Good Words from Bad People

“Quoting the good words of a bad author will never shame me.”
Numquam me in voce bona mali pudebit auctoris
Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi 8

Every so often—and perhaps too frequently in some fields—in turns out that a scholar or artist of some renown is a terrible person. Sometimes, they are garden-variety racists masquerading as free speech warriors; sometimes they just might be international criminals, selling ancient objects they don’t own, and trading on their fame and institutions to manipulate others; and, in the worst of times, they are sexual predators, causing irreparable harm while hiding in plain sight.

When these things happen, academic fields face the same challenges we have seen in recent years in film, SFF fiction, and nearly every industry where fame is a commodity that brings power and the cover to abuse with near impunity. We try to cut out the cancer before it does any more damage, but the presence is there for good, in the body. The debate on the existence and merits of ‘cancel culture’ dances around the hard questions of why some people think they’re entitled to fame and why we do in fact have the right to deprive bad actors of financial gain.

But these questions don’t really talk about what happens afterwards. In her 2016 Eidolon piece “Making a Monster”, Sarah Scullin writes about the strange horror of the Holt Parker fiasco, when an author of some influence on ancient sexuality turned out to be a child pornographer, and trying to figure out the balance between cries for a damnatio memoriae and our disciplinary standards of citing work where citation is due.

I have struggled with this question during what seems to be, thanks to our ever restrictive interconnections, the golden age of public assholery. Certain high profile cases of longterm problems suing undergraduates and famous Geniuses stealing papyri have forced me to face the monsters in my bibliography, and the compromises in my acknowledgements. Should I erase the names of people who have broken bad from my forthcoming work? Should I publicly disavow those who helped me in the past?

People and what we make of them

I guess I ask this because, like Scullin in her article, I am not sure of the answer. I incline in part towards not changing a thing, for two reasons. I feel in part that footnotes and acknowledgements to bad men are a kind of disclosure, a owning of the truth that our field is populated by flawed humans like any other. It also attests to the hierarchy of patronage that is central to the academic enterprise. It is a rare person who can make their way in this world without help from someone more experienced and powerful. And, well, power corrupts in all forms. And, well, getting to the top of the academic ladder does not require being a good human being.

So I guess part of the problem is that our performative obeisance exposes us to a chain of associative kleos which, given the tides of time, can go dus- or eu-. But I am also interested in how much of our behavior is based on a static and deeply problematic view of human beings. It is hard for most of us to accept the degree to which persons and personalities are contextual and that in a culture such as ours so much of what we see as signs of character are reactive and transactive negotiations.

A proverb erroneously attributed to Aristotle, “a friend to all is a friend to none”, would seem to indicate that constancy in treatment from one person to another is some kind of a value. In truth, Aristotle seems to come down on the side of not making all the friends in the Nicomachean Ethics 1170e-1171b) where he does say that “people who have many friends and shout familiarly to everyone appear to be friends of no one” (οἱ δὲ πολύφιλοι καὶ πᾶσιν οἰκείως ἐντυγχάνοντες οὐδενὶ δοκοῦσιν εἶναι φίλοι) because Aristotle argues that one significant goal of friendship is the pleasure of sharing each other’s perception of existing and being good.

Is there anyone who is good or bad to everyone they encounter? Indeed, another proverb from ancient Greek—that justice is doing good to your friends and evil to your enemies—would argue the opposite. Why is it so hard for us to comprehend that someone who was kind to us individually was cruel—if not abusive and worse—to someone else? Part of the problem with our response to the fall of great idols is that our shock and surprise runs counter to what we should already know about human beings. We are not stock characters; we are not constant beings; we are, at best, thin veils of temporary will over conflicting insecurities and desire.

Now, I know that pseudo-Lacanian description will gall many, but I would relent only to say that we conflate the reputations we grant to people for work we appreciate or use with the person themself. We make a metonymic error in seeing the kindness done for an individual as a sign of the sum total of a person’s identity. We make people into things they are not and then suffer the paralysis of horror when they turn out to be something different.


Things and what we make of them

For me, this runs up, to, and alongside current conversations about cancel culture. I have written before about my reaction to J. K Rowling being a transphobic trainwreck doing to Hogwart’s what not even Voldemort could achieve. My solution is naively simple: separate the art from the artist. We made Rowling into someone who matters because the world she created matters to us.

Any model of reading and reception that persists in centering the author over the audience is, in my ever so humble opinion, a dangerous distraction from reality rooted in a stubbornly individualistic worldview, steeped partly in monotheism and partly in capitalism (on which, more later). A painting had to be made by someone, of course, but it relies on a syntax of space, color, story, and meaning within and against which the painter operates and whose existence is only completed by the viewer who shares some frames of reference. (And this leaves out the contribution of the laborers who made the canvas and paint, the partner who made the painter’s lunch, the friend who sparked an idea, the custodian who cleans so the painter can paint and so on and so on.)

Literary and academic products draw more on conventions and the contributions of groups, especially audiences, than the individual who brings them to shape in the world. As I talked about probably too much, my favorite metaphor for this from ancient Greece comes from Plato’s Ion, where Socrates explains that a rhapsode (like Ion) is merely one of a series of metal rings that translates the magnetic charge from the “magnet” (which is the Muse or divine power) through a poet, through the rhapsode, to an audience. The one thing I would change about this metaphor is to acknowledge that it is iterative and reflexive. The divine Muse is the sum total of a cultural consciousness, that nearly indescribable shared mind of a language and people particularized in one form of art at one time or another.

Ah, yes, what heady language for academic work! One of the great ironies about the work we do in academia, however, is that despite how collaborative it is, how much it depends on the work of prior scholars, current editors, students, friends and teachers, we mostly credit and prize the individual genius of the scholar who somehow manages to write it down. I tend to thank a lot of people in acknowledgements because I am deeply conscious of my own limitations as a thinker and of how much I have been prompted to think, write, and say by others.

There are different ways to talk about how our minds work with each other. From simple things like cognitive offloading—e.g. couples over time specializing in remembering somethings and not others, relying on each other—to more complex models of group minds and distributed cognition (language etc.), it is clear that not only is no man an island, but each of us is less like a leaf on a tree than a cell in a complex organism. We don’t sense it this way because this is just too big a thought for our limited brains. The human species-wide Dunning-Kruger effect just may be that our individual consciousnesses are for the most part too simple to apprehend how complex we are collectively.

But what if someone is really, really bad? Do we need to socially distance ourselves from bad ideas too?

Where do Ideas come from?

Later, in the same passage of the Ion where he describes the metaphor of a magnet offers as proof the case of Tynnichus, a terrible poet who composed a song everyone loves (Plato, Ion 534d-535a)

“The greatest proof of my argument is Tynnichus of Chalcis who never composed any poem worth remembering except for the paean everyone sings, nearly the most beautiful of all songs, a thing he himself calls “some discovery by the Muses”.

In this example, especially, the god seems to me to demonstrate to us so that there is no doubt, that these poems are not human nor by humans but divine and by the gods and, moreover, that poets aer nother other than interpreters of the gods, inspired in the way that each one is inspired. And the god demonstrated this by having the worst poet compose the finest song.

μέγιστον δὲ τεκμήριον τῷ λόγῳ Τύννιχος ὁ Χαλκιδεύς, ὃς ἄλλο μὲν οὐδὲν πώποτε ἐποίησε ποίημα ὅτου τις ἂν ἀξιώσειεν μνησθῆναι, τὸν δὲ παίωνα ὃν πάντες ᾁδουσι, σχεδόν τι πάντων μελῶν κάλλιστον, ἀτεχνῶς, ὅπερ αὐτὸς λέγει,

‘εὕρημά τι Μοισᾶν.’ ἐν τούτῳ γὰρ δὴ μάλιστά μοι δοκεῖ ὁ θεὸς ἐνδείξασθαι ἡμῖν, ἵνα μὴ διστάζωμεν, ὅτι οὐκ ἀνθρώπινά ἐστιν τὰ καλὰ ταῦτα ποιήματα οὐδὲ ἀνθρώπων, ἀλλὰ θεῖα καὶ θεῶν, οἱ δὲ ποιηταὶ οὐδὲν ἀλλ᾽ ἢ ἑρμηνῆς εἰσιν τῶν θεῶν, κατεχόμενοι ἐξ ὅτου ἂν ἕκαστος κατέχηται. ταῦτα ἐνδεικνύμενος ὁ θεὸς ἐξεπίτηδες διὰ τοῦ φαυλοτάτου ποιητοῦ τὸ κάλλιστον μέλος ᾖσεν

Tynnichus was, in a way, an original one-hit wonder of ancient Greece. It can indeed make sense to wonder when someone creates a piece of art so impactful that its greatness is universally acknowledged why they fail to ever approach the same heights. We psychoanalyze the artist’s anxiety and fear of failure, that they are suddenly flame-throwing relievers who have lost the strike zone. But perhaps Socrates’ solution is simpler and more elegant. Tynnichus did not compose a great song again because he never composed it to begin with.

Where do great ideas come from? Our answer to this is almost always shaped by what we are already conditioned to look for. We gaze at the biographies of great men. We peer into their minds, looking for the difference that made them greater than others. But our gaze in many cases needs to look outward in time and space.

We give credit for inventions and innovations to individuals despite evidence to the contrary. There is good reason to lend credence to theories of multiple discovery or convergent evolution, showing that the intellectual background and shared conditions of a period can lead individuals like Newton and Leibniz to the same place (calculus!). Convergent evolution shows that similar solutions can develop for similar problems in similar circumstances without assigning genius to one place or another

And as my Brandeis colleague Aparna Baskaran explores in her work, complex systems that appear to have intelligence and intention (from cell movement to blocks of birds) can be explained by physics and mathematics as having neither. We impose agency and genius on the world because this is the way we see it.


Hit those Moneymakers?

“Simonides seems to have been the first to adapt money-making to songs and to compose his works for pay. This is what Pindar says deceptively in his second Isthmian: “For the Muse was not then greedy or out for hire.”
ὁ Σιμωνίδης δοκεῖ πρῶτος σμικρολογίαν εἰσενεγκεῖν εἰς τὰ ᾄσματα καὶ γράψαι ᾆσμα μισθοῦ. τοῦτο δὲ καὶ Πίνδαρος ἐν τοῖς Ἰσθμιονίκαις φησὶν αἰνιττόμενος·
. . . ἁ Μοῖσα γὰρ οὐ φιλοκερδής πω τότ᾿ ἦν οὐδ᾿ ἐργάτις . . . (2. 6).
Scholiast on Aristophanes’ Peace 695-700

A few weeks ago, a few lines of a song by Micah P. Hinson floated into my head and I went to spotify and started listening. I had not listened to Hinson in years and had nearly forgotten about him. So, I started reading about what had happened to him and discovered pretty quickly that I found him to be quite the objectionable chap. Indeed, so objectionable that I felt uncomfortable using a streaming service to send a fraction of a penny to his bank account. But can we truly buy our way into virtue or out of vice?

One indication of the problem in academia is the way we cite work in most systems: author, date, page. It flattens everything about the process of ideamaking and credits an individual. But the meaning made from that citation has the author of the footnote to thank as well as all the unnamed people who contributed to those ideas. Works have lives far beyond the minds of their authors—imagine if children walked around named Christensen 2010 and Christensen 2011! But citing by article name instead of author would be just a way not talking about the problem

The impetus behind boycotting and de-platforming bad actors is to my mind a good one. It is about depriving harmful people of both the ability to cause further harm and to profit from their harmful action. The melodramatic overreaction to “cancel culture” is in part an entrenched power class’s fragility at being held accountable and in part a panic over what was assumed to be an limitless field of earning. (Although, to be fair, the mobbing part of such cancellation introduces new problems.)

The danger comes in the way we translate our social value into economic worth and how our models of remuneration, citation, and authorship are thoroughly commodified. This is easy for me to see in the proverb “give credit where credit is due,” a saying, perhaps coined by Samuel Adams in 1777 . That word credit from the Latin loan or debt (creditum), according to the OED came through French and Italian conveying both the sense of belief trust and the sense of a loan to be made based on belief and trust.

This overlap between an estimation of moral value and a valuation in financial terms is truly ancient, likely predating Alkaios who famously sings “Man is money—no one poor is noble or honored.” χρήματ᾿ ἄνηρ, πένιχρος δ᾿ οὐδ᾿ εἲς πέλετ᾿ ἔσλος οὐδὲ τιμίος (fr. 360). The conceptual metaphor between reputation and potential financial worth is so ingrained in our culture that we rarely question the logic of rich people deserving their riches. (When we know that great wealth cannot actually be acquired without theft and exploitation.)

Our laws and practices in artistic copyright, intellectual property, publication, patents and more are wholly shaped by the definition of ideas as commodity. Even in the humanities, lines of credit on CVs translate into higher paying jobs, higher wages, better positions. In a school like mine, a book published early in a career might yield no royalties, but the raise I receive of 5% of my salary compounded over 30 years of a career can translate into significant wealth. Our lives (Greek, bioi) are shaped by the translation of our activity into livelihood. And this is one of the most pernicious elisions in our language: the worth of a life in nothing but the value of its work.

To what degree is citing or not citing someone we (or others) find reprehensible about deferred credit, about anxiety over the devaluation of our own esteem. In this, perhaps, is an acknowledgement of the collective nature of our ‘products’ in the risk that others bring us.

“Canceling” a terrible person targets cultural esteem and in many cases may harm them economically. (Although, I think that for someone like Rowling, her income growth will turn merely incremental from exponential.) Because I think poets are not wholly responsible for their poems, I can enjoy the verse of a bad person. But I don’t want to pay for it.

But if citation and mention translates into esteem, what does it mean to talk about the good works of bad people in public? What does it mean to cite the useful article of the shitbird academic? My first answer—to be honest about the field that makes us all complicit in propping up petty and nasty people—does not stand up well to the danger that an unmarked acknowledgment now may translate into future benefit for the person whose work I don’t despise.


Everything’s Coming Up Solon

“People have an ancient famous proverb:
That you should not judge any mortal lives
You can’t see them as good or bad before someone dies
Λόγος μὲν ἔστ᾿ ἀρχαῖος ἀνθρώπων φανεὶς
ὡς οὐκ ἂν αἰῶν᾿ ἐκμάθοις βροτῶν, πρὶν ἂν
θάνῃ τις, οὔτ᾿ εἰ χρηστὸς οὔτ᾿ εἴ τῳ κακός·
Sophocles, Trachinae 1-3

Some of us like to think that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, but instead, I think we’re really talking about a sphere giving in to entropy. Most things get worse, or at least get to be less of what they were, over time. The likelihood of someone you know upsetting or disappointing you overtime is non-negligible. That’s because none of us are consistently anything except for alive, until we’re not.

In the same essay where he declares himself immune to shame over quoting good words from bad authors, Seneca quotes from Publilius Syrus that “whatever can happen to someone else can also happen to you” (cuivis potest accidere quod cuiquam potest, De Tranq. 9). This line is part of an anti-hubris “check yourself before you wreck yourself” ethic, but it also reminds me of Herodotus’ Solon, who warned Croseus not to count a man as lucky before his days have ended

If you live a thoroughly wretched life but your last day is good, does that mean people to come can call you happy, Solon? And if you do mostly good, but have a really bad day, does that undo the good? And can we even manage to think about whether Solon’s notion is about pleasure at your own good and not actually doing good for other people? Clearly, this is not the place to answer this, but it seems likely that at the end of every person’s life we hear something like, “Indeed, Socrates, after all this talk, I guess we still don’t know what happiness is.”

One peril of admiring (or citing) anyone is that over a lifetime we’re all pretty much certain to disappoint. I like to think that Solon’s logic also contains the corollary that if life can turn out badly at the last moment, it can also turn out well. To believe in the possibility of education one must believe that people have the capacity to change. So, perhaps the bad words of a good author will improve and a bad author might turn out to be a better person some day.

But then we are back to the pageantry of withhdrawal and return, of wondering if someone has reformed truly or is merely back in disguise for more lines of credit. What are our limits on forgiveness? How much do we believe in personal growth? Separating the work from the life and the person from work may help liberate us all. And then we can get back to the hard work of living together and understanding ourselves.


Go here for a scholarly debrief on footnote practices.


File:Quentin Massys 030.jpg
Quentin Matsys Allegory of Folly

Passion and Genius: A Reader’s Report from Pliny

Pliny, Letters 4.20

To My friend Novius Maximus

What I thought about each part of your book I sent you once I finished reading it. Now you can have my general judgment about the whole. It is a beautiful work, strong, sharp, deep; it is full of varied language with clear figures.

Its capacious nature will be equaled by the greatness of the praise you receive for it. In this work, you were driven as widely by your intelligence as your passion and each of these in turn has given the other strength: for your intelligence has added depth and magnitude to your passion while your passion has given your genius force and focus.

Plinius Novio Maximo Suo S.

Quid senserim de singulis tuis libris, notum tibi ut quemque perlegeram feci; accipe nunc quid de universis generaliter iudicem. Est opus pulchrum validum acre sublime, varium elegans purum figura­tum, spatiosum etiam et cum magna tua laude diffusum, in quo tu ingenii simul dolorisque velis latissime vectus es; et horum utrumque invicem adiumento fuit. Nam dolori sublimitatem et magnificentiam ingenium, ingenio vim et amaritudinem dolor addidit. Vale

Roman fresco of a blond maiden reading a text, Pompeian Fourth Style (60-79 AD), Pompeii, Italy

On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything

Editor’s note: The following essay is by Stefani Echeverria-Fenn, one of the founders of the Sportula. We are hosting it one year after the overt racism of the SCS Annual Meeting in San Diego.

When I was teaching Intro to Greek Literature, it was sometimes easy to tell the students who had lived a life of privilege, of safety. They were the ones who kept suggesting ways Oedipus could have averted his fate, bootstrap his way out of catastrophe if only he read the signs carefully enough. Not the ones who hated or judged Oedipus, but the ones who were genuinely confused, who kept earnestly suggesting better possible responses to the prophecy and all the devastation that would follow.

I imagine that some of these students might have the same deep bewilderment to see me now. Exactly one year ago, I was at the height of my fledgling career in Classics: I had just passed my penultimate PhD exam, founded the Sportula, and was heading down to San Diego to accept not one but two major awards for this work at the SCS/AIA Annual Meeting. More precious to me than both those awards was my hard won stability after a lifetime of mental illness. On the road trip down I sent a long euphoric email to a former undergraduate mentor: “Two of my grad friends from Berkeley invited me on a road trip there!” I wrote. “This is also so meaningful because….they’re the kinda ppl who i feel never would have invited the crazy/unpredictable me of three years ago to be in a car with them for many hours/days—so I feel like I’m finally gaining some trust from these years of good behavior.”

The very next day, my co-founder would be racially profiled and Sportula embroiled in “political scandal” and deluged by racist trolls. The very next day, I would write to that same undergraduate mentor: “Again, we’ll never be believed bc I didn’t catch the worst of it on video and god knows the word of two psychiatrically disabled POC isn’t enough for credibility…I’m killing myself on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall anyway.

I would spend the next six months destroying my relationships with my Sportula co-founder, that mentor, and everyone else around me. On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall that June, I would be publicly wrestled to the ground and thrown into psychiatric restraints in front of several fellow grad students, after the person I had road tripped to the SCS with called the cops on me and told them I was a danger to myself.

This sounds awfully sordid and dramatic, but really, the details are mundane. Mental illness runs on both sides of my family. I was going to Break the Cycle, go to therapy, get on meds. I pursued all that, but even as I say it to myself I’m struck with a memory of both my parents mouthing the same thing.

Isn’t that why I fell so hard for Classics to begin with? In a cultural moment of the new, the innovative, a hyper-individualistic notion of “choice” and “the self-made man” within neoliberalism, it was the old poems that spoke to me. The ones that acknowledged that we are who we are only in the context of community, lineage, the heavy weight of both personal and collective histories. How sometimes, we lose: profoundly and without recourse.

François-Émile Ehrmann, Oedipe et le Sphinx.jpg
François-Émile Ehrmann, Oedipe et le Sphinx

Continue reading “On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything”

Brillionaire’s Club

“Right next to this we find the sacred library [of Alexandria] on which is inscribed “The Healer of the Soul”; and next-door to it are the statues of the gods of Egypt….”

ἑξῆς δ’ ὑπάρχειν τὴν ἱερὰν βιβλιοθήκην, ἐφ’ ἧς ἐπιγεγράφθαι Ψυχῆς ἰατρεῖον, συνεχεῖς δὲ ταύτῃ τῶν κατ’ Αἴγυπτον θεῶν ἁπάντων εἰκόνας,

Diodorus Siculus 1.49

Early on in my first year at my current University, a graduate student was mulling over possible thesis topics and expressed an interest in one of my favorite distractions, fragmentary mythography. This student was specifically interested in the intersection between history and myth and the link between genealogy and epic formed most clearly in anecdotal evidence and early Greek records. This was a time for the fragments of the Greek Historians. (Sound the Jacoby Klaxon!)

Even though it was not that long ago (ok, closer to two decades than one) when I started, the informational landscape has utterly transformed since I entered my PhD program. When I was shopping for graduate school, I was told to ask about the library and to make sure they carried certain journals. It used to be that when I made a request for an Interlibrary Loan article or book, I would fill out a form (by hand) and then go to a dark window in the corner of the library weeks later to retrieve my request in an impersonal manila envelope, as if I were retrieving something forbidden, illicit.

(And, as I think of it, it was a whole lot easier to make many drug transactions than it was to get certain journals when I started graduate school.)

Today, ILL is slick, fast, and rarely demands that I leave the safe, enervating confines of my own office. Where twenty years ago a student would have had to sit down with a tightly printed, nearly inscrutable volume of Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians, two years ago my student and I emailed the librarian, found out the there was a digital version available through Brill, and made a request for the library to negotiate access.

It took an excruciating week. But when it came in? Well, it was glorious. Jacoby online presents all the fragments, translated, with notes! The online world of Classical Studies can turn a desk jockey anywhere into a world-class scholar by delivering bibliographies through the arcane but indispensable L’Annee Philologique and all the starting details you need with Brill’s New Pauly (now in English, fools. No German for you! And don’t give me that look, no less a leading light than Richard Porson allegedly quipped that “Life is too short to learn German.”)

Jacoby 2

this is just beautiful.

You can be transformed by this access, if you have the right library. But I knew from just a few months earlier, that this conditional makes a world of difference. Brandeis is not a wealthy University, but it is wealthy enough to drop a few grand extra so 3-5 people can benefit from a database 99.5% of the population has never heard of.

“There are those who accumulate books not from eagerness to use them, but from the desire to have them, and they possess them not as a bulwark to their minds, but as an ornament for their bedrooms.

Sunt enim qui libros, ut cetera, non utendi studio cumulent, sed habendi libidine, neque tam ut ingenii presidium, quam ut thalami ornamentum.

Petrarch, Epistles 3.18

Sometimes it is really easy to forget how much the information age has changed our access to the ancient world. The only scholarly text I saw before I picked up a copy of Cicero’s Pro Caelio at the Brandeis campus bookstore in 1998 was a dog-eared copy of Fordyce’s Catullus (that in-depth, but tragically incomplete commentary). I remember handling my first Loeb in the Classics section at the now defunct Borders (Books and Music); the first Latin text I actually owned was a bilingual edition of Catullus special-ordered from that same Borders by my high school girlfriend.

If you lived in certain regions, Greek and Latin texts were hard to find even if you could afford them. When I was in college and bar-tending in a seaside town in Maine, I noticed a patron reading Horace at the bar. I casually asked him where he was a professor, and he was like “Heavens, no, I am a stockbroker! The University is the death of the Arts.” (Really.) After a conversation filled with “o fons bandusiae” and the like, he asked me how often I frequented Schoenhof’s foreign language bookstore in Cambridge. When I said never, he had a heart attack. Ok, he only feigned a heart attack. But he did give me a 20 dollar tip and bid me to get there post haste.

For thousands of years, access to the texts bequeathed to us by antiquity was dictated by geography and class. You could be born into a family with a private library (rare) or endowed with the resources to send you to an institution which had one (less rare, but still, you know, 1% stuff) or you could happen to be near an institution that just happened to possess a Homer or a Vergil. (Assuming, of course, you’d get to look at it.) Or, of course, you could be lucky enough like Richard Bentley to get a tutoring gig for a family so well-endowed that the notes you made from their library helped launch and sustain your career.

Very few public libraries that aren’t also University libraries house Greek and Latin texts to this day. I read whatever was at the library when I was a kid. Every Stephen King book was there, so that’s what I read. When I wanted to read Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune was the book they stocked, so that’s the one I started with (and my favorite to this day). On the rare occasions we trekked to the largest library I had ever seen (the Portland Public Library), it was to browse and admire. It was, let’s say, simply too far to go to get a book just to return it.

Part of the radical legacy of the late Renaissance, the rise of the printing Press, and the Enlightenment is the democritization of material once so carefully cloistered. The spirit of access is clear in the creation of the French Budé editions of Greek and Latin texts and the Loeb Classical Library in the United States. These bilingual editions were (and remain) far more affordable than most scholarly editions and more readily available.

Thanks to Perseus, The Latin Library, Lacus Curtius,, the Suda Online, and Dickinson College Commentaries and the hundred other sites I am forgetting, even the casual student of antiquity has nearly instant access to more Greek and Roman texts and translations from a cell phone than Poggio, Petrarch, or Erasmus saw in their entire lifetimes. And forward-thinking institution like the Center for Hellenic studies publish their scholarly texts for free online when they are released.

(Full disclosure: I have a book coming out with CHS this year with Elton Barker. We selected CHS as a venue for the book in part because of their open access policy.)

Social media can break down boundaries between the Oxford Don and the Brazilian high school student in ways I think would have shocked William Gibson in 1985. But there are other stories behind this obvious social gain: the quality of the texts are curbed (we still have trouble sharing critical texts with functioning critical apparatus), the quality of some sources is unclear, and these sites often lack the funds and expertise to ensure they are accessible for the visually impaired. And, the newest and latest material is almost always pay-walled: the neoliberal publishing market has found ways to cloister some of our most useful contributions.

“For I seriously need both the Greek books—which I have an idea about—and the Latin ones”

nam et Graecis iis libris quos suspicor et Latinis quos scio illum reliquisse mihi vehementer opus est. Cicero, Letters to Atticus 1.20

Spending time in libraries ain’t what it used to be. Don’t get me wrong, free public libraries remain one of the most essential democratic institutions in our country and we should celebrate them and their librarians. But modern libraries reflect their use and function like any other place, with real estate. More and more space is given over to computers through de-accession and that terrible three word phrase, off site storage.

Again, don’t get me wrong. This is not to be a luddite’s rant against the computer or a bibliomaniacal fetish piece. The reason I lament the absence of books is that the computer terminals are only as good as what they have access to. In a way, computers are like books: you can’t judge the contents of either by the cover. And when the contents work, it can be transformative. I have never been a Classicist without the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. For some years, I used a purchased CD-ROM of the TLG-E; for a few, we negotiated through our library at UTSA a single computer subscription. (For others, well, let’s just say some people know how to put the ILL back in illicit. This is an essential tool for modern philology and everyone should have access to it, for free.)

If we were to re-imagine the current world of Classical Studies as one particular site, it would be a platform with different identity levels controlling access. If you have high speed internet access, you can get free public domain Latin and Greek texts with translations, the Suda Online, and random uncurated website, articles, all mediated by google and requiring time intensive labor to sift through. There are some e-books and pdfs, but many of them are teases and there’s always a threat of piggybacking malware. If you have entry-level professional organization or second tier public school access, you might get the Loeb Classical Library, and more articles through JSTOR.

But if you are at the top of the access food chain, if you’re a Brillionaire, you have L’Annee Philologique, Brill’s New Pauly, Brill’s Jacoby, the Oxford Classical Dictionary, the Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Latin and Linguistics, and more. So much more that you don’t know about it all and you just don’t care. This is what one might call eff you level access.

At my last institution, the University of Texas at San Antonio, I could get most articles I needed, but had access to very few databases. To use L’Annee Philologique, I had to go to UT Austin and ask for computer access. But they gave it to me because of my status (Professor) and my geography (TXShare, with some hurdles, allowed for people from public libraries to use the University library).

So, while we have democritized a lot of the past in some ways, we have created new boundaries in others. Who you are, where you live, and what you do still dictates the level of access you receive to the embarrassment of research riches at our fingertips. If you have no affiliation, you get the surface level, search engine mediated access. If you are lucky enough to be at a top tier institution, you have everything, but likely don’t know about it and, until you lose that status, won’t know that your work may be dependent on one bundling plan or some administrator’s choice. If you live too far or don’t have whatever relationship it is you need to get some special status, you are left on the outside looking in

And let’s not prevaricate here. Open access is about equity and inclusion. As long as we live in a world where historical and structural racism, gender bias, ableism, and classism influence where a person is born and the lives they lead, then any system which limits access to information based on geography or class will be at its foundation racist, sexist, ableist, and classist.

“I am not ignorant in the meantime (notwithstanding this which I have said) how barbarously and basely, for the most part, our ruder gentry esteem of libraries and books, how they neglect and contemn so great a treasure, so inestimable a benefitRobert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy 2.2.4

“Money is the cause of many of mortals’ evils

πολλῶν τὰ χρήματ᾿ αἴτι ᾿ ἀνθρώποις κακῶν #Euripides

The information access problem is tied in part to the labyrinthine economy of the neo-liberal university system. At its base is a heinous labor scam most of us in the academy are complicit in and which most of us are too busy to notice, too tired to fight, or too weak to resist. Almost all of the databases I mentioned above were produced through free (or nearly free) labor by scholars working to get or keep their jobs. (And this overlooks the unmentioned and often unpaid labor of students, administrators and family members along the way.).

I myself have written entries for at least one of the publications mentioned above: I received a 30% off promise for 2000 words. My university does not have access to an article I have never seen in its native form. And this is all a greater part of what is the bait-and-switch of academic publishing. What a perversion that we labor for years to produce books we cannot actually afford and which almost none of our friends or colleagues could afford to purchase!

(Another part of the story that needs to be told is how this economic system makes it possible for predatory publishers to take advantaged of those already marginalized by charging them fees to get work published…)

As the university has engaged in increasingly high-stakes brinksmanship, raising its perceived rankings value by pumping up the publication stats of its professors, non-profit and for-profit presses have joined the game by furnishing both a venue and a market for these intellectual markets. Young academics are trained not to write ‘trade’ books (that is, books that make money); instead, to secure the too often elusive promise of a job we write books for which we receive no compensation and for which we are often expected to pay for our own indexing (and in some cases, copy editing).

Articles are little different: peer review requires free labor from editors, referees, and the authors themselves. Some editors do get paid (more on this soon), but rarely is there more than an annual drink or meal for an editorial board and referees can at times receive a few hundred dollars for reading a book and a digital wink-and-a-smile for reading an article. The authors themselves, after scores, if not hundreds of hours of work, are compensated with 5% less existential angst and the chance that 1 of the 5 people who read their article might cite them. And the exclusivity can keep some people out of disciplines altogether: think of some of the nearly criminal tales dogging papyrology lately or how few people actually can get decent training in paleography. Where you are and where you started still guides most of our academic journey.

The scandal behind the publication heist is that most of this labor is subsidized by Universities themselves. Full-time faculty are expected to do research and service (and all the work I mentioned above falls into this category.) But many schools also provide funds to student and graduate student workers to assist in the publication cycle; others task administrative assistants or actual journal employees to the job. Untold millions of dollars are provided by public and private universities to support the publication of academic research. Then this subsidized research is repackaged and sold back to their over-extended libraries in an over-priced bundle. This is a cartel-level scam.

(This is why employees of universities in some countries (e.g. the UK) are required to publish open access material. Such a requirement might work for public institutions in the US and is already operable for work funding by certain federal initiatives, but it would be difficult to enforce universally.)

Problems with the cost of journal subscriptions are not new—giants like Elsevier gobble up journals, ‘bundle’ them together, and extort institutions. But this parasitic crisis is not going to end. We don’t face this problem with journals and database subscriptions alone—as textbook publishers go full on digital to keep their revenues rolling in, students and authors are getting screwed.

Give up the books and pay attention to only your own affairs”

ἄφες δὲ τὰ βιβλία καὶ μόνα ἐργάζου τὰ σαυτοῦ. Lucian, On the Ignorant Book-Collector 27

I know that there is another side to the story. I got to hear first-hand from the acquisitions editor for Brill Classics why their subscription costs so much. There are multiple people working full time to support the online databases for the New Pauly and the Jacoby. Editing, formatting, and tech support takes time and costs money. I would not want to take any stance that they should not be paid fair, livable wages. The costs of articles in other disciplines are even higher: in the sciences where editors need to worry about positive result bias, misused data, an undisclosed conflicts of interest, publishing can be labor intensive.

(To be clear, I am using Brill as a metonym here: there are far worse offenders.)

And I think that it is hard for us to think about the full economic cost of online resources. Databases need servers. Servers need bandwidth, energy, and, and maintenance. The more use they get, the more they cost. And, something we probably all live in daily denial about, this use has environmental and social costs: google searches have carbon footprints. Computers don’t run on love and hope; they run on electricity and much of this is still driven by coal.

Other economic pressures shape this system too. Some publications are supported by professional organizations. Companies like JSTOR buy rights to these publications from the organizations—these deals look really good to the editorial boards. Imagine this: you and your friends write something for free every year and you don’t have the expertise or the infrastructure to digitize it. You also depend on subscription fees and individual library purchases to break even in the printing of the work. Suddenly, a friendly digital giant comes along and offers you, I don’t know, $20,000 dollars a year for the rights to digitize and distribute your journal. You take this and use it to pay the editor, lower membership fees, fund journal production costs, and even create scholarships for students. This is a win-win-win!

Except, the FDG turns around, bundles the journal, and extorts Universities and libraries all over the world. Your organization’s 20K can easily turn into 200K for them while many of your friends and colleagues without institutional access can’t get to your work. (And some estimates put the gross receipts of one article in the sciences to be $5000.00 for the publisher.) This hypothetical is not uncommon. But I am not trying to impugn any single person or organization by telling the story. Like many trends, this is the aggregate result of individuals and small groups making rational decisions in isolation. Objection to the systematic exploitation of academic labor should not lead us to condemn or dismiss colleagues who are also being exploited by this system.

University presses do similar things with books and subscriptions. And, again, we can’t blame them because they are also part of an economic system that is suffering from public divestment and new informational paradigms. Things will probably get worse: education is facing an eighth year of lower enrollments, even more severe public funding cuts—many politically manufactured crises like that at the University of Alaska, or cynical attacks on functional schools like that at the University of Tulsa—and the late capitalist land-grab of corporate takeovers: Starbucks and Amazon are talking college partnerships and credentialing now, but how long until they just open their own schools or acquire financially troubled institutions in WSJ approved experiments in innovation and public-private synergy?!

If knowledge is a public good and publication makes knowledge available, is it too much of a twisted syllogism to insist that publication be treated as a public good?

Nosse bonos libros non minima pars est bonae eruditionis.

“To know good books is not the least part of sound erudition”

motto over Bishop Cosin’s library at Durham, Henry L. Thompson, Henry George Liddell: A Memoir

When I was finishing my PhD I lucked into one of those tutoring jobs that form the stuff of legends. A high school student wanted to learn Greek from scratch. The student’s home had its own elevator to the penthouse where it overlooked central park. For two years I happily went there once or twice a week and worked through all of Hanson and Quinn, Plato’s Ion and much of Herodotus Book 1. During the second year, the student’s mother asked me if I had seen the old books she had been giving her husband for birthdays and holidays. They were late Renaissance era texts of Homer, Pindar, and more. I trembled as I asked if I needed gloves to handle them—of course, not, why would I? These were just gifts to be presented and seen on the shelves.

If schools continue to lose funding and presses pursue what meager profit is left—or worse, cease supporting the tools and databases we have already created—we run the risk of returning to the plutocratic exclusivity of the finest resources for the rarest few. Don’t consider just the students at less well endowed and funded schools who cannot test-drive the Brill-iant cadillacs like the New Pauly. What about unaffiliated scholars or students and readers from outside countries with ‘world-class’ universities? Our scholarly production is already an exclusive country club with gilded chains on the windows and doors.

Internet publishing
Ultimately, we need a public funding system to support research and publishing that makes it available for everyone. Since this is highly unlikely in our current political reality, what can we do? Some of us break the rules individually, you know, engage in a little ‘innovation’ and ‘creative disruption’. We can handout articles as if they are candy; we can give people advice on how to find those pirated TLGs. I know that is another profiteering algorithm machine, but it and sites like it allow us to share our work with anyone with an email address.

Those of us who have secure positions can choose which venues we send our work in; we can support open access publication for our junior colleagues. We can ask our schools to host our work; we can choose to publish only in open access journals and venues, but this also means that when we judge people for employment and tenure, we need to re-evaluate the value of journal prestige.

Perhaps there is more we can do institutionally. Why can’t universities share their access more widely? At the very least they can use their informational footprint to sponsor our work and help shift the perspective on access. In our professional organizations we can make open access a clearly articulated mandate and we can raise money to support databases and journals that are subscription fee (and I am happy to hear that the TLG has a plan to do so. It is too bad it has not happened faster).

Again, there are projects that need to be done—like the digitization of the Lexicon Iconcographicum Mythologicae Classicae—which we should make sure are done for everyone and we should not only seek to support the scholars who do this work financially, but we should support their work ethically by counting open access and publicly facing work as equal to if not greater than traditional journal articles when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion.It is and will be personally and professionally difficult to disentangle this elegant cage we have helped make for ourselves. But the first step is acknowledging that it is there, that we have contributed to it, and that some of us have benefited from keeping many others in the dark. When you’re in it, the Club is a fine and rare place to be. But with the disappearance of full-time jobs, the increase casualization of labor in the Academy, and the fetishization of the gig-economy, more of us will be on the outside looking in.

“I confess indeed that I am obsessed with studying literature. Let this fact shame others who do not know how to make use of their books so that they can’t provide anything from their reading to common profit or to make their benefit clear in sight.

Ego vero fateor me his studiis esse deditum: ceteros pudeat, si qui se ita litteris abdiderunt, ut nihil possint ex his neque ad communem adferre fructum neque in aspectum lucemque proferre: Cicero, Pro Archa 13


Here’s a survey about open access issues in Classics and the UK from 2008.

We can create our own publishing paradigms

Public libraries may be able to provide structure and scaffolding for more equitable access

Salaried Professors of Minor Houses

Lucian, On Salaried Posts in Great Houses, 29

“What is this shining wage here?”

τίς ὁ λαμπρὸς οὗτος μισθός ἐστιν;

Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Vespasian 18

“He was the first to establish annual salaries of 100 thousand sesterces for Latin and Greek teachers of rhetoric from the treasury.”

Primus e fisco Latinis Graecisque rhetoribus annua centena constituit

While doing some spring cleaning in my department, I uncovered some salaries for classicists from 1968 (aside: I really love the font on the letterhead):


According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index Calculator, the top Departmental salary in 1968 of $14,350 is worth $105,123.88 in modern buying power while the bottom is $66,663.93.

For comparison, as chair of what is now the Department of Classical Studies, I have just done salary reviews and this makes our current low salary 9.1% higher than the 1968 low while our current top salary for an associate professor is 11% lower. Based on current ratio between our highest full and lowest assistant, our maximum salary is between 7% and 9% higher than an equivalent ratio in 1968.

These numbers, of course, ignore that the living costs in the area have skyrocketed over the past generation (now Boston is among the 10th most expensive cities to live in in the US). The historical cost of a home in Massachusetts in 1970 was $79,100 (adjusted to 2000 dollars which would have been $15,737.41 in the buying power of 1970).

[The AAUP has an annual Faculty Compensation Survey here]

Just to make this a little clearer, based on government inflation calculators, an associate professor’s salary for a single year could almost buy a home at the average price of Massachusetts homes in 1970. The current median home value/price in the Boston area is just over $600,000. Again, to translate this back to the halcyon days of 1968, this would a equivalent home price would have been $80,959.24 (which, to make rough calculations, means a five-fold increase in cost).

Plato, Lysis 208b

“They trust some contract worked more than you to do whatever he wants when it comes to the horses and they give him a salary in addition to it?!”

μισθωτῷ μᾶλλον ἐπιτρέπουσιν ἢ σοὶ ποιεῖν ὅ τι ἂν βούληται περὶ τοὺς ἵππους, καὶ προσέτι αὐτοῦ τούτου ἀργύριον τελοῦσιν;

Full confession: I am obviously not an economist. My friend below used the total of all departmental salary cost to make the calculation below.


For comparison, here are numbers from 1984.

According to the US CPI calculator, the top salary of $43,000 here is equivalent to $105,000.00 in current buying power (actually a decrease since 1968) while the minimum for assistant ($20,800) is equivalent to around $51,534.13 (average Massachusetts home prices had risen to $95,500 in 1984).

If these numbers teach us anything its that faculty salaries on the tenure track have stayed somewhat stable in relation to general inflation over time, but that they lost value between 1968 and 1984 and then lost considerable value in comparison to cost of living despite making modest gains relative to inflation.

The story for contract or contingent faculty? There is no data for 1968, but the $9850.00 above for 1984 translates into $24,572.03 worth of buying power in the current economy. I can say that we do better for contingent faculty who have a full time appointment, but certainly not nearly enough.

[The Chronicle has commentary on Faculty Salaries here]

From the Oxford English Dictionary: Etymology: < Anglo-Norman salarie = Old French salaire, Italian salario, Spanish salario, Portuguese salario, < Latin salārium, originally money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, hence, their pay; substantive use of neuter singular of salārius pertaining to salt, < sal salt.

Pliny Natural History 31.88-89

“Therefore, by Hercules, a rather civilized life cannot proceed without salt. This substance is so necessary that the word is transferred to significant pleasures of the mind too. Also named “salts” [sales] are all the charms of life, the pinnacle of humor, resting after work—the matter is made clear by this simple word more than any other.

It is also among the honors of the military too as “salaries” were coined from the root sal with great authority among ancient people—this is clear from the Salarian way since, by its course salt was conveyed to the Sabines. The King Ancus Marcus gave the people a grant of 6,000 bushels of salt and was the first to have salt pools built. Even Varro stands as an authority that the ancients uses salt as a condiment and that they ate salt with their bread (as is clear from the proverb). But the greatest indication of the importance of salt is in sacrifices which cannot be completed without the salted meal.”

ergo, Hercules, vita humanior sine sale non quit degere, adeoque necessarium elementum est uti transierit intellectus ad voluptates animi quoque nimias. sales appellantur, omnisque vitae lepos et summa hilaritas laborumque requies non alio magis vocabulo constat. honoribus etiam militiaeque interponitur salariis inde dictis magna apud antiquos auctoritate, sicut apparet ex nomine Salariae viae, quoniam illa salem in Sabinos portari convenerat. Ancus Marcius rex salis modios v͞i͞ in congiario dedit populis et salinas primus instituit. Varro etiam pulmentarii vice usos veteres auctor est, et salem cum pane esitasse eos proverbio apparet. maxime tamen in sacris intellegitur auctoritas, quando nulla conficiuntur sine mola salsa.

Some Things Were Published…: Works from 2018

Pliny the Younger, Letters 1.2

“Clearly, something must be published – ah, it would be best if I could just publish what I have already finished! (You may hear in this the wish of laziness.)

Est enim plane aliquid edendum — atque utinam hoc potissimum quod paratum est! Audis desidiae votum


How does one say “self-promotion” in Latin and Greek? When not posting on this blog, I (Joel P. Christensen) do write other things. The last year was a busy one. Here’s a list. If you’re interested and have institutional access to the work, please use it! If you don’t have institutional access and want an off-print, send me an email (

A Book:

With Erik Robinson, The Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice: Introduction, Translation and Commentary  Bloomsbury



On-Line, off this blog

with Matthew Sears, “The Overlooked Messages of the Sokal-Squared Hoax.” Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 30, 2018.

with Erik Robinson, “A Regular Roman’s Guide to the Worldcup Semi-Final Match.” Society for Classical Studies, Blog. July 10, 2018.



“Eris and Epos: Composition, Competition and the ‘Domestication’ of Strife.” YAGE  2: 1–39.

Here’s the publisher’s link. Here’s an uncorrected proof.

“The Clinical Odyssey: Odysseus’ Apologoi and Narrative Therapy.” Arethusa 51: 1–31.

From Project Muse. Here’s much inferior version before proofs.


Chapters in Things:

“Human Cognition and Narrative Closure: The Odyssey’s Open-End.”  In The Routledge Handbook of Classics and Cognitive Theory, Peter Meineck, ed.  Routledge. est. 2018.

This whole collection looks great (it grew out of a conference at NYU).

Image result for The Routledge Handbook of Classics and Cognitive Theory

“Speech Training and the Mastery of Context: Thoas the Aitolian and the Practice of Múthoi” for Homer in Performance: Rhapsodes, Narrators and Characters, Christos Tsagalis and Jonathan Ready (eds.). University of Texas Press, 2018: 255–277.

Another good collection. And, less pricey than some academic books!

Image result for Homer in Performance: Rhapsodes, Narrators and Characters

“Learned Helplessness, the Structure of the Telemachy and Odysseus’ Return.” in conference proceedings, Psychology and the Classics, Jeroen Lauwers, Jan Opsomer and Hedwig Schwall (eds.): 129–141.

This is a great collection too.

Image result for Psychology and the Classics, Jeroen Lauwers, Jan Opsomer and Hedwig Schwall



“This is Not My Beautiful House…”: Classics, Class and Identity

How did I get here?

When Telemachus invites Athena-in-disguise to sit in his hall at the beginning of the Odyssey and he has already complained to her about the suitors, he asks, “Who are you and from where among men? Where is your city and your parents?” (τίς πόθεν εἰς ἀνδρῶν; πόθι τοι πόλις ἠδὲ τοκῆες; 1.170). This line is repeated on several occasions during the Odyssey and forms of it echo throughout Greek literature. It even shows up in Roman literature as a bit of a proverb: Seneca has Herakles use this line to hail the dead Claudius when he arrives on Olympus (Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 5). My friend Justin Arft is working on the poetics of this line, exploring how it engages with larger poetic traditions and functions as an authoritative marker for speech. It elicits a particular type of story and signals a special kind of world view.

For me, this line has always also functioned metonymically for social hierarchy. It is an indexing question to establish the addressee’s cultural position. The initial “who” of “who are you” turns out to be a mere introduction, signaling an insufficient framework. The subsequent questions flesh out acceptable parameters for defining this particular “who”: a generic person, a tis, requires a geographical origin (invoking tribal connections as much as spatial associations), a civic entity (the city here is certainly a type of state), and a family. And, given the importance of genealogy in myth and the flexibility of place and state, I think we have a rhetorical structure of increasing importance: space, state, and family. The last question, in epic at least, is about fame and noble birth.

During the past few years, I have been thinking about this question when I find myself out and about in the world, asking and being asked who I am. How we elicit information about people tells us something about how we organize the world in our minds. And how we answer these questions tells us something else about how we view ourselves and our comfort with this view. Social context alters the meaning of deceptively simple words. For instance, when people ask addressees of color where they are from, it often is a coded or subconscious attempt to establish an ‘ethnic identity’ or some hierarchy of citizenship. Who are you and where are you from is always potentially a probe to evaluate political status and social cache.

The functional question that communicates our modern values and social structures is that ubiquitous “What do you do?” This innocuous conversation starter (or staller) is a metonym for our capitalist values: we are defined by what we contribute to society, by what we produce, by how we may be commodified. Of course, we can put this another way: in a ‘post-aristocratic’ world, we are allowed to define ourselves by how we spend our time—what we decide to dedicate our lives to communicates our values. (This second take assumes that we have the power and resources to make these choices in such a way that there is a meaningful correlation between our activity in the world and our values; and, secondly, that vocation and avocation may necessarily overlap.)

Even though the Odyssey is a narrative of disguises and forestalled recognitions, it is one in which the question “who are you, where are you from” also points to established and accepted social boundaries (even if they are eventually transgressed or subverted). When we ask “what do you do”, it seeks to instantiate social relationships. I have spent so much time thinking about this because my life’s work is in a field where the boundary between life and work is blurred to the point of there being almost no distinction. And, although we live in a period where the answer to “what do you do” is more fluid than in the previous generation, the line between the workaday doing and the non-work living is less clear. (And, to be fair, for the working poor and a great number of people throughout the world, the whole notion of such a boundary to begin with is one of incredible privilege.)

My problem is not really with the impact of this fading boundary on me: one of the reasons I avoided pursuing other careers early on is I believed, correctly or not, that my current pursuit would not force some of the same stark choices as others—despite much evidence to the contrary, I still believe that my career as one where we are supposed to think about what life is for (even if we are not often encouraged to do so). My problem is with talking about what I do outside the academy, with naming it, with answering that question, what do you do?

*                                   *                                   *

Odyssey 19.203

“He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth.”

ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα·

Who are you and What do you do? I don’t come from a family of academics. I grew up in a lower middle class, rural area where most high school graduates did not go to college (and where high school graduates were only recently the majority). To say that I have class anxiety about being a Professor, much less a professor of Classics and one of Ancient Greek, is quite the understatement. I rarely use a title outside of work—my self-naming is so muted that when my son grabbed the mail one day and saw something addressed to “Dr. Christensen” he said “you’re a doctor?” To this I responded, “well, kind of.” In his consternation, he looked at the envelope, looked back at his mother—who is a dentist—and said, “wait, boys can be doctors?”

Where are you from? This is a question for people who are out of place, whose dislocation is clear enough as to be recognized before even hearing a name. How did I get here? Leaving home, getting a BA in the humanities, moving to New York and getting a PhD has separated me physically and ethically from all the people I grew up with and it has in many ways alienated me from my family. Anyone who has gone to graduate school knows that the process is intense and transformative intellectually; the part we don’t talk about enough is that it also constitutes a social metamorphosis: you are not only what you do, you are the people you engage with. ‘Who are your people’ and ‘where is your home’ are a critical part of Telemachus’ question—both communicate values and allegiances. Getting a PhD in the Classics complicates answers to both of those questions. The PhD changes the appearance and performance of social class; the rarefied air of that title “the Classics” makes us strangers even among our professorial peers.

The depth of my class and social anxiety is particularly felt in the way I change my answer to the question “what do you do”. When I go to birthday parties for my kids, while talking to other parents I almost always answer, “I am a teacher” and, more often than not, I consciously steer the conversation somewhere else. Part of the reason I do this is I don’t always handle the follow up question well.

True story: I was in a Starbucks in Milton, MA and I saw Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block. At my sister’s urging over text messages (she has seen NKOTB multiple times as an adult), I went and asked for a picture and had a fine conversation going until he asked what I do. I said, “I teach at Brandeis.” To the inevitable “what do you teach?” and the true answer (“Classics. Um, mostly Ancient Greek”) the response was a typical, awkward silence.

knight 2

Continue reading ““This is Not My Beautiful House…”: Classics, Class and Identity”

Some Roman Notes for Stressed out Writers

Some notes of encouragement as we turn to summer projects. Alas, Martial’s words ring in my head every morning: “You will live tomorrow, you say? Postumus, even living today is too late; he is the wise man, who lived yesterday.” (Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est: / ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri, 5.58). For those of us lucky enough to get our summers off, the season’s onset comes too with panic: what are we working on? When will we start!

the effect of this over time is that some of us are incapable of really taking any time off. Before you make the mistake of thinking I am holding a one-Homerist sized pity-party, I do acknowledge that having the time even to worry about this is an indication of immense privilege both in terms of the course of human history and contemporary conditions. Even overlooking the billions of humans now living who struggle with basic needs (and under much worse conditions), there are thousands (if not more) of academics who are struggling to make ends meet while also facing the existential threat of publishing (and perhaps still perishing).

Here are two Roman authors talking about writing and publication.

Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi 13-14

“Why do we need to compose work that will endure for generations? Why not stop driving to make sure posterity won’t be quiet about you? You have been born mortal—a silent funeral is less annoying! So, for the sake of passing time, write something for your use in a simple style not for publication. There is less need to work for those who study just for today.”

Quid opus est saeculis duratura componere? Vis tu non id agere, ne te posteri taceant? Morti natus es, minus molestiarum habet funus tacitum! Itaque occupandi temporis causa, in usum tuum, non in praeconium aliquid simplici stilo scribe; minore labore opus est studentibus in diem.

Pliny the Younger, Letters 10 To Octavius Rufus

“For the meantime, do as you wish regarding publication too. Recite it from time to time, then you may feel more eager to publish and then you may experience the joy I have long been predicting for you, and not without reason. I imagine what crowds, what admiration, what clamor then silence awaits you. (For myself, I like this as much as applause when I speak or read, as long as it shows a desire to hear me speaking). There is a great reward ready for you! Stop undermining your work with endless delay! When even this is excessive, we need to be wary of hearing the name of idleness, laziness, or even fear. Farewell!”

Et de editione quidem interim ut voles: recita saltem quo magis libeat emittere, utque tandem percipias gaudium, quod ego olim pro te non temere praesumo. Imaginor enim qui concursus quae admiratio te, qui clamor quod etiam silentium maneat; quo ego, cum dico vel recito, non minus quam clamore delector, sit modo silentium acre et intentum, et cupidum ulteriora audiendi. Hoc fructu tanto tam parato desine studia tua infinita ista cunctatione fraudare; quae cum modum excedit, verendum est ne inertiae et desidiae vel etiam timiditatis nomen accipiat. Vale.

Image result for Ancient Roman Book


Pliny the Younger, Letters 1.2

“Clearly, something must be published – ah, it would be best if I could just publish what I have already finished! (You may hear in this the wish of laziness.)

Est enim plane aliquid edendum — atque utinam hoc potissimum quod paratum est! Audis desidiae votum

Famae Volent: A Personal History

For a few years I have been thinking about an article I would like to read in the New Yorker or the Baffler. It would really be about the desperation of the academic job market and a lost generation of would-be professors across the humanities, but it would tell this story as it is embedded in the digital record of academic wikis and discussion boards. So, it would be a zeitgeisty piece that explored the relationship between the information age’s revolution and the concurrent collapse of the industrial age’s systems of learning.

This imagined article would also explore the interrelationship between the transformation of information, the rise of the internet and the polarization of politics, all the while integrating theories about the narcissism of social media with the solipsism of our individual information bubbles. And it would do all of this without claiming simple causes or clear relationships, without apportioning blame but instead leaving it for the well-informed reader to consider which great ideas were the first of the paving stones to our current hell.

The centerpiece of this discussion? The decades-old Classics water-cooler/cesspool: Famae Volent. Don’t worry, I don’t have the knowledge, the skills, or the time to write this article. I don’t know who the blog administrators are; I don’t know if I would recover from reading the comments in the entirety again; and I don’t actually think the world-at-large would be so terribly interested in what is essentially a minor metonym for a major metamorphosis.

But the past few weeks have made me think a little too much about Famae Volent (FV). I can confess directly now what I was once embarrassed to admit: I have read the comments on FV nearly every day for the past decade. I have commented myself only 6 or 7 times, which qualifies me as some kind of lurker. I write this to try to figure out why I am so drawn to it, to claim hyperbolically that it has been the most important forum in Classics for the past decade, to lament that it has turned a bit darker this year, and to try to make some sense of this darkness. For the regular readers of this blog who don’t know about FV, it might be better not to click the ‘more’ button below. For those who know about the site, I cannot promise to say anything agreeable about it.

FV cannot be understood from the perspective of Classics alone–it is, I think, a product of the intersection of new technologies, old worlds, changing/dying disciplines, the desperation produced by economic upheaval, and the discord produced by current standards of dissent (supercharged by the ‘safety’ afforded by anonymity). But at the same time, FV is a phenomenon within a particular and bounded community. One could argue that it was the only new community mechanism created in classics in over a generation. And, in addition, before the coalescence of classics twitter as a force or the emergence of other online fora FV was arguably the online center of Classics in that it was the only centralized forum available to everyone.

But over the past year the comments have turned darker in a harmful way. There have been more administrator deletions of comments that break community guidelines than ever before. There have been more personal attacks than I can remember. And, this is what really gets me, there has been more polarized language dismissing attempts to address the marginalization of women, people of color, and people from different classes than in previous years.

Almost everyone I talk to in Classics knows of FV and has read it but admits so the way you might admit you did drugs in college or once accidentally shoplifted and didn’t go back to confess your crime. What does it mean for something to be so central and universal yet kept at a distance? Or, more simply, what is FV really and what is it for?

So, to start again, I am trying to figure out what attracts me to something that so thoroughly confuses. Part of it is the garbage-fire warmth: sometimes we just want to watch the chaos and destruction unfold. But I need to know if there is more. I want to know if there is good to FV and, if there is, if it can possibly outweigh the bad. Can I separate its story from my story? Is it really representative of my field or our field?

Continue reading “Famae Volent: A Personal History”

“Nothing Taught Contributes to Wisdom”

Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 1.1-2

“The schools of Epicurus and Pyrrho seem to have set forth the indictment against the professors of learning (toùs apò tôn mathemátôn) in a cursory way, although not from the same perspective. The Epicureans argue that none of those things that are taught may contribute to wisdom—this is an argument Epicurus made, as some contend, in order to cover up his own lack of education (for Epicurus was criticized by many for his ignorance: he couldn’t even speak correctly in everyday conversation!). In addition, he also antagonistic in this towards Plato and Aristotle, and other similar men, who were versed in many different fields.”

Τὴν πρὸς τοὺς ἀπὸ τῶν μαθημάτων ἀντίρρησιν κοινότερον μὲν διατεθεῖσθαι δοκοῦσιν οἵ τε περὶ τὸν ᾿Επίκουρον καὶ οἱ ἀπὸ τοῦ Πύρρωνος, οὐκ ἀπὸ τῆς αὐτῆς δὲ διαθέσεως, ἀλλ’ οἱ μὲν περὶ τὸν ᾿Επίκουρον ὡς τῶν μαθημάτων μηδὲν συνεργούντων πρὸς σοφίας τελείωσιν, ἤ, ὥς τινες εἰκάζουσι, τοῦτο προκάλυμμα τῆς ἑαυτῶν ἀπαιδευσίας εἶναι νομίζοντες (ἐν πολλοῖς γὰρ ἀμαθὴς ᾿Επίκουρος ἐλέγχεται, οὐδὲ ἐν ταῖς κοιναῖς ὁμιλίαις καθαρεύων), τάχα δὲ καὶ διὰ τὴν πρὸς τοὺς περὶ Πλάτωνα καὶ ᾿Αριστοτέλη καὶ τοὺς ὁμοίους δυσμένειαν πολυμαθεῖς γεγονότας•

Some counterpoints from the Gnomologium Vaticanum.

50: “Aristotle said that education is a decoration for the lucky but a refuge for the unfortunate.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔφη τὴν παιδείαν εὐτυχοῦσι μὲν εἶναι όσμον, ἀτυχοῦσι δὲ καταφύγιον.

259: “When Demetrios [of Phalerus] was asked what was the noblest of animals he said “A human adorned by education.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθεὶς τί τῶν ζώων κάλλιστόν ἐστιν εἶπεν· „ἄνθρωπος παιδείᾳ κεκοσμημένος”.

302: “[Zeno the Stoic] used to say that education was sufficient for happiness”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔφη τὴν παιδείαν πρὸς εὐδαιμονίαν αὐτάρκη.

314: “Heraclitus used to say that learning is a second sun for the educated”

῾Ηράκλειτος τὴν παιδείαν ἕτερον ἥλιον εἶναι τοῖς πεπαιδευμένοις ἔλεγεν.

439: [Plato] used to say that someone being educated needs three things: ability, practice and time.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔλεγεν ὅτι ὁ παιδευόμενος τριῶν τούτων χρῄζει· φύσεως, μελέτης, χρόνου.

469: “[Protagoras] used to say “knowing a lot helps a lot and hurts a lot.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔφη· „πολυμαθίη κάρτα μὲν ὠφελέει, κάρτα δὲ βλάπτει”.

Seneca, Moral Epistles 88.20

“Why do we train our children in the liberal arts? It is not because these studies can grant someone virtue, but because they prepare the soul for accepting it.”

“Quare ergo liberalibus studiis filios erudimus?” Non quia virtutem dare possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant.

Lactantius, Inst. Div. 3.7

“The highest good according to Herillus is knowledge; according to Zeno, to live congruously with nature, and according to some Stoics, to pursue virtue.”

Herilli summum bonum est scientia, Zenonis cum natura congruenter vivere, quorundam Stoicorum virtutem sequi.

Related image
Mosiac floor of The Hall of the Grain Measurers in Ostia (taken from Flickr)