Commentary Magazine


The Greeks

To the Editor:

In “Learning from the Greeks” [August], Algis Valiunas revisits a subject that has been important in my intellectual life since I decided, in the spring of 1973, to major in archeology. In those pre-politically-correct days, all archeology majors were required to take two years of Latin or Greek. I chose Greek, and was thereby exposed to some of the literature discussed in the article in the original. In other courses I became familiar with the then-current translations of the Greek classics, although I have not looked at the recent translations discussed in the article.

I do not disagree with anything Mr. Valiunas says, but I think two points could use even more emphasis. He cites the Greek philosophers’ discovery of reason as a powerful, if not the most powerful, of human faculties. I think this discovery is even more fateful and amazing than the article makes it appear. In ancient Greece, the material manifestations of the belief in reason that we have today, such as science and technology, had not yet developed beyond those of other civilizations. At that time, to believe in reason as a means of understanding the world required a leap of faith so huge we can barely comprehend it. It is only in the light of subsequent events that faith in reason appears as a logical development in Western civilization.

In more recent times, reason came to be worshipped almost as a religion, one that has been responsible for much chaos in Western culture and politics. The ideologues who created the French Revolution renamed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris the Temple of Wisdom, and like many intellectuals before and since, believed so strongly in reason that they were willing to destroy anything that did not agree with their rationalist view of how society should be structured.

The second point I want to make is that in ancient Greek culture, reason rarely achieved so total an ascendancy over tradition as it was later to develop in Western culture. The Greeks recognized something we (or at least our academics) have forgotten: that the important decisions in life and politics are often nonrational, or perhaps transrational.

At the end of the article, Mr. Valiunas very properly brings up religion. One element conspicuously absent from ancient Greek thought (and profoundly present in the biblical tradition) is a strong notion of righteousness as a good in itself. In many Greek authors, not only in Thucydides, whom Mr. Valiunas cites, justice seems merely a negotiating position or a rationalization of self-interest. Classical thought, therefore, should not be used as a substitute for religion but as something different in kind. Keeping in mind this limitation, recognized by the Greeks themselves, we can go on learning from the Greeks for generations to come.

A. Steven Toby
Arlington, Virginia

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Algis Valiunas writes:

A. Steven Toby is exactly right when he points out the stunning innovation of Greek philosophy. Reading Plato or Aristotle, one cannot but marvel at the radical boldness of the philosophical undertaking: to know the world by force of mind alone. And Mr. Toby is right, too, when he notes the barbaric consequences of modern attempts to remake humanity in accordance with some idea or other; certain aspects of thought since the Enlightenment demonstrate a quite irrational belief in the power of reason.

It is essential to remember that the perfect city Socrates and his friends speak of in Plato’s Republic exists only in their speech, only in their thought. Greek philosophers did not share their modern colleagues’ passion to change the world; for the Greeks, it was enough to understand it, so far as reason allowed.

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