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The Greeks who sailed before us
Echoes of classical Greece are all around us. A short list of influences would include our vocabulary; the roots of sciences and mathematics; culture and the arts; and even the role of the military. American democracy did not derive directly from Greece, but Athenian political ideals, had a significant impact on Enlightenment thought.
Using a wide range of sources, Thomas Cahill gives us a sophisticated, gracefully written introduction to this subject in Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. The latest in the author's internationally best-selling Hinges of History series skillfully combines history and carefully chosen excerpts from the works of Homer, Plato, Sappho, Pericles and others with insightful commentary. The underlying question for the Presocratics (the philosophers before Socrates and Plato) was "what is the nature of reality?" Their quest for an answer helped create such disciplines as philosophy, theology, the physical sciences, psychology, political science and ethics.
The author is keenly aware of the negative and contradictory aspects of life that lay behind such achievements. "One needn't sail the wine-dark sea for long before realizing that the classical Greeks were classically classist, sexist and racist." At its height, the population of Athens was probably not more than 250,000. It is likely that slaves made up 40 percent of that number and that metics (resident aliens in Athens for trading purposes) were also close to 40 percent, leaving a citizen population of just over 20 percent. For those citizens, Cahill argues, "Athens, the world's first attempt at democracy, still stands out as the most wildly participatory government in history."
Cahill's enthusiasm for the subject is contagious. His discussion leaves no doubt that "whatever we experience in our day, whatever we hope to learn, whatever we most desire, whatever we set out to find, we see that the Greeks have been there before us, and we meet them on the way back." Readers will find Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea both satisfying and enjoyable.