Classic Ground fortnightly with Otto Steinmayer

The best things in life to the Greeks

[New Straits Times, 29 April 1992]


I have been itching for months to find space for classical topics unconnected with literature, nothing very profound. Since I cannot find a space, I'll just make one right here, and then let the column continue as it happens.

Thinking about letterwriting interested me in the act of writing itself, to me a great physical pleasure. Judging from the fullpage advertisements for Mont Blanc pens, many of you out there must feel the same way. 

I enjoy the feel of pen and ink on paper, and without being picky, I am careful in my choice of writing materials. Every method---ballpoint, pencil, fountain pen---imparts a character to handwriting. I am always interested to try exotic methods.

Two thousand years ago, Chinese wrote with a brush onto silk or slips of bamboo, Indians engraved characters onto strips of lontar palm with a pointed stylus, and Greeks and Romans wrote with pen and ink on sheets of papyrus (whence the English "paper").

Papyrus plant is a tall and nodding marsh plant, with a single stem and a tassled head. It used to grow thickly in swampy regions along the Nile in Egypt. I have seen papyrus plants at Frazer's Hill. Dwarf papryus grows all over the place in Malaysia. 

Egyptians harvested the stalks from boats. Then workers peeled them, sliced the soggy white pith into long strips, laid them out in rows and pounded them together with mallets. The paper that results is firm and supple, of a handsome tan colour. Single sheets were pasted together to make long sheets anywhere from 12 to 20 feet long. These were then rolled up in scrolls. The standard division for ancient literature was the "book," the amount of writing that could fit on one scroll.

Papyrus was cheap enough to be used in the market, and the fate of a bad book, as Horace says, was to wrap pepper. Although books were copied out by hand, they seem to have been fairly cheap as well. There was not the market for emphemeral writing that exists today, when most of the things we see in print are things we wouldn't want to read twice.

For writing on papyrus, people used pens they cut from reeds (like small bamboos) and ink made from dark sotong fluid, which has the advantage of never fading. People used a pointed iron rod to scratch less permanent notes on wooden tablets coated with wax.
This stylus had a rounded knob on the other end, with which the letters could be erased. Papyrus and wax tablets together made a simple form of word processing. Writers drafted pieces on wax, and when they were satisfied, transferred them to papyrus. From this master copy, other copies could be made.

One of the things that I was happy to learn when I went to Greece was that in Greece's always good weather nobody does things indoors. The Greeks wrote their most profound books under the shade of trees or grape vines. Some of the fresh air made it into the literature! Likewise plays and concerts were all given in the open air.

Modern Greek houses have remained much like the ancient ones made of timber, stone, and plaster, and roofed with tiles. They were simply laid out, with maybe two stories. The women lived upstairs. In town houses often shared walls. When there was space, a garden might surround the house. We tend to imagine classical cities shining a forbidding white; in fact, temples and other buildings were painted in bright colours---even the statues were painted.

In the warm climate, clothing was minimal. Women wore an ankle-length shirt, made of a piece of linen folded and pinned, and tied with a girdle. Men wore the same thing (except it reached only to the knees) or draped a single piece of woolen cloth around themselves. Men also worked or exercised naked and felt no shame at all. No other civilization was ever so comfortable with the human body.

Men always let their beards grow. Alexander was the first to introduce the fashion of shaving. The militaristic Spartans were especially vain of their long hair. 

Ancient Greek cooking was simple but savoury. About the only thing that has changed is that Greeks now have tomatoes. People ate bread bought from the baker or made at home. Anything else was called opson, a word that corresponds exactly to the Malay lauk. Greeks ate cheese, eggs, lentils, vegetables, and olives---olive oil they used in cooking and as soap. Seaside Greeks were crazy about fish, and strangely enough, they also liked belacan, although this has disappeared from modern cooking. 

A little party-poem describes the best things in life, as Athenians saw them:

Being healthy is best for a mortal man,
Second best is being born with a beautiful body,
Third, to be rich without guilt,
And fourth, to be young with your friends.

The happiest person in ancient Greece was the free adult male. Men alone could take part in public affairs, vote, fight, and do business. The status of women was in the main wretched. Athenian women got away from the house, as the poet Hipponax says, on two occasions:

The two sweetest days of a woman are---
When she gets married, and when they carry her out dead. 

Many of the people in any state were slaves. They led a life that varied from the tolerable to the appalling. Slavery has always been an embarrassement to us Greek-admirers. However, on a small farm, their masters toiled alongside them.

Yet with the drudgery taken care of, the Greek citizen could give his best energy to whatever he liked. Many men were hardworking farmers and craftsmen, others were traders or bankers. Others preferred to hang around the marketplace, the centre of city life, and spend the day talking, mainly about politics, the national sport in democratic cities. 

Scholars have proposed a hundred different reasons for why the Greeks became such daring and enthusiastic thinkers. The abundance of leisure certainly explains a lot. Serious or artistic minded men were under no compulsion to make their thinking pay for itself. They could write, paint, study, practice music, or contemplate without fear of starving. If work paid, so much the better. Socrates was by his times' standard a very poor man, and yet he was able to support his family and discuss philosophy. 

Another reason for the Greeks' productivity, unlike we moderns, the Greeks did not believe that art and culture and intellectual curiosity was weird. Greek poetry is now a museum piece; in its own time, this art was loved and practiced to some extent by every ordinary person. Not only was poetry and speculative thought part into Greek society, but the ordinary Greek keenly appreciated quality, and felt he had a right to his opinion on the latest tragedy, or the latest issues discussed in the assembly.

A good parallel is the life people live in Bali, where a man may be a rice-farmer six months out of the year, indistinguishable from anyone else in tucked up sarong and terendak, and the other six months a master gšnder player on tour abroad, or a painter, or a Brahmin priest. And like the ancient Greek, the Balinese man considers it his sacred right fully to participate in the government of his village.

This sense of life's wholeness is one we moderns are in grave danger of losing under many pressures. The Greeks, I think, got it right, that the most important business of life is to find out how to live well, not merely in a material way, but as a complete human being who prizes thinking, art, the good of his country and his spirit. Their example remains as an inspiring model.