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Book Review

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter
Thomas Cahill
Nan A. Talese (Doubleday) 2003
336 pages  $37.95

This review, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged.


Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea 

Why do the Greeks matter? Prima facie, there are two ways of handling this question.  The first is simply to invite the questioner to look at the legacy, the astonishing treasure of works which continue (more so than ever before) to delight, challenge, and inspire.  The second, more complex approach is to trace the influence of the Greek legacy on the development of Western Culture, something requiring a very delicate and sensitive hand, because although the Greek experience has always been remembered and celebrated (often very guardedly), for most of the history of Western Culture the works themselves have not been available, and our understanding of the Greeks has been derived from sources which appropriated that legacy, reinterpreted it decisively, and frequently offered it to us in very non-Greek ways.  The Trojan War, for example, has always been one of our most popular and inspiring narratives, but until modern times our access to it has been through Roman and Christian re-interpretations.  So can we assign the enormous influence of some of these appropriations (for example, in Virgil or Ovid or Dante or Shakespeare) to the Greeks?  Is Brad Pitt’s Achilles a product of Greek influence?

Thomas Cahill’s new book sets out to provide both sorts of answer at once.  What he has to say is clearly directed at those almost totally unfamiliar with classical Greek culture, and he is very keen that they share his excitement about and enthusiasm for particular works.  But he also wants us to understand that historically the Greeks have played a vital role in developing our understanding of ourselves.  The merit of the book stems from his relative success with the first of these answers; its problems emerge from his generally inadequate treatment of the second.

The heart of Cahill’s historical argument is that the Greeks taught us six specific things: how to fight, how to feel, how to party, how to rule, how to think, and how to see.  He devotes a chapter to each of these, and in each section of his argument takes a close look at particular texts.  Typically he begins with a historical introduction to the author and the work, then introduces us to the text (with very generous quotations from recent translations and a great deal of summary), and leads us towards his historical conclusion.

The most consistently interesting parts of the book are the sections dealing with the cultural context of particular works. Cahill is obviously very well read but wears his scholarship with a light elegance, so that it never intrudes. There is a wealth of interesting detail, and some of his ruminations are fascinating (especially on the nature of language).  Though anyone familiar with the classical Greeks will not find anything very new here, for the neophyte the introductions to the different aspects of ancient Greek culture are clear, interesting, fluent, and eminently readable throughout.

The treatment of the texts also works well for the most part, mainly because we get such generous access to them. The interpretative commentary is at times rather haphazard and flippant, much of it a series of scattergun remarks without any sustained argument (e.g., the real hero of the Iliad is Hector, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King provides a “vicarious comeuppance” for the audience, Aristotle is really not much in comparison with Plato, the Romans are mere plodders, and so on).  But Cahill coveys well his genuine delight in a way which is hard to resist and which should (one thinks) encourage many readers to pick up the texts and start reading.

The historical claims, however, are for the most part unpersuasive.  In some cases they seem rather empty (e.g., how to feel, how to party); at other times, too simplistic.  And a neat list of six clear “lessons” invites us to wonder why some more important and obvious legacies are not more central to his argument.

Cahill, for example, wants us to believe that the Iliad influenced us by teaching us our most important tactical military doctrine—get there first with the most troops.  Hence, our devotion to huge citizens armies and massive strikes against smaller numbers is part of Homer’s gift, a bold and potentially interesting suggestion.  But Cahill’s case amounts to little more than a quote or two from the Iliad (referring to the closely-packed formation of Achaean troops and to council discussions), a passing reference to Alexander, and a nod in the direction of that willful and woeful misinterpreter of the classics, Robert Kaplan—a very cursory argument in defence of a major historical claim.

That the Iliad (and the figure of Achilles—who, Cahill has just informed us, is not the real hero of the poem, but at this stage of his argument that is, one assumes, beside the point) has played a role in our military history no one will deny.  But to make the quick leap to the conclusion that we owe the Powell Doctrine to this influence raises many more questions than it answers. After all, there’s a reason the Americans nicknamed George Washington Cincinnatus rather than Achilles or Alexander.  Perhaps there’s a case to be made that Roman or Christian military tactics were decisively shaped by the Greek tradition, but if there is, Cahill doesn’t make it here, as he himself acknowledges in a rather limp conclusion at odds with his previous assertiveness—maybe what he’s been saying is all nonsense and (quoting Dr. Seuss) events just “happened to happen.”

One also wonders why, if it’s a matter of one particularly important thing we have learned from a celebrated Greek writer (not a particular good way to proceed, in my view, but that’s what Cahill has decided to do), he overlooks the most obvious “lesson” of the Iliad and the Odyssey, both for the ancient Greeks themselves and for countless later readers, that is, the importance of “How to excel.”  For Homer, more than any other writer, established a tradition of excellence through individual competition in all facets of life as the basis for human virtue.  And many Western thinkers, including figures as different as John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Nietzsche, have drawn on that tradition (once it re-emerged with its authentic Greek voice) for very different purposes, as a way of countering the more powerful Western Christian tradition encouraging conformity and enforced equality. Cahill briefly acknowledges the importance of competitiveness later in the book, but in much too flippant a manner, given that it is central to the enormously important (and, via Aristotle, influential) notion of pagan virtue (he calls it the “fucker-fuckee” aspect of Greek life). Nor is he interested in pursuing what we may have learned from it.

Reinforcing this sense of some extremely cursory and misleading historical snap judgments is Cahill’s habit of trying to collapse the gap separating us from the Greeks by pithy comparisons to “modern” personalities. Perhaps this is an attempt to win over younger readers (although references to FDR, Cole Porter, Liza Minelli, and others make one wonder about just what readership he has in mind).  Perhaps that’s the reason he also likes to inject slang unnecessarily into his prose (statues with giant “schlongs,” philosophy degenerating into “yip yapping schools,” Christianity perceived as a “woo-woo wave,” and so on) and to go out of his way to emphasize that the Greeks were “classically classist, sexist, and racist” (which at times reads like his attempt to establish his credentials with a modern undergraduate readership). 

One senses his purpose here, as with his easy leaps to modern issues, is to make inexperienced readers feel more comfortable and at home with the ancient works.  But many of these books matter precisely because they are strange and different: they make us feel uncomfortable and challenge what we want to believe about ourselves.  We need to read them not because they have made us what we are but because they remind us of what we would prefer to ignore or forget about what we have become. 

After all, few things are more potentially disturbing to a complacent faith in a divinely providential history or its secular equivalents (and in our privileged position at the cutting edge of history) than an immersion in Greek tragic fatalism (something which helps to account for the fact that the longest lasting Western approach to the Greek legacy, from Origen right up to modern scholars and, in places, to Cahill himself, is ruthlessly to moralize disturbing pagan visions of tragic fate into reassuring Christian allegories of divine providence or punishment or consoling studies of maladjustment).  Perhaps that’s the reason why Cahill’s treatment of the stranger texts (Homer and the tragedians) is the least satisfactory part of the book and why he tends to fare better with those texts where our separation from the Greeks is less immediately evident (especially Plato).



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