M. I. Finley, in The Ancient Greeks, speaks of the Greeks’ concern with the individual and with isolated incidents of the past as expressed in their historical works. According to Finley, the Greeks were interested in history but did not take the pains that a historiographer would to report the past. He also asserts that the function of Greek history, as it expresses itself in the literature of the time, was often to provide an explanation for a current cult practice or ritual (also evidenced by the infusion of gods into these texts). Also, the events of such historical accounts do not offer a context of time or place. Greek “historians” were preoccupied with resurrecting a more glorious, heroic past and tended, in general, to view the past as being somehow “better” than the present. Most of these characteristics also permeate ancient Roman writings, like Vergil’s Aeneid. Goethe, who wrote much later, shared this interest in history, drawing on the traditional German story of Faustus for the creation of his Faust. However, Faust does not glorify the past but rather serves as a social and political commentary on contemporary German life.
Classic Greek and Roman writers also influenced the works of the later Classicists in their preference for order over chaos. Symmetry, continuity, smoothness, harmony, and logic were all characteristics classical writers would strive for in their works. The unities are an example or an outgrowth of this need for structure and for order. They are strict rules of dramatic structure formulated by Renaissance dramatists on the basis of Aristotle’s views of drama, as expressed in his work Poetics. Among them are the three unities of action, time, and place. According to these rules, a play first must have a single plot with a beginning, middle, and an ending. Second, the action of a play should be restricted to the events of a single day. Finally, the scene should be restricted to a single location.
Reason versus Passion
It has been said that the Greeks loved to talk and listen, and they were keen on the art of conversation. Philosophers also taught by discourse and discussion. The art of conversation fed the value the Greeks placed on the process of determining the basis for an action, decision, or conviction. For them, conversation and reason went hand in hand.
The Greeks, like classicists that followed, looked unfavorably upon the over indulgence of intense emotion, preferring reason to passion. Racine’s Andromaque, for example, centers on the fall of Troy. All of the characters in the play are dominated by their passions. The result is insanity or death, with the exception of Andromaque. Euripides’ tragedy Medea is yet another fatal tale in which Medea’s passion, rather than reason, informs her decisions. Indulging her jealous rage results in the murder of her own children.