A Piece of My Mind: Can we still learn from history?


Browsing along my mother’s bookshelf, I found “The Greek Way” by Edith Hamilton – a name I recognized as the translator/curator of a book on Greek mythology I had read for extra credit in junior high. The volume was attractively packaged as a “Time/Life Book Selection,” and I took it home for bedside reading.

At first, Hamilton seems hopelessly dated. She speaks of the contrast between vibrant, materialist Western culture (sparked, in her view, by the Greeks) versus the introspective, unworldly culture of the East. In our current world, it is China and India that are galloping into materialism. The West is urging less emphasis on things and more on simplicity in the pursuit of happiness and, incidentally, the salvation of the planet.

Hamilton devotes nearly a chapter to contrasting the elaborate color and detail of Asian art with the austerity and simplicity of Greek marble sculpture. But the exhibition “Gods in Color,” running at the San Francisco Legion of Honor through Sunday, explodes this comparison. We now know that those pure-white marble friezes and statues gracing the Parthenon and other Greek antiquity sites were once flamboyantly painted and decorated. It is age, not austerity, that has given them that pristine simplicity.

She devotes another chapter to Pindar, who is, per Hamilton, a poet on the level of Shakespeare or Milton but completely incapable of being translated because of the different aesthetics available in the original Greek. Western poetics admires metaphor, comparison and restatement in multiple ways of a central theme – traits visible in Shakespeare’s sonnets and the King James Bible, for example. The Greeks deplored restatement, instead valuing the single statement of an idea with exquisite clarity. The beauty of the Greek poetry of Pindar comes from its movement, meter and sonority, none of which can be translated into English. Rudyard Kipling, Hamilton said, comes the closest among English poets to using meter and movement to drive his poems, though she judges that Pindar’s poetry far outshines Kipling’s.

By this time, I was a bit impatient at Hamilton’s claims for Pindar. How could I challenge them, never having read a word of Greek? Then I recalled my struggles in China to understand the high regard the Chinese aesthetic pays to beautiful calligraphy, an art that simply has no counterpart in European culture. Perhaps the real lesson here is how many ways there are to perceive beauty, and how tragic it will be when no one can read classical Greek any longer and Pindar’s genius will be as irrelevant to our lives as Mayan carvings.

Hamilton was born in 1867, a time when well-educated people were expected to be familiar with literature in the original Greek and Latin. This shared knowledge was an unspoken and perhaps unrealized network of connection among diplomats, rulers, businessmen and scholars throughout Europe in the 19th and early-20th centuries.

Los Altos High School still offers three years of Latin as a World Language option, as well as Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese. Perhaps some of the old network of shared knowledge will survive. And more than likely, a shared knowledge of the “Analects of Confucius” in the original might prove equally useful to tomorrow’s diplomats, rulers, businessmen and scholars.

Meanwhile, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian has been exploring the communication gap among ordinary Americans. To listen to his speech to the Commonwealth Club, “Listening to Trump’s America,” visit the club’s website at commonwealthclub.org and enter “Simitian” in the search field.

Despite our shared heritage, history, language and many shared aspects of our education, Simitian found that the inhabitants of the central United States seemed to see a different world based on different assumptions than many of us coastal dwellers. I’m not sure classical Greek is going to help us here.

Allyson Johnson is a Los Altos resident. For more information, visit her blog at allysonjohnson.com.

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