Browsing along my mother’s bookshelf, I found “The Greek Way” by Edith Hamilton – a name I recognized as the translator/curator of the book on Greek Mythology I had read for extra credit in junior high. This 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, un-worldly culture of the East. In our current world it is China and India who 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 almost a chapter to contrasting the elaborate color and detail of Asian art with the austerity and simplicity of Greek marble sculpture. But the exhibit “Gods In Color”, currently finishing its run at the San Francisco Legion of Honor, 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, which has given them that pristine simplicity.
She devotes another chapter to Pindar. He 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, restatement in multiple ways of a central theme – traits visible in Shakespeare’s sonnets and the King James Bible, as examples. The Greeks deplored re-statement, 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. Kipling, says Hamilton, comes the closest among English poets to using meter and movement to drive his poems, though she judges that Kipling’s poetry is far outshone by Pindar’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 recollected my struggles in China to understand the high regard the Chinese aesthetic pays to beautiful calligraphy, an art which 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 the Mayan carvings.
Edith Hamilton was born in 1867, at a time when well-educated people were expected to be familiar with Greek and Latin literature in the original. This shared knowledge was an unspoken and perhaps un-realized network of connection between diplomats, rulers, businessmen and scholars throughout Europe in the 19th and early-20th centuries.
Our local 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.