© 1950 HDF Kitto
HDF Kitto’s history of the Greeks came highly recommended to me by another author, and I found it utterly delightful. Here we have history written not by an archaeologist, but by a classicist whose head is brimming over with the life of his subject, who knows not only their stories but their language. Kitto begins with a political overview, from the first settlers to the rise of Alexander the Great, before covering the Greek mind in philosophy and myth. Kitto brings to this little history great affection for his subject, praising the Greeks despite their faults, as he might a friend. His style makes the reading enjoyable — affable, readily knowledgeable, and with just the right amount of wry self-deprecation.
Most fundamentally, Kitto appreciates the Greeks for their rustic well-roundness. They valued autarchy, not specialization, which was one of the reasons their governance often filled important positions with amateurs, choosing citizens by ballot to assume offices. Related to this is the Greek concept of the polis; for them, the polis wasn’t merely a city in which they lived, it was the community through which they fulfilled human nature itself. The polis was a place in full, supplying its own needs, just as the people it created were men in full. Odyessus, the king of Ithaca, prides himself not on his palace but on his straight furrows: he is a farmer first, a man whose own hands produce works he can take pride in. Greek appreciation for the fullness of the human condition is exemplified by art and philosophy which took the body seriously, delighted in the senses while never forgetting the higher things. (Plato would change things, of course, with a dualism that scorned the flesh.) If we condemn them for not abandoning the free nature of the poleis for a greater empire, Kitto warns his readers, then we should consider how the Soviets view the west. We have refused their planned society in the name of our liberty, so did the Greeks. And when we hail the Greeks, is it Alexander’s underlings we have in mind? Or is the multitude of men who flourished in Ionia and Athens’ golden age? There’s a trace of sadness with Kitto; having judged postwar England against Athens, he finds it inferior — not in material terms, but in those of human flourishing. Specialization brings with it enormous material prosperity, but men are narrower, less experienced with life in the main; lost is the Greek man in full, one who could farm and think and craft and love, who put to the test every sinew of his body and mind. GK Chesterton and Wendell Berry’s judgment of modernity is much the same.