Today, on Victor Davis Hanson’s website, Bruce Thornton has the transcript of a speech he recently gave to the Tsakopolous Hellenic Foundation. It’s called Defending the Greeks, and to say that I recommend taking the time to read it is an understatement.
Here’s just a few of many, many highlights.
When asked to define the achievement of the Greeks, we usually list the intellectual, artistic, and political equipment we have inherited from them: philosophy, history, logic, physics, criticism, rhetoric, dialectic, dialogue, tragedy, comedy, epic, lyric, aesthetics, analysis, democracy—these are all Greek words. Taken together they constitute the cultural and mental foundations of Western civilization. Yet such a list perhaps obscures a more interesting question: What is it in the ancient Greek mind that provides the common denominator of all these words?
The answer is that they are all the formalized expressions of the essence of the Greek achievement: critical consciousness. This is the impulse and willingness to stand back from humanity and nature and even the gods, to make them objects of thought and criticism, and to search for their meaning and significance—"to see life steadily, and see it whole," as Matthew Arnold put it, instead of remaining enslaved to custom, tradition, superstition, nature, or the brute force of political or priestly elites.
Since then, Western culture has been defined by critical consciousness, the willingness to examine and challenge traditional wisdom and answers in the pursuit of truth, and to stand in opposition to the political and social powers whose authority and legitimacy rest on the unexamined acceptance of received dogma. Science obviously has progressed in this fashion, but even in literature we find an impatience with tradition and a restless searching for ever greater and more finely nuanced explorations of the human condition. A whole genre, the aptly named novel, was invented partly as a vehicle for examining the fluid complexities of human psychology and social relations, a complexity ignored in the stock characters and plots of traditional story-telling. In this sense, Western literature has been the creation of what Lionel Trilling called "opposing sel[ves]," all those dissidents who, like Socrates, are driven to examine the human condition and probe beyond the traditional answers.
The spirit of Western civilization, then, is, as Alan Bloom has suggested, "Socratic," a process of raising important questions and examining critically the tradition of answers, as this examination is embodied in works of enduring excellence, starting of course with those of the ancient Greeks. The ultimate goal will be the freedom of the mind, a freedom underwritten by a habit of critical thinking that is not satisfied with the easy or emotionally gratifying answers and the received wisdom promulgated by the various economic or political interests of society. And only those with free minds are suitable for participating in that great invention of the Greeks, representative government, and enjoying the political freedom such government bestows on its citizens.
I would not be true to the spirit of the Greeks, however, if I neglected to emphasize that critical consciousness has its dangers as well as boons. As Euripides recognized, not all the wisdom of tradition is necessarily false, nor is it always amenable to a rational justification or accounting. Moreover, a critical examination not anchored by some level of moral certitude can degenerate into a destructive relativism or an intellectual paralysis. In Hamlet Shakespeare made clear this connection between moral relativism and a paralyzing criticism, for the same Hamlet who recognizes that "thinking too precisely on the event" makes one "lose the name of action," also asserts that "nothing’s good or bad, but thinking makes it so." These days we see the same unholy alliance–between an aggressive criticism and moral nihilism—in the antics of the postmodern intellectuals, who tear down not to rebuild, but merely to revel in the act of destruction.
The legacy of the Greeks under assault today thus deserves defense and celebration for the simple reason that much of what we are is the result of that brilliant examination of human life first begun by the Greeks: as Jacob Burckhardt says, "We see with the eyes of the Greeks and use their phrases when we speak." We must listen to the Greeks not because they will give us answers, but because they first identified the questions and problems, and they knew too where the answers must come from: the minds of free human beings who have control over their own lives. And this, finally, is the greatest good we have received from the Greeks: the gift of freedom.