'Who are you?' asks Ingrid Rossellini at the outset of Know Thyself: Western Identity From Classical Greece to the Renaissance It’s a question that she intends her survey of art, literature and ideas to help us answer. She declares in her preface that she proposes 'to return to the early times of our history with the intention of rediscovering the building blocks of our contemporary personality.' This grand claim goes beyond what she actually attempts in Know Thyself to say nothing of what she achieves ... As a tour guide, Ms. Rossellini is a stalwart if uninspiring companion. Her voice is closer to the dry tones of the college textbook. She never pauses from her itinerary for, say, first-person reflections or glimpses of her own moments of discovery ... A bigger problem concerns her reliability. No single author could claim mastery of all the areas she covers, but she commits errors that should have been caught by fact checking. Discussing the Persian invasions of Europe described by Herodotus, Ms. Rossellini confuses a bridge built by Darius with a later one constructed by Xerxes. She shows a bust of the Roman general Pompey to illustrate its evocation of Alexander the Great—by means of 'the same leonine hairstyle'—though the style she refers to belongs to a different bust. Such missteps are small, but they undermine Ms. Rossellini’s authority ... Know Thyself ends with an exhortation toward inclusiveness and the breaking down of boundaries between the West and 'the other.' This timely plea feels at odds with the way that Ms. Rossellini herself has presented other cultures and, like her title and grandiose preface, outstrips the more limited goals of the book itself.'
Rumors of the death of Western civilization must be questioned when a work of popular history as absorbing and readable as this is published. While necessarily recording major political events in the successive eras she covers, Rossellini forefronts philosophy, literature, representational art, and architecture, and how those disciplines express conceptions of human nature.
The author, who has taught at Columbia, Harvard, and other prestigious universities, begins with the ancient Greeks and works her way through the eras of the Romans, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Collaborating with others is an innate human characteristic, and few civilizations illustrated that trait better than the Spartans and Athenians.
This is no beach book. Rossellini gives us illuminating classes in art history, Western civilization, philosophy, and religion, all rolled into one book that must be read closely and pondered fully.
According to Rossellini, her work is intended for lay readers, but, unfortunately, the theoretical framework—the shift from communitarian to individualistic thinking, and the implications for civil society—is so loosely constructed that it feels more like a thread lost in an enormous tapestry. Major figures share slivers of Rossellini’s expansive time line in close proximity: two Holy Roman Emperors, Charlemagne and Otto I, and one pope, John XII, share a single paragraph ... too often a catalogue of names, dates, and places that falls short of her stated aim of promoting a more civic-minded sensibility in a self-centric moment.