Michael Macrone

Ancient Greek for Moderns

(San Francisco Chronicle, September 1, 1991)
Brush Up Your Classics
By Michael Macrone; illustrations by Tom Lulevitch
HarperCollins; 238 pages; $17
Reviewed by David L. Ulin

There should be little doubt that the influence of Greek and Roman tradition is still heavy upon us. Look at the architecture of our banks and courthouses, or at the “great books” debate that has so stirred the academic community over the last several years. But there is another, more subtle way we remain under antiquity’s thrall: the various expressions and aphorisms that have come down to us through time and become part of our language in the form of truisms and cliches.

Michael Macrone, who has taught English and Western civilization at the University of California at Berkeley, has cataloged the most notable of these sayings in “It’s Greek to Me!,” a companion volume to his “Brush Up Your Shakespeare!,” and, not coincidentally, a pop primer on some of the fundamental notions of the ancient world.

Divided into 15 main sections and two informal appendixes, “It’s Greek to Me!” tries to present an overview of early Western culture by exploring its relevance to the present day. It succeeds, for the most part, because Macrone is an erudite guide who clearly knows and understands his material and has a real desire to get it across.

The book is impressive in the way it demystifies its subject matter. Thus, when Macrone describes the origin of a phrase such as “deus ex machina,” he places it within the context of its time, noting that Greek dramatists tended to bring gods on stage by setting them down “with a hand-operated crane, expecting this would produce the desired effect of awe”—a practice that, he claims, both Plato and Aristotle vehemently disapproved of.

When he turns his attention to “Eureka!,” Macrone is even more direct. “You may be surprised to discover,” he writes, “that ‘eureka!’ derives from the simple Greek verb heuriskein, ‘to find’—heureka means ‘I have found it!’ ... It would be like shouting out ‘I have bought it!’ today and having some forty-third-century Frenchman quote your English whenever he struck a particularly good bargain.”

Despite the sense of living, breathing history, however, “It’s Greek to Me!” has its problems. Most of them result from Macrone’s attempt to achieve accessibility while he apparently lacks faith in the ability of his readers to cope with the depth of the ideas and issues he wants to explore. His writing can be somewhat sketchy, as with his discussion of “Speak well of the dead,” in which he provides a detailed etymology but stops short of investigating the original Spartan philosophy from which the statement came.

His habit of cross-referencing entries—every time a proper name comes up, we are told where else in the book we can find it—also seems derived from the same impulse: to emphasize patterns to an audience that might not otherwise see them. While such a device can occasionally be helpful, in the end it mostly serves to chop up the flow, making “It’s Greek to Me!” difficult to read in places, especially since Macrone’s citations are often redundant, with the same names repeated again and again.

“It’s Greek to Me!” is actually mis-titled, for nearly half of its contents come from Roman sources. Of course, this may well be in keeping with Macrone’s contentions that, when constructing their civilization, “the Romans did what came naturally: They stole from the Greeks.” Either way, it’s a point with which we can’t really argue, given that we still do the same thing. From the “Oedipus complex” to “Put your shoulder to the wheel,” our jargon is riddled with the slivers and shavings of long-lost times.

As the Roman dramatist Terence—himself a plunderer of the past—once exclaimed, “Nothing is said that has not been said before.”

David L. Ulin is a contributing editor to the Bloomsbury Review and co-editor of Instant Classics.

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First published in the San Francisco Chronicle (September 1, 1991)

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