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ELPENOR - Home of the Greek Word

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Arnold Toynbee 
Ancient Greek History and the West

From, A. Toynbee, History,
in R.W. Livingstone (ed.), The Legacy of Greece, Oxford University Press, 1921.













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This description of the relationship between Ancient Greece and the modern Western world may be something more than a metaphor, for societies like individuals are living creatures, and may therefore be expected to exhibit the same phenomena. At any rate the metaphor illustrates the facts. To begin with, the histories of the two societies overlap. The origins of modern Western society may be traced back a century or two before the Christian era, when the lands and races of Western Europe came into contact with the Levant, where Greek society had grown up and was then in its maturity. The germ of Western society first developed in the body of Greek society, like a child in the womb. The Roman Empire was the period of pregnancy during which the new life was sheltered and nurtured by the old. The 'Dark Age' was the crisis of birth, in which the child broke away from its parent and emerged as a separate, though naked and helpless, individual. The Middle Ages were the period of childhood, in which the new creature, though immature, found itself able to live and grow independently. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with their marked characteristics of transition, may stand for puberty, and the centuries since the year 1500 for our prime. The metaphor works out sufficiently well to throw light on our particular problem: the legacy bequeathed to the Modern West by Ancient Greece.

Children 'inherit' from their parents in several senses of the word. There are features and instincts physically transmitted from the one to the other. There are imitations in early childhood of the parent's speech and gesture which are not perhaps strictly predetermined by the relationship, but which are yet performed subconsciously and are in fact so inevitable that the child is never aware that it is exercising choice in the matter. And there is deliberate and conscious imitation at a later stage when the child is sufficiently mature to appreciate its parent's character. These several forms of 'legacy' from parent to child differ primarily in the extent to which the acceptance and use of them depends upon the child's own will, and it will probably be admitted that the legacies which are the less certain to be transmitted are also the more important if the transmission happens to take place. For example, a child's life and character are more affected by deliberate imitation of its parent at a relatively advanced age than by the unchosen inheritance of some particular colour of hair and eye or shape of chin or pitch of temperament. On the other hand, while the inheritance of these latter characteristics from one among a limited number of ancestral strains is inevitable, the voluntary legacy may never be transmitted at all. The child will not claim it unless he knows his parent and admires or respects him. The parent's premature death or removal or the lack of sufficient sympathy between the parent and the child can in this case inhibit the transmission, and the potential legacy, with its momentous possibilities of influence upon the child's career, will never in fact be bequeathed.

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Cf. A History of Ancient Greece * Ancient Greek Political Theory * Greek History Resources
Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome
A History of Greek Philosophy * Greek Orthodoxy - From Apostolic Times to the Present Day

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Greek Literature - Ancient, Medieval, Modern

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