Half-a-History. . .Or Less

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.

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About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
This entry was posted in History of Western Civilization, Modern Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Half-a-History. . .Or Less

  1. Ben says:

    Very interesting post! Having just recently graduated from a secular college with a history degree, I was typically excited if an instructor spoke positively about western civilization at all. Being a Christian who is also interested in military history, I understand the perspective you’re writing from here, but I also unashamedly acknowledge the Greek influence on western civilization in many ways. As a couple of examples, much of Europe probably would have been Persian if the Greeks had not stubbornly beaten them back in 480 B.C., etc. Also, much of the military tradition of Europe that later spread to the new world can be traced back to the Greeks as the “western way of war” (as Victor Davis Hanson puts it). Because of the essential turning points brought about in the West by wars, the Greeks can end up with a lot of justifiable credit.
    Also, I find it somewhat indicative of Greek cultural influence that the New Testament was written in Greek, even though Rome had ruled the “world” for quite some time by then.
    If you’re interested in learning more about the western way of war and the history of western civilization, I highly recommend “Carnage and Culture” by Victor Davis Hanson. You can find a review that I did of it here: http://frontierruminations.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/carnage-and-culture-book-review/
    Aside from secular and military influences, the Judeo-Christian influences (namely, the Bible) should indeed receive MUCH more credit in textbooks for shaping western civilization. Beliefs of a culture are an essential aspect of the civilization founded upon that culture. You are very correct in pointing out the lack of temples to Apollo, etc. Credit should go where credit is due in all of these respects.
    Thanks and have a great day!
    -Ben

    • mthayes42 says:

      I have an extremely high regard for classical Greek culture. Even in their mythology I find much to respect. Theologically, I’m impressed that they understood there is some sort of correspondence between human nature and divine nature. The problem, of course, is that because they lacked revelation, they could only imagine that correspondence as a one way street, extrapolating from the human to the divine. Given that limitation, I think they did an amazingly good job. One of the dominant themes in Greek literature is the sense that humans must not challenge the gods. Icarus flying too close to the sun lost his wings. He went too high, too far beyond the bounds of the human. I would love to see (or write) a book on how that theme relates to Genesis 3.

      Most impressive for me, though, is the psychology of the myths. They embody a profound understanding of what the human heart is like.

      I really enjoy contemplating the Greek victories at Marathon and Salamis. They not only out fought but, more importantly, out thought the Persians.

      Thanks for the reference to the book by Hanson. I’ll check out our review and see if it’s in my local library system.

      Mike

  2. Pingback: Half-a-History. . .Or Less | ChristianBookBarn.com

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