What [the Greeks] did and suffered, they appear to have done and suffered freely, and thus differently from earlier races. They seem original, spontaneous and conscious, in circumstances in which all others were ruled by a more or less mindless necessity. This is why in their creativeness and their potentialities they seem the representatives of genius on earth, with all the failings and sufferings that this entails. In the life of the mind they reached frontiers which the rest of mankind cannot permit themselves to fall short of, at least in their attempts to acknowledge and to profit, even when they are inferior to the Greeks in the capacity for achievement. It is for this reason that posterity needs to study the Greeks; if we ignore them we are simply accepting our own decline.
The Critical Spirit
THROUGHOUT THIS BOOK, we have returned over and over to one unique characteristic of the Greeks that more than anything else explains their innovative brilliance: the "critical spirit," the way they made everything they encountered an object of thought to be discussed and analyzed free from the constraints of religion and government. This self-consciousness about human life, this power of abstraction is at best only implicit elsewhere in the ancient world. Only the Greeks made rational discrimination and "criticism" explicit. Their curiosity, their relentless questioning, their drive to explain human existence rationally and coherently and to find meaning in experience, are the starting point for all the other intellectual achievements we attribute to them: logic, physics, criticism, history, philosophy, rhetoric, dialectic, dialogue, tragedy, analysis, the "ologies" that so distressed Dickens' Mrs. Grandgrind—all are Greek words, all are formalized expressions of this fundamental quality we can call "critical self-consciousness." Without it, humans remain the slaves of "necessity": nature, supernatural forces, the dead hand of tradition, and the brute power of various elites.