Loving the Unlovable Greeks
“Loving the Unlovable Greeks”, The New York Times, November 15, 1998

Below is the American Hellenic Media Project's letter to the NY Times editor regarding the above caption and accompanying image:

Via fax & e-mail: (212) 556-3622, 3690

November 15, 1998

To the Editor of The New York Times:

Your editor’s decision to use a headline that disparages an ethnic group is highly inappropriate. What is worse, your headline, “Loving the Unlovable Greeks” (November 15, Book Review, p. 14), expresses a sentiment that directly contradicts the substance of Garry Wills’ book review which was, in Mr. Wills’ own words, that “attempts to reduce a complex historical process to matters of national character are almost always simplistic”.

Yet this is not the first time your editors have expressed anti-Hellenic sentiments through nonsequitur headlines. In a book review by Edmund Keeley of Elia Kazan’s Beyond the Aegean (May 29, 1994), your editor gave the headline “Beware of Greeks Bearing History”, one that was wholly incongruous with the substance of the review itself.

One wonders whether The New York Times editorial board would have had the same temerity to project its intolerance onto reviews entitled “Loving the Unlovable Chinese”, or “Puerto Ricans”, or “Jews” or any other number of ethnicities, races or religions . . . or whether its selective intolerance is reserved only for the Greeks.

Very truly yours,

P. D. Spyropoulos, Esq.
Executive Director

Below is the full text of the book review, obviating that the bigoted headline and image used were likely chosen by the NY Times' Book Review editorial staff (for fair use and educational purposes only):

The New York Times Book Review

November 15, 1998


Jacob Burckhardt analyzed Greek culture at great length but admired it not so much.


The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt is best known for ''The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.'' But that 1860 work was intended as part of a cultural history of Europe whose most important part would be the treatment of ancient Greece. ''It is only the Philhellenism of Rome, the love of a Greece that was still alive, that was responsible for the survival of the whole culture of the ancient world,'' he said. ''Hellenistic Rome was the indispensable basis for the spread of Christianity, and Christianity, apart from its role as a religion, was to be the single bridge destined to unite the old world with its Germanic conquerors. In this whole chain of cause and effect, Hellenism is the most important link.''

Though he never filled in his great plan, he did write out a lengthy lecture course on Greek history, which he offered his students in Basel four different times. He had prepared some of these for publication before he died, but the complete lecture course was published (in four volumes) posthumously. Parts of this massive project were translated into English by Palmer Hilty in l958. Now another grouping has been translated by Sheila Stern as ''The Greeks and Greek Civilization.'' There is little overlap between the two books. Oswyn Murray, the classicist who made the selection and wrote the introduction, omits Volume 3, on the arts, because that is the least original section. He singles out those parts that will support his contention that Burckhardt is the forerunner of modern cultural anthropology.

Through most of European history, Sparta was more admired than Athens, and Rome more than Sparta. A shift in attention from Rome to Greece had occurred in the 18th century, but it was not until the 19th that advocates of democracy made Athens admirable in the political realm as well as in the esthetic. Burckhardt, who feared the disorder of democracy, had little sympathy with this development. For him, the great age of Greece was the sixth century B.C., when aristocrats celebrated the competitive culture typified by the great Hellenic games. The agon, the contest for excellence, was peculiarly Greek: ''Only small free aristocracies could allow the expression of the will to self-distinction among equals before judges, who were elected or fairly chosen in some other way, and then only in a nation like the Greeks; the Romans, who differed from them chiefly in their dislike of anything 'useless,' would never have developed this practice.''

Decline began, for Burckhardt, in the fifth century, when what had been attendant drawbacks of the agonal spirit moved up to become the dominant traits, including a belief in the right to lie. Noble competitiveness shrank to petty litigiousness. License to lie became a compulsion to lie. Haughty revenge at offenses to honor was perverted into indiscriminate malice, a ''diabolical delight in ruining others,'' which the Greeks did not even try to conceal. Carl Schorske, in ''Thinking With History,'' contended that Burckhardt stayed in little Basel, his native town, because he needed its civil atmosphere. He shrank from strife, which may be why he stopped publishing and confined himself to lectures. When Leopold von Ranke died in Berlin, Burckhardt turned down the offer to succeed to his prestigious chair in history. In Athens, he discovered the exact opposite of his civil and pacific Basel: ''A permanent terrorism was exercised by the combination of the sycophants'' -- that is, informers -- ''the orators and the constant threat of public prosecution, especially for peculation and incompetence, as well as the ever present risk of being accused of asebeia (impiety). A certain hardening of the nerves must have resulted from all this.'' Athenians were eloquent, but eloquence itself ''became, like the press today, the instrument of very little good and three-quarters of everything bad; it colored and enfeebled both poetry and historiography; even the philosophers were partly, in real life, really rhetoricians.''

Along with his fierce dislike of Athens, Burckhardt had a contrarian streak in him, which made him praise what others condemned and condemn what they praised. He ridicules Socrates but defends the sophists -- who did not, after all, teach Athenians to wrangle (who could have done that?), but brought some degree of order into the melee. The person who most fascinates him is Alcibiades, whose magnificent disdain for democracy is seen as a remnant of the old agonal aristocracy brought down into the cramped world of envious levelers. In these pages, a charismatic condottiere seems to have ridden right out of Burckhardt's book on the Renaissance.

Though Burckhardt does not glorify Sparta, his treatment of Athenian instability is a throwback to the old pro-Spartan orthodoxy. Despite this reactionary aspect (which he does not even advert to), Oswyn Murray claims that the lectures he is introducing laid ''the foundation of modern approaches to the Greek world.'' He says that Burckhardt was the first to focus on the agonal character of Greek culture (though no reader of Pindar could have been unaware of that) and the first to describe the peculiar nature of the polis (the city-unit of rule). A serious flaw in Burckhardt's treatment is his inability to see what was clear to Ernst Curtius or Basil Gildersleeve, the crucial role religion played in the contests. Greek myths interested Burckhardt as stories; Greek ritual did not. Yet ritual (especially sacrifice) was the heart of Greek religion. Burckhardt's study of Renaissance city-states may have made him sensitive to the contracted world of the polis, but he typically grounds the city in the character flaws of the Greeks. The citizens' disgust at manual labor made them depend on slaves, who had to be kept within manageable confines. Distrust of the outside also confined the polis, unable ''to control more extensive areas, in such a way that its individual settlements would not become centers of subversion.'' Empires were risked only by Spartan brutality or Athenian recklessness. Contraction of the sphere meant that ''internally, the polis was implacable toward any individual who ceased to be totally absorbed in it.''

Burckhardt can be considered the discoverer of the polis only if that rather sour picture of it is the true one. Historians like George Grote had found different explanations for the centrality of the polis. In fact, Burckhardt sounds like Grote read upside down or backward. Where the former sees a cramped world of intrusion and control, the latter sees human scale and participatory democracy. Burckhardt's polis swallows the citizen. Grote's polis is at the disposal of the citizen. This ability to see different values in the same material tends to invalidate Burckhardt's claim, endorsed by Murray, that a history of attitudes is more certain than a history of events. The argument suggests that events need interpreting, but attitudes, since they are already interpretations, do not need further interpreting. This is epistemologically naive. Even more questionable is the assertion that Burckhardt initiated what is now called the study of ''mentalities.'' Arnaldo Momigliano proposed earlier historians of such cultural ideals (including Burckhardt's own teacher, August Boeckh), and said that the difference between event-history and mentality-history is as old as the contrast between Thucydides and Herodotus. Murray is overstating Burckhardt's legitimate claim to be the father of modern cultural history, a claim better based on his Renaissance book than on these lectures. Momigliano, in his introduction to an Italian translation of the Greek lectures, sees in them a throwback to romanticism instead of a stride into the future -- the romanticism that finds a ''soul of the nation'' in any people.

The soul Burckhardt finds in the Greeks is a dark one. Edmund Burke said that he did not know how to draw up an indictment of a whole people, but Burckhardt treats that as an easy task. His cranky views can be a corrective to the rather gaga (or Edith Hamilton) idealization of ''the Greek spirit'' on display in John Heath and Victor D. Hanson's ''Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom'' (Free Press, $25). But attempts to reduce a complex historical process to matters of national character are almost always simplistic. It is better to read Burckhardt for the scattered insights of a lively mind immersed in Greek literature (but not in Greek inscriptions or archeology). And there are always the lively if rather cynical aphorisms. We are told, for instance, that Athenians were bound to get rather stuck-up, since others ''sang their praises in a way that can only be compared with the nonsense that is nowadays talked about Paris.''

Garry Wills's latest book is ''John Wayne's America.''

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company