“Listen, Children: The Greeks are Badass!”

Charles Kingsley, The Heroes:

“You can hardly find a well-written book which has not in it Greek names, and words, and proverbs; you cannot walk through a great town without passing Greek buildings; you cannot go into a well-furnished room without seeing Greek statues and ornaments, even Greek patterns of furniture and paper; so strangely have these old Greeks left their mark behind them upon this modern world in which we now live.  And as you grow up, and read more and more, you will find that we owe to these old Greeks the beginners of all our mathematics and geometry—that is, the science and knowledge of numbers, and of the shapes of things, and of the forces which make things move and stand at rest; and the beginnings of our geography and astronomy; and of our laws, and freedom, and politics—that is, the science of how to rule a country, and make it peaceful and strong.  And we owe to them, too, the beginning of our logic—that is, the study of words and of reasoning; and of our metaphysics—that is, the study of our own thoughts and souls.  And last of all, they made their language so beautiful that foreigners used to take to it instead of their own; and at last Greek became the common language of educated people all over the old world, from Persia and Egypt even to Spain and Britain.


Thus these old Greeks were teachable, and learnt from all the nations round.  From the Phoenicians they learnt shipbuilding, and some say letters beside; and from the Assyrians they learnt painting, and carving, and building in wood and stone; and from the Egyptians they learnt astronomy, and many things which you would not understand.  In this they were like our own forefathers the Northmen, of whom you love to hear, who, though they were wild and rough themselves, were humble, and glad to learn from every one.  Therefore God rewarded these Greeks, as He rewarded our forefathers, and made them wiser than the people who taught them in everything they learnt; for He loves to see men and children open-hearted, and willing to be taught; and to him who uses what he has got, He gives more and more day by day.  So these Greeks grew wise and powerful, and wrote poems which will live till the world’s end, which you must read for yourselves some day, in English at least, if not in Greek.  And they learnt to carve statues, and build temples, which are still among the wonders of the world; and many another wondrous thing God taught them, for which we are the wiser this day.”

Lycurgus’ Legs

Servius, Commentary on the Aeneid 3.14:

“This Lycurgus was the son of Dryas, the king of the race of the Thracian Bistones. As the story has it, he cut his own legs while contemptuously attempting to cut Dionysus’ vines. In truth, he abstained from drink, which is agreed to be a characteristic of a harsh nature, and is even said about Demosthenes. But as other people say, Lycurgus, being vexed that Dionysus was cultivated by other races and learning that he had entered Thrace with his band of followers, lashed some of the Bacchants whom he captured with rods, and began to pursue Dionysus himself with the aim of killing him. But after Dionysus hurled himself into the sea to escape Lycurgus and was taken in and set free by the nymph Thetis, Lycurgus began to cut his vines; in so doing, through the madness visited upon him by the gods, he actually cut his own legs.”

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Lycurgus autem hic filius Dryantis, rex gentis Bistonum Thraciae fuit: qui ut habet fabula, dum contempnens Liberum eius amputat vites, crura sua incidit. re vera autem abstemius fuit: quos constat acrioris esse naturae, quod etiam de Demosthene dictum est. Lycurgus vero, ut alii dicunt, cum indignaretur Liberum ab omnibus gentibus coli, ut primum eum Thraciae fines cum suo comitatu introisse cognovit, comprehensas Bacchas eius flagellis verberavit, ipsum vero insequi, ut occideret, coepit. sed postquam se Liber fugiens ut evaderet praecipitavit in mare et a Thetide nympha exceptus liberatusque est, Lycurgus vites eius amputare coepit: quapropter per furorem a diis inmissum ipse sibi crura succidit.

Luxury and Societal Decadence

John Stuart Mill, The Spirit of the Age:

“All is not absolutely unfounded in the notion we imbibe at school, from the modern writers on the decline of the ancient commonwealths, that luxury deadens and enervates the mind. It is true that these writers (whose opinion, truly, was the result of no process of thought in their own imitative souls, but a faint impression left by a ray of the stoic philosophy of Greece and Rome themselves, refracted or bent out of its direction by the muddy medium through which it had passed) were wrong in laying it down as a principle that pleasure enervates; as if pleasure, only to be earned by labour and won by heroic deeds, ever did or ever could enervate the mind of any one. What really enervates, is the secure and unquestioned possession, without any exertion, of all those things, to gain which, mankind in general are wont to exert themselves. This secure and lazy possession, the higher classes have now for some generations enjoyed; their predecessors in the same station and privileges did not enjoy it.”

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Pseudo-Scholarship and Profit

E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

“The scholar, like the philosopher, can contemplate the river of time. He contemplates it not as a whole, but he can see the facts, the personalities, floating past him, and estimate the relations between them, and if his conclusions could be as valuable to us as they are to himself he would long ago have civilized the human race. As you know, he has failed. True scholarship is incommunicable, true scholars rare. There are a few scholars, actual or potential, in the audience today, but only a few, and there is certainly none on the platform. Most of us are pseudo-scholars, and I want to consider our characteristics with sympathy and respect, for we are a very large and quite a powerful class, eminent in Church and State, we control the education of the Empire, we lend to the Press such distinction as it consents to receive, and we are a welcome asset at dinner-parties.

Pseudo-scholarship is, on its good side, the homage paid by ignorance to learning. It also has an economic side, on which we need not be hard. Most of us must get a job before thirty, or sponge on our relatives, and many jobs can only be got by passing an exam. The pseudo-scholar often does well in examination (real scholars are not much good), and even when he fails he appreciates their innate majesty. They are gateways to employment, they have power to ban and bless. A paper on King Lear may lead somewhere, unlike the rather far-fetched play of the same name. It may be a stepping-stone to the Local Government Board. He does not often put it to himself openly and say ‘That’s the use of knowing things, they help you to get on.’ The economic pressure he feels is more often subconscious, and he goes to his exam, merely feeling that a paper on King Lear is a very tempestuous and terrible experience but an intensely real one. And whether he be cynical or naif, he is not to be blamed. As long as learning is connected with earning, as long as certain jobs can only be reached through exams, so long must we take the examination system seriously. If another ladder to employment was contrived, much so-called education would disappear, and no one be a penny the stupider.”

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Food, Love, and Horace

It was just over ten years ago that I first the door of a garish green building on the outskirts of San Antonio’s Medical Center. I hate this part of town, but I was after that day to be drawn back to it countless times as the spot became a central point in the geography of my physical and emotional world. I entered into a dimly-lit dining room, an enveloping fold of hot, garlic-infused air, through which were conveyed the sounds of Indian pop music. There was the buffet, which promised unlimited sensual delight in exchange for ten dollars and a willingness to wallow in one’s own crapulence for hours afterward. This was Bombay Hall.

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My girlfriend at that time one decade ago was craving Indian food, and whether by chance or by fate, we chose this place. We were promptly seated at one of the tables whose glass tops served as frames for the glamorous posters of Indian pop and film stars. Early in the meal, I began coughing violently. One of the two owners, who was to become a familiar face over the subsequent period of my life, mistook this as an amateur’s response to spicy food (to which I am no stranger), and offered me a sugar packet to cut the heat. It seemed that it would be churlish in the face of such generosity to save face by noting that I was simply choking and not overwhelmed by the curry, so I obligingly consumed the sugar packet which had been so kindly proffered. We enjoyed our meal thoroughly, and though I did not stay in touch with my partner in that first excursion, the memory of that meal left an indelible mark upon my heart which our relationship never did.

After receiving the news that Bombay Hall had been closed, I began to engage in that most salutary of human activities: nostalgic retrospective. In the course of this, I could see through the roseate lenses of my retrospectacles that almost everyone who matters most to me in life had been there at Bombay Hall with me.

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This small and unassuming Indian restaurant has an emotional resonance for me which no other place can even approximate. Bombay Hall was the site of the last meal that I shared with my father. It was here that Joel used to bring his students for a celebratory lunch following final exams; in the early days of our collaboration, he used to invite me to these lunches, where I saw what it meant for a teacher to be a member of a real community and not simply an extension of bureaucratic power. My brother and I made something of a ritual out of much-too-frequent visits to what we affectionately called ‘B-Hall.’ One month, I was aghast to see that after a month in which I made twenty visits there, I had spent over $400 in addition to the physical and psychic toll of my postprandial discomfort. One year, my sole contribution to Thanksgiving dinner was a large order of samosas, which introduced the rest of my family to B-Hall’s gustatory siren song.

Joel once observed that, though it was not the best food one could get, it was always consistently excellent and delivered with a certain comforting familiarity. Yet, as much as I remember and still crave the food itself, it is the personal element which makes it my all-time favorite restaurant. My lunches with Joel and dinners with my brother are tokens of the love I feel for the people who have meant most to me in life, and somehow these disparate experiences are linked together in the physical space of one dining room. Just over four years ago, I was accepted to a graduate program, and knew that I would be leaving this city behind. No one laments the loss of the buildings, the roads, or the city government. I wept when I thought of the people whom I would leave behind, consigned for the foreseeable future to the department of memory and correspondence – and then I took my brother to B-Hall.

I could have left the city, but a job offer here combined with my own anxiety about the oft-discussed disappointments of post-graduate life brought me to do something which I now (from the comfortable perch of relative economic security) cannot believe: I turned down my dream of graduate study, and stayed here.

I received a text from my brother last night indicating that Bombay Hall was permanently closed. This came as the greatest shock to me, in part because it had always seemed to be a perennial institution, and perhaps even more so because I had dreamt about just such a calamity the night before. Had I left the city, the possibility of returning and reforging the old link would have still remained. Had I been gone, I don’t think that B-Hall’s closing would have affected me so from a distance. Yet, now that it is closed, that physical link has slipped away forever in the devouring sands of time. To be sure, other rituals and other spaces may give continuity and connection to my emotional life, but they can never do what B-Hall did: Joel is now gone, my brother and I have far less free time than before, and the heady air of romance and excitement of my early 20’s could never be duplicated and imprinted upon a physical spot. Leaving B-Hall, I always felt that my stomach would explode, but the discomfort would invariably subside – now, my heart is bursting with these happy memories of times and experiences which are just as lost to me as is each bite of the food I ate there.

“As we speak, hateful time will have escaped us.”

Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas

We teach Horace to kids, but perhaps it’s true that one can only truly appreciate him in middle age and beyond. I knew my Horace then, and could readily explain in an abstract way the importance of seizing the day, but it is only the sense of loss – the day which is gone whether seized or not – which gives one a real appreciation of just how sad our happiness can make us.


The Range of Epic Poetry

Matthew Arnold, On the Modern Element in Literature:

“From the very form itself of his great poem, the Aeneid, one would be led to augur that this was impossible. The epic form, as a form for representing contemporary or lo nearly contemporary events, has attained, in the poems of Homer, an unmatched, an immortal success; the epic form as employed by learned poets for the reproduction of the events of a past age has attained a very considerable success. But for this purpose, for the poetic treatment of the events of a past age, the epic form is a less vital form than the dramatic form. The great poets of the modern period of Greece are accordingly, as we have seen, the dramatic poets. The chief of these — Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes — have survived: the distinguished epic poets of the same period — Panyasis, Choerilus, Antimachus — though praised by the Alexandrian critics, have Perished in a common destruction with the undistinguished. ‘And what is the reason of this ? It is, that the dramatic form exhibits, above all, the actions of man as strictly determined by his thoughts and feelings; it exhibits, therefore, what may be always accessible, always intelligible, always interesting.

But the epic form takes a wider range; It represents not only the thought and passion of man, that which is universal and eternal, but also the forms of outward life, the fashion of manners, the aspects of nature, that which is local or transient. To exhibit adequately what is local and transient, only a witness, a contemporary, can suffice. In the reconstruction, by learning and antiquarian ingenuity, of the local and transient features of a past age, in their representation by one who is not a witness or contemporary, it is impossible to feel the liveliest kind of interest. What, for instance, is the most interesting portion of the Aeneid, — the portion where Virgil seems to be moving most freely, and therefore to be most animated, most forcible ? Precisely that portion which has most a dramatic character; the episode of Dido; that portion where locality and manners are nothing — where persons and characters are everything. We might presume beforehand, therefore, that if Virgil, at a time when contemporary epic poetry was no longer possible, had been inspired to represent human life in its fullest significance, he would not have selected the epic form.”

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Peisistratan Penetration

Herodotus, Histories 1.61:

“Peisistratus, having seized hold of the tyranny in the aforesaid manner, married the daughter of Megacles in accordance with a previous agreement. Since, however, he already had two children, and it was said that the Alcmeonids were cursed, Peisistratus did not wish to have children with his new wife. And so, he had sex with her in something other than the accustomed manner.”

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ἀπολαβὼν δὲ τὴν τυραννίδα τρόπῳ τῷ εἰρημένῳ ὁ Πεισίστρατος κατὰ τὴν ὁμολογίην τὴν πρὸς Μεγακλέα γενομένην γαμέει τοῦ Μεγακλέος τὴν θυγατέρα. οἷα δὲ παίδων τέ οἱ ὑπαρχόντων νεηνιέων καὶ λεγομένων ἐναγέων εἶναι τῶν Ἀλκμεωνιδέων, οὐ βουλόμενός οἱ γενέσθαι ἐκ τῆς νεογάμου γυναικὸς τέκνα ἐμίσγετό οἱ οὐ κατὰ νόμον.

Puppets vs. Poets

Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist:

“When man acts he is a puppet. When he describes he is a poet. The whole secret lies in that. It was easy enough on the sandy plains by windy Ilion to send the notched arrow from the painted bow, or to hurl against the shield of hide and flame-like brass the long ash-handled spear. It was easy for the adulterous queen to spread the Tyrian carpets for her lord, and then, as he lay couched in the marble bath, to throw over his head the purple net, and call to her smooth-faced lover to stab through the meshes at the heart that should have broken at Aulis. For Antigone even, with Death waiting for her as her bridegroom, it was easy to pass through the tainted air at noon, and climb the hill, and strew with kindly earth the wretched naked corse that had no tomb. But what of those who wrote about these things ? What of those who gave them reality, and made them live for ever? Are they not greater than the men and women they sing of? ‘Hector that sweet knight is dead,’ and Lucian tells us how in the dim underworld Menippus saw the bleaching skull of Helen, and marvelled that it was for so grim a favour that all those horned ships were launched, those beautiful mailed men laid low, those towered cities brought to dust. Yet, every day the swan-like daughter of Leda comes out on the battlements, and looks down at the tide of war. The greybeards wonder at her loveliness, and she stands by the side of the king. In his chamber of stained ivory lies her leman. He is polishing his dainty armour, and combing the scarlet plume. With squire and page, her husband passes from tent to tent. She can see his bright hair, and hears, or fancies that she hears, that clear cold voice. In the courtyard below, the son of Priam is buckling on his brazen cuirass. The white arms of Andromache are around his neck. He sets his helmet on the ground, lest their babe should be frightened. Behind the embroidered curtains of his pavilion sits Achilles, in perfumed raiment, while in harness of gilt and silver the friend of his soul arrays himself to go forth to the fight. From a curiously carven chest that his mother Thetis had brought to his ship-side, the Lord of the Myrmidons takes out that mystic chalice that the lip of man had never touched, and cleanses it with brimstone, and with fresh water cools it, and, having washed his hands, fills with black wine its burnished hollow, and spills the thick grape-blood upon the ground in honour of Him whom at Dodona barefooted prophets worshipped, and prays to Him, and knows not that he prays in vain, and that by the hands of two knights from Troy, Panthous’ son, Euphorbus, whose love-locks were looped with gold, and the Priamid, the lion-hearted, Patroklus, the comrade of comrades, must meet his doom. Phantoms, are they? Heroes of mist and mountain? Shadows in a song? No: they are real. Action!”

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Reading for Deep Erudition

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1.20):

“I have imposed this penance upon the lady, neither out of wantonness nor cruelty; but from the best of motives; and therefore shall make her no apology for it when she returns back:—’Tis to rebuke a vicious taste, which has crept into thousands besides herself,—of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them—The mind should be accustomed to make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions as it goes along; the habitude of which made Pliny the younger affirm, ‘That he never read a book so bad, but he drew some profit from it.’ The stories of Greece and Rome, run over without this turn and application,—do less service, I affirm it, than the history of Parismus and Parismenus, or of the Seven Champions of England, read with it.”

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The Mediatorial Function of the Poet

Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean:

“Homer was always telling things after this manner. And one might think there had been no effort in it: that here was but the almost mechanical transcript of a time, naturally, intrinsically, poetic, a time in which one could hardly have spoken at all without idealeffect, or, the sailors pulled down their boat without making a picture in ‘the great style,’ against a sky charged with marvels. Must not the mere prose of an age, itself thus ideal, have counted for more than half of Homer’s poetry? Or might the closer student discover even here, even in Homer, the really mediatorial function of the poet, as between the reader and the actual matter of his experience; the poet waiting, so to speak, in an age which had felt itself trite and commonplace enough, on his opportunity for the touch of ‘golden alchemy,’ or at least for the pleasantly lighted side of things themselves? Might not another, in one’s own prosaic and used-up time, so uneventful as it had been through the long reign of these quiet Antonines, in like manner, discover his ideal, by a due waiting upon it? Would not a future generation, looking back upon this, under the power of the enchanted-distance fallacy, find it ideal to view, in contrast with its own languor–the languor that for some reason (concerning which Augustine will one day have his view) seemed to haunt men always? Had Homer, even, appeared unreal and affected in his poetic flight, to some of the people of his own age, as seemed to happen with every new literature in turn? In any case, the intellectual conditions of early Greece had been–how different from these! And a true literary tact would accept that difference in forming the primary conception of the literary function at a later time. Perhaps the utmost one could get by conscious effort, in the way of a reaction or return to the conditions of an earlier and fresher age, would be but novitas, artificial artlessness, naïveté; and this quality too might have its measure of euphuistic charm, direct and sensible enough, though it must count, in comparison with that genuine early Greek newness at the beginning, not as the freshness of the open fields, but only of a bunch of field-flowers in a heated room.”

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