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What Did Greece Ever Do for Us?

Tom & Eddie in Athens

When I look at the New York Times and half the headlines are about Greece, I wonder if the world has gone nuts. Then I get a lecture on the European Union and the role of Germany, and international lending and globalization, and social welfare. But, I argue, there are a lot more important places, and bigger issues. What the heck is it about Greece? What did Greece ever do for us?

William H. (Bill) McNeill spent a lot of time in Greece during World War II and wrote a book about it for Arnold Toynbee, at Chatham House in London. When I was working with him on the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, this came up. I said, “Bill, why don’t you write about ancient Greece and tell us why it matters?” He did, and I’m happy to share that article with you today.

Professor McNeill explains how Greece has influenced our political systems, our art and literature, and our ideas about morality: “No other ancient civilization centered so much on merely human affairs or unleashed human imagination and reasoning from sacred traditions so recklessly. . . .” His essay concludes:

. . . Pagan philosophers’ ideas provided an educated upper class of citizens in Hellenistic and Roman times with ready answers to a wide range of personal and scientific questions, independent of any sort of religious authority.

This body of learning—secular, rational, argumentative and complex—rivaled (and also suffused) later religious worldviews. It ranks among the most significant heritages passed on from Greek antiquity, for in later centuries Greek philosophy and natural science took on new life among both Muslims and Christians, and still colors contemporary thought.

In sum, science, philosophy, art, literature, war and politics throughout the world are still influenced by our complex and tangled heritage from ancient Greece.

To read the full story of Greek civilization and its influence the world we know today, click here for “Ancient Greece by W. H. McNeill.

PS: I’m going to watch the Wimbledon men’s semi-finals with Bill today, and was amused to read this line when I checked the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport article on tennis (yes, this is what a reference publisher does): “The origins of tennis are much debated. The earliest reports date back to ancient Greece.”

And then there’s Greek food

I went to Greece in 2003 to visit Olympia before going to meet my favorite sports historians at a conference in Italy. (With my son and his friend, as you can see in the photo.) As I wrote this post I realized the reason I haven’t wanted to go back to Greece is that the food was boring. Not bad, but the same dishes on every menu, and pretty much the same you’d get at a Greek diner in New Jersey. (Italy, on the other hand, was a continual delight.) I saw this as another sign of Greece’s decline. But here’s a cookbook, one of the three I just found on my shelves, that suggests that there’s more to Greece that meets the eye (or fork) of the casual visitor. The book is The Glorious Foods of Greece by Diane Kochilas. I opened it to a recipe for “onion greens salad” that reminded me of Chinese cuisine in its simplicity and frugality, and the variety of dishes here will change your mind if you think that moussaka and chips is Greek cuisine.

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