Though it is common to think that that we who are alive are the ones who are braving new territory, the reality is that we are always following someone else. In his book Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, Thomas Cahill shows that for those of us steeped in Western thought and culture it is the ancient Greeks who got there before us. As Cahill so eloquently states at the end of the book, “whatever we experience in our day, whatever we hope to learn, whatever we most desire, whatever we set out to find, we see that the Greeks have been there before us.”
Cahill, however, makes it clear that his book contains “no breakthrough discoveries, no cutting edge scholarship.” Rather his approach is to draw together the various pieces of the past and “try to remain in their presence till [he] can begin to see and hear and love what living men and women once saw and heard and loved.” This method of reviewing history proves to be extremely effective in drawing out the humanity of the ancient Greeks that so often gets buried under the text of their mythology and philosophy.
The book itself is divided into seven chapters plus an introduction. Each chapter is preceded by a fragment of Greek mythology that corresponds to the theme of the chapter. The chapter titles themselves summary the concepts explored by Cahill: The Warrior (How to Fight), The Wanderer (How to Feel), The Poet (How to Party), The Politician and The Playwright (How to Rule), The Philosopher (How to Think), and The Artist (How to See). The structure of the book shift a bit in the final chapter as Cahill looks at how the Greco-Roman world merged with the Judeo-Christian worldview to create the society that would become the Western World.
Being an avid reader, I have had the pleasure of reading the stories of Greek mythology over the years. As a youth I devoured the stories of Jason, Hercules, Odysseus, Achilles, and others as if I was traveling with them. In the years that followed I’ve discovered that that some of the stores originated from various physical events that happened around the Aegean Sea. Thomas Cahill, however, managed to breathe new life into the familiar stories in a way I’ve never seen before. He did this by showing how the stories themselves helped shape the worldview and actions of the ancient Greeks. Homer’s Iliad, for example, not only entertained the people through its stories of adventure and war, it also taught them that violence was inevitable, “whether the violence of the gods of the violence of man against women or of man against man.” It was this latter concept that I failed to grasp in my youth.
Beyond the casual reading of their mythology, the writings and philosophy of the ancient Greeks has typically been far from my mind. Thomas Cahill’s book Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, however, has awoken a desire to learn more about the worldview of the ancient Greeks and how this worldview helped shape the rise of modern Western civilization. To that end, it must be said that Cahill accomplished the mission implied in his book’s subtitle in that he showed me “why the Greeks matter.”
 e.g. Siro Igino Trevisanato. The Plagues of Egypt: Archaeology, History and Science Look at the Bible (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2005).