways, Aeschylus like Shakespeare, Aristophanes resembles W. S. Gilbert.

The book is erudite and opinionated. It seems very likely that this work strongly influenced Mary Renault's novels of early classical Greece: "The Praise Singer", about the events that preceded the Persian Wars in Ionia and Athens, and "The Last of the Wine", a novel of the Peloponnesian War.

Her discussion of the ancient Egyptian life and character seems entirely at odds with that of Elizabeth Peters in her books on ancient Egypt, "Red Land, Black Land" and "Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs". ( )
1 vote themulhern | Feb 5, 2023 |
The analysis of the individual works of the poets and historians are quite good. But the pervading colonial ideology and its Western bias is unforgivable and that is a shame. ( )
  galuf84 | Jul 27, 2022 |
Edith Hamilton begins her 1930 classic with the following introduction:

“Five hundred years before Christ in a little town on the far western border of the settled and civilized world, a strange new power was at work... Athens had entered upon her brief and magnificent flowering of genius which so molded the world of mind and of spirit that our mind and spirit today are different... What was then produced of art and of thought has never been surpassed and very rarely equalled, and the stamp of it is upon all the art and all the thought of the Western world.”

Her love affair with Greek civilization started at an early age. She was home-schooled, and her father guided her towards studies of the classics, teaching her Latin and Greek. (Her mother, meanwhile, taught the children French and German.)

For most of her years, she was an educator, including a position as head administrator of Bryn Mawr School, a college preparatory school for girls in Baltimore, Maryland. It was only after retiring as an educator in 1922 that she began a second career as an author of essays and best-selling books on ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. She published The Greek Way, her first book and an instant success, when she was 62.

"I came to the Greeks early," Hamilton told an interviewer when she was ninety-one, "and I found answers in them. Greece's great men let all their acts turn on the immortality of the soul. We don't really act as if we believed in the soul's immortality and that's why we are where we are today.”

Her book has become a classic about the Classics. And indeed, the ancient Greeks did contribute many concepts and works of art that are still important and relevant today. However, methinks the lady overstates her case in more than a few instances. For example, she actually asserts, “The Greeks were the first people in the world to play, and they played on a great scale.” This assertion is just plain crazy—even animals play [ask any dog owner]—and I very much doubt that they learned to play from the Greeks. The Greeks did, however, invent the Olympics; but that is not so much play as vigorous competition. In any event, Wikipedia has a detailed rundown of pre-historic gaming here.

Ms. Hamilton is a hero worshipper, and her heroes are aristocrats, both ancient Greek and modern. She imputes to the Ancient Greeks qualities that seem rather less than human, although admittedly she shared that tendency with a great many other admirers of that idealized culture, including most infamously the Nazis. One thinks of, for example, the 1938 film by Leni Riefenstahl, “Olympia,” in which she begins by showing the Athenian Acropolis and statues of Greek athletes, before fading into the scenes from the Berlin Olympics, conveying the message that the glories of Classical Greece were now being expressed by Nazi Germany (at least, once they could get rid of the Jews…)

In any event, Hamilton’s hero worship comes out throughout the book. She makes the error of attributing to most Periclean Greeks the qualities Plato ascribes to Socrates. Plato’s Socrates, as distinguished from the historical Socrates, is pretty heroic, but he is fiction. I suspect the actual Greeks were more accurately described by Aristophanes in his bawdy comedies.

Hamilton also maintains that quality of the plays by three great Greek tragedians—Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides—has been matched only by Shakespeare in the two millennia since they wrote. That’s a mighty aggressive opinion, but one characteristic of the book as a whole.

I don’t mean this review to be totally negative. Her analysis of two Greek historians—Herodotus and Thucydides—is measured and accurate. Her command of the entirety of Greek art and history is truly impressive, although she does give somewhat short shrift to Greek philosophy. And her writing style is excellent. Indeed, her sentence structure and vocabulary are so uniformly superlative that many reviewers have overlooked the enormity of many of her claims. They also, for many years, bought into her contention that the modern spirit of the West was “a Greek discovery” and that the East just wasn’t important.

Evaluation: While I enjoyed her writing and the scope of the book, she consistently praises the merits of her subject matter, occasionally misstates some facts, and consistently valorizes the West in general and the Greeks in particular while ignoring the contributions to civilization of such areas as - well, all of Asia.

(JAB) ( )
  nbmars | May 31, 2022 |
We read Edith Hamilton for her personal relationship with the classical Greek authors, so skip the art history and intellectual history and go straight to the good stuff. You can start with chapter IV (The Greek Way of Writing) or chapter V (Pindar), either way works.

The first few chapters are pretty dated, especially the East/West stuff, which was written thirty years before Edward Said's "Orientalism" challenged that model. Also, it just isn't as engaging as the following chapters. So skip it.

I first read this in my early teens and it was great then. So I'll call it an "all ages" book. ( )
  wunder | Feb 3, 2022 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edith Hamiltonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dillon, DianeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dillon, LeoCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Doris Fielding Reid [additional text in Greek]
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Five hundred years before Christ in a little town on the far western border of the settled and civilized world, a strange new power was at work.
Quotations
There have been few men ever who have wondered more than Herodotus did.  The word is perpetually on his pen [...]  In this disposition he was the true child of his age -- the great age of Greece. During his life his countrymen were using their freedom, newly secured to them by the Persian defeat, to wonder in all directions. [100]
The special characteristic of the Greeks was their power to see the world clearly and at the same time as beautiful. [138]
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"Five hundred years before Christ in a little town on the far western border of the settled and civilizaed world, a strange new power was at work. . . . Athens had entered upon her brief and magnificent flowering of genius which so molded the world of mind and of spirit that our mind and spirit today are different. . . . What was then produced of art and of thought has never been surpasses and very rarely equalled, and the stamp of it is upon all the art and all the thought of the Western world."A perennial favorite in many different editions, Edith Hamilton's best-selling The Greek Way captures the spirit and achievements of Greece in the fifth century B.C. A retired headmistress when she began her writing career in the 1930s, Hamilton immediately demonstrated a remarkable ability to bring the world of ancient Greece to life, introducing that world to the twentieth century. The New York Times called The Greek Way a "book of both cultural and critical importance."

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