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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.













Page 3

These considerations may guide us in an analysis of the legacy which we have received from our parent society—the civilization of Ancient Greece. First, has Ancient Greece transmitted to us anything comparable to the physical and psychological legacy of an individual human parent to her child? This is a difficult question for us to answer, just as it is difficult for members of the same family to appreciate the 'family likeness' between them. A Moslem or Hindu or Chinaman could judge better than we. But it is certainly possible that the comparative similarity of climatic conditions and the comparative unity of racial stock has created a closer relationship between these two societies than between either one of them and any other. The poetry and philosophy and social life and political institutions of Ancient Greece and the Modern West may conceivably constitute a single species when contrasted with the institutions of other civilizations. A modern West European or American may have a greater innate appreciation for Homer than for the Old Testament or for Sokrates than for Buddha or Confucius. The parallel which historians so often draw, or imply, between the conflict of Ancient Greece with the Ancient East and that of the Modern West with the Modern East may rest on a real kinship between the two Occidental civilizations as contrasted with their respective Oriental neighbours. But this is uncertain and on the whole unprofitable ground. When we come to the 'subconsciously chosen' type of legacy, the analogy with the relationship between parent and child becomes more evident.

Legacies of this type from Ancient Greek society are prominent in the Middle Ages—the childhood of modern Western civilization which followed the 'Dark Age' crisis of birth. One of the first needs of our young Western society as it struggled to its feet was a symbol of its unity—something corresponding to the attainment of self-consciousness by the individual human being—and for this it borrowed the last constructive idea of the Ancient Greek world. The mediaeval 'Holy Roman Empire' had quite a different purpose and function, in the childhood of modern Western civilization, from the purpose and function of the Roman Empire in the old age of Ancient Greece. But the young civilization did not think of inventing a new institution for its individual needs. In its subconscious pursuit of its own development it conceived itself to be reviving one of the customs of its venerable parent. The political thinkers of Charlemagne's day never imagined that the idea of world unity could be embodied in any other form.

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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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