“..[D]on’t listen to the pedantic and specific precepts of grammarians; but heed your own ear…”
non finitiones illas praerancidas neque fetutinas grammaticas spectaveris, sed aurem tuam interroga
When I was applying to graduate school and asked what it was like, I remember my first Greek teacher telling me a story about his PhD qualifying exams. During the two-hour oral component, some eminent professor of distinguished achievement remained conspicuously silent. When he did speak up, he looked critically at the examinee (a Homerist) and asked a single question: “What is the name of Odysseus’ mother?” My teacher could not remember and it caused enough trauma that this was the story he used to characterize his experience in graduate school almost 30 years later.
When I was in a PhD program myself, this anecdote was the first thing that came to my mind as I looked over the returned draft of the first three chapters of my dissertation. Most dissertations leave behind them legacies of confusion, shame, and pain. Mine was not completely traumatizing, but that’s because, after struggling for six months to write over 100 pages of well-footnoted dreck, I had the audacity to throw everything away and start from scratch. During a feverish long-weekend in February 2006, I re-started from page 1 and ended up writing the first draft of a ‘chapter’ that, at over 100 pages, became the first three chapters of a messy, long, but ultimately ‘successful’ dissertation. (Spoiler: I passed).
When you submit chapters of your dissertation to advisors, the ensuing period of silence can be maddening. (And sometimes that long wait never ends.) When I did receive a marked-up version of my magnum opus, I scurried away from my advisor to start poring over his responses, hoping for some clue that I was on the right track, to divine some sign of my future. And inside: Corrected misspellings; Commas inserted and deleted; A Greek accent was repaired. The longest actual comment I could find was scrawled next to a footnote: the word “Phaeacia” was scratched out, next to it: “The Phaeacians live in Skheria.”
This was not the first warning I received in graduate school about the world into which I was seeking initiation. Any failure to translate adequately in seminars was met with sudden questions about obscure aorist stems. In casual conversation, I remember being corrected for calling someone “long-lifed”, when the right way of saying it is “long-lived”. But I am a blustery and confident sort. When I was asked in a seminar why I didn’t know the defective aorist of bainô, I responded, probably with a bit of acid, “because I am a student. I am here to learn.”
The first lesson I was taught in graduate school was either to shed the Socratic notion of owning up to my ignorance or be prepared for shame as a reward for my loyalty to Platonic dogma. The second lesson was really just the application of one I already knew: the best defense is a good offense. Know the nitty-gritty details; and, if you don’t, just put someone else on the spot first.
Pedantry and Philology
“But some error comes thanks to our teachers who instruct us how to argue but not how to live; some error too comes from students, who bring themselves to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus, what was philosophy has been turned into philology.”
Sed aliquid praecipientium vitio peccatur, qui nos docent disputare, non vivere, aliquid discentium, qui propositum adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est.
The English word pedantry is a pre-Enlightenment borrowing from Italian pedanteria (itself having ancient roots in the Greek work for child, pais/paidos, which gives us the cognate pedagogy). In early uses, it seems to mark off simple academic learning from practical understanding (see Steele in Tatler 227.7 insisting that “Pedantry proceeds from much Reading and little Understanding”); but by the 19th century it also characterizes those who adhere sedulously to rules, a usage which that princely tome of perfect pedantry, the Oxford English Dictionary, summarizes as “Excessive or undue concern for petty details; slavish adherence to formal precision, rules, or literal meaning.”
Latin and Greek do not have single terms to embrace the same range of meaning. Ideas and practices which we translate as “pedantic” tend to be associated with an excess of learning (represented by grammarians, scholars, etc.). Seneca and others also add to this excess an obsession with the obscure and incidental (in what he calls “that sickness of the Greeks”). For Suetonius, such attention to detail is “inept and risible” (ineptias atquae derisum) which, for Seneca, is certainly a sign “not of being rather learned, but rather of being more annoying” (non doctior videaris sed molestior). Quintilian calls such behavior periergia (from the Greek for “special, excessive care”).
It should come as no surprise that pedantry has a pretty ancient pedigree in Greek and Roman literature. While some may consider Socrates and his requests for people to speak precisely (ἀκριβῶς) as merely a feature of a dialectic which strives to make meaning out of chaos, the Socratic pose with its “are-you-sure-about-thats” and the “isn’t-it-the-case-that” is clearly the antecedent to the modern conference’s “I have a question, well, really more of a comment”. Just to give you an idea of how embedded such precision was in Greek culture, the adjective “justly” occurs 5863 times in extant Greek literature, according to the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae; “precisely” (ἀκριβῶς) occurs over 50% more at 8958 instances.
The sophists–among whom Socrates must be counted–were obsessed with defining and refining words. Confusion about poetry birthed phalanxes of philologists like Zoilos the Ephesian who spent all his time complaining about Homer. In the Roman Republic, the poet Terence was so flummoxed by pedantic critics, that he felt the need to preface his plays with defenses against the haters. Seneca the Elder complained that the nitpicking of grammarians made them miss out on the way poetry really worked. Indeed, that very father of modern Homeric studies, F.A. Wolf, who preferred to identify himself as philologiae studiosus to the traditional philosophiae studiosus, proposed that philology had to be born because Homer was just so damn confusing.
There is a persistent line in the practice and the pose of the discipline of philology that encourages and even celebrates pedantry on a scale of the mildly obsessive research habit to the slander of the odium philologicum (lit., “philological hatred”, but, more appropriately, “shit-talking philological haters”) and even murder. When I wanted to emphasize how important precision is in ancient Greece, I quoted a precise number from attested and revisable sources. Think of the layers and depth of footnotes we write! How many referees’ reports are filled with complaints that the author failed to cite sources A-Double-Z!? We celebrate textual critics like A.E. Housman of the British school who never saw a text he couldn’t emend or a book (and author) he couldn’t rip to shreds. Somewhere along the way we went from preserving and refining our understanding of texts to practicing Greek prosody so that we can better fix all those texts we don’t understand.
And we claim we are motivated by a need for “rigor” and “scholarly standards”. I’ve had teachers who loved Housman. To many of them and our colleagues still, Real Classics means real philology: learning all of the obscure names for choral poetry; making emendations where possible; and reciting irregular principle parts as if they were a prayer. This is what much of our training in graduate school is like. And it conditions us to think and even act in a certain way. Despite the fact that most of our undergraduates use computers to parse Greek and Latin for them and what they really need is to understand the connection between detail and real meaning, our training in graduate school makes us fear lest we ever seem less than rigorous.
At almost every stage of what a career classicist does, we are trained and habituated to an obsession with trifling facts that keeps others out of the field, shapes how we engage with our own material, and limits the impact we can have on the world around us.One of our perennial problems is whether Classical Studies as a meta-discipline that includes history, archaeology, philology and more is both capable and deserving of existence in the form of single departments. As any veteran of campus culture wars or lurker on Famae Volent can tell you, there are vastly different expectations and modes of training for these fields; and things are hard for students and practitioners because we demand the same training of fields with very different actual practices.
But even if we just focus on what I do know about—philology—there are serious disagreements about what our discipline does and how we train people to do it. When I was discussing what philology is and its shortcomings on twitter a few weeks ago, I quoted the passage above from Seneca’s 108th Moral Epistle. Within five minutes of posting it, I received multiple assertions that Seneca’s philosophia and philologia could not possibly map on to the modern disciplines as I implied in my translation. For one, no shit. This is translation and modern disciplines are not the same as ancient ones. But, for a second, more important point, I think that the spheres of thought and disciplinary prejudices do have some alignment. The difference is one that makes no difference: when F.A. Wolf declared for philology over philosophy he was making a distinction that was pedantic in its insistence but utterly truthful.
Let’s talk about what I think Seneca is saying: he is claiming that as teachers we model the wrong kind of behavior for our students by emphasizing obscure knowledge and rigorous argumentation over very specific matters. This emphasis leads to the interrogation of and expertise in rather minor affairs, but not in a greater awareness of what life is for, what death means, or how we should treat our fellow human beings. When Seneca says “the pursuit of wisdom” has now just become “the pursuit of argumentation”, what he means is that learning about meaningful questions has been transformed into the pursuit of trifling things.
One of the hard realizations I have had to face over the past few years is that training in humanities can fail to make people more human. This is clear in famous cases like those of the circus clowns Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker; but it is a key feature of the failure of practitioners in the Classics to see how racist and damaging the field really is. It is not because the humanities are themselves a false promise but because we actually fail to study the core of the humanities.
Our philology is generally not a deep study of life and literature; it does not typically encourage us to see the world from others’ perspective. No, instead the way we are trained and the way we practice through publishing and teaching focuses overmuch on minor technical questions which do little to amplify our hearts but much to constrain our souls.
Pedantry and Practice
“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.”
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.
How does how we train contrast with how we want to act in the world? When I was an undergraduate, I majored in Classics because I wanted the same training my favorite authors had because I thought understanding Latin and Greek and learning the ‘western canon’ would help me appreciate and be able to explicate literature more deeply.
There were various impulses behind this: I wanted to be expert in something because that feedback loop feels good; but I also thought—and still think—that communing with ‘literature’, trying to understand the past, and engaging with big ideas was part of the point of human life. And I loved the classroom because it was/is one of the few places in our world set aside for talking about what it means to be a person.
If I were to design a program to train someone to do what I wanted to do, how much of it would look like a conventional Classics program? I flirted with the idea of going to a comparative literature program instead, but I chose Classics because (1) it was familiar, and graduate school was unfamiliar enough to begin with, (2) I wanted to learn about Homer and oral poetry and did not know where else to go, (3) and I believed in the ‘tradition’ of philology, that ol’ austere rigorous training which makes normal mortals into articulate professors of uncommon taste and sense.
Justice, death, why we love, how we know who we are, and all the questions I care about were marginal, if even present, during most of my graduate training which focused on the minutiae of language and the trivia of the temporal order of the Eleatic philosophers, how many syllables are in a Pherecratean, or whether Ovid’s song and fault were real and resulted in an actual exile. Now, I am not saying that these topics were not interesting, but something can be interesting and soul-killing at the same time. And I am not saying these topics and those like them are unimportant; what I am saying is that we don’t do a great job of encouraging students to think about the bigger issues of the humanities and we do a worse job of communicating the relationship between these crucial minutiae and the optional tasks of living a full human life.
I found some refuge outside of Classics. I took on a certificate in Poetics and Theory and somehow used it to take classes in linguistics, Sanskrit, comparative literature, English, psychology and more. I survived graduate school because I made it my own, but that does not mean I left unscathed. When I look at the smallness of the questions many of my articles try to answer or the pitiful size of the audience interested in them, it is undeniable that the expectations of my field and the conditions of my training have forced me to frame the world in a certain way (say, if I wanted to get a job, keep the job, get raises, etc. etc.)
So, we have to think about how the training we receive as classicists constrains how we act as professionals and restrict the types of questions we ask of our materials, of ourselves and of the world around us. Now, Aristotle does not exactly say that you are what you do, but we all know that this pithy ascription is pretty much true. How many of us read Latin and Greek regularly outside of the classroom? How many of us read Latin and Greek for any reason but to write articles to get and keep jobs that allow us to teach younger clones how (not) to read Latin and Greek?
“Still, he took the greatest care in knowledge of the stories of myth, to the point of absurdity and silliness. For he even used to quiz the grammarians, a class of men whom, as I said, he was really preoccupied with, posing questions like: “Who was the mother of Hecuba?” “What name did Achilles have among the girls?” “What were the Sirens accustomed to singing?”
Maxime tamen curavit notitiam historiae fabularis usque ad ineptias atque derisum; nam et grammaticos, quod genus hominum praecipue, ut diximus, appetebat, eius modi fere quaestionibus experiebatur: “Quae mater Hecubae, quod Achilli nomen inter virgines fuisset, quid Sirenes cantare sint solitae.”
Pedantry as Ideology
“There is also that phenomenon which is called periergia—as I might call it, an ultimately useless carefulness in which a dilettante contrasts with a scholar the same way superstition differs from religion.”
Est etiam quae periergia vocatur, supervacua, ut sic dixerim, operositas, ut a diligenti curiosus et religione superstitio distat.
Several of the passages I have quoted so far come from the Roman Empire and the early part of the so-called Second Sophistic. Authors like Seneca, Suetonius, and Quintilian complain about persnickety obsession with detail to the detriment of any other kind of meaning. Quintilian—no slacker himself—positions periergia (“excessive diligence”?) as “useless carefulness”, a trait which marks a “dilettante” while Suetonius makes his obsessive and excessive Tiberius a kind of proto-Comic Book Guy who revels in obscure detail over anything else. In his De brevitate vitae, Seneca the Younger mocks the type of inquiry that counts Odysseus’ oarsmen, while in his Moral Epistles he cuts to the core of the problem: the pursuit and glorification of such detail comes at the cost of learning how to live, of reflecting on the meaning of life at all. Petronius offers a more maddening lament: anticipating F.A. Wolf, he dreams of a time among the archaic Greek poets when “a shadow-clinging ‘professor’ had not yet spoiled the inborn wits of young men”.
I don’t think it is an accident that that such a complaint against pedantry becomes a refrain among some of the most well-educated and potentially pedantic men of the Roman Empire. This is because I suspect there is a connection between controlling ideologies and over-specific pedantry.
Under the Roman Empire, political activity was truly dangerous: one could not directly and actively oppose the princeps. Where Cicero could be a man of letters and a man of action, Seneca and Suetonius had only their studies (and even these could bring them into danger). In carping at pedantry, these authors are, even if weakly, contesting some form of cultural authority. That is, reduced to cultural attaches who are expected to obsess over who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, scholars are sidelined from direct political activity and instrumentalized in service of the state. Seneca is smart enough to know this, but savvy enough not to say it directly.
Pedantry focuses minds on fixing absurd trivialities instead of challenging big ideas. It tells students (and their teachers) that the major issues which impact them and shape their world are for someone else with greater expertise. What this really means, it is not for them. Pedantry is the officially acceptable attitude of an authoritative shell game which keeps everyone looking at the magic hands but never thinking about the tricks behind them.
The fetishization of argumentation and the rules of logic—the replicating and expanding fallacies—prizes form over content and structure over meaning to the absurd extreme where the value of an idea is to be found not in the good it may bring the world but in its fidelity to an externally consistent set of dictates. It is no accident that those who argue in defense of ‘tradition’ and the status quo (most often for patriarchy, indirect and direct racism, libertarian capitalism, misogyny etc. etc.) are those who cling most fervently to such decorous rules of reason. Such childish refuge in order, such slavish privileging of rules of logic, such desperate obeisance to trifles, make the pedant who he is: an uncritical re-instantiation of obstinate, parasitic authority.
In our field, such worship of authority and antiquity has created a canon whose bounds cannot and must not be broken: certain works are read in Classics which means certain people are hired for jobs which means dissertations are written only on certain subjects. The pure ‘Latinity’ of Cicero was so revered in the Renaissance that Politian was criticized for not speaking like Cicero and the story goes that Poggio Bracciolini tried to have Lorenzo Valla murdered for slighting the excellence of his Latin grammar.
This will sound entirely too unrigorous and illogical, but ideas, inspiration, and real transformation do not emerge from the rigid re-application of the same process over and over again. This kind of nitpicking is popular, I suspect, as a reflex of the industrial and informational ages. Innumerable overstimulated but under-liberated minds strain at the shock of their own disappointment that they are not truly happy, that their genius and mastery of logic is not grasped by those around them, and that the rectitude they so carefully nurture within themselves is not rewarded by the world they inhabit.
Where whitesplaining and mansplaining are often uncritically examined attempts to reassert racial and gendered hierarchies through the imposition of a culturally acceptable authoritative voice, pedantry similarly seeks to replace meaningful education and a critical examination of the world and our assumptions about it with the trivial and mundane. The world the pedant enforces is deeply detailed and complex, but it is a labyrinthine warren of distraction from real thought. Like any viral infection, pedantry has no real aim beyond self-replication. And this self-replication is ideological insofar as in monopolizing resources for itself it subsumes any possibility for enlightenment or transformation by ideas.
Pedantry as Pedagogy
“When you have arrived at the meaning so that, certainly, that calumny of the grammarians, which must be kept from all great intellects, will have no place at all.”
cum ad sensum rettuleris, ne grammaticorum quidem calumnia ab omnibus magnis ingeniis summovenda habebit locum
“But, oh”, one might object, “you are inviting chaos, a swirling of snowflakes whose reality will be wiped out in a storm of winter blindness because they cannot accept that facts matter.” Yes, facts matter. I happily accept this. But they matter beyond counting them as facts. What is a fact matters. Who has access to facts matters. What to do with facts matters too.
Let’s stop and think a bit about how pedantry shapes student experience and, eventually, shapes the nature of our discipline. To do this, let’s distinguish teaching, grading, and learning as three separate but interrelated categories. Much of what goes consciously and unconsciously into teaching comes out in learning; but if your learning goals are not aligned with what your teaching actually produces, you have a little problem. So, when we think about our Classical Studies curricula in individual classes and for entire majors and advanced degrees, what do we want the outcome to be?
The unwashed reality of undergraduate language teaching at most universities is that we give a lot of lip service to the importance of learning and teaching Latin and Greek, but most undergraduates at the end of a degree program are not good at reading either language. This is not their fault. This is our fault and it is because of what we communicate in the way we teach the languages. We spend an inordinate amount of time in introductory languages on minutiae, drills, and distractions. If our goal is for students to read and understand the language, shouldn’t all assessments of student learning evaluate that goal?
And grading. Let’s pretend a student who has never succeeded at languages starts Greek or Latin 1 and fails the first exam for many reasons: he never had to memorize before because he grew up under the auspices of No Child Left Behind; or, he’s never had to figure out how to study on his own because it was all mapped out by helicopter parents and tutors. There are innumerable reasons. According to most syllabi I have seen, this student will have a very hard time getting an ‘A’ in the class. Oftentimes, a student who is discouraged like this will drop out.
But what’s the point of even recording that first exam? Imagine if this same student develops strategies for memorization, is taught how to study, spends a little extra time with the instructor, and, despite failing more quizzes and getting a middling grade on the midterm, manages to ace the final. If the goal of the class is for each student to learn Latin or Greek to the best of their ability, why shouldn’t this student get an ‘A’ in the class? If we believe at all in the value of education, we should believe in student progress. Why punish a student in December (and for the rest of time) for failures overcome in October and November?
This may seem like a needless digression, but too many grading systems inside and outside of Classics are punitive rather than evaluative. And this desire to punish, I suspect, is rooted in a pedantic need to point out what people don’t know, to construct evaluative systems that establish clear ranks (even if the ranks do not relate fully to learning), and to weed out students who occupy too much of an instructor’s time (or, equally often, don’t come from the right background).
I know it may seem helplessly and uselessly naïve to imply that memorizing paradigms and identifying special uses of the dative are not important for the understanding of ancient languages. To the contrary, I believe they are. But they are learning tools to replace natural language acquisition. What happens in many classrooms is that the learning tools are valued above and beyond the true learning goals and we create language learners who have a very poor sense for the tongue but good practice in faking the technical terms we use to talk about it.
Anyone who has taught multiple advanced Greek or Latin courses knows that the majority of the students are stumbling through, cobbling together translations they don’t fully understand from the Loeb Classical Library or Perseus. Why do they do this instead of learning to translate ‘for real’, you might ask? I submit that it is because of their teachers, because we prize knowing the ‘answer’ and translating correctly with flourishes of our occult grammatical knowledge for ornamentation.
So, we fail to obtain anything close to our learning goals with our students because we grade on pedantic detail and we reward those who have been initiated into the mysteries of dead language grammar. Beyond this, however, we must also face up to the fact that students consistently learn things which we don’t outline in our learning goals: they learn from us how to act when in positions of authority and what matters about the process of academic study.
If, as teachers, we are nitpicking pedants who care more about the 3rd principle part of phero than in trying to convey what is radical about Plato’s Apology, then they will learn the principle parts and ignore the essential Socratic lesson of admitting what they don’t know. If we pride ourselves on obscure knowledge and a particular way of communicating detail, then they will try to do the same if they think they can, or reject it should they realize they can’t.
“The microscopic examination of language, whose practitioners here often delighted in compiling statistical tables of average percentage frequencies, has sometimes achieved results. But equally often it has proved deceptive, because the mind cannot be mechanised. We must not despise little things – but neither must we forget that they are little.”
Pedantry and the Classics
“But, please, what impact does this ‘grave’ and ‘acute’ stuff have on the pursuit of the highest good?”
sed, quaeso, quid ex ista acuta et gravi refertur ad τέλος?
Now, when many in our field are coming up with substantial and direct ways of dealing with racism and hatred in order to correct the latent prejudice which exists in our discipline(s) for reasons of their historical shaping and and modern structural and institutional replication, it may seem like taking on pedantry is a rather abstract and feeble response. (One might even accuse this mission of being, well, pedantic). And, indeed, it is possible I am tilting at a symptom of what is wrong with our field and not the cause.
But we have a problem in how we approach our work and our place in the world that starts with our training and ends in what we produce. Pedantry is a rhetorical stance that does not brook challenge or invite conversation; it discourages engagement before it is even possible. It models a type of behavior and insists that students submit and eventually rewards those who conform.
Pedantry has people saying “Classics” has been this, but is not that. It trains us to admit some types of knowledge and not others. And it conditions us to see some people as fit for our field and to create obstacles for others. As leaders in the field like Joy Connolly and Neville Morley have argued, what we call “Classical Studies” is much more than the languages. (And read this terrible review for an idea of the pushback people get). Can we continue to push philology as the gold standard for Classics when the bar of entry is so high or access to the training is limited to a few? Can we deny that prizing pedantic detail has political ramifications, that we use this authoritative stance and access to rarified knowledge as a type of gatekeeping? Not only does pedantry produce bad epistemology, but it is an extension of authoritarianism.
Pedantry teaches us that there are absolute correct answers and we either have them or we don’t. This is true for some things, but not for all of them. Advanced study which reinforces this idea keeps us missing those proverbial forests for the trees; but it also creates a system which is inherently obedient to authority. Pedantry and fascism are not coterminous; but it is easy to see how one functions as a tool of the other.
When I was interviewing at graduate schools, I found myself in an elevator with a pretty famous (and famously iconoclastic) Hellenist. He asked me what I was working on and what I was reading. When he did not approve of the secondary scholarship I was reading, I hastily tried to explain that I was deeply fascinated by the philosophy which lead each author to say what he or she did about Homer. To this, my interlocutor replied, “What do you mean by philosophy? There have been only seven philosophers in the history of time.” I said nothing, dumbfounded. Fortunately, the elevator opened quickly.
In the Platonic dialogues, Socrates often beseeches his interlocutors to speak more precisely (akribôs). I think too many of us mistake this as a plea for absolute exactitude or rectitude in the use of language. In the form of the dialogue, however, and in the process of trying to come to definitions and develop ideas together, I think that this plea for precision is not a pedantic demand to speak as I speak, but instead a desperate request to help me understand your language so that we can develop our understanding together.
I never asked famous Hellenist who those seven philosophers were. I kind of wish I did so I could end the story, but, he passed away a few months after the conversation. But not knowing those specific details has rescued me from having to contend with the pressure to believe that those specific seven philosophers as the only ones who mattered.
In the beginning of the somewhat forgotten movie Willow, the title character stands for a test for magic. His village’s wizard holds up his hand and asks the examinees which finger has the power to master the world. Each person picks one of his fingers; each person fails. After the test, the old mage asks Willow which finger he really wanted to choose. Willow sheepishly indicates his own. Turns out, the wizard concedes, this was the right answer.
This will sound romantic and simplistic, but we want all our students to leave our classroom thinking that their knowledge, their learning, and their future is in their hands, not ours.
“The spirit of humanism, indeed, wherever it is not a narrow pedantry, is one which welcomes every accession to the domain of sound knowledge.”
R.C. Jebb, Humanism in Education (1899)