Teachers, Destroyers of Eloquence

Petronius, Satyricon, 2

“By your leave, I need to say this: you teachers foremost have destroyed real eloquence. You create certain absurdities by by making your light and silly sounds so that the body of your speech weakens and falls.  Young men were not yet restrained by practice-speeches when Sophocles and Euripides used to be able to discover the words with which things ought to be said.

No shut-in professor had yet destroyed their geniuses when Pindar and the nine Lyric poets were afraid to sing Homer’s verses. And lest I use only poets for proof, I surely do not see that Plato or Demosthenes went through this kind of exercise. The grand style, as I may say, is a humble one—it is not uneven or inflated, but emerges thanks to its natural beauty.”

Pace vestra liceat dixisse, primi omnium eloquentiam perdidistis. Levibus enim atque inanibus sonis ludibria quaedam excitando effecistis, ut corpus orationis enervaretur et caderet. Nondum iuvenes declamationibus continebantur, cum Sophocles aut Euripides invenerunt verba quibus deberent loqui. Nondum umbraticus doctor ingenia deleverat, cum Pindarus novemque lyrici Homericis versibus canere timuerunt. Et ne poetas [quidem] ad testimonium citem, certe neque Platona neque Demosthenen ad hoc genus exercitationis accessisse video.3 Grandis et ut ita dicam pudica oratio non est maculosa nec turgida, sed naturali pulchritudine exsurgit.

The Purpose of Study

John Adams to John Quincy Adams

Amsterdam May 18. 1781

My dear Son

 

I have this Morning received yours inclosing a Letter from the Duke de la Vauguion.

Please to inform me in your next, when the Vacation begins. It is my Design that you shall come and spend a Part of the Vacation with me.—I approve very much of your taking the Delft Gazette the Writer of which is a great Master of his Language, and is besides a very good Friend to his Country and to yours.

You go on, I presume, with your latin Exercises: and I wish to hear of your beginning upon Sallust who is one of the most polished and perfect of the Roman Historians, every Period of whom, and I had almost said every Syllable and every Letter is worth Studying.

In Company with Sallust, Cicero, Tacitus and Livy, you will learn Wisdom and Virtue. You will see them represented, with all the Charms which Language and Imagination can exhibit, and Vice and Folly painted in all their Deformity and Horror.

You will ever remember that all the End of study is to make you a good Man and a useful Citizen.—This will ever be the Sum total of the Advice of your affectionate Father,

John Adams

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Tyrants and Butchers by Instinct

Benjamin Rush, Letter to John Adams, December 21 1810:

“You have made no impression upon me by your arguments in favor of the dead languages. Napoleon would have been just what he is, had he never read a page of ancient history. Rulers become tyrants and butchers from instinct, much oftener than from imitation. As well might we suppose the human race would have been extinct, had not Ovid bequeathed to modern nations his “arte amandi,” as suppose that modern Villains, are made by ancient examples. Royal Crimes, like yellow fevers spring up spontaneously under similar circumstances in every Country, and in every age. The  adoption of the former from Antiquity, is as contrary to truth & reason as the importation of the latter from foreign Countries.”

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The Antiquity and Morality of Homer

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason 2.8:

“Those who have superstitiously boasted of the antiquity of the Bible, and particularly of the books ascribed to Moses, have done it without examination, and without any authority than that of one credulous man telling it to another; for so far as historical and chronological evidence applies, the very first book in the Bible is not so ancient as the book of Homer by more then three hundred years, and is about the same age with Aesop’s Fables.

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; and with respect to Aesop, though the moral is in general just, the fable is often cruel; and the cruelty of the fable does more injury to the heart, especially in a child, than the moral does good to the judgment.”

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A Most Important Foundation For Thought: Student Proverbs

Literary Papyri 115 (LCL360 Collart, Les Papyrus Bouriant, Paris, 1926, no. 1, p. 17) This is from a list of proverbs copied over in a student’s hand.

“Letters are the most important foundation for thought.”
(1) ἀρχὴ μεγίστη τοῦ φρονεῖν τὰ γράμματα.

“Respect the elder, an image of a god.”
(2) γέροντα τίμα τοῦ θεοῦ τὴν εἰκόνα.

“Lust is the most ancient of all the gods.”
(3) ἔρως ἁπάντων τῶν θεῶν παλαίτατος.

“I say that possessions are the most beautiful of all things.”
(4) κάλλιστά φημι χρημάτων τὰ κτήματα.

“Give in return when you have received so that you may take whenever you want.”
(5) λαβὼν πάλιν δός, ἵνα λάβηις ὅταν θέληις.

“The mind in us is the most prophetic god.”
(6) ὁ νοῦς ἐν ἡμῖν μαντικώτατος θεός.

“Your father is the one who raised you not the one who gave you life.”
(7) πατὴρ ὁ θρέψας κοὐχ ὁ γεννήσας πατήρ.

“Rescue yourself from wicked affairs.”
(8) σῶσον σεαυτὸν ἐκ πονηρῶν πραγμάτω(ν).

“Return a favor to friends in a timely fashion.”
(9) χάριν φίλοις εὔκαιρον ἀπόδος ἐν μέρει.

“Gratitude, you are the greatest of all riches!”
(10) ὦ τῶν ἁπάντων χρημάτων πλείστη χάρις.

Now is the time

Now is the time

ὡς ἐνταῦθ᾽ †ἐμέν
ἵν᾽ οὐκέτ᾽ ὀκνεῖν καιρός, ἀλλ᾽ ἔργων ἀκμή. (Sophocles, Electra 21-22)

We’re at the point
where it’s no longer the time to shrink back, but the moment for action.

Thus the Paidagogus, the nameless “Tutor” in Sophocles’s play, ends his introductory address to Orestes (and to us, the audience) in the prologue to Electra. It sets the tone for the play. Soon after we hear Orestes—the ever willing student out to impress—repeat back his tutor’s language, as he brings his own opening declaration to an end with the words: “The two of us will go; for it is the time, which is for men the greatest leader of every action” (νὼ δ᾽ ἔξιμεν· καιρὸς γάρ, ὅσπερ ἀνδράσιν / μέγιστος ἔργου παντός ἐστ᾽ ἐπιστάτης, 75-76).

And shortly after this, when Orestes is yet moved to shrink back as he hears the offstage cries of his sister, the Paidagogus urges him on, ventriloquizing Aeschylus’s Pylades in his injunction to obey Apollo’s commands: for Orestes there are libations to be poured to his father, victory and power to be won. (80-85). No communal libation here, as in Aeschylus’s Choephoroi; here Electra and the chorus enter, only after Orestes and his support team have already departed. These men are doers. The women follow in their wake.

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I watched a performance of Sophocles’s tragedy this summer in Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki (all photographs are taken from the production stills). It was the second time that I had seen the play, after the 2001 Cambridge Greek play (co-starring a pre-Loki Tom Hiddleston) which was memorable for creating a stage like a petri dish, as if the actors were under a microscope, their actions and arguments open for dissection. Aristotle famously relegates spectacle, or opsis (ὄψις), to the least important of the six component parts of a tragedy (after plot, character, diction, thought and song: Poetics 1450a9-10). “Spectacle”, he writes, “while highly seductive, is the least technical [of the parts] and the one that is least to do with poetry” (ἡ δὲ ὄψις ψυχαγωγικὸν μέν, ἀτεχνότατον δὲ καὶ ἥκιστα οἰκεῖον τῆς ποιητικῆς, 1450b18-20).

Aristotle’s terms of reference here (his emphasis on poetry) must play a role in the downgrading of spectacle, as too must his concern to recoup tragedy from Plato’s criticism of the art form as leading aside the soul (cf. ψυχαγωγικὸν). And spectacle, arguably, still continues to attract less comment, even though reception studies and the use of performance theory (as in Rush Rehm’s Play of Space) have gone some way to refocusing attention on to the play in (as) action.

It was the spectacle of the Greek national theatre company’s Electra (under the direction of Thanos Papakonstantinos) that took my breath away. On the surface it appeared quite a traditional adaptation: it wasn’t located in a contemporary setting; the costumes were simple, bordering on the stylised; it used music throughout; the chorus sung *and* danced; the text wasn’t excised or adapted in any way (other than it being a modern Greek translation). But it was like no other adaptation of Greek tragedy that I had seen. The director’s vision of the tragedy drew on elements that are only ever hinted at in the text, and showed to me, a textual scholar, the life and power of a play beyond the text. Let me give two examples that go back to that opening scene I discussed above.

Papakonstantinos’s play began before the first lines of Sophocles’s script were even delivered. Out came the musicians, the chorus, and two actors (Orestes and Pylades), who proceeded to parade sombrely around the stage to a funereal drumbeat, led by the Paidagogus, who all the time very slowly, and very deliberately, turned his head this way and that to glare at the audience seated in the theatre, challenging us to hold his gaze (or to look away). We immediately fell under the thrall of this imposing figure, as Orestes does in Sophocles’s play. As for Orestes: when the musicians and chorus had taken up their positions, Pylades (notably mute again after his brief, but momentous, pronouncement of Apollo’s command in Aeschylus’s Choephoroi) makes a performance of binding the hero and blindfolding him. All this before the play (as in Sophocles’s text of the play) had actually begun!

1_Beginning_Paidagogus+Orestes

Even after this point, the director’s “extra-textual” imagination continued to frame our response to the events on stage: for, rather than disappearing from view as in Sophocles’s play (when the actor would have had to play another role) Orestes, still blindfolded and bound, is led back around the stage by Pylades to that same funereal beat, while the action unfolds around them. It was only when meeting his sister, some two thirds of the way through the play that his bonds and blindfold are removed, as if offering a very concrete instantiation of his psychology: he has been trained (blinded and bound) to kill his mother; these bonds fall from him as meeting his sister reveals repressed ties of affection for her.

But this is only a fleeting glimpse of his humanity, as the Paidagogus suddenly reappears to berate the two “stupid unthinking children” (ὦ πλεῖστα μῶροι καὶ φρενῶν τητώμενοι, 1326), for talking a lot (τῶν μακρῶν λόγων, 1335) when “it is the moment to be delivered from these matters” (ἀπηλλάχθαι δ᾽ ἀκμή, 1338). As Electra desperately tries to engage in dialogue also with him, the Paidagogus firmly slaps her down: “That’s enough, I think” (ἀρκεῖν δοκεῖ μοι, 1364). In our performance, his reappearance at the top of the stage encapsulated once again his dominance over, and orchestration of, the proceedings.

As you’ll see from the photographs, the stage was stark in its simplicity, an effect that was further amplified by the simple, almost abstract costuming of all the actors. Not only did this help focus attention on the gestures, movement and interactions of the actors; it also helped to defamiliarise the action and detach it from any particular setting, whether classical (as when actors wear chitons) or modern. This is something, I think, that Greek tragedy generally manages to do: that is, to speak to audiences not bound by a particular place or time. But one costume did possibly have a contemporary resonance: the clothing of the chorus seemed to me, at least, to be a pristine white version of the clothing worn by the handmaids in the renowned TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

The chorus were the other significant reason for the impact of this drama. Controlled and in control, this was a chorus of and for our time, gaining power through their collective action. Unlike every other chorus I’ve ever seen, this chorus sung and chanted in metre throughout in unison. They spoke, as it were, with one voice, though that voice sometimes seemed to be stretched to the absolute limit, to the point of almost fracturing, using the technique of close dissonant harmonies familiar from Balkan singing. They also moved as one, like polished mannequins, often with minimal gesture of forefinger touching the thumb, as if a Greek orthodox Christ were blessing his congregation. Then, as the play hurtles towards its terrifying climax (the matricide; the forever deferred murder of Aegisthus), they transform, as Electra’s hatred and bitterness finally comes to affect and infect them. A *spoiler alert* #metoo movement with bite.

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I had always read the chorus in the final scenes of the play as providing the only lingering vestige of empathy in an increasingly desperate and hateful (hate-filled) world. As Orestes does his thing (murdering his mother) offstage, and Electra comments on, and incites, the violence onstage in shockingly impersonal terms (“someone shouts within… someone screams”, 1406, 1409: the someone in question being her mother), it’s the chorus who remind us of what’s at stake: “I heard a cry that shouldn’t have been heard, enough to make me shiver” (1407); “o city, o wretched family” (1414). They sum up this fractured replaying of Aeschylus’s trilogy (Sophocles’s Clytemnestra “quotes” Aeschylus’s Agamemnon as she is struck, and struck again: ὤμοι πέπληγμαι / ὤμοι μάλʼ αὖθις, 1415-1417; cf. Aesch. Ag. 1343-45), by recalling the curses of those previously murdered (1419-21):

τελοῦσʼ ἀραί· ζῶσιν οἱ γᾶς ὑπαὶ κείμενοι.
παλίρρυτον γὰρ αἷμʼ ὑπεξαιροῦσι τῶν
κτανόντων οἱ πάλαι θανόντες.
The curses are working out. They who lie under the earth live.
For those who died long ago are draining the blood
—blood that flows in recompense—from their killers.

In a manner that again strongly evokes Aeschylus, this time the sarcastic reply by the Choephoroi Orestes’s to his mother: “I think that the dead are killing the living” (Aesch. Cho. 886), the chorus’s mention of curses reworks the language of generational violence and familial revenge that dominates that trilogy. Those earlier plays culminate in the instantiation of the curses in the form of the Furies/Erinyes of the Eumenides. One of the insoluble problems of Sophocles’s Electra is, precisely, the absence of the Erinyes from the drama. Although they are mentioned on four occasions (112, 276, 491, 1080) and alluded to once (1388), the fact that they don’t seem to appear after Clytemnestra’s murder has led many critics to conclude that Sophocles sanctions the matricide (as if it’s ever ok to kill your mother).

The masterstroke of Thanos Papakonstantinos in his direction of the play was, again, to make real what is only ever hinted at in the text. Thus, as the chorus attempt to make sense of the matricide and Electra’s conducting of the events offstage, they transform into the very curses to which they refer. At this very moment in the performance, they discarded their pristine white cloaks and began to writhe on the ground before Electra, sullying their inner garments on a stage that was slowly filling up with a viscous oily liquid—a black blood slick. They became in appearance like Electra herself, dreadful and deranged. They became, in essence, the Erinyes.

4_Orestes+Aegisthus+chorus

This transformation of the chorus into Sophocles’s missing Furies—as if the Eumenides‘s chorus had been invoked and brought back on stage by the constant incantations of Aeschylus’s earlier plays—was both utterly mesmeric and breathtakingly terrifying. It reminded me more of a horror film than a conventional tragedy, and it struck me that horror, too, must have played a role in these plays’ impact. And it wasn’t only a gut reaction; the horror-inflected climax got me thinking a lot harder about what *was* in the text. And, reading the play again at home, I noticed how the chorus from this point on assume a far more active role, first warning the siblings of Aegisthus’s arrival (1429), and then offering advice how to get him to drop his guard (1439-41). Even in their customarily generic last words, the chorus evoke the urgency (τῇ νῦν ὁρμῇ τελεωθέν, 1510) on which the Paidagogus has constantly insisted.

But—and this is important—their cue came not from him but from Electra. It’s when the men go off stage to do their thing and leave the women shut out onstage that they—the women—take control. It’s Electra’s commentary on the matricide that is the focus, not the event itself. It’s the sister, so long left home alone and shut off from the plot as soon as the play begins, who, forced to testify about her experience, her suffering before a (hostile?) hearing of male judges (us, the audience), dominates the play. And she dominates its ending with a group of women whose furious shedding of their demure costumes presages their transformation into curses, as if she, and not the Paidagogus, were now the orchestrator of the action.

Beware all transgressors. #wetoo are coming for you.

chorus+orestes

On The Dangers of Not Being Trained in the Classics

Julian, Fragment of a letter to a priest, 296a

“The reason [they are unwise] is that they don’t give their mind over to be cleansed by the traditional curriculum and they do not open those tightly closed eyes with it and clear the mist that has settled over them.

But because these people are like those who see a great light through a fog neither clearly nor sharply and because they think they do not see a clear light but a fire and they cannot see anything around it, they shout “Be afraid, shake, fire, flame, death, knife, blade…” interpreting in many names the force of a fire. Ah, it would be a lot easier to show how much worse than our own poets are these teachers of tales about ‘god’.”

αἴτιον δέ, ὅτι τὴν ἑαυτῶν ψυχὴν οὐ παρέσχον ἀποκαθῆραι τοῖς ἐγκυκλίοις μαθήμασιν οὐδὲ ἀνοῖξαι μεμυκότα λίαν τὰ ὄμματα οὐδὲ ἀνακαθῆραι τὴν ἐπικειμένην αὐτοῖς ἀχλύν, ἀλλ᾿ οἷον φῶς μέγα δι᾿ ὁμίχλης οἱ ἄνθρωποι βλέποντες οὐ καθαρῶς οὐδὲ εἰλικρινῶς, αὐτὸ δὲ ἐκεῖνο νενομικότες οὐχὶ φῶς καθαρόν, ἀλλὰ πῦρ καὶ τῶν περὶ αὐτὸ πάντων ὄντες ἀθέατοι βοῶσι μέγα· Φρίττετε, φοβεῖσθε, πῦρ, φλόξ, θάνατος, μάχαιρα, ῥομφαία, πολλοῖς ὀνόμασι μίαν ἐξηγούμενοι τὴν βλαπτικὴν τοῦ πυρὸς δύναμιν. ἀλλ᾿ ὑπὲρ μὲν τούτων ἰδίᾳ βέλτιον παραστῆσαι, πόσῳ φαυλότεροι τῶν παρ᾿ ἡμῖν οὗτοι γεγόνασι ποιητῶν οἱ τῶν ὑπὲρ τοῦ θεοῦ λόγων διδάσκαλοι.

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Julian the Apostate.

Pliny on the Utility of Gossip

Pliny, Epistle 18 to Fadius Rufinus 12

“You now have all the city’s rumors: for all our gossip is Tullus. His estate sale is hotly anticipated. For he had so much that on that day when he purchased the largest gardens he also filled them with the most and most ancient statues. These were works of finest beauty in which he had forgotten!

If you have any news you think is worthy of sharing, don’t keep it from me. For human ears are always pleased by news, and we use these examples to learn the art of living. Farewell.”

Habes omnes fabulas urbis; nam sunt omnes fabulae Tullus. Exspectatur auctio: fuit enim tam copiosus, ut amplissimos hortos eodem quo emerat die instruxerit plurimis et antiquissimis statuis; tantum illi pulcherrimorum operum in horreis quae neglegebat. Invicem tu, si quid istic epistula dignum, ne gravare. Nam cum aures hominum novitate laetantur, tum ad rationem vitae exemplis erudimur. Vale.

 

Don’t Neglect Those Dead Languages

Benjamin Rush,

A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania:

“I do not wish the LEARNED OR DEAD LAN­GUAGES, as they are commonly called, to be reduced below their present just rank in the universities of Europe, especially as I consider an acquaintance with them as the best foun­dation for a correct and extensive knowledge of the language of our country. Too much pains cannot be taken to teach our youth to read and write our American language with propriety and elegance. The study of the Greek language constituted a material part of the literature of the Athenians, hence the sublimity, purity and immortality of so many of their writings. The advantages of a perfect knowledge of our language to young men intended for the professions of law, physic or divinity are too obvious to be mentioned, but in a state which boasts of the first commercial city in America, I wish to see it cultivated by young men, who are intended for the compting house, for many such, I hope, will be educated in our col­leges. The time is past when an academical education was thought to be unnecessary to qualify a young man for merchandize. I conceive no profession is capable of receiv­ing more embellishments from it.

Connected with the study of our own lan­guage is the study of ELOQUENCE. It is well known how great a part it constituted of the Roman education. It is the first ac­complishment in a republic, and often sets the whole machine of government in motion. Let our youth, therefore, be instructed in this art. We do not extol it too highly when we attribute as much to the power of eloquence as to the sword in bringing about the American revolution.”

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Greek and Latin: An Improper Education for Our Country

Benjamin Rush, Essays: Moral, Literary, and Political

“VII. The Latin and Greek languages are the first tests of genius in schools. Where boys discover a want of capacity for them, they are generally taken from school, or remain there the butts of their companions. Dr. Swift early discovered a want of taste for the dead languages. It would be unjust to mention this fact, without ascribing it to the voice of reason and nature speaking in this great man. He had no relish for the husks of literature. Truth and knowledge were alone commensurate to the dignity and extent of his mind.

[…]

IX. The study of some of the Latin and Greek classics is unfavourable to morals and religion. Indelicate amours, and shocking vices both of gods and men, fill many parts of them. Hence an early and dangerous acquaintance with vice; and hence, from an association of ideas, a diminshed respect for the unity and perfections of the true God. Those classics which are free from this censure, contain little else but the histories of murders, perpetrated by kings, and related in such a manner as to excite pleasure and admiration. Hence the universal preference of the military character to all others.—To the same cause we may ascribe the early passion for a cockade in school boys; and the the frequent adoption of the principles and vices of armies, by young men who are destined for other professions.

X. The study of the Latin and Greek languages is improper in the present state of society and government in United States. While Greek and Latin are the only avenues to science, education will always be confined to a few people. It is only by rendering knowledge universal, that a republican form of government can be preserved in our country.”

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