Posted by: Corri van de Stege | July 18, 2013

Love, sex and tragedy – why classics matter. Simon Goldhill

IMG_055313 more days to go, suddenly it’s less than a fortnight. I would so much like to take this hot sweltering block off my leg!

I’ve decided to write a more extended review of this book by Goldhill, Love, sex and tragedy, as I have now read the greatest part of it and rate it highly.

The book consists of five main sections and every chapter in the book is dedicated toLove, sex and tragedy showing why learning about classics makes a fundamental difference ‘to understanding the major concerns of modern western life.‘  Goldhill explores how the past forms our identity of today and covers a wide range of questions, relating to our perceptions of our bodies, sexual desires and mores, religion, family and marriage, leisure activities etc.  What Goldhill tries to show is how in particular Greek culture has been paramount in influencing who we are, and that not to know or be  interested in that history of Greek antiquity means that we would never really be able to understand ourselves. ‘History changes who you are, makes you who you are.  If you do not know that history, then you cannot really be self-aware.

A bold claim indeed,but I think he provides the evidence and justifies the claim.

Oliver Taplin in his review of the book in the Guardian (2004) writes that the title of the book could not have been more unfortunate, and of course, that’s right: you would expect that this is probably a book that sets out to titillate and is probably lightweight, not altogether ‘serious’.  In fact, it is anything but.  The book is challenging, humorous and covers a vast range of topics and poses a large number of questions that it sets out to answer.

What attracted me to reading this book in the first instance are the links that are made between Christianity as it developed in our own western culture and the Greek myths and culture – how the two are related.  I had questions about early Christianity and how it was influenced by Greek and Roman culture and how far Christianity is in fact a reaction to that culture and its practices.  This is dealt with in Part 2 of the book.

220px-Vasari,_perseo_e_andromeda,_studioloPart 1 (‘Who do you think you are?‘) compares current and ancient perceptions of the body, and considers the radical change that has taken place with respect to what is acceptable or what is ‘normal’ nudity.  As an example there is the rather striking change in the representation of Perseus and Andromeda in the Greek myth: in ancient pictures it is Perseus who is nude (of course, Greek male heroes are almost always represented in the nude, with perfectly sculpted bodies) and Andromeda, the female, is fully robed.  In the painting by Titan and other 16th century representations, this is 506px-Museo_Nazionale_Napoli_Perseus_And_Andromedaquite reversed and Perseus is in battle gear and covered up, whereas Andromeda, the female changed to the rock, is naked (and vulnerable).

Greeks were obsessed with the male body, which should be perfect and in order to achieve a perfectly toned body they spent hours in the gymnasium.  Men only though!  Goldhill also points out the link between this ancient practice and German nationalism in the 20th century (Nietzsche and all that) and also the modern Olympic movement and our reverence of sport personalities.

There’s too much to mention and analyse, but this book is fascinating and amazing to the extent that you suddenly discover these connections (some may seem obvious) and begin to understand a bit more about our own values and how they have either grown out of or have been reactions against that early history.

I am really fascinated by Part 2 of the book which has the heading ‘Where do you think you are going?’.   Having been  brought up in  very strict Calvinist family and environment in the so-called ‘Bible Belt’ of Holland, for me  as a child, the reality was that there were only two places you could go to: heaven or hell.  This was so ‘real’ that it took quite an effort to shake it off and realise the indoctrination for what it was: a way of ensuring submission and living according to rules devised by others (mainly males).

However, Christianity did not come out of the blue, of course.  It came about within a world saturated with Greek and Roman myths and cultures, it was a reaction to these cultures and it also absorbed aspects of these cultures and then started to lead a life of its own.  Body image, marriage, saintliness, views of holiness (such as remaining a virgin, or leading a monastic life away from temptations) etc. were developed over the ensuring years and centuries, and these underwent various changes and schisms (think Augustine, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, etc.).  Goldhill writes:

Christianity came into existence in antiquity.  It is first formulated in the authoritative languages of the Roman empire – Greek and Latin.  The gospels are written in Greek and then translated into Latin.  The founding fathers of the church wrote and thought in Latin and Greek.’


Christianity was formulated in antiquity and constantly walked between a radical and hostile rejection of Roman and Greek culture, and a more sly accommodation and negotiation of its values.  Early Christianity is by turns baffling in its extreme and self-willed violence, and recognisable for its family stories.’

Finally: ‘We just cannot understand how Christianity came to be what it is without the culture of antiquity.  And without making that journey of understanding we cannot appreciate the genesis of the most basic values that all of us in the society of the West follow and struggle with.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in where we come from and where we think we are going.  It is not at all heavy going and quite funny in places, e.g. the observations on body image, in particular male representation, and self-flagellation.

Part 3 deals with politics and democracy – and is equally fascinating: whereas in Athens democracy implied and requires participation of each ‘citizen’, we of course have a structure that is about representative democracy.  Some of the inherent contradictions of democracy, Plato’s views, the Spartans, how Karl Popper wrote against the closed society and its enemies, and other topics are all dealt with.

Parts 4 and 5 deal with entertainment, tragedy, etc. and poses the question on where we think we come from (myths of origin, Oedipus, etc.).

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  1. This really seems like an interesting book 🙂 These less than two weeks will fly by so fast, Corri! What is the first thing you’ll do without that cast? 🙂

  2. I will stick my foot in a bath of water, have a full shower, I’ve booked a pedicure incl leg massage (hope the doctor allows this ☺ )

  3. Interesting this particular point of view shown by the author, Corri. It suddenly started my thinking of how future inhabitants of the planet would consider the present three main monotheistic religions: would they consider them as myths (Greek myths, Romans, myths, Christian myths, Islamic myths, Judaic myths) and consequently would change them into more assumable religions by the then living inhabitants of the planet? Religions, in my opinion, have always formed the fundamental spine of civilisation – any civilisation – in the sense that it has contributed to design the rules by which the humankind has lived at all times, but to free-thinking people religions are not consistent with the logical process of reasoning they have adopted through what I may call mundane life.

    On the other hand, what you say gives me to understand that the study made by the author is circumscribed to a particular sector of our society: that of fully educated and learned people, omitting what concerns the “hoi polloi”, who as we have seen in the course of centuries have had no other option than toeing the line traced by the former sector.

  4. Jose, yes I like your take on this: ALL religions as myths and constantly evolving, which is of course what is happening with religions anyway, however hard religious conservatives try to maintain the status quo (viz female subjection etc) or even go back to earlier eras. People, believers, sooner or later tend to rebel, look at the Arab revolution (agreed that this is about more than specific mores or customs!) and the revolt of women against their oppressors, in whatever guise.

    There is of course the idea that without religion / christianity there would be no moral code, but I don’t think that is so.

    Goldhill is concerned with a very specific area, I agree, and he does not claim to be otherwise concerned: he wants to show that current day western christianity cannot be fully understood without knowing ancient Greek history and its myths and culture.

    I’m sure you’d enjoy the book as it does give lots of things to think about – we don’t necessarily have to agree with everything he says, but he certainly makes you think and I do agree that a lot of our current day customs an morality cannot be fully understood without having some understanding of where it all comes from, Greek antiquity

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