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Opinion

The Great Mind of Edith Hamilton


  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Jun. 15, 2021 - 3:25 PM

The Great Mind of Edith Hamilton

Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at lreed@fee.org

“People hate being made to think,” the educator and classical scholar Edith Hamilton (1867-1963) once said. Laziness of mind is easy to find, even more so today than in her time. It shows up in vapid social media posts, flippant political rhetoric, superficial media coverage and the widespread absence of critical thinking skills. It’s everywhere.

People who don’t think are vulnerable to those who do, especially to those who think constantly about how to use others for nefarious purposes. Dictators and demagogues strongly prefer compliant and gullible subjects over thoughtful, independent, free-spirited types.

Edith Hamilton celebrated the mind. In her view, “Mind and spirit together make up that which separates us from the rest of the animal world, that which enables a man to know the truth, and that which enables him to die for the truth.”

She set herself to reawaken popular interest in the great thinkers of the ancient past — and in that noble effort, this home-schooled prodigy indisputably succeeded.

She grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her parents desired the best education for their five children. Edith, her three sisters and one brother were all home-schooled. Each went on to become an accomplished professional.

Alice achieved prominence as an authority in industrial toxicology and was the first female appointed to a faculty post at Harvard University. Norah was a pioneer in Art Education for underprivileged children in Chicago and New York City. Margaret was an eminent educator and biochemist. Arthur was an author, professor of Spanish and assistant dean for foreign students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Edith earned honorary doctorates from Yale, the University of Rochester and the University of Pennsylvania. Whoever said home-schoolers are not properly educated or “socialized” never met the Hamiltons (or any of the many home-schooled families I’ve known).

Edith served for 26 years in various capacities, including head administrator for a college preparatory institution in Baltimore. In 1922, she decided to start a writing career, one that would allow her to explore a lifelong passion for ancient Greece.

Her first book, “The Greek Way,” appeared in 1930 when she was 62. Over the next three decades, she would earn a worldwide reputation as an authority on the ancients. Her books sold by the millions.

She loved the ancient Greeks because like her, they loved the mind of the individual. “The Greeks were the first intellectualists,” she maintained. “In a world where the irrational had played the chief role, they came forward as the protagonists of the mind.

At age 90, Edith was made an honorary Citizen of Athens. Receiving thunderous applause in the shadow of the Acropolis, she told the audience that Greece rose to greatness because “there was in the Greeks the greatest spirit that moves in humanity, the spirit that makes men free.”

To Edith Hamilton, the fact that we each have a mind of our own leads to one inescapable conclusion, namely, that to be fully human, we must be both free and responsible. She was a stalwart friend of the individual — his mind, his rights and his freedom. I’m certain she would detest the mental poison of today’s mindless groupthink, cancel culture and “progressive” political correctness.

Edith Hamilton’s very readable books on Greece deserve to be dusted off and reread today.

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Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at lreed@fee.org