“The Greeks” – and Us

The National Geographic Museum in Washington is quite close by and visible from my office window. One of the (partial) compensations for doing time in the Imperial City is that you can drop into such a place, periodically, when there’s something of interest going on, which is not infrequent. As in its current show, The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander, which has its expected glories but also an unnecessary anti-Christian bias.

Alexander is, of course, Alexander the Great, conqueror of Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, the Persian Empire (and much of what we now call the Middle East), even parts of today’s India. Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor, though how much the Stagirite influenced his rather un-philosophical pupil is not easy to say. But there’s no question about Alexander’s influence on Western civilization: owing to his conquests, Hellenistic culture (and later Greco-Roman culture) – from Homer’s Agamemnon on – spread to and shaped much of the ancient world and ours as well.

The New Testament, for instance, is written in koine or common ancient Greek because that was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean and far beyond. It’s often been argued that when St. Paul writes, in Greek, to the Galatians about God sending his only Son into the world in “the fullness of time” (4:4), the time is full because Roman order and Hellenistic culture providentially offered useful material and mental means for the rapid spread of the Gospel.

It was no small thing to travel in the ancient world. Until the Romans had destroyed brigands and pirates, travelers and evangelizers might just as easily have been enslaved or killed as reached their destinations. And the great Roman road system made moving around easier.

But Greek culture was also crucial. Not only were the Gospels and other NT texts written in Greek, much of the thinking in the early Church used the Greek language, but also Greek philosophical notions, to give a rational account of the faith. We Western Christians tend to remember Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome, all later Latin writers; but prior to them were Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, all Greek writers. And the early councils and first creeds were in Greek.

Roughly speaking, ancient Greece was to Rome as modern Europe is to America. Our roots are in an earlier culture, without which we would not be who we are. So even as the Romans complained about effete Greek tutors always looking for money – as we complain about a Europe that is cultivated but seems unwilling or unable to defend itself – we possess a common past.

Bust of Marsilio Ficino by Andrea Ferrucci, c. 1521 [Il Duomo, Florence, Italy]
Bust of Marsilio Ficino by Andrea Ferrucci, c. 1521 [Il Duomo, Florence, Italy]
It’s one of the longstanding – and false – interpretations of Western history that Christianity disdained Greek culture and, therefore, after the fall of Rome, inaugurated the Dark Ages. Scholars have long known that this is utter nonsense. Rodney Stark has just published another one of his startling books: Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, in which he assembles indisputable evidence, from ancient to modern times, known to specialists in various disciplines, that the old tales of superstition leading to impoverishment (and especially an anti-science and anti-technology mentality) are not only wrong, they’re the exact opposite of the truth.

My own first book dealt with some of this biased mythology and I’d say that Stark – who is not Catholic – presses the defense too far in places. But he’s absolutely right that, despite the centuries of fragmentation after the fall of Rome, Christianity and Western culture more generally labored to make what material and intellectual advances they could, under the circumstances.

Far from rejecting the ancient Greco-Roman culture, recovering it was the aim of much medieval effort. Because from the first, Greek thought was part of the Catholic tradition of faith and reason. When translations of Aristotle (“the master of those who know,” Dante calls him around 1300) started to appear in the high Middle Ages, it was theologians and philosophers who were most eager to know him – notably Thomas Aquinas. So much so that when the early “modern” philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, and others wanted to make a fresh start, they complained that a certain way of reading that ancient Greek genius  dominated the Christian universities.

Plato, too, was a big influence in Christianity. In the West, we get most of our Platonism via St. Augustine. But circumstances conspired to make more direct knowledge possible. Greek scholars and churchmen came to the Council of Florence in 1439, where reunion of the Eastern and Western churches was agreed upon, but without much effect. Partly because in 1453 the Turks finally conquered Byzantium.

One good side-effect, however, was that it drove Greek speakers West again. And it was Marsilio Ficino, a Florentine priest and protégé of the Medici, who first translated the whole of Plato into Latin. To the delight of Christian humanists, from Erasmus to Thomas More to many others.

All this and much more is utterly beyond dispute. But the anti-Christian meme that got going during the Enlightenment is still with us. And sad to say, it pops up even in connection with The Greeks. National Geographic, together with PBS, has produced a video series on the subject that rolls along pretty well when it sticks to the Greeks. As it ends, however, it reaches for relevance and makes the laughable claim that when Constantine legalized Christianity in 310 AD, the fire of Greece was put out.

And as if this weren’t enough, they then quickly invoke America’s Founding Fathers, many of whom were classicists, but as a foil to the whole of Western history since 310 – the French and American Revolutions (and maybe the Scientific Revolution, you know) finally recovering the great Greeks.

If this were just a matter of one ridiculous note in an otherwise noble effort – who studies the Greeks these days? – you might let it pass. But this material is likely to be used in government schools, when students learn anything at all about ancient Greece. Is it any wonder why we have mistaken notions about our civilization and widespread scorn for Christianity?

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.

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