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Thomas Cahill

American scholar and writer

Thomas Cahill (born 1940 in New York City) is an American scholar and writer. He is best known for The Hinges of History series, a prospective seven-volume series in which the author recounts formative moments in Western civilization.

QuotesEdit

How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995)Edit

  • Whether or not Freud was right when he muttered in exasperation that the Irish were the only people who could not be helped by psychoanalysis, there can be no doubt of one thing: the Irish will never change.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • Patrick... understood that, though Christianity was not inextricably wedded to Roman custom, it could not survive without Roman literacy.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • Ireland is unique in religious history for being the only land into which Christianity was introduced without bloodshed.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • The Irish of the late fifth and early sixth centuries soon found a solution... the Green Martyrdom, opposing it to the conventional Red Martyrdom of blood. The Green Martyrs... retreated to the woods, or to a mountaintop, or to a lonely island... there to study the scriptures and commune with God.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • Irish generosity extended not only to a variety of people but to a variety of ideas. ...they brought into their libraries everything they could lay their hands on. ...Not for them the scruples of Saint Jerome... they began to devour all of the old Greek and Latin pagan literature that came their way.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • Whereas elsewhere in Europe, no educated man would be caught dead speaking a vernacular, the Irish thought that all language was game—and too much fun to be deprived of any part of it. They were still too childlike and playful to find any value in snobbery.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • The pages of most books were of mottled parchment, that is, dried sheepskin, which was universally available—and nowhere more abundant than in Ireland, whose bright green fields still host each April an explosion of new white lambs. Vellum, or calfskin, which was more uniformly white when dried, was used more sparingly for the most honored texts.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • Lacking cities, Ireland didn't quite see the point of bishops, and gradually these were replaced in importance by abbots and—in a development that would make any self-respecting Roman's blood run cold—abbesses.
  • The high abbesses... had the power to heal, ...almost certainly heard confessions, probably ordained clergy, and may even have celebrated Mass.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • The Irish... developed a form of confession that was exclusively private and that had no equivalent on the continent. In the ancient church, confession of one's sins—and the subsequent penance... had always been public. ...one did not necessarily choose one's "priest" from among ordained professionals: the act of confession was too personal and too important for such a limitation. One looked for an anmchara, a soul-friend, someone to be trusted over a whole lifetime.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • A century after the death of Patrick... there were few Romans left in western Europe. [By the mid sixth century] the whole subtle substructure of Roman political organization and Roman communication has vanished. In its place have grown the sturdy little principalities of the Middle Ages, Gothic illiterates ruling over Gothic illiterates, pagan or occasionally Arian—that is, following a debased, simpleminded form of Christianity in which Jesus was given a status similar to that of Mohammed in Islam.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • Never interested in impressive edifices, Irish monks preferred to spend their time in study, prayer, farming—and, of course, copying. ...a little hut for each monk... a refectory and kitchen; a scriptorium and library; a smithy, a kiln, a mill, and a couple of barns; a modest church—and they were in business.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • This swaggering behavior has confounded historians, prompting them to wonder if Columbanus was a little off his rocker. But I think we may chalk up this attitude to his Irishness.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • Latin literature would almost certainly have been lost without the Irish, and illiterate Europe would hardly have developed its great national literatures without the example of the Irish, the first vernacular literature to be written down.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • More than half of all our biblical commentaries between 650 and 850 were written by Irishmen.
    • Ch. VI What Was Found
  • Beowulf grappling with the monstors was a type of Christ grappling with Satan.
    • Ch. VII The End of the World
  • For a century and a half—from the middle of the fifth century to the end of the sixth—there had been... no formal communication between Rome and the Christians of Britain, nor had there been any between Rome and Ireland...
    • Ch. VII The End of the World
  • More than a billion people in our world today survive on less than $370 a year, while Americans, who constitute five percent of the world's population, purchase fifty percent of its cocaine.
    • Ch. VII The End of the World
  • If we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.
    • Ch. VII The End of the World

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (2003)Edit

  • Human beings never know more than a part, as "through a glass darkly"; and all knowledge comes to us in pieces.
    • Introduction
  • Like fish who do not know they swim in water, we are seldom aware of the atmosphere of the times through which we move, how strange and singular they are. But when we approach another age, its alienness stands out before us, almost as if that were its most obvious quality...
    • Introduction
  • For me, the historian's principal task should be to raise the dead to life.
    • Introduction
  • Only when we step back can we see that we have been reassembling something that can stand in the wind.
    • Introduction
  • The Greek world will continue in almost constant cultural revolution from the time of Homer to the day Rome brings Greece to its knees in the second century B.C. ...the longest trajectory of fluid development in any society known to history.
    • Ch. III The Poet: How to Party
  • Though the poems of Homer and his successors were recorded, there will be no Greek reading public till we reach the fifth century B.C. ...There was instead, a hearing public that formed responsive audiences at festivals and contests.
    • Ch. III The Poet: How to Party
  • Dour, anxious Hesiod writes about the daily round of farming and the effects if the seasons on rural life but also speaks in his Works and Days about the value of festal competitions with "potter against potter, carpenter against carpenter... poet against poet."
    • Ch. III The Poet: How to Party
  • To be without music was, for the ancient Greeks, to be already dead... Ancient Greece was a culture of song.
    • Ch. III The Poet: How to Party
  • Unfortunately, much of the post-Homeric poetry—called lyric poetry because it was usually sung to a lyre—was lost in the upheavals of subsequent centuries, especially in the depredations and decay that would follow the barbarian incursions into the Greco-Roman world in the fifth century A.D.
    • Ch. III The Poet: How to Party
  • These symposia may have been, as much as anything, occasions to release the pent-up anxieties of a society always at war—"the father of all, the king of all," "always existing by nature," as the Greek philosophers expressed it.
    • Ch. III The Poet: How to Party
  • Solon was a sort of Athenian Franklin D. Roosevelt... He was an aristocratic reformer who understood instinctively that the aristocracy's monopoly on power had to be loosened and some power given to the lesser orders if social peace was to be shored up.
    • Ch.IV The Politician and the Playwright: How to Rule
  • The Greeks never thought to unite all Greek speakers in one political union. Because each Greek gloried in his singular excellence—and each Greek clan gloried similarly—it was hard enough to unite a city. Each city or polis—from which come our words politics, politician, metropolis—thought itself unrivaled in some essential quality and reveled in its reputation.
    • Ch.IV The Politician and the Playwright: How to Rule
  • The five-hundred-bushelers... were on average five, at most ten, times as rich as the thetes, the lowest grade of citizen. ...Today, the gap between, say, a municipal bus driver and a Fortune 500 CEO approaches infinity.
    • Ch.IV The Politician and the Playwright: How to Rule
  • Athenian democracy was different from the much later American form, not only because it was the expression of a single city-state but because it was a direct [democracy], rather than a representative democracy. To us, looking backwards, it may seem imprudent to invite all citizens to vote on all major initiatives, but Solon was right to appreciate that no Athenian freeman could allow himself to be left out of anything.
    • Ch.IV The Politician and the Playwright: How to Rule
  • The word the Athenians used for their Assembly was Ekklēsia, the same word used in the New Testament for Church (and it is the greatest philological irony in all of Western history that this word, which connoted equal participation in all deliberations by all members, came to designate a kind of self-perpetuating, self-protective Spartan gerousia—which would have seemed patent nonsense to Greek-speaking Christians of New Testament times, who believed themselves to be equal members of their Assembly.)
    • Ch.IV The Politician and the Playwright: How to Rule
  • This paucity of actors on the stage reflects the liturgical roots of Greek theater, which continued to stick close to its religious origins. … [A] machine, called the mēchanē, was a sort of crane that swung an actor playing a god over the parapet of the skēnē and out above the stage (thus the Latin phrase deus ex machina for a solution from nowhere, an unforeseen answer to prayers).
    • Ch.IV The Politician and the Playwright: How to Rule
  • ...the turns of the screw that Sophocles administered throughout the play [Oedipus Tyrannos] must have been received with sharp pain... because these cocky, princely, Oedipal Greeks were being made to feel acutely the limitations of human society—in which no political leader, no matter how gifted or courageous, can remain a savior forever, in which every man must come to know that he is no hero but essentially a flawed and luckless figure and that "the pains we inflict upon ourselves hurt most of all."
    • Ch.IV The Politician and the Playwright: How to Rule
  • This hamartia (tragic flaw, the same word that early Christians will use for "sin," especially for original sin, the sin we are born with, the sin beyond any human being's control) is not incidental to Oedipus but is, rather, essential to his admirable character. He is strong, courageous, self-possessed, taking charge and striding boldly where others fear to go—the very qualities that foretell his undoing.
    • Ch.IV The Politician and the Playwright: How to Rule
  • If we could save one word from Greek civilization, it would have to be aretē, excellence. The aristocrats gave themselves their name, the aristoi (the best). It is an open question whether anyone considered himself a member of the kakoi (the worst, the craven, the dumb shits). though this put-down prances everywhere in the surviving literature. ...that shame—the paralyzing fear of being numbered among the kakoiis the hidden engine that ran Greek life.
    • Ch.IV The Politician and the Playwright: How to Rule
  • The [Greek] myths were... attempting—at a deeper level—to feel the intangible and say the unsayable.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • We can understand Greek religion because, it operates on the same internal dynamic that fuels all (or certainly almost all) religion. The aboriginal Christian prayer Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) is a Greek prayer far more ancient than Christianity.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • They [the Greeks] had become an essentially secular people.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • Pericles' words are echoed in other critical speeches of later Western history... Lincoln at Gettysburg... Churchill's... repeated promise to the British people... of "blood, toil, tears, and sweat." And no wonder, for both orator's knew their Thucydides and knew this speech [Funeral Oration over the Athenian dead in the first year of the Peloponnesian War]. ...the most obvious later parallel is the 1961 presidential address of John F. Kennedy. ...When he told of the sacrifices yet to come, like Pericles he pulled no punches. ...In neither case is there a confession of atheism, just an implied acknowledgement that a politician is no oracle and has no business speaking on behalf of heaven.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • No longer did philosophers aspire to the deep spiritual insights and broad moral vision of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. They divided into conflicting schools and wandered through the Greco-Roman world as permanent immigrants, picking up tutoring jobs as they could. ...the upshot was a debased intellectual climate, fragmented and agnostic.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • When Donald Rumsfeld, a practical imperialist if ever there was one, took over the Pentagon, he commissioned a study of how ancient empires maintained their hegemony. Might he more profitably study how they lost all they had gained?
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • Of the many people's of the earth, the Romans may have had the most boring religion of all. ...basically a businessman's religion of contractual obligations.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • It is... ironic that, given its subsequent history of Jew-hatred, Christianity should become the vehicle by which Jewish values entered the mainstream.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • The terms of this new religion, though based on Hebrew models, were Greek terms. Christ, Ekklēsia (Church), Baptism, Eucharist, Agapē (Lovingkindness)—all of Christianity's central words were Greek words. Christian patterns of thought... could indeed be traced to their origins in the coastal Levant, but they often shone with a Greek patina.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • The philosophy of self-denial also taught the brotherhood of man, based on the Stoical belief that every human being without distinction possesses a spark of divinity that is in communion with God, who in the Stoical system is called Logos (Word, Reason, Meaning)—the word John's Gospel uses to describe Jesus.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • Even the special appurtenances of Christian monasticism—silence, meditation, chanting, distinctive costumes, beads, incense, kneeling, hands raised in prayer—all too likely go back to the Pythagoreans and beyond them to their influences, the Indian Buddhists and their predecessors.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • For the most part, in the union of Greco-Roman with Judeo-Christian, the Greco-Roman turn of mind combined with Judeo-Christian values. While the outward form of the Western world remained Greco-Roman, its content became gradually Judeo-Christian.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • The worldview that underlay the New Testament was so different from that of the Greeks and the Romans as to be almost its opposite. It was a worldview that stressed not excellence of public achievement but the adventure of a personal journey with God... by imitating God's justice and mercy.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • As... Greek philosophy split into scores of yip-yapping schools, the Greeks became more and more puzzled. They had lost their way philosophically—and the Romans, who were just aping them, had nothing original to propose by way of saving them all from their dilemmas.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • The idea of physical resurrection struck them [the Greeks] as ghoulish. ...Matter is the very principle of unintelligibity [or lack of intelligence]. Best to be done with it. For the Jews, who had little of no belief in the immortality of the soul, only salvation in one's body could have any meaning.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • Just as the Judeo-Christian world had learned the Greek language and internalized Greek categories, the Greco-Roman world gradually abandoned its dying gods and became monotheistic.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • In another of history's terrible ironies, the barbarian influence on Western Christianity enlivened it beyond anything the diluted Greeks of Byzantium were now capable of. The mad barbarians pushed Western Christianity into retaining some of the plastic abundance, the inventive plasticity, the fathomless versatility that had once been incomparably characteristic of the Greeks.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian
  • Whatever we experience in our day, whatever we hope to learn, whatever we most desire, whatever we set out to find, we see that the Greeks have been there before us, and we meet them on their way back.
    • Ch.VII The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian

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