From : IDEAS and MEN
by: Crane Brinton
Copyright @ 1950
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T HERE HAVE SURVIVED WRITINGS IN CLASSIC, OR ANCIENT, GREEK, DATING VERY ROUGHLY FROM750 B.C. to 1000 A.D., which cover almost the whole range of think-ing men have done in the fields of noncumulative knowledge. Greek philosophers, Greek observers of human Greek historians, Greek men of letters have expressed in some form or other almost all the kinds of intellectual and emotional experience Western men have recognized and named. This may seen an extreme statement, and is not of course a denial of the force, weight, beauty, wisdom, and in many senses, originality of medieval or achievement in these fields.
You can test this assertion in almost any field.
In literature, the Greeks tried all of what we call the genres, including, toward the end something very close to the novel. Especially in epic, lyric, and dramatic poetry and in history they set standards never yet surpassed-----some would say, never yet equaled. In philosophy, their schools put all the Big Questions--—being and becoming, the one and the many, mind and body, spirit and matter--—and gave all the big answers. Among the Greek philosophers were idealists, materialists, ratiionalists, monists, pluralists, skeptics, cynics, relativists, absolutists. Their painting has not survived physically; the decline in most phases of civilization that followed the breakup of the Graeco~Roman world was so great that men could not, at any rate did not, take care of these paintings. There is some doubt whether Greek painting was as great an art as Greek sculpture and Greek architecture; there is no doubt of the greatness of these latter, which have managed to survive, though often in imperfect condition, from the very solidity of their materials. Finally, in science or cumulative knowledge the Greeks, building in part on earlier achievements in Egypt and Mesopotamia, carried to high development the theoretical side of mathematics and astronomy and did creditably in physics and in medicine; the Romans, building in part on Greek achievements, attained high standards in engineering. In political and economic life, this culture attained great complexity. These people, in short, were fully “civilized.”
The prestige of the “classical” in this sense has now, however, almost disappeared in mid-twentieth-century America. In formal education, the classicists have lost even the rear-guard actions. Greek is no longer taught in secondary schools, and Latin survives as hardly more than a genteel formality. Although many educated Americans are wholly ignorant of an achievement that once meant so much to all educated men, the Greek achievement remains an essential part of the capital stock of our culture. It is by no means mere pedantry, nor even mere scientific custom, that has sent our psychologists, after so many humanists and men of letters, back to Greece. If from Greek sources the psychologists have named their Oedipus complex, their narcissism, their phobias and their manias, it is because the so-called mythology of the Greeks is in fact an amazingly rich treasury of realistic, and in the unromantic sense of the word, imaginative, observations on human behavior, on human aspirations, on that never-to-be-exhausted commonplace, human nature. Compared with Greek mythology, Nurse or Cehic mythology is simply thin, poverty-stricken, naive about human nature. We cannot know ourselves well if we know the Greeks not at all.
Moreover, the Graeco-Roman experiment in civilization was in senses completed; it exhibits, as philosophers of history all rcmind us, something like a full cycle, from youth to age and death, from spring to winter; it has a beginning and an ending.
Finally, in this civilization was matured the Christian religion. Christianity clearly has Jewish origins largely outside Greek influences. But in its growth and organization it was an integral part of the Graeco-Roman world in the last few centuries of that civilization’s active life. We cannot understand Christianity today unless we understand Christianity then.
The origins of the Greeks are unrecorded in history but are clearly reflected in Greek legend and mythology and in archaeological remains . It is clear that the Greek-speaking peoples were outsiders, Northerners from the Danube basin or even further north and related by language at least to the Germans, the Cclts, and the Slavs, In various waves, of which the latest, the Done, finished its wanderings almost in historic time, at the beginning of the first millennium before Christ, these Greeks—or Hellenes, as they called themselves ----came down on an earlier native culture we now call Minoan. A certainly Hellenes and Minoans mixed their genes and then cultures, with the Hellenes the dominant group, and with the usual falling off of cultural standards that accompanies the conquest of more civilized by less civilized peoples. For the Minoans had a high civilization, as we can tell from their architectural and sculptural remains. From this dark age the Greeks emerged clearly by the eighth century B.C., already traders as well as fighters, already artists, perhaps even thinkers, and already organized in the most famous of Greek institutions, the polis , or self-governing, sovereign city-state. In the polis was the classical culture of Greece. Athens and its surrounding territory, Attica, had in the fifth century B.C., the century of it s greatness a population of at most 200,000—the size of a modest American city today.
The thousand years of the classical civilization of the Mediterranean offer something we cannot afford to turn down—a chance to see a kind of trial run of ideas that are still part of our daily 1iving.
Perhaps we behave as we do more because of what a great many generations of our ancestors did as prehistoric men than because of what the relatively few generations of our ancestors did as members of this classical Mediterranean culture; human bodies, from liver to brain, were twenty-five hundred years ago substantially what they are today. Many of our habits of mind, our sentiments, our psychological needs, were no doubt formed long before the Greeks were ever heard of, but history can tell us little of these, intellectual history least of all. Indeed, Western intellectual history in a great measure begins with the Greeks, for they were the first to use the mind in a striking and novel way.
The Greeks have left the first permanent and extensive record in our Western society of the kind of thinking we all do a great deal of (sometimes rather against the grain) in our lives. There is no good, unambiguous word for this kind of thinking; let us simply call it objective reasoning.
Now the Greeks were by no means the first people to think, nor even the first to think scientifically: Egyptian surveyors and Chaldean stargazers used mathematics, and therefore thought scientifically. But the Greeks first reasoned about the whole range of human experience. The Greeks even reasoned about how they should behave.
Perhaps every human being tries to do what the Greeks did by reasoning— that is, adjust himself to the strange, bewildering, sometimes hostile universe that is clearly not himself, that seems to run on most of the time with no regard for him, that seems to have will, strength, purpose often at odds with his. Probably the Australian Bushmen, Iroquois, Kalmucks, and all other peoples reason about these matters, and if we really knew how their minds worked we could understand them. But the point is, some of the Greeks, as early as the great age, did it our way. Their minds worked the way ours work.
Their own primitive ancestors had not done it quite our way. They had heard thunder, and seen lightning, and been frightened. The thunder and lightning were clearly not human, they realized, but they must be alive—everything, for some primitive men, is alive. So they ultimately came to believe that a very powerful being, whom they called the god Zeus, was hurling his monster bolts through the sky and causing all the row. Sometimes, they thought, he was hurling them at other gods, sometimes just displaying his anger, sometimes, of course, hurling them at mortal men, whom he thus struck dead. A good Greek believed, or hoped, that if he showed proper respect for Zeus, the god would not throw thunderbolts at him. For right into the great days of Athenian culture, the man in the street believed in Zeus and his thunderbolts.
Note that the early Greek “explained” the thunderstorm. He explained almost everything by the actions of gods, or spirits, or nymphs, or giants, or the kind of supermen he called heroes. But some Greeks—we do not know just where and when—came to the conclusion that a good deal went on in the universe without any god’s doing anything about it. They became convinced, for instance, that the weather made itself. They did not know much about electricity, certainly not enough to connect the simple instances of magnetism they had observed with anything as potent as thunder and lightning. But they did believe, as we might put it, that a thunderstorm was a natural phenomenon, subject to a reasonable and scientific explanation.
The conflict between the older, supernatural explanation and the newer, natural explanation is recorded in a play of Aristophanes, The Clouds, first performed in 423 B.C. In spite of the burlesque and deliberate nonsense in which the playwright puts the scientific case, you can gather that some Athenians held the respectable meteorological theory that winds go from high-pressure areas to low-pressure areas. Aristophanes was—or to cater to the popular audience perhaps pretended to be— shocked at these newfangled ideas, and leaves the impression that the old Zeus theory was sounder. But in spite of the absurdities he puts in the mouth of the philosopher Socrates, for him the type of the new thinker, you can see the Greek mind at work, trying to understand the weather.
This does not mean that the new thinkers were antireligious, that they were materialists. Some of them were, and later many Greek and Roman thinkers were to be what we now call complete rationalists. But for the Greeks of the great era reasoning was a tool, an exciting new one, to he used on all human experience, including human experience if the divine. At most, one can say that the early Greeks used reason rather cpnfldently and broadly, that they liked to spin out theories, that they were not very good at the kind of slow amassng, observing, and testing of facts that modern science employs. Later Greeks arnassed many facts in scholarship and science; few men since have amassed more facts than Aristotle.
It is worth our while to go a bit further into this problem of the way the Greek mind worked. At least two very old philosophical problems confront us at this stage— the problem of universals and the related problem of like and unlike.
First, we have just written “the way the Greek mind worked.” But was there ever a Greek mind? Weren’t there just the millions and millions of individual Greeks, each with a mind of his own? In what actual brain-case was this mysterious “Greek mind” ever lodged? We shall have to turn seriously to this problem of universals when we come to medieval Europe, where it held the center of the stage for a while among intellectuals . Here we may note that there are at least ways around the problem, ways of avoiding the conclusion that there were as many Greek minds as there were Greeks, and ways (if avoiding the conclusion (even more absurd to ordinary Americans) that there was only one Greek mind, the essence, the pattern, of all Greek thinking.
A clue lies in that worn phrase “with a mind of his own. Each of us, of course, likes to think he has a mind of his own. But do wc really think there are 100,000,000. adult Americans with minds of their own? Aren’t many millions of these minds filled most of the time with pretty much the same thoughts, thoughts macic uniform by radio, press, Hollywood, school, church, ail the agencies that work on our minds? There are of course the rebels, the unorthodox, the deliherately “ diflerent”—though even these come together in little groups which share many ideas. The fact is that phrases like the “Greek mind” or the “American mind” are useful because they correspond to facts of ordinary experience. They can be abused by being made too simple, too unchanging, too little related to facts, but they are indispensable at the stage of mental growth we moderns have attained.
Let us then grant that there is a Greek mind, and that it works often very much the way the American mind works. But are not all minds—the Egyptian mind, the Chinese mind, the Bushman mind more alike than unlike? We have here a special phase of the basic logical problem we have just hastily considered. Again, as a working solution we may suggest that among hono sapiens, and groups of homo sapiens, there are both identities and differences, and that our task is to try to describe both. For instance, it is probably safe to say that the digestive system in human beings is pretty much the same, that variations in its functioning, though great and due to complex causes, are rather individual than group differences. Or, to put it another way, though you might sort humanity into two groups, those with good digestions and those with bad digestions, individuals in each of the two groups would hardly have anything else in common. These would therefore hardly be real groups, groups of the kind historians and sociologists study.
On the other hand, human beings vary greatly in skin pigmentation. All human beings might, though the experimental data would be hard to obtain, he arranged in a kind of spectrum of color, each shading into the other, from very black to albino. Individual variation is of great importance. And yet the groups—the white men, the yellow men, the black men are of even greater importance. These groups, or races, are not what the ignorant or prejudiced think they are, but they are undeniably facts of life. Perhaps an average Chinese, an average American, and an average African Negro are, if you add up all possible attributes and activities of homo sapiens, more like than unlike . But in color of skin they are clearly unlike, and on that unlikeness a good deal of great importance in human relations has been based.
When we come to differences and likenesses in men’s minds, there is certainly at least as complex a set of problems as for differences of color. Individual differences here are very great, and clearly cut across group lines of nationality, class, color, and the like . If by “mind” we mean what the physiologist means by “brain,” individual variation is obvious. If we mean the “group mind,” there are real groups that share ideas, sentiments, and mental habits different from the ideas, sentiments, and mental habits of other groups. Certainly this is true if one judges the products of mental activity. Even in translation into English, a passage from Homer sounds different from a passage from the Hebrew Old Testament or the Egyptian Book of the Dead . A Greek statue does not look like an ancient Hindu statue. A Greek temple does not look like an American skyscraper.
Now when we say that the Greeks first used objective reason in a certain way, that the Greeks lived in an intellectual climate in many ways like ours and quite different from that of their neighbors in Egypt, in Palestine, and in Mesopotamia, we are making a rough generalization of the kind that must be made in such matters. A chemist possesses analytical methods that enable him to define, weigh, and measure with great exactness; he can tell you in what respects a given compound is like another, in what respects the two are unlike. No student of men can tell you whether men in general are more unlike than alike. Men are just too complicated compounds.
Of course, there were ancient Greeks who did not reason—we shall meet some of them. There were ancient Greeks who by temperament at least might have been at home in Palestine or India, or in the present USA. All we can safely assert is that the range of Greek mental activity was very great; and that within that range there seems to be a norm, a pattern, a most characteristic way of thinking, which we have called objective reasoning, and which marks both Greek formal thought (philosophy) and the wider general culture we think of as peculiarly Greek.
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