Why the Ancient Greeks matter

11 Nov 2014

As a child, Professor Alastair Blanshard remembers being fascinated by the mythological Greek tales he learned at school, and his career path was seemingly set in stone during a family holiday in Greece when he was 14.

“I was just bowled over by the beauty of the architecture, particularly the Parthenon which still seems like the most beautiful building in the world to me,” Professor Blanshard said.

Now, in his position as the Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History at UQ, Professor Blanshard is hoping to inspire others to enter the same field of study.

“I think it’s important that we are engaging with schools, and one of my primary goals is to raise the profile of the study of Ancient History,” Professor Blanshard said.

“All too often we’re far too focused on vocation, but there’s quite a lot in life that is done outside of work, so I think we should be educating for a whole-of-life experience and training people so that they can enjoy the many aspects of life.”

Professor Blanshard’s position as Chair of Classics and Ancient History and his ability to raise the profile of ancient history studies through research and teaching was made possible at the beginning of 2014 through a generous donation from Dr Paul Eliadis.

Dr Eliadis, a senior clinical haematologist and oncologist and UQ alumnus, has a passion for his Greek heritage as well as art and history.

As his first year in the endowed chair position draws to a close, one of Professor Blanshard’s key forums for raising the profile of ancient history studies was an inaugural lecture held on 29 October.

There was not a spare seat in the house when Professor Blanshard delivered the lecture, titled ‘Why the Ancient Greeks Matter”, and rather than focusing on what the Greeks did first – a traditional focal point for discussion on ancient civilisations – he instead discussed what the Greeks did best.

“I wanted to focus on the highpoints of Greek culture that have relevance and deliver a great message to us, today,” Professor Blanshard said.

“The three elements from ancient Greek culture that we should especially celebrate are the importance they placed on ‘frank speech’, their ability to create a feeling of community, and their ability to give people ‘a sense of wonder’.”

Ancient Athenians were encouraged to speak their mind, whether it be in politics, art, writing or simply everyday life.

“The Greeks really prized speech that was unconventional and challenging, and a culture that values frank speech generally has more interesting political discussion and it also makes their art and literature braver,” Professor Blanshard said.

To contextualise this concept, he drew comparisons between the art and literature produced during the Peloponnesian War and during World War II, showing that in modern times, humans instinctively retreat into patriotic, safe and comfortable rhetoric, while the ancient Greeks continued to challenge humanity and their own people with honest and direct writings.

Professor Blanshard moved on to discuss how, despite this frank speech, a sense of community flourished and loneliness or isolation did not exist in ancient Greece

“People often sought solitude, but they were never actually lonely. This is partly due to the idea that the ancient Greeks were consistently surrounded by friends, family or slaves, and also due to the fact that decisions were made in consult with others, from marriage, to the sale of property, to how you would vote in the Assembly,” he said.

“They would find the isolated kinds of lives we live today very hard to understand.”

Professor Blanshard suggested this genuine sense of community was beneficial for a range of reasons, and contributed to a lack of deviant behavior in the ancient world, which today is often fueled by feelings of isolation and indeterminacy.

The final cornerstone the inaugural lecture was the ancient Greek’s ability to create a sense of wonder, and for that sense of wonder to not be limited to their own civilisation.

“There is a deliberate desire to include non-Greek wonders into their accounts and this comes from a strong belief that wonder exists beyond and is not owned by any particular ethnicity or nationality,” he said.

Ultimately, Professor Blanshard is suggesting there are many principles found in the ancient Greek world, which, if applied to society today, could go some way in creating a more harmonious lifestyle in our often uncertain world.

“Taken together, these virtues created a very special culture. It was a conversational society, which always left the door open for the miraculous. It was a place where radical innovations in politics and thought could occur. It was, at times, braver than us and kinder than us,” he said.


To view Professor Alastair Blanshard's full lecture, titled "Why the Ancient Greeks Matter", please click here.