Friday, June 18, 2004

Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives

Review by Harry Eyres

"What you can get from the Classics (though I doubt this holds for Troy or Alexander) is a uniquely illuminating perspective on the world and on yourself - a marvellously valuable way of seeing the wood for the trees. The degree of illumination, for westerners, is different from that gained by studying a completely alien culture because the Classical world or worlds are the western world in embryo.

That is the message of a racy new book by Cambridge professor of Greek, Simon Goldhill (Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives). He begins by quoting the Greek actress and culture minister, Melina Mercouri, at a conference: "I must first say few words [sic] of Greek: democracy. Politics. Mathematics. Theatre." She might have added poetry, tragedy, physics, philosophy. The fact is that most of our big words are Greek.

The pleasure and excitement of Classics for me is that of going back to the source - a mental equivalent of the 19th-century search for the sources of the Nile. Closer to the source everything seems clearer, fresher, less polluted, more dramatic (another Greek word). For example, what it is to be a human being, a citizen, a theatre-lover. Perhaps because the Greeks invented so many of the central disciplines and practices of western culture and society, they used them as if they mattered."

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