Trollope seemed to think scholars lived a charmed life. Pliny had approving things to say about the life of retirement and reading. Modern ‘philosophers’ are less forgiving. My wife and I were watching television the other night for the first time in a while and I found myself and my field assailed! In episode 1 of HBO’s Big Little Lies (“Somebody’s Dead”) Abigail, trying to get a rise out of her mother (played by Reese Witherspoon), dismisses going to college, by saying:
“You know, the whole college thing, it’s kind of a racket, especially liberal arts. People go off and study Homer for four years and then you graduate with a ton of debt and no job prospect.”
Now, Homer here is obviously a metonym for the rather esoteric side of the Humanities. He stands as the ‘extreme’ of liberal arts frivolity. (Full disclosure: I went to college and studied Homer for only two years–there was also some Catullus, Vergil, Horace, Euripides, Sappho, Plautus, Hesiod, Plato, and Cicero. And then graduate school for another six. And then the next decade. And then…)
We have a current popular cultural dismissal of the importance of the humanities (which this echoes to an extent). This total commodification of all knowledge and human values should come as no surprise to our fellow travelers. There is, of course, a grand tradition of scholars trashing scholars, from Seneca to the perpetrators of Who Killed Homer? (or their spiritual sibling in English). Here’s some special disdain:
Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 13
“It would be annoying to list all the people who spent their lives pursuing board games, ball games, or sunbathing. Men whose pleasures are so busy are not at leisure. For example, no one will be surprised that those occupied by useless literary studies work strenuously—and there is great band of these in Rome now too. This sickness used to just afflict the Greeks, to discover the number of oars Odysseus possessed, whether the Iliad was written before the Odyssey, whether the poems belong to the same author, and other matters like this which, if you keep them to yourself, cannot please your private mind; but if you publish them, you seem less learned than annoying.”
Persequi singulos longum est, quorum aut latrunculi aut pila aut excoquendi in sole corporis cura consumpsere vitam. Non sunt otiosi, quorum voluptates multum negotii habent. Nam de illis nemo dubitabit, quin operose nihil agant, qui litterarum inutilium studiis detinentur, quae iam apud Romanos quoque magna manus est. Graecorum iste morbus fuit quaerere, quem numerum Ulixes remigum habuisset, prior scripta esset Ilias an Odyssia, praeterea an eiusdem essent auctoris, alia deinceps huius notae, quae sive contineas, nihil tacitam conscientiam iuvant sive proferas, non doctior videaris sed molestior.
Seneca was not alone with unkind words for scholars:
Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 1.22
“You know that somewhere Timo the Philasian calls the Museum a birdcage as he mocks the scholars who are supported there because they were fed like the priciest birds in a big cage:
Many are fed in many-peopled Egypt,
The paper-pushers closed up waging endless war
in the bird-cage of the Muses.
ὅτι τὸ Μουσεῖον ὁ Φιλιάσιος Τίμων ὁ σιλλογράφος (fr. 60 W) τάλαρόν πού φησιν ἐπισκώπτων τοὺς ἐν αὐτῷ τρεφομένους φιλοσόφους, ὅτι ὥσπερ ἐν πανάγρῳ τινὶ σιτοῦνται καθάπερ οἱ πολυτιμότατοι ὄρνιθες·
πολλοὶ μὲν βόσκονται ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ πολυφύλῳ
βιβλιακοὶ χαρακῖται ἀπείριτα δηριόωντες
Μουσέων ἐν ταλάρῳ.
And it seems Homerists have long had a bad reputation
“It would not be sweet for me to write about the relative age of Homer and Hesiod, even though I have worked on the problem as closely as possible. This is because I am familiar with the fault-finding character of others and not the least of those who dominate the study of epic poetry in my time.”
περὶ δὲ ῾Ησιόδου τε ἡλικίας καὶ ῾Ομήρου πολυπραγμονήσαντι ἐς τὸ ἀκριβέστατον οὔ μοι γράφειν ἡδὺ ἦν, ἐπισταμένῳ τὸ φιλαίτιον ἄλλων τε καὶ οὐχ ἥκιστα ὅσοι κατ’ ἐμὲ ἐπὶ ποιήσει τῶν ἐπῶν καθεστήκεσαν.
But the slander can be self inflicted as well:
From Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, Book 5 222a-b
“And, you, my grammarians who do not inquire into these sorts of things, I quote from Herodicus the Babylonian:
Flee, Aristarcheans, over the wide back of the sea
Flee Greece, men more frightened than the brown deer,
Corner-buzzers, monosyllabists, men who care about
Sphin and sphoin and whether its min or nin*.
This is what I would have for you storm-drowned men:
But may Greece and God-born Babylon always wait for Herodicus.
And, to add another, the words of the comic poet Anaxandrides:
…It brings pleasure
Whenever someone discovers some new notion,
To share it with everyone. But those who at first
Keep it to themselves have no judge for their skill
And are later despised. For it is right to offer the mob
Everything anyone might think is brand-new.
The majority of them departed at these words and slowly the party disbanded.”
‘ὑμεῖς οὖν, ὦ γραμματικοί, κατὰ τὸν Βαβυλώνιον ῾Ηρόδικον, μηδὲν τῶν τοιού-
φεύγετ’, ᾿Αριστάρχειοι, ἐπ’ εὐρέα νῶτα θαλάττης
῾Ελλάδα, τῆς ξουθῆς δειλότεροι κεμάδος,
γωνιοβόμβυκες, μονοσύλλαβοι, οἷσι μέμηλε
τὸ σφὶν καὶ σφῶιν καὶ τὸ μὶν ἠδὲ τὸ νίν.
τοῦθ’ ὑμῖν εἴη δυσπέμφελον· ῾Ηροδίκῳ δὲ
῾Ελλὰς ἀεὶ μίμνοι καὶ θεόπαις Βαβυλών.’
κατὰ γὰρ τὸν κωμῳδιοποιὸν ᾿Αναξανδρίδην (II 159 K)·
ὅταν τις εὕρῃ καινὸν ἐνθύμημά τι,
δηλοῦν ἅπασιν· οἱ δ’ ἑαυτοῖσιν σοφοὶ
πρῶτον μὲν οὐκ ἔχουσι τῆς τέχνης κριτήν,
εἶτα φθονοῦνται. χρὴ γὰρ εἰς ὄχλον φέρειν
ἅπανθ’ ὅσ’ ἄν τις καινότητ’ ἔχειν δοκῇ.
ἐπὶ τούτοις τοῖς λόγοις ἀναχωροῦντες οἱ πολλοὶ λεληθότως διέλυσαν τὴν συνουσίαν.
*Alternative pronoun forms found in manuscripts.
But it is self-loathing that makes this genre an art:
Palladas of Alexandria, Greek Anthology 9.169
“The wrath of Achilles has become for me, as a grammarian, the cause of my destructive poverty. I wish that that wrath would have killed me along with the Danaans, before the bitter poverty of scholarship put me to death. But instead, so that Agamemnon could take Briseis and Paris make off with Helen, I have become a beggar.”
Μῆνις ᾿Αχιλλῆος καὶ ἐμοὶ πρόφασις γεγένηται
οὐλομένης πενίης γραμματικευσαμένῳ.
εἴθε δὲ σὺν Δαναοῖς με κατέκτανε μῆνις ἐκείνη,
πρὶν χαλεπὸς λιμὸς γραμματικῆς ὀλέσει.
ἀλλ’ ἵν’ ἀφαρπάξῃ Βρισηίδα πρὶν ᾿Αγαμέμνων,
τὴν ῾Ελένην δ’ ὁ Πάρις, πτωχὸς ἐγὼ γενόμην.
2 thoughts on “HBO, Seneca, and Pausanias Trash my Life”
Completely brilliant. Thank you.