“If you desire to be free of this and freedom seems truly attractive to you, and if you seek help for this reason alone—that it might be allowed for you to do this without constant trouble—how would the whole gang of Stoics fail to approve it? Every Zeno and Chrysippus will advise you about your moderation and honor. But if you keep turning your back so you can try to see how much you carry with you and how much money you need for leisure you will never find an end to it.
No one can swim to safety with their bags. Emerge to a better life with divine favor but let it not be in that way in which they are favorable to those people to whom they grant great evils with pleasant and pleasing glances—and they are excused for doing so because those things which burn and torture are given to those who beg for them.
I was already closing this letter with a seal, but it had to be opened again so that it may come to you with the dutiful contribution and bring some great saying to you. And look, here is something that comes to my mind which I don’t know if it is truer or more well-put. “Whose saying?” you ask? It is Epicurus, for I am still sewing my quilt from other people’s fragments. “Everyone leaves from life just as if they just had entered it”.
Grab anyone suddenly—a youth, an old man, someone in the middle—and you will find them equally afraid of death and without understanding of life. No one has finished anything, because we keep postponing everything we do to tomorrow. Nothing makes me happier in that quotation than the fact that it calls old men out for being babies.
“No one”, he says, “leaves the world differently from the way in which they were born.” This is false! We are worse when we die than when we are born. This is our fault, not nature’s. Nature ought to criticize us, saying, “What is this? I produced you without desires, without fear, without superstition, without treachery and these diseases! Leave as you were when you got here!”
Sed si deponere illam in animo est et libertas bona fide placuit, in hoc autem unum advocationem petis, ut sine perpetua sollicitudine id tibi facere contingat, quidni tota te cohors Stoicorum probatura sit? Omnes Zenones et Chrysippi moderata, honesta, tua suadebunt. Sed si propter hoc tergiversaris, ut circumspicias, quantum feras tecum et quam magna pecunia instruas otium, numquam exitum invenies. Nemo cum sarcinis enatat. Emerge ad meliorem vitam propitiis dis, sed non sic, quomodo istis propitii sunt, quibus bono ac benigno vultu mala magnifica tribuerunt, ad hoc unum excusati, quod ista, quae urunt, quae excruciant, optantibus data sunt.
13Iam inprimebam epistulae signum; resolvenda est, ut cum sollemni ad te munusculo veniat et aliquam magnificam vocem ferat secum, et occurrit mihi ecce nescio utrum verior an eloquentior. “Cuius?” inquis; Epicuri, adhuc enim alienas sarcinas adsero; “Nemo non ita exit e vita, tamquam modo intraverit.” Quemcumque vis occupa, adulescentem senem medium; invenies aeque timidum mortis, aeque inscium vitae. Nemo quicquam habet facti, in futurum enim nostra distulimus. Nihil me magis in ista voce delectat quam quod exprobratur senibus infantia. “Nemo,” inquit, “aliter quam qui modo natus est exit e vita.” Falsum est; peiores morimur quam nascimur. Nostrum istud, non naturae vitium est. Illa nobiscum queri debet et dicere: “Quid hoc est? Sine cupiditatibus vos genui, sine timoribus, sine superstitione, sine perfidia ceterisque pestibus; quales intrastis exite.”
“And what about you, Nikêratos—what kind of knowledge do you cherish?” And he said “My father, because he wished for me to be a good man, compelled me to memorize all of Homer. And now I can recite the whole Iliad and Odyssey.” Antisthenes said “Has it escaped you that all the rhapsodes know these epics too?”
Over the past few weeks there has been a bit of a frenzy over Oxford University’s potential move to drop Homer and Vergil from their required curriculum for Classics. We have heard the typical cries of “O Tempora, O Mores” in articles lamenting the fall of education and the decline of the west. This news even made The Blaze!, quoting only a student who calls it “a fatal mistake” because “Homer has been the foundation of the classical tradition since antiquity.”
(And you know that if a cultural question got Blazed. it is of real, deep, ethical concern.)
You know what I haven’t heard much of? People defending this proposal. Well, here I am, and that’s what I am going to do.
I am a Homerist. I have spent more than half my life reading, teaching, and writing on Homer. To say that I love the Homeric epics is such an understatement that it breaks my basic constative ability to do so. But this proposal makes sense. Let me tell you why.
Leonardo Bruni de Studiis et Litteris 21
“What is lacking in Homer, that we should not consider him to be the wisest man in every kind of wisdom? Some people claim that his poetry is a complete education for life, equally divided between times of war and peace.”
Quid Homero deest, quominus in omni sapientia sapientissimus existimari possit? Eius poesim totam esse doctrinam vivendi quidam ostendunt, in belli tempora pacisque divisa
First, the brouhaha mis-characterizes the proposal which is to make Homer and Vergil optional. From years of teaching Homer to undergraduates, I know that fewer are prepared to read something of this length and depth. They have read little in pre-collegiate classes of this length and intricacy. And we do not have the time in class to move from understanding a sentence to its relationship to the whole to its critical engagement with cultures over time.
The worst thing I see happening—and I know this happens at Oxford—is teaching Homer badly. Students don’t have the cultural frameworks, or the training to understand what they’re looking at. And this is in part because many people who teach Homer have a backwards idea of what the epics are and how they work.
These backwards ideas come from a teleological perspective that has over time selected from the past only works that conform to certain expectations and then force them to conform to others. Teaching Homer badly is objectively a bad thing. It turns students off to Homer; it gives them misconceptions about the ancient world; and it harmfully enforces the history of European literature.
Homer contains some nasty stuff. Taught in the wrong way, it glorifies violence, perpetuates misogyny, oversimplifies “heroes”, their faults, and gives terrible lessons on life and death. “Reading” a text is not merely passing one’s eyes over it or uttering the words aloud. It requires patience, contemplation, identification, alienation, communion with others and repetition
This is about the way we teach Homer as a holy, simple thing, with clear messages and heroes who can be understood in a few lessons. Homeric epics are dialogic, they are complex creations between audiences and the words themselves and without time, deep learning, and space, they function to advance a simplistic, but powerful policy of canon-enforcement
Henry David Thoreau, from his essay Walking (1862)
“The poet to-day, notwithstanding all the discoveries of science, and the accumulated learning of mankind, enjoys no advantage over Homer.”
Homer as often taught as canon—which is the main argument in many articles—is a product not of antiquity but of the time between antiquity and now. To disentangle the layers of interpretation and the centuries of misunderstandings that have accrued, students need sensitive reading skills and agile teachers.
Before reading Homer, students need to learn to read, to understand the relationship between text and audience, and the operation of literature—and especially the literary canon—as part of cultural discourse. We are better off by spending time teaching students a few poems by Sappho or lyric and elegiac poets, if what we want to learn about is Greek culture and poetry.
(And all of this sidesteps what modern program in Classical Studies is for. If we have only a small handful of credit hours to enlighten the mind and prepare it to engage fruitfully with the world it encounters, is slogging through an epic the best use of our time?)
But if you read even passively, the stalwart Homeric defenders aren’t really interested in the past. They are interested in Homer as a marker of their own culture. And look at the way people defend it! In one piece, the author cries that Homer is the beginning of a Trojan war story that made London “New Troy”. No cultural supremacy or appropriation there.
Werner Jager, Paideia (tr. Gilbert Highet, pp.35-36)
“We are right in feeling such bare utilitarianism to be repulsive to our aesthetic sense; but it is none the less certain that Homer (like all the great Greek poets) is something much more than a figure in the parade of literary history. He is the first and the greatest creator and shaper of Greek life and the Greek character.”
Homer, as taught in many places, is a ‘genius author’ who laid the foundations of western literature. Homer “wrote” the Iliad and the Odyssey and handed down the guidebook for mimetic narrative and human achievement. These ‘facts’ are demonstrably false and yet the way many teach Homer and position the epics as canon are based on these premises.
The ‘lie’ of Homer is an originary tale of ‘authenticity’ and cultural hegemony which intentionally overlooks that the Homeric epics are products and well as producers of this culture. This is deeply connected to how easily the Classics can be appropriated by white supremacists.
And the ‘Homer’ we possess is one of our own creation. There is a fundamental problem here in the concept of the word “authentic”, a quasi-religious belief and consequent search for the original, authoritative, and authentic form of Homer which goes back to antiquity (once “Homer” was separated from its performance context and reassembled by Hellensitic authors) and which is reborn and supercharged in that overlapping space between Classical and Biblical philology. M.L. West’s, an Oxford prodcut, posthumous text of the Odyssey, for example, operates on the principle that there was a single author and a single text and that the task of a textual critic—and philology at large—is to help us get closer to that original, that authentic, that divine genius.
And there is a Christian, revelationist stance in some of the philology that emerges from this background. In his recent commentary to Odyssey book 1, Simon Pulleyn, rejecting the idea of an oral tradition as critical to the epic we possess, tradition, revealingly combines belief in God with belief in Homer: “Just as the faith once put in God reposes nowadays largely in committees, so we are invited to see the epics not as masterpieces of an individual artist but as the product of numerous generations of bards each contributing their bit. We are asked to rid ourselves of anachronistic notions of the genius of individual authors” (2019 39).
Too much of what we call “classical studies” and canon are retrograde assumptions about the world and what it means to be human. They reduce everything to divinely-derived aesthetics and marginalize people and creeds who do not confirm to “Western” measures (as defined after the age in which the epics were formed). When we talk about what we should teach as the foundation of Classical Studies, we need to think about what our goals are, what we want students to be able to do when they are done.
“Why do we train our children in the liberal arts? It is not because these studies can grant someone virtue, but because they prepare the soul for accepting it.”
Quare ergo liberalibus studiis filios erudimus?” Non quia virtutem dare possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant.
Making Homer optional is not “watering down” the curriculum. It is opening up our education to do what we are supposed to do: critically and pointedly examine the past. Sure, advanced students, graduate students, professionals in the field, they should probably read Homer, but should everyone?
I am not saying that we should not have students reading Homer—but that if we only have a small collection of classes, they can acquire critical language, reading, reasoning, and cultural skills in other ways. This is important both in focusing on what our undergraduate learning goals are and in thinking about what we want classical studies to become in the future.
Are we going to merely perpetuate the same training, beliefs and ideas over and over again without reflecting on where they come from or what they mean? Are we going to ignore the fact that our histories of the Mediterranean have been figuratively and literally whitewashed in the service of colonial, nationalist, and racist discourse? Or are we a field where we train people to think critically, to re-frame the past, and then reclaim it?
As a Homerist, I think I’ve found myself in part by searching for “Homer”—and I think this is indeed one of the most salubrious effects of literature. But this is not the only goal and this is not the Aristotelian end for Classical Studies. We need students to enter with the world with the ability to question and reframe the worth of the pasts we have inherited.
Because if we keep doing the same thing over and over again, it is not going to turn out well. And soon.
Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Liberorum Educatione
“The ancients decided that reading should begin from Homer and Vergil, though it requires a firm sense of judgment to understand their virtues.”
Veteres instituerunt, ut ab Homero atque Vergilio lectio inciperet, quamvis ad intelligendum eorum virtutes opus esset firmiori iudicio.
“Let’s discuss about these matters, starting from a deeper point. Let it stand that the soul has five categories in which to establish or deny the truth: these are skill, knowledge, prudence, wisdom, and intelligence. The mind is likely to deceive itself through supposition or opinion.”
“Thus Anaxagoras also said that the soul makes movement—along with the rest who argued that the soul moved everything—but not exactly the same way as Democritus. For Democritus simply said that the soul and mind are the same and that truth is as things appear [subjective]. For this reason, he thinks that Homer described well when he has “Hektor lying there thinking differently”. He does not use the word “mind” [noos] as the power for discerning the truth, but he says that the soul and the mind are the same.”
With how sure an expectation of solace, amid the turmoil and perplexities of our time, do I turn, when the fires of evening are lit, to my silent companions of the library! Here the din of the city dies away; here the feverish antagonisms of men reveal themselves sub specie aeternitatis. Here may I be rapt as by a magic carpet to those miraculous isles of Greece “lily on lily, that o’erlace the sea”; or to journey with the returning Ulysses among the enchantments and terrors of Homer’s golden day; or I may bid imagination run riot with Shakespeare and his carnival fellows of the spacious days of great Elizabeth, assuming the motley of their bawdy humors, the purple of their splendid passions, the mourning of their fantastic revenges; or I may prowl with Dickens or Balzac among the mysteries of the dark modern cities or lurch with George Borrow along the hedgerows; or I may revel in the thousand and one tales, more enthralling than the Arabian Nights, of Voragine’s Golden Legend, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters or Havelock Ellis’s Psychology of Sex.
What a sovereign remedy is a book for the distempers both of the mind and of the body! How it protects us against sordidness and boredom! Shall I ever forget the exquisite delights of my first perusal of Congreve’s plays, as I rode back and forth on the elevated, the subway or the electric car, in my days as a “cub reporter” on one of our great metropolitan dailies an exercise which, I like to believe, had the effect of tempering my style against the pressures of newspaper writing? Or the ecstasy of my discovery at college, and at almost the same moment, of Dante, the greatest poet, and Plato, the greatest proseman, of all time? how, cycling alone in the Princeton lanes, leafy and fragrant with May, I would declaim the ringing tercets of the former! how, to the fluttering of the pages of my lexicon, the paragraphs of the Symposium or the Phaedo would commence to grow incandescent with a radiance that seemed steadily to glow more brightly till the radiance of morning itself made luminous the Jersey murk!
“It seems that the word onoma [name] is made up from a phrase which means that “this is what we happen to be searching for, the word”. You can recognize this very thing better when we say onomaston, for this clearly reflects that it is about “that which is search” [hon hou masma estin].
Truth [alêtheia] is similar to the rest in this: for the divine movement of existnence seems to be expressed by this utterance—a-lê-theia—as if it were divine wandering, theia – ousa – alê. But pseudos—fallacy—is the opposite of movement. For, in turn, when something is criticized and is held back and is compelled to be silent, then it is like people who are asleep, or those who kath – eudousi. The psi which is added to the beginning of the word hides the true meaning of the name.
“Say that if we do not recognize a word then it is foreign in origin. This is perhaps mostly true for some of them, and it may be impossible to discover the first words because of their antiquity. For this reason it would not at all be surprising, when words are twisted in every which way, if a really ancient Greek word would be no different from a current foreign one.”
“Why does the virus alone of diseases infect those especially who come near anyone under treatment for it? Is it because it is the only disease common to all and that this is why it brings the plague to all those who are previously weakened? It must be that because of the inflammation coming from people treated for the disease that others are taken quickly by the same thing.”
“The whole state often perishes because of a wicked man
Who commits outrages and plans reckless things.
Zeus drops great suffering on them from heaven,
Plague and famine together. And the people waste away.”
“In addition to the rest, the plague first brought the state to greater lawlessness. For now each person easily was daring what was previously hidden so it might not seem like the pursuit of pleasure once they saw that sudden change was near—how those who were wealthy died as suddenly as those who had nothing before but now took other’s things. So everyone thought it right to quickly fill their desires and lust, recognizing that bodies and things are similarly fleeting”