|The Story of Mankind|
|by Hendrik Willem Van Loon|
|Relates the story of western civilization from earliest times through the beginning of the twentieth century, with special emphasis on the people and events that changed the course of history. Portrays in vivid prose the achievements of mankind in the areas of art and discovery, as well as the political forces leading to the modern nation-states. Richly illustrated with drawings by the author. Winner of the first Newbery Award in 1922, The Story of Mankind has introduced generations of children to the pageant of world history. Ages 10-14 |
THE GREEK CITIES
THE GREEK CITIES THAT WERE REALLY STATES
 WE modern people love the sound of the word "big." We
pride ourselves upon the fact that we belong to the "biggest"
country in the world and possess the "biggest" navy and grow
the "biggest" oranges and potatoes, and we love to live in
cities of "millions" of inhabitants and when we are dead we
are buried in the "biggest cemetery of the whole state."
A citizen of ancient Greece, could he have heard us talk,
would not have known what we meant. "Moderation in all
things" was the ideal of his life and mere bulk did not impress
him at all. And this love of moderation was not merely a
hollow phrase used upon special occasions: it influenced the
life of the Greeks from the day of their birth to the hour of
their death. It was part of their literature and it made them
build small but perfect temples. It found expression in the
clothes which the men wore and in the rings and the bracelets
of their wives. It followed the crowds that went to the theatre
and made them hoot down any playwright who dared to
sin against the iron law of good taste or good sense.
MOUNT OLYMPUS WHERE THE GODS LIVED
The Greeks even insisted upon this quality in their politicians
and in their most popular athletes. When a powerful
runner came to Sparta and boasted that he could stand longer
on one foot than any other man in Hellas the people drove him
from the city because he prided himself upon an
accomplish-  ment at which he could be beaten by any common goose.
"That is all very well," you will say, "and no doubt it is a
great virtue to care so much for moderation and perfection,
but why should the Greeks have been the only people to develop
this quality in olden times?" For an answer I shall
point to the way in which the Greeks lived.
The people of Egypt or Mesopotamia had been the "subjects"
of a mysterious Supreme Ruler who lived miles and
miles away in a dark palace and who was rarely seen by the
masses of the population. The Greeks on the other hand,
were "free citizens" of a hundred independent little "cities"
the largest of which counted fewer inhabitants than a large
modern village. When a peasant who lived in Ur said that he
was a Babylonian he meant that he was one of millions of
other people who paid tribute to the king who at that particular
moment happened to be master of western Asia. But when
a Greek said proudly that he was an Athenian or a Theban
he spoke of a small town, which was both his home and his
 country and which recognised no master but the will of the
people in the market-place.
To the Greek, his fatherland was the place where he was
born; where he had spent his earliest years playing hide and
seek amidst the forbidden rocks of the Acropolis; where he had
grown into manhood with a thousand other boys and girls,
whose nicknames were as familiar to him as those of your own
schoolmates. His Fatherland was the holy soil where his father
and mother lay buried. It was the small house within the high
city-walls where his wife and children lived in safety. It was
a complete world which covered no more than four or five
acres of rocky land. Don't you see how these surroundings
must have influenced a man in everything he did and said and
thought? The people of Babylon and Assyria and Egypt
had been part of a vast mob. They had been lost in the multitude.
The Greek on the other hand had never lost touch with
his immediate surroundings. He never ceased to be part of a
little town where everybody knew every one else. He felt
that his intelligent neighbours were watching him. Whatever
he did, whether he wrote plays or made statues out of marble
or composed songs, he remembered that his efforts were going
to be judged by all the free-born citizens of his home-town who
knew about such things. This knowledge forced him to strive
after perfection, and perfection, as he had been taught from
childhood, was not possible without moderation.
In this hard school, the Greeks learned to excel in many
things. They created new forms of government and new forms
of literature and new ideals in art which we have never been
able to surpass. They performed these miracles in little villages
that covered less ground than four or five modern city
And look, what finally happened!
In the fourth century before our era, Alexander of Macedonia
conquered the world. As soon as he had done with
fighting, Alexander decided that he must bestow the benefits
of the true Greek genius upon all mankind. He took it away
from the little cities and the little villages and tried to make
 it blossom and bear fruit amidst the vast royal residences of
his newly acquired Empire. But the Greeks, removed from
the familiar sight of their own temples, removed from the
well-known sounds and smells of their own crooked streets, at once
lost the cheerful joy and the marvellous sense of moderation
which had inspired the work of their hands and brains while
they laboured for the glory of their old city-states. They became
cheap artisans, content with second-rate work. The day
the little city-states of old Hellas lost their independence and
were forced to become part of a big nation, the old Greek spirit
died. And it has been dead ever since.
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