It’s All Greek To Me
Fellow Hellenophiles can, I imagine, relate to the following dialogue.
- What are you studying?
- It’s Greek
- Oh, it’s all Greek to me! (uproarious laughter)
That joke never gets old, I promise. Never. The phrase is deeply embedded in English culture since its origin has been traced to Shakespeare himself, whose Casca expresses his lack of understanding of a conversation in Greek (unbelievable, i know). Shakespeare’s usage may have some connection (thus spake the internet) to the medieval phrase graecum est, non legitur, supposedly written by scribes who couldn’t understand the Greek words in their text. News to me. Sandys mentions the phrase when discussing the lawyer, Accursius of Florence, suggesting a different, and more interesting, origin for the Latin phrase.
Of course, είναι ελληνικά για μένα (it’s Greek to me) cannot be used in the same sense in Greek; they say instead: είναι κινέζικα για μένα (lit. It’s Chinese to me). But has it never struck you as odd that the idiom we use to express absolute alienation from something is “It’s Greek to me.” After all, we are told often enough that Greek is the origin of our western civilization. How can Greek be both at the center of our western culture and its most alienating element?
Today is, I learn from Twitter, international Greek language day. Εὐαί! For me, every day is Greek language day, as I struggle to learn the Modern language and improve my knowledge of the ancient. But the odd paradox of the alienating foundation appeared to me in the celebratory statement published by the Centre for the Greek Language.
The Greek language deserves to be learned and loved; for its virtues, but mainly because it has been the means of expression of a great civilization. A civilization, which, at the beginning of its long duration, shaped and codified the first and statutory layer of the higher vocabulary and concepts of Western civilization, and which ever since, in all its historical continuity, has not stopped evolving alongside the important historical moments of East and West. The Greek language deserves to be honored both because it is a valuable legacy for the Western world and because it is irreplaceable as the foundation of the Hellenic national identity.
No disagreement that there are many great works written in Greek from every period. No disagreement either that many of the works were and remain influential. It is the Greek language’s day, so it gets to toot its own horn. And it is just a celebratory statement, so εύγε!
But that word, “civilization”, ποπο! And “legacy” and the “west”, ποποποπο! It’s in this heady mixture of the Greek legacy of western civilization that I find it worthwhile to think about the foundational alienation encapsulated in the phrase, “it’s all Greek to me.”
My thinking here is deeply influenced by Kwame Anthony Appiah, especially his lecture, Culture, the final lecture of his 2016 Reith lectures. The book based on the lectures, The Lies that Bind, came out last August. I can also mention David Konstan’s review of Settis’ Future of the Classical, a review still worth reading today, although sadly behind a paywall. Also influential to me is Katherine Blouin’s blog post, Civilization: What’s up with that? Especially current and forthcoming work by Rebecca Futo Kennedy.
Appiah outlines two different ideas behind the word culture, which apply mutatis mutandis to civilization. According to Matthew Arnold, culture is the best that has been said or thought. In this sense, culture or civilization is an aspirational project that can unite, for example, Confucius, Rumi, and Homer in the aim of producing a cultured or civilized person who has studied much of the best that has been said or thought.
Appiah derives the second sense from Matthew Taylor, who used “culture” to describe an organic whole, the complex of ideas, habits, morals, beliefs that a group possess in itself. Jacques Barzun (From Dawn to Decadence) makes a similar distinction, for different purposes. Barzun wants to separate out the meaning of culture as the “well-furnished mind” (i.e. Arnold) from modern use of culture (i.e. Taylor) to describe “local customs and traditions, individual or institutional habits, class manners and prejudices, language or dialect, upbringing or profession, creed, attitudes, usages, fashions, and superstitions.” When we teach a course in Roman or Greek “civilization,” we frequently mean something quite like Taylor’s sense of the word, but the hierarchical, “best of” idea still lurks behind the word.
The power, then, and the danger, of the words “civilization” and “culture” comes from their ability to blend the two different ideas. It certainly allows us to bring hierarchy in through the back door. But the two different civilizations have two different mechanisms. Arnold’s culture is the result of deliberate individual striving; Taylor’s culture is learned through osmosis.
What is the western civilization (in Taylor’s sense) that I experience? Well, I recently read an article on Lil’ Tay in The Atlantic, which I discussed with my 13-year old stepdaughter. This was possible because of Taylor’s shared civilization: we share Lil’ Tay and Uncle Drew (the movie we all watched last Saturday), among much else; we do not share Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Vergil, Horace, Lucian, or Heliodorus. Those authors are all Greek to her.
The devious language of “civilization” implies that we absorb the legacy of the past in the same way that we absorb, for example, the youtube or twitter culture around us. As if those of us living in the long shadow of a civilization inherit without effort the best of the tradition. It simultaneously implies that knowledge of a selected canon of that legacy is what makes a person civilized. It is in this confusion caused by two types of civilization that the foundational paradox represented by the idiom, “its all Greek to me,” finds its source and nourishment. And, of course, all this confusion is made infinitely more insidious when then wedded to the idea of the “west.”
Perhaps the dual ideas behind civilization (ancient Greek has a dual, after all) could be harnessed in a different direction (the word itself is another story). There is something inspiring in a modified Arnoldian view, removing its essential hierarchy and recognizing that we gain from learning from a large number of works, regardless of their origins. There is something wonderful in the idea that we can study and learn from cultures without attending to any hierarchy of value. Maybe then the idea behind the phrases “it is Greek to me” and “είναι κινέζικα για μένα” might signal not alienation and estrangement but a desire to engage and learn.