Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking -- Part 14: The Greek Way, Chapter 1

The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton's celebrated study of the Golden Age of Classical Greece, was the class text for the first nine weeks of our senior English humanities course. A modern classic that has inspired generations of students since its appearance in 1930, it is an interpretive work as is its companion study, The Roman Way (1932), both of which are popular introductions to these dissimilar cultures.

Published over 85 years ago at the outset of the Great Depression and later expanded during World War II, it also spoke to the times as cultural uplift by offering a sustaining vision of the enduring values and timeless ideals of Western democracy as founded by the Athenians in the 5th century BCE.

It is a book that grew from a lifetime immersion in Greek antiquity, but like all such works that are labors of love, it is not without its limitations. It is a celebratory work which tends to idealize the Greeks while passing over in silence the darker side of their culture, an omission easily remedied in class discussion. It is not, nor was it intended to be, a work of erudite scholarship, but a deeply-felt personal vision that distills the essence of classical Greece for the general reader.

There were more recondite texts at the time on specialist problems with technical footnotes for professional readers, but none that explained why the Greeks mattered, or what they could teach us about ourselves. Or what they could say to our modern world that seemed to be coming apart both at home and abroad. Or how to explore the eternal questions of what it meant to be human, of living a life of honor and dignity, of meaning and purpose, in a time that threatened not only their humanity but their very existence during the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars.

However, it is not their answers that are important, as interesting as they may be, but the way they arrived at those answers. They looked out upon a mysterious universe and, in the silence, created their own answers in a way that had never been done before -- by having the courage of using their minds. And, with this, antiquity and the future were changed forever.

The Greeks were a very self-critical people and wouldn't want us to make them our gods, our idols, or authority figures, but to create our own answers and to find our own way, and to beware of authorities who would show us that way.

If pressed, they might add that they never appealed to their past for their answers, nor should we, but to believe in ourselves, use our minds, and the answers would come. They might even remind us, whimsically, that our appealing to the Greeks was the supreme betrayal of the Greeks, for if they hadn't taught us independence -- even from themselves, they had taught us nothing.

As an impassioned tribute to this singular people and their undying legacy to Western culture, this book is unrivaled as an initiation into the Greek vision of life that tells a compelling story compellingly. It dramatizes nothing less than the creation of the Western mind and its perennial romance with ideas and a Promethean struggle down through the ages against entrenched power and privilege.

Emerson, as ever, sums it up nicely: "Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet," but when he unleashed the Greeks upon an unsuspecting ancient world, it was never the same. Even the latter books of the Jewish Bible and the Christian New Testament bore the stamp of their thinking.

There are several books on classical Greece that teach more history, more facts, and more technical knowledge, but none are as apt to transform high-school students both as students and persons growing up as they do in a culture that cares so little for learning and the life of the mind. It is one of those books that a young Kafka, barely out of his teens himself, said we need as an ax for the frozen sea within us.

I began using the text in 1984 to provide the cultural background for written assignments and class discussions, the signature feature of the course. Students were cautioned not to be intimidated by this book, but to hold it at arm's length, as they should with every class text, and subject it to critical scrutiny.

It was stressed that it was only an interpretation, an excellent one, to be sure, one beautifully written, but, nonetheless, an interpretation, one among many, by a fallible human being, as all authors are.

Students were invited to use it as a whetstone on which to sharpen the critical-thinking skills they were also learning. They were encouraged to argue with the text, evaluate its value judgments, weigh its assumptions, and question its conclusions. They had carte blanche to challenge whatever they wished.

They were to read each chapter slowly and carefully, perhaps even twice, and that their responses would be judged by their depth of analysis, independence of judgment, and penetration of insight; in short, the text must be made to plead its case before that highest of authorities, their own minds. Each chapter's questions, in bold print below, were to be answered and submitted in writing, and a few days later critically discussed with additional questions.

Chapter 1.

1. Why are the Greeks called "the first Westerners," and how did the West differ from the East?

Are the reasons given by the author plausible? Do they reflect Western cultural bias toward the East?

It was pointed out that, contrary to the text, historians believe that only a small minority of the Greeks were devoted to the philosophical life, while the majority was no different from other peoples of antiquity concerned with survival, traditional in thinking, and lacking leisure for the examined life.

Do those who live in the Western world today identify more with that minority or majority? Explain. How would that minority respond to the question of whether it is wrong to question the beliefs and values in which one was raised? What reasons would they give?

We then explored dozens of sociological and psychological factors that predispose one to believe as one does; whether it's possible to free oneself from such conditioning; how one would go about doing this; and whether one would pay a price in the process.

What would be the traditional argument against developing one's mind and remaining with the views of one's group? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing this?

2. Why was the visible world unimportant in antiquity?

Is the reason given convincing? Can you think of other reasons? Are there those today who also don't view this world as important? If so, what would their reasons be? Would this be a healthy viewpoint or a sign of great wisdom? Argue both ways.

3. How did misery affect the development of reason and the desire to learn among the ancient Egyptians?

Do you agree or disagree with the reasons given? Is anyone blamed for this condition? Do people today fear knowledge, free inquiry, and open discussion? And if so, why? Does modern culture encourage thinking for oneself or group-think? Argue both ways.

What about schools?

During the nine weeks students were working on their Greek Way assignments, they also received instruction in critical thinking (fallacy detection; statement classification or how to tell the difference between facts, value judgments, explanatory theories, and metaphysical hypotheses; how to deal with each kind of statement to determine which can and cannot be proven, and why; and ways of refuting an argument).

This in-class workshop and its 15 take-home assignments were integrated into the course in such a way that students could immediately apply these newfound skills to their Greek Way assignments and class discussions. It goes without saying that this critical mindset was taken into other courses and began to permeate their everyday life.

4. How did the Egyptian priesthood view knowledge?

Is the explanation given objective or speculative in nature? How could Hamilton know the priests' motivations? Why would priests or anyone in power not want their people to read or be educated? Argue the converse. What is the difference between being educated and being indoctrinated? "One man's education is another man's indoctrination." Explain.

5. Why did Akhenaton lose favor with the priests?

Is Akhenaton portrayed as a hero or villain? Argue the converse of Hamilton's view. Was he trying to impose his views on the people? Role-play the priests and give their side of the story. Does the text present an objective or biased account? Is there any way of determining this? Could the priests have been sincere and well-meaning? Can the intentions of those in the past be determined if no written records survive? Should we take written records at face value?

6. Why didn't science arise in the East?

Are the reasons given convincing? Can you think of other possible reasons? Is this section also culturally biased toward the East? How would the East respond to her claim? Hamilton implies that science developed without difficulty in the West, although historians claim that Christianity was anti-science until recent times. Agree or disagree, and give your reasons.

7. Why was the study of mathematics considered safe in Egypt?

Do the reasons given sound plausible? Who considered mathematics safe and other kinds of inquiry dangerous? Is this still a problem today? Do governments, institutions, and the media have a problem with certain issues and questions, and refuse to discuss them?

Are the people systematically kept in the dark concerning matters about which they have a right to know? If so, give some examples, possible reasons, and evaluate them.

8. Who were the Brahmans, and why are they mentioned?

Are they presented in a positive, negative, or neutral way? What impression does Hamilton want you to have about them? Who are the Brahmans in American society? How do they see themselves? Do they feel a moral obligation to help the poor? Does government have a similar obligation? It is argued by some that the poor deserve to be poor because they are lazy. Evaluate this claim.

9. Why didn't India view social improvement as necessary?

The text suggests that India, and, by implication, Egypt and the East, viewed social improvement as unnecessary, but the same argument could also be leveled against the West as witnessed by centuries of widespread poverty. This was the case not only in antiquity, but also throughout history into modern times and present-day America.

How would you explain such conditions in first-world countries today? Who would stand to gain by being against social improvement in their own country? How would they justify to themselves and to others what they were doing?

The text also insinuates that the doctrine of reincarnation was used by the haves against the have-nots to condition them to view this world as unimportant, since it was only the stage on which they were being morally tested. If they led good lives despite the poor conditions within which they lived, they would be reincarnated to a better life in their next existence.

This would make social improvement unnecessary, since life, after all, was supposed to be hard to purify oneself for one's next life; more importantly for the haves, class conflict and revolution would have been averted. This would be to their advantage by keeping the poor content with their lot despite the social injustice they were made to endure.

Evaluate this theory. Do you agree or disagree, and why?

Finally, there are those who would see this kind of thinking as an example of the genetic fallacy, or the fallacy of origins, whereby one confuses the origins of a belief with the truth of that belief. In this case, the historical origin (poverty, disease, hopelessness, and ignorance) that led to the belief in reincarnation is assumed to disprove the truth of that belief itself.

The problem, however, is that the question of the truth of reincarnation and the historical conditions that gave rise to this belief are two separate issues, which the fallacy reduces to one. It is simply assumed that if the conditions that caused a belief can be historically explained, the truth of that belief is explained away. What is overlooked, however, is that the belief in reincarnation, even if it did arise for those reasons, could still be true.

Evaluate this view and determine whether it applies to this example or not.