Thursday, 28 April 2011

Jacqueline de Romilly: defining and defending Hellenism

Jacqueline de Romilly was a renowned French classicist who died last year, though it doesn’t seem much of her work has been translated into English. I’ve only managed to find her Short History of Greek Literature, which covers Greek writing in all its forms from the eighth century BC (Homer) to the fourth century AD, that is, to the early Christian fathers and Julian the Apostate. The book is a little over 200 pages long and so de Romilly is only able to devote just a few pages each to the various authors and literary and philosophical movements that characterise this 1200-year period, and yet I can’t imagine that there are many, if any, better introductions to Greek literature. The book is particularly good when it comes to Thucydides and Plutarch and, in general, is a resounding defence of Hellenism, whose lifeblood de Romilly describes in her conclusion as consisting of: ‘inquiry and debate, political struggles and struggles over ideas, discoveries, effort, criticism and hope – all in search of the best possible life’.


Hermes said...

De Rommilly writes well about Thucydides because she was an expert on him. In fact, she was inspired to study the Classics when she read Thucydides. On another thing, I am always interested when these Greek literature Classicists stop. Why not include Nonnus’s Dionysiaca? Dionysios Areopogite’s Mystical Theology? Maximus the Confessor and John Damascene? The Byzantine Romances (often erotic)? The Cat and Mouse Play? Timarion and Mazaris? The Tales of Quadrepeds? The Mockery of a Beardless Man? The dialogue, Concerning Wisdom? Magistros’s works on Kingship and Statehood? All of this so called post-Classical Greek literature was heavily informed by Classical Greek literature. Often, the influence was so heavy that it was written in an Attic style which was incomprehensible to the ordinary Roman (Byzantine). But then again, did the ordinary Theban understand Pindar? Perhaps De Rommilly should also include Kalvos, Cavafy, Ritsos and Seferis?

John Akritas said...

It's interesting, H; but de Romilly says herself that the reason she stops where she stops with her history of Greek literature is because with the ascent of Christianity, Hellenism dies or at least becomes something else and that this is because Christianity doesn't do 'inquiry and debate', doesn't do politics and so on.

Hermes said...

John, firstly, I would not identify Romania (Byzantium) only with Christianity. The Byzantines firstly identified with the Greek-speaking Roman nation (and later, the Hellenic nation in response to the threat from the Latins) and not with Christians. For example, they still called non-Orthodox and even non-Greek speaking Orthodox Christians as barbarians i.e. Bulgars. Christianity; particularly, Orthodoxy was important but was not the first reference point for them. Also, I would not entirely conflate the rise of Christianity with the death of a certain type of Hellenism. The change in political culture i.e. civic duty and responsibility, localism etc, of the Greeks had largely changed before the rise of Christianity as due to their integration into Roman Imperial political culture. Secondly, we should be careful not to magnify a relatively short period of Athenian city-state history as been solely exemplary of Hellenism. Did the Greeks living under the tyrants of Syracuse do inquiry and debate? Did the Greeks of Macedon? Did the Greeks living under Mithridates? Of the Seleucids? Of Epirus? Of Cyprus? Of late antique Bithynia? Sure, Athens was seen as exemplery as providing models for rhetoric, literature and philosophy but not so much for democratic political culture. That is a modern obsession. Furthermore, Greek speaking Romans certainly inquired and debated but they changed their focus. Rather than debate the nature of the ideal state and human nature, they asked questions about uncreated nature, the nature of Christ, the divinity of the Theotokos and so on. Often, these are personifications of pre-existing principles. Surely, the thousands of letters we have between Bishops, Emperors, monks, philosophers, rhetors and so on qualifies as debate?

John Akritas said...

You know I'm sceptical of your analysis, H. For a start, I don't think it's right to suggest that the definition of Hellenism that de Romilly provides – which is fairly typical of classicists – is only applicable to Athens and to a short period of its history. It applies, more or less, to the Greek world, from Ionia to Sicily and Italy, from the period of Homer right up to the triumph of Christianity. It's true that the most far-reaching thinking comes out of Athens, but radical inquiry and debate exists in many – the vast majority of – Greek places both before and after the demise of Athenian hegemony. The Athenians would like us to believe that they are the 'educators of Greece'; but in fact there are many other cities that provided Greeks with an education. Thus the examples of Epirus, Macedonia and Cyprus are the exception, not the rule and even if in the post-Alexander and Roman occupation periods, there is an erosion of Greek political culture, Hellenism survives and evolves and Roman imperial culture ends up becoming Greco-Roman imperial culture. It was Greek exposure to and adoption of despotic and occult Oriental culture – from which Christianity emerges – that destroyed classical Hellenism, not our subjection to Rome.

And, for sure, debate and enquiry existed in Byzantine Christianity; but what you describe is debate and enquiry of a theological nature; not the debate and enquiry pertaining to philosophy, politics, physics – the rational explanation of the cosmos – and so on. God created everything, was responsible for everything, from human nature to the nature of the state. This may be Greek thought in as much as Greeks believed this; but does this mean, therefore, that Hellenism is not a single, coherent ideology but the accumulated thinking and ways of life of Greeks over 4000 years? It's a reasonable position to take, and I sympathise with it, it definitively Hellenises the Romaioi and gives greater form and continuity to our history and culture, but I find the 1200 years of culture de Romilly describes – from Homer to Julian the Apostate – vastly different to the 1000 years after, so I'm not convinced.

Hermes said...

If there was so much radical inquiry and debate in other places other than Athens then show me the texts that were written there? The overwhelming number of texts of radical inquiry come from Athens and to a lesser extent from Alexandria later on. Also, why did so many of the intellectuals decide to move to Athens to ply their trade rather than stay from where they came from? Further, the occult and Oriental culture was influencing Greek culture and the other way around before the emergence of Christianity. Even after the emergence of Christianity many of the pagan Greeks were taking on Oriental culture.

Regarding debate in Romania, my point was that it is was theological in nature. But that is still debate of some sort.

I am not entirely convinced either. I am positing the views of many Neo-Orthodox modern Greeks and many Greeks in general. However, I tend to trust their views more than Western scholars despite the vast amount of resources available to Western scholars. You may ask why? Because if we are going to be a sovereign autonomous people, then we decide what is part and not part, of our history and our identity. The process of reinterpreting our history is our responsibility. This is not the responsibility of wealthy Western scholars that seek to legitimize the prevailing, or hoped for ideology, of their nations.

John Akritas said...

None of the pre-Socratics were from Athens. They were Ionians or Italians. Hippocrates was from Kos, Herodotus from Halicarnassus and only one of the Seven Sages – Solon – was an Athenian. The early Sophists were Thracians and Sicilians (Protagoras, Gorgias). In terms of Greek cultural development, the Athenians arrived late on the scene. Having said all this, it's clear from the careers of many of the above that in pursuit of free inquiry and debate they were forced by politics, tyrants, hostile local populations, from one part of the Greek world to another, suggesting Greek societies were prone to authoritarianism and tyranny as much as to democracy and freedom. Still, despite all the tribal differences, internecine conflicts and various political systems, there is a unified and unifying culture among Greeks, a pan-Hellenic impetus, reflected very early on if the start of the Olympic Games (8th century BC) is anything to go by and continues right through to the pleas of Isocrates for a united Greece to destroy the Persian empire. Athens is just one part of this much broader picture. But I accept when we say debate and inquiry define Hellenism, that this is a statement of choice and preference, and we could just as legitimately say, that the Spartan military ethos or the Nicene Creed define Hellenism.

It's very interesting what you say about Western scholars interpreting Hellenism for us; but, in a way, this is trap we set ourselves, since are culture is so brilliant and attractive that it has become universal and if we want to see Greek civilisation remain at the core of Western civilisation – which, presumably, we do, especially now it is being attacked by multiculturalism, Afrocentrism, Islam and so on – then we can't complain too much about Western scholars involving themselves in our affairs.

Hermes said...

John, Herodotus only became well known when he migrated to Athens and recited his Histories. Protagoras also migrated to Athens to ply his trade. We do not know what kind of intellectual environment Herodotus and Protagoras came from. Perhaps they were liberal and they simply came to Athens because that was where the money was. Or, perhaps the intellectual environment in their home cities was too stifling.

Regarding Western scholarship and the West, many Greeks do not really consider Hellenism as being wholly in the West as we know it today or in its recent history. Many of them believe that the West has veered to far away from Hellenism. Even during Antiquity, Greeks were wary of much of what came from Rome.

Hellenism is not just enquiry and debate but also a sense of national community and protection of human dignity. During Roman times, a metropolitan culture endured in the Greek East. And Byzantium should really be understood, for most of its history, as an over-sized Greek-speaking Roman city-state with all the trappings i.e. judiciary, Senate, assemblies and so on. Can such luminaries of Western Culture such as Sigmund Freud or Max Stirner or Marquis De Sade or Rosa Luxemburg be considered outgrowths of Hellenism? No. And that is why many Greeks believe the West has betrayed the principles of Hellenism.