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Friday, March 26, 2004

Book Reviews

Muddying the Waters

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, New York, 2003, 304 pages, $27.50.

Every generation has its panoramicist — to coin a word — of history; one thinks of H. G. Wells or the Durants. The current pretender to this particular throne is Thomas Cahill, a former editor at Doubleday, who in 1995 wrote an account of the humanistic culture of the twelfth-century monastic orders of Ireland entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization. The title, typical of Cahill’s penchant for pretension, overwriting, and imprecision, made the book a bestseller among the Irish, to whom it gave an enormous boost in pride, and among the reading public in general, curious to learn of so extraordinary a historical feat, as well as among those with millennial jitters who feared that the end of what we like to call Western civilization was nigh.

Raised in a New York Irish-Catholic culture, Cahill was a natural for such a book, breezy, popular, informative. His enormous success led him to other historical moments and peoples, and to two books on the Jews and early Christians in 1997 and 1999, respectively. These, together with the Irish book and the one presently under review, are now conceived as a series, for which three additional volumes are planned, to be gathered together under the rubric, The Hinges of History. Under this overarching title, Cahill means to recount the story of, as he calls them, “the great gift-givers,” which will be the history of the great discoveries and cultural improvements, and the people who made them, set against the dangers that beset this constantly developing, progressing stream that is presumably Western civilization. Cahill opposes his idea of history to the commonplace structuring of events based on the world’s succession of battles, power-plays, rise and fall of dynasties. While it is a welcome opposition, Cahill seems to lose his way in the details.

“Why the Greeks matter,” another of Cahill’s imprecisions, must imply that they have something to teach. To whom? Well, presumably to the twenty-first-century American reader. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea is, in its own way, a how-to book: the chapter headings are “How to Fight,” “How to Feel,” “ How to Think,” and so on. In each chapter, Cahill describes the content of one or more texts from which he has extracted useful information — for the ancients? for us? it is not always clear — together with whatever details of context he deems necessary.

This book will no doubt be wildly popular; Americans in their present-day anomie are desperate for something to believe in, and many of them are repulsed by the wild-eyed, hysterically authoritarian, fundamentalist elements of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition. The destruction of the World Trade Center, conjuring apocalyptic visions of the beginning of the end in a conflict of civilizations, has encouraged taking sides and thus a renewed effort to define them. But amid the rush to make meaning, to find the “truth,” there will always be those who hold to the notion that the ancient world is too different, too alien for us to make any real sense out of it, or that our idea of the ancient world is no more than that: our idea. The facts may be incontrovertible, but their interpretation is entirely modern. These are difficult positions. They encourage a sense of mystery, of doubt, of ignorance. Cahill will have none of that. In his easy obliteration of the problems in understanding the enormous complexity and infinite variation of ancient Greek history, Cahill has designed a book for the intellectually lazy, the incurious, the ignorant. Perhaps for a book club. A college sophomore could probably fake a pretty good paper from the book. History lite, we might say. E-Z readin’.

Although Cahill can sometimes seem very up-to-date — as in his use of endpapers depicting boys and men reclining together at a drinking party, and in his reliance on the very contemporary theory of power in penetration for his review of sexual practices (at one point [p. 165] terming it, “the fucker-fuckee aspects of Greek life”) — the material Cahill presents reads like the syllabus of a college classical-civilization lecture course from the Fifties: The Iliad, The Odyssey, the lyric poets, Athenian tragic drama, comedy, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato. So the book is not exactly about what “the Greeks” mean to us, but, rather, mostly about what the Athenians do. After all, there was no such thing as a Greek nation until much later. The Greek-speaking peoples have a recorded history that covers events of a myriad city-states, three major dialectal groups, colonies from the Black Sea to Sicily, and Alexander’s later empire, all spanning a timeframe from the seventh to the second century BCE — and then on for another five hundred years of provincial rule under the Roman empire. Cahill stays pretty much in the fifth century BCE, however. Nothing wrong with that, but his subtitle should have been more on the order of, “What a Carefully Selected Series of Texts Might Be Said to Offer Us Who Seek Meaning in a Desultory Glance at the Ancient Greek-Speaking Peoples.”

For example, Cahill’s discussion of tragic drama focuses on very few plays: Oedipus the King, the Medea, the Bacchae. But from the very large repertory of dramas we know to have been composed by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, very few survive, and those from the first two playwrights were probably an anthology chosen by pedagogues. So it is a little disingenuous to make any kind of generalization about Athenian drama, let alone some so-called “Greek drama,” from so slim — not to mention deliberately skewed — a statistical pool. Which is to say that the subject is a lot more complicated than Cahill knows or lets on. And then the overheated language (“never in theatrical history has there been a more political play than Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus” [p. 124]; [Pericles’ funeral oration is] “probably the most famous speech in all of Western history” [p. 239]) has the oppressive relentlessness of a press agent, hardly conducive to reflection, which one would imagine a book devoted to teasing out meaning might want to encourage.

But, then, subtlety is not Cahill’s strong suit. His idea that the important matter to take away from The Iliad is that it demonstrates the development of a rational Western system of fighting is breathtaking in its disregard for the tragedy of the fall of a city, the terrible realization of the fundamental emptiness of human life canceled by death, the final redemptive humanity of the angry young warrior inviting the grief-stricken old father to break bread with him. One does not have to agree with the three latter propositions, but not to notice that anything of the sort is going on in the narrative, something over and over again remarked upon by centuries of readers of The Iliad, seems peculiarly obtuse — and makes the book less than interesting.

Cahill’s undergraduate term-paper phraseology is remarkable: “Achilles is not the ultimate hero” (p. 34); “[…] we should not let the balletic and anachronistic elements of Homer’s narrative conceal from us his basic realism” (p. 43); “His [Aeschylus’] characters gave poetic speeches” (p. 121). Ultimate hero? Basic realism? Poetic speeches? And yet, Cahill returns from time to time to the idiom of a far earlier, long-gone era, as in, for example, “Hector . . . is a far more complicated cat” (p. 34), or, “If you participated in ownership, you had it made in the shade” (p.56). This is one hip writer!

The bibliography reflects the reading Cahill did in his once-upon-a-time college years, or perhaps what his teachers told him at Regius Prep, the Jesuit school where he prepared. There are errors of fact, as one might imagine. For instance, “Solon came to be the eponymos of Athens” (p. 110). What Cahill means to say is that Solon held the position known as archon, which derives from the Greek verb, “to rule.” Over 100 years later, the custom came about in Athens of calling the year after the name of one of the several archontes (all the Greek city-states were very bad at numbering their years). This one came to be known as the archon eponymos, but the phrase does not appear earlier than in Greek texts of the Roman period.

In his discussion of Athenian tragic drama, Cahill misconstrues the ancient Greek word leitourgia, which to the Athenian of the fifth century meant the performance of public duty. It was an alternative form of taxation whereby a wealthy person would build a bridge or a temple for the state. Similarly, wealthy persons would fund the production of the tragic dramas. The definition of leitourgia as religious rite (from which we derive our word “liturgy”) is very late usage. Because he does not understand this, Cahill is able to import all sorts of Christian ideas of liturgy into his reading of ancient Greek theater. Again, in an entirely anachronistic Christian reading of a word, Cahill talks about hamartia as meaning “sin,” whereas in fact it means missing the mark — specifically a bull’s-eye — an idea that has to do with error rather than the conscious transgression of divine law, which is at the heart of the idea of sin. What makes the specimens of Athenian tragedy so interesting is that they are so dissimilar, let us say, from Shakespeare’s dramas, with very different ideas of right and wrong, and of the responsibility for action, all of which constitute a very different theodicy. Very frequently they are overtly political, for which knowledge of the historical context is imperative.

More than anything else, Cahill makes ancient culture too easy. Sentences such as, “At the center of Greek religion is the belief that…we must pay for our sins,” (p. 238) or, “Could anyone actually believe in such gods?” (p. 236), dismiss the complexity of a cult system in which there was no dogma, no required belief, no church, no priestly caste, and enormous change over time from the Homeric texts to the rituals of Alexandria and beyond. Cahill’s superficial generalities make a mockery of educated understanding. As a reader, I shudder to think of what errors, half-truths, and untruths are contained in How the Irish Saved Civilization, a subject that I can only accept on faith from its author and publisher. One wonders about Nan Talese, whose imprint this is, not to mention Doubleday, once the proud publisher of the Anchor Book series, which was created in the belief that there was an audience of educated readers who would want the informed but not scholarly academic essay.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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