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Review of Thomas Cahill, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter

by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan
(original date: August 2008)

This is one of a number of informal pieces originally produced for the CMRS Facebook page.
It is intended to provoke discussion and further investigation rather than as a formal scholarly submission.

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

[PRELIMINARY NOTE: a good deal of this review is likely to be of little interest unless you have read — or were planning to read — Cahill's book, or were thinking of using it in a course. The last two paragraphs do get to some important larger issues, however, and touch on why I read the book in the first place.]

Another of the general books I've read of late is Thomas Cahill's Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (2003 — see, I'm catching up: I'm now in the current decade!). I should begin by saying that I am not the audience for this book, which is meant to introduce a general reader to a selection of the Greek classics and inspire him/her to explore these works more deeply. What Cahill strives for is, in effect, a really good 1st-year course in Greek civilization (the equivalent of our CLAS 110), with perhaps more attention to matters of reception (the later tradition's response to these works) and, although there are some exceptions, less attention to a detailed reading of the works themselves and the social/historical context in which they were produced. The goal, for the most part, is an impressionistic evocation rather than a properly developed introductory overview: it is highly doubtful that any reader will come away with a very clear understanding of the full significance of many of the works and themes addressed here. But as a protreptic text, designed to win readers over to the cause, it generally presents an engaging read.

The book covers a good deal of ground: the Iliad, the Odyssey, the lyric poets (principally Sappho), the development of the Greek alphabet, the nature of Greek music, Greek homoerotic relationships, the symposium, Solon, the nature of life in classical Athens, tragedy (particularly the Oresteia, Oedipus the King, Medea, and Bacchae), Nietzsche on tragedy, Aristophanes, the Pre-Socratics, Pythagorianism, Socrates, Republic 1, Plato's Symposium, Plato's political views and his ideal state, the contrasting views and methods of Plato and Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, the nature of the Greek language, the Greek engagement with the Other, the Greeks and Egypt, Greek architecture, sculpture, nudity, the Greek view of women, Hippocrates, Hellenistic art, Apuleius' tale of Cupid and Psyche, the nature of Greek myth and religion, Pericles' funeral oration, Pericles as politician, later Greek philosophy, the Roman engagement with Greek religion and philosophy, the mystery religions, the engagement of early Christianity with the Greek philosophical/intellectual tradition, the fading of the Greek cultural tradition in Byzantium. The book concludes with a listing of the Greek alphabet (is this necessary?), a glossary of important names (with a pronunciation guide), a chronological overview, and additional notes on sources.

As often with such texts, there is a tendency to interpret the Greek material in biographical terms and according to modern Western categories and sensibilities. This is one way of attempting to win a literate but untutored general reader over to the Greeks, but it is frequently artificial and at times utterly misleading. Thus, e.g., we read of the Odyssey as a product of Homer's old age, informed by a new sensitivity to women and a rejection of the militaristic ethos of the Iliad — a view that is based mainly on the number of times Odysseus indulges in tears and the hero's determination to return to Ithaca and the domestic comforts of home and family. This then leads to the portrait of the Odyssey as a model for those who, unlike Simone Weil's Achilles, love peace more deeply than they long for war (although Cahill does also acknowledge Odysseus' negative side, particularly in the later tradition, as a scheming conniver). Here, and in the argument that Homer must have employed writing to compose epics of such complexity, the impression conveyed is of Homer as an independent, suspiciously modern-sounding author rather than an oral-formulaic bard.

The frequent attempts to develop connections to later periods and the Nachleben of the ancient works are often interesting, but can lead Cahill to by-pass the original work (as in the case of the Odyssey, where we seem to hear more about the Iliad, Tennyson, Cavafy, Joyce, and Auden than about the details of Homer's poem). But this element of the work can also show Cahill at his best, as in his reflections on similarities between the outlook of the Presocratics and elements of Einstein's thought (149-50) and on the significance of public nudity in Greek art and culture (206ff.). As frequently happens in such works, however, when this approach goes wrong, it can be painful, as in the protracted and generally misguided attempt to draw connections between Athenian tragedy and later Christian liturgy (based on the connection with leitourgia!), which is driven into the ground. And the use of folksy modern comparisons, combined with the lack of sufficient cultural context, at times leads to still more problematic results, as in the account of Plato's Symposium, elements of which might suggest to the casual uninformed reader a debased gathering of individuals who, with the exception of Socrates and Aristophanes, are by and large a group of blundering moral degenerates.

Inevitably, in a work that covers so much material, there are items at which the professional classicist will bristle (although I doubt that any two of us would produce identical lists!) and a number of outright errors. Most are either inconsequential or a legitimate matter of personal interpretation, but some are rather appalling. A miscellaneous sampling:

Among the less forgivable items: the picture of Sappho running a finishing school, with young debutante soloists performing as part of their coming out, and the account of Aeschylean tragedy that alludes to the grand simplicity of Aeschylus' plays, comparable to the medieval mystery cycles, where "this is this and that is that," and whose "beauty lies not in complexity of metaphor nor subtlety of concept" but "exemplif[ies] the clarity of orthodox religious thought" (???).

On the stylistic side, I kept being distracted by the looseness with which the narrative was often knitted together. It would no doubt be a mistake to adopt a rigidly chronological arrangement for such a text, but the shifting from topic to topic (or back to topics already discussed) at times verged on rambling. And in some places, material seems to be tossed in (the two-page interlude on Hesiod, or the 3+ pages devoted to Herodotus and Thucydides as predecessors to Aristotle's methods of inquiry) simply because it has to be included somewhere. More than once, material appropriate to one chapter is addressed at the beginning of the chapter following. Also distracting were the quirky and altogether desultory footnotes offering various sorts of cultural tidbits (often of an elementary lexical nature).

There is also the matter of the prose style, that can be disconcertingly uneven. While Cahill generally aspires to write in a manner consonant with the themes he is expounding and in a manner that exhorts the reader to endorse his undertaking, he rather often becomes too caught up in his own popularizing zeal, with unfortunate results:

At the other extreme, but equally jarring, are the occasional lapses into a seemingly gratuitous vulgarity: e.g., pp. 134-35.

But why I am choosing to review this book? Despite my criticisms, it would be fair to say that Cahill achieves a good first sailing (to echo Plato), as he leads the reader through a general literary/cultural history of Greece. But one has to question whether he addresses the issues raised by the book's subtitle ("Why the Greeks Matter") with any real success. A general description of various interesting elements of the Greek literary and cultural achievement might well engender admiration and enthusiasm, but the subtitle seems to promise more than this — it suggests that the Greek achievement is somehow not just of general interest but able to make a more fundamental claim upon our attention. It was this promised feature of the book that drew me to it, but (not unlike Socrates with Anaxagoras' text) I left disappointed. There are occasional gestures toward this issue (e.g., pp. 82-84,105, 109, 117-18, 144-45, 149-52, 164, 187-88, 210-13, 214-15) but no proper attempt to address it full on. And an examination of some of the passages just cited might well help one understand the impulse behind the Afrocentrists' attempt to take the Hellenocentrists down a notch or two: the praise is at times so extreme in the picture that it paints, e.g., of classical Athens that this reviewer also bridled on occasion. What is wanted is not yet another glowing panegyric on, e.g., the glory that was democratic Athens but an informed and reasoned evaluation of what the Greeks and Athenians achieved, despite their many flaws, and in what ways this was, if at all, exceptional. This, it strikes me, is the book we Classicists should be calling for, and that is desperately needed in this age when the general understanding of the nature of Greek culture and its significance is in such rapid decline.

Instead of a book that flatters us for being willing to engage with matters of "high culture," we need a text that helps us bring these cultural matters into perspective. Do we study Greek mythology, drama, philosophy, art, architecture, etc. simply because it is familiar — because they have been imposed upon us, first, at the point of a Roman spear and, subsequently, by the various hegemonic forces that have directed the course of Western history? Is the culture that the Greeks inspired successful mainly because it is so wonderfully efficient in fostering, or at least accommodating, the materialistic and practical outlook that has allowed the West to become such an economic and technological powerhouse (to the detriment, many would claim, of our physical and spiritual environment)? Or is there something more to it than that? To what degree does the Greek cultural achievement transcend the particulars of its own genesis, and, if it does, does it achieve this in a way that is unique to the Greeks or true of all cultures? In short, just why do the Greeks matter? This is the book I would very much like to have read.

To sum up: although there is much of interest in Cahill's Sailing, its numerous failings would prevent me from recommending it to a general enthusiast or assigning it for a class.

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