This semester I am teaching Introductory and Intermediate Ancient Greek fully online. I had the experience of “emergency remote” teaching in the spring and I taught Greek in a hybrid (both online and in person) format almost a decade ago. At my institution, we had the choice to teach in-person, “hybrid”, or fully remote. For reasons of safety and equity, I did not select the first option. I avoided the second option too because “hybrid” in this case is really a bi/multi-modal delivery which also has serious problems in equity and relies on incompletely tested technology.
Solon, fr. 18
“I grow old, always learning many things.”
γηράσκω δ’ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος·
Given the likelihood of another surge in cases and family considerations (our children will be remote learning as well), I considered it best for student learning to stay in the same mode and practice for an entire semester. Subjects like languages can be taught well in an online format because they present discrete sets of material which can be presented clearly. The challenge is practice and assessment.
I am writing up my process of preparing for this type of teaching not because I have any special insight into teaching online (there are other places and people that do that better than I do) but because some readers might be in similar positions and find it useful and, equally, because some might have good feedback or suggestions for doing this better.
Here’s the syllabus for the class. One of the things I emphasize in the syllabus and in the teaching of the class is transparency about learning. I explain to the students in the first class that there is a difference between assessment of learning and grading and that the course is built on a basic tell-show-do model with a “flipped” lecture.
Heraclitus, fr. 40
“Knowing much doesn’t teach you how to think.”
πολυμαθίη νόον ἔχειν οὐ διδάσκει
Our schools LMS (learning management system) is a home-grown modification of blackboard called LATTE. I find most LMS platforms to be over-engineered with a range of tools not really worth using for classes under a certain number. I use our platform for file and link sharing and centralized communication. Each chapter of the semester gets its own module.
So week 1 looks something like this:
For each chapter of the book I have a prerecorded grammar lecture where I go over new material in the book (the “tell”) and then go through an exercise and some practice (“the show”). Part of the students’ work for each week is to submit a response to the lecture through google forms where they tell me three things they learned, three things that confused them and three things they want to learn more about. (I cribbed this from my friend Norman Sandridge a few years back).
Alcman, fr. 125
“Trying is the first step of learning”
πῆρά τοι μαθήσιος ἀρχά
The classes meet twice a week for 90 minutes virtually, so the asynchronous videos provide extra work with Greek and the trissakephalos sheets provide both (1) feedback to me for how effective the videos are and (2) structure for talking about the grammar at the beginning of the first class. Class time is then dedicated to a combination of exercise review, group work, and problem solving
I provide students with two kinds of videos. The first is a narrated powerpoint presentation. (You can make these by recording the slide show with narration). I have added some material from the text book to do some practice within the grammar presentation and I suspect in the future I will have to add more of that. Each video is around 20-30 minutes.
Making a video from a slide show is easier than it used to be. You can select export from the file menu and create a video directly.
Sophocles, Fr. 843
“I learn what can be taught; I seek what can be found; and I ask the gods what must be prayed for.”
Students come will (ideally) come to class after viewing this video and submitting the trissakephalos sheet. I designed a simple form using google forms and just copied it for each chapter. I have provided a link to each form in LATTE for the students.
So a given week looks something like this. I may add assignments to be completed in the future, but for now I am going to keep it really simple. With the asynchronous videos and the 90 minute class meetings, the students are getting more contact hours than typical. I also am worried about how much focus students will have out of class in a pandemic. My basic assumption is that most of the work they will do for Greek will be with me
Libanius, Autobiography F90 17
“The education of the young had been taken up by people little different from the young themselves.”
For the first session of every week we will spend our time reviewing based on the questions from the trissakephalos sheets and then working on reading and exercises in the textbook. I have also created supplementary videos for them to watch in between the class meetings. I made these using zoom’s “record on this computer function”.
Zoom is a good enough utility for this because you can (1) record, (2) share a screen while doing so, and (3) annotate the screen while talking. As you can see from the shot below, the students get my face, voice, Athenaze, and my mad scribbling, so it is almost like being in the room!
“In sum, nature is education’s raw material: the latter shapes, the former is shaped. There is no art without substance; material has a worth apart from art; and yet, the highest art is superior to the best material.”
Denique natura materia doctrinae est: haec fingit, illa fingitur. Nihil ars sine materia, materiae etiam sine arte pretium est; ars summa materia optima melior.
I also almost forgot to talk about my tech setup. In addition to a second monitor attached to my laptop using the extend screen function I use a galaxy tablet. I login through a different ID and use the tablet to check what students are seeing.
The setup looks a little messy from my angle, but it allows me to use the tablet to write on a whiteboard that students can use too.
My main challenges are getting students to learn vocabulary and then quizzing them on it alongside morphology. A real simple solution is to meet with them individually on zoom and quiz them (which is intense for me), to create a google form quiz or LMS quiz, or to stray from quiz like assessments and use more games and activities in the class time. I am going to practice using the exercises on Ketos and other similar sites.
All exams in the class are going to be take-home because I am trying to emphasize learning the skills students are actually here for: reading Greek on their own. This means it is ok if they have access to a dictionary or grammar.
“The doors of the muses are open”: a proverb applied to those readily acquiring the best things in their education.”
“So they were saying these kinds of things to one another. And a dog who was lying there raised his head and ears. It was Argos, enduring Odysseus’ dog the man himself Had raised but never used before he went to sacred Ilion. In earlier years young men used to lead him to hunt Wild goats and hares and deer. But now he was lying there, put aside in his master’s absence on a pile of manure heaped up from mules and oxen right in front of the door waiting for the slaves to take it away to fertilize Odysseus’ great dominion. There Argos the dog was lying full of ticks and fleas”
I have always had mixed feelings about this very famous passage from the Odyssey. I side in part with Plutarch who notes that Odysseus seems to shed more tears (one) for his dog than he does his wife. And I also bristle at how much empathy people seem to be able to generate for the aged hunting dog when they can muster so little for the mutilated Melanthios or the hanged enslaved women at the epic’s end.
If I have to be honest with myself, this scene does not inspire contempt in me as much as a deep sorrow. We talk much of Argos’ loyalty, but his loyalty is a mere prop to aggrandize Odysseus and increase the value of his return home. I care far less about Odysseus’ tear than I do about the neglect: Argos, abandoned by Penelope, Telemachus, and Laertes. Argos, infested with fleas and sleeping on a mound of shit.
My wife wants us to get a puppy and name him Zeus. The second half of that sentence is calculating because she knows that I would enjoy nothing more than training a dog to follow commands in ancient Greek and shouting the vocative O Zeu in city parks. She also made this argument after watching me play with her sister’s dog, Apollo: down on the floor wrestling with an energetic English cream retriever of over 70 pounds, she said I looked happy.
I have been saying no to pets for a decade. After our daughter and son were born our first cat together, Chineh had to be put to sleep. She had been on hormone supplements for a year and was suffering from congestive heart failure three weeks after our son was born. I took her to the vet knowing it would be the last time and did not know that the Dr. would ask me to stay and hold her while he administered the drugs. I told myself that would be the last time. And I had to say that, because it was not the first by far.
Anyone who follows the twitter feed for this account knows that my promise went unfulfilled. Last year, we capitulated and got a cat from a shelter. He’s a polydactyl tuxedo cat named Mowgli. He might be the sweetest cat I have ever known. But he was so sweet that he ruined our family. There was just not enough cat to go around.
One day, I came home from some summer meetings at work and the family was huddled around a computer. The three of them (with Mowgli in hand at 10 weeks) had been watching cat videos all day. My wife informed me that we had to drive to Maine. My first thought was that someone had died (I grew up in Maine). When I asked what was wrong, she told me, “Oh, nothing, we have to go put a deposit on a cat and choose which one we want.”
I do not talk a lot about my wife in essays because she is not a social media person and values her privacy. But anyone who knows her also knows her powers. We were in a car and looking at Maine Coon Cat kittens within three hours. Three weeks later, we returned.
Again, anyone who follows this account on twitter knows Hermes, his attempts to escape our home, his eye infections, and his surgery. (Oh, the cat birthday parties too.) What people do not know is that when I can’t sleep at night and lay on the couch wondering what the fuck is happening to the world, Hermes comes over and starts grooming me. He licks my hair from root to end and then, if I do not start petting him, he bonks me in the cheek with his massive hairy paw.
If we get a dog, it’s Hermes’ fault. He’s, well, unleashed something that’s hard to explain.
Homer, Od. 17.301-305
“Then, indeed, [Argos] noticed that Odysseus was near And he wagged his tail and relaxed both ears, But he wasn’t able to go any closer to his master then. Odysseus saw him to the side and wiped away a tear, Keeping it secret from Eumaios….”
When I talk about the Odyssey’s crucial recognition scenes, I always forget about this one. Odysseus needs his scar to be known to Eurykleia; he needs the story of the bed to finally prove himself to Penelope; and he has to tell the story of generations of trees to calm his father’s suspicions. Argos seems to need no sign, he just knows (ὡς ἐνόησεν). All that worry about some other Odysseus coming home dissipates with a wag of the tail.
I came from one of those families that always had a dog. I do not think it was possible for my parents to conceive of a family that did not have a dog. Before I was born, that had an Irish Setter named Duchess and a St. Bernard named Sam who used to follow the kids to the school bus and ride around town to the school (it was the 1970s, the world was different). When I was born, in a rare show of unity, my grandmothers made them give Sam away because they thought he was too dangerous. I used to see him at my godfather’s farm, tied up on a heavy chain, laying a distance from the house, flies swirling around him.
One of the things that is hard for me to explain to my spouse and impossible for me to talk about to my kids is that my life with pets is not a source of happy memories. My earliest memories of Duchess are of fear. And not fear of her, but fear for her. My parents, unlike Odysseus it seems, never trained their dogs well. Duchess used to run away and return after some time. It was such a regular occurrence that once my grandfather showed up in a pickup with someone else’s Irish Setter because he thought she was ours.
Duchess used to have accidents in the house because she was never walked and she was poorly trained. Every time, my father would scream, swear (“duchess, you fucking stupid bitch” is probably the earliest profanity I ever heard), and often hit or kicked her. More than once, he opened the door to the basement and threw her down the stairs. These are some of my earliest memories of my father and they do not add up to the man my wife met nearly 20 years later. And my siblings never saw him that way either.
When Duchess was a decade old, she gave birth to a single puppy. I must have been too young for kindergarten at the time, but I remember the utter confusion this inspired in our household but I do not quite remember my parents’ response. I was enchanted with this little squealing thing, this new life in our home. I named him Mud.
Three days later, I found Mud stiff and dead in the basement. My parents tried to explain to me that Duchess was too old to take care of a puppy and that Mud wasn’t meant to be born to begin with. We buried him in our back yard not too far off from where we grew squash and green beans.
We moved a few years later. Duchess was alive when we were getting ready to sell our home. Then, she was not when we moved. I have no memory of what happened to her. My father died almost ten years ago and I never asked him about it.
Homer, Od. 17.305-310
“…then Odysseus asked him ‘Eumaios, it is a great wonder that this dog lies in the manure. His form is beautiful and I do not know clearly Whether his speed was equal to his looks, Or he was like those table dogs of certain men, Those ones their masters raise for appearances.”
When Odysseus is asking about Argos, he wants to know if he grew up to be the dog he trained him to be. Odysseus applies an epic physiognomy here he also assumes for people: beauty should translate into good deeds; beauty without action makes you a useless suitor (or Phaeacian prince). But Odysseus also taps into an ancient distinction between working animals and, well, ‘pets’. Do we keep animals close to us just for show?
Hermes is a “show” cat, for sure. He’s handsome, it’s true. Part of the reason I am so undone by Hermes is that he’s not like other cats I have been around. Where other cats are skittish, he is still. Where Mowgli and other cats I have had have rushed to the sound of cat food being opened, Hermes takes his time, eats a little and then walks away. He watches me do everything. My wife says I anthropomorphize his actual limited intelligence as contemplative. But who knows the thoughts of a quiet cat?
I did not grow up with cats. The first cat we ever had was an accident. We moved to 3 or 4 acres on the age of a large re-forested area in southern Maine (some of the land had been farmland in the late 19th century; some of it had been logged before the second World War; much had been burned in a famous fire mid-century). We had no neighbors by sight and few within a quarter mile.
One day, a small white and brown kitten was sitting, meowing at our door. Honest to goodness, I don’t know if there is anything cuter in the universe than a kitten. My mother was allergic to cats and forbade us to bring it in the house, but my sister and I took out a saucer of milk for the kitten creatively named, “Kitty”. When we returned from school, she was still there. At great urging from three children, my mother got some cat food and we fed her more.
The next day? Kitty was still there. We fed her and played with her outside, losing time the way only kids and new pets can. When we returned from school, she was still there. Later, after dinner, I went out to check on her and she was running strangely in the driveway. I caught her, and something was coming out of her rear end: a lot of something, most of her intestines. I called to my dad, who had recently returned home, and he looked at me, at the kitten and went inside.
He came out with a loaded .22, took the kitten, and walked into the woods. I have no idea how far he walked but there’s no way I wouldn’t have heard the report of the gun firing. I didn’t realize until later than Kitty had probably been hit by a car. It took me years to really think about which car that most likely was.
Homer, Od. 17.311-317
“Eumaios, my swineherd, you answered: “Yes, this is the dog of a man who died far away. If he were the way he was in looks and speed When Odysseus left him to go to Troy, You’d soon observe his great speed and valor. Nothing ever escaped him in the deep forest When he pursued. And he was clever at tracking too.
Argos has heroic qualities, even specifically Iliadic ones. Speed and valor (ταχυτῆτα καὶ ἀλκήν)? You have an Achillean dog there, sir. But he’s also smart, like Odysseus: he is preeminent at tracking (ἴχνεσι γὰρ περιῄδη) and nothing ever escaped him in the deep darks of the wood. I don’t know if this is some foreshadowing of the murder of the suitors, but if a student claimed it on a paper, I’d give it a nice big check.
I stayed home the next day from school and generally made enough of a nuisance of myself that we got a kitten I named Nina the next week. Nina was the first pet who was almost solely mine. (My sister got a cat the next year named Jackie, mainly to taunt my father whose nickname was Jack.) I tried to establish the rule that she could not go outside, and this held for a while. When she was a month home, I was dropped off by a family friend early from school at the end of our dirt road. I came home to someone breaking into our home and stealing my father’s firearms.
The man in our driveway told me my mother was inside (which I knew to be a lie) and I silently stood at the end of the driveway. I probably scared the thief more than anything, and I certainly never felt myself in danger. He got in his car and drove off. I ran inside, through the door that had been kicked in, and called 911. The dispatcher was, in retrospect understandably, quite concerned about my safety. But I told her I had to put the phone down to find my cat. She was outside and in danger.
(I found her. She was fine, that day.)
My attachment to cats at that moment was linked to our trouble with dogs. After we moved, we had a new home so of course we needed a new dog. We picked up a shepherd-retriever mix from a shelter and named her Alfie after the ever present television Alien. Alfie was pure joy for three kids living on the edge of a forest with no friends around. My strongest memory of the time is just running around that house chased by that adorable puppy.
Puppies grow up to be dogs and when they are not fixed and are let to wander around outside, they get pregnant. Alfie gave birth to a litter of puppies a year later. Neither of my parents talked about her being pregnant and when she started giving birth to puppies, I was the only one down in the basement with her. She had six puppies. Over the next few months, we found homes for four of them.
No one who hasn’t spent time with a half dozen puppies understands how exhilarating and exhausting they are. We named each puppy and trounced around in the Maine snow with them until each one left. The two who remained, stayed for good. And it did not go well with Alfie. My parents built a pen outside and a large shed and the dogs were kept there, rain, snow or otherwise. They got loose once, attacked a neighbor’s dog, and nearly ripped his leg off. Alfie kept trying to run away from her puppies.
One day, I tried to corral the three dogs in the basement. Alfie would not go down the stairs with her offspring. She turned on me and attacked, leaving a four-inch gash in my leg. I don’t think I was mad at that dog for even a second because I never thought she was mad at me. My parents called the game warden. They told us Alfie was getting a “new home”. At age 11, I knew this was not how these stories ended.
I have no memory of what happened to the other two dogs. I do know they were still around two years later when a friend from junior high came to visit. Upon seeing the dogs, chained to trees a 100 feet from the house, dirty and ragged, he asked me how we could treat animals that way. I don’t know if I answered.
Homer, Od. 17.318-323
“But now he is overcome by evil and his master has died Far away in another land. These shameless women don’t care for him. The Enslaved women, whenever their rulers are gone, Aren’t willing to do the right thing any longer. Wide-browed Zeus strips a person of half their worth Whenever slavery’s day overcomes them.”
Argos serves here, I think, to represent some of the general entropy of the household in Odysseus’ action and as part of a process of vilifying the enslaved women before their deaths. I don’t understand why Eumaios says nothing of the rest of the family. (I mean, Telemachus parades around the island with two dogs.) Perhaps his place as the “good slave” makes it impossible for him to criticize family-Odysseus. But I’ve always thought a pet, because it depends on us, is a family’s shared responsibility.
I don’t usually get to the part of my story where Alfie is put to sleep. And I don’t know if I ever mention her puppies because even though I was not yet a teenager, I feel guilt for their lives and their ends. It is harder to tell the whole story because it is long and it seems embellished. And that’s before the next part.
Our second cat Nina eventually got to go outside. We lived on a large lot and we spent all our time outside in the summers. My mother was a school teacher and now I understand that she was suffering from depression and other issues. At the time, what I knew was that in summers, she slept a lot and spent the rest of the time in her bedroom, with the only air conditioner on, and the door closed. My siblings and I did what kids did then in the summer: we watched TV, we wandered in the woods, and we tried not to bring ticks in the house.
Nina turned out to be pregnant at the beginning of one summer vacation. I don’t know if my parents ever took her to a vet and we had gotten her from someone in the southern part of our town. She gave birth to seven kittens and they were just the cutest things I had ever seen.
The problem was that that summer saw the worst plague of fleas in decades. Our cats brought them home and the infestation was so bad when you stepped on the carpet, you could see dozens of fleas jump up and start to crawl up your leg. A day or two after they were born, the kittens were covered. I would pick one up and they would drip off them like water. And Nina stopped feeding them.
I told my mother. I told my father. Eventually, they called the vet and let me speak to them. I was told to use a comb and rubbing alcohol to try to get the fleas off the kittens. I did this with each one. Multiple times. The fleas came back. Then Nina stopped caring for the litter. One by one, the kittens stopped moving.
I don’t know what was going on between my parents. My father was gone for long days and overnight trips; my mother was distant as always. Neither of them came done to the basement to see the kittens. And I didn’t even think of asking how I would know if they were really dead. Even when I was burying them in our yard, I kept thinking I could hear them meow. We never discussed it.
We had the house fumigated, but the fleas came back. And you know what else? Nina came back, pregnant at the end of the summer. This is the part of the story I shake my head at even now. She gave birth again in a house covered in fleas. The kittens each died again one by one even after I combed them clean and tried to feed them with a washcloth dipped in milk. No one called the veterinarian the second time. Neither of my parents ever talked to me about that summer. That was three decades ago. I still feel nauseous when I think about it.
Homer, Od. 17.324-328
“So he spoke and went inside the inhabited home.
He went straight among the arrogant suitors in the hall.
But then the fate of dark death overtook Argos
Right after he saw Odysseus in his twentieth year.”
Does Argos count as blessed in Solon’s words because he had a happy moment before he died? Does that one moment of relief at his master’s return make up for two decades of neglect? Will Odysseus go and get a puppy after the epic’s end?
There was another cat named Skye who lost an eye in a fight with a raccoon and like my sister’s cat Jackie just ended up wandering away one day as cats on the edge of a forest sometime do. Now I know that the cats probably fell prey to some predator or disease. But then, well, pets just kind of disappeared.
Once the last two of Alfie’s offspring were gone—wherever they went—my parents wanted another dog. This time, they went to a breeder with the plans of doing things right. We got a male chocolate lab and for reasons that are too convoluted to explain but include community theater, he was named Tevye.
We must have gotten Tevye in late spring or early summer, because by the fall he was a good-sized dog, but not yet full grown. My parents tried to keep this dog inside, closer to us, but they never put in the work to train him not to go to the bathroom in the house. He would go sometimes, my dad would explode and open the door and kick him outside. This went on until Tevye mostly whined at the door until someone let him out.
While we lived on a dirt road on one side of our property, the other side was bounded by a state road that ran north-south. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road and at night you could hear a car coming from a mile away. Our mailbox was a good walk from the front door to this main road. Tevye would go down there and look over the stone wall. My father would scream if he got too close.
One day, we were outside repairing the stone wall because some car had skidded off the road. As my father and I levered stones back into position, Tevye jumped over the wall and neared the road. My father started screaming and went after the dog, but I stepped in front of him and just said “no.” I pushed him back. I was in eighth grade and I was nearly the height I am now and the same weight. It was the only time in my life that I thought he would hit me and I wanted him too. But he didn’t.
On Thanksgiving, we were racing around the house trying to get everyone ready to go to my grandmother’s when there was a knock on the door. We rarely received door knocks, rarely enough in fact that my father was as likely to answer the door with a gun as he was to answer at all (he was deaf). At the door were two young men. They asked if we had a brown dog and said that one had jumped in front of their car.
They did not have a dog with them. My mother started screaming at them. My younger brother and sister started crying. I don’t know where my father went. But I was silent. I didn’t see any sense of losing it when we knew nothing. The world has more than one brown dog.
The walk from our home to the place where the dog was on the side of the road is three to five minutes, depending on your speed. Tevye was there, definitely dead, near the stone wall we had repaired. I had never handled a corpse that large before. My father hand grown up hunting, but when he took me out to learn to shoot at age six, I had no interest in the firearm or what you might do with it. Tevye was almost 50 pounds of deadweight and carrying him over that wall to a stand of pine trees felt like a lifetime.
No one else had exited the house yet. I walked the same distance back to the garage and got a shovel and then back to the stand of pine trees near the road. I started to dig near a large stone and had a large enough hole dug by the time my father came out to see what I was doing that there was no work left to be done. When I think of this now, I tremble, still confused: it was at least 20 minutes from when I left the house and started digging the hole before either of my parents came to see if their dog was really dead.
I finished the job alone. I went to three funerals that year and one of them was a cousin who died at age 16 in a car accident. I remember that fourth funeral the most, standing alone over Tevye’s shallow grave.
In similar tone to Odysseus’ dismissal of “table dogs”, Greek and Latin words for “pets” tend to emphasize their status as a luxury or adornment. In a fragment, Euripides calls a dog a “decoration [agalma] of Hekate” (Ἑκάτης ἄγαλμα φωσφόρου κύων ἔσῃ, fr. 968). Catullus’ Lesbia has a delicia; Martial’s Stella has a delicium (Ep. 1.7; cf. Seneca Apocolyntosis 13, subalbam canem in deliciis habere adsueverat). Exotic pets are signs of decadence: Theophrastus sees an obsequious person as likely to have a pet monkey (Characters 5); Plutarch records that comic poets slandered Perikles’ friend for his pet birds (Perikles 13.14). Diogenes Laertius tells of Heraclides and his pet snake (5.6, 89-90 These animals are different from foodstock and working animals: Alciphron calls his mistress’ Maltese puppy a “delight” (ἄθυρμα, Letters of Farmers 3.22) an here, as in Lucian (Assembly of the Gods, 5) and elsewhere the pet dog gets a diminutive: κυνίδιον.
In ancient literature, we see animals functioning as reflections for human characters. When Achilles’ horse Xanthus talks to him in the Iliad, he has the same color hair as his master and speaks to give a very Achillean message: you’re going to die. Alexander is paired in legend with Bucephalus, a horse who could be tamed only by the man who tamed the world. And Odysseus comes home to a loyal dog he forgot when he went to war. Bucephalus exists in narrative only to confirm Alexander’s greatness. Xanthus would speak for no other hero. Epic Argos exists only to increase Odysseus’ sense of loss and meaning.
My family got a Newfoundland puppy after Tevye’s death. I kept a cautious distance from that dog and was off to college by the time she was four years old. I never had a conversation with my father about dogs and their deaths. I know he grew up with hunting dogs and my mother grew up with barn cats and farm animals and that both of them saw animals come and go in a way I never would. When my father died, he left behind a golden retriever and a wish that any donations in his name be made to the ASPCA. I bit my tongue at the irony.
When I turned 21 my future wife got me a kitten for my birthday. In truth, I think she really wanted a pet because she had never had one, but she also said that the way I talked about animals made her want to get one. I couldn’t tell her why getting a kitten caused me so much pain because I did not want to detract at all from the joy she experienced at getting one.
Chineh—which was a bastardized version of Tamil for “small”—was a feral cat who hated everyone except for my wife and me. When we went to the shelter, she put her paw outside the cage at us and meowed and it was over. My roommates and parents called her a devil cat. When I was in graduate school, my apartment burned out in an electric fire and somehow she survived. We put several thousand dollars on a credit card and spent a month cupping her rib cages to get her to cough up the smoke. I don’t know if that caused her health problems later, but it may have.
Chineh was 11 when our daughter was born. She was already having serious hormonal problems and was already less friendly than before. But I swear she changed around the baby. As our daughter grew and started to move, she would follow the cat around, pulling her tail, abusing her at every chance. And Chineh, who had scratched and bitten dozens of people before never hurt her at all.
When I left the clinic where Chineh was put to sleep, I gave them two different cat carriers and other accessories (they specialized in cats). They were hesitant because they thought I might get another cat someday. I told them I wouldn’t.
And here we are, a decade later, with two cats and hundreds of pictures on twitter to prove that I am, as my wife declares, obsessed with Hermes. Yes, he follows me to get a treat near dawn every morning. Yes, I brush him every night so his long hair won’t get matted. During the day, though, we stick to our own business.
I didn’t want to get more pets because I didn’t want to fail them. I resisted getting them because I don’t want to feel the grief of loss again. I didn’t want to get pets because I don’t want to see the pain in my children’s eyes when they die. But, as my wife says, that’s really no way to live at all.
I am going to resist getting a puppy named Zeus. Right now, my argument is that it will upset Hermes, because I can’t get these old stories out fast enough to make sense.
When these things happen, academic fields face the same challenges we have seen in recent years in film, SFF fiction, and nearly every industry where fame is a commodity that brings power and the cover to abuse with near impunity. We try to cut out the cancer before it does any more damage, but the presence is there for good, in the body. The debate on the existence and merits of ‘cancel culture’ dances around the hard questions of why some people think they’re entitled to fame and why we do in fact have the right to deprive bad actors of financial gain.
But these questions don’t really talk about what happens afterwards. In her 2016 Eidolon piece “Making a Monster”, Sarah Scullin writes about the strange horror of the Holt Parker fiasco, when an author of some influence on ancient sexuality turned out to be a child pornographer, and trying to figure out the balance between cries for a damnatio memoriae and our disciplinary standards of citing work where citation is due.
I have struggled with this question during what seems to be, thanks to our ever restrictive interconnections, the golden age of public assholery. Certain high profile cases of longterm problems suing undergraduates and famous Geniuses stealing papyri have forced me to face the monsters in my bibliography, and the compromises in my acknowledgements. Should I erase the names of people who have broken bad from my forthcoming work? Should I publicly disavow those who helped me in the past?
People and what we make of them
I guess I ask this because, like Scullin in her article, I am not sure of the answer. I incline in part towards not changing a thing, for two reasons. I feel in part that footnotes and acknowledgements to bad men are a kind of disclosure, a owning of the truth that our field is populated by flawed humans like any other. It also attests to the hierarchy of patronage that is central to the academic enterprise. It is a rare person who can make their way in this world without help from someone more experienced and powerful. And, well, power corrupts in all forms. And, well, getting to the top of the academic ladder does not require being a good human being.
So I guess part of the problem is that our performative obeisance exposes us to a chain of associative kleos which, given the tides of time, can go dus- or eu-. But I am also interested in how much of our behavior is based on a static and deeply problematic view of human beings. It is hard for most of us to accept the degree to which persons and personalities are contextual and that in a culture such as ours so much of what we see as signs of character are reactive and transactive negotiations.
A proverb erroneously attributed to Aristotle, “a friend to all is a friend to none”, would seem to indicate that constancy in treatment from one person to another is some kind of a value. In truth, Aristotle seems to come down on the side of not making all the friends in the Nicomachean Ethics 1170e-1171b) where he does say that “people who have many friends and shout familiarly to everyone appear to be friends of no one” (οἱ δὲ πολύφιλοι καὶ πᾶσιν οἰκείως ἐντυγχάνοντες οὐδενὶ δοκοῦσιν εἶναι φίλοι) because Aristotle argues that one significant goal of friendship is the pleasure of sharing each other’s perception of existing and being good.
Is there anyone who is good or bad to everyone they encounter? Indeed, another proverb from ancient Greek—that justice is doing good to your friends and evil to your enemies—would argue the opposite. Why is it so hard for us to comprehend that someone who was kind to us individually was cruel—if not abusive and worse—to someone else? Part of the problem with our response to the fall of great idols is that our shock and surprise runs counter to what we should already know about human beings. We are not stock characters; we are not constant beings; we are, at best, thin veils of temporary will over conflicting insecurities and desire.
Now, I know that pseudo-Lacanian description will gall many, but I would relent only to say that we conflate the reputations we grant to people for work we appreciate or use with the person themself. We make a metonymic error in seeing the kindness done for an individual as a sign of the sum total of a person’s identity. We make people into things they are not and then suffer the paralysis of horror when they turn out to be something different.
Things and what we make of them
For me, this runs up, to, and alongside current conversations about cancel culture. I have written before about my reaction to J. K Rowling being a transphobic trainwreck doing to Hogwart’s what not even Voldemort could achieve. My solution is naively simple: separate the art from the artist. We made Rowling into someone who matters because the world she created matters to us.
Any model of reading and reception that persists in centering the author over the audience is, in my ever so humble opinion, a dangerous distraction from reality rooted in a stubbornly individualistic worldview, steeped partly in monotheism and partly in capitalism (on which, more later). A painting had to be made by someone, of course, but it relies on a syntax of space, color, story, and meaning within and against which the painter operates and whose existence is only completed by the viewer who shares some frames of reference. (And this leaves out the contribution of the laborers who made the canvas and paint, the partner who made the painter’s lunch, the friend who sparked an idea, the custodian who cleans so the painter can paint and so on and so on.)
Literary and academic products draw more on conventions and the contributions of groups, especially audiences, than the individual who brings them to shape in the world. As I talked about probably too much, my favorite metaphor for this from ancient Greece comes from Plato’s Ion, where Socrates explains that a rhapsode (like Ion) is merely one of a series of metal rings that translates the magnetic charge from the “magnet” (which is the Muse or divine power) through a poet, through the rhapsode, to an audience. The one thing I would change about this metaphor is to acknowledge that it is iterative and reflexive. The divine Muse is the sum total of a cultural consciousness, that nearly indescribable shared mind of a language and people particularized in one form of art at one time or another.
Ah, yes, what heady language for academic work! One of the great ironies about the work we do in academia, however, is that despite how collaborative it is, how much it depends on the work of prior scholars, current editors, students, friends and teachers, we mostly credit and prize the individual genius of the scholar who somehow manages to write it down. I tend to thank a lot of people in acknowledgements because I am deeply conscious of my own limitations as a thinker and of how much I have been prompted to think, write, and say by others.
There are different ways to talk about how our minds work with each other. From simple things like cognitive offloading—e.g. couples over time specializing in remembering somethings and not others, relying on each other—to more complex models of group minds and distributed cognition (language etc.), it is clear that not only is no man an island, but each of us is less like a leaf on a tree than a cell in a complex organism. We don’t sense it this way because this is just too big a thought for our limited brains. The human species-wide Dunning-Kruger effect just may be that our individual consciousnesses are for the most part too simple to apprehend how complex we are collectively.
But what if someone is really, really bad? Do we need to socially distance ourselves from bad ideas too?
Where do Ideas come from?
Later, in the same passage of the Ion where he describes the metaphor of a magnet offers as proof the case of Tynnichus, a terrible poet who composed a song everyone loves (Plato, Ion 534d-535a)
“The greatest proof of my argument is Tynnichus of Chalcis who never composed any poem worth remembering except for the paean everyone sings, nearly the most beautiful of all songs, a thing he himself calls “some discovery by the Muses”.
In this example, especially, the god seems to me to demonstrate to us so that there is no doubt, that these poems are not human nor by humans but divine and by the gods and, moreover, that poets aer nother other than interpreters of the gods, inspired in the way that each one is inspired. And the god demonstrated this by having the worst poet compose the finest song.
Tynnichus was, in a way, an original one-hit wonder of ancient Greece. It can indeed make sense to wonder when someone creates a piece of art so impactful that its greatness is universally acknowledged why they fail to ever approach the same heights. We psychoanalyze the artist’s anxiety and fear of failure, that they are suddenly flame-throwing relievers who have lost the strike zone. But perhaps Socrates’ solution is simpler and more elegant. Tynnichus did not compose a great song again because he never composed it to begin with.
Where do great ideas come from? Our answer to this is almost always shaped by what we are already conditioned to look for. We gaze at the biographies of great men. We peer into their minds, looking for the difference that made them greater than others. But our gaze in many cases needs to look outward in time and space.
We give credit for inventions and innovations to individuals despite evidence to the contrary. There is good reason to lend credence to theories of multiple discovery or convergent evolution, showing that the intellectual background and shared conditions of a period can lead individuals like Newton and Leibniz to the same place (calculus!). Convergent evolution shows that similar solutions can develop for similar problems in similar circumstances without assigning genius to one place or another
And as my Brandeis colleague Aparna Baskaran explores in her work, complex systems that appear to have intelligence and intention (from cell movement to blocks of birds) can be explained by physics and mathematics as having neither. We impose agency and genius on the world because this is the way we see it.
Hit those Moneymakers?
“Simonides seems to have been the first to adapt money-making to songs and to compose his works for pay. This is what Pindar says deceptively in his second Isthmian: “For the Muse was not then greedy or out for hire.”
A few weeks ago, a few lines of a song by Micah P. Hinson floated into my head and I went to spotify and started listening. I had not listened to Hinson in years and had nearly forgotten about him. So, I started reading about what had happened to him and discovered pretty quickly that I found him to be quite the objectionable chap. Indeed, so objectionable that I felt uncomfortable using a streaming service to send a fraction of a penny to his bank account. But can we truly buy our way into virtue or out of vice?
One indication of the problem in academia is the way we cite work in most systems: author, date, page. It flattens everything about the process of ideamaking and credits an individual. But the meaning made from that citation has the author of the footnote to thank as well as all the unnamed people who contributed to those ideas. Works have lives far beyond the minds of their authors—imagine if children walked around named Christensen 2010 and Christensen 2011! But citing by article name instead of author would be just a way not talking about the problem
The impetus behind boycotting and de-platforming bad actors is to my mind a good one. It is about depriving harmful people of both the ability to cause further harm and to profit from their harmful action. The melodramatic overreaction to “cancel culture” is in part an entrenched power class’s fragility at being held accountable and in part a panic over what was assumed to be an limitless field of earning. (Although, to be fair, the mobbing part of such cancellation introduces new problems.)
The danger comes in the way we translate our social value into economic worth and how our models of remuneration, citation, and authorship are thoroughly commodified. This is easy for me to see in the proverb “give credit where credit is due,” a saying, perhaps coined by Samuel Adams in 1777 . That word credit from the Latin loan or debt (creditum), according to the OED came through French and Italian conveying both the sense of belief trust and the sense of a loan to be made based on belief and trust.
This overlap between an estimation of moral value and a valuation in financial terms is truly ancient, likely predating Alkaios who famously sings “Man is money—no one poor is noble or honored.” χρήματ᾿ ἄνηρ, πένιχρος δ᾿ οὐδ᾿ εἲς πέλετ᾿ ἔσλος οὐδὲ τιμίος (fr. 360). The conceptual metaphor between reputation and potential financial worth is so ingrained in our culture that we rarely question the logic of rich people deserving their riches. (When we know that great wealth cannot actually be acquired without theft and exploitation.)
Our laws and practices in artistic copyright, intellectual property, publication, patents and more are wholly shaped by the definition of ideas as commodity. Even in the humanities, lines of credit on CVs translate into higher paying jobs, higher wages, better positions. In a school like mine, a book published early in a career might yield no royalties, but the raise I receive of 5% of my salary compounded over 30 years of a career can translate into significant wealth. Our lives (Greek, bioi) are shaped by the translation of our activity into livelihood. And this is one of the most pernicious elisions in our language: the worth of a life in nothing but the value of its work.
To what degree is citing or not citing someone we (or others) find reprehensible about deferred credit, about anxiety over the devaluation of our own esteem. In this, perhaps, is an acknowledgement of the collective nature of our ‘products’ in the risk that others bring us.
“Canceling” a terrible person targets cultural esteem and in many cases may harm them economically. (Although, I think that for someone like Rowling, her income growth will turn merely incremental from exponential.) Because I think poets are not wholly responsible for their poems, I can enjoy the verse of a bad person. But I don’t want to pay for it.
But if citation and mention translates into esteem, what does it mean to talk about the good works of bad people in public? What does it mean to cite the useful article of the shitbird academic? My first answer—to be honest about the field that makes us all complicit in propping up petty and nasty people—does not stand up well to the danger that an unmarked acknowledgment now may translate into future benefit for the person whose work I don’t despise.
Everything’s Coming Up Solon
“People have an ancient famous proverb:
That you should not judge any mortal lives
You can’t see them as good or bad before someone dies
Some of us like to think that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, but instead, I think we’re really talking about a sphere giving in to entropy. Most things get worse, or at least get to be less of what they were, over time. The likelihood of someone you know upsetting or disappointing you overtime is non-negligible. That’s because none of us are consistently anything except for alive, until we’re not.
In the same essay where he declares himself immune to shame over quoting good words from bad authors, Seneca quotes from Publilius Syrus that “whatever can happen to someone else can also happen to you” (cuivis potest accidere quod cuiquam potest, De Tranq. 9). This line is part of an anti-hubris “check yourself before you wreck yourself” ethic, but it also reminds me of Herodotus’ Solon, who warned Croseus not to count a man as lucky before his days have ended
If you live a thoroughly wretched life but your last day is good, does that mean people to come can call you happy, Solon? And if you do mostly good, but have a really bad day, does that undo the good? And can we even manage to think about whether Solon’s notion is about pleasure at your own good and not actually doing good for other people? Clearly, this is not the place to answer this, but it seems likely that at the end of every person’s life we hear something like, “Indeed, Socrates, after all this talk, I guess we still don’t know what happiness is.”
One peril of admiring (or citing) anyone is that over a lifetime we’re all pretty much certain to disappoint. I like to think that Solon’s logic also contains the corollary that if life can turn out badly at the last moment, it can also turn out well. To believe in the possibility of education one must believe that people have the capacity to change. So, perhaps the bad words of a good author will improve and a bad author might turn out to be a better person some day.
But then we are back to the pageantry of withhdrawal and return, of wondering if someone has reformed truly or is merely back in disguise for more lines of credit. What are our limits on forgiveness? How much do we believe in personal growth? Separating the work from the life and the person from work may help liberate us all. And then we can get back to the hard work of living together and understanding ourselves.
Why read Homer if the world is coming to an end? Why teach Homer if the Homeric epics have been instrumentalized as part of colonialism and white supremacy? These are not idle questions. They are the questions that need to be answered if the discipline of Classics to continue in any form at all.
I expressed some of these views early on and was, again rightly, criticized for inserting such navel gazing was taking space away from BIPOC classicists. In the meantime, I have been thinking and working at my own institution (virtually) with Homer always somewhere near. There will never be a time when my voice, embodied as it is in the privilege and experience I bring with me, does not drown out others. I feel a responsibility to think about this and use the space I have to advocate for the change I can. As a Homerist, even if I am not one of great renown, I think it is my duty to think and write critically about my field and to help make space for others.
Why read Homer? I think I made clear some feelings about why reading Homer badly is counterproductive. This may be a surprise, but I do think there is a good reason to read Homer. First, let us get through the reasons people typical give I find disagreeable. I have listed them in my opinion of silliest to most serious. Let me be clear: I think that there is some truth and utility to each of these, but there are challenges too.
Entertainment: The epics are good stories! This argument is related in part to the aesthetics of literature (although the pleasure of a good yarn is different from the aesthetics I talk about below). Sure, the epics can be riveting, but there are parts that even seasoned readers can find challenging: for example Iliad 13-15, Odyssey 2-4 and 12-16. I suspect that many people who make this argument have not had the challenge of leading students through a whole epic from beginning to end. I also think that many people who make this argument may have not read the epics in their entirety. (P.S. it is perfectly ok to read excerpts).
Homer is historical: I just can’t get on this train. The Homeric epics are no more historical than Arthurian legend. They can give us ideas about the values of the historical peoples who formed their audiences, but even this is not simple: which version of Homer and which audiences at which time radically challenge anything we can say. My favorite formulation about what Homer is vis a vis history belongs to Hans Van Wees who calls the Iliad a “fantasy of the past” (Status Warriors, 1992). Anyone reading this who believes there was an actual Trojan War in some way corresponding to the events of our Iliad will be sorely disappointed by my stance.
As far as I can see it, from Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations to more recent excitement about Hittite names, the importance placed on historical correspondence is almost entirely due to the interest and enthusiasm of the interpreter who desires to make a positivistic identification between some mythical past and material remains. This is not to say that the Homeric epics can’t be useful in talking about the past, but that they have been used almost exclusively to see Ancient Greece in a particular way and have been an obstacle for this reason. Trevor Bryce’s work (e.g. “The Trojan War: Is There Truth behind the Legend? “Near Eastern Archaeology 2002, 65: 182-195) has marshaled a lot of the evidence, concluding in part that even if there is some historical ‘truth’, the creative work of the poems far exceeds and surpasses it (and Bryce is one who relies on the idea of a genius poet). Anyone familiar with the fine work of H. L. Lorimer a half century earlier would reach a similar, even bleaker confusion (Homer and the Monuments, 1950).
“I am not contending for the morality of Homer; on the contrary, I think it a book of false glory, tending to inspire immoral and mischievous notions of honor” Thomas Paine
“It was most excellently set down that a student’s reading should begin with Homer and Vergil, even though one needs a firmer judgment for understanding the virtues of those poets, for there will be time to develop it, since they will not be read just once” Quintilian
Noble Values: Read Homer for the heroes? They are a bunch of amoral shitbags. Perhaps we can learn by reading Homer that oftentimes the people in positions of power are there because they are in it for themselves and they don’t care if all of their people perish. Read the epics: Agamemnon, Achilles, Hektor, Paris, Odysseus all make choices that increase the death toll of their people without increasing their chance of success. One of the real strengths of epic is what I will call below its indeterminacy. The problem with texts of indeterminant meaning is that audiences will disambiguate complexity and choose to take away simply recognizable or facile lessons.
In one of our most famous early responses to myth and Homeric poetry, Plato has his Socrates banish tales of civil strife, children punishing parents, and gods warring with one another. Such tales, Socrates continues, “should not be allowed into the state, even if they were composed with secret meeting or without secret meaning. For a young person is incapable of judging what is allegorical meaning and what is not, but whatever opinions they take up during their young are hard to rinse off and tend to become unchangeable (ὅσας Ὅμηρος πεποίηκεν οὐ παραδεκτέον εἰς τὴν πόλιν, οὔτ’ ἐν ὑπονοίαις πεποιημένας οὔτε ἄνευ ὑπονοιῶν. Ὁ γὰρ νέος οὐχ οἷός τε κρίνειν ὅτι τε ὑπόνοια καὶ ὃ μή, ἀλλ’ ἃ ἂν τηλικοῦτος ὢν λάβῃ ἐν ταῖς δόξαις δυσέκνιπτά τε καὶ ἀμετάστατα φιλεῖ γίγνεσθαι, Republic 378d-e).
Any sense of this passage must take the purpose of the Republic into consideration: Socrates apostrophizes Homer and asks, “What city was governed better thanks to you?” (λέγε ἡμῖν τίς τῶν πόλεων διὰ σὲ βέλτιον ᾤκησεν, 599e). For the Republic’s Socrates, Homer cannot provide instruction for governing a city any more than he can instill proper morals and opinions in individuals. But this is because, according to Plato, people don’t understand Homeric hyponoia, literally something like “sub-meaning, under-meaning, secret meaning”, translated cleverly in the most recent Loeb edition as simply “deeper meaning” (replacing the older allegorical).
Even today, we often find people claiming that reading the epic can give readers good values. Homer can teach you to be loyal, manly, brave, etc.! The problem with literary exemplification like this is that good examples come with counter-examples and it is often hard to tell the difference. Further, any praising of Homeric epics for positive values needs to acknowledge that they are filled with horror and danger too from Agamemnon’s greed to Odysseus’ murderous vengeance. (In addition, this does not even include the deep structural problems of gender and class.) This is at best a naïve approach to literature: most readers project values onto a text and select what they want to see (or what they avidly don’t want to see). As with most of these points, this argument suffers from a limited sense of what ‘reading’ is and how it works.
i would say homer doesn't "teach" noble values, but instead illustrates moral ruin
The noble values also work the other way. Many have been justifiably moved by Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, written in Nazi-occupied France. She reads the poem with “force” as the “true subject” and moves that the Iliad may be a “historical document” illustrating “force….at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.” Perhaps, intentionally or not, Weil channels Aristotle’s attribution in the Rhetoric that “Alcidamas called the Odyssey a fine mirror for human life”. I do not disagree with Weil about Homer—indeed; this influential essay has done more to show Homer’s depth than much of Homeric scholarship. Nevertheless, I do think that Weil’s context and experience trained her gaze in a particular way. See this passage from the end of the essay:
While I almost giddily agree with Weil’s sentiment on Vergil, I think her take on the Odyssey is less generous and shaped by her identity and the moment of writing. How much sense can an epic of return, survival, and renewed life make when German tanks are rolling down your city’s streets? In a way, Weil’s comments on the Iliad as a mirror for human life also reflect how interpretation works. The way we read a work is a reflection of who we are and what we bring to it.
In the smartest thing in all the Star Wars movies (ok, maybe the only smart thing), the Empire Strikes Backbrings us a Luke Skywalker in training, lured into a cave on Dagobah where Yoda tells him the tree is “strong with the dark side of the Force. A servant of evil it is. Into it you must go”. To Luke’s question, “what’s in there”, the Jedi Master responds, “Only what you take with you.” The subsequent scene has Luke taking his light saber in with him and facing an ersatz Darth Vader who turns out to be….himself.
The Homeric poems are powerful shapers of perception, but in the end, they contain so much that we come away from them with very different notions of the poem. The Iliad is about force, but it is also about scarcity, anger, desire, love, loyalty and how people value one another. Moreover, it is a prolonged contemplation on when we choose to use force as opposed to when we have to. To pull one melody out of a multi-day symphony is to block out the majority of the composition as mere sound. We each hear our own Iliad and even these changes over time.
“You want a horse race? There is a fine one in Homer. Go get your book and read through it. You hear them talking about dancing pantomimes? Forget them! The children dance in a more manly way among the Phaiakians. You have there the citharist Phemios and the singer Demodokos. There are plants in Homer which are more delightful to hear of than to see.” Julian
Now, as someone thoroughly drawn to Epicurus, I cannot say that aesthetics and pleasure are not important, but that that they are symptomatic of both effective works and those that appeal to our weaknesses. There is a circuitous and replicative process in the aesthetic process that enforces traditional normative ideals and dis-incentivizes meaningful change. Therefore, when people say they love the beauty of Homer, I worry that they are selecting and privileging parts of Homer that have been culturally marked as attractive and have shaped their expectations for literature.
“Our poets steal from Homer; he spews, saith Aelian, they lick it up,” Robert Burton
Canon: Advocates often imagine that the strongest argument for Homer is that Homer was influential in the “Western Canon” and that you need to be familiar with Homer to appreciate and understand everything that came after. I think that this argument sounds nice, but it overstates the existence of the “Western Canon” (which is relatively recent), ignores the motivations for enforcing it, and radically misunderstands the impact of Homeric epic in the development of European literatures. If one is studying the history of ideas (especially the history of the idea of literature and canons) this “argument” is a good question as a starting point (I.e., how influential was Homer actually on European literatures?) but it is deeply insufficient for building a curriculum.
It is not that Homer was not and has not been important, but that the idea of Homer was far more influential than the epics in their entirety. For most of the history of the reception of the epics, they were read in summary or in part. For most of the history of education in the west, they would be mined for rhetorical excerpts. I think that relatively few readers in the ancient world had access to full texts and that when people talk about Homer in the ancient world we are really mostly talking about the sum total influence of Trojan War narratives and Greek myth on the development of culture and literature. In this category, a myth handbook like that of Apollodorus or Hyginus or the epics of Ovid and Vergil have been much more directly influential on later authors and tradition. The fact is, outside of the Byzantine Empire, Homer was not read that much in Northern and Western Europe prior to German Philhellenism, a period in which Northern philologists did everything they could to try to discredit, ignore, and de-center continuity and authority in Greek culture.
And the true bards have been noted for their firm and cheerful temper. Homer lies in sunshine; Chaucer is glad and erect; and Saadi says, ‘It was rumored abroad that I was penitent; but what had I to do with repentance?’ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Universalism: I will not easily dismiss the assertion that the Homeric epics reflect and advance essential ‘truths’ or visions about what it means to be human. I do have structural and intellectual quibbles with this approach, however. First, I wonder about the universal humanistic appeal of a text that denies full humanity to a majority of the human race (all those who are not aristocratic men). This leads into my deeper concern, namely that appeals to universalism can appeal easily to observer effects and selection bias. Whose view of humanity is assumed universal in this approach? Who counts as human in the world projected and received?
Further, I think that universalism assumes a unitary or singular point of view. If this argument is that the Homeric texts are polyvalent and reflect the pluralism of human experience in a multicultural and changing environment, then I can agree. Nevertheless, I think that this is not what people mean. Instead, universalism is too often a series of general bromides ignoring detail and saying more about the interests and assumptions of the interpreter than anything about the text.
“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.” Leonardo Bruni
Homer is unique and different! This assertion introduces some inextricable problems about defining difference. In some forms, I find this argument somewhat convincing but probably not in the same way that many others do. I think that the polyvocal, oral-derived, multilocal background of the Homeric epics renders their tone, perspective, language, and impact both quantitatively and qualitatively different from anything I have ever read. The problem with this approach is that it tends to be teleological: ‘Homer’ is positioned as a unitary and foundational genius whose DNA has spread majestically throughout the artwork of later generations.
The difference between what we actually have in the Homeric epics and what we find in later generations can help us unlearn what we think we know about literary traditions. This argument makes me nervous in general because it runs the risk of merely repeating the damaging “Greek Miracle” nonsense. But it is also an argumentum ex silentio. I don’t know that other works we lost were any less unique and different.
I think we are also conditioned by the tradition and our received aesthetics to see unique difference here only and not to look for it or see it in traditional poetry elsewhere, the epics of India, the philosophy and poetry of China and oral traditions in the Middle East and Africa. Instead, what I want to emphasize is that the Homeric epics developed through and because of the Rationalizing Revolution and contributed to it in turn. I will return to this more below, but my point is that history and cultural context were formative in the epics’ development. And, in turn, they contributed to a shifting in the cultures that hosted them.
While I don’t agree with all he says about Homer, Adam Nicolson puts it well when he summarized Homer as “Multiple in origins, multiple in manner and multiple in meaning, Homer in this light both knows the deep past and moves beyond it (2014, Why Homer Matters).
“With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.” George Bernard Shaw
Why read Homer? 1: Homer is Multivocal and Multicultural
The biggest problem with what most people say about Homer is that it is based on a ‘modern’ view of Homer that projects upon the past post-Christian and post-Renaissance notions of authorship, genius, and identity on a past tradition. This is probably not the best place and time to talk about what Homer is, but it is worth a few sentences to say what Homer isn’t.
The poems we have, moreover, reached the shapes we have during a period when the people who told their stories were engaged with the local pluri-vocality of their own amalgam culture and the multicultural influence of the migratory and trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean. The ritual, religious, linguistic, narrative, and artistic traditions of Archaic Greece were indisputably influence by Ancient Africa (including but not exclusively Egypt) and the Ancient Near East. They were also likely influenced by innumerable lost stories and languages of cultures from around the Mediterranean who stories have been lost to time.
In addition, the epics came much closer to the form we have them during the period we call the ‘Rationalizing Revolution’ which was defined by philosophers/scientists coming from the Greek states of Asia Minor and moving west under political pressure (Persian expansion?). It was no accident that these thinkers hailed for so long as originating geniuses came out of cosmopolitan, multicultural cities: where do we think they got their ideas from?
We too often treat Homer as being suddenly ex novo and sui generis. Instead, the Homeric epics we have come at the end of a long process of differentiation and integration. They are unique insofar as they were uniquely successful in surviving the past. Accepting them as standard is falling into the trap epic sets for us: part of epic style is to assume its own supremacy and superiority. We know from mythography, that Homeric detail is often out there on its own and in service of its own ends. (Elton Barker and I talk a lot about this and how to interpret Homer in our recent Homer’s Thebes.)
“If the works of Homer are, to letters and to human learning, what the early books of Scripture are to the entire Bible and to the spiritual life of man; if in them lie the beginnings of the intellectual life of the world, then we must still recollect that that life, to be rightly understood, should be studied in its beginnings. There we may see in simple forms what afterwards grew complex, and in clear light what afterwards became obscure; and there we obtain starting-points, from which to measure progress and decay along all the lines upon which our nature moves.” William Gladstone
Why Read Homer 2: Transformation
There’s a lot more to say and there’s not a Homerist alive who won’t take issue with the way I have framed some of this. The real reason I think people should read Homer is that the process of doing so—especially with other people—is transformative. How and why this transformation happens is a little involved, so I am about to get really annoying. But, to put it simply, Homeric epic refuses to give its audiences simple answers and forces us to think deeply, if we do it right.
Again, to Nicolson: he concludes that Homer matters…”because Homer…understands what mortals do not….That is his value a reservoir of understanding beyond the grief and turbulence of a universe in which there is no final authority” (2014, 244). I think that this is partly right, that the epics hold out the Siren call of knowledge, but that there is something much more important here. Homer offers up a mirror to life for us to inspect but it is a fragmented funhouse mirror in a nightmare.
We get partial pieces of information about greatness and loss about nobility and ugliness and are repeatedly told nothing about which paths we should choose. Again, Nicolson is right that Homer “provides no answers” but his closing recourse to poetic rhetorical questions misses the opportunity to articulate the significance both of why Homer provides no answers and of how the origins of Homeric poetry make it necessary for the poems to be this way. The Homeric epics are dialogic and aporetic and in these functions they teach us not what to do but how to think about what we do as communities.
Before I talk about the poems as dialogues and proto-philosophical experiences leading to states of aporia, let me just return to their origins for a moment. I think that the sophisticated, even therapeutic nature, of the poems is likely a historical accident of the demands of the performance context rather than some testament to the genius of the poems. In this, I do not deny the impression of genius or the magnitude of these epics’ monumental impact over time, but rather that their character was a product of environment rather than intention (an argument for a different space, I believe).
Homeric poetry is what others have already called dialogic, as Anna Bonifazi describes dialogism, following Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis, is when texts show a “a multiplicity and stratification of voices” or, to use Bakhtin’s words, a “plurality of consciousnesses” (Bakhtin 1984:81). Homeric poetry, as Egbert Bakker has described it is intensely dialogic because of its development over time in multiple contexts and for multiple audiences over time (2006b). In addition, some of my favorite modern scholars who write on Homer like John Peradotto (who also calls it heteroglossia, 1990, 53-58) foreground the multiplicity of meanings that emerge from dialogism. This is part of what makes Homeric poetry feels different: it channels untold numbers of voices for an equally unknown number of ears.
Such characteristics make it necessary that Homeric poetry will show empathy and understanding to multiple perspectives while refusing to take sides or give clear answers. Earlier literary theorists like William Empson struggled to describe the power of ambiguity or what someone else might call indeterminacy as the most potent of poetic forces. Whereas modern theorists debate the source of indeterminacy in reception or creation (i.e. is it authorially intended or created in reader response), Homeric indeterminacy is part of the poetic tradition from the level of utterance all the way through structure.
Now, I just mixed and rendered equivalent three terms that many literary theorists would prefer to keep separate: dialogism, the quality of multivocality in a text; ambiguity, when a text can have multiple meanings at once; and indeterminacy, when multiplicity of meaning cannot be disambiguated even to certain options. Rather than seeing these descriptions as overlapping, I think they help to identify different ways in which the multiplicity of Homeric meaning can translate into polysemy, multiple meanings at different times and for different audiences. As with the example of Simone Weil above, we bring our own experiences and eras to bear on the epics; but we as interpreters can also change while reading, because of reading, or over time when we return to a poem with new life experience.
In addition, the multi-vocal nature of the epics helps us to understand that despite their structural misogyny, classism, and latent justification for slavery, they still offer moments of deep empathy and understanding for those out of power: Andromache’s speeches about her son; similes about men struggling over scarce land; the almost lost image of the mill-working enslaved woman, desperate and exhausted. Eumaios is apostrophized by the narrator to a similar effect—just as the Homeric epics stand apart from most other war narratives in expecting their audiences to see the shared humanity of the Trojans, so too are they deeply sensitive to different positions in life.
The danger of this is its very intoxication, however. Andromache’s lamentations distract from the silence of all the other Trojan women; Eumaios’ valorization obscures his suffering and total surrender of agency; and the mill-woman’s prayer recenters Odysseus’ vengeance and leaves us wondering if despite all her trials, she still might be one of the women brutally hanged after cleaning up their dead lovers’ corpses.
But the different types of polysemy I mention above also help to produce what I think is one of the most important functions of Homeric poetry, the creation of aporia. Most people who know what aporia is will associate it with the early Platonic dialogues. Aporia—literally, “pathlessness”—is that state reached after the end of a dialogue like the Lysis when Socrates announces that despite their philosophical turnings they still do not know what friendship is. Such a moment emphasizes process over product and directs the audience to go back to the beginning and think the whole thing through again.
Homeric epic, like Platonic dialogue, invites its audiences to follow the folly and success of its characters and then to retrace them, to come to a deeper understanding of the conditions that put them in the position to fail. For Platonic dialogue, Laura Candiotto (2015) has argued that the state of aporia itself is transformative, that it forces us to “imagine an otherness” (242) but that this process requires shared or collective emotional and intellectual work. The shared work of interpreting epic with its characters is a kind of extended mind over time. When we read them and discuss them with others, we engage in the transformative process of creating community around the interrogation of the self.
Now, I would be so bold as to say that this last step is possible with many different kinds of art and narrative traditions—the importance of community and group minds in interpretation and the creation of meaning is almost always underappreciated, especially in an aesthetic paradigm that privileges the author as a divine creator and prizes some interpreters as having exclusive access to that providential mind. What makes Homer different from reading Game of Thrones together or spending semesters contemplating Marcel Proust’s associative sense of smell is the depth of interpretive traditions to add to the complexity of the community of meaning and the nature of epic poetry itself. Homeric ambiguity, interdeterminacy, and dialogism provide a capaciousness of time rare in any art form and the essential, irrefutable absence of the author provides the opportunity to think and rethink without that devils’ trap of authorial intention.
The act of judgment is central to epic poetry from lexical through thematic levels. Homeric poetry provides many clues that it privileges the act of interpretation over all else. In addition to the stories, omens, and similes left unexplained throughout both epics, the Iliad presents a fascinating study on the surface of Achilles’ shield:
Homer Il. 18.496-508
“The people where gathered, crowded, in the assembly where a conflict (neîkos)
had arisen: two men were striving over the penalty for
a man who had been killed; the first one was promising to give everything
as he was testifying to the people; but the other was refusing to take anything;
and both men longed for a judge to make a decision.
The people, partisans on either side, applauded.
Then the heralds brought the host together; the elders
sat on smooth stones in a sacred circle
as they held in their hands the scepters of clear-voiced heralds;
each one was leaping to his feet and they pronounced judgments in turn.
In the middle there were two talents of gold to give
to whoever among them uttered the straightest judgment.”
Here, we find two parties arguing over an act of interpretation. The reward set out for either side does not go to the combatants but to the interpreters themselves: there is a prize dedicated to whoever can present the most just judgment for the aggrieved parties. The frozen moment of the shield, however, can no more resolve what the best judgement is any more than the poem can decisively tell us to prefer Agamemnon over Achilles in book 1 or whether the suitors’ families were ultimately better off in not trying to kill Odysseus in the final book of his epic. (And there are historical parallels from the Ancient Greek world for privileging judges and interpretation from West Lokris and Chios). The shield anticipates a world of conflict and judgment where people use their intelligence and their shared community to navigate their challenges through interpretation and deliberation.
Why Read Homer 3: Allegory
If I dismissed traditions of reading Homer earlier, I did so because the way we read Homer in schools—for facts of the story, for models to apply to later texts, for pleasure—is a recent departure from ancient traditions that beyond the moralizing of Plato saw in the Homeric epics opportunities for enlightenment. And, again, I apologize for the likely alienating tour through some theoretical terms and bibliographies above, but my journey to these conclusions has come from despising Homer in high school to dedicating now half of my life to figure out why I respond so deeply to Homer in Greek.
As Robert Lamberton argues in his 1986 Homer the Theologian complexity and opacity of meaning were assumed by ancient audiences and critics. Before Plato took on Homer by taking him out of the Republic, Pythagoreans saw allegory for the body and soul in the Iliad and Odyssey and contributed to interpretive traditions that extended well into the Christian era.
Our literalist and formalist approaches hail back to the scholarly pursuits of Alexandrians (and Hellenistic philologists) who worked in establish authoritative texts. Their insistence on establishing authority stood opposed by the later “Porphyry’s assertion of the existence of numerous valid possibilities in the interpretation of a single text ”…which was by no means evidence of a lack of clearly defined principles of interpretation, but rather a logical consequence of Neoplatonic psychology and epistemology” (Lamberton 1986, 127).
Ancient interpreters who pursued this could be quite adventurous as when Porphyry—as recorded by Stobaeus (i. 44. 60)—explains that the events of book 10 centering around Kirkê are really a coded message about reincarnation and the way the soul’s rebirth in corporeal form is dictated by its relationship to its desires—its ability to balance the rational (to logistikon), the emotional (thumoeides) and physical (or appetitive) desires (epithumêtikon). In this reading, these parts (ta merê) of the soul may be governed—or at least ameliorated—by education and philosophy. For Heraclitus the allegorist, Odysseus’ entire journey was an allegory for our navigation through virtue and vice, a metaphor the Neoplatonist Proclus echoes. The Homeric scholia are filled with records of allegorical meanings and an ancient tradition makes even Paris’ between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite an allegory about human lack of self-control (Lamberton 1986, 2; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 42).
My point in going through this even in brief is that there are ancient traditions of Homeric interpretation which find deep, ethical, psychological, and even mystical meaning in the texts. Classical studies of recent centuries has tended back to what Seneca the Younger calls “that sickness of the Greeks” (Graecorum iste morbus, Brevitate Vitae 13) to focus on pedantic detail over and above a greater search for meaning, seeking in desperation for “Homer’s homeland” (Moral Epistle 88), striving not to “nourish our soul but to sharpen our wit” (ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium, EM. 108). Even Cicero asks “what impact does this ‘grave’ and ‘acute’ stuff have on the pursuit of the highest good?” (ed, quaeso, quid ex ista acuta et gravi refertur ad τέλος? Ep. To Atticus 12.6)
It is fine to read Homer in translation, in summary, or in excerpt. It is fine to read Homer out of curiosity about peoples in the past, to understand the history of our ideas about literature, to think about claims of universal humanism or that literature can give us values and ennoble us. Whatever brings you to Homer, the reason I think you should read the Iliad or the Odyssey is to be transformed by powerful narratives that seek to make you try to understand more of the universe inside and through yourself. I dare say you may not even require teachers to do this, but it does help to have friends to read with you.
Over the past few years we have seen a return in public discourse to a question of “the canon”. To be honest, calling this a return is a bit dishonest because the issue has been central to discussions about public and university education, the rise and fall of the humanities, and the problematic (re)-construction of “western civilization” since the culture wars of the 1980s. Each iteration is a reactive reassertion in response to justified pressure to question the canon, to open it up, to break it down, and to make space for the majority of people some canons exclude.
One of the most frustrating things about this conversation is that reactions to disassembling or even questioning the canon are basically recycled spasms with different words. Today we hear panic about “cancel culture” and attacks on Aristotle or Homer. Such complaints present the canon as part history, part DNA, but almost always something which unites and forms us. Earlier conversations (e.g. the first period of Bloom) at least debated what belonged in this canon; the recent commentariat is mostly just enraged at the hubris of women and BIPOC students and scholars daring to ask serious questions instead of just imitating and emulating white scholars of old.
This post is already another tired rehearsal, but here’s where we can still do some work. Our discussions rarely ever follow some of the basic tenets of this so-called canon and start with definitions. What is a canon? How long have we had the canon.
In ancient Greek a kanôn is an instrument of measurement. It seems to have non-Greek origins.
As fans of Robert Beekes will undoubtedly report, he often says that unclear roots are non-Greek in origin. The Mycenaean reflex demonstrates that the word—and perhaps the concept—was available in Greece long before the Classical period, so there’s an extent to which the ultimate etymological origins really don’t matter.
From the Archaic period on, we find the kanôn as a tool for measuring, a standard for building, and then, following the broader cultural discourse around the cognitive metaphor of crooked and straight, symbolic uses for right/just behavior and other kinds of rectitude. A clear and potentially ‘canonized version of this appears in Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, 1113a 29-1113b):
“The good person judges everything rightly, both how things seem and are in truth. For in each thing in particular there are noble and pleasing aspects and a good person differs most in being able to observe what is true for each thing, as if they are a kanôn and measure of these things. It seems that most people are deceived by pleasure. For even though it is not good, it seems to be so and they choose what is pleasing as good and they avoid what causes pain as an evil.”
Here a philosophically informed person demonstrates the intelligence and wisdom—what some today might rephrase as taste or good sense—to judge a thing for its worth and to guide their behavior based on this. Of course, one might make the mistake of imagining that different folks might have different takes on what is pleasing and good. Aristotle addresses this elsewhere (On the Soul 411a):
“If the soul must be made out of the elements, it doesn’t need to be from all of them! It is enough for only one pair of opposites to judge itself and its counterpart. Thus we understand the straight and the crooked by the same method: the kanon is the test for them both—but neither the crooked nor the straight provides its own proof. Some might think that the soul is mixed up in everything, which is perhaps why Thales believed that everything was full of gods.”
Here, he uses kanôn as a metaphor. As any amateur carpenter knows, just because something looks straight or level, does not mean that it is. This passage seems to imply that our soul or mind has the ability to judge things outside of it. But Aristotle makes how these kinds of judgments might work more interesting in a different passage (Nicomachean Ethics 1138a26-35):
“This is the nature of equity itself: it is a correction of the law where it is deficient because it is too general. This is the reason that not all things exist according to law: there are some cases in which it is impossible to establish a law so that we need some kind of vote. For the kanôn of the undefined can only be undefined itself. This is how it is with the lead kanôn used by builders in Lesbos. Just as that kanôn does not stay the same but is reshaped to the curve of a stone, so too a vote/ordinance is made to fit the affairs at hand. This makes it clear what equitable is, that it is just, and that it is better than certain kinds of justice.”
In a passage one could argue is potentially revolutionary, Aristotle notes the slippage between descriptive measures and prescriptive measures and that standards of judgment will need to be changed for different circumstances, especially in search of what is equitable.
During the Roman imperial period, Dio Chrystosom calls law “a straight-edge [kanôn] for affairs, against which we must each align our own manner. Otherwise, we will be crooked and wrong.” (Ἔστι δὲ ὁ νόμος τοῦ βίου μὲν ἡγεμών, τῶν πόλεων δὲ ἐπιστάτης κοινός, τῶν δὲ πραγμάτων κανὼν δίκαιος, πρὸς ὃν ἕκαστον ἀπευθύνειν δεῖ τὸν αὑτοῦ τρόπον· εἰ δὲ μή, σκολιὸς ἔσται καὶ πονηρός, Discourse 75: On Law). Longinus echoes a similar use when he quotes Demosthenes’ On the Crown as complaining that those who betrayed their countries to Philip and then Alexander transgressed “the boundaries and measures [kanones] of all that the Greeks used to hold as good” (, ἃ τοῖς πρότερον Ἕλλησιν ὅροι τῶν ἀγαθῶν ἦσαν καὶ κανόνες, ἀνατετροφότες, Longinus, On the Sublime 1 32, quoting De Corona 96).
The idea of the kanôn as a thing we measure ourselves against overlaps with the philosophical notion of a kanôn as presenting rudimentary basics necessary for a discipline: Epicurus is said to have composed a Kanôn where he “says that our perceptions, preconceptions and feelings provide the criteria for truth. So, Epicureans also make perceptions of imagined ideas function in the same way” (ἐν τοίνυν τῷ Κανόνι λέγων ἐστὶν ὁ Ἐπίκουρος κριτήρια τῆς ἀληθείας εἶναι τὰς αἰσθήσεις καὶ προλήψεις καὶ τὰ πάθη, οἱ δ᾿ Ἐπικούρειοι καὶ τὰς φανταστικὰς ἐπιβολὰς τῆς διανοίας, Diogenes Laertius, Life of Epicurus 30). Such definitions are questioned by Sextus Empiricus as the “Kanon of the verifiable truth” (κανόνος τῆς κατ᾿ ἀλήθειαν τῶν πραγμάτων ὑπάρξεως,) which underlies the positions of Dogmatists and the subtraction of would undermine their belief system (Against the Logicians 1 27).
In philosophy, canonical principles of a discipline can also be extended to principles of canonical behavior, satirized by Lucian (Hermotimus 76):
“If you ever met the kind of Stoic who is at the peak, that kind who neither feels pain nor is attracted by pleasure and never feels anger, but is stronger than envy, looks down on wealth and is completely happy, we need some straight-edge and square for a life of virtue from this sort of person. If this stoic is imperfect in even the smallest way, even though possessing more of everything else, well then they’re not yet happy.”
The applications of canonical standards move easily from description to prescription and are not merely philosophical and ethical, but they also move into the aesthetic. Do just a little searching and you will find reference to thekanôn of Polyclitus, a description about the “proper” proportions of a human body described by Lucian (The Dance, 75)
“I am planning to show the body which is aligned with the kanon of Polycltius. Let it be neither too tall and long now short and dwarfish in shape, but a precisely correct proportion, not being fat, which makes the dance unbelievable, or too thin, which would be skeletal or corpse-like.”
A tool for measuring, metaphorically or literally, can function to describe the qualities of a thing but can also prescribe the boundaries of a thing itself. A measuring tape can be used to find the length of a thing but a measuring rod can also be used to indicate that something fails to adhere to some externally imposed model. In the example of Polyclitus’ kanôn the ‘ideal’ body is used to mark other bodies as deformed. In the Greek tradition of Aristotle we could say that the male body functions as a kanôn against which the female body is judged monstrous or sub-standard. In the same way, an aesthetic and intellectual canon demarcates space around it outside of which other forms, contents, and peoples are found lacking.
An additional problem comes from the dangers of exemplification: learning from representative models must be done with care. If they are haphazardly offered as “great” and admirable, audiences can be led astray. Plutarch notes this in his How to Study Poetry (25e):
“And so, the young should understand when we urge them to read poems not to have such high beliefs about them and their impressive names because they believe that they are wise and just men, the best kinds and models [kanones] of virtue and rightness.”
Oftentimes, the process of canonization tends to level with an upgrade: people who do big things (in fiction or real life) are never simply one thing or another.
Implicit then in the metaphorical use of the canon is the meaning we have in the modern world, but before we get to these meanings, it is worth considering some more recent history. Following the rise of Christianity, canon came to mean that which was authorized as legitimate by the Church (which Biblical books were divinely inspired; and these are some of the first definitions in the OED) and, eventually, laws and judgments issues by Ecclesiastical authorities. Our first use of the term canon to denote a group of authors seems to be by David Ruhnken in 1768 (Historia Critica Oratorum Graecorum see Montanari in Brill’s New Pauly, s.v. Canon and Easterling in the OCD3 and this blogpost).
Ruhnken uses the term to refer to the groups of lyric poets, orators, and tragedians who were handed down from antiquity. His use seems to have been prescriptive: if we follow his career in Sandys or Rudolph Pfeiffer, he seemed to have been dedicated to working with texts that were not in these groups. As Pat Easterling notes, however, the prescriptive meaning was long latent in scholarly circles: Photios uses it to denote the earlier model on which a later author based his work. As an authoritative, evenly divinely inspired model, the use of canon which emerges in the 19th century probably has more to do with Biblical studies than Aristotelian ethics.
How does any of this matter today? If you search google books or other sources there are very few uses of the term Canon to refer to a collection of ‘Western Great Books’ prior to the 1980s. So let’s be clear about what a canon is and what it does in this post-Biblical tradition: it provides a model with the hope of directing behavior, including ethics and aesthetics. This canon works by excluding one thing from another, by de-authorizing some traditions and burying them, and by rendering the selected object as sacred.
This, I suspect, is central to Harold Bloom’s use of the word canon in 1994’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages which functions almost entirely to exclude certain kinds of things from the halls of good taste (most often meaning any works not by European men). Regular mentions of the Western Canon at All prior to the culture wars of the 1980s/90s are further evidence of a very reactionary stance: in 1870, the Western Canon is used to refer to the imposition of the selection of New Testament Books on African Bishops. And it seems that century’s use of the phrase focused on the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church to the exclusion of others. (Although, to be honest, I would really prefer a church historian to confirm some of these assertions.)
If we can, we need to think about the other phrases people seem to use to mean something similar: in the early 20th century there was an effort to great curricula based on Great Books motivated by the overall concern that education had become too specialized and that students were missing out on the broader interdisciplinary tradition of the liberal arts and “western civilization”.
Both this movement and the subsequent culture wars of the humanities in the 1980s are reactions to higher education being opened up to new audiences: the middle classes of growing universities in the west before and after WW2 and the increasingly class, gender, and race diverse classrooms of the 1960s-1980s. Great books, Western Civilization, and The Western Canon are reactive creations, attempts to impose strict measures and rules on a world in flux.
The problem with the prescriptive canon is it obscures, I think, the aesthetic rule, responsibility of judgment, and any acknowledgment that both aesthetics and judgment are subject to experience and context.
The bigger problem is that our public discussions about canons do not acknowledge the religious and authoritative history of the term and that earlier debates about the canon—even the attempt to establish a singular one—are intentional attempts to create an authoritative culture that privileges a 19th century, Eurocentric, white supremacist, colonialist world view
A few weeks ago, I started asking myself how a canon is like a statue. Both are purportedly erected to honor something which has been lost. But both are much more about the present than they are about the past: they are raised to project a certain view of the world. And while some memorials of this kind are certainly aspirational, even these can be constrictive: those who don’t fit into that view are excluded. The implicit and explicit aesthetic and normative rules of a canon of literature of art has the same impact on expression, belief, and belonging.
A canon is unlike a statue because it cannot be brought down easily and parts of it are so thoroughly knit into our culture that it would be impossible. But we can talk about what it is, we can acknowledge the disproportionate impact canons can have, and we can broaden them understanding, following Aristotle, that to achieve equity, sometimes you need to change the measures you use.
We have now seen 20 days in first local then international protests over the death of George Floyd, police violence, and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. We are only at the beginning of our shared action and responsibility. (And not near the end of the protest: Breonna Taylor‘s killers have bot been arrested and Rayshard Brooks was killed mere days ago.)
Below are some resources and links I have found helpful and hope others will use to think about our place in this particular space and time and our obligations moving forward. Since this is a Greek and Roman literature blog with a focus on Classical Studies in general, a good deal of the material assembled is concerned with that.
As Classicists, we have a lot to think about, but our thoughts and actions need to be for the long term in support of what the protests achieve and to help advance and solidify their aims. One question as a starting point, how is a canon like a statue?
N.B. Please do let me know if you want anything else added to this list. I have assembled this mainly for those who don’t spend a lot of time on twitter, etc.
The SCS Statement is pretty good and the ACL Statement shows much improvement thanks in part to the activism of Dani Bostick and others like Ian Lockey. As a long time member, I would like to single out the CAMWS Statement for its weakness (a call for “robust, respectful dialogue” but no mention of black lives, police violence, white supremacy or the complicity of classical education).
“What mortal person will escape
A god’s crooked deception?
Who steps with a light enough foot
To leap away through the air?
For destruction is at first friendly, even fawning
As it draws someone aside into a trap
From which it is impossible for any mortal to escape
Or even avoid.”
Each week we select scenes from a play, actors and experts from around the world, and put them all together for 90 minutes or so to see what will happen. This process is therapeutic for us; and it helps us think about how tragedy may have had similar functions in the ancient world as well.
This week we turn to our only surviving tragedy based on historical events: Aeschylus’ Persians which commemorates the Greek victory at Salamis, from the Persians’ point of view.
“I was present there—not merely hearing other’s words
Persians, I can tell you what kinds of terrible things occurred.”
Technical, Moral, Administrative Support: Lanah Koelle, Allie Mabry, Janet Ozsolak, Helene Emeriaud, Sarah Scott, Keith DeStone
“I have been silent for a while, struck with pains
By these evils. The disaster runs over all bounds
of speaking or asking about its suffering.
Still, necessity forces mortals to endure the pains
The gods send us. Pull yourself together,
Tell us everything that happened…”
Upcoming Readings(Wednesdays at 3PM EDT, Unless otherwise noted)
Euripides, Trojan Women, May 20th
Sophocles, Ajax, May 29th
Euripides, Andromache, June 3rd
Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannos, June 10th
Euripides, Ion, June 17th[10 AM EDT/3PM GMT]
Euripides, Hecuba, June 24th
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, July 1st
“Friends, whoever gains some practice in troubles
Understands that when a wave of troubles come
We mortals tend to fear everything.
But when a god makes things easy, you think
You’ll always sail under the same favorable wind.”
In honor of mother’s day, our separation from each other, and missed parents everywhere, a re-post inspired by Paul’s Mom. I keep these words in mind all the time now when I reconnected with friends: we all have stories, we all want to be heard. As Arsenius records the proverb, “Conversation [ or ‘reason’] is the doctor for suffering in the soul” (Λόγος ἰατρὸς τοῦ κατὰ ψυχὴν πάθους.) To listen to another–and hear them– is a sacred act.
“To a youth talking nonsense, he said “We have two ears, but one mouth so that we may hear more but speak less.”
A few years ago now I noticed the Paul Holdengraber‘s 7-word autobiography from brainpickings.org.: “Mother always said: Two Ears, One mouth.” The phrase bounced around in my head a bit–it has that aphoristic perfection of brevity and familiarity. So, I reached out to Paul over twitter and told him it sounded like something from a Greek philosopher like Heraclitus.
Proverbs have a special place in language and society cross-culturally–they strike a promise of insight that demands contemplation or explanation. They also have an air of authority and antiquity, even when they actually possess neither. And, unlike longer, less anonymized forms of language, they are repeated, borrowed, and stolen without end.
My late father was a great aphorist–perhaps missing him is part of why Paul’s tweet stuck with me. Most of my father’s words, however, were far more Archie Bunker than Aristotle. Those I can repeat were likely taken from his own father, a Master Sargent in WW2 who died a decade before I was born. The tendency to inherit and pass down proverbs is something I only really noticed when I had children and found myself ‘quoting’ (or becoming?) my father (“if you take care of your equipment it will take care of you”) or my grandmother (cribbing Oscar Wilde: “Only boring people get bored”).
So, when Paul thought it would be a gas if we actually translated his mother’s words into ancient Greek (and eventually Latin), I was ready. I got help from some great Classicists too. We came up with a few versions.
First, I went with classical rhetoric, a close antithesis: μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα μὲν δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα. But our friend the Fantastic Festus argued that Heraclitus or Hesiod would not use use μὲν and δὲ so, so he suggested losing them for something like this:
μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα δύο, ἕν στόμα [“mother always used to say two ears, one mouth”]
This gave us Paul’s mother’s advice in seven Greek words and his mother’s advice. But this didn’t get us out of trouble. The critic, author and Classicist Daniel Mendelsohn suggested hexameters and from across the Atlantic the extraordinary Armand D’Angour obliged with a composition of his own:
At this point, I felt like I had entertained myself on a Saturday morning, involved my internet friends in a silly, though somewhat academic caper, and done a favor for a new friend to please the spirits of parents no longer with us. But the world wide web had a a plot twist I should have thought of.
Ancient Greek and Roman authors and scholars loved proverbs. Writers like Zenobius and Photius made collections and interpretations of them. The Byzantine Encyclopedia, the Suda, uses the word for proverb (in Greek paroimia) over 600 times and presents nearly as many distinct proverbs. (Many of which are wonderful.) And in the modern world, we have an entire academic field dedicated to the study of proverbial sayings: paroemiology. Let me tell you, we could have used en expert last fall.
While we were playing around with translations, one of our ‘players’, the grand Gerrit Kloss, let us know we were, to use a proverbial saying, reinventing the wheel. Zeno, the Cynic philosopher, was credited with this saying over two thousand years ago:
“Alcidamas called the Odyssey a ‘fine mirror of human life’ ”
καλὸν ἀνθρωπίνου βίου κάτοπτρον
Like many of the people I talk to, I find myself incapable of focusing on much these days as a I move mechanically from zoom ‘teaching’ to virtual meetings, all while doom scrolling on twitter. We joke about “the end of the world” even as it is in fact the end of an era. I often think of these repeated motions as a kind of paralysis: with no new goal, bereft of any way to change anything, just waiting for some report or action to show me the way. Then, at the end of each day, watching the news leaves me exhausted in the wake of intense, yet impotent, rage.
The image that comes to my mind too frequently is Odysseus on the shore of Kalypso’s island in the Odyssey’s fifth book. (5.151–159):
Kalypso found [Odysseus] sitting on the water’s edge. His eyes were never dry
of tears and his sweet life was draining away as he mourned
over his homecoming, since the goddess was no longer pleasing to him.
But it was true that he stretched out beside her at night by necessity
In her hollow caves, unwilling when she was willing.
By day, however, he sat on the rocks and sands
wracking his heart with tears, groans and grief,
Shedding tears as he gazed upon the barren sea.
When we find Odysseus at the beginning of his epic he has been here on the shore of Ogygia, crying during the day for seven years (and, let’s not forget, having sex with a goddess each night, which has lost its charm). I think I go here because I have taught the Odyssey and I have spent the past five years writing a book about Homeric epic’s internal theory of the human mind, emphasizing how the Odyssey presents its characters responding to suffering and trauma in ways that correspond to modern psychological observations and interventions. I don’t know if this makes me any more capable of coping with what we are all facing, but it does remind me daily that the nothing we are experiencing is something and that this drawn out, uncertain catastrophe is reshaping us.
What I have learned from these years of reading is that ancient poetry (and modern literature too) can come as close to anything else as offering a guide to our grief and providing a primer on how to stay human in inhumane times. And this makes it even clearer to me that not talking about these experiences while they happen is dangerous. I hear the trauma and fear in my own voice and in the words of my friends and colleagues, and I worry about who we will all be on the other side. Talking about this may make a difference. Acknowledging it might help us emerge a little stronger, if not faster, with fewer of us left behind.
Helplessness and Complex Loss
“The person who is sick in the body needs a doctor;
someone who is sick in the mind needs a friend
For a well-meaning friend knows how to treat grief.”
One of the things I think that gets overlooked when people focus on the Odyssey’s heroic narrative is the extent to which the epic features characters who are trapped and deprived of control over their life in some fundamental way. Odysseus, of course, is clearly marginalized from action right at the beginning of the epic. But when Athena—as Mentor—first finds Telemachus, he is caught in a daydream, thinking about his father:
“God-like Telemachus saw her much the first
For he was sitting among the suitors, pained in his dear heart,
Dreaming about his noble father in his thoughts…”
In his recent book about Telemachus, Charles Underwood sees this daydream as a type of fantasy where Telemachus explores possible futures (2018, 25–31). I like this formulation a lot, but what I also see here is that it is not until after several conversations with Athena that Telemachus can even conceive of acting himself. He is, essentially, a grammatical subject but not an agent, which makes him an object of the forces in his world and goes a great way to explain his lack of action.
Telemachus is, I think, in a kind of paralysis that issues from his experience of the world (rather than in it because he has done so little). And he sets us up to see other figures in the epic from the perspective of agency and object, of limitations that our views of ourselves in the world impose on whether we think we can act in it. Penelope, Odysseus, and even minor figures like Eupeithes the father of a slaughtered suitor appear in frozen states. In each case, the epic invites its audiences to see how a character’s experiences and context shape or constrain their ability to act in the world.
And here’s a simplified explanation for what the epic is reflecting. When we cannot run from a threat or rise to fight it, we are shocked into a moment of inaction, frozen in time like proverbial deer in headlights. From modern perspectives, this paralysis is rooted in a deferred fight-or-flight response. We have all encountered such moments when we do not know how to act, but deferment prolonged over time can have psychological consequences, creating pathological anxiety responses and forming an essential part of our relationship with trauma. Chronic activation of this stress response can have serious consequences for mental and physical health. Digestive issues? Yes. Sleep? Yes. Immune response? Yes, unfortunately
In his book The Evil Hours, David J. Morris talks about how people suffering from trauma exist in a “liminal state” between life and death (2015, 6-7). To what extent people get stuck in this state has little to do with who you are before—no one can predict the overlapping impact of emotional and somatic responses. But a sense of helplessness can enhance the impact of trauma considerably. As a category, psychologists have discussed “learned helplessness”—the process of becoming habituated to a lack of agency and control over life—and its maladaptations for over a century. A developed sense of helplessness can make it hard to learn new things or demonstrate what you have learned; it has been linked to depression and anxiety; and it can prevent us from making plans for the future because we believe or suspect our own agency does not matter at all (see Mikuluncer 1994 for a full study).
A sense of lost agency—which contributes to depression on its own—is just not about helplessness: it has a recursive and reinforcing relationship with trauma. Prolonged helplessness changes the way we see the world and is itself traumatizing; helplessness in the face of prolonged suffering can be dehumanizing.
The Odyssey, I think, gives us a range of figures subject to helplessness and marginalization from different sources. Odysseus, of course, is the most obvious figure (followed by Telemachus, as I write about in a few places). But many major and minor figures are trapped in cycles of behavior from which they have little escape. Menelaos and Helen in book 4 are engaged in “off task coping” (drugs and alcohol), arguing about the past through the stories they tell, constrained by the decisions they made, the actions they committed, and the inability to imagine any different future.
The enslaved people of the epic have either completely internalized their worthlessness and commitment to their masters (Eumaios and Eurykleia) or they lash out with ‘misbehavior’ only to be murdered for it later (Melantho, Melanthios, the other enslaved women). Laertes has retreated to his gardens, repeatedly going over the same works again and again. Penelope reduces to tears amid her pacing from room to hall, expressing that most human of needs to feel something or give up. Her uncertainty is like the fragmentation David Morris describes in traumatized figures: their past and present seem disconnected and the future is hard to imagine at all. Trauma and helplessness undermine the internal assumptions of causality which makes it possible for us to act in the world.
The Odyssey also gives us a sense of trauma’s multiple sources: it is not just that people are marginalized by their sense of helplessness, but they are also undone by unresolved loss. Characters like Penelope, Menelaos, and Eupeithes (the father who lost his son and speaks in favor of killing Odysseus at the end of the epic) are shown undone by the grief that comes from not knowing if someone is dead or alive (in reference to Odysseus) or not being able to attend to their grief in a way they understand (as in Eupeithes’ desire for revenge). In recent years, researchers have called these types of emotion “ambiguous loss” or “complicated grief” and have explained how they create and perpetuate states of inaction (see Boss 1999) or paralytic returns to the topic of loss and uncertainty (see Hall et al. 2014).
So, if you feel paralyzed for events, stultified by your own response, or lost in trying to make some sense of each day, that’s your brain and body telling you something. The world is changing in ways we cannot fully understand, and it hurts. It is ok not to write a book during your isolation; it is normal to feel distracted and lost. Overeating or drinking too much? Look at the suitors waiting for something to happen in their lives. Having trouble sleeping? Both Telemachus and Odysseus stay awake all night. Having trouble not sleeping? Penelope is overwhelmed with exhaustion (and weeping) by Athena.
“An epidemic in that year provided a break from other problems.”
Pestilentia eo anno aliarum rerum otium praebuit.
Today Nandini Pandey has a smart piece out in Eidolon (“Classics After Coronavirus“) where she asks a group of people who see different perspectives of Classical Studies to think about what impact COVID-19 will have on the future of these disciplines. (And it is smart not because she asked me to write something for it, but because she got a group of really smart other people to write thoughtfully in the midst of a crises: check out the article for good prognostications by Joy Connolly, Sarah Bond, Amy Pistone, Del A. Maticic, Scott Lepisto, Michelle Bayouth, Mira Seo and Shelley P. Halley”).
It’s no secret around my house that I think about these things a lot. Really, I am one or two turns in life away from being straight-up prepper. And I may be breaking a little alarmist here, but I worry that COVID-19 is merely a dress-rehearsal for the ravages of climate change, which may well include new pandemics in additional to destabilized weather. Even more frightening, old pandemics and viruses could find new life our changing environment.
At least, this is what science fiction says: archaeologists in Connie Willis’ Doomsday Bookresurrect the boubonic plague while plying their craft. It’s not all bad: Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radiopresents an ancient retrovirus that hastens the next stage in human evolution. But, really, apart from that, it gets pretty bad: the worst usually comes when man conspires with nature as in the famous apocalypse of Stephen King’s The Stand or the vampire trilogy by Justin Cronin (The Passage, The Twelve, and The City of Mirrors) which centers, gulp, around academics playing with life and death in places like Cambridge, MA and New York City.
My point is not that we should keep hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but that I think my comments in the Eidolon piece do not go nearly far enough because, as I think Scott Lepisto is starting to say, we need radical change fast and we’re not talking about Classics. If there is a silver lining in this shitberg our current leadership is piloting straight towards, it is that we might just get hurt enough to change our ways, to avoid the worst of what could come.
Or, well, that’s what I say so I can sleep tonight. At the end of it, the fact is that we are more likely to see a civilization shifting cataclysm now than five years ago. And we should be thinking about what that means for the way we talk about the past.
In the final book of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Death’s End, when faced with an unstoppable extinction-level event, Cheng Xin and Ai AA go to the distant edge of the solar system to try to preserve some artifacts of human existence from the encroachment of two-dimensional space. When they reach the isolated moon bunker where many of the objects are stored, they come upon miles of inscriptions in the surface rock. Previous plans to preserve human knowledge had included etching human history and knowledge into the stone. Teams of scientists and data specialists could devise no method which ensured as long a future as the multilingual inscriptions in space.
Any system of encoding and preserving knowledge—whether we are talking of raw, binary data or language—relies upon two challenges for legibility in the future. The first is a ‘key’—some type of instruction that might indicate to readers unfamiliar with language or code how to make meaning out of signs. The second challenge is medium—how do the materials which encode the information respond to the passage of time and elements.
Encrypted digital data in every form faces the danger of significant loss under even the best of conditions; changing software and computational paradigms can make accessing extant data even more difficult. The decryption of preserved digital data relies on the end-user being able to access functional hardware and manipulate the same original data protocol. Despite the ability to extend human life centuries through hibernation and the technology to create space ships which traveled at the speed of light, the humans of Cixin’s universe can find no better way to preserve the past than cold, alien stone.
The survival of the past into the future is something of a motif in science fiction, thanks to its longue durée perspective. Just in the past year, I have read of the ‘classicist’ in Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Children of Time series, a figure whose knowledge of the past and ability to use ancient programs makes him central to the survival of the human race. In many cases, such as the works of Isaac Asimov, the Earth we know and the past we cherish is entirely forgotten or mostly unsalvageable. But for every novel that imagines the preservation of knowledge over time—like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem—we have the more stark reality to deal with of strange re-uses of our reconstructed past as in Ada Palmer’s Terra Incognotaseries or generations of lost knowledge over time, as in Walter Miller Jr.’s classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz.
“The prophecy which was given to the Thessalians was ordering them to consider “the hearing of a deaf man; the sight of the blind.”
A widely linked recent article alleges that the human race has around 30 years left, that by 2050 climate change will create a systems collapse that will end human civilization as we currently know it. Similar reports diverge at whether the extinction event that is the Anthropocene will also eradicate the human species or just result in a cruel, apocalyptic contraction. Even if we find the political will to radically change our behavior over the next few years, we are looking at the almost certain probability of widespread government collapses, severe famine and death in the ‘global south’, and widespread conflicts over resources.