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Some Foundations of the Western Tradition

If you're like most people, there are many aspects of our society that you may take for granted, but the taking-away of which would really upset you. For instance, consider modern medicine, the civilian control of the military, separation of church and state. Many of these cherished institutions, customs, and developments derive directly from the Greeks and Romans. The ancient world may have been a bad and backward place in some ways, but it is the Greeks and Romans who gave us the tools and values we needed to move forward. Admire other cultures --- this is necessary and worthwhile. But understand your own roots first --- both the power and the peril inherent in them.

Here are some foundations of the Western tradition that we derive from the Greeks and Romans, as set forth by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath in Who Killed Homer?. The following points are all direct quotes.

Hanson and Heath argue passionately that there is a real difference between classical civilization and others, and that it does matter whether we study these differences, whether we're aware of the debt we owe to the Greeks and the Romans, whether we understand why they made the choices they did and why our own civilizations have followed them in those choices.

To quote one of their better passages:

When the Pharaohs were still massively coercing labor to erect their own elaborate tombs, when the Great King of Persia was building palaces for himself and temples for the gods into which no commoner could step, the Greeks were constructing gymnasia, theaters, law-courts, public dockyards, markets, and assembly places for their own lowly citizens. That is a different reality and can be evaluated on absolute criteria. There was no Pyramid of Pericles, no Great Palace of Epaminondas, no mummified Aristides. Giza and Persepolis are still beautiful and they are monuments to the ingenious marshaling of human and material capital, but they are also testaments of how and why that labor and treasure were used---and for whom. Again, whose values are "crumbling"?.... The study of the ancient Mediteranean reminds us that as Greeks were competing for honor in the polis through public office, liturgy, and group sacrifice in battle, the Celts and Scythians were collecting the heads of fallen enemies to use as drinking cups.... True, the Greeks were still "barbarously" slitting the throats of domesticated animals in their cults; but the tree-worshipping Druids took omens from the squirming of blood-spattering human victims stabbed at the stake, and the Carthaginians burned children alive in ritual holocausts. We are not praising the Greeks by tearing down other cultures; but it is surely high time that Classicists at American universities realized that there are real differences between the West and the non-West, that we take for granted these differences every day of our lives...

In Who Killed Homer? Hanson and Heath discuss in great detail the things which make Western culture unique and which endow it with both value and peril. Click on the book at right to order a copy.
Review of Who Killed Homer in Bryn Mawr Classical Review by Beye
Review of Who Killed Homer in Bryn Mawr Classical Review by Connolly
Hanson & Heath's Response to these two Reviews