Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Sailing The Wine Dark Sea

By Thomas Cahill
Review by Joy Connolly

Thomas Cahill's ''Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea'' is the fourth book in a best-selling series that treats Western history as a long chain of gift-giving to the world, where the gifts are art, literature, political and moral values, science and philosophy. He is a talented writer, and his tour of Greek culture is a triumph of popularization: extraordinarily knowledgeable, informal in tone, amusing, wide-ranging, smartly paced. We learn much from him about Greek achievements, from Homer's epic vision to the importance of free speech, from the development of the disciplined war machine the Greeks called the phalanx to Plato's love of reason. Cahill has produced an updated version of Edith Hamilton's beloved ''Greek Way'' of 75 years ago, one that is much more sensitive to the Greeks' oppression of women and uncritical endorsement of slavery, their tinges of xenophobia and the fearsome nature of their war making. But -- and this is a significant exception -- to point out that good and important things were achieved in the past doesn't show why they matter now.

This may seem an ungenerous reaction to a book that does great service to classical culture and those who teach it. But right here, right now in American history, the promise of his subtitle, ''Why the Greeks Matter,'' carries a heavier burden than Cahill is willing to acknowledge.
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