Why Do the Greeks Matter?

I’ve finished Thomas Cahill’s enjoyable little book Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. It’s not scholarly; it’s not original; it’s got its share of avoidable errors and the occasional howler; it’s speckled with predictably lame left-liberal mumbling; it’s an enjoyable book that’s worth reading.

As some reviewers have pointed out, it doesn’t really answer the question of “Why the Greeks Matter,” but that’s ok. There is a great discontinuity in European civilization known as the “dark ages,” when old forms of government and culture were swept awayt and new ones started to emerge and began to flourish. Our inheritance is substantially a mixture of Germanic tribal culture, Christian influences, and the Roman law, as Harold Berman quite brilliantly showed in his book Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Order. The latter two influences were themselves influenced by “the Greeks,” of course, but the influence is not immediate. (For example, although “democracy” is a Greek word, the institutions of modern representative government owe relatively little to the Greek models of “democratic” government and a great deal to Anglo-Saxon tribal customs, Norman feudal law, and other sources.) But so what? You don’t have to trace our institutions to Greece to see what a brilliant efflorescence of culture that society produced in a relatively short time span.

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea is best read as an essay in the liberal tradition, much as I was encouraged to write at my alma mater. The author is trying to weave his books into a grand narrative series, which I doubt will work. But that doesn’t mean that the individual volumes are not worth reading. I read this book because I so enjoyed the author’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, and although the present book isn’t quite as enlightening (maybe because I know a lot more about the topic), it was fairly rewarding nonetheless. Have fun.