Aside from Shakespeare and the Bible the books that have helped me the most to understand the world and my place in it were nearly all written by three kinds of people: serious Christians, black Americans and the ancient Greeks.
The Greeks make the list for three reasons:
- Along with the Bible they are what the West was built on.
- The Greeks valued the truth. They questioned things and took nothing at face value. It was not enough for an answer to sound good or be respectable – it had to make sense and stand on its own.
- Like Shakespeare and the Bible, the Greeks are universal: you can read them and they sound like they are writing about people you know, about your time and place.
An excellent example is Thucydides. He wrote a history of a war between Athens and Sparta. Reading about a forgotten war sounds like a waste of time – and it probably would have been if Thucydides wrote it like a White American: full of self-serving lies, concerned more in making himself and his country look good than in the truth.
But he did not. Instead he wrote it like he lived in the very same crappy part of New York that I lived in. Yes. A place which none of the American schoolbooks or television shows helped me to understand – but which Thucydides did.
He could do that because he stuck to the truth, particularly the truth of human nature and the nature of power. He knew full well that in a hundred years no one would care about the war, and yet he knew people would still be reading his book – because people are the same all down through history.
If I lived in China I would read the oldest Chinese books I could find. Because they would lie at the root of what makes China China. But I live in the West, so I read its oldest books instead: the Bible and the Greeks.
Some dismiss the Greeks as dead white males while others use them to prove how great white people are.
The Greeks did not think of themselves as white. They divided the world not by race but language: if you spoke Greek you were Greek, if not you were barbarian. Racism is not as “natural” as racists like to think. All these white people who try to claim the Greeks for the glory of the white race are, yes, barbarians. It is pretty laughable – and sad. Especially since Greek “whiteness” seems to be less than 200 years old – but that is another post.
Further, Greek achievement was built mainly on top of thousands of years of Egyptian achievement. We are taught not to notice how culturally Egyptian they were.
On the other hand, just because they were “white” and “male” that does not mean they were incapable of true greatness. That would be just as racist as saying people of colour are no good. The truth is both are equally human.
Thanks to Macon D of Stuff White People Do for kind of suggesting this topic.