Why Study the Greeks?Check the Map

By Michael Shenefelt

I’ve been teaching intellectual history in universities for more than 20 years, and I like to tell myself that I know a thing or two about why great works in the history of ideas come from where they do. But what frustrates me—if I can say this without giving offense—is that most of my colleagues don’t know. They don’t have a clue. And, in consequence, neither do their students. More precisely, professors and students throughout the United States consistently underestimate the immense impact of physical geography on the history of thought. But even when they try to get geography back into the picture, as Jared Diamond tries to do in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, they get the basic mechanisms wrong. They have no real understanding of how physical barriers shaped the ancient world’s literature, and as a result they don’t really know why the history of ideas looks the way it does.

In the case of the Greeks, the geographical explanation is simple: their mountains and islands divided them into hundreds of independent city-states, yet the exceptional smoothness of the Mediterranean Sea connected them by an easy method of transportation. As a consequence, it was especially easy in classical Greece for writers and talkers to escape political control, and they were generally freer to discuss a broad range of ideas. If you got into trouble with the authorities in one community, you simply boarded a ship and floated away, and in half a day you were likely to reach the territory of a rival state, where the enemy of your enemy becomes your friend. Aristotle, for example, used just this expedient to flee from Athens in 323 B.C. And earlier, in 399, Socrates shocked friends and enemies alike precisely because he refused to take advantage of this method of escape—a method that his contemporaries had long taken for granted.

By contrast, in a large territorial empire such as Egypt or imperial China, the ruler’s reach was long, and so an intellectual with controversial doctrines was in constant danger of arrest. Indeed, it’s for just this reason that the great age of classical Chinese literature came before the unification of China—during the waning years of the Chou Dynasty in the sixth century B.C., down to the end of the Warring States Period in the third century—when many of China’s greatest intellectuals made a practice of traveling from state to state.

More generally, when we look out upon the vast collection of the world’s literature, we often suppose that the history of ideas ought to be centered on the great empires of the past, on mighty kingdoms and opulent palaces whose staggering power is still dimly evident in a pile of ruins. But on the whole, this is a mistake. Instead, most intellectual and literary history is actually focused on small and divided places, especially market places, where equals crowd upon equals and where new creeds are hard to suppress. Intellectual innovation typically comes from a collision of ideas, but this in turn is usually the result of colliding societies tied by trade.

In fact, this pattern of intellectual innovation is evident around the world. We see it in the ancient principalities of India at the time of the Buddha, we see it in ancient China before its unification, and we see it in the Arab states of medieval Islam after Islam had become fragmented. It was only after the fragmentation of Islam that philosophers such as al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides could travel from one state to another and find refuge while working out their doctrines. (Maimonides was, of course, a Jew, but he was also an Arab living under Islamic regimes.)

Again, we see this pattern in the rival city-states of Renaissance Italy. How different the Renaissance would have been if its artists, writers, and thinkers had been unable to travel from state to state—evading arrest, slipping off various sorts of informal constraint, and shopping for new patrons. The pattern appears again in the emerging nation-states of Northern Europe after 1500, when a shift in the spice routes turned those societies into a collection of competing maritime powers. What’s most odd about the history of Northern Europe is that through most ages it was simply a backwater. But once seafarers realized they could reach the spices of Asia by sailing around the coast of Africa, the trade of Europe began to shift to its Atlantic seaports. Wealth and power followed, and soon the writers and talkers of the region experienced the new freedom that comes from having the option of escaping by sea.

Transportation is the essence of this mechanism of escape, and on the whole it depends on a physical geography that generates independent communities while simultaneously allowing them to interact. Indeed, the history of the world’s economic and scientific development is in many ways a history of transportation. The first person to see that fact was Adam Smith.

Smith pointed out that early civilizations almost always planted themselves along waterways. As examples he cited the ancient cultures of the Nile, the Ganges, the rivers and canals of China, and the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea—which we could almost call the world’s largest lake. But we could also add to this list the capital of the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan, which was laced with canals, and the medieval city of Timbuktu, which connected Saharan caravans to the Niger River.

Still, few professor today seem aware of Smith’s insight (as laid out in the third chapter of his Wealth of Nations), and the clearest proof of this last point is the intense interest with which they’ve now greeted Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Diamond focuses on transportation, too, but transportation of the wrong sort—over land. He attributes Europe’s wealth and power (its “guns and steel”) to the ease of traversing the landmass of Eurasia, and he invokes a similar explanation to account for the dissemination of European diseases (its “germs”). Of course, appealing to land transport to explain human development does indeed make a good deal of sense when contemplating our Stone Age ancestors, and it’s also perfectly natural for someone living in the 20th or 21st centuries, an age of wheeled machines. But in most historical periods, land transport was largely irrelevant. From the dawn of written history till the invention of railroads in the 19th century, guns, germs, and steel have moved mainly over water. Yet few academics seem to realize that if Smith’s emphasis on waterways is right, then Diamond’s emphasis on land transport must be wrong. These are rival explanations of the same events.

But the strongest reason for acquainting students with the real mechanism here is that by doing so, we would help to dissolve what for them remains a continuing mystery—the present shape of the college curriculum.

College students in the United States now come from many different ethnic backgrounds, and they naturally ask why some ancient peoples get more attention in courses than others. But few of their teachers have really answered the question. For their own part, students sometimes assume, secretly, that there must indeed have been something biologically superior about certain ancient peoples, or they assume an equally dubious hypothesis at the other extreme—that the extraordinary innovations that appear in some ancient civilizations but not others are somehow just a myth. But the real problem is that colleges today spend too little time in explaining the effect of the ancient physical environment.

No new course is required for this. All it takes is a little more attention to the ways in which writers and thinkers discussed in class went about traveling from state to state. And one way to make the central point is simply to list them.

For example, among those reputedly traveling to other states by land or on rivers were Confucius, the Buddha, Mencius, Sun Tzu, the Legalists, Muhammad, al-Farabi, Avicenna, Dante, Machiavelli, Luther, Calvin, and Nietzsche. But the list of those traveling to other states by sea is even longer—including Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Averroes, Maimonides, Erasmus, Thomas More, Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Heinrich Heine, Tocqueville, Frederick Douglass, Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Marx, Engels, Darwin, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, John Stuart Mill, Lenin, and Freud.

Now, is the fact that so many of the world’s famous writers and thinkers traveled from state to state merely a coincidence?

Ask you students this, and show them a few maps, and pretty soon they’ll get the point. And they’ll then have a much better sense of how to answer that nagging question, “Why the Greeks?”

As an example of this predicament, consider the impact of physical geography on classical Greece. If we think of human culture as a joint product of nature and nurture, then there can be only two explanations for why the classical Greeks turned out to be so intellectually inventive. Either the cause of their exceptional influence on the history of thought was something peculiar to their genes, or it was something peculiar to their physical environment. Conceivably, both explanations could operate at once, but any other explanation must inevitably beg the basic questions, “Why the Greeks?” Why not the ancient Nigerians or ancient Scandinavians?

The Journal of Higher Education, March 7, 2003. Michael Shenefelt is a master teacher in the General Studies program at the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at New York University and author of The Questions of Moral Philosophy (Humanity Books, 1999).

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