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Mahee Mustafa recounts what Ancient Greece can teach us about freedom.

The most valuable thing one can glean from a work of literature is insight into one’s own psyche. Although command of language, deft characterisation, and excavation of universal themes are all important, a book is ultimately worth nothing if it does not reveal a truth to the reader. The most important works of literature are those which satisfy the drive of self-actualisation – the very last in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The question, then, of “what book changed my life?” is really a question asking “what book revealed the most about me whilst I was reading it? What book allowed me to see myself, and thus the world, in a different way?” Many books have helped me on my journey to self-realisation, but none more so than H.D.F. Kitto’s 1951 non-fiction work on Ancient Greece.

This svelte volume, running to little over 250 pages in Penguin Paperback, serves a brief but serious primer on the civilisation of Classical Greece. Central to the book is Kitto’s claim that Greeks were an extraordinary race who developed a “totally new understanding of what life was for.” In the couple hundred pages that follow, Kitto sets about proving this claim with such clarity and conviction of feeling that our modern society, with its lack of direction and existential ennui, withers in comparison.

Kitto’s Philhellenism is infectious. He challenges our modern convictions and conventions as a 5th century Athenian statesman would and makes a convincing case for it. Our political system of representative, professional administrators acting in their self-interest is demeaned as an oligarchy; a far cry from the Ancient Greek polis, where every citizen is beholden to the responsibility of the whole. He attacks the rigid formality of modern compunctions; a Greek would baulk at a shirt and tie, wearing nothing himself but the blanket under which he slept. He bemoans our focus on specialisation, which we exhibit in both a professional and private capacity. The Homeric ideal of “arete” (all-round excellence) is instead lauded, and the author commends the Greek world for their insistence that a great poet was also a great athlete, a great soldier and a great politician. 

Ultimately, the heart of what Kitto writes about the Greeks is that they were the freest people who have ever lived (and yes, before you ask, he does cover Greek slavery). Despite millennia of social and technological process, we still haven’t squared the problem that is personal liberty. How am I free if I must work at something I don’t enjoy? How am I free if the demands and responsibilities of life prevent me from doing what truly makes me happy? These concerns would be alien to the Greek mind, which found the demands of life liberating rather than trammelling. It was this defence of the liberty of life that led them to repel the Persians.

And it was this defence of the liberty of life which helped me come to terms with my place in the world.


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