Epilogue from Toynbee's "The Greeks and their heritages" [1981]


In this book, we have looked at four heritages that have been received by Greeks from Greek predecessors at successive stages of the Greek people's history. This history is a long one. It can be reasonably held to have begun at the beginning of the Neolithic Age in Greece, about 4,000 years before the arrival in Greece of the first contingent of Greek-speakers. Reckoning even only from the probable date, either just before or just after the beginning of the second millenium B.C., at which Greek-speakers first established themselves in continental European Greece, Greek history has already been in the making for about 4,000 years, and no end to it is yet in sight. In 1974 the future of the whole human race may be in doubt, but the Greeks have as much or as little chance of surviving as the other peoples of the present-day world. In any case, the Greeks' history, within the time-span of its first 8,000 or 4,0000 years, provides evidence for the effect of heritages from the past on a people's efforts, at later stages, to cope with the current problems of the day.

This is a subject of general interest, for every people's life is affected, at every stage of its history, by its image of its past --and this whether the image is or is not an accurate reflection of the authentic historical facts. Few, however, of the peoples that possess distinctive identities today have had as long a history as the Greeks, if we interpret history as meaning, not simply chronological duration of existence, but a continuity of identity which has never ceased to be recognized and to be remembered.

Four thousand years of Greek history have produced four Greek heritages, each of which has had an effect on the life of the Greeks in later stages of their history. The Hellenic Greeks received a heritage from the Mycenaean Greeks, the Byzantine Greeks received on from the Hellenic Greeks, the Modern Greeks have received one heritage from the Byzantines and a second from the Hellenes.

If we compare the respective effects of these heritages with each other, we are likely to conclude that the influence of the past is most beneficent when memory of the past is faint and when the veneration for it is temperate. This was the Hellenic Greeks' relation to their Mycenaean heritage, and the Hellenes found in this heritage of theirs the inspiration for creating a great original Hellenic work of art, the Homeric epic poetry, which was the first instalment of a magnificent Hellenic literature. By contrast, the Byzantine Greeks' knowledge of their Hellenic predecessors' language and literature was so ample, and their veneration for these Hellenic treasures was so intense, that they were almost completely inhibited from attempting to create a Greek literature in their own living language, which was Modern Greek at an early stage of this language's development. As for the Byzantine Greeks' Modern Greek successors, they have had to cope with both a Byzantine and an Hellenic heritage, and both these heritages of theirs have been will-'o'-the-wisps. The modern Greeks' Byzantine heritage lured them into imagining the 'Great Idea' and into attempting to translate this dream into reality. Their Hellenic heritage has plagued the Modern Greeks with the 'language question'.

In looking at the Greeks' successes and failures at different stages of their history, we have found that they have been beset, not only by heritages from their own past, but by the impacts of contemporary non -Greek societies. In the seventeenth century B.C. the Mycenaean Greeks encountered the Minoans; in the second century B.C. the Hellenic Greeks encountered the Jews; in the second millenium of the Christian Era, the Byzantine Greeks and their Modern Greek successors have encountered Western civilization.

The Mycenaean Greeks adopted the Minoans' style of art, but they then gradually infused into it some of the spirit of their own previous native art. The also adopted the Minoans' bureaucratic system of administration, but apparently they did not succeed in establishing on the mainland the peace and security that appear to have been attained in Crete. The capitals of some of the Mycenaean states were eventually fortified, whereas the capitals of the Minoan sates were open cities-even Mallia, which lay on a plain with a stone's- throw of the Cretan coast.

The Hellenic Greeks did not adopt Judaism, but they became converts to a Helleno-Judaic religion, Christianity. There is an Hellenic ingredient in Christianity, but the Judaic ingredient in it is dominant. Indeed, Christianity is so strongly Judaic that conversion to it brought with it, for the Greeks, a change in civilization. In becoming Christians the Hellenes turned into Byzantines.

The Byzantine Greeks were under increasing pressure from Western Christendom from the eleventh century until the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Byzantine Greeks accepted political subjection to the 'Osmanlis as being, in their estimation, a lesser evil than ecclesiastical subjection to the Roman See. In the seventeenth century-the century in which the West began to secularize its way of life- the Modern Greeks abandoned the Byzantine tradition of hostility towards the West, and, after that, they were attracted towards two new objectives; political liberation from the Ottoman rule and cultural Westernization. It has been noted that the Modern Greeks' increasing success in finding a place for themselves in the Western World has given them the confidence to assert their spiritual independence of both their Hellenic and their Byzantine heritage.

This, however, will not be the end of the story of the Modern Greeks' encounter with the Western civilization. Since the seventeenth century the Western civilization in its secular modern form has become a world wide civilization that has been adopted not only by the Greeks but also by most of the other originally non-Western peoples. However, at the very time when the Western civilization has been captivating the whole world it has been showing signs of spiritual sickness. It is not yet clear how serious this sickness is, but it is already certain that the whole world is now implicated in the West's future fortunes, whatever these may prove to be. Thus the Modern Greek people's future seems likely to be determined by the common future of a Modern world that has now been united on a global scale within an originally Western framework.

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