Jun 19, 2019

Whose Quotation Is It?: "You Greeks Are Like Children"


Ancient Ruins
“You Greeks are like children.” An Egyptian priest has reprimanded Solon, a Sixth Century Greek diplomat, about why Egypt has been around for quite a while longer than the Greeks. The Egyptians are having none of that. Greek civilization at that time was still too young to boast of its own greatness. Grow up a bit, the Egyptian advises.
But what is the veracity of this quote and where does it really originate?

There is a general rule of thumb that if you read a quotation online purported to be penned by a famous writer, politician, or philosopher, it is best to be skeptical, especially if the quote is not cited with a reference to an actual book or solid source. Plato said it? Abraham Lincoln said it? Hillary Clinton said it? I'd be wary if the citation is not complete. It has happened to me several times that I found a quote that I liked (and even posted it here) only to later find out that its authorship is unknown.
A Quick Internet Search Has Yielded a Researcher’s Headache
A few years ago, I was an assistant to a political scientist - he needed someone to come to his house in Staten Island to work on a manuscript he was writing about emerging global markets. One job I had was to track down quotes he wanted to use in his book. “Research Solon's remarks about ‘You Greeks are like children’,” he told me. It was a seemingly easy quote to track down because I knew the story from History. Solon did indeed visit Egypt in the Sixth Century B.C.E. But who actually recorded the interchange between the priest and Solon: “You Greeks are like children …”?
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A quick Internet search showed that apparently, Plato was the one who immortalized the exchange between the Egyptian priest and Solon - but as I mentioned earlier, I could not find a hard source. However, I finally found the source - after doing a series of searches in the Complete Works of Plato - I found it. The quote comes from Plato’s Timaeus. In this book, Plato has Socrates and his friends talking about a bunch of things, but one strand that runs through the dialogue is the creation of the world. Solon appears in the dialogue because of Critias - one of Plato’s cousins! He tells the story of Solon visiting Egypt. An old priest stands up and says:
“‘Ah, Solon, Solon, you Greeks are ever children. There isn’t an old man among you.’ On hearing this, Solon said, ‘What? What do you mean?’ ‘You are young,’ the old priest replied, ‘young in soul, every one of you. Your souls are devoid of beliefs about antiquity handed down by ancient tradition. Your souls lack any learning made hoary by time.’” (Timaeus 22 b-c)*
*Plato,  and John M. Cooper. Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009. Print.


The Fragility of Passing Down Knowledge
Civilization is not guaranteed.
The priest goes on to tell a myth that explains why the Egyptians have retained more knowledge than the Greeks - basically, the priest says, the Egyptians have been able to escape both flood and fire raged on humanity by the gods. Where other civilizations advance and learn, they are either destroyed or they forget over time. The priest cites the myth of Phaethon as an example - which reads like the end-scene of nearly every Hollywood disaster movie. Phaethon was the son of Helios: moral of the story is don’t let your son ride your chariot (if you’re a Sun god). All hell will break loose. I look up at the sky and wonder if Plato’s Egyptian priest is right. In talking about creation he ends up talking about destruction. I love that last line and I can imagine an old priest emerging from the group and confronting the statesman Solon with this message. If knowledge is not “handed down by ancient tradition” then we lose the ability to share. And if we lose the ability to share we lose the ability to trust. Learning has not been made hoary by time! And by hoary he means grown over time like sturdy stick my brothers would use when walking in the woods - nothing could break it.

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