Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Odyssey of the West

I'm listening to the wonderful audiobook series The Odyssey of the West. The first installment deals with the three ancient civilizations with the biggest influence on the West: the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Romans. I'm about 2/3rds done - I have yet to listen to the lectures on the Romans. 

From the Hebrews we get the Hebrew bible, and later Christianity. It is the basis of much of our moral ideas - compassion for the poor and elderly, empathy through the Golden Rule, and personal moderation. It comes to us with a radical egalitarian worldview. Beggars, women, slaves, rich men, and public officials are equal in the eyes of the Christian god. When the son of god comes to earth, he lives in poverty. It is easy to see how the roots of classical liberalism grew from the Christian gospel.

From the Greeks, we get the idea of excellence, or Arete (a - rit- tay). Any American is familiar with the concept. During a football game when a quarterback whips the ball through a narrow gap between two defenders and into the waiting hands of his teammate for a score and the crowd roars in approval - that is Arete. Americans worship Arete almost as intensely as the Greeks. 

At first Arete was a marshall concept, excellence in warfare, but it grew to include all aspects of society. First the Greeks invented theatre, and then hosted playwriting contests that produced some of the most profound theatre of all time. That is Arete. Arete is embodied in the Olympic games, in sculpture, in philosophy, in mathematics, and in rhetoric. To the Greeks, anything worth doing was worth doing well. Personal excellence was an end in itself. 

Concern for individual liberty and democracy also comes to us from the Greeks. The high water marke for Greek civilization was their defeat of the vastly superior army of the Persian empire. Herodotus (the world's first historian, a Greek) believed the Greeks won because their soldiers were free men while the Persians were nominally slaves to their king. Americans used similar propaganda during the wars of the 20th century.

And from Rome, we get Romanitas. Marshall vigor, hard work, honesty, duty and patriotism are values of the Romans as outlined by Cicero in the waning days of the Republic. The Republican Roman ideal of the citizen/soldier/farmer had deep influence over the early American psyche. As in the period of the Roman empire, these ideals have faded. But it would be a mistake to draw too close of a parallel between Rome and ourselves for the purpose of weaving a narrative of decline. The American mind is similar, but also quite different from that of the Romans. One huge difference is that we are a commercial nation, descendants of island British traders, and Rome was not. Commerce, combined with Christianity, has a profound leveling effect on society. We like to complain about economic inequality today, but in Rome it was truly breathtaking on a scale that is hard for us to imagine.

I've also listened to some of the later lectures in this series. They work well out of order. The material is not well-organized. You never know if a lecture will be a review of a Shakespeare play or an overview of 50 years of history. But they do go in chronological order, and each lecture is interesting and high-quality throughout. 

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