On Home Ground in a Distant Land

Photograph by Steve Swayne

We are all Greeks

These were the heartfelt words of the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1821: Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their roots in Greece” (The Complete Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley,501).

Shelley was one of the friends of Greece (philhellenes) who fought alongside the Greeks during their War of Independence to expel theTurks occupying their homeland.

In 1826, the famous French artist, Eugene Delacroix, painted “Greece expiring at Missolonghi.” This is a dramatic and beautiful icon of a young woman representing Hellas in the midst of ruins.

The painting caught the attention of Europe.

In the 1820s, Europe was divided by class and imperialism. Russia, Spain, Turkey, France, Austria, England, Belgium and Portugal had divided the world among themselves. Already, in 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, the royal families of Europe declared war on revolution.

However, educated Europeans were well aware that Greece should not be a colony of Turkey. Mutual state jealousies and strategic competition kept Turley in Europe.

So, Delacroix’s painting of a resurrected Greece in the midst of Turkish atrocities and massacres shocked Europe. The painting reminded the thinkers of Europe that they, Western Europeans, were practically never friendly towards the Greeks.

The failure of Alexander the Great and his successors to conquer Rome eventually brought the Romans to Greece. The conflict between Greeks and Romans became deleterious with the Christianization of the empire. During the middle ages, it culminated with the fourth crusade of 1204. That fateful Western invasion and occupation of Greece ripped the country to pieces and fatally weakened its defenses. Europeans definitely paved the way for the Turkish conquest of Greece in 1453.

Yet the Renaissance happened. With the Turks overrunning Greece in mid-15thcentury, Greek scholars landed in Padua, Venice, Florence, Rome and other European cities. They were loaded with manuscripts of the works of their ancestors. They translated those works into Latin and immensely helped the Renaissance to come to flower.

I suspect these reflections were not unusual among educated Europeans in the 1820s. Which explains the making of the Delacroix picture an icon of Greek history. Now plenty of Western Europeans rushed to Greece and joined the Greek fighters. There’s little doubt, Philhellenism assisted in the rebirth of Hellas as an independent state in 1832.

Philhellenism continued after the Greek War of Independence.

Perhaps the industrialization of Europe brought the intellectuals closer to the classical tradition they learned in college. At the same time, archaeology was revealing the secrets of ancient Greek art and  architecture. Suddenly, reading Homer, Hesiod, the tragic poets, Herodotus and Thucydides and Plato and Aristotle bridged if not closed the huge gap Christianity had created between ancient “pagan” Greeks and the West. European intellectuals saw a new Hellas.

The new narrative has been thanking the ancestors of modern Greeks, the Hellenes, for their contributions to science and civilization. In addition, Western classicists used Greek thought in legitimizing their own way of life.

Seeing the world with Greek eyes

Jacob Burckhardt caught that spirit. He was a Swiss cultural historian who was grateful to the Greeks for laying the foundations of Western culture, enabling Westerners to become civilized. In 1872, he wrote that the Europeans see the world through the eyes of the Greeks. Abandon the Greeks, he said, and accept your own decline (The Greeks and Greek Civilization, 12.)

Another scholar from England, W. R. Inge, sang the same tune. In 1921, he wrote that there was no way the Europeans could go on without understanding the debt they owed to Greek civilization.

“Without what we call ‘our debt to Greece,’” he says, “we should have neither our religion nor our philosophy nor our science nor our literature nor our education nor our politics. We should be mere barbarians. Our civilization is a tree which has its roots in Greece… [our civilization] is a river…but its headwaters are Greek” (“Religion” in The Legacy of Greece, ed. Richard Livingstone, 28).

World War II brought tremendous suffering to the Greeks. But Greece was the first European country that defeated one of the fascist powers, Italy. Yet the German atrocities in Greece and the eventual American embrace of Germany for reasons of the Cold War, all but silenced the memory of the heroic struggle of the Greeks.

However, the German destruction and looting of Greece as well as other foreign influence and intervention in Greek affairs precipitated the deadly civil war that lasted from 1945 to 1949.

Classical scholars, meanwhile, kept connecting the dots. In 1948, the English poet W. H. Auden returned to the steady refrain of why Greece was so important to the survival of the West. Auden was probably reminding the victors of WWII to respect Greece.

He suggested that the people of the West owe their very existence to the Greeks. He said the Greeks taught us to think about thinking, that is, to ask questions. Without the Greeks, he said, “we would never have become fully conscious, which is to say that we would never have become, for better or worse, fully human(Forewords and Afterwards, ed. Edward Mendelson, 32).

In 1949, the famous British classical scholar Gilbert Highet grasped at the importance of ideas in the mind of Europe. “The logic and metaphysics of the Greeks,” he said, “have become part of the intellectual equipment without which no western man can reason” (The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, 542).

Philosophy and science from the Greeks

During the Cold War, in 1951, another British scholar, H. D. F. Kitto, praised the Greeks for being “highly civilized.” But the Greeks, Kitto said, were “not very numerous, not very powerful, not very well organized.” They had “a totally new conception of what human life was for and showed for the first time what the human mind was for.”

Second, Kitto said, comparing the historical chronicles of barbarians to the work of Thucydides is “the difference between a child and a man who cannot only understand, but also make his understanding available to others. Epic poetry, history and drama; philosophy in all its branches, from metaphysics to economics; mathematics and many of the natural sciences – all these begin with the Greeks” (The Greeks, 7. 9).

In the late 1950s, Bertrand Russell, British philosopher and Nobel Prize winner for literature, gave high grades to the Greeks.

“Philosophy and science, as we now know them,” he said, “are Greek inventions. The rise of Greek civilization, which produced this outburst of intellectual activity, is one of the most spectacular events in history. Nothing like it has ever occurred before or since. Within the short space of two centuries, the Greeks poured forth in art, literature, science and philosophy, an astonishing stream of masterpieces which have set the general standards for Western civilization” (Wisdom of the West, 10).

Also In the late 1950s, E. J. Dijksterhuis, Dutch historian of mathematics and natural sciences, exactly like Russell, captured the Western scientific esteem of the work of the Greeks. He said that the origins of present-day knowledge, especially in mathematics and natural sciences, go straight to ancient Greece. Dijksterhuis zeroed in on Aristotle as the paradigm of Hellenic civilization. Aristotle, he said, was “like no other Hellene, perhaps like no other scholar of any age. [Aristotle] dominated the evolution of scientific thought” (“The Origins of Classical Mechanics from Aristotle to Newton” in Critical Problems in the History of Science, ed. Marshall Clagett, 164).

In 1993, the American historian of astronomy, Anthony Aveni, made the Greek contribution to science more specific:

Greek gifts: theory, logic, and models

“Theory, logic, models – all gifts of the Greeks indelibly written on the faces of all our modern texts about the natural world. If we can clearly trace one branch of the taproot of modern science back to the ancient Greece, it is this habit of formulating practical, non-human-centered, mechanical models of how nature works,” he wrote (Ancient Astronomers, 53-54).

The Jewish physicist Samuel Sambursky also understood Greek science. His insight on the link between ancient Greek and modern science borders on the lyrical. He put it this way:

“That those … [that Greek] philosophers were among the spiritual ancestors of our own era will not be doubted by anyone who compares the heritage of Greek science – its methodical approach, the vigor of its imagination and inspiration, its associative strength and power of inference – with the science of our own time…. The [Greeks’] intuitive grasp of the atomic theory is such as to arouse our astonishment no less than their mathematical devices for explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies. The same inspiration is the source of their clearsighted vision in the framing of mechanistic cosmogonies… as also their penetrating analysis of various epistemological problems, such as the relation between the human senses and the human mind.

“Whoever makes a close study of the scientific world of Ancient Greece cannot but be filled with veneration and his veneration will but increase, the more he realizes that beyond all differences and changes, the cosmos of the Greeks is still the rock from which our own cosmos has been hewn” (The Physical World of the Greeks, 229, 242, 244).

True, the Greeks applied mathematics to make sense of their observations of nature, inventing the scientific method. They then created the scientific disciplines we have today. For example, mathematical physics is forever connected with Archimedes as zoology is with Aristotle or atomic theory with Democritus or philosophy with Plato and Aristotle, medicine with Hippocrates and Galen or history with Herodotus and Thucydides or astronomy with Aristarchos of Samos, Hipparchos and Ptolemy. Indeed, Aristarchos of Samos invented the Heliocentric Theory of the cosmos.

Finally, in the late 1990s, a group of French, Italian, British and American scholars wrote a guide to classical knowledge. In 2000, they translated this book from the French into English and published it as “Greek Thought.”

In their introduction, the two editors, Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey Lloyd, one French and the other British, wrote about the “unparalleled originality” of the Greeks. The Greek past, they say, is also the past of the Western people, our past. The Greeks nourished us with their countless texts.

With the Greeks, they say, “We are on home ground in a distant land; we are traveling without leaving our own room. All our thinking, in one way or another, passes through reflection on the Greeks” (Greek Thought, ix).

A new holly alliance

I have no doubt this is true. But something has been happening, and accelerating, in the barely two decades of the twenty-first century. Anti-Greek propaganda is up, adding more dark clouds in the blue sky of Hellas and, necessarily, in the Greek influence in Western thought.

States are moving back to the holy alliance of 1815. England and the United States, and their NATO allies, are reviving the cold war. NATO barely keeps the peace between Greece and Turkey — a Moslem country always an enemy of the West. But since Turkey is a conglomerate of nationalities that resembles that of America and England, and is larger that Greece, England and America have been siding with Turkey.

The unnatural ties between UK, America and Turkey have destroyed the Greek island of Cyprus, allowing Turkey to grab about 40 percent of its territory. Could it be that something similar may be in the works for a Cyprus-like dismemberment of Greece?

How is one to explain BBC, a British government agency, advertising the case of Slavs eyeing Greek Macedonia? Even suggesting that there’s an “invisible minority – the Macedonian Slavs” in Greek Macedonia. These “Macedonian Slavs” are Bulgarians who speak a Bulgarian idiom, which BBC, in parroting the Slavs, calls  Macedonian language. One needs to remember the Slavs arrived in Southeastern Europe a millennium after Alexander the Great. That makes it historically impossible to claim any connection with Macedonia.

Greece, the only country that has unassailable historical connections with Macedonia, is in trouble. It is weakened by foreign vultures of debt and domination. And it is becoming a potential prey to its enemies. Its irresponsible government opened a Pandora’s box of trouble by signing, in 2018, the Prespes Agreement with its northern Slav neighbor Skopje, now officially known as Northern Macedonia.

Scholars watch these events and act accordingly. The vast majority are troubled by the misuse of history. They know Alexander the Great and Macedonia have always been Greek. Fewer of them, however, are now singing the glory that was Greece. Some are  becoming vultures of Greek culture. Suddenly, the slander of the early Christians becomes fashionable: The Greeks stole everything from the barbarians. Alexander the Great might not even be Greek. The Greeks had little science and even less technology. And certainly Greek civilization was no better than that of others.

These false metaphysics is symptomatic of a huge malaise. Americans are witnessing the systematic degradation of the Earth, but feel powerless or unwilling to stop it.

Becoming selfish neutralizes the politics of resistance — and our inspiration from the Greeks. The result is brawls of identity politics in American colleges and universities. Professors and students are abandoning the humanities but fight over skin color, gender, and sex.

However, pay attention to Jacob Burckhardt – and dozen other great classical scholars. They have been warning us: abandon the Greeks and you have nowhere else to go but down — to decline and fall.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.