Greek Reading Project - General Thoughts

greek philosophers

After a year of fairly consistent Ancient Greek reading, I should probably have reached at least some conclusions. 

And so I have, as you can see below!

(For a full recap of the whole idea of this project, and what I’ve read so far, click here.)


Bridging Time

Language is already somewhat miraculous, only more so when reduced to mere squiggles on a page. Literature in particular is magical through its bridging of time. For almost all of human history the spoken word has disappeared instantly into the ether, but the written word has lived on. 

Naturally this strikes home even more forcefully when returning to the very beginnings. Reading Herodotus, you are reading what somebody – just a man – sat down and wrote, by hand, two and a half thousand years ago. 

No need for sci-fi technology or mind-opening meditation to travel these great temporal lengths. You simply sit down and open up a book and are instantly transported millenia.

In Plato’s Theaetetus, when Socrates and Theodorus are walking through the park, bump into several young men, engage them in a bantering conversation, it’s obviously not representative of ‘daily life’. But it’s still a group of guys hanging out and having a chat. It just happens to be in 4th century Athens. 

And by the simple act of moving your eyes along lines of squiggles, you’re all the way back there, just like that. 



It’s impossible to comprehend in human terms how long ago all this was. 

Dan Carlin likes – instead of centuries – to measure time using human lives. Let’s take 70 years as a lifespan, and 2020 as our starting point (to make my sums easier). 

One lifespan takes us back to 1950 – think how different the world already was, geopolitically, culturally, and so on. With only two full lifespans, we’re already back to 1880. Three takes us to Napoleon’s peak. Four to 1740. 

Five takes us to 1670. The east coast of North America was still being settled, the Mughals ruled India, the Medici ruled Tuscany, and Charles II and Louis XIV (the Sun King) sat on the English and French thrones. 

All that’s happened within only five lifespans. If Herodotus finished his Histories around 420 BC, that’s 35 lifespans from now. 

Elsewhere, it’s tempting – at least when first learning about history – almost to think of the Greeks and Romans bundled together. It was the ‘Ancient World’! Obviously that’s nonsense, but even the timescale of Ancient Greek literature shouldn’t be underestimated. 

To be sure, a lot of the most famous stuff was written in a short space of time. Most notably during the Athenian ‘Golden Age’ (which didn’t actually last long). 

Homer is the fascinating one, though. 

He (or they) probably ‘finished’ the Iliad and Odyssey around the late 8th/early 7th century. Let’s say 700 BC. Plato – who quoted Homer constantly – was writing around the middle of the 4th century. Let’s say 350 BC as his middle point. 

Far from lumping even Ancient Greek literature together, that’s already a 350 year gap between its foundational work and its latter maturity. Not vastly greater than the gap separating us from Shakespeare’s day. Think how long ago even Dickens seems – he died ‘only’ 150 years ago. 

The Greeks weren’t divinely blessed with some spark of literary genius. Nor can their literature be lumped together as a whole any more than anybody else’s. 

Dramatic writing and philosophical thought both developed enormously as the decades, even the centuries, went by. And – when you read an Aeschylus then a Sophocles, for example, or a Xeno then a Plato – this development is stark. 

A final point, hammered home when reading Herodotus. 

Again, whether we think of it as the ‘Ancient World’ or not, this can all feel so long ago as to become abstracted. But the world was already ancient when the first western ‘history’ was written. 

We think of Ancient Greece as the alpha, the starting point, the beginning of Western Civilisation. But it didn’t magically appear, fully-formed.

Herodotus talks (erroneously, admittedly, or at least mythically) about how Greece first came to be. Where its people came from, how its language was formed, all dating back centuries from his own time. 

And they were the new kids on the block! There’s no claim to some longstanding, superior Hellenic culture in Herodotus. Their writing came from the Phonecians, much of their philosophy from the east. He shows how even the Greek gods were imported from the much older cultures in Persia and Egypt. 

His lengthy account of touring Egypt is wonderful for many reasons. Perhaps most memorable, however, is a scene in which he visits a temple. There, he’s shown records which have already been maintained for thousands of years, into which the name of each head priest has been added in turn. 

Nowhere do we more keenly feel the sense of time travel, in this particular way. Herodotus was not writing in ‘Ancient Greece’ – he was writing in his modern-day. There was already ancient history then, stretching as far back, perhaps further, than the gap between ourselves and him now.


We’re Not So Different, You and I

Regarding the actual content of the works, what struck me most actually opposes my last two points. Namely, it’s remarkable how little people have changed in over two thousand years. 

Anything specifically regarding technology, we can call a modern-day concern. I’m not sure we can say the same for literally anything else, certainly relating to the ‘human condition’. 

Love and hate. Loyalty and betrayal. Fears and questions over old age and death. Relationships between spouses, family, friends, colleagues, rivals. 

We can package it however we like in dramatic works. We can pretend our own daily situations are unique. But none of it is any different. 

Two millennia ago people were worrying about all the same stuff we are now. It’s all there in the anecdotes of Herodotus, the tragic works of the dramatists, the dialogues of Plato. And we don’t have the answers now any more than they did then. In some ways, as the world has become ‘bigger’ and more complicated, and perhaps as attitudes towards learning and thought have changed, we might be further away. 

There is nothing new under the sun, and seeing the evidence for yourself in these works is initially jarring. Then you get over yourself and simply find it fascinating, bemusing, how little people have changed. 


On ‘Readability’

There’s surely a natural tendency to think the older something is, the harder it will be to read. Literature must have come along in all those years, become more readable, surely? 

Absolutely not. There’s no correlation whatsoever between sheer age and readability. You can certainly say it’s changed by era, but not in a direct line towards straightforward, easily-comprehensible language (something Orwell moaned about quite brilliantly in Politics and the English Language). 

The Iliad is no harder to read than Jack Reacher. Is there more going on? Just about! The story moves quicker too, there’s more action, more humour, even the language – for my money – is more direct and easier to read. 

The works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, are all vastly easier to read than those of many a long-winded modern-day historian. 

Plato could hardly be discussing weightier topics – mortality, justice, truth, knowledge. But it’s perhaps his chief concern to make his work easily-digestible. 

Often, in-dialogue, Socrates will explain something a little tricky. The other character will say ‘I don’t understand’. Socrates will say ‘no problem, my fault!’ and Plato will rephrase his argument in a simpler way, to make extra-special-sure the reader got it. A far cry from Sartre’s big blocks of complex text, writing so much more recently. 

It must be said, however, this wasn’t always the case. 

English translations of Ancient Greek works were first made by stuffy Victorian writers. Who, of course, often wrote in that horribly convoluted Victorian way. Even more so, in fact, because they were deliberately trying to make it sound high and mighty and epic. 

There’s been a sizable shift in recent decades. The trend has been less towards reverential textual fidelity, more towards using modern-day English; making it seem like it could’ve been written today. The precise wording isn’t as accurate, but surely the (supposedly) witty, wisecracking comedies of Aristophanes, for example, sound to us now as they would have to contemporary Greeks. 

Thankfully, we’re alive now, and can enjoy these nice, easy, reader-friendly translations. And we’ll get all the same excellent, insightful, intriguing, timelessly brilliant content as ever, packaged into something easier to read than plenty of fiction written today. 


As A Story

I touched on this in the original piece, but it bears repeating and expanding just a tad. Reading through Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, you can’t help but get caught up in the simple ‘story’ of this whole period. 

You can read Herodotus as a self-contained tale. The Persians invade, the Greeks defeat them, the Persians are sent packing. Happy ending! 

Of course, that wasn’t ‘the end’. Pick up again with Thucydides, and you’ll see how – within a generation – things fell so spectacularly apart. 

Having been briefly free following the Persian defeat, many Greeks soon found themselves under the Athenian ‘empire’. An incredibly complex web of influences spread across Greece, then blew up in dramatic, violent fashion. The wars lasted years. Athens lost its empire. Sparta ‘won’ but never recovered. The scene was set for the ascendant Macedonians… who, of course, also fell apart into infighting before succumbing to the Romans. 

Even now Greek culture is held in a golden light, as it was to the Romans. And of course they were enormously influential; produced great art; were generally a thoughtful, questioning people. 

But they just couldn’t get along. The conflict was absolutely constant. Not just between states; within the cities too, there was always one faction pitted against the other, or some tyrant enjoying a meteoric, sometimes (but not always bloody) rise, before falling victim to conspiracy. 

The biggest empire the world had ever seen invaded a small, poor, disjointed country… and lost. On one occasion, the great rivals of western Greece banded together and achieved the impossible. The ‘Golden Age’, in which most of the great works we know today were produced, followed. 

It’s a brilliant ‘what if?’ turning point in history. What if they’d maintained closer ties? Stayed banded together, while – always the most important factor of all – retaining freedom for the individual states. 

It says a lot about the Greek character that they just couldn’t help themselves. Within a generation of its greatest victory, the Greeks collapsed into a years-long war with themselves, the Persians – far from being ‘defeated’ – latterly running the whole show through economic might. 

It’s a fascinating tale. And knowing now how it would all end – not just the Peloponnesian War, but all the invasions which would follow and see Greece lose its independence for another two thousand years – lends the tale a tragic quality even all these years removed. 




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