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Thomas Harrison is Rathbone Professor of Ancient History and Classical Archaeology in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology
“When historians look to explain the extraordinary eruption of creativity that took place in ancient Greece– the birth of philosophy, history-writing, the heights of Classical art and drama – they point to one fact in particular.
The Greeks lived in small self-governing cities. Most of these cities indeed were very small, with no more than hundreds of voting citizens.
Face-to-face nature of city life
The roots of the ‘Greek miracle’ lie in the face-to-face nature of city life, and in the habits or debate and competition that it fostered. We might want to qualify this picture a little. Women, foreigners and slaves were largely locked out of this intense social interaction.
Some great thinkers, then as now, were probably thoroughly anti-social figures, who achieved what they did by taking themselves away from the crowded agora. But, by and large, this story still holds. And it raises questions perhaps for our own world.
I am writing this blog from a busy train carriage.
This is increasingly true of all of us, old as well as young. I am no different, sitting at my laptop. And the same holds true of my home life. My evenings and weekends are carried on to the unpredictable rhythm of musical tings and burps commanding us to our phones. Soon we will lose our children the same way.
The word community is not just a weak analogy here. I am a member, for example, of an online group for parents of children with a particular health condition. And I feel an intense fellow feeling with these other parents (in practice, mothers), even as I delete their emails unread.
But, at the same time, what have we lost? Or what do we stand to lose from failing to communicate to those with whom we don’t have anything obvious in common?
While we develop our own and others’ skills in IT or whatever else, perhaps we need also deliberately to nurture some more old-fashioned skills.
The self-restraint (an eminently Greek virtue) that would allow us to switch off our phones or tablets, to clear space in our days and in our minds, to read and to write – properly, and at length.
An openness to learn from strangers. Or even just to look out of a train window and dream. Otherwise what will we have to show for ourselves?”
I’m an ancient historian. Feeling queasy?
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