Review: “The Greek Way” by Edith Hamilton

Thumbs up for The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton. History.

Sometimes it’s next to impossible to write a review, even a positive review, of a book that moves you. The difference between like and love is chemistry, and I don’t want to mislead you. I had expected a basic history of the Ancient Greeks, maybe with the addition of some information on their daily lives. The Greek Way isn’t that, though it does survey Greek poetry, tragedy, comedy and the lives of some great men. But, at heart, it’s an inspiring (a word I do not use lightly) look at their way of seeing the world, and how that view is still relevant today. Hamilton’s scholarship has, I’m sure, been surpassed, especially in relation to the Eastern world with which she contrasts the Greeks. But she writes with such beauty and clarity and deep love of her subject that I fell in love all over again with the Greeks, and Hamilton in equal measure. Unless you are a resolute cynic (and what are you doing here, anyway – go away!) this book will make you want to live a better life. Okay, now I’ve gone hyperbolic, and that’s why I put off this review for months. But screw it. That’s how I feel.

To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and delightful to live in, was a mark of the Greek spirit which distinguished it from all that had gone before. It is a vital distinction. The joy of life is written upon everything the Greeks left behind and they who leave it out of account fail to reckon with something that is of first importance in understanding how the Greek achievement came to pass in the world of antiquity. It is not a fact that jumps to the eye for the reason that their literature is marked strongly by sorrow. The Greeks knew to the full how bitter life is as well as how sweet. Joy and sorrow, exultation and tragedy, stand hand in hand in Greek literature, but there is no contradiction involved thereby. Those who do know the one do not really know the other either. It is the depressed, the gray-minded people, who cannot rejoice just as they cannot agonize. The Greeks were not victims of depression. Greek literature is not done in gray or with a low palette. It is all black and shining white or black and scarlet and gold. The Greeks were keenly aware, terribly aware, of life uncertainty and the imminence of death. Over and over again they emphasize the brevity and the failure of all human endeavor, the swift passing of all that is beautiful and joyful. To Pindar, even as he glorifies the victor in the games, life is “a shadow’s dream.” But never, not in their darkest moments, do they lose their taste for life. It is always a wonder and a delight, the world a place of beauty, and they themselves rejoicing to be alive in it.

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