“People hate being made to think,” the educator and classical scholar Edith Hamilton (1867-1963) once said. Laziness of mind is indeed easy to find, even more so today than in her time. It shows up in vapid social media posts, flippant political rhetoric, superficial media coverage, knee-jerk but sanctimonious opinions, and the widespread absence of critical thinking skills. It’s everywhere.
People who don’t think are vulnerable to those who do, especially to those who think constantly about how to use others for nefarious purposes. Dictators and demagogues strongly prefer compliant, sycophantic subjects over thoughtful, independent, free-spirited types.
Laziness of mind rarely if ever made an appearance in the long life and remarkable work of Edith Hamilton. She celebrated the mind. She thought it was shameful to let one go to waste. In her view, “Mind and spirit together make up that which separates us from the rest of the animal world, that which enables a man to know the truth, and that which enables him to die for the truth.”
In her last three decades, she put her own mind to reawakening popular interest in the great thinkers of the ancient past—and in that noble effort, this homeschooled prodigy indisputably succeeded.
Born in Dresden, Germany to American parents, she grew up in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Her mother and father desired the best education for their five children. They quickly realized that it was not to be found in the public schools. Edith and her three sisters and one brother were all homeschooled, and each one went on to become an accomplished professional.
Alice, for instance, achieved prominence as an authority in industrial toxicology and was the first female appointed to a faculty post at Harvard University. Norah was a pioneer in Art Education for underprivileged children at Hull House in Chicago and in New York City. Margaret was an eminent educator and biochemist. Arthur was an author, professor of Spanish, and assistant dean for foreign students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Edith earned honorary doctorates from Yale, the University of Rochester, and the University of Pennsylvania. Whoever said home schoolers are not properly educated or “socialized” never met the Hamiltons (or any of the many home school families I’ve known).
Edith served for 26 years in various capacities, including head administrator, for the Bryn Mawr School, a college preparatory institution for girls in Baltimore, Maryland. After retiring in her mid 50s in 1922, she decided to start a new career as a writer, one that would allow her to explore a lifelong passion for ancient Greece.
Her first book, The Greek Way, appeared in 1930 when she was 62. Over the next three decades, she would earn a worldwide reputation as an authority on the ancients. The Greek Way was a huge success, as were her later books such as The Roman Way (1932), The Prophets of Israel (1936) and Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (1942). By 1957, nearly five million copies of Mythology alone had been sold.
She loved the ancient Greeks because like her, they loved the mind of the individual. “The Greeks were the first intellectualists,” she maintained. “In a world where the irrational had played the chief role, they came forward as the protagonists of the mind.” Elaborating on this point, she noted a remarkable feature of the ancient culture of Athens:
The fundamental fact about the Greek was that he had to use his mind. The ancient priest had said, “Thus far and no farther. We set the limits of thought.” The Greeks said, “All things are to be examined and called into question. There are no limits set on thought…To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and delightful to live in, was a mark of the Greek spirit which distinguished it from all that had gone before.
Because the ancient Greeks loved the mind and respected the individual, they created a civilization unlike any other at the time. The freedom they enjoyed stood out in a world of tyrants and tyranny. A few hundred miles to the south, the “great” civilization of Egypt was a very unhappy place by contrast. As Hamilton explained,
The Greeks were the first people in the world to play, and they played on a great scale. All over Greece there were games, all sorts of games; athletic contests of every description: races—horse-, boat-, foot-, torch-races; contests in music, where one side out-sung the other; in dancing—on greased skins sometimes to display a nice skill of foot and balance of body; games where men leaped in and out of flying chariots; games so many one grows weary with the list of them…If we had no other knowledge of what the Greeks were like, if nothing were left of Greek art and literature, the fact that they were in love with play and played magnificently would be proof enough of how they lived and how they looked at life. Wretched people, toiling people, do not play. Nothing like the Greek games is conceivable in Egypt or Mesopotamia. The life of the Egyptian lies spread out in the mural paintings down to the minutest detail. If fun and sport had played any real part they would be there in some form for us to see. But the Egyptian did not play.
At age 90, Edith was honored in Greece’s capital as an honorary Citizen of Athens. She described it in her acceptance speech as “the proudest moment of my life.” Receiving thunderous applause in the shadow of the Acropolis, she spoke without notes of the city she loved as well as any in America:
Athens is truly the mother of beauty and of thought [and] is also the mother of freedom. Freedom was a Greek discovery. The Greeks were the first free nation in the world…Greece rose to the very height not because she was big, she was very small; not because she was rich, she was very poor; not even because she was wonderfully gifted. She rose because there was in the Greeks the greatest spirit that moves in humanity, the spirit that makes men free.
To Edith Hamilton, the mind was each individual human being’s most unique and precious possession. She would be horrified by the notion of “the Borg” in the Star Trek fictional universe. It postulated a single “hive mind” to which humans would be subordinate and obedient. To her, the fact that we each have a mind of our own leads to one inescapable conclusion—namely, that to be fully human, we must be both free and responsible. She was a stalwart friend of the individual—his mind, his rights, and his freedom.
When she died at 95 in 1963, The New York Times published a glowing obituary. One quote in particular that the obituary author provided indicated that she was worried that the free societies of the 20th century were losing the Greek spirit of individualism.
“That frightens me much more than sputniks and atomic bombs,” she opined. “Greeks thought each human being different, and I take a lot of comfort in the fact that my fingerprints are different from anybody else’s.” I’m certain she would detest today’s groupthink, cancel culture and political-correctness as much as she would the fictional “Borg.”
Edith Hamilton wanted the world to rediscover the best of ancient Greece—the appreciation of the individual mind and the critical need for people to be as free as possible so they can put it to use. She was ancient Greece’s most popular 20th century cheerleader when she focused on its greatness; she was its most trenchant critic when she zeroed in on the reasons it declined and fell.
Allow me to close with a selection of additional insights from Edith Hamilton. They resonate with vital truths we need to re-learn today:
[T]here is no worse enemy to a state than he who keeps the law in his own hands.
Theories that go counter to the facts of human nature are foredoomed.
A man without fear cannot be a slave.
Fundamental to everything the [ancient] Greeks achieved was their conviction that good for humanity was possible only if men were free—body, mind, and spirit—and if each man limited his own freedom. A good state or work of art or piece of thinking was possible only through the self-mastery of the free individual, self-government…Liberty depends on self-restraint.
In Greece, there was no dominating church or creed, but there was a dominating ideal, which everyone would want to pursue if he caught sight of it. Different men saw it differently. It was one thing to the artist, another to the warrior. Excellence is the nearest equivalent we have for the word they used for it, but it meant more than that. It was the utmost perfection possible; the very best and highest a man could attain to which when perceived always has a compelling authority. A man must strive to attain it.
What the people wanted was a government which would provide a comfortable life for them, and with this as the foremost object ideas of freedom and self-reliance and service to the community were obscured to the point of disappearing. Athens was more and more looked on as a co-operative business, possessed of great wealth, in which all citizens had a right to share… Athens had reached the point of rejecting independence, and the freedom she now wanted was freedom from responsibility. There could be only one result…If men insisted on being free from the burden of a life that was self-dependent and also responsible for the common good, they would cease to be free at all. Responsibility was the price every man must pay for freedom. It was to be had on no other terms.
When the world is storm-driven and bad things happen, then we need to know all the strong fortresses of the spirit which men have built through the ages.
For additional information, see:
Edith Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait by Doris Fielding Reid
Edith Hamilton in Encyclopedia.com
This article, Why Edith Hamilton Feared the Decline of Individualism More Than Atomic Bombs, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission. Please support their mission.