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Remembering Edith Hamilton

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By JUDE P. DOUGHERTY

The first edition of Edith Hamilton’s The Echo of Greece appeared in 1957, the same year in which she was made an honorary citizen of Athens, at age ninety. The book reflected a lifetime of study that had found its first expression in two works published as The Greek Way (1930) and The Roman Way (1932). Given the low estate of higher learning in the United States, these works, taken together, are perhaps more relevant today than when they were first published. The Greek Way began with these words:
“When the world is storm driven and the bad that happens and the worst that threatens are so urgent as to shut out everything else from view, then we need to know all the strong fortresses of the spirit which men have built through the ages. The eternal perspective of being blotted out, and the judgment of immediate issues will go wrong unless we bring them back.”
First, a few words about this remarkable lady. Born in Dresden, Saxony, present-day Germany, in 1867, Edith Hamilton grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind. After earning a master’s degree at Bryn Mawr College in 1894, she was granted a two-year fellowship for study abroad, which she used in the company of Alice, a younger sister, for study, first at Leipzig, and then at Munich. Apparently she was the first woman to be enrolled at the University of Munich.
Upon returning to the United States, she was made headmistress of the Bryn Mawr School for Girls in Baltimore. After twenty-six years of service she retired to devote herself to research and writing. In addition to the three works mentioned above, she published others, under titles such as The Prophets of Israel, Witness to Truth: Christ and His Interpreters, and Mythology, not to mention numerous articles, reviews, and translations of Greek plays. She died in Washington in 1963, at the age of 96.
Widely acknowledged as a classicist, Hamilton was the recipient of honorary degrees from the University of Rochester, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University. Fort Wayne acknowledged her achievement and that of her sister, Alice, who became the first woman to be appointed to Harvard University’s medical school for her work in toxicology and industrial medicine.
The city in which the two grew up acknowledged its two famous daughters by erecting statues of Edith and Alice in the city’s Headwaters Park.
“The kind of events that once took place will by reason of human nature take place again.” So wrote Thucydides at the end of the Peloponnesian War. In Edith Hamilton’s account, fifth-century BC Athens showed what free men working together could bring to pass: She achieved balance between freedom and union, something that has eluded many present states in the Western world.
Early in that century Greece was confronted by a great Eastern power on the march to invade her. The Greek’s peril from the East, Edith Hamilton relates, was a perpetual menace. East and West were natural antagonists. No defeat of the East could ever be final, given the vast stretch of Asia overflowing with treasure and with men. Western civilization at that time meant Greece. Egypt had fallen into powerless decay. Carthage at that time, the third great power, belonged to the East. Rome was preoccupied conquering Italy.
To the Greeks of that day, their most precious possession, freedom, the distinguishing mark between East and West, was in jeopardy.
Even in Athens’ decline under Macedonian and Roman rule in the following century, Hamilton notes, the Athenian citizen had true freedom. Never was freedom of speech restricted, not even in times most perilous when the enemy was advancing to the very walls of the city. The Greek wrote and spoke Greek. So too did Epictetus, the Roman slave, and Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor. They wrote in Greek, not because it was fashionable at the time, but because they wanted to express Greek thoughts.
Fundamental to the Greek mind was the conviction that the common good is possible only if men are free in body, mind, and spirit, and if each man limits his own freedom. A good state, work of art, or piece of thinking is possible only through the self-limitation of the free individual. That is a lesson Hamilton seemingly would have us learn.
James Madison, whose words and deeds were vital to interpreting the U.S. Constitution, and who in the Federalist Papers (1787) spoke of “the capacity of self-government,” Hamilton declares, was a statesman in the Athenian spirit. “No doubt,” she writes, “Madison had never any idea that he was speaking Greek. Athens and [its greatest statesman] Solon were not even in the farthest background of his mind, but as Aristotle said, the excellent becomes permanent. Once seen, it is never completely lost; somewhere in this or that man’s thought, it lives in the forgotten world of action.”
Turn now from antiquity to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Modern philosophy in repudiating classical philosophy has brought a great change to the intellectual and artistic atmosphere we now inhabit. “Plato’s influence through all the centuries up to our own was immensely strong. Platonic philosophy aimed at turning mankind away from baseness, ‘to lift up the soul,’ which is renewed by and strengthened by the love of the good, the true, the beautiful,” writes Hamilton.
Man must desire to be like God, Hamilton affirms, so far as nature allows. In all the great periods of art, the artist looked at the world as the Creator did, and found it good. The artist’s intent was to share that vision. With the arrival of Freud, the outer world ceased to be important. Self-knowledge became the key to truth. Plato’s soul, waiting in wonder and reverence for what God shall reveal, ceased to be. Absurdities in the field of art followed the absurd in philosophy.
Comparing the Greek and Roman mind, Hamilton favors the Greek for its individualism and freedom, as contrasted with the Roman, given its propensity to authoritarianism. She regrets that the Catholic Church chose the Roman rather than the Greek way, and attributes some of its medieval failings to its choice of the former.
Pointedly, she remarks, in the history of Athens, only Socrates was put to death (and painlessly) for his teaching; the Romans hung Christ on the cross. Through examples and emphasis she leaves no doubt that Greek philosophy prepares one for the adoption of Christianity. Stoicism brings us even closer to Christ, she affirms. Clement of Alexandria would agree.

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