The Greeks and Greek Civilization

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9780006388821: The Greeks and Greek Civilization

For the first time in English, one of the greatest masterpieces of historical writing: `Every civilized library must have a copy.' CHRISTOPHER STACE, Telegraph'A wonderfully fat and vivid reminder of the splendour and miseries of Hellenism...enlightened and enlightening, a joy to read, delicious with anecdotes and a manifest labour of love, candour and openmindedness.' FREDERIC RAPHAEL, Sunday TimesJacob Burckhardt (1818-97) was one of the greatest historians of classical and Renaissance art, architecture and culture. Though he died over a hundred years ago, his superb prose is as fresh and readable today as it was at the end of the nineteenth century. The Greeks and Greek Civilization describes, in glorious, elegant detail, the lives of the ancient Greeks and the origins of their culture.The book has never appeared before in English. Oswyn Murray, the book's editor, and his translator, Sheila Stern, have been labouring for many years on the text and now, finally, have ready an authoritative version which, in Oswyn Murray's words, `remains the best account of Greek civilization.'`His changes in tone, the sudden plunge from the grandest to the most minor themes, the zooming in and out from the broadest panoramas to a particular carpet on a particular floor, the massiveness of his project and the lightness with which he accomplishes it, not to mention his vast knowledge, his clear style, his precision and his general surefootedness, are what makes Burckhardt great in a way that is not so different from the way Shakespeare is great or Rembrandt or Beethoven. He created vast spaces in history, heights and depths, enormous ranges of pitch and timbre, sunny clearings in the midst of impenetrable gloom...Thanks to the efforts of Oswyn Murray and Sheila Stern, a Great Blue Whale is swimming for the first time in English waters. Tiddlers everywhere should be pleased to accept the invitation to swim in its posthumous wake.' JAMES DAVIDSON, London Review of Books

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Review:

The Swiss scholar Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97) is well known as the author of The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which has remained in print since its publication in 1860. He is far less well known for his pioneering studies in ancient Greek history, which were an important influence on his most celebrated student, Friedrich Nietzsche, and which shaped the modernist view of Greek civilization not as an expression of the heights of human reason, but as an irrational and often dangerous construct. Burckhardt believed that the ancient Greeks' myth-laden view of their own past, full of sociopathic heroes and tragic victims, was an expression of this state of unreason: "The wildest variations and contradictions," he writes, "were not found at all disturbing."

Even less disturbing to the Greeks, he continues, was the systematic violence--and even human sacrifice--that erupted when a city like Athens wished to extend its territory or when a leader wished to extend his power. That violence, Burckhardt holds, was a natural result of the ancient Greeks' pursuit of honor, which accrued by facing and defeating danger. One such danger was the mere act of standing out in any way whatever, which could net a would-be hero a charge of being impious--witness, Burckhardt notes, the fates of Socrates and his contemporary Alcibiades. Drawing from examples of mythology, tragedy, oratory, and comedy, Burckhardt touches on themes such as Greek society's contempt for women and its apparent readiness to embrace all sorts of antidemocratic demagoguery--in the person, for instance, of the famed hero Lysander, who "combines depravity with natural gifts in a way that was typically Spartan and yet generally Greek." Burckhardt's deconstruction of classical history, ably edited by Oxford historian Oswyn Murray, reads as if it were written in our own time. --Gregory McNamee

From the Publisher:

"[Burckhardt] offers page after page of deeply interesting observations and anecdotes...[He] appraises the changing aspects of Greek civilization with cool even-handedness, dispassionately seeking to understand rather than judge or extol." --Michael Dirda, The Washington Post Book World

"Not only a rich overview of Burckhardt's learning but a precious glimpse into the intellectual world of the late nineteenth century." --The New Yorker

"A corrective to the rather gaga idealism of 'the Greek spirit'...lively." --George Wills, The New York Times Book Review

"This book will become a necessary tool in courses not only on nineteenth-century historiography, but on the ancient world as well." --Publishers Weekly

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