When Karl Barth was at the height of his fame and productivity in the years between 1930 and 1960 and making neo–orthodoxy the dominant force in Protestant thought, another trend in theology was competing for the attention of the public. Sometimes known as the history–of–salvation school and sometimes as the biblical theology movement, this school of thought—like Barth’s theology—roundly dismissed natural theology and philosophical proofs for the existence of God. Instead, it too elevated revelation as the sole norm and all–judging criterion for Christian theology.
But unlike Barth’s own attack on natural theology, this school tended to cluster the two foci of theology, reason and revelation, into specific historical cultures. Almost echoing Tertullian’s famous sneer, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”, the biblical theology movement tended to belittle Greek civilization while praising Hebrew religion to the skies. But it went further: it also usually claimed to describe something called a Hebrew mindset that was, so it claimed, inherently more suited to receiving revelation than was the Hellenic outlook. And often enough this mindset was to be found lurking in the esoteric features of Hebrew grammar and syntax, a language supposedly far superior to Greek for receiving God’s word.
Given Barth’s own towering influence in these years, many knowledgeable observers saw similarities between his theology and this, so to speak, “neo–Tertullianism.” Not surprisingly, many advocates in the biblical theology camp were quick to point out these apparent “elective affinities,” even to the extent of claiming Barth in support of their views. Barth himself, however, would have none of it. In an insufficiently noticed passage in the Church Dogmatics (III/2, 283–285), he had this to say of these advocates:
A certain agitation among theo logians in the past few decades against Greek culture has not been a good thing. With their emphasis on eros, the Greeks understood that man is a free, openhearted, willing, spontaneous, cheerful, bright, and social being. . . . No other nation of antiquity, not even the chosen people of Israel, was granted the privilege of displaying so fully what humanity as an unbroken continuum means. . . . The agape of the Christian would not be what it claims to be if it remains hidden to the transparency of Greek eros. When someone schooled in Hellenic culture encounters the Christian, he should feel a sense of solidarity to the very roots of his erotic being.
Even though Bruce Thornton does not cite Karl Barth anywhere in his book Greek Ways, and indeed only glancingly refers to Christianity at all, his remarkable essay on our debt to the Greeks may be taken as an extended commentary on Barth’s appreciation for the culture of Hellas. For the author has set out to counter a recent trend in the secular academy that bears uncanny parallels to the biblical theology movement of the postwar period. This time, of course, the professional Greek–bashers are not attacking Hellenic civilization in the name of the Hebrew Bible. Quite the contrary, their motivation seems to be a kind of Rousseauian primitivism: no civilization can dare be regarded as superior to any other on the globe, no matter how remarkable its achievements or beneficial its legacy.
For Thornton, this attitude resembles Hegel’s famous night in which all the cows look black, for it refuses to engage each civilization on its own terms by taking account of its unique features. But worse yet, not only does it distort the historical record, this criticism of Greek civilization also hides within itself a bad–faith resentment against the contemporary West, very much including its reverence for the critical intellect:
Ultimately, however, the greatest testimony to the “Greek spirit” so oft derided by the postmodernist or multiculturalist critic is the critic himself, whose life and mind are what they are because of the Greeks. . . . He is free to speak his mind and to criticize the very culture that makes him what he is. And that is the greatest irony: for the spirit of criticism that among so many academics has fossilized into a pose has its origins nowhere but among the Greeks, who were the first to question critically everything from the gods to political power to their very selves, the first to live what Socrates called “the examined life.” . . . As Victor Hanson and John Heath write, “Not one of the multicultural classicists really wishes to live under indigenous pre–Colombian ideas of government, Arabic protocols for female behavior, Chinese canons of medical ethics, Islamic traditions of church and state, African approaches to science, Japanese ideas of race, Indian social castes, or Native American notions of private property.”
Such a passage might make it seem that the author is enveloping himself in a hazy interpretative glow, a kind of miasma that can see only the bright, cheerful, and humane side of Greek culture—the very mode of hyper–appreciation that has led to the decline in reputation that now afflicts such amateur admirers of Hellenism as Edith Hamilton. As early as 1950 E. R. Dodds had exploded the earlier received wisdom that saw only the serenity of classical lines and humane rationality in Hellenic culture. After his seminal book The Greeks and the Irrational appeared, with its depictions of blood rituals, chthonic deities of revenge, haruspicy, and so forth, who would presume to return to the naiveté of Hamilton, especially by claiming a Greek superiority in the arts of civilization?
Admittedly, at times, Thornton does seem to paint with rather too broad a brush, as when he claims that the Greeks alone recognized the horrors of war while the Assyrians and Egyptians glorified bloodlust and patriotic gore (the braggings of tyrants inscribed on stone monuments hardly can be said to capture the attitude of the folk). But for the most part, the author admits the evils embedded in Greek civilization, among which one can easily name the constricted life of most women, the demagoguery of so many politicians, and worst of all the degradation of the slave’s life (he quotes the medical writer Galen who once saw an owner poke his slave’s eye out with a reed pen).
And here Thornton’s eye for distinctions surpasses that of the postmodern Greek–bashers. For example, at one point he quotes the distinguished historian of ancient science G. E. R. Lloyd, who said of Greek science: “Much as the Egyptians and Babylonians contributed to the content of these studies, the investigations only acquire self–conscious methodologies for the first time with the Greeks.” For Thornton, this heuristic innovation in fact holds true of Greek culture across the board:
Critical consciousness and its public expression were what most differentiated the Greeks from their neighbors, even when their own actual behavior was typical of other ancient peoples. All humans are sexual, but only the Greeks thought through so completely the meaning and implications of our sexuality. All societies in the ancient world kept slaves, but only a Greek said, “Nature created no one a slave.” . . . All ancients subjected women to subordinate roles and limited their lives, but only the Greeks put on the public stage intelligent, courageous, magnificent women who more often than not morally dwarfed the petty men around them, and who made trenchant commentaries on their unfair treatment, thus making possible a critical review of masculine assumptions and prejudices. Most ancient peoples made war against their neighbors, but only the Greeks publicly sympathized with the suffering of their enemies, as Aeschylus did in the Persians, before an audience including many who had fought the Persians or had lost loved ones to them.
Thornton cites an abundance of literature to show how deeply the Greeks felt about the sufferings—the sheer pointless sufferings—brought in the wake of war. But unlike the often sentimentalized views of modern pacifists, the Greeks never lost sight of the other side of war: its frequent necessity. Indeed they could face the harsh realities of war so realistically precisely because war for them was such a constant of their reality:
We should not expect to find antiwar sentiment in Greek thought. Pacifism is the transitory luxury of a people whose security has been earned by the bravery and militarism of earlier generations. . . . In the actual Iron Age world, war was considered a nonnegotiable constant of human life, a necessity deriving from the innate violence and greed of humans or from the scarcity of resources in a harsh natural world. Thus Plato said, “Every city is in a natural state of war with every other.”
One cannot finish this well–written and pleasantly accessible defense of Hellenic civilization without wondering if the fierce resentment against Attic superiority (and Thornton quotes a great deal of such resentful scholarship in the early chapters) does not conceal a closet nihilism—a hostility to the light of Being first honored and brought to expression by the Greek philosophers. Do we really hate ourselves and the human condition that much? At all events, Thornton has not just performed a needed service to the world of higher education. He has also proved once more the truth of what Europe’s greatest historian of the Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt, said at the onset of modern nihilism in the late nineteenth century: “It is for this reason that posterity needs to study the Greeks: if we ignore them we are simply accepting our own decline.”
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., has just translated Josef Pieper’s The Concept of Sin for St. Augustine’s Press.