In Will Durant’s closing section of Our Oriental Heritage, the first of eleven volumes in his The Story of Civilization series, he works to tie in the broad histories of ancient Asia with Greece as a transmitter and transformer civilization. (The Life of Greece is the second in his 11-volume series.) Excerpt:
From Egypt and Mesopotamia Greece took the models for her doric and ionic columns. From those same lands came not only the column but the arch, the vault, the clerestory, and the dome, and the ziggurats of the Near East have had some share in molding the architecture of America today. Chinese painting and Japanese prints changed the tone and current of 19th century European art and Chinese porcelan raised a new perfection for Europe to emulate.
The somber splendor of the Gregorian chant goes back age by age to the plaintive songs of exiled Jews, gathering timidly in scattered synagogues. These are some of the elements of civilization, and part of the legacy of the East to the West.
Nevertheless much was left for the classic world to add to this rich inheritance. Crete would build a civilization almost as ancient as Egypt’s and would serve as a bridge to bind the cultures of Asia and Africa and Greece. Greece would transform art by seeking not size but perfection. It would marry effeminate delicacy of form and finish to the masculine architecture and statuary of Egypt and would provide the scene for the greatest age in the history of art.
It would apply to all the realms of literature the creative exuberance of the free mind. It would contribute meandering epics, profound tragedies, hilarious comedies, and fascinating histories to the store of European letters. It would organize universities and establish for a brilliant interlude the secular independence of thought. It would develop beyond any precedent the mathematics of astronomy, the physics and medicine bequeathed it by Egypt and the East. It would originate the sciences of life and the naturalistic view of man. It would bring philosophy to consciousness and order, and would consider with unaided rationality all the problems of our life. It would emancipate the educated classes from ecclesiasticism and superstitution, and would attempt a morality independent of supernatural aid. It would conceive man as a citizen rather than as a subject. It would give him political liberty, civil rights, and an unparalleled measure of mental and moral freedom. It would create democracy and invent the individual.
Rome would take over this abounding culture, spread it throughout the Mediterranean world, protect it for half a millenium from barbarian assault and then transmit it through Roman literature and the Latin languages to Northern Europe. It would lift woman to a power and splendor and mental emancipation which perhaps she had never known before. It would give Europe a new calendar and teach it the principles of politcal organization and social security. It would establish the rights of the individual in an orderly system of laws that would help to hold the continent together through the centuries of poverty, chaos, and superstitution.
Often the phrase “Judeo-Christian” is used to almost interchangeably to refer to American/Western cultures. Yet Durant paints a portrait of Greek achievement and cultural synthesis—protected by the Romans and later European cultures—that continues to shape the majority of what we think of as a modern way of life.
In light of this, I wonder whether a firmer case could be made for the phrase “Graeco-Christian” rather than “Judeo-Christian” to better describe the development of our culture’s shared political and intellectual life. As Durant underscores, Greece indelibly shaped our sense of culture, law, and thought that came to dominate what became “Christian civilization” and Greece’s development of the individual and of political liberty continue to shape both domestic and international law.
If we need a phrase to describe the thread that binds the fabric of our culture through time, “Judeo-Christian” works in speaking of religious relationship and tradition, but “Graeco-Christian culture” might be better for describing what Durant refers to at one point as our “living cultural basis.”