Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why The Greeks Matter, by Thomas Cahill, read by John Lee, Books on Tape, Inc., 2003
I rather thought, when I picked this book up, that it would provide a great number of little known facts about the Greeks, that it would draw clearly the often hidden connections modern life has to the earliest democracy, and that Cahill would underline the importance of studying Greek culture for what it can teach us today. Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter is not really that book. In fact, Cahill’s book is really a quick dip in the bath of well-known Greek history and art, a cultural CliffNotes.
Cahill, who became pop-famous for his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, detailing how Irish monasteries kept up writing and copying manuscripts throughout the Dark Ages, has parlayed that success into a series of pop histories he names Hinges of History. These hinges are points in which the whole world could have gone one way or the other and why they fell the way they did. Hinges hold up doors; they should slam this one shut. At no point does Cahill demonstrate that this moment constitutes a hinge nor does he actually go about proving that the Greeks matter.
Does he show us how we can use Greek thought in the current world? No. Does he dig up forgotten Greek wisdom of some staggering utility for now? No. What he does is jog through the history and culture of a time and occasionally mention how that notion sure came in handy once upon a time.
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea spends a great, great deal of its length quoting liberally, using Homer’s epic poems (replete with deus ex machina out the wazoo and anachronisms up the ying yang) as though they were historical documents on par with Thucydidies — who he also ladles out with heavy hand. For this mythical leaning one can thank his Jesuit upbringing/education which does the same thing substituting the Bible for The Iliad. As the book progresses, Cahill lifts from Joyce, Auden, Tennyson, and every third Greek writer of note, padding out the thinness of his own ideas with poignant bits of poetry.
In fact, each chapter starts with a sizable bit of Ovid or Homer or Hesiod’s Theogeny or any number of other Greek works. While this makes the book easier for non-experts, accessible in the parlance of the day, as well as demonstrates how the Greeks have reached up through time to influence us, it suggests that Cahill has less to say than one might imagine.
When Cahill discusses the origins of the alphabet, first a Semitic-Phoenician accounting tool, then with vowels added by the Greeks, there are rather interesting tidbits and I smacked my lips in pleasure. This was all I got, however, tidbits. The book lacks anything like scope of ideology, just sampling here and there from the Greek culture platter.
For tidbits, we are treated to this fact: the earliest Greek inscription currently known is on the side of a cup and notes that the finest dancer will receive the cup as a prize. Cahill comments that this differs from the furrowed brow of the believer (the Jews) and the green-eye shade hardness of the accountant (the Phoenicians), the two previous possessors of language. Irreverence makes its first recorded appearance at 700BCE on a cup inscription recommending drinking and fucking. The more you learn of Greek history, the more it seems that had the Greeks remained dominant, Western society would sure be a lot more fun.
Cahill takes a moment here to laud Greece’s phonetic alphabet innovations as being the seed-germ of enlightenment. His observation that if we wrote in cuneiform today we’d still have slavery is hard to argue against, as it is so filled with supposition that there is no point in even making the observation. It’s like suggesting that if we drank more wine we’d have fewer reality TV shows. You can not prove such an argument nor can you prove it’s faulty. It’s a Jesuitical fallacy one wishes Cahill’s editor had sliced from his reasoning or at least his teachers had drummed out of him lo those many years ago.
As a natural result of discussing alphabets, Sailing sails on to literature, where Cahill skims the surface a good deal and never dives deep into this wine-dark sea. Instead, he suggests that we shouldn’t take the comedy of a society as a good representation of the morality of a society, yet he makes no end of other kinds of literature, such as epics and epithalamia. This is simply the intellectual abuse of comedy that I’ve grown increasingly tired of the older I’ve gotten, the kind of commentary exposes an author’s narrow thinking. If comedy is of no use in determining morality — after all, what is funnier than pricking pompous moralists and shocking delicate sensibilities? — then neither are epics or any other form of literature. One just might as well have said that abstract painting is no way to understand the psyche of an era, and out goes Picasso’s Guernica as any kind of commentary on war in general and war in specific.
The discussion of literature leads to drama, which does allow Cahill to waste time regaling us with an excruciatingly detailed account of the story of Oedipus, including giving away that hoary old chestnut, the riddle of the Sphinx, in the bargain. He dwells on non-textual issues like how the black blood gushes from Oedipus’ sockets after he gouges out his eyes, demonstrating that Cahill was at least quite struck by one stage production he saw. But why does he go into such complete and total detail? Has anyone over the age of seventeen not heard this story yet? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Oedipus Rex is taught in the grand majority of English-speaking high schools. I’d even go so far as to say that having to read Oedipus Rex is as much an adolescent rite of passage as getting over wanting to fuck your parents. (I suspect if you were to read his other books, like the one on the importance of the Jews, you’d be treated to such things as lengthy Biblical quotes and a summary of the story of the crucifixion.)
This chapter also curiously describes Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy as the only Greek trilogy to survive intact. Hmm. I guess that whole story about Oedipus we just discussed doesn’t fit in there.
Drama of course leads to philosophy’s most dramatic writer, Plato. Cahill’s chapter on philosophy doesn’t provide any cohesive arrangement that moves along, demonstrating refinement and the various arguments still at the heart of philosophical debate today. Rather, he gives us one little anecdote and character after another. This guy says water’s at the heart of the universe, this guy says fire, this guy says seeds. Whew, thanks for clearing that up. The remainder of the chapter consists of several page long Socratic dialogues lifted directly and lengthy summaries of same. Let me save you the trouble of reading this chapter and simply direct you to read the introduction to any volume of Plato dialogues (which will almost certainly include snippets of the pre-Socratic schools of thought) then read the dialogues themselves.
The book’s sixth chapter is almost entirely without any recognizable merit. Cahill, instead of using this space to educate the reader or to quote the half of The Republic he left out of the philosophy chapter, lends his lyre to straining metaphors, letting us know that ancient Hebrew is a tense, terse language, as efficient and stubborn as a Jewish desert nomad while Latin is the language of precise farmers who’ve gone into real estate as empire and Greek is the language of ebullient self-lovers. This is followed up with airy speculation on kouros (Greek statuary) as a projection of the ideal. And a thumbnail sketch of a variety of sculpture, next to worthless in audio form as we only have Cahill’s maudlin descriptions to go on. Cahill proves a strident mind reader, filling us in on what the various characters in sculpture and pottery paintings are thinking as they go about their drinking, gaming, lusting. And apparently according to Cahill, the only way we can know that females were at some point well-considered or publicly considered was if any nude sculptures ever were made of them. Internet porn and beer advertisements have shown how well that turned out, yeah?
Moving on to politics, Cahill quotes the full text of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, a 3,000 word speech about how great democracy is and how noble those who die to support it truly are. This is followed by Cahill’s lengthy love letter to John F. Kennedy as a man who really knew his Pericles. Politics leads to the destruction of Greek culture and Cahill slanders various factions, none more in Greece than the Epicureans who he paints as no more than debauched gluttons, the usual ignorant depiction. And none outside Greece come in for more spanking than the Romans, who he falsely declares as having no spirituality or sense of religion save what they stole from Greece. As though they had no beliefs prior to usurping the Greek model. This is so obviously false I won’t go into schooling readers of Cahill, save to recommend any other book on Mediterranean history than this one.
Having barely introduced us to “the plodding Romans” Cahill rushes them off the stage to suggest that it was only the meeting of Greek culture and Judeo-Christianity that was of any value in the development of Western culture. I won’t deny how influential Greek ideas were in the development of Christianity, but the shabby treatment of the Romans is unbecoming of a historian. It is the expansion of the Roman Empire, the absorption of the local mythologies of those they conquered, that shaped the hierarchies and ceremonies of the Catholic Church and through them the Protestants. What happened to more Greek influenced Christianity? It became the hodgepodge of Byzantium iconography enslaved by the Ottoman Empire, a poor companion to the lusty life that Western Christianity experienced as the mistress of Roman Imperialism. Almost the whole of the Church calendar is of Roman derivation, not Greek.
Once you subtract Cahill’s lengthy quotations and lengthier plot summaries of Greek literature, you’re left with not much more than a pamphlet on why the Greeks matter. And they do matter: they gave us democracy and types of warfare and literature about people. They matter like any other sterile old manuscript, dusty with age. Ho hum. Cahill fails to prove his primary thesis, that the Greeks do matter.
The reader saddled with reading this anthology of Greek and Greek-influenced literature is the stirring John Lee whose voice trembles with a barely suppressed Irish purr that breaks out in snippets of Joyce. Other than Cahill’s source material, Lee’s reading is the highlight of this work.