Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Life of Greece by Will Durant (1939)

In used book stores and yard sales, or on some of the dustier shelves of libraries, you can often find them:  Will Durant's (later Will and Ariel Durant's) The Story of Civilization. It's often moldering way, which I always think is a shame, because every one of these books that I've read - I will admit I have not read them all - is excellently written (I can't authoritatively speak for the research; plus these are old books; The Life of Greece is 1939, and surely some new discoveries have happened in archaeology of ancient Greece since 1939).    I can remember when I first encountered them, I was enchanted by the dust jackets (so colorful on shelves of brown and brick colored books) and intimidated by the size (they are big books). I sort of remember using Caesar and Christ to write a paper about Antony and Cleopatra for my college Shakespeare class.  I think I also took this on a beach trip one summer.   In the recent past, I know read a large chunk of The Renaissance before my trip to Italy a few years ago; I didn't finish it because I didn't want to lug around this doorstopper of a book on an airplane (this was before I became a Kindle user).  The Age of Faith I have read before; I think I also read The Reformation.  But I have not read the entire series; I think this is the year I will try to remedy that.

Durant is a writer of what I call pop history.  Maybe other people call this kind of book pop history too; I don't know.  Pop history is accessible to the average reader, have a narrative structure, and don't get too bogged down in details - but not so stupidly broad or dumbed down that you don't feel like you are learning something.  Entertaining as a novel, and won't put you to sleep while trying to read it.   I think Durant captures all of this in each of his books.  Plus, he's a marvelous writer and word painter.    He's able to expertly set various scenes.  He also isn't afraid to inject himself, his emotions and feelings, his thoughts and ideas, into his works.  I like this.  There is nothing dry about Durant, ever.  So like this:  he's writing about the Heroic Age, when history was a mixture of mythology and legend and truth, and in talking about Jason and the Argonauts and his encounter with Medea, he describes her eloquently and mysteriously as "his daughter Medea, who loved strange men and ways…” (43) which was so richly evocative, and told the story of Medea in a few words.

The Life of Greece isn't a straight line, chronological point A to point Z type of book.  If Point A is the dawn of the idea of Greece (for Greece is always an idea and a ideal, and a people, but never a "state" until recently in our history) and Point Z is the point the Graeco turns to Roman, Durant zig and zags between these two points, always headed towards Z, and always generally forward, but swinging from art and science to philosophy to politics, art and culture, with the great figures of Greece like lights on a string of Christmas lights - Homer and Socrates, Aristophanes and Euripides, Sappho and Alexander the Great.  Durant gives each one his due, and between them is a grand and epic adventure in art, culture, science and civilization.

As our democracy teeters on the edge of some abyss, The Life of Greece is scarily prescient.  America is Rome is bandied about; but America is Greece could also be true.  Perhaps the history of the world is simply a cycle of rebirth and decline; or a war between classes; or a clash of ideals; or a pendulum that swings from left to right; or all of these things.  Or none of these things. I don't know.  Democracy in Greece rose and fell and rose and then finally fell, to be replaced by Rome, which also had democracy that rose and then fell hard for 500 years or so.  Durant says, of the leadership and government of the great proponent of freedom and democracy, Pericles:  "Any form of government seems good that brings prosperity, and even the best seems bad that hinders it.”  He could be talking about various elected governments of the last century throughout the world, the Nazis included.

This was actually my first foray into ancient Greece.  I've read oodles of stuff about ancient Rome, at least the last years of the Republic and all of those I, Claudius villains and villainesses.  And, like everyone, I knew a smattering about Greece:  some mythology, Socrates and company, everyone has at least heard of Alexander the Great.  But this is the first entire book I've read.  So I state the following with little knowledge of what other books about Greece were like at the time (or are like now).


It's 1939, and I'm a closeted gay man or lesbian (how many folks were out of the closet in 1939 outside of New York City; not many I imagine), and stroll into a book store, and see this lovely book about the Greeks.  Upon reading this book, I think I would have been pleasantly surprised to find others like me not only mentioned, and not always just in passing, but not portrayed negatively either.  Durant simply doesn't shy away from the gayness of the ancient Greeks. I know, I know - "gay" is a modern term, and the Greeks didn't have an identity based on their sexual orientation. I get it.  But I also think if I were some kid on a farm in the middle of 1940s Kansas, and I knew I liked dick, and I also felt completely alone in the world, save for Bugs Bunny at the movies in a dress, and maybe even crazy, then Durant's almost casual matter of factness about the gays of old would have made me feel like there was some sort of hope in the world.  At the very least, I would have felt like I had some historical company, and some of that company was pretty fucking rad:  Alexander the Fucking Great had a boyfriend.  Eat it, conservatives.  The new old saw is "It gets better."  In 1939, Durant was telling little gays "It was better.  You aren't alone."  Whether he meant to do this or not, I have no idea.  But he did.

If you look up "homosexuality" in the index of the edition I have (I do not know if the editions changed over time; the book I read is about 20 years old and is my own personal copy), it is mentioned five times.  I think in reading the book, it was at the very least alluded to several times more, but I didn't take copious notes.  Maybe in having only five citations in the index, Durant was trying to dodge the censors. Here's Will on page 48, discussing Homer and the morals of the Heroic Age:  "Friendships are firm among the heroes, though possibly a degree of sexual inversion enters into the almost neurotic attachment of Achilles to Patroclus..."  Little baby 1940s queer does a doubletake:  HUH?  Homer's Achilles was a pansy?  Now that's just a hunch on Durant's part, but on page 83 talking about the Spartans, he lays it all out for us to see and ponder (and maybe drool over:  "As to love, the young man was permitted to indulge in it without prejudice of gender.  Nearly every lad had a lover among the older men."  WTF?  Those badass Spartans were sodomites!  And in talking about the poet Anacreon of Teos, whose subjects were "wine, women and boys", he even tells a story about his love for one particularly boy.  "His Eros was ambidextrous, and reached impartially for either sex."  Now Durant adds the B to the G of the GLBTQ quintet (or how many ever are in this grouping now).  And no discussion of Sappho is complete without her love of women, so he adds the L as well.  There is a whole discussion about "the placid acceptance of sexual inversion" on page 301, and while not a cheerleader, he's certainly not a castigator either - he quotes Plato that "love between man and man is nobler and more spiritual than love between man and woman."  As a gay man of long-standing (I'm a card carrying homosexual), I'm hyper-aware of authors who use a poisoned pen when talking about my Ganymedic bros and Sapphic sisters, and Durant just doesn't do it.  I wouldn't read him otherwise (see:  Orson Scott Card).  Durant would not even have to write about homosexulism  (his word, not mine) if he did not want to - although I think the fact that the Greeks loved love regardless of gender was common knowledge in the Middle Ages, let alone 1939, making it difficult to avoid when writing about them.    To Durant, homos were  just another part of Greek life.  And to me, that's pretty damn cool.  


I could write reams on Durant's reams - his varying takes on religion and Christianity (Dionysus becomes Christ, for example).  

His foray into class warfare - never far from the surface of any civilization or society; the rich and the poor are always at it in some way, with the middle class regardless of its size, caught between.  


(page 312) “The thought of the gloomy fate awaiting nearly all the dead darkens Greek literature and makes Greek life less bright and cheerful than is fitting under such a sun.” Another example of Durant's glorious turn of phrase.

(page 27) "Civilization is always older than we think; and under whatever sod we tread are bones of men  and women who also worked and loved, wrote songs and made beautiful things, but whose names and very being have been lost in the careless flow of time." He mentions in passing, on page 119, of "hybris" or "insolent prosperity." Wow, that term rang true for the 21st century: a few months ago, I would have referenced the gross perpetrators of hybris the klan Kardashian, but alas and alack for our country, I now would have to use our own president Trump as an example. If Trump and his ilk are slimy with hybris, I don't know who is. It's related to "hubris" - the words seem almost interchangeable, but having a word to describe the rich who rub it in your face in a degrading way, that's a word I want keep using.

(page 552) Energy is only half of genius; the other half is harness. About Alexander the Great.

The Life of Greece (The Story of Civilization, #2)The Life of Greece by Will Durant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In used book stores, yard sales, or on some of the dustier shelves of libraries, you can often find them: Will Durant's (later Will and Ariel Durant's) The Story of Civilization. It's often moldering way, which I always think is a shame, because every one of these books that I've read - I will admit I have not read them all - is excellently written and completely enjoyable. I can't authoritatively speak for the research; these are old books; The Life of Greece was published in 1939, and surely some new discoveries have happened in archaeology of ancient Greece since 1939. But I know I can speak for the quality of the writing which isn't merely good or great: if you love history, it's magical. Durant is a wonderful wordsmith; a true painter of words. One could write reams on the reams that Durant has written: his life of Greece runs the gamut of a little bit of everything one could possibly want to know about the Greeks. There are too many things I loved about this book to list them all here; it suffices to say that this is well worth some deep reading. 

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