Jews, Greeks, the Renaissance and History

Essay by David P. Stern, 26 December 1994



   Cross-cultural diversity is all the rage these days. A commission has come out with a recommendation (if I read it right) that the majority of the history curriculum in public schools should be devoted to non-Western cultures. Counting the early Near East as "Western," I gather this includes Chinese dynasties, Ashanti kings, Turkish sultans, Indus valley cities, Japanese shogunates and pre-Columbian Mexico.

   All these have a place, sure. Yet there exists a good reason why Western culture has been pre-eminent in our teaching of history: not only has it been extremely successful, but in the 20th century it also has also become a world-wide culture, in which all nations participate. Japanese love the chorale of Beethoven's 9th symphony so much that hundreds will join in singing it together, and rumor has it that their engineers designed the currently produced compact disks to be just big enough to hold their favorite symphony.

   What made Western culture so different? At the risk of some oversimplification, I would give the credit to three factors: the Jews, the Greeks and the Renaissance.

   The Jews were an unimportant small nation in the Near East, wedged between powerful neighbors, with a tradition of herding. They raised sheep, goats and cattle, and perhaps that was how they developed a tradition of the written word, for suitably processed skins were in those days the best writing material available. Before the invention of parchment (in Pergamon around 190 BC) only one side of the skin was used, and Jews still use in their services scrolls written on parchment, on one side only in the old style.

   In 586 BC the Jews were overrun by a powerful enemy, Babylon. Its temple and capital were destroyed, and its people were exiled to Babylon, becoming an enslaved nation for the next fifty years. In a valiant and entirely successful effort to survive, they redefined their culture in literary terms, collecting old stories and prophecies into what we now know as the Bible. That literary tradition remained a central part of Jewish culture ever since: its rite of passage to adulthood, the Bar Mitzvah (and now the Bat Mitzvah) is essentially a literacy test. Jewish culture became the foundation of Christianity, it helped shape Islam, and it thus gave structure to Western religion. It gave Western culture the day of Sabbath and injected into it a strong anti-slavery stand, reflected by the Bible and dating back to slavery in Babylon, if not to an earlier captivity in Egypt.

   The Greeks were a fragmented nation of city-states, frequently at war with each other. What made them different was that all these seperate cities joined in an overarching national culture, which gave us the Illiad, Odyssey and Greek legends, Olympic games and sports in general, also theatre, geometry, philosophy and others. And yes, history too, with Thucydides its founding father, though Herodotus also gets some credit.

   What made the Greeks different from other conglomerations of early city-states, such as those in Mesopotamia? I would credit this to yet another Greek invention, democracy. Democracy opens up an opportunity to be creative to many more people. The craggy geography of Greece also helped, ensuring that no city prevailed over all others, so that if tyranny overtook one, its scholars could flee to another.

   Wherever those two cultures met, they were bound to clash. Jews celebrate Hanukkah as their victory over the Greeks, but that's putting a lot of spin on the ball. Jewish culture held its own in that clash and survived, but no more. Its offshoot, Christianity, later came to dominate the world of faith, but even before that happened, Greek culture conquered Rome, and it went on to put its overwhelming imprint on Western thinking, including that of Thomas Jefferson. An impartial referee comparing the contributions of the two cultures might tally up the points and hand the decision to the Greeks.

   Once Rome overthrew democracy, it became only a question of time before its society became stratified and stagnant. A thousand years of inertia followed. During that time, as Marco Polo discovered, European culture was indeed inferior to that of the Orient in many ways. But the seeds of renewal were there, some in old Greek manuscripts rescued by Moorish Spain, and in due course they sprouted and bore fruit.

   The Renaissance--the word means "rebirth," a rebirth of Western culture--had many faces. Some of it seemed like a replay of the Greek experience, with the city-states of Italy sheltering Leonardo, Galileo and other luminaries. Did gunpowder favor the defense of small states and help them stay independent? The central factor in the Renaissance, however, was a technical invention, Gutenberg's printing press. Nothing comparable happened again until the invention of the computer, which has started a similar revolution. We are but in its beginning, and although not much seems to be happening day-to-day, a new future is gaining on us awfully fast.

   Jews, Greeks and the Renaissance laid the foundation, and ever since then, Western civilization has seen furious diversification and expansion. Democracy might have been fundamental in all this. Even absolute rulers recognized the need of letting arts, sciences and commerce develop independently and so attract every available talent. Mozart might have dined with the servants, but his talent was recognized by emperors. Universities became focal points of society, patents were granted. Nothing like this has happened in the non-western world until recently--now, of course, almost every nation follows a parallel path.

   Take music. Not only has Western music developed from Palestrina to Bach, to Mozart, to the greats of the 1800s, then to Mahler and Prokofief (and then to a relative slowdown), but its musical instruments, too evolved and became diverse and sophisticated. Instruments of the non-Western world can be fascinating, but their range is much more limited, they just do not compare.

   It can thus be argued that Western civilization is where the action has always been, while the study of other civilizations is a study of beginnings. Several things however deserve to be noted.

   First, not all areas of human endeavor have undergone this revolution. In some, for instance ethics and the shaping of our lifestyle, Western culture is still at a relatively early stage. We can learn from other civilizations in such areas.

   It may also be noted that pre-Columbian America has a unique place in history, serving as our window to the stone age. Its separation from Asia delayed colonization until humans learned to clothe themselves in warm skins (and perhaps until glaciation created a land bridge), which apparently happened 13-15,000 years ago. When Columbus arrived, America was 4-5000 years behind the West, roughly at the level of the old Egyptian kingdom. There is probably much to learn from America about early human society anywhere.

   The other thing to note is that just as Greece had a single all-embracing culture, so does now the entire world. Our civilization is no longer just Western, and recent history, too, has become completely intertwined. Take Japan: the Japanese excel not only in technology, but also in creative arts, where they have combined their own sophisticated tradition with Western ways, and they have embraced democracy in a way which seems irreversible. Or, talking of musical instruments, take Trinidad: the steel band is a modern instrument, created by a local culture but spreading world-wide. Science, too, is very much an international effort now.

   If you count kingdoms and conquests, you will perhaps find (as the history curriculum commission seems to have done) that Western history only amounts to 40% of the total. But the West is the stream that had the Jews, the Greeks and the Renaissance, and nothing else in human history comes close. That is also the main heritage of the United States, which for better or worse is now at the forefront of world culture. We better teach that in our schools.



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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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