Meditation on Grecian art prompts thoughts about the futile lust for power

November 12, 1995|By GLENN MCNATT

Former Vice President Dan Quayle once claimed he reread Plato's "Republic" every year, but it's hard to believe he really understood the Greek mind. The ancient Greeks were, after all, supreme realists. They comprehended the ambiguity of human life, its bitterness and pain as well as its joys. They were the first intellectuals, but never ideologues. Their philosophy could and did question everything, because their whole turn of mind was oriented toward penetrating the hard facts of this world.

Such thoughts are prompted by the beautiful exhibition of Greek art now on display at the Walters Art Gallery. The show casts a fascinating new light on the habits of mind so masterfully described in Edith Hamilton's classic study, "The Greek Way," ,, first published in 1930. Ms. Hamilton, who was for 25 years headmistress of the Bryn Mawr School for Girls in Baltimore and a lifelong student of Greek and Latin literature, remains one of the most penetrating and insightful students of the ancient Greeks' towering achievement.

"Five hundred years before Christ in a little town on the far western border of the settled and civilized world, a strange new power was at work," Hamilton writes. "Athens had entered upon her brief and magnificent flowering of genius which so molded the world of mind and of spirit that our mind and spirit today are different. What was then produced of art and of thought has never been surpassed and very rarely equaled, and the stamp of it is upon all the art and thought of the Western world."

Hamilton believed the characteristic that distinguished Greek society from all the civilizations that preceded it was the place it accorded to rational inquiry as a guide to human affairs, coupled with a joyful appreciation of the animal vitality of life -- a spirit reflected in every aspect of Greek art and culture.

"In Egypt, in Crete, in Mesopotamia, wherever we can read bits of the story, we find the same conditions," she notes: "A despot enthroned, whose whims and passions are the determining factor in the state; a wretched, subjugated populace; a great priestly organization to which is handed over the domain of the intellect. This is what we know as the Oriental state today. It has persisted down from the ancient world through thousands of years, never changing in any essential."

This state was utterly alien to the Greeks. "None of the great civilizations that preceded them and surrounded them served as model," Hamilton wrote. "With them something completely new came into the world. They were the first Westerners; the spirit of the West, the modern spirit, is a Greek discovery and the place of the Greeks is in the modern world."

To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and delightful to live in, was a mark of the Greek spirit, Hamilton believed. "Joy and sorrow, exultation and tragedy, stand hand in hand in Greek literature, but there is no contradiction involved thereby. Those who do not know the one do not really know the other either."

All Greek art and culture sprang from this sense of precarious balance. Their artists, poets, philosophers and statesmen neither abstracted away the physical world in which they lived nor denied the existence of the spiritual realm. Their art and their social organization both sprang from an effort to harmonize the inner and outer realms, to bring into balance the things seen with the things unseen. And though the conditions under which they lived were vastly different from ours, the extent to which they succeeded is apparent in all they left behind.

Yet for all their pragmatism and hard-won wisdom, the Athenians "magnificent flowering of genius" was indeed all too brief -- a span of less than a century from the magnificent victory over the Persians in 480 B.C. to the disastrous battle of Syracuse near the close of the century.

The seeds of its destruction were sown with the onset of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta in 431 B.C. -- an ultimately futile conflict in which Greece's contribution to the world was checked and the cause of humanity tragically set back. Hundreds of years would pass before humanity again reached the point where Greek thought left off.

Thucydides, the first great historian, chronicled the war for the lessons it offered future generations. Hamilton tells us he reasoned that "since the nature of the human mind does not change any more than the nature of the human body, circumstances swayed by human nature are bound to repeat themselves, and in the same situation men are bound to act in the same way unless it is shown to them that such a course in other days ended disastrously."

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