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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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Page 5

The Simplicity of Athenian Life


    It is clear we are entering a city where nine tenths of what the twentieth century will consider the "essential conveniences" of life are entirely lacking; where men are trying to be civilized—or, as the Greeks would say, to lay hold upon "the true, the beautiful, and the good," without even the absolute minimum of those things which people of a later age will believe separate a "civilized man" from a "barbarian." The gulf between old Athens and, for instance, new Chicago is greater than is readily supposed.[5] It is easy enough to say that the Athenians lacked such things as railways, telephones, gas, grapefruit, and cocktails. All such matters we realize were not known by our fathers and grandfathers, and we are not yet so removed from them that we cannot transport ourselves in imagination back to the world of say 1820 A.D.; but the Athenians are far behind even our grandfathers. When we investigate, we will find conditions like these—houses absolutely without plumbing, beds without sheets, rooms as hot or as cold as the outer air, only far more drafty. We must cross rivers without bridges; we must fasten our clothes (or rather our "two pieces of cloth") with two pins instead of with a row of buttons; we must wear sandals without stockings (or go barefoot); must warm ourselves over a pot of ashes; judge plays or lawsuits on a cold winter morning sitting in the open air; we must study poetry with very little aid from books, geography without real maps, and politics without newspapers; and lastly, "we must learn how to be civilized without being comfortable!"[6]

    Or, to reverse the case: we must understand that an Athenian would have pronounced our boasted "civilization" hopelessly artificial, and our life so dependent on outward material props and factors as to be scarcely worth the living. He would declare himself well able to live happily under conditions where the average American or Englishman would be cold, semi-starved, and miserable. He would declare that his woe or happiness was retained far more under his own control than we retain ours, and that we are worthy of contemptuous pity rather than of admiration, because we have refined our civilization to such a point that the least accident, e.g. the suspension of rail traffic for a few days, can reduce a modern city to acute wretchedness.

    Probably neither the twentieth century in its pride, nor the fourth century B.C. in its contempt, would have all the truth upon its side.[7] The difference in viewpoint, however, must still stand. Preëminently Athens may be called the "City of the Simple Life." Bearing this fact in mind, we may follow the multitude and enter the Marketplace; or, to use the name that stamps it as a peculiarly Greek institution,—the Agora.


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