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The Greeks and their Heritage

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Arnold Toynbee

In 1922, a particularly tragic year in the history of modern Greece, Arnold Toynbee published The Western Question in Greece and Turkey. This was for its time a provocative book whose immediate result was the author's dismissal, amidst a storm of protest from fellow academics, from the Koraes Chair of Byzantine and Modern Greek at King's College, London. Half a century tater Toynbee returned to the same theme in an attempt to place it within a broader context. The Greeks and their Heritages is the last book he completed before his death.

Toynbee's argument can be expressed in a few sentences. He believes that a cultural heritage (or 'karma' as he likes to call it) is damaging if it is too dominant. The ancient Kelfenes, he tells us, were fortunate in that their inheritance from the Mycenaeans was no more than a vague memory that served to stimulate poetic imagination; for the rest they were free to 'do their own thing', which they did remarkably well, except that they tailed in politics. The Byzantines, on the other hand, were burdened with an oppressive heritage – that of the Roman Empire (which, for reasons I do not understand, is represented as a Hellenic institution) and that of classical paideia, with the result that both their sense of enterprise and their literature were stunted. As for the modern Greeks, they, too, have been saddled with a double heritage: the Byzantine one into which they came, so to speak, legitimately as well as an entirely spurious Hellenic heritage – both to their considerable detriment.

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