I like buying old textbooks in a variety of fields, especially history. I’m fascinated by the way perspectives change over the decades. One change which badly needs to be made — but hasn’t yet — is the tendency of western historians to to give the Greeks all the credit for creating what we now call Western Civilization.
Dr. Walther Kirchner, former professor of history at the University of Delaware, began his textbook (“Western Civilization from 1500,” HarperCollins 1991) with a long paean to the contributions of classical Greece to our western traditions. Nearly every American history book does the same, with very little mention made, if any, to the infusion of Jewish and Christian values and ways of thinking.
I live in a small town in southwestern Minnesota. Clustered around our Central Park are six or eight churches, not one of them dedicated to Zeus or Apollo or Athena. In fact, there is no church in the whole state dedicated to a Greek god.
How can historians so badly miss the significance of that? It is a deeply rooted, pervasive bias built into American academics and it has long since permeated our journalism and literature. When a person of faith says or accomplishes something of importance, the reporting will rarely give even a hint that the person’s faith had any influence on the event.
The blind prejudice against faith became a proud mark of “intellectual” life during the Enlightenment, when faith was rudely dismissed to being merely a personal quirk. The poet Percy Shelley once proclaimed, “We are all Greeks!” This was in 1821, by which time the Enlightenment had persuaded the world that Reason was the sole arbiter of truth. The illusion led even bright people like Shelley to make fools of themselves. Shelley continued, “Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their roots in Greece.” The roots of our religion lie in ancient Greece? That is simply nonsense.
Historian Carl Richard expresses a more balanced and accurate view when he writes, “It is the combination of the Greek emphasis on reason and the Judaic emphasis on ethical monotheism that has given the Western mind its distinctive shape.” (“Twelve Greeks and Romans Who Changed the World,” 2003, p. 1)
Illusions often come in pairs, I have noticed, each supporting the other. In this case, the unreasonable elevation of the Greek mind over the Hebrew is supported by an equally misleading idea about the Greeks. Kirchner writes, for example, “Greek thought roamed widely and freely, restrained by clear and logical minds but unimpeded by a written set of values, by an enforced creed, or by a dogma.”
It really doesn’t take much of a glance at the story of ancient Greece to realize that, like all peoples, they were a quite diverse mixture of sensibility and foolishness, knowledge and ignorance, good and evil. Can we forget that Socrates was condemned by his fellow Athenians to drink the deadly hemlock juice? Can we pretend away the incredible stories of the capricious gods? Can we fail to notice that Athens could not figure out how to hold itself together as a substantial political entity for much more than a century?
The Greeks of the classical era made wonderful contributions to Western civilization. There can be no doubt about that. They also favored the oppression of women, considered slavery very reasonable, and foolishly destroyed themselves. The Hebrews also made wonderful contributions to the West, though they failed to establish either political institutions or the architecture and material infrastructure to sustain themselves as a nation in the rough and tumble world around them.
We are the children of two traditions, each with strengths and weaknesses. We have cause for both pride and humility but, most of all, we have cause to give thanks to God, who has sustained and guided us despite ourselves.