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Language and History in Ancient Greek Culture

ISBN-13: 978-0812241495
ISBN-10: 0812241495
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About the Author

Martin Ostwald is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus of Classics at Swarthmore College. From 1968 to 1992 he taught in the Department of Classical Studies and the Graduate Group in Ancient History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law, among many distinguished books and essays.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


It is an honor to have been invited by the University of Pennsylvania Press to publish in book form a selection of my articles and essays.

To make the selection was difficult, chiefly because the Press mandated that the book cohere thematically, that it not be (merely) a collection of my best essays. The variety of my publications makes it hard to determine what is "coherent" in what I have published. My interest in classical antiquity was aroused in high school and turned to Greek in preference to Latin when I read large sections of the Iliad. Homer's bracing narrative art evoked in me a youthful admiration of Achilles, which convinced me that there was nothing to which I'd rather devote myself than the study of the culture that produced and eternalized a character of such dimensions. Further study made me add to my passion other Greek poetry, history, and philosophy, especially of the Classical period.

This passion was reinforced by forays, formal and informal, into the development of Western civilization, and the realization that much of it was based on what the Greeks had created. Moreover, it made me aware of the close relation between language and thinking. Even as a mature scholar, my favorite teaching subject had always remained elementary Greek; no other subject offers the same excitement of daily watching the students' intellectual growth within the compass of one academic year from ignorance of even the Greek alphabet to the reading of a giant such as Plato.

It had occurred to me earlier that learning any new language is tantamount to imbibing a new system of thought. Every language contains its own view of the realities of life, and reflects the social organization, values, and perception of the world of its speakers in a way that differs, more or less subtly, from all others. That English has only one form ("you") to address another individual as well as a group of individuals, while German, French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages differentiate between group and individual not only is a grammatical phenomenon, but reflects a considerable difference in social norms between any two given societies. Some languages have different forms for addressing an individual in a common or in a polite form; others have not. This recognition leads almost automatically to an interest in social and political institutions. The functions of the senatus of the Romans are not identical with those of the sénat of the French. One can go even further: different languages do not express identical perspectives on the same matter. This is true of trivial as well as of serious expressions: an empty stomach makes an English speaker confess that he or she "is hungry," while a German "hat Hunger" and a Frenchman "a faim." The substance expressed is identical in every case, but the form in which it is expressed is different. Similarly, what precisely an English speaker means by "mind" cannot be accurately rendered by German terms such as "Geist" or "Ansicht" or the French terms "esprit," "mentalité," or "intelligence."

Examples of different expressions for similar or identical concepts can be multiplied to demonstrate that an exact, nuanced translation from one language into another is impossible. Each language has its own way of seeing the world. That does not mean that verbal communication between speakers of different languages is impossible; it merely means that different languages look differently at the world, and ultimately develop different philosophies and different perspectives on human relations and social and political priorities. The meticulous study of languages is, therefore, the most basic of "liberal" studies: it enriches the human mind by absorbing new ideas and using them as a foil in subjecting its own to comparison and criticism.

The recognition of differences and their significance becomes especially important in the study of languages that are no longer spoken, especially when they are so remote from us in time that they lack many preconceptions we take for granted. The tremendous development of means of production, transportation, and communication, of scientific discoveries and exploitation of new sources of energy, have made the exploration of classical antiquity equivalent to a jump into another world, which we have to construct in our imagination through a study of the languages in which people communicated with one another in conditions we do not know by personal experience. That we can do that at all is recognized in the hypothesis, first articulated by Thucydides, that the nature of the human animal has remained constant over the millennia. Our physical and psychological needs have not changed; we depend on the same nature for our sustenance as did the Ancients; we have to learn to cope with our environment just as they did; we have the same problems as they to deal with our helplessness in the face of the forces that confront us.

It is a common humanity that enables us to understand the past, and the different terms and perspectives in which our ancestors couched their experience of the world, and it enables us at the same time to recognize the difference between their values and perceptions and our own. By understanding their perception of the world, we are in a better position to understand our own.

From a wise remark once made to me by the late Professor W. L. Westermann I hope to have learned that the essence of classical scholarship consists in discovering how different, rather than how similar, the Ancients were from us. The study of the distant past enables us to gain more profound insights into what has shaped our own lives and values than would a study confined to the values and preoccupations of our own society. Moreover, although we stand to gain no material profit from the study of antiquity, it trains us to appreciate the value of immersing ourselves in matters that shape and sharpen our intellectual perception of the world in which we live.

I believe that this view of the study of Greek antiquity brings with it a unity that has informed the essays included in this volume. In view of my preoccupation with Greek social and political thought, it seemed sensible to divide them into the major themes which I have explored in my writing and teaching. The first section deals with fundamental concepts that dominated the political life of Greek states. The second discusses various aspects of nomos, a key term found in discussions of all kind of social, political, economic, and philosophical thought. The third section veers slightly away from philological concerns and concentrates on concrete institutions and the situations in which they operated. Finally, I turn to the relation of language and historical narrative in the works of the two greatest Greek historians, Herodotus and Thucydides. I hope that this classification will fairly represent what I regard as the central contributions philology has made to our understanding of Greek and in particular Athenian history, and thus to our own self-perception.


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