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Edith Hamilton

  • Pain is the most individualizing thing on earth. It is true that it is the great common bond as well, but that realization comes only when it is over. To suffer is to be alone. To watch another suffer is to know the barrier that shuts each of us away by himself. Only individuals can suffer.

  • [On Athens:] We think and feel differently because of what a little Greek town did during a century or two, twenty-four hundred years ago.

  • ... though the outside of human life changes much, the inside changes little, and the lesson-book we cannot graduate from is human experience.

  • ... great art is the expression of a solution of the conflict between the demands of the world without and that within ...

  • ... sooner or later, if the activity of the mind is restricted anywhere it will cease to function even where it is allowed to be free.

  • To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and delightful to live in, was a mark of the Greek spirit which distinguished it from all that had gone before. It is a vital distinction.

  • When the mind withdraws into itself and dispenses with facts it makes only chaos.

  • The Greek temple is the creation, par excellence, of mind and spirit in equilibrium.

  • A word is no light matter. Words have with truth been called fossil poetry, each, that is, a symbol of a creative thought.

  • The temper of mind that sees tragedy in life has not for its opposite the temper that sees joy. The opposite pole to the tragic view of life is the sordid view.

  • In theology the conservative temper tends to formalism.

  • Convention, so often a mask for injustice ...

  • The heterodoxy of one generation is the orthodoxy of the next.

  • One form of religion perpetually gives way to another; if religion did not change it would be dead. ... Each time the new ideas appear they are seen at first as a deadly foe threatening to make religion perish from the earth; but in the end there is a deeper insight and a better life with ancient follies and prejudices gone.

  • A people's literature is the great text-book for real knowledge of them.

  • There is no better indication of what the people of any period are like than the plays they go to see.

  • The comedy of each age holds up a mirror to the people of that age, a mirror that is unique.

  • Poetry and preaching do not go well together; when the preacher mounts the pulpit the poet usually goes away.

  • There are few efforts more conducive to humility than that of the translator trying to communicate an incommunicable beauty. Yet, unless we do try, something unique and never surpassed will cease to exist except in the libraries of a few inquisitive book lovers.

  • Myths are early science, the result of men's first trying to explain what they saw around them.

  • There is no dignity like the dignity of a soul in agony.

  • The suffering of a soul that can suffer greatly — that and only that, is tragedy.

  • The fullness of life is in the hazards of life. And, at the worst, there is that in us which can turn defeat into victory.

  • Christ must be rediscovered perpetually.

  • ... when faith is supported by facts or by logic it ceases to be faith.

  • No facts however indubitably detected, no effort of reason however magnificently maintained, can prove that Bach's music is beautiful.

  • Faith is not belief. Belief is passive. Faith is active.

  • Reality has actually very little to do with truth; there is no necessary connection between the two.

  • We are so made that when we have achieved a system of thought which explains everything beautifully, we have reached the point where we must begin to give it up. We are contented with it only as long as it is incomplete and we are trying to fit things into it.

  • Old ideas are continually being slain by new facts. There is nothing stable in the conclusions of the mind, and it is impossible that there ever should be unless we hold that the universe is made to the measure of the human mind, an assumption for which nothing in the past gives any warrant.

  • Uncertainty is the prerequisite to gaining knowledge and frequently the result as well.

  • The Old Testament is the record of men's conviction that God speaks directly to men.

  • Freedom was born in Greece because there men limited their own freedom. ... The limits to action established by law were a mere nothing compared to the limits established by a man's free choice.

  • What the people wanted was a government which would provide a comfortable life for them, and with this as the foremost object ideas of freedom and self-reliance and service to the community were obscured to the point of disappearing. Athens was more and more looked on as a co-operative business possessed of great wealth in which all citizens had a right to share. ... Athens had reached the point of rejecting independence, and the freedom she now wanted was freedom from responsibility. There could be only one result. ... If men insisted on being free from the burden of a life that was self-dependent and also responsible for the common good, they would cease to be free at all. Responsibility was the price every man must pay for freedom. It was to be had on no other terms.

  • To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated.

    • Edith Hamilton,
    • in Richard Thruelsen and John Kobler, eds., Adventures of the Mind, 1st series ()
  • When I read educational articles it often seems to me that this important side of the matter, the purely personal side, is not emphasized enough; the fact that it is so much more agreeable and interesting to be an educated person than not. The sheer pleasure of being educated does not seem to be stressed.

    • Edith Hamilton,
    • in Richard Thruelsen and John Kobler, eds., Adventures of the Mind, 1st series ()
  • ... clear thinking is not the characteristic which distinguishes our literature today. We are more and more caught up by the unintelligible. People like it. This argues an inability to think, or, almost as bad, a disinclination to think.

    • Edith Hamilton,
    • in Richard Thruelsen and John Kobler, eds., Adventures of the Mind, 1st series ()
  • So far, we do not seem appalled at the prospect of exactly the same kind of education being applied to all the school children from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but there is an uneasiness in the air, a realization that the individual is growing less easy to find; an idea, perhaps, of what standardization might become when the units are not machines, but human beings.

    • Edith Hamilton,
    • in Richard Thruelsen and John Kobler, eds., Adventures of the Mind, 1st series ()
  • ... when the freedom they wished most for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.

    • Edith Hamilton,
    • "The Lessons of the Past," in Richard Thruelsen and John Kobler, eds., Adventures of the Mind, 1st series ()
  • When we speak of beauty, we're speaking of something we're more or less indifferent to.

    • Edith Hamilton,
    • in James Nelson, ed., Wisdom for Our Time ()
  • In every civilization, life grows easier. Men grow lazier in consequence. We have a picture of what happened to the individual Greek. (I cannot look at history, or at any human action, except as I look at the individual.) The Greeks had good food, good witty talk, pleasant dinner parties; and they were content. When the individual man had reached that condition in Athens, when the thought not of giving to the state but of what the state could give to him, Athens' freedom was doomed.

    • Edith Hamilton,
    • in James Nelson, ed., Wisdom for Our Time ()
  • ... it is not hard work which is dreary; it is superficial work.

    • Edith Hamilton,
    • 1959, in Doris Fielding Reid, Edith Hamilton ()
  • The mind knows only what lies near the heart.

  • All things are to be examined and called into question. There are no limits set to thought.

  • None but a poet can write a tragedy. For tragedy is nothing less than pain transmuted into exaltation by the alchemy of poetry.

Edith Hamilton, U.S. writer, classical scholar, educator

(1865 - 1963)