I am entirely aware that the following review of Eric Adler’s The Battle of the Classics cuts a little deep and comes at an inopportune moment. Nevertheless, Adler sent me this book before the outbreak of white supremacist and rightwing violence last week prompted multiple calls for increased training in the humanities. Our context and Adler’s implicit invitation prompted me to finish and post this review, despite our collective exhaustion.
To be clear, Adler’s book has no connection to last week’s coup. But there’s a cyclical and reactive debate about the impact of the humanities on current events, and claims that the humanities are not political are as vacuous as those insisting they are responsible in some significant way. In a sense, both Adler and I serve as mere proxies in broader, contentious debates.
Indeed, I was hesitant to post this review at all for fear of appearing less kind than I aspire to be or of giving the ideas in this book additional attention. Yet I grow increasingly tired of our intellectual histories pretending objectivity while still supporting a trenchantly ideological system. We need Classicists to perform critical and honest histories of our field to help us chart better courses forward. We don’t need sophistic prevarication.
The reaction of many humanists and classicists to the ‘revelation’ that our fields are racist in practice and in origin is not dissimilar to the responses by white intellectuals and politicians to the 1619 Project, which Trump has countered with the risible 1776 Project: resistance, minimization, denial, and outright violent rejection. Even those who try to accommodate new historical analyses may suffer cognitive dissonance, reluctant or incapable of acknowledging that the degree to which one realizes how toxic academia—and classics—is depends upon one’s own positionality.
It is a farce for any field of critical inquiry to refuse to conduct or accept a critique of its own history. To study the past without being interested in how earlier generations shaped this study and how their political, racial, gendered, and otherwise formative discourses influenced them is to engage in intellectual cosplay. This is, of course, an insult to the latter: at least cosplayers know they are engaging in fantasy. How much more ironic and hypocritical it is, then, for a field so proud of the Delphic “know thyself” to resist the practice of doing so!
Some readers are going to leave this piece with a forced misconception, carrying some ridiculous takeaway like “Homerist cancels Homer” or the like. (There’s a free headline for you!) Much to the contrary, this is a call to live up to the aspirations of the practice of the humanities, to force ourselves to be more than simple agents of tradition.
Adler’s primary emphasis in his book—that we need to advocate for the humanities based on their substance or content—is left abstract until its end. It is also at the end that some potential audiences emerge. What starts as a softer, center academic voice (see Adler’s welcome critique of the neoliberal university and educational consumerism) drifts rightward in the conclusion, characterizing Reed college’s inclusion of Mexico City and the Harlem Renaissance in its Hum 110 course as “a capitulation to contemporary American identity politics…[which] reinforces the sense that reforms, nominally aimed at a genuine cosmopolitanism, instead underscore American provincialism” (Adler 220).
Of course, I have excerpted the previous statements to make it seem as if Adler were making them and not merely repeating the kinds of things people say (which is how the paragraph is couched) because the closing chapter, intentionally or not, flirts with dog-whistles and gives a platform to arguments familiar to readers (or victims) of Quillette and the Heterodox Academy, at its best, and the ravings of less rational actors, at the worst.
Once he offers an overview of some texts he might suggest for the “wisdom of the ages”, Adler suggests, “In such a curriculum, diversity and inclusiveness remain important organizing principles. Yet they are not attained by a relentless, tokenizing pursuit of representativeness for its own sake. On the contrary, they emerge from a more intellectually serious investigation of how we as a species have sought to answer the most fundamental questions of life” (222).
This all may sound reasonable on the surface, until one imagines how these phrases resound with certain audiences and how they appropriate the language of inclusive pedagogy and practice to signal that there is a higher principle of rigor and quality. These are like the words of colleagues I have encountered who are happy to hire a woman or BIPOC scholar, as long as we don’t have to sacrifice “quality” to do so.
This summary also leaves out how selectively Adler shapes his intellectual history and how much his argument relies on the deeply problematic conservative scholar Irving Babbitt. On the whole, this book provides a somewhat interesting overview of some debates over the classical humanities in higher education in the United States. It is not clear, however, that the discussions paced over a century would have been recognized by anyone as a specific or continuous “Battle of the Classics”. In ignoring the fact that the “Classics” have always been selective and exclusive (and in eliding the Humanities and Classics), Adler joins his subjects as idealizing the content of the Classical tradition irrespective of the process that delivered it.
In aiming to argue for a “wisdom of the ages” that improves the human condition, Adler trains his gaze always on the idea of the objects rather than the subjects who benefit from them. At some level, I do deeply agree with the plea that we should focus on how the humanities can make us better humans—I just think this is a capacity we bring to the texts as subjects ourselves rather than magical qualities a set of texts may grant to us with the right shamans as our guides.
“So he spoke, and a dark cloud of grief covered Achilles.”
῝Ως φάτο, τὸν δ’ ἄχεος νεφέλη ἐκάλυψε μέλαινα·
I don’t know why I’m surprised that I find it hard to write about the Iliad. Or rather, why I find it so much harder to write about the Iliad than I do to write about the Odyssey.
Everything around the Iliad has always been harder and heavier for me as a classicist and a modern bard. And as a human being.
From the first time I read it as an undergrad studying Classics at UW-Madison, I’ve felt that the Iliad punishes the reader in a way that the Odyssey (which to be sure, itself has plenty of punishment) doesn’t.
To be sure, the context in which I’m writing about performing my Homer-inspired musical works has changed. “A Penis on the Screen” was written at the beginning of the first full escalation of the pandemic, more than nine months and three hundred thousand US deaths ago.
It was also written after only a single virtual performance of my one-man musical Odyssey, and before any virtual performances of my one-man musical Iliad, “The Blues of Achilles. Since that initial phallus-inscribed voyage I have completed fourteen virtual Odysseys and eleven virtual Blues of Achilles shows.
In a way these two blogs mirror how the creation of my two epic works unfolded. I wrote “Joe’s Odyssey” in the naive afterglow of my undergraduate studies when I didn’t know any better, when I was too young to understand how audacious it was to create a thirty-five minute non-narrative modern folk opera telling of the Odyssey, let alone to ask folks to sit still for it. That actually worked in my favor, as youthful ignorance sometimes does. I wrote a prompt in my songwriting book that read “create a one-man 24 song folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey” and three months later I premiered it in my parents’ living room, with a full performance for a group of students less than two months after that.
By contrast, sixteen years later when I decided to take on the Iliad, I spent almost a full year reading, researching, even interviewing veterans, before I wrote a single song. Once I composed the songs that comprise “The Blues of Achilles,” I played small samplings of them in modest workshop scenarios for another year before I finally debuted the full cycle in San Francisco in early March just as the pandemic took hold (a selection of songs from that performance can be viewed here on YouTube).
All of this is to say that these two pieces came from and were in two wildly different places in March as I started to consider how I would continue to perform them in a streaming environment: on the one hand, I had 300 plus Odyssey shows under my belt, on the other I had the Blues of Achilles with… one single show (and one in which I performed with an ensemble).
In reading my initial impressions of performing virtually as detailed in the Penis on the Screen blog, I have to give myself a little credit: almost all of what I wrote there about the Zoom performance environment bore itself out as correct over the course of repeated performances of my Odyssey.
(NB: I am so infrequently right about things I have to make a big deal of times when I am. For instance, as she will vouch for, I saw where the pandemic was going early on and told my wife to stock up on canned goods and alcohol for quarantine in early-February. I also correctly predicted that Dwyane Wade would be an NBA Hall-of-Famer after watching the 2003 NCAA tournament. Take that, Calchas).
But while my routines around my virtual Odyssey shows were immediately informed by the hundreds of previous live shows and discussions, The Blues of Achilles was a blank slate. Would I perform all the songs without stopping? Would I work in spoken narrative passages as I did in the public debut in San Francisco? Would I talk about all the works that informed my songs ahead of the performance, or let the audience lead me to such considerations in a discussion?
My Odyssey performance had years and years to develop organically along with my abilities, going from a living room to high school classrooms to university settings over the course of more than a decade. In contrast, The Blues of Achilles had immediate opportunities with very high level college audiences.
Luckily, I had the songs I wrote for the characters we know most intimately from Homer’s Iliad: a number of songs for Achilles of course, but also songs sung by Chryseis, Bryseis, Agamemnon, Hector, Hecuba, Priam, Helen, Andromache, Patroklus, and Thetis. Songs sung by the bard (me in this case) telling the story as well as other more impartial observers to the human suffering portrayed in the poem.
I had these songs that I loved very deeply and I felt said something interesting, deep and most importantly true about the characters and story, something that modern audiences might have a harder time accessing when considering them in millenia old translated texts.
(There should be a word for when you read a sentiment similar to one which you’ve arrived at entirely independently, especially when it is confirmed by a lauded source. Joel suggested “serendipity” which is true and good but doesn’t quite capture the validation and confidence boost such an occurrence can confer upon an artist or intellectual.)
If excavating love from the grief of the Iliad was good enough for Simone Weil, it was certainly good enough for me. I thought perhaps this relationship between love and grief was the heaviness that had created such apprehension in me about considering the Iliad.
It was actually several months into these pandemic performances of The Blues of Achilles that I fully realized why adapting the Iliad scared me more and was so much harder for me than adapting the Odyssey.
In April, the songwriter John Prine died of Covid complications. In a beautiful New York Times tribute to this amazing artist, Jason Isbell (a brilliant songwriter in his own right) wrote about the genius of Prine’s writing in general but in particular the song “Angel From Montgomery,” which opens with Prine singing “I am an old woman/named after my mother.” Isbell has this epiphany: “songwriting allows you to be anybody you want to be, so long as you get the details right.”
When it came to the Iliad, my anxiety was (and is) rooted in the fear that I couldn’t get the details right. And I knew that for these characters deep inside the machine of war and their legacies, the details were a matter of life and death. This was why I spent a year reading any war literature I could get my hands on from All Quiet on the Western Front to Catch-22 to Slaughterhouse Five. I read Achilles in Vietnam and The Things They Carried and Letters Home from Vietnam and Dispatches. I interviewed veterans who served in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Enduring Freedom. I interviewed a Gold Star father who lost his son in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I found myself by chance in a hazy whiskey-fueled late night conversation with a veteran military journalist who turned me on to the album Soldier’s Heart, a set of songs by Jacob George, a veteran of OEF who wrote and recorded this album of the truest war stories I’ve ever heard before he died by suicide in 2014.
And with these details and a new vocabulary, I went back to the text and as is the case over and over with Homeric epic I found truths hovering in the spaces around the words, waiting for me. I thought about some of the other Iliad adaptations I read: Memorial by Alice Oswald, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, the play An Iliad by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. Casey Dué’s Achilles Unbound helped me recognize the multiplicity inherent in oral tradition and gave me even more confidence to find my own Achilles.
And out of me in less than 30 days in early 2019 came tumbling my 17 love songs. If Homer’s Iliad tells of the Anger of Achilles, my Blues of Achilles makes its focus the Grief that is prominent in the first syllable of Achilles’ name and the Love that is so inextricably connected to Grief (for more “serendipity,” see Emily Austin’s work in particular the forthcoming Grief and the Hero.)
Frank Zappa purportedly said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and whether or not he actually did, the sentiment is correct. I write songs to capture something that other types of writing cannot convey so I won’t try to describe what my online Blues of Achilles shows are like in detail other than to say they are heavy, connected, and beautiful. I break the songs up to allow for audiences to ask questions and contribute to the meaning as we go rather than waiting until the end for them to participate and engage. Pandemic audiences seem particularly attuned to the less central characters to whom I try to give voice, to the characters who have been pulled into the grievous orbit of the principle tragic figures of the story.
I’ll be doing these shows (both Odyssey and Blues of Achilles) online for at least the first half of 2021: while I’m hoping that later in the year conditions might allow for safe travel and gatherings, it might be even into 2022 before that’s possible. But I know that eventually I’ll be able to bring The Blues of Achilles (and my Odyssey) to audiences in-person.
Whereas my online Odyssey shows were informed by live in-person performances, my live in-person Blues of Achilles shows (when they happen) will be informed by my online performances and I’m interested to see how this inversion impacts the futures of both pieces.
I return to one of my first impressions of performing online which is that these stories are so durable and rich and full of possibility that they can thrive in any sort of performance environment. Maybe better put: making the change from in-person to virtual is no big deal when a story has survived the transition from oral performance to written text and the thousands of years since.
The figure of the isolated hero in ancient Greek myth and poetry is one who is set apart, on an island, separated from other humans and, by extension, from human culture. The impact of isolation is often communicated through the heroic body, even if it is offered in some way as a cause: Philoktetes’ dehumanization is reflected in the wound whose antisocial attributes cause him to be abandoned (described like a disease in Sophocles’ play). Odysseus seems arguably less human insofar as he is stripped of agency and, until Hermes comes to move him, clearly more an object of interest than a subject of his own.
Indeed, the Odyssey has deep ethnographic concerns, focusing on how people make their livings and how they live their lives. When Odysseus describes the island of the Cyclopes, he remarks on how it might be a good place to live, but the Cyclopes themselves are “arrogant and lawless” (ὑπερφιάλων ἀθεμίστων, 9.106). They aren’t human because of the way they live (they do not cultivate the land, 108-111). And they are less than human because of how they organize their lives (Odyssey 9.112–115):
“They don’t have council-bearing assemblies or laws,
But instead they inhabit homes on high hills
In hollow caves, and each one makes laws
For his children and wives—they do not have concern for one another.”
In a way, Odysseus anticipates here the later Greek use of the term idiotês for the person who fails to understand that the commonwealth directly impacts individual possessions—indeed, it makes possible the existence of individual goods. The ancient idiot, in this political sense, is a kind of naïve libertarian who is incapable of conceiving of shared human society as the very thing that makes life possible and also worth living.
* * * *
Current events are forcing us to explore some of the same tensions: inasmuch as some are aghast that we are not willing to die to preserve the economy, the rest of us remain horror stricken at how much our public health and collective good have been sacrificed to prop up the wealth of a very few. Even though my training directs my thoughts consistently to the past for parallels to cope with the present, my own reading history and proclivity for speculative fiction keep taking me to narrative futures. In my impatience to be done with the now, I am busy manufacturing anxieties about what will become of us later.
In Isaac Asimov’s Robot novelThe Naked Sun(1957), the detective Elijah Bailey is dispatched to one of the “spacer” worlds to investigate a murder. In Asimov’s world, humankind lives in a mixed future where billions are crowded into cities on earth while a select elite escape to fifty “Spacer” worlds. Over time, the antagonism between Spacer and Earther expands as the former use their greater resources and technology to dominate the latter. And Earthers suffer from a fear of the outside, a reluctance to leave the comfort of their cities.
The Spacers, those libertarian techno-overlords, fear contagion and disease and contact with the human rabble left on earth. When Baily meets with the widow of the murdered scientist on her planet Solaria, Gladia, she will at first only see him through “viewing” (a video screen). Eventually she breaks Solarian taboo and comes to him in person and to help solve the crime. (No spoiler, but it wasn’t a robot.)
Many years later (in our world) Asimov returns to Solaria generations later in his Foundation and Earth(1986). In the intervening years, the Spacer planets were eclipsed by the rapid expansion of the population of Earth into the galaxy, fading quickly into obsolescence and obscurity. The Solaria found here is populated by a few human beings who intentionally developed hermaphroditic qualities so they would never have to encounter other human beings in person again. The Solarian world is expansive—each person lives on massive estates, engaging with others only through mediated viewing and using technology to ritualize isolation.
E. M. Forster in his short story “The Machine Stops” (1909, 1928) puts humankind in a sub-terrestrial, dystopic future. People must live in isolation, in basic rooms from which they engage in the world only through video conferencing. One of the main characters, Vashti, spends a great deal of her time broadcasting her ideas over this ersatz internet, recycling and repackaging ideas for consumption and replacing most human relationship with a distanced presentation of the ‘self’. The main plot of this tale, of course, is about the “machine” which supports all of this life collapsing, but the lingering sense it leaves is one of the panopticon in which the ability to broadcast, to send a message, is traded for being watched and people live separate from one another both out of fear and out of habit.
I have been thinking about both of these speculative narratives over the past few weeks as my work has converted online completely and my social life has blended into it. I “zoom” with colleagues, skype with friends, and merely text-message with my extended family. I watch as my children are habituated to the same kind of mediated existence. There is an hour each day when three of us are on zoom simultaneously, in the same house but in separate rooms, sometimes irked that the sound of another intrudes on our distanced engagement.
We have been living with some of the rapid consequences of these kinds of mediated communication networks for years. Is something as bizarre as pizza-gate possible without facebook or other online fora? Do these media ever produce anything but the strangest and saddest common denominator?
Modern science fiction is no stranger to this too. In his post-apocalpytic Seveneves, Neal Stephenson—an author a bit too libertarian and soft on techo-capitalists generally—puts a surviving remnant of humanity in space, isolated in a network of space capsules connected by a communication network dubbed “spacebook”. In order to survive, these clutches of life have to preserve resources and follow a very basic plan. But paranoia explodes in the social network: one week, a thought leader proposes that in space humans do not need legs, so they should cut them off and eat them to preserve the protein. Soon, a critical number of people depart with precious resources to try to make it to Mars because they convinced themselves in their echo chamber of madness that this was a good plan, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary.
(they all die. A mere handful of people survive their stupidity.)
Of the many ways in which COVID-19 will change our lives, one is how it will accelerate our embrace of life online. Children are having playdates online: ours have had dance classes, piano lessons, and speech therapy in just the last week to go along with 2-3 ‘Montessori’ zoom lessons a day. Although I am deeply grateful to these teachers and instructors for bringing some sense of normalcy to our children’s days, I worry that this will be their baseline: no playgrounds, no playmates, but video-streamed encounters and mediated experiences. They will be open to the supercharged pathways of disinformation that propagate quack cures for plagues and easy arguments for denying collective action against global warming.
Asimov’s Solarians are independent-minded elitists whose fear of disease and love of long lives pushes them further and further apart; Forster’s subterraneans are addicted to the comfort of their regulated lives and distracted by the ability to be ‘experts’ and temporary celebrities in the global machine. Stephenson’s human race barely survives an apocalypse followed by human caused ruin thanks to individual heroics and fantastic evolutionary science. The Coronavirus won’t suddenly turn us into any of these groups, but it may make us just that much less human.
* * * *
Modern studies in narrative emphasize how our identity develops from social relationships and studies in cognitive psychology show how isolation can have damaging effects on us emotionally and mentally. When separated from others we can experience an increase in fear and paranoia (See Andersen et al. 2000, 19.); studies in the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners demonstrate a marked increase in the development of psychopathology under the influence of isolation which can eventuate in neurobiological transformations. The brain of an isolated human being may demonstrate fewer neural connections and correlate with distortions in memory and a deterioration of language abilities. Isolation, to put it simply, can break down those very things that make people who they are. (see Ravindran 2014, Gilmore and Nanon 2014; Kaba et al. 2014)
Ancient Greek myth and poetry seems to communicate this through figures like Philoktetes—who languishes for a decade after being marooned on the island of Lemnos—and Odysseus, who suffers in quasi-isolation for seven years, weeping on the edge of the sea (but having sex with Calypso at night). Odysseus cannot return home directly from this. His journey home requires him to repeatedly tell stories about himself and to reaffirm his identity step-by-step through reunions with the important people in his life. It is Odysseus too who brings Philoktetes back into society in Sophocles’ play.
I think ancient audiences saw the sufferings of both figures as a result from their isolation, from their separation from communion with other human beings. Both Homer’s epic and Sophocles’ play emphasize political themes and social consequences: Odysseus and Philoktetes are at times calculating and full of rage, leaving characters in the poems (and audiences outside them) unsure of if or when they will lash out.
What each narrative emphasizes, however, is that the isolated figure needs fellowship and partnership to return to human society. Odysseus’ return home is not complete until he is recognized—and recognizes himself—in his son, spouse, and father. Philoktetes needs to be persuaded to return, to be cajoled and guided and distracted from the fact he is being used.
This is, perhaps, cold comfort for those of us isolated now. But it does remind us that having other people around us is important and that, when the time comes to reintegrate, it won’t be simple or easy. We will have to tell each other our stories and listen to who we confirm in each other we are.
And perhaps it will force us to think about the world we create for ourselves. The plot which drives Asimov’s Foundation and Earth is a choice about the future of life in the galaxy: whether it will continue on as it has, with everyone charting separate courses of self interest or it will change radically, adopting the life-form model of a planet called Gaia where all inhabitants shared consciousness and fate, yielding some sense of free will.
When I read this choice to its conclusion in the late 80s, I was horrified because it seemed (spoiler alert) that the protagonist was choosing communism! But it did not take many years for the wisdom of this choice to make a little more sense. At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home and murders 108 suitors. The epic almost ends with a civil war but for the intervention of Athena and Zeus who declare an amnesty, insisting that the Ithakans and Odysseus need to live together (24.486, πλοῦτος δὲ καὶ εἰρήνη ἅλις ἔστω). In this, the individual leader is forced to change his ways; but the people have to submit to forgetting and forgetting the violence and malice which brought a generation to ruin.
What choices will we face? Which ones will we be able to make?
Some things to read
Andersen, H. S., Sestoft, D. D., Lillebæk, T. T., Gabrielsen, G. G., Hemmingsen, R. R., & Kramp, P. P. 2000. “A Longitudinal Study of Prisoners on Remand: Psychiatric Prevalence, Incidence and Psychopathology in Solitary vs. Non-Solitary Confinement.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 102:19.
Barker, E.T.E. and Christensen J. P. Homer’s Thebes. Washington, D.C. 2019.
Gilmore, Betty and Williams, Nanon M. 2014. The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons. Dallas.
Kaba, Fatos et al. 2014. “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates.” American Journal of Public Health: March 2014, Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 442–447.
Ravindran, Shruti 2014. “Twilight in the Box.” Aeon 27.
Shay, Jonathan. 2002. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York.
Thiher, Allen. 1999. Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature. Ann Arbor.
Underwood, Charles. 2018. Mythos and Voice: Displacement, Learning, and Agency in Odysseus’ World. Lanham: Lexington Books
Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade [Adapted]
Some critics strain to earn a reputation for being unpleasantly reactionary; some seem to delight in pyrotechnic displays of their own ignorance illuminated by the reflection of borrowed erudition. Then there is Joseph Epstein, who combines these two approaches with a deft skill rivaled only by the avuncular contrarian who once read a Great Books course in college.
December was a real blowout month for Epstein, who laid his pettiness bare in an essay assailing Jill Biden’s use of the title “Dr.” Naturally, he was taken to task for that delicate blend of chauvinism and charlatanry, but he started the season of provocation strong with a hackneyed essay about the literary canon and the limited attention span of kids these days. We have all heard these arguments before, but Epstein’s essay achieved a perfect distillation of the lament for the canon/death of literature eulogy that it seemed worth responding to in these eminently classical and canonical pages of ours.
Because it appeared in an issue commemorating the longevity of The National Review, Epstein’s essay examines the state of literature in 1955 and declares that it was good, because
In American poetry, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and E. E. Cummings were still at work. In fiction, so, too, were Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright. In France, Albert Camus and André Malraux remained productive. In England, Evelyn Waugh and Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym were writing, and the year before, Kingsley Amis had won the Somerset Maugham Award for Lucky Jim. Internationally, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov had not yet quite hit their impressive strides. Randall Jarrell had earlier, in dismay, dubbed the 1950s “the Age of Criticism,” but some immensely powerful critics, among them Yvor Winters, William Empson, I. A. Richards, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Edmund Wilson, and Lionel Trilling, were on the job. Over the entire anglophone literary world strode T. S. Eliot, major modernist poet and a critic who stood in the direct line of Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold. For literature the good times were rolling.
Fair enough – some of these are real literary talents, but some of them have been relegated to the dustbin of oblivion already, and others have preposterously overblown reputations. Epstein then brings us to his real point:
When and why they stopped rolling are complex questions. That they have stopped, that we are in a less-than-rich period for literature today, cannot be doubted. Ask yourself whose next novel among living novelists you are eagerly awaiting. Name your three favorite living poets. Which contemporary critics do you most rely upon?
Challenging the reader to think of upcoming modern novels is a sure bet, in Epstein’s mind, because he began with the premise that no one is reading now anyway. But I can say for myself that I was about to crack in anticipation of Martin Amis’ Inside Story last month; that I am eagerly awaiting Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun; that I am on the lookout for any news about a new Zadie Smith novel. This reads less like a considered argument and more like Epstein’s confession that he doesn’t really keep up with things anymore.
Epstein’s challenge about poetry ignores a point central both to historical and contemporary poetics: ancient poetry was often recited in conjunction with music, and in the 20th century, this connection was made once again. Centuries of purely bookish poetry may have convinced us that it was, in its essence, a project for the page, but many of the people who would otherwise be writing “poetry collections” are writing songs instead. Is there a difference? Epstein probably thinks so. But if the point of poetry, as opposed to prose, is its condensed musicality, why should it not be set to music as well?
Epstein ignores the role of critics and educational institutions in forming the canon. Consider his list of towering 20th century figures. William Faulkner may be a household name, but how many people ever read all of his novels? Set that against how many people enjoyed his Hollywood hackwork. Faulkner’s appeal today rests largely on his enduring reputation as an important part of the canon as enforced by his position on course syllabi. Drop him from the syllabus, and I’m not sure that his popular appeal would be enough to keep him in circulation for another century. Similarly, consider the case of Moby Dick. It has its passionate devotees and its place in the canon, but was out of print for almost all of Melville’s lifetime subsequent to its publication. Perhaps some crotchety reactionary in Melville’s day lamented that the halcyon days of the 18th century were over, that he was stranded in the literary desert of the 19th, all while ignoring the treasure before him.
Moreover, the entrance to the canon is a revolving door, and plenty of formerly canonical work is shown its way back into the street. Epstein asks who rivals Edmund Wilson. I spent a good part of the summer reading through almost all of Edmund Wilson’s collected works, and two things stood out: how many then-canonical works have fallen from public view, and how wrong Wilson often was about which works would have lasting value and appeal.
The villain in Epstein’s world is, naturally, the distractions of the internet. I am not disinclined to argue with him about the stultifying effects of digital distraction. Yet, this argument is also an old one. In the 18th and 19th centuries, serialized novels were deemed a dangerous distraction from serious reading (though they are now held up as models of important literature). In the early part of the 20th century, Ezra Pound complained that the invention of radio was a nail in the coffin for the distraction-free life required to create real literature. We are a distracted age, but do we really need a return of the Victorian triple-decker? We live longer than we used to, and the same technology which distracts us has also freed us from some of the necessities of brute labor which would have formerly kept us from reading. On the whole, distraction in and of itself cannot account for the death of literature.
Novel writing is not a given in human history. Sure, the Greeks and Romans had their novels (pretty poor stuff, mostly, though the Satyricon strikes me as being richly novelistic in its observational nicety), but the novel as we know it didn’t appear on the scene until the 17th century, and didn’t really start rolling in a recognizably novelistic mode until the end of the 18th. If you read every novelist still in print from Cervantes and Rabelais all the way up to whatever was released this week, you would likely formulate this not particularly astonishing observation: that novels are products of their time, and respond to the historical circumstances of their creation. I am a huge fan of Dickens, but re-reading Little Dorrit last week, I couldn’t help but feel exhausted by how bloated it is. And this is true of even the best Victorian serialized fiction, just as it is true of long-running TV series or movie franchises. We live in more distracted, but also more entertained times. Perhaps the pressures of competition from immediately-accessible and rewarding media have forced contemporary literature to become more entertaining, more accommodating to the reader – in a word, better.
Throughout the piece, Epstein takes his shots at other villains: academia, feminists, psychology, “therapeutic” writing. You know that these guys hate what they consider “grievance studies” – but what is conservatism, if not an ideological distillation of grievance? Like much of the semi-literate raving at The National Review, this essay is little more than a confession of a frozen intellect which stopped engaging with the world at some arbitrarily defined point. Maxim: “Popular culture ceased to be important when I ceased to consume it.” We all know that this essay was written for old men (as the reference to the show Dragnet signals clearly enough without all of the reactionary hate). Epstein shakes his fist and warns us to stay off his lawn; but he does not realize that it is bare of grass, and no one wishes to trespass through a patch of mud and filth.
Looking at the Reception of a Greek Myth in Edith Wharton’sNovel
Edith Wharton’s second novel, The House of Mirth, was published in 1905 and portrays New York high society in America’s Gilded Age. It focuses on the beautiful Lily Bart, a woman of birth but no money, who has been brought up by her mother to value luxury and to believe that her looks will make her fortune.
The novel takes place in her 29th year, and it becomes clear early on that she has balked at the chances of great marriages that have come her way in the past and now needs to take the plunge or face sliding into a ‘dingy’ spinsterhood. She is thwarted – or perhaps saved – in this by a chance meeting with Lawrence Selden at Grand Central Station.
As the novel progresses, her slender grasp on high society fails and she ends up destitute and lonely, dying from an overdose of chloral, but with her personal integrity in tact. Through Lily Bart’s story, Wharton explores, amongst other things, themes of love and marriage, gender, the individual and society and class. It is a powerful and heartbreakingly tragic read.
Well – what had brought him there but the quest of her? It was her element, not his. But he would lift her out of it, take her beyond. That Beyond! on her letter was like a cry for rescue. He knew that Perseus’s task is not done when he has loosed Andromeda’s chains, for her limbs are numb with bondage, and she cannot rise and walk, but clings to him with dragging arms as he beats back to land with his burden. Well, he had the strength for both – it has her weakness which had put the strength in him. It was not, alas, a clean rush of waves they had to win through, but a clogging morass of old associations and habits, and for the moment its vapours were in his throat. But he would see clearer, breathe freer in her presence: she was at once the dead weight at his breast and the spar which should float them to safety.
As Lawrence Selden resolves to marry Lily Bart, he pictures himself as the classical hero, Perseus, on a ‘quest’ and Lily as Andromeda, chained to a rock in the sea. As he perceives Lily, she is chained, by her upbringing, to the fate of marrying the highest bidder and living high in the shallow and corrupt world of New York’s one hundred families. This undoubtedly speaks to his masculine ideas of heroism and female vulnerability, but it is revealing to consider why Wharton reached for Perseus and Andromeda at this point, rather than any other classical couple. In this, my primary source is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Andromeda plays of Sophocles and Euripides being lost.
Wharton establishes the trope of Lily as damsel in distress and Selden as her heroic rescuer from the very start of The House of Mirth, albeit in a gently ironic way. As Lily hails Selden at the station she says, ‘How nice of you to come to my rescue’, although he was unsure ‘what form the rescue was to take’. At this stage, the gallant hero merely has to provide cooler air, tea and a distraction for a while as Lily waits for her next train, but as Selden looks at Lily’s bracelets during that first encounter, it seems that the idea of Andromeda is already in his mind. Just as Ovid’s Perseus (and Euripides’s before him, as the fragments suggest) first perceives Andromeda as a statue until he notices the breeze in her hair, so Selden watches Lily’s hand, ‘polished as a bit of old ivory’.
Alongside this, he sees ‘the links of her bracelet’ as ‘manacles chaining her to her fate’, so much ‘a victim of the civilization which had produced her’ is she. Here the novel bears out her similarity with Andromeda: Andromeda is chained to the rock as a sacrifice, necessary because of ‘her mother’s tongue’ (Illic inmeritam maternae penderae linguae…) in boasting that Andromeda’s beauty outshone the Nereids’. Lily too is the victim of her mother’s belief in her beauty. After Mr. Bart’s bankruptcy and death, Mrs. Bart fetishizes Lily’s beauty, studying it ‘with a passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance.’ She sees it as the means by which their fortunes would be rebuilt and inculcates Lily not only with her own horror of ‘dinginess’, but also with the belief that ‘only stupidity’ could induce anyone to marry for love, where there is no financial advantage. So, we might see Lily as ‘chained’ to this ambitious matrimonial path by her mother’s pride in her beauty.
As Lily and Selden’s relationship develops, Lily notices her chains to some degree. Though, when Selden arrives at Bellomont, Lily still means to marry Percy Gryce, Selden’s presence causes her to reevaluate the people around her and she becomes aware that this society represents a ‘great gilt cage… as she heard its door clang on her!’ Her stolen walk with Selden, on Sunday, is littered with the words ‘freedom’ and ‘emancipation’, as she rebels against the social expectations of ‘a jeune fille à marier’, and in Selden’s explanation of ‘the republic of the spirit’, she catches the glimpse of an alternate life which will change her view of the world forever.
It is when on this walk too that Lily starts to analyze her relationship with Selden and in this, her chains begin to be reconfigured. She says, ‘The peculiar charm of her feeling for Selden was that she understood it; she could put her finger on every link of the chain that was drawing them together.’ This comparison of the chains fettering the maiden, to the chains joining lovers, is one that again harks back to Ovid’s Perseus who exclaims on seeing Andromeda, ‘O fairest! whom these chains become not so, / But worthy are for links that lovers bind’ (Ut stetit, “o” dixit “non istis digna catenis / sed quibus inter se cupidi iunguntur amantes…”).
The power relationship implied by such chains is not one explored explicitly by either Ovid or Wharton although it is explored implicitly by both. Though we hear that Perseus’s wings almost ‘forgot to wave’ (paene suas quatere est oblitus in aere pennas), so enamored was he of Andromeda’s beauty, we do not hear how Andromeda responded to him at all. Indeed, all she can do at this point is cry, and her marriage to Perseus is all fixed up with her parents before he goes on to fight the monster. After the rescue, she is referred to, unnamed, as his pretium, meaning reward, with all of its financial connotations, a gesture which dehumanizes her.
Though Wharton’s treatment of the power relationship between Lily and Selden is more detailed and complex, Lily, as a single woman in late nineteenth-century high society, is also entirely vulnerable. Her beauty gives her a certain power over men, and over Selden specifically, but she quickly realizes its limits as her integrity begins to be questioned. Indeed, Selden himself cannot forgive her for what he is quick to perceive as her immoral relationship with Gus Trenor. As Mrs. Peniston’s free indirect narrative suggests, ‘however unfounded the charges’ against a young girl being ‘talked about’ by society, ‘she must be to blame for their having been made.’ This exemplifies women’s powerlessness and the need always for their behavior to be beyond reproach, particularly where there is no man, or no parent to defend their honor. Though Lily knows herself to have been compromised by her transaction with Trenor, and she is though innocent of the grosser charges, Wharton underlines the impossibly high and, simultaneously, morally corrupt standards governing women’s behavior in the scathing irony of such statements as Mrs. Peniston’s above, but also in the barefaced hypocrisy of married women like Bertha Dorset, whom society will not condemn for her ruinous affairs as long as her husband looks the other way. In this sense, Lily has almost as little power in her relationship with Selden, as Andromeda in hers with Perseus.
And so to Selden’s heroism. Both Ovid and Wharton portray their heroes with ambivalence. Although in the action of the rescue, Ovid’s description of Perseus slaying of the dragon is described in more conventionally heroic terms, there are suggestions elsewhere that he is less than heroic. When he first sees Andromeda and is captivated by her beauty, as she stands chained to the rock, he does not dive down immediately to rescue her, but first announces himself to her parents in boastful terms.
In the translation, Perseus repeats the word ‘I’, followed by the facts of his greatness, while in the Latin, he repeats his name: ‘I, who am the son of Regal Jove / And her whom he embraced in showers of gold … I, Perseus, who destroyed the Gorgon … I, who dared on waving wings / To cleave ethereal air’ (Hanc ego si peterem Perseus Iove natus … Gorgonis anguicomae Perseus superator et alis / aerias ausus iactatis ire per auras). This repetition together with the recital of his achievements, particularly at this time, augurs of something egotistical, even if it is done with the purpose of winning Andromeda’s hand in marriage. One might question, as Sarah Annes Brown does, why, when ‘Time waits / for tears, but flies the moment of our need’ (Lacrimarum longa manere / tempora vos poterunt), Perseus wastes it in ‘boasting of his manly prowess instead of getting on with the rescue’!
Similarly, in telling of his conquest of Medusa, Perseus seems oblivious to the tragedy of her story – details of which are thought to have been introduced by Ovid himself – her beauty which induced Poseidon to rape her in Athena’s temple, and Athena’s subsequent anger, not with Poseidon but with Medusa, which resulted in her metamorphosis to a gorgon. The ambiguity around Perseus’ heroism is something which has been portrayed in other depictions too, which might have influenced Wharton’s exploration of heroism. Burne-Jones’s The Rock of Doom, part of his Perseus series, was begun in 1875 and never finished, and while it is unknown whether Wharton saw the painting, it undoubtedly bears a resemblance to her representation of Lily and Selden.
In it, Perseus is an effeminate figure; though he is not as vulnerable and submissive as Andromeda, who is naked, his armor seems molded to his body, revealing every muscle of his androgynous body. Just as Andromeda’s head tilts bashfully in towards the rock, as she peers up at him, so Perseus peeks shyly around the side of the rock, looking at her out of the corners of his eyes. Though his hero’s sword is draped visibly at his front, his stance is scarcely one of strength: he is leaning on the rock with one hand while balanced on one leg, made buoyant by his winged feet, but in a position that denotes hesitancy or timidity. Similarly, when depicted fighting the monster in The Doom Fulfilled, he seems entangled in the monster’s serpentine tail. As I suggested in the last paragraph, about the power dynamic between the pair, it is complex, but Lily’s vulnerability, explored above, is mirrored in Andromeda’s nakedness. Chained and naked, her only power is in her beauty.
Selden, like Burne-Jones’s Perseus, is not domineeringly masculine or conventionally heroic. Early in the novel, the two of them teeter on the edge of commitment, one taking a step forward only for the other to draw back and vice versa, both afraid of the changes such a commitment would mean for the course of their lives, and each too proud to let the other see the depth of their feelings. At Bellomont, they accuse each other of cowardice in not wanting to go further and at the end of their walk, Selden judges Lily negatively when she reacts self-consciously to a passing car, knowing that she is worried her deception of Percy might be discovered, even though he has freely admitted that he has ‘nothing to give [her] instead.’ This is the pattern which continues throughout the novel: Selden pulls back from proposing to Lily after seeing her leaving the Trenors’, jumping to conclusions about her life without giving her the chance to explain; similarly, when he speaks with her after the crisis with the Dorsets, he knows that he has not supported her and that his ‘miserable silence’ speaks only of judgement but he feels the full weight of suspicion and cannot bring himself to speak.
Lily’s pride also holds her back, for example, when Selden visits her at the Emporium to try to persuade her to leave Mrs Hatch, she admits to herself that ‘she would rather persist in darkness than owe her enlightenment to Selden’ even though she knows that he is right. However, Selden is too forgiving of himself and perhaps Wharton is too forgiving of him too. At the very ending, in what is perhaps Selden’s free indirect narrative, or perhaps the narrative voice of the novel, Wharton writes that
It was this moment of love, this fleeting victory over themselves, which had kept them from atrophy and extinction; which, in her, had reached out to him in every struggle against the influence of her surroundings, and in him, had kept alive the faith that now drew him penitent and reconciled to her side.
According to this romantic vision of this victory of their love, Lily’s attempts to be worthy of his love are one with his dormant and now awakened belief in her. And yet, that ‘dormant belief’ caused him to condemn her and shun her, along with the rest of society, while she lost everything and died a miserable, lonely death, in poverty! When I read that he is ‘too honest to disown his cowardice now’, I cannot help feeling that this is too little too late.
Finally, it remains to deal with the matter of rescue – rescue from what? and in what sense we might speak of ‘rescue’ at all. While in all the previous depictions of Perseus and Andromeda, Perseus has had to fight a sea monster, in the quotation at the start of this post, Selden merely imagines battling the sea, and not a ‘clean rush of waves’ but a ‘morass’, or swamp, of social ties and expectations. Lily is united with him in seeing the sea as her enemy, with images of turbulent water and rising tides used at every moment of distress. Early on, dinginess is the foe and she pictures herself ‘dragging herself up again and again above its flood till she gained the bright pinnacles of success’, while after meeting Trenor, the enemy becomes her own guilty conscience as ‘Over and over her the sea of humiliation broke – wave crashing on wave so close that the mortal shame was one with the physical dread’.
On her last evening too, Lily reflects on the feeling of ‘being rootless and ephemeral … without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them’, while after death, the tumult is pacified and Selden feels himself ‘drawn down into the strange mysterious depths of her tranquility.’ However, though Selden imagines himself as the active rescuer as he prepares to propose to Lily, removing her from the social ‘morass’ which is dragging her down, Lily looks to Selden for a more spiritual and less practical rescue. Even at the moment, when still reeling from the shame of her meeting with Trenor, she questions ‘Was there not a promise of rescue in his love?’ and brings herself to the brink of accepting his expected proposal, she also knows, ‘even in the full storm of her misery, that Selden’s love could not be her ultimate refuge’, and that she needs to find the means within herself to escape.
Like in The Age of Innocence, where Wharton makes it clear that the love between Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer is a product of the romantic need in each of them and could never work in reality, so, in The House of Mirth, even though the tragedy rests on Lily and Selden’s failure to realize in time the extent of their love for each other, we are made to question whether such a union was ever a real possibility. What is clear, is that Selden’s love, even in the past tense, represents a way for Lily to retain her integrity until the last. In her final meeting she says to him that the things he said to her at Bellomont ‘kept [her] from really becoming what many people have thought [her].’ And though he replies that this ‘difference’ came from her and not from him, she insists that ‘[she] needed the help of [his] belief in [her]’. So it is that though Selden does not provide much tangible help in his rescue of Lily – he does not stab and plunge his sword into the monster’s back and entrails like Ovid’s Perseus – it is the idea of him, the idea of his love and of the way in which he once saw her, that gives Lily the freedom to stay true to herself in the face of society’s temptations, even when confronted by the prospect of a fortune as vast as Rosedale’s. In another version of the Andromeda myth, she sees herself ‘chained’ to another, ‘abhorrent’, version of herself, instead of a rock, and Selden’s love gives her the strength to stop this other self from dragging her under. As she walks away from his flat for the last time, she feels herself ‘buoyant’ again, the same word used as when she is drawn towards him (and away from Gryce and church) at Bellomont, at the start of the novel.
Wharton’s reception of the myth of Perseus and Andromeda and its various literary and pictorial depictions – only very few of which I have explored here – open doors to thinking about women’s agency and late nineteenth-century masculinity as represented in The House of Mirth. This particular myth seems to resonate more, perhaps, than others because of the equivocal portrayal of Perseus in other classical and Victorian versions, and because Andromeda’s chains allow Wharton to reflect on the variety of ways in which women were constrained in high society at that time. Finally, the fact that Selden casts himself as the classical hero and Lily as the submissive damsel in need of his rescue speaks volumes.
Primarily, The House of Mirth is centred around Lily, the narrative closely focused around her consciousness, but it begins and ends with Selden’s perceptions of her, perceptions which surface at various points in between. Such narrative construction reminds us that though Wharton is presenting us with a novel about a single woman in late nineteenth-century America, such a woman could not exist independently, without being ‘read’ and construed by the male gaze. And as we read Selden, reading Lily, betraying his own limitations, prejudices and vanities, so we might consider what our own construction of her may reveal.
As you can see from the above conclusion, this mode of using classical reception in literary analysis is revealing of much more than an author’s, or character’s, interest in mythology; indeed, Selden’s slightly self-congratulatory bookishness in the face of society’s resolute ignorance is something I have not even addressed here! In a longer piece, I would have liked also to have explored Ovid’s Perseus, as a hero, in the context of the epic tradition, alongside Aeneas or Achilles, and to think about Selden and Lily too in the context of nineteenth-century novelistic heroes and heroines. Even as it stands though, the study of Perseus and Andromeda, for me, opens up the themes of masculinity and femininity in the novel, and offers a means to understand the characters and their tangled relationship, in a way that I had not before. This piece actually stands as a companion piece to one on Lily’s relationship with the Furies, and the reception of the Oresteia in the novel (published in the English and Media Centre magazine, emag, in December 2020), which, similarly, opens up themes of fate and free will and a more nuanced and multi-dimensional understanding of these.
This kind of reading is important to my high school English teaching, in which the exam criteria for students requires them to use the contexts of their texts in order to add depth to their interpretations. Frequently, socio-historical detail, while important, can lead to socio-historical, rather than literary, essays but using literary context requires students to focus further into the details of the text, rather than around it. Reception was also central to my own PhD thesis on memory and ancient Greek literature, in which literary memory – which might otherwise be understood as intertextuality – formed an important strand, in terms of casting new light on old debates.
Sophie Raudnitz teaches English at Oundle School in the UK. She has a degree in English and a PhD in Classics. Her thesis used modern memory theory to explore ancient Greek epic, tragedy and philosophy. Twitter @seraudnitz
 I am using the Brookes More translation on The Perseus Project website.
 As an aside, it is explored in Connie Rosen’s poem, ‘Andromeda’, in which she invites the reader to ‘consider the problem of chains’, and imagines the chains binding the woman to the rock disintegrating as a new chain between Andromeda and Perseus is forged.
 This is an interesting contrast to Euripides’ play in which Andromeda’s father, Cepheus, is against her marriage to Perseus. There, her duty as a daughter is pitted against her will to marry the hero.
 Sarah Annes Brown, Ovid: Myth and Metamorphosis (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2005), p.34.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an interesting book in possession of a good topic, must be in want of a title. The title of Thomas Ricks’ new book, ‘First Principles,’ is less than ideally informative, and it is perhaps some indication of the author’s consciousness of this fact that he appends such a lengthy subtitle to it. Ricks got the title from his returning to “first principles” following the most terrifying moment in modern American history, the improbable and to this day still literally incredible election of Donald Trump. While many of us idly fumbled about in rage or reached for the distilled consolations of the bottle, Ricks went to the library and cracked open a copy of Aristotle’s Politics. Perusing Aristotle impressed him with the Classical influences upon this country’s founding generation, and he wrote this book as a meditation upon American political history in an era which has delegitimized both politics and history. This is a much more general treatment of the history of the period than Carl J. Richards’ The Founders and the Classics, which dealt more comprehensively with the subject of classical education and influence, but was perhaps far less suitable for the general reader with a broad interest in both the founders and the classics. Ricks’ new book is a fun, engaging, and accessible, and though a few regrettable errors (particularly on the classical end of things) seem to suggest that the book was rushed to meet a publication date coinciding with post-election fervor, some of those may be easily glossed over in light of the satisfaction afforded by reading these reflections on the American experiment so shortly after Donald Trump received the old boot from the ballot box.
First Principles presents a portrait of America’s first four presidents (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison) with special emphasis on the way in which they drew upon Classical Greek/Roman history in their political lives, and how this shaped the nascent republic. Ricks’ reason for not proceeding beyond the apparently arbitrary limit of Madison becomes clear somewhat later in the book, when he suggests that Classical learning simply did not have the same currency in politics by the 1820s as it did in the latter half of the 18th century. While James Monroe and John Quincy Adams of course had their Classical educations, there was a growing impatience with the use of all the old Caesars and Catos and Catilines in public debate, and the ascendancy of a cruel and illiterate barbarian (Jackson) followed by the cynical party-machining technocrat (Martin Van Buren) effectively ended the golden age of Classical politics in a country which had long shown marked anti-intellectual tendencies anyway.
Because he is a military historian, Ricks steers a large portion of the book onto terrain with which he is intimately familiar. The large early section on Washington focuses on his military experience. Ricks writes about Washington’s early setbacks in the French and Indian War as a counterpoint to the traditional education enjoyed by Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Later in the book, Ricks will emphasize Washington’s various Classical roles enacted in the theater of life: Cato, Fabius, and Cincinnatus. But the portrait of Washington as educated in the camp and not the college makes him the American Marius. As Sallust presents it, Marius was proud of having attended the school of hard knocks on the battlefield and avoided the enervating effects of book learning:
My words are not artfully chosen. I don’t give a shit about that. Virtue shows herself without any help. Only those who want to hide their shameful conduct with rhetoric have need of artifice. I also didn’t learn Greek literature: I had no desire to learn that, since it apparently never did anything to enhance the virtue of its teachers. Instead, I learned all about the things which do the best for the Republic: to assault the enemy, to move the defenses, to fear nothing except a bad reputation, to suffer summer blazes and winter frosts equally, to sleep on the ground, and to tolerate neediness and labor at the same time. I will exhort my soldiers with these precepts, but I will not coddle them with art, and I will make myself, not my glory, their work. This is useful, this is civic power. For, when you conduct the army safely through idle softness and drive it on with punishment, that is to be a master, not a general.
Yet, at the same time, this entire exercise may itself suggest the absurdity of insisting too firmly upon Classical parallels for contemporary figures. In so doing, we are far more apt to mold the historical figure to fit the contemporary point of comparison than we are to seize upon genuinely significant parallels, and so it is likely that we will in this way simply distort our understanding of history, rather than illuminating either present or past by the comparison. Perhaps Plutarch is to blame for this enthusiasm for comparison.
Apart from the pitfalls of comparison, though, sometimes we simply learn the wrong lesson from classical figures. Ricks cites Cato’s possession of wealth and his rejection of luxury as an admirable example of public virtus, but surely it is a form of villainy to possess substantial wealth which you have no real intention of using? I am always struck by the adulation given to Warren Buffett for living such a simple and frugal lifestyle despite his possession of billions of dollars. One is reminded of the story of Herodes Atticus, who professed to Trajan that he had no idea how to use a fantastic financial windfall, and was urged to abuse it then instead. If Warren Buffett neither needs to use that wealth nor wants to abuse it, is it not a more villainous and miserly form of avarice than the hyper wealthy who at least seem bent on blowing through a good chunk of their fortunes?
George Washington is supposed to be the American Cato (because of his stern patrician virtue), but Ricks notes that he had an early enthusiasm for Cato’s worst enemy, a certain Julius Caesar. This view was shared by Alexander Hamilton, who once claimed that Julius Caesar was the greatest man ever to have lived. If we were to insist too much on the adequacy of classical parallels, we might feel some discomfort at trying to square Washington the Caesarian with Washington the Catonian (especially given that Caesar is a purely villainous force in Washington’s favorite play, Addison’s Cato), but luckily we have progressed to that enlightened point in the progress of this review where we have learned to abandon strict classical parallelism.
Washington gets several classical roles, but for Adams is reserved the role of the American Cicero. This comparison is actually fairly apt, given the tendency of both men to feel a kind of petty sense of offended dignity and petty grievance which could easily sprout rhetorical wings and take a flight of fancy. Unlike the patrician Virginians Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, John Adams was indeed a “new man” like Cicero, and had to work his way from the agrarian middle class into the upper echelons of power. But, just as Cicero did, he was eager to identify himself with the ruling elite once he was there, and hardened into a kind of anti-democratic and anti-populist conservative once he had his first real experience with the heady vapors of power.
Ricks gives us the familiar portrait of Adams: the upward striver who originally hated his studies, but found a corrective in the hard ditch labor which his dad once forced upon him. As with many of the founders, Adams seems to have gotten much of his early classical knowledge from secondary sources like Rollin’s Ancient History and Dodsley’s Preceptor. If it ever seems that there is a universal frame of classical reference among the founding generation, it is for just this reason: many of them internalized a framework of classical knowledge from these pre-digested sources before they applied themselves much to reading authors in the original. Edward Gibbon confesses to doing this in his youth, and compared the speed with which he could internalize whole quires of translated history to the plodding pace of parsing Greek verbs all day to work through one speech. Indeed, as I have written here before, it seems that many of the men of the late 18th century kept up just enough of their classical languages to quote some approved tags, but preferred for the most part to read for reference either in translation or digest form. On the other side of the Atlantic from John Adams, James Boswell was filling his diaries with constant exhortations to get back to his Greek studies, but found the temptations of conversation and prostitutes too alluring. Ricks quotes Adams’ diary from January 1759 to the same effect:
Let no trifling Diversion or amuzement or Company decoy you from your Books, i.e. let no Girl, no Gun, no Cards, no flutes, no Violins, no Dress, no Tobacco, no Laziness, decoy you from your Books.
There was a deep anxiety in the souls of late 18th century men of letters for drawing up plans of reading, and one gets the sense that study was something that they really had to force themselves to.
The most novel and interesting part of First Principles is Ricks’ focus on the Scottish Enlightenment as a driving force in the development of the American intellectual character. In particular, the connections between enterprising Scottish bankers (who experimented with establishing branch offices in the colonies) and the tobacco trade led to an influx of Scotsmen to the southern states. At the time, Edinburgh offered a more robust education than could be obtained at Oxford, and it seems that Jefferson and Madison owed their comparative ease and fluency with Greek culture and history to the fact that they each had Scottish tutors early in life.
Jefferson doesn’t receive the strict classical parallel treatment, but we understand that he is steeped in classical learning thanks to this Scottish influence. We also get a portrait of Jefferson as the dedicated Epicurean. Ricks seems to suggest that Jefferson’s lax style of Epicureanism can help to account for his contradictions – a champion of liberty who owned slaves, who did nothing to fight for liberty but rather ignominiously retreated in the face of danger. That is to say, some of Jefferson’s perceived detachment and desire to be above the fray of real politics may be owing to the traditional Epicurean injunction against real political involvement. This has its parallel in the modern Stoic movement, which in its own way counsels a kind of passivity in the face of injustice, and serves as a useful shield for the willful amorality of powerful figures in the tech and finance sectors. It was all very well for a famous Stoic like Seneca to recommend poverty and powerlessness when he was himself rich and powerful. What was hypocrisy then is still hypocrisy now. Nothing good can come from the anachronistic adoption of ancient life philosophy. Indeed, there is something fundamentally childish about pretending to subscribe to the teachings of a long defunct philosophical school in a world which they could not have foreseen. While there is no deep absurdity in approving of individual doctrines of Epicureanism or Stoicism, any kind of wholesale acceptance of one of these philosophical programs amounts to intellectual indolence and moral cowardice. Jefferson was most corrupted by power when he pretended not to have any.
Ricks is on solid footing when he assails the tendency of Jefferson’s prose to grow Latinate and otiose when writing for any audience other than the general public. (Indeed, throughout the book, it becomes clear that Jefferson and Adams are the vain and irascible fops of the early presidency, while Washington and Madison serve as the steady bookends of virtue and intellectualism which counterbalance them.) Much the same could be said about Milton’s poetry, or Samuel Johnson’s fondness for ridiculous Anglo-Latin coinages. Ricks penetrates through the thick fog of Jeffersonian mythopoiesis when he writes, “Contrary to his image, Jefferson was not really a literary man.” One of Jefferson’s blunders in literary judgment was being taken in by the impostures of James MacPherson, whose publication of the works of the fake poet “Ossian” did indeed dupe many people at the time. For some reason, Ricks defends Jefferson by noting that Napoleon, too, was taken in, but it is not clear why he is cited as a paragon of literary judgment.
Throughout the book, Ricks makes much of the fact that Washington was the least classically educated and yet the most “Roman” of all the founding fathers, but the central conceit of this apparent paradox is the idea that the Roman heroes (from whom we distill the notion of “Romanness” that is applied to Washington) were themselves educated in any meaningful sense of the term. This could hardly be more misleading. What was Cincinnatus but an illiterate farmer? Marius boasted of his lack of education. Cato the elder flaunted his ignorance of Greek before condescending to learn it in old age, and the younger Cato was not exactly an egghead. Washington was the closest to the mythico-propagandistic projection of the idealized Roman yeoman who lives a simple life, does some glorious military service, and does not covet power. Education is antithetical to this stock character type. And yet, the highly polished Romans of the Late Republic – the ones with fancy “classical” educations in the Greek poets – seemed to have been entirely covetous of power. Cicero was positively drunk on it. If the Roman spirit were really so noble, patriotic, and averse to the seizure of individual power, the Republic would not have been destroyed by a series of bloody civil wars conducted by megalomaniacs and finally culminating in an autocratic imperial system. To buy the Roman propaganda and argue that the Sullas, Caesars, and Octavians weren’t exemplars of the true Roman spirit is just as silly as to believe Joe Biden when he looks into the camera and reminds America, “This isn’t who we are.” Sorry Joe – it looks like it is. To be sure, Washington is the closest of the founding fathers to the mythic Roman heroes, but they are so much less real than the Ciceros and Caesars who tore the state apart for their own petty grievances.
In that respect, the identification of Adams with Cicero seems particularly apt, given his petulant temper, his inflated sense of self-importance, and his strikingly reactionary impulses in the midst of revolution. The Adams of the Alien and Sedition Acts is paradoxically ranged against the very thing – free speech – which lifted him from poverty and obscurity, and made him a public figure. But could anyone really doubt that Cicero would have employed the strong arm of state suppression to silence his enemies if he could have done it?
Each of these men appears to be marred by their classical molding, with the exception of James Madison, who seems to have approached the classics with scholarly detachment and not imitative zeal. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson each took the classical exemplar theory too far, and turned themselves into theatrical productions of ancient figures, as though the American Revolution really were a continuation of or parallel to the ancient struggled which they read about in their favorite books. James Madison benefited from the educational influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, and a deep engagement with Greek history and literature, as opposed to the shallow and almost exclusively Roman preoccupations of the other founders. Yet, this fascination with Greek history posed its own dangers to the nascent republic, and Madison’s ancient reading lives to tyrannize over us today. Ricks notes that the outsized power of states like Wyoming (allotted the same number of senators as California) can be traced to the inspiration which Madison drew from the Amphictyonic League. This is enough to make one resent Madison’s library, and the entire study of Greek history.
Despite the fact that much of the American experiment succeeded, we should not lose sight of the fact that the founders had a remarkable knack for taking some of the worst lessons away from their ancient studies: a distrust of democracy, the valorization of ostentatious public virtue (what was Cato if not the inventor of virtue signaling?), and a tendency to favor deeply reactionary conservatism dressed in the language of revolutionary liberation. The Romans themselves expelled kings from their politics in 509 BCE, but this “revolution” did not usher in an unprecedented turn to democratic power. In fact, the story goes that some people grumbled that they had merely exchanged one king for two in the form of the consuls. The Tarquins were gone, but Rome’s wealthy patricians were still the ones running the show. When George III was given the old heave-ho from the colonies, the lion’s share of real governing power still lay with the wealthy patricians of the new Rome who were running things even when the king still held nominal sway on this side of the Atlantic.
When historians make the obligatory comparisons between the 18th century’s two main revolutions – the American and the French – they often express wonder at the comparative stability of the American. But when set against the French Revolution, the American hardly appears to be a Revolution at all. Really, it looks more like a change in administrative bookkeeping. France experienced genuine upheaval, and a total overturning (revolution) of the ruling order. Society itself was being restructured. Ricks notes that John Adams felt uneasy with the growing power of the common people in America at the beginning of the 19th century, and this gives the whole game away. Just as in Rome, the ruling class was jealous of its own freedom from an individual tyrant, but was content to leave the great mass of people largely disenfranchised. The revolutionary fervor of Brutus’ sic semper tyrannis was quickly morphed into a staid preservation of the mos maiorum for the good of the Republic.
We all do it, but asking questions like “What would George Washington think about Donald Trump?” is a frivolous rhetorical exercise of the sort mocked by Petronius and Seneca. One may as well ask what he would make of quantum computing, instant access to an infinite sea of pornography, or AI-guided nuclear weapons. We would like to think of Trump as just a do-nothing demagogue, a kind of stock type universal character recognizable in antiquity, but how do you make sense of him without the full and frightening context of the 21st century: the acceleration and provocation of global capitalism, the horror of infinite war elided with the society of spectacle, the reversal of Puritan decorum into a prizing of personal scandal as a new mode of American celebrity? Would the Washington who understood the war of posts be able to comprehend shock and awe, or the way that entire media empires were built upon showing the American public live feeds of bombs exploding over ancient cities? The founders simply did not possess the capacity for horror which we now do. We have seen death camps, carpet bombing, and nuclear holocaust. They could rail on about Catilines and Caesars subverting the republic, but Aaron Burr never had an atomic arsenal. The founders never had to worry that one man could provoke an international incident which, with “fire and fury” could end human civilization itself. No host of delatores can compare to the NSA.
In short, the founders had neither the experience nor the intellectual framework for understanding our American monster. Even today, we who have lived through the nightmare from which we struggle in vain to wake cannot make sense of this man or this moment. While we should certainly study the founding generation and their intellectual influences to understand how we got here, we must cease to ask ourselves what they would think of this moment, because it is no longer their country. In his discussion of Americans’ growing impatience with classical exempla, Ricks cites Benjamin Randall: “The quoting of ancient history was no more to the purpose than to tell how our forefathers dug clams at Plymouth.” Let the Pilgrims dig their clams, and let the founders lie in their tombs. This is a country for the living, and we must cease to ask what the dead might think if we are ever to wash away the miasma of this American carnage.
In 2014 or so I was a tenured professor, less than happy in my job, but without any plan for making a change. It is not easy to get a job as a professor in classics; it is harder to get job after you have tenure; and it is nearly impossible to do so without that holiest of holies, the single authored monograph.
I was tenured without a book because the department I was in didn’t expect one and I had published a lot otherwise (including a co-authored general audience book on Homer). The fact is that I really did not want to write one. Most successful academics are expected to turn their dissertation into a book. I hadn’t done that on purpose (I was sick of my dissertation and I wanted to do something different).
Perhaps more importantly, I also didn’t know how to write a book. It is not that I didn’t want to write about things. I just wanted to write about them in shorter segments. It may have been a lack of imagination as much as anything else, but I found many more reasons not to write a book than to write one: the fact that no one reads them, that lives are disrupted to write them, that we have an entire economy of knowledge dedicated to big books about small things, etc. etc.
That last phrase is not fair, completely. But, to crib from an ancient proverb, there’s a difference between a book that needs to be written and needing to write a book. After 2012, however, I started talking, thinking, and writing about the Odyssey in a way that clearly pointed to a lengthy treatment of a topic, if not wholly original, at least markedly different from work I had read before.
Some graduate programs do better jobs than others in training you how to do independent research. Many do a great job in preparing students to turn their dissertations into books. But few anticipate what to do next. This is not a huge problem, since the paths people take are so different depending on their institution, interests, etc. But the irony is that although I was a book review editor for a journal, had reviewed a dozen books, and had helped to write one, I really didn’t know what I was doing.
So, once I gave in to the desire to write a book, I started lamenting that I didn’t have enough time to do it. Fortunately, I have a spouse who is constitutionally incapable of not calling me on my bullshit. Over drinks in 2015, while I complained again that I just needed the time to write a book, she said, “look, you ran a stupid marathon last year. You spent hours every day running, training, and keeping track of every thing you did. I don’t know why you can do that and not write a book. You’re not a runner; you’re a Homerist.”
Now, to be honest, the conversation hurt my feelings a little bit because (1) running marathons didn’t come easy to me (I run like a rhinoceros, except uglier) and (2) she was absolutely right. I started to keep track of hours a week spent on the book project, making lists and schedules, and trying to break down the project into little bits.
It worked: I have books out in 2018, 2019, and 2020 (changing institutions and getting some summer funding for childcare also made a huge difference; the blog was crucial to those books too). But part of the story is also this website. I have written about the importance of the discipline of posting daily on the blog, but what I haven’t explained clearly enough is how each of the books I just mentioned relied on this regular writing practice for drafting, brainstorming, and progress.
So, for curiosity, inspiration, mockery, and whatever else may come, here’s an overview of the more than 30 blogposts that are part of my book on the Odyssey, out this week (The Many Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology and the Therapy of Epic). I am posting one each day on twitter with the hashtag #BloggingABook for about a month, but here’s a more organized collection.
Let’s start at the beginning. This post was one of the first that directly translated into content in the book, showing up as a table on page 16. It helped me to organize my thoughts about the structure of the poem without making an entire labor out of the structure of the poem.
A good deal of the theoretical research of this book took me through post-structural theories like those in disability studies, which made me think differently about ideal bodies in Homer. I used some posts, like this one about Telemachus and monstrosity, to think through this. This ended up in a chapter NOT about Telemachus. Several posts arose from my reading of disability studies texts alongside Homer, like this one about Thersities and beautiful minds, which in turn became parts of chapters and a forthcoming article.
I won’t even list all the posts on ancient medicine and mental health—I spent some time trying to learn more about these topics and most of the research ended up on the website (at least a dozen or more). This scholion on drugs made me think about ancient beliefs about addiction. As I explored ancient ideas of madness in philosophy and medicine, it was helpful to see how mythical figures at times appeared to help explain things like isolation and mental anguish (as in this passage from Aristotle). This contributed to Chapter 3’s examination of heroic isolation
Part of what I love about research—when I get to do it freely—is the wandering path I take through things. Blogging gives me a sense of accomplishment (and that important reward feedback loop!) because it provides an end of sorts to a journey that lasts a day or just a few hours. Many posts are just me trying to make sense of scholia, especially longer ones like the large segments attributed to Porphyry in the Odyssey scholia. These were fodder for notes and content in the book.
Sometimes posts came from work in the scholia, like this one, where I tried to figure out the details of Telemachus’ journey for chapter 2. Indeed, many of my mythographical footnotes started or ended as posts on the site, like this one about Penelope and fidelity which contributes to one part of chapter 7. Some of the mythographical posts and studies didn’t make it to the book, but that’s ok because doing the work, as in this one on Nausikaa’s name, sharpened what I would say by helping me figure out what I didn’t need to.
Mythography doesn’t explain what audiences knew, but it can help show what they might have known which is why several posts talk about Thersites’ story outside of Homer like this one. A mere footnote in the book, but a useful one. On many occasions, I would think something might be important or interesting and find out only the latter is true, making it good for a post as in this scholion on Alkinoos’ marriage wish. It didn’t make it into the book, but Alkinoos did. And I can’t even begin to figure out how to map my dozens of posts on Odysseus’ family and multiple sons onto the chapters of the book. But they were definitely formative.
And, of course, there are posts on expected topics in the Odyssey. Naming Odysseus is no minor affair, so I have several posts looking at Homeric epithetis and their ancient reception of a man of may ways who is also quite shifty. Researching this book forced me to rethink the political situation on Ithaca from ancient perspectives, showing that Laertes likely unified a somewhat odd island ‘state’. This is an important part of chapter 8, which looks at Ithaca as a traumatized community
Rethinking the representation of agency in Homer really made me look differently at the representation of women’s agency in Homer. Some posts arose out of shock at reading passages anew as I had never read them before. The emotion and scene made it to the book. Part of the journey of writing this book was thinking about the suitors as full human beings rather than simple villains, especially in their political wranglings as in this post looking at their debate about killing Telemachus. This scene is critical in the book’s chapter 8.
In rereading representations of agency in the Odyssey it was necessary to think about heroes, non-heroes, children, enslaved people, and women and how these categories intersect. Some of the more explicit comments on these topics informed chapter 6 but are clearer in posts, like this one on the cost of an enslaved person’s life. This post contributes to chapter 6. In the same vein, I also used a post to lay out the passages where Odysseus thinks about or responds to enslaved women’s sexuality. Working through these passages helped me understand the infantilization of enslaved people in the Odyssey.
Many posts were part of my writing process, which is to translate passages I want to write about. Laborious, but it gives me opportunities to post Penelope laying into a suitor like this one. This passage became part of thinking about where Penelope claims agency (and doesn’t). I cover the end of the Odyssey in two chapters, so thinking carefully through the trial of Odysseus was really important, I started this process by translating and discussing the scene in a post. The translations are improved in the book, but have the same core.
On many occasions I wanted to think more broadly about ancient literature and narrative. Early drafts from chapter 9 look like this post on how liars communicate but ended up being edited quite differently. Similarly, I would at times start to right grandly and in generalizations not fit at the point of the book I was writing. This one on complementarity can be seen in some footnotes from the introduction, but not very clearly.
Some posts also emerged as summaries of the thoughts in the book, like this one written at the beginning of the pandemic. It reflects on a project finished rather than attesting to work in progress. Others draw on the frameworks developed during research, like the post on Toxic Heroism and a School Massacre. Sometimes ideas started in the book but had no space there. This is true of my work on Kassandra, which went into a post before it became an article elsewhere and my personal reflections on the scene of Argos, the dog.
I did not know what the conclusion of this book would add until one day I saw a line from Cavafy online and then wrote a post about death and the end of the Odyssey. This post formed a third of the conclusion once expanded.
I don’t think there’s a clean and just-so way to end this post. There’s lots of advice out there about writing a book in an hour or two a day and I am here to tell you it is possible. But it helps to have short term goals and ‘outputs’ to work towards. It also helps (probably more than anything) to have a stable job, good funding, and a partner who calls you on your bullshit.
Some sites say this is out tomorrow (in ebook and print); some say it is out November 22nd and December 25th.
N.B. I saw a few threads from the amazing Flint Dibble earlier in the year and invited him to put them together here. Just in time for an epidemic spike, he delivered! – Joel
There are lessons to be learned from the failed leadership of Pericles during the plague of Athens in 430 B.C.E. Despite his popularity and great deeds, his mismanagement of the plague and the resulting misery inflicted on the Athenian people led to him losing his election the following year and losing his leading role in the city.
While the situations are very different, there is value in looking to the past to help contextualize our present. Given the unique nature of our own historical moment, this is a key test for the old adage that history repeats for those who don’t learn from it.
The disease first struck in the summer of the second year of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta. It ravaged the Athenians as their entire population was crowded in the besieged city. The specific disease is still debated by scholars, but we know it caused fever, blisters, and sores. Due to the histories of Thucydides (and despite the risk of being infected with Thucyd-431), we have a reasonably detailed record of these events from 2500 years ago (all translations from Mynott 2013).
Thucydides’ eyewitness narrative includes a personal appeal:
I will say what it was like as it happened and will describe facts that would enable anyone investigating any future outbreak to have some prior knowledge and recognize it. I speak as someone who had the disease myself and witnessed others suffering from it.
The parallels to our perilous situation today are immediately obvious.
The physicians were not able to help at its outset since they were treating it in ignorance, and indeed they themselves suffered the highest mortality since they were the ones most exposed to it. Nor were other human arts of any avail. Whatever supplications people made at sanctuaries and whatever oracles or the like they consulted, all were useless and in the end they abandoned them, defeated by the affliction.
With no cure from ancient medicine or religion, many people blamed foreigners:
It first came, so it is said, out of Ethiopia beyond Egypt, and then spread into Egypt and Libya and into most of the territory of the Persian King. When it got to Athens it struck the city suddenly, taking hold first in the Peiraeus, so that it was even suggested by the people there that the [Spartans] had put poison in the rain-water tanks… Later on it reached the upper city too and then the mortality became much greater.
Unfortunately, this is true of most epidemics. It’s really easy to blame others, whether or not they deserve the blame. It’s harder to accept responsibility and deal with the problem. Then and now, us humans need to work at being better to others.
Thucydides’ emotions still resonate with us today: “The most terrible thing of all in this affliction, however, was the sense of despair when someone realised that they were suffering from it; for then they immediately decided in their own minds that the outcome was hopeless” (2.51).
The plague tore at the fabric of society:
There was also the fact that one person would get infected as a result of caring for another so that they died in their droves like sheep, and this caused more death than anything else. If in fear they were unwilling to go near each other they died alone… but if they did make contact they lost their lives anyway.
These are some of the first historical descriptions of the need for social distancing during an epidemic. The invading Spartans recognized the need and “made haste to leave the territory through their fear of the plague” (2.57).
The Athenians trusted in Pericles to lead them through their own unique historical moment. From the wealthy Alcmaeonid family and blessed with powerful oratory skills and nativist and populist policies, he had led the city-state for over two decades. He consolidated Athenian control over the far-flung anti-Persian alliance known as the Delian League turning it into what some historians call the Athenian Empire.
Taking control of the League’s treasury, he oversaw a monumental building program that included lavish marble temples such as the Parthenon (which Shaquille O’Neal once called Greece’s most forgettable nightclub) and also a massive urbanization program that brought water, food, and security for those lucky enough to be citizens (you only had to be born a free male to two Athenian parents and wealth enough to own land).
Pericles’ confidence in Athenian power helped spur the start of the Peloponnesian Wars. Tensions had been building up between Athens and Sparta for decades, and as war was debated among the people, Pericles harnessed an innovative strategy to win.
It relied on big, beautiful walls and convenient, at-home delivery.
Sparta had the dominant army, while Athens had the dominant navy. Pericles thought to rely on the city walls to keep Sparta’s army away. The bustling port at Piraeus was also walled and connected by “The Long Walls” to the city, creating a protected corridor for commerce.
Before the war began, Pericles called the entire rural population and the inhabitants of nearby towns into the city. He figured that with the wealth of Athens and a strong naval empire, they could just import everything they needed.
This was a big deal! Thucydides writes (2.16-7) that most Athenians had
lived in the countryside in the traditional way and therefore did not find it at all easy to make the move with their entire households… changing their way of life and leaving behind what each of them felt to be the equivalent of their native city. When they arrived in Athens only a few had homes or places they could take refuge with friends or relatives. Most settled in unoccupied parts of the city and occupied sanctuaries…. [or] in the towers of the city walls or wherever else each of them could. The city could not cope with this general influx; indeed they later divided up the long walls and most of Piraeus into lots and occupied those too.
Pericles’ strategy worked for a year. The Spartan army pillaged the Athenian countryside. The Athenian navy raided the Spartan coastal settlements. But most people were safe. Pericles wrapped up the first year with his famous Funeral Oration, encouraging them to fight on.
The plague struck Athens in the summer of the second year (430 B.C.). Pericles’ wartime strategy was a terrible strategy for containing a contagious disease. Most Athenians, rich or poor, were living in the ancient equivalent of a refugee camp in a besieged city.
Yet, Thucydides’ descriptions, despite not having our germ theory, demonstrate that the Athenians recognized that this disease was spread through close contact. Like today, responsible people knew they needed to socially distance during a plague.
Their general misery was aggravated by people crowding into the city from the fields, and the worst affected were the new arrivals. There were no houses for them but they lived in huts that were stifling in the heat of summer and they were visited by death in conditions of total disorder…. The bodies of those dying were heaped on each other, and in the streets and around the springs half-dead people reeled about…. The sanctuaries in which they had taken shelter were full of the bodies of those who had died there
Greek archaeologists have uncovered clear archaeological evidence for this dire situation in the form of a mass grave, or plague pit, in which bodies were heaped together. But Pericles ignored the need for social distancing and kept going with his original strategy, letting the Spartans pillage the Attic countryside, while the navy raided Spartan coastlands. The plague didn’t care, it continued to spread through Athens.
The Athenians had undergone a change of heart… feeling the combined pressure of the plague and the war. They now began to criticize Pericles, holding him responsible for persuading them to go to war and for being the agent of the misfortunes they had encountered. They became eager to come to terms with the Spartans. They even sent ambassadors to them, though to no effect. And in complete despair they turned their anger on Pericles
As Joel Christensen has written, there’s a long tradition in Greek mythology and tragedy of blaming the leader for plague. Pericles recognized this and gave the last of his famous speeches.
I have been expecting your outbreak of feeling against me – and I know the reasons for it. I mean to administer some reminders to you and take you to task for any misplaced resentment against me or any undue weakening in the face of difficulties.” Continuing: “Even though this plague has been inflicted on us, coming out of nowhere (it is in fact the only thing out of all that has happened to have defied prediction). I know it is largely because of this that I am even more a hated figure now – unjustly so.
Thucydides 2.60 and 2.64
He argues to ignore the plague: “We must treat afflictions sent by the gods as necessary ills and bear with courage those that come from our enemies” (2.64) in order to protect their empire.
With such words Pericles tried to dispel the anger the Athenians felt towards him and distract them from their present troubles…. Indeed the people as a whole did not put aside their anger towards him.
After this, Pericles’ power as a demagogue waned. This is the last point Thucydides mentions the deeds of Pericles, ending the section by saying “Pericles lived on two years and six months longer.”
We find out from Plutarch’s later biography of Pericles (translated here by Waterfield 1999) how he watched his family died of plague, and eventually caught it himself and died. As Plutarch notes (176) he lost his next election and was relieved of his command: “But he did not succeed in getting them to shed their anger or change their minds before they had taken their ballots in their hands.”
They had been persuaded by his political enemies that the plague was caused by packing crowds of refugees from the countryside into the city, where, at the height of summer, large numbers of people were being forced to stay all jumbled together in stifling tents…. The man responsible for all this, his enemies said, was Pericles: because of the war he had squeezed the rustic rabble inside the city walls and … left them penned up like cattle, to infect one another with death.
Plutarch, Life of Pericles, 34
If Pericles had not ignored the devastation of the plague and sued for peace, they could have protected their refugee population. Ancient history would look very different. Instead, the plague ravaged them and – weakened – then they still lost the war.
History shows that the decisions leaders make matter. We can see this with the Athenian plague and, in front of our own eyes, in our current historical moment.
We must learn from history and entrust our fate to a leader who will take our pandemic seriously, listen to scientists (and historians), and enforce mask-wearing and social distancing. Thucydides and the ancient Athenians knew this. They voted out of office the greatest leader their city had known. While our situation is different, our misery is similar. It is time to vote.