The Greek Search for Wisdom

  • Michael K. Kelloggm H, Historical
  • Prometheus
  • 331 pp.
  • September 20, 2012

In providing summaries and critical evaluation of literary masterworks of the Western tradition, the author motivates knowledgeable readers to revisit Western classics and to encourage newcomers to explore them for the first time.

Reviewed by Robert Swan

One aspect of the so-called Culture Wars of the 1990s involved the question of whether it is best to focus the education of youth in America on the glories of European — and by extension, American — civilization, or to broaden their minds by focusing instead on the diverse contributions of other nations. Rhetorical vitriol was flung with gusto. At the extremes, the debate became sordid and silly. Those supporting the European side of the question were accused of everything from atavistic cultural chauvinism to racism; multiculturalists were accused of post-modern relativity and an unwillingness to face the (supposed) fact that the non-European world’s contribution to art, science, political philosophy and, well, everything, was virtually nil.

Though Michael Kellogg does not weigh in on this debate, his introduction provides some clues to where his sympathies lie. He reminds us of Flaubert’s comment that “When I read Shakespeare, I become greater, wiser, purer,” and then goes on to note that “the same could be said of other writers and thinkers in the Western tradition — from Homer to Joyce, from Hesiod to Montaigne, from Aeschylus to Goethe, from Herodotus to Gibbon … .” Quoting Matthew Arnold, Kellogg suggests that one can take the measure of human wisdom and explore “the best which has been thought and said in the world” by exploring these works. The idea that we are made greater, wiser and purer by reading any of these authors sits uncomfortably with the knowledge that some of history’s worst scoundrels were voracious consumers of Western culture. Additionally, it is an open question as to whether “the best that has been thought and said” is encompassed exclusively by Western literature, drama, philosophy, or works of history. But we will leave these questions aside.

This book is envisaged as the first in a series that will “cover the masterworks of the Western tradition,” from Homer to Joyce “and perhaps beyond.” The authors considered in the volume under review are Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Herodotus, Thucydides, Aristophanes, Plato and Aristotle. Kellogg is too clever to try to cover all the works of all these authors in a 331-page book. Where an author is known for more than one great work — for example, the multiple plays of Aristophanes or the multiple dialogues of Plato — Kellogg chooses to focus on key works, or key themes expressed in multiple works.

The book begins with a serviceable, accurate survey of the cultural, social, political and economic context of Greece from the Homeric period to the fifth century B.C.E. Kellogg then provides clear, thorough, largely accurate capsule summaries of the major works in question, bracketed by critical evaluations at the beginning and end; these evaluations are by far the best and most useful part of the book. Kellogg has obviously read deeply and with immense insight and sympathy the major works of the Western Canon. The author is clearly aware of the broad currents of tradition in literature, drama, philosophy and history and invokes a veritable sea of scholarly analysis from some of the top names in classics, history and literary criticism. Bernard Knox and Harold Bloom, among others, seem to be favorites. He explores the nexus between social and historical situations and the way literature connects with both. Well-chosen quotations are used to illustrate main points, and the author connects ancient Greek authors with more modern ones; Shakespeare is a touchstone. Unfortunately, the book ends a bit abruptly and could use a summary section tying some of the major themes and authors together.

Kellogg has synthesized a great deal of scholarship, and summarized it for us, for which we should be grateful, but I confess that while reading the book I found myself wondering why, aside from the critical nuggets embedded in the descriptive narrative, one should bother reading the summaries of these works at all. They tell us what the book or play or poem contains, so why not simply read the works themselves, which is what the author tells us in his introduction he wants to persuade us to do. Critical summaries of all these works abound, and most credible editors provide substantive scholarly and critical analysis.

Additionally, in glossing these works, Kellogg occasionally generalizes where more subtlety is required. For example, in a small masterpiece of concision he expresses the basic difference between the Platonic and Aristotelian conception of the philosopher:

“For Plato, the philosopher stands on the ladder of love, poised halfway between man and god. He seeks a life of self-sufficiency and pure logos (reason), divorced from the demands of his state, his family, and even his own body. Plato’s image of the philosopher could not be farther from that of Aristotle, for whom those very roles — as an individual with normal appetites, as the head of a household, and as a member of a political community — define us as human beings. Aristotle seeks not an ascent, not a sublimation of desire, but a circle of ever deeper understanding and mastery of what is already known.”

This is good as far as it goes, but it ignores a vital aspect of the Platonic program: the philosopher is to become the Philosopher King, and is expected to govern the state in all its aspects. This is a far cry from being “divorced from the demands of the state,” though Kellogg’s main insight — that Aristotle’s conception of the philosopher is much more down to earth and practical than Plato’s — is certainly valid, and points to a key difference in the thought of the two men. Given that the final manuscript was reviewed and commented upon by some scholarly heavy-hitters, including Victor Davis Hanson, Charles Fried, and Peter Huber, who am I — or any of us — to quibble? The lapse (if it is that) apparently passes muster.

And Kellogg really does have some fine moments in this book. For example, he provides an excellent overview of Aristophanes’ place in the dramatic tradition of Ancient Greece, of comedy’s relationship to tragedy and drama and poetry’s role in helping us live a good life. He also does a wonderful job putting Aristophanes’ plays into the context of the Peloponnesian War, showing how these comedies were searing critical reflections on the potential for stupidity, cupidity and blundering of Greek politicians and, one is given to remark, of politicians everywhere (has anything changed today?).

Should we be concerned about Kellogg’s lack of multicultural sensitivity? Not really. He is exploring one tradition, not arguing for the exclusivity of its value, the quote from Matthew Arnold notwithstanding. It’s the tradition he knows and evidently loves. His goal in writing the book, he tells us, was to motivate us to revisit old favorites among the Western classics, or to sample them for the first time. I’m willing to bet that after reading this book, you’ll want to do just that.

Robert Swan teaches history and philosophy in the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.

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