Why Greece?

Yes, I should be writing my dissertation chapter, but this is a pertinent digression that I don’t want to lose track of. When I start missing deadlines I will listen critique of my method. Until then, meh. [1]

Even among other historians I sometimes get asked why I study Greece. I am not Greek, the relevance to modern society is at best limited, there aren’t jobs, it requires not just one or two modern languages, but also several dead languages. I generally just shrug off the questions by noting that I have studied other things, too, this is just the one that stuck. The reservations about difficulty and languages and relevance make some bit of difference, but they are technical questions, not ones that actually pertain to chose Greece. To wit, if I was on this path for money, I wouldn’t pursue history at all, and languages are not the boogeymen that people make them out to be.I have a love-hate relationship with languages, but the access to other cultures is a thrill– sometimes comparable to encouraged voyeurism.[2] I study–and learn–whatever interests me. So, why Greece? I don’t know, I just find it interesting.

But “it is interesting [to me]” is a cop-out answer. I was probably looking to cast myself as an indulgent man of letters or some equally antiquated and dramatic role, but “I don’t know” is all I really had. Until now, thereby making what follows the big reveal.

What I find (most) interesting about Greece are the discontinuities and paradoxes, the fissures and ironies, particularly in how Greece and Greeks are conceived of in the modern imagination. I like that the tradition, perpetuated by the Greeks themselves, tends towards the universal, while there was such diversity in experiences that the particulars often bear little resemblance to the universal. I like the political satire. I like the language that has such deep shades of meaning, even if that can take extra time to translate. I like the stories preserved in the literature and the histories, from a culture that straddled the divide between many of the complexities of civilization that resonate with a modern audience (currency, criminal courts, constitutions, democracy, etc) and “primitivism” and “backward credulity.”

All of these issues appear in other cultures and other times, but it is the way in which they converge in Greece that continues to fascinate me. The treatment of Greece as either as the foundation of Western civilization or as an integral piece in the teleological march from the dawn of mankind to the modern Western European/American world seems to have glossed over the incongruities–”Greece” is a cut gem in the crown of history, alongside “Egypt,” “Rome,” and the rest. But it seems to me that while those other gems are no less faceted and flawed, they are more accurately described as a single gem. “Greece” is, at best, a dozen polished rocks loosely bound together to resemble a single gem. Perhaps I carried my metaphor a step too far, but this tension is one of the main things that I keep coming back to when thinking about Greece.

The fragmentary nature of Greece is also one of the areas in which I find particular relevance to the modern world, but that is a topic for another day.

[1] The good, writerly words have all been appropriated for other sentences. What is left is “meh.”
[2] I don’t consider myself good at languages by any stretch of the imagination, either, though I have some level of comfort reading five languages other than English. Too, each one has been easier than the last, not just because they are related, but because I have managed to pick up enough grammar along the way to fit the puzzle pieces together. I still need a dictionary most of the time.

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