Homeric Advice for Starting a Conversation at #AIASCS

Across the academy, conferences are famous for being hierarchical, expensive, humiliating, of questionable worth, and a general venue for all sorts of debauchery. (There are papers too.) This week, the world of Classics descends upon Washington D.C> Fortunately, Amy Pistone has generated some good advice for people attending conferences.

But professional conferences often require social engagement! Talking to new people can be hard. If you find yourself at a loss for words this conference season, why not try something new by using an old script?

Diomedes: Il. 6.123-129

“Bestie, who are you of mortal humans?
For I have never seen you before in this ennobling battle.
But now you stride out far ahead of everyone
In your daring—where you await my ash-wood spear.
Those who oppose my might are children of miserable parents!
But, if you are one of the immortals come down from the sky,
I don’t wish to fight with the sky-dwelling gods!”

τίς δὲ σύ ἐσσι φέριστε καταθνητῶν ἀνθρώπων;
οὐ μὲν γάρ ποτ’ ὄπωπα μάχῃ ἔνι κυδιανείρῃ
τὸ πρίν· ἀτὰρ μὲν νῦν γε πολὺ προβέβηκας ἁπάντων
σῷ θάρσει, ὅ τ’ ἐμὸν δολιχόσκιον ἔγχος ἔμεινας·
δυστήνων δέ τε παῖδες ἐμῷ μένει ἀντιόωσιν.
εἰ δέ τις ἀθανάτων γε κατ’ οὐρανοῦ εἰλήλουθας,
οὐκ ἂν ἔγωγε θεοῖσιν ἐπουρανίοισι μαχοίμην.

Glaukos, 6.145-151

“Oh, you great-hearted son of Tydeus, why are you asking about pedigree?
The generations of men are just like leaves on a tree:
The wind blows some to the ground and then the forest
Grows lush with others when spring comes again.
In this way, the race of men grows and then dies in turn.
But if you are willing, learn about these things so you may know
My lineage well—many are the men who know me.”

Τυδεΐδη μεγάθυμε τί ἢ γενεὴν ἐρεείνεις;
οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ’ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ’ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη·
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ’ ἀπολήγει.
εἰ δ’ ἐθέλεις καὶ ταῦτα δαήμεναι ὄφρ’ ἐὺ εἰδῇς
ἡμετέρην γενεήν, πολλοὶ δέ μιν ἄνδρες ἴσασιν

Then switch nametags!

Image result for diomedes and glaucus

This post was inspired by the ever dynamic Rogue Classicist:

The conference equivalent of exchanging armor would probably be switching handouts with someone else and then giving a talk based on their handout. Aha! a new career goal!

If you are serious about getting to know new people (and there are always a lot of nice, interesting people at the annual meeting), Zeno has some great advice:

“We have two ears but one mouth so that we may listen more and talk less”

δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείω μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν

On Reading (and Writing) for Pleasure

Note: this is a guest post and possible first of many from the amazing Deborah Beck.

“Whenever I hear a man discoursing on virtue, or on some other form of wisdom, who is a true man and worthy of the words he says, I am hugely delighted, admiring at the same time both the speaker and how the things being said are fitting and harmonious with each other.”

ὅταν μὲν γὰρ ἀκούω ἀνδρὸς περὶ ἀρετῆς διαλεγομένου ἢ περί τινος σοφίας ὡς ἀληθῶς ὄντος ἀνδρὸς καὶ ἀξίου τῶν λόγων ὧν λέγει, χαίρω ὑπερφυῶς, θεώμενος ἅμα τόν τε λέγοντα καὶ τὰ λεγόμενα ὅτι πρέποντα ἀλλήλοις καὶ ἁρμόττοντά ἐστι.

 Plato Laches 188c

Several years ago, I taught an advanced undergraduate Greek class on Homer’s Odyssey.  Many of my students were vociferously indignant about the poor quality, as writing, of much of the scholarship that I asked them to read. I was unable to disagree with them, as I often feel much the same way. I suspect most professional Classicists do, whether or not they are willing to admit it. Reading Sophocles, or Livy, or Galen, or Ovid, is usually more fun than reading our colleagues’ views on these authors. The rare exceptions to the generally disappointing quality of academic writing as prose can be easily identified by the lively enthusiasm with which a book reviewer comments on the writing style of a new publication.

The summation of the BMCR review of Mimetic Contagion, by the late Robert Germany (Oxford 2016), is the exception that proves the rule: “This impeccably produced book is unpretentiously erudite; as the saying goes, much more than the sum of its (very many, ancient and modern) parts, impressively documented and arranged: literary-philological analysis and performance criticism, art-historical and anthropological inquiry, sociocultural and intellectual history. Germany regularly deploys critical theory pedagogically judiciously, painlessly introducing uninitiated readers to Benjamin, Foucault, Frazer, Gell, and Irigaray, to name some. Ultimately, Germany’s sophisticated and dense analysis, masterfully delivered in clear, serene prose is a pleasure to read.”

How often do we encounter such praise of academic writing? Not often at all. My students’ annoyance about this was a wake-up call. Why, I wondered, do we put up with so much academic writing that is so lackluster as English prose? And what can be done about it?

Sententiae Antiquae is one answer. It has tens of thousands of enthusiastic readers in large part because it helps us to explore learned matters, and complex and challenging topics, by writing about them with engaging clarity and vigor. A post on Sententiae Antiquae always sounds like a real person speaking. This is a key reason that SA has been so successful in fostering substantive conversations about difficult issues in both Classical literature and current affairs. The writing styles of SA’s contributors put out a welcome mat for anyone interested in the subject under discussion. In fact, SA models for readers that writing style is important, because writing style makes an idea both more enjoyable and more persuasive to its audiences.

An ongoing complaint about the academy in recent decades, and about the Humanities in particular, is that our scholarship has become so specialized that no one outside of a small group of experts can understand it. Specialization in and of itself, in my view, is not the main problem. This way of framing the issue creates a false dichotomy between erudition and accessibility. It allows scholars to wiggle out of the problem by making the issue one of too little knowledge on the part of someone else, instead of taking responsibility for asking necessary questions about what “erudition” should look like. At a time when many Classicists are eager for ways to bring more people into our field, a meaningful yardstick for measuring erudition is the ability to create conversations about specialized ideas in which both the learned and the not-as-learned can participate with enjoyment.

This does not mean that scholarly writing needs to be “dumbed down” in order to be appealing to a wider audience. Nor am I suggesting that everyone now writing scholarly monographs for Oxford and Cambridge should instead write general interest books. My beef is not with scholarly writing and argument per se, but with the default understanding of what constitutes good scholarly writing. In my view, the clotted and wearisome “Academic-ese” writing style that we too often equate with erudition can also be seen as laziness. It’s hard to present a scholarly argument in a clear and straightforward way that can be understood by anyone familiar with the ancient evidence. It’s much easier to write the kind of “insider baseball” footnotes that remind knowledgeable readers of scholarship they have already read, while leaving everyone else frustrated and confused. It’s easier to dismiss calls for scholarship that any devoted reader of Homer can enjoy than it is to try to write such scholarship. But this is something that scholars should be thinking about, because “more accessible scholarly writing” is one answer to the question, “how can we make our field more welcoming to more different kinds of people?”

Learning to write in a more user-friendly way is an ongoing project. Whenever I am working on a new publication, I now ask myself whether those former students of mine would be aggrieved if they were asked to read my piece. If the answer is yes, I’ve done it wrong and I should try again. If you’re not sure if you’re one of Those Writers, who are writing in Academic-ese rather than English, ask yourself some questions. How many multisyllabic Latinate abstractions have you used? Can you read one of your paragraphs aloud without stumbling or running out of breath? How many subordinate clauses does your typical sentence have? Ask a non-teacher to read your latest paper, and invite them to be brutally honest with you about the style. Then listen carefully to their answer. My students have made me a better writer, in ways that all of us would do well to think about.

Image result for medieval manuscript reading
Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century. Cow reading (@BLMedieval, Egerton 3277)

Give Your Money to The Sportula

Publilius Syrus, 78

“Generosity even devises an excuse for giving”

Benignus etiam causam dandi cogitat.

I am just going to get straight to it. This is a request for money. Not for me. Not for this site. There isn’t going to be a prolonged funding drive and there won’t be any cool canvas tote bags. But this is a plea for money.

I am asking you to support The Sportula. If you don’t know what The Sportula is, you probably have not been active on Classics Twitter for the past year or so, but it is, in my ever so humble opinion, one of the most original, important, and socially minded initiatives to develop in the disciplines of Classical Studies in a generation. It is a collective of graduate students who provide microgrants “ to economically marginalized undergraduates in Classics.” It is original because no one has done it before; it is important because it addresses an overlooked set of needs traditional fellowships and grants can rarely touch; and it is socially minded because it directly addresses issues of equity and inclusion that plague our field.

Big Heart

I don’t want to make this about me (although I will shortly). But Erik and I have never asked for money. We have run this site for the past eight years without support from anyone. We can do this because we are both lucky enough to have full-time, renewable, long-term employment in the fields of classics. If the founders of The Sportula are not inspiration enough for you, but you have ever been amused, educated, enraged, or otherwise distracted from the horrors of life by this website or its twitter feed, please give some money.

If you missed Amy Pistone’s virtual 5K, you can can donate through Go-Fund Me with a single payment; you can become a patron through Patreon and donate a small amount every month; or you can donate through the book auction book on by the phenomenal and dauntless Dr. Liv Yarrow. The twitter feed for our site has alone 23 thousand followers: if every one gave a single dollar a month, we could fund the next generation of Classics alone.

And let me be clear about this. I do not actually know the founders or directors of the Sportula. I have never even exchanged an email with them. But I believe so deeply in what they do and think that it is evidence not merely of great minds but also of great souls that I will gladly make some noise for them.

If we lived in a more perfect world, all students would have the financial means to attend school, buy books, get to class, pay rent. If we lived in a better world, the inability to do any of this would not be tied to historical, structural, and institutional racisms and prejudice. But we do not live in that world. That’s why we need revolutionary vision, a DIY aesthetic, and the courage to ask for help and give it whenever capable. This is why we need The Sportula.

 

Dicta Catonis 15

“Remember to tell the tale of another’s kindness many times
But whatever kind deed you do for others, keep quiet.”

Officium alterius multis narrare memento;
at quaecumque aliis benefeceris ipse, sileto.

 

Ok, here’s a story. As I have talked about before, I didn’t come from much money, but I could cut some corners and bend some rules here and there and I didn’t realize how much of that success depended on my race, gender, and sexual orientation until much later in life. The point is, despite this, funding and living in graduate school was hard. In 2001, I started at NYU on a stipend of 13,000.00 dollars a year with no health insurance. I hustled a bit: I worked in the Dean’s office; I was an editorial assistant for the Classical World; I took every tutoring job I could find; and then I taught every summer course they’d give me.

But even with long days which afforded just barely enough time to finish course work, my financial support was a shell game that required credit cards, student loans, and some willful denial. All this fell apart in my fourth year of graduate school when there was an electrical fire that burned out my apartment. I lost everything. No, I did not have renter’s insurance. No, I did not have savings. I had the clothes on my back, a cat who survived the fire (and needed $900.00 in medical treatment, thank you MBNA America), and an equally broke fiancee in dental school. Oh, and 18 thousand dollars in credit card debt. Those years of cutting corners had caught up.

My department bought me a new computer so I could continue my dissertation the very next day. When the red cross assistance turned out to be $200.00 dollars, some graduate student friends raised over 700 dollars at a party so my roommate and I could buy stuff for a renovated place. That was the community I had and it filled me with joy and well-being.

But I still had to face the fact that I was financially insolvent. My future wife and I were able to take out even more student loans (at 6.9% interest, a damn sight better than the 29% APR my credit card had ballooned to after I failed on my monthly payments). I was lucky enough to get a job in the last good year on the market in 2007—but even then we struggled for a few years (starting salary for a Homerist in 2007, 52K a year). I just paid off my final student loan this year at age 40.

When I think back on this ‘success story’, I don’t see a good plan or smart decisions, I see a series of close misses and dumb luck. We got health insurance as part of a graduate student union deal my second year: this meant I could have shoulder surgery. What if something had happened earlier or the insurance company had denied a pre-existing condition? What if there had been one fewer class for me to teach in the summer? What if I had gotten sick? What if I had been robbed while paying my rent for half a year in cash? (This happened to a classmate. And yes, I paid cash to my shady orthodontist land-lord in exchange for never facing a rent increase.) What if I had been arrested and had to pay legal fees (it was NYC, there were reasons)? What if I had not gotten a job right away or not had a supportive partner to help me bear the burden?

And all of these questions come after the question, what if I had been born looking like someone who isn’t me? As human beings, we have an insistent and necessary capability for denial—I mean, we walk around every day acting like we are not going to die and all. But this also means that we deny the essential precarity that attends each of our lives and take credit for the fact that bad shit does not happen every day. This is not a true view of the world. People slip on sidewalks and get concussions; people get cancer; people get treated like shit by other people; shit happens and too much of it is out of our control.

The Sportula is a force of good in the universe, designed and aimed at exerting just a little bit of corrective control. Microgrants may seem minor, but when you can’t make ends meet and need just a little help, they are the thing. This work is small in the every day, but aggregated over time it is transformative. The Sportula is that group of friends who threw a party for a kid whose apartment burned down. But they do it every day for people they don’t know.

Please, give some money to The Sportula. They make me believe in the basic goodness of humankind.

 

Seneca, De Beneficiis 4

“All generosity hurries—it is characteristic of one who does something willingly to do it quickly. If someone comes to help slowly or drags it out day by day, he does not do it sincerely. And he has thus lost the two most important things: time and a sign of his willing friendship. To be slowly willing is a sign of being unwilling.”

Omnis benignitas properat, et proprium est libenter facientis cito facere; qui tarde et diem de die extrahens profuit, non ex animo fecit. Ita duas res maximas perdidit, et tempus et argumentum amicae voluntatis; tarde velle nolentis est.

Figs in a basket, Fresco (Pompeii)

Homeric Advice for Starting a Conversation at #AIASCS

Across the academy, conferences are famous for being hierarchical, expensive, humiliating, of questionable worth, and a general venue for all sorts of debauchery. (There are papers too.) This week, the world of Classics descends upon the unsuspecting paradise of San Diego. Fortunately, Amy Pistone has generated some good advice for people attending conferences.

But professional conferences often require social engagement! Talking to new people can be hard. If you find yourself at a loss for words this conference season, why not try something new by using an old script?

Diomedes: Il. 6.123-129

“Bestie, who are you of mortal humans?
For I have never seen you before in this ennobling battle.
But now you stride out far ahead of everyone
In your daring—where you await my ash-wood spear.
Those who oppose my might are children of miserable parents!
But, if you are one of the immortals come down from the sky,
I don’t wish to fight with the sky-dwelling gods!”

τίς δὲ σύ ἐσσι φέριστε καταθνητῶν ἀνθρώπων;
οὐ μὲν γάρ ποτ’ ὄπωπα μάχῃ ἔνι κυδιανείρῃ
τὸ πρίν· ἀτὰρ μὲν νῦν γε πολὺ προβέβηκας ἁπάντων
σῷ θάρσει, ὅ τ’ ἐμὸν δολιχόσκιον ἔγχος ἔμεινας·
δυστήνων δέ τε παῖδες ἐμῷ μένει ἀντιόωσιν.
εἰ δέ τις ἀθανάτων γε κατ’ οὐρανοῦ εἰλήλουθας,
οὐκ ἂν ἔγωγε θεοῖσιν ἐπουρανίοισι μαχοίμην.

Glaukos, 6.145-151

“Oh, you great-hearted son of Tydeus, why are you asking about pedigree?
The generations of men are just like leaves on a tree:
The wind blows some to the ground and then the forest
Grows lush with others when spring comes again.
In this way, the race of men grows and then dies in turn.
But if you are willing, learn about these things so you may know
My lineage well—many are the men who know me.”

Τυδεΐδη μεγάθυμε τί ἢ γενεὴν ἐρεείνεις;
οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ’ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ’ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη·
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ’ ἀπολήγει.
εἰ δ’ ἐθέλεις καὶ ταῦτα δαήμεναι ὄφρ’ ἐὺ εἰδῇς
ἡμετέρην γενεήν, πολλοὶ δέ μιν ἄνδρες ἴσασιν

Then switch nametags!

Image result for diomedes and glaucus

This post was inspired by the ever dynamic Rogue Classicist:

The conference equivalent of exchanging armor would probably be switching handouts with someone else and then giving a talk based on their handout. Aha! a new career goal!

If you are serious about getting to know new people (and there are always a lot of nice, interesting people at the annual meeting), Zeno has some great advice:

“We have two ears but one mouth so that we may listen more and talk less”

δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείω μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν

“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”

Parenting While Teaching Greek Badly

This week Eidolon started a special series on “Parenting and Classics”. I thought about submitting a proposal when they put out a call for this subject, but I was too busy finishing a book and spending the waning days of summer with my children. When I read Donna Zuckerberg’s moving series of impressions of learning to be a parent and a writer in “This is How I have It All“, I remembered those earlier days of parenting with both fondness and frustration. And Jason Nethercut’s piece “Her Absence is Like the Sky”, reflecting on the loss of his mother, took me back to how I found comfort in reading and teaching the Odyssey after my father passed.

I am interested to see what others write in this series because my life has been defined over the past decade by being a parent and a Classicist. And, for me, there have been ways in which playing these two roles has made me better at both. I re-learned wonder and patience from parenting–so much so that students who had me before I became a father noted the difference in the way I paced classes and engaged with students.

I also think that what Eidolon is doing with this series is critical. As ‘scholars’ we often assume a falsely objective pose that denies we inhabit experiences and bodies which shape the way we see the world. Being a parent as a fact and a process shapes us critically as readers, writers and teachers. And classicists with children occupy a wide range of positions in the precarious academic economy.

Euripides, Supp. 1101-2

“Nothing is sweeter to an old father than a daughter”

πατρὶ δ᾽ οὐδὲν †ἥδιον† / γέροντι θυγατρός

I also hesitated to submit a proposal to Eidolon because I feel guilty about claiming much credit or authority for my story. I have been really lucky in my career and exceptionally fortunate to meet a life partner before graduate school who has been a constant and positive presence for over 20 years. Like most couples of our generation, my wife and I have a two-career household. One of us is a dentist and works year round, earning considerably more than the other. Dentistry is a physically demanding job; being a professor gets us good health insurance. On paper, this is a sweet deal.

In real life, however, we often face gendered questions about parenting from friends, family members, colleagues and our children’s teachers. Even though my wife is the one with the Ivy-league credentials and the social cache of being a ‘real’ doctor, expectations still weigh more heavily on her as a mother: she is expected to be the primary parent. But given the demands of our jobs and the eminently flexible schedule I have, this is not how it works.

Early on when our daughter was 2 months old or so, we had that conversation most couples do in the deep AM. It was definitely my wife’s turn to get up and tend to the infant. When I mentioned this, she said “if I am too tired when I go to work tomorrow and make a mistake, I can paralyze someone’s face. What’s the worst that you can do, teach Greek badly?”

One of the reasons I always found being a teacher attractive is that it is one of the few careers that lets us be parents. I always knew I wanted to have children and when I thought about other careers I couldn’t imagine that all of the sacrifice of time and human experience was worth the money they paid.

Euripides, Fr. 685 (Phaedra)

“Children are the anchors of a mother’s life”

ἀλλ’ εἰσὶ μητρὶ παῖδες ἄγκυραι βίου

As our children have grown older, parenting has been less about getting up in the middle of the night and more about actually thinking about how these little beings are developing. My own work as a classicist has been deeply affected by this process because it has led me to think more about cognitive development, education, and how the stories we tell shape us.

About a month ago my daughter (7, now 8) tried to jump from a dresser to a bed and missed. She lacerated her leg 5 inches long and down to the bone. The wound had trouble healing and it took almost four weeks and several visits with plastic surgeons to get it closed and all the stitches out

I told her the scar gives her character and told her the story of Odysseus and the boar, how the scar he won as a child became the marker of who he was and the beginning of his famous story.

I also told her that some people think that the Roman name Ulysses may be related to the Greek word for scar (oulê) and that who he is was tied to this mark on his body. Now she sees the scar as something that is uniquely hers as something that marks her out as special, as giving her her own story.

Arsenius 12.42a

“Whatever love you bear for your parents expect the same kind in old age from your children”

Οἵους ἂν ἐράνους ἐνέγκῃς τοῖς γονεῦσι, τούτους αὐτοὺς ἐν τῷ γήρᾳ παρὰ τῶν παίδων προσδέχου Πιττακοῦ.

It is hard to write about being a parent while being a classicist without also acknowledging the extent to which my ability to do so and my experience of doing so is marked by privilege. As a man, I get to be a parent without undergoing the primary physical and emotional labor of pregnancy and birth. I also avoid nearly all the secondary labor of recovery and social/emotional stigma of going back to work and not being an ideal mother. What has been clear to me for a long time has been backed up by research—men in the workplace earn social and economic capital from having children while women lose it. This is equally true in the University where men are expected to do less service and get more of a pass for attending to parenting.

The gendered structure of our society lingers with us individually and shapes our institutions. When I bring my children to a meeting or to a class, people smile and think what a good father I am. And I do often get questions about what my spouse is doing. Women in the same position, however, receive fewer smiles and rarely a question about why a partner is not available for childcare.

Euripides, Suppliant Women, 913-917

“For even an infant learns to speak
And listen to things he has no understanding of.
Whatever someone learns, he wants to save
For old age. So, teach your children well.”

..εἴπερ καὶ βρέφος διδάσκεται
λέγειν ἀκούειν θ᾿ ὧν μάθησιν οὐκ ἔχει.
ἃ δ᾿ ἂν μάθῃ τις, ταῦτα σῴζεσθαι φιλεῖ
ἐς γῆρας. οὕτω παῖδας εὖ παιδεύετε.

So, for me, talking about being a parent and a professor is over-determined. I ‘win’ if I talk about it; I win if I don’t. Yes, I am a primary caregiver; yes being a professor is mostly a full time job. But I am privileged again because I have never been outside the tenure track and was already in a secure position vis a vis tenure when we had our first child. I have had to be bad at my job at times to be an acceptable parent; I have often been a mediocre parent in order to be competent at my job. The two worlds I inhabit are always intersecting and overlapping. But this is the type of life I wanted.

In all the talk of the casualization of academic labor and the lives the majority of our PhDs are given to live, we do not acknowledge enough that there is a human cost in lives foreclosed. A generation of PhDs in precarious financial and social positions face difficult and sometimes impossible choices when it comes to starting and raising families.

Seneca, EM 3.3 (24)

“What you see happen to children happens to us, too, who are but slightly greater children.”

quod vides accidere pueris, hoc nobis quoque maiusculis pueris evenit.

I don’t really know where I meant to end up when I started writing this. I am really, really happy to be a parent and almost equally so to actually have a career as a classicist. I am often exhausted and I find myself sometimes anxious that I am not doing either thing equally well, but I know that my experiences in each have enriched my enjoyment of the other.

My lament is that we do not endeavor as a society and in the academy to ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to live both lives fully. There are hundreds of changes we as a society need to make, such as guaranteeing paid maternity leave (longer than 8 weeks by at least 42 more), providing universal health care, universal early childhood care for parents who choose to go to work, and universal pre-k nationwide. We cannot be a nation that cares about families while also legislating to punish (non-wealthy) people who choose to have them.

Many of these needs are outside our influence in the academy. But we can do more in our home institutions. We need more support for adjunct labor and graduate students who have families (or, let’s do away with adjunct labor in general and just pay college teachers living wages). We need childcare centers on all campuses for students, staff and faculty. We need to treat our staff with the same dignity we treat our faculty. We need to be models of the fully lived and enlightened lives we think the humanities can guide us to live.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.218-227

“Why does nature nourish and increase the races
of horrible beasts, enemies to humankind on land and sea?
Why do the seasons of the year bring diseases?
Why does an early death come suddenly?
So a child, just like a shipwrecked man tossed by savage waves,
lies naked and speechless on the ground needing everything required
to support life at the very moment when nature pours him
from his mother’s womb into the world of light,
he fills the room with a sorrowful wail, as if he knows
the measure of troubles that still remain for him to endure in life.”

praeterea genus horriferum natura ferarum
humanae genti infestum terraque marique
cur alit atque auget? cur anni tempora morbos
adportant? quare mors inmatura vagatur?
tum porro puer, ut saevis proiectus ab undis
navita, nudus humi iacet infans indigus omni
vitali auxilio, cum primum in luminis oras
nixibus ex alvo matris natura profudit,
vagituque locum lugubri complet, ut aequumst
cui tantum in vita restet transire malorum.

20180824_120552
Children make a new friend at Delphi Museum.

Living Today and Talking About Death

Gnom. Vat.160 “Biôn used to say that [we have] two teachers for death: the time before we were born and sleep.”

Βίων ἔλεγε δύο διδασκαλίας θανάτου εἶναι, τόν τε πρὸ τοῦ γενέσθαι χρόνον καὶ τὸν ὕπνον.

446 “Plato said that sleep was a short-lived death but death was a long-lived sleep.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔφησε τὸν μὲν ὕπνον ὀλιγοχρόνιον θάνατον, τὸν δὲ θάνατον πολυχρόνιον ὕπνον.

Recently, I saw my grandfather, who is 91, at a family wedding. He told me he does not even like to buy green bananas any more because he can’t be sure he will be around to eat them when they ripen. This made me remember and then question that old Ciceronian claim that “no one is so old that he does not think he will live another year” (nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere, de Senectute 24)

A few of my students do this thing where they—only half-jokingly, I think—ask if I am ok, like really, really ok, after I make some quip about how we are all going to die or mention Seneca’s or Plutarch’s thoughts on life and death. When I talk about the Odyssey being obsessed with the death of Odysseus, or the Iliad deeply impacted by the precarity and scarcity of human existence, they seem to worry instead that I am the one obsessed, that I have some sort of morbid fixation.

Indeed, I would not be surprised if readers of this blog or the twitter feed have a similar suspicion when I ask questions like what text you would read if you knew you could only read one before you died or when I repeatedly post the dirges of Simonides. But the fact is, I am really acting with restraint here. If I were not sure that it would alienate most followers, I would set up the twitter feed to remind us of death every day, if not every hour.

Ok, this might be a little obsessive. But unlike what I think my students fear, I am not depressed about it. And I know I am not depressed because I spent a large part of my life depressed and fighting the feeling of the ultimate futility of life. One of my earliest memories of this is of being in third grade and lying awake at night trying to imagine what it was like to be nothing. I grew up in a fairly (but perhaps not deeply) religious family. We were Scandinavian protestants, though. This means we went to church frequently, but we didn’t really talk about it.

In fourth grade I remember talking with our minister about my doubts and objections. We went through the Nicene and Apostolic Creeds line by line and she told me I could leave out the words I did not believe in if it really bothered to say something aloud when I was uncertain. When I told her that I just could not make sense of the resurrection as a phenomenon, she told me that doubt was an important part of faith.

This kept me going for a long time. But my doubts did not fade and talking about them in a religious context seemed only to make things worse. By the time I was in high school, I would regularly spend nights awake nearly paralyzed by fear and sorrow. Even though I had a delightful undergraduate career by all measures, some of my strongest memories from those years remain breaking down and laboring under the weight of the depression.

Solon, fr. 18

“I grow old, always learning many things.”

γηράσκω δ’ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος·

Graduate school is not a good place for mental health. It is a great place to develop harmful coping mechanisms (narcissism, drug and alcohol abuse, etc.). Again, I think I probably seemed functional as a graduate student (and early career professor), but like many of us I was on a very precarious tight-rope. Even to this day, I know it was sheer luck that I did not suffer some kind of irreparable harm.

In graduate school, however, I did start to read more widely and to lean on my reading more to make sense of life in general. I started reading pre-Socratic philosophers and Roman writers like Seneca. When I was an undergraduate and I first read Plato’s Socrates asserting that “death is one of two things” either a dreamless sleep or the transformation of the soul in Greek, I was elated because here was something I could relate to. When we talked about Plato in philosophy classes, however, this topic rarely came up. When it did, it was discussed only briefly and almost elliptically.

But what is more important than talking about death? How many errors do we make because we refuse to do so? How many days are wasted in pursuits we might otherwise discredit if we really considered our lives in their entirety?

We have a cultural taboo about talking about death. When we do so individually and outside rather narrow confines, we are pathologized as quirky, morbid, or mentally ill. Even in psychological research, there is a reluctance to study how we think about death and its impact on our lives. As Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski 2015 argue, however, this taboo itself is pathological and it has a wide impact on the well-being of individuals and whole cultures. We don’t want to talk about death because it is painful; but by not talking about death we collectively suffer more pain than we need to. Even Galen notes the paradox that fear of death can become a depressive obsession which robs us of the very thing we don’t want death to take.

So, for a great part of my life I did not talk about death because no one else wanted to. But this had a harmful effect–it meant that I bottled it up, I ruminated over it, and it would come bubbling out, uncontrollably, at the worst times.

In graduate school, I did finally find some professors who would talk about death, but only in the terms laid out by ancient authors. Here, there was an acceptable, but indirect way to have a conversation. There is this basic idea which I have seen described as Epicurean and Stoic but which really emerges as a regular part of Roman eclecticism that death should not be feared because when it comes we will not experience it. Seneca (EM 30.17-18) asserts that we do not fear death itself, but the thought of death (Non mortem timemus, sed cogitationem mortis), which I guess is true in a way, but it is still a prevarication. Is it not the thought of anything that we initially and mostly fear or desire? (Seneca actually cites Lucretius here, not a Stoic exemplar.) Of course, Plutarch rightly asks us whether we are more moved by fear of death or love of life.

Sophocles, fr. 65

“No one loves living as much as a man growing old”

τοῦ ζῆν γὰρ οὐδεὶς ὡς ὁ γηράσκων ἐρᾷ

Elsewhere, Seneca says that death is either “the end or a transformation” (EM 65) and that the former should not be feared because it is the same as never having begun (Aut finis aut transitus. Nec desinere timeo, idem est enim, quod non coepisse). This is the same as the basic assertion that we know what death is because it is a return to what we were before we were alive. In response to this notion, even the Stoic master Marcus Aurelius insists that we should consider we might die in every action we take. But, as Erik notes in an essay on “Frost, Horace and Death”, lyric poets like Catullus and Horace muse on the cyclical nature of the natural world only to conclude that our conscious lives are something different—As Catullus puts it, when the time comes “we must sleep one endless night” (nox est perpetua una dormienda, Carm. 5)

I wish my story involved going to therapy because I think that step is something which is a little easier to offer to others instead of prescribing that people spend a decade reading Seneca and Greek poetry. But this would be a lie. Like many of my generation, I was raised considering therapy for mental health a sign of weakness. I don’t rationally believe this, but the level of my disinclination to seek any kind of assistance is certainly problematic. Also, I do believe that, while therapy is absolutely the right move for people afflicted by depression, the injunction to do so is unrealistic for so many people because of costs and access issues.

On Timon, D. L. 9.12

“Antigonos says that Timon was fond of drinking; and, whenever he had free time from philosophizing, he wrote poems”

Ἦν δέ, φησὶν ὁ Ἀντίγονος, καὶ φιλοπότης καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν φιλοσόφων εἰ σχολάζοι ποιήματα συνέγραφε

The truth is that I only emerged from what was almost decades of suffering through slow, deliberate change. And reading—especially reading philosophy and poetry—was instrumental in helping me along the way. At some point, I learned to make thinking about death a practice. Obviously, some of this is just growing older and more stable—one chief antidote to depression is having a sense of belonging and something to do. And having children is a double-gift: it provides that sense of belonging and purpose while also allowing us to remember that life is full of real, precious wonder.

(The importance of belonging and purpose should make us even more aware of the position we put undergraduate and graduate students in: they are necessarily in precarious positions when it comes to social roles and cultural capital; but they also often have limited access to support services.)

Cicero, de Senectute

“Every age is burdensome to those who have no means of living well and happily”

Quibus enim nihil est in ipsis opis ad bene beateque vivendum

It is not really classical reflections on the nature of death that I have found especially enlightening or moving, but rather the constant reminder that, given what we know (or don’t know) about death, learning how to live is critical. Once you absorb this lesson, it seems like it should have been patently obvious from the beginning. It is as simple as this: we really don’t know anything about what happens after death, but we are certain we are alive now and that this life is limited. Is it not absolute insanity to do anything but try to live it well?

I don’t want to moralize much here or in any way denigrate systems of thought that bring people comfort when facing that starkest of uncertainties, but belief systems that deprive us of joy and (non-harmful) pleasure in this life steal from us by trading on the promise of the unknown. Yes, these systems of thought can do us good by enforcing standards of behavior that make us treat each other better than we would in a state of nature. And, yes, many of them do provide true comfort against that chilling fear of the endless night. But I think many of us make this deal before we can possibly understand the value of what we are bargaining.

The problem is that we wonder at death and we think it is something remarkable. What is remarkable is that each of our individual consciousnesses exist. The miracle is that we live at all. This should be celebrated and life should be enjoyed—we should revel in the fact that we are because we know for certain that we once were not and must understand the very good chance that we will not be.

This does not, of course, mean we have to be destructive. We can live fully and experience life well without taking the same opportunities from others. We don’t need to wear out life, heeding a refrain we hear from Pliny who admits his own fear of death and implores “So, while life remains to us, let’s make it so that death discovers as little as possible to destroy.” (Proinde, dum suppetit vita, enitamur ut mors quam paucissima quae abolere possit inveniat, Epistle 5.5). But we must take some stock of what it means to live.

Plato, Critias 108d

“I need to do this already, I can’t procrastinate anymore!”

τοῦτ᾿ οὖν αὐτὸ ἤδη δραστέον, καὶ μελλητέον οὐδὲν ἔτι.

This is in part why I love the two epitaphs assigned to Ashurbanipal in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. Both feature the King known for his legendary wealth reminding his addressee that we are mortal and that even the wealthy and powerful like himself die. He continues by asserting “I kept whatever I ate, the insults I made, and the joy / I took from sex. My wealth and limitless blessings are gone” (κεῖν’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔφαγον καὶ ἐφύβρισα καὶ σὺν ἔρωτι / τέρπν’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ καὶ ὄλβια πάντα λέλυνται). The variant has a slightly less hedonistic take: “I keep whatever I learned and the thoughts I had and the fine things / I experienced with them. Everything else, however pleasing, is gone.” (ταῦτ’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔμαθον καὶ ἐφρόντισα καὶ μετὰ τούτων / ἔσθλ’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ καὶ ἡδέα πάντα λέλειπται).

I think that these two options belong together—that the dueling versions do not present opposite ways of living, but instead mark out that one life is incomplete without the other. We are bodies and we are minds and the two are entwined. This is why the extreme Cyrenaic claim that life’s balance of pleasure and pain should be considered as a reason for suicide is suspect. It underestimates the value of being able to ask and answer this question in the first place.

When people ask how I ended up pursuing a career in academia in general and, in particular, why Classics, I usually tell them about my deep love of literature and how I ended up pursuing Classics as an undergraduate degree because I wanted the same type of education as my favorite authors. This is true, but not complete. When I was younger I decided that a life spent doing something that did not have a meaningful connection to what I believed life was all about was a life wasted. (Yes, I was a lot of fun in high school too.)

Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 18

“For when beauty, wealth and sex converge upon you, you better not sit or procrastinate!”

κάλλος γὰρ καὶ πλοῦτος καὶ ἔρως εἰ συνῆλθον ἐπὶ σέ, οὐχ ἕδρας οὐδὲ ἀναβολῆς

The problem with this statement is figuring out what life is “all about”. My short answer was—and remains—that having the time and allowing yourself the freedom to think about what life is for is an essential part of living fully and well. When I considered a future life as an adolescent, I wanted more time and I did not want to be in a subculture where thinking was discouraged. I wanted to be able to read and write. I wanted to have access to ancient thoughts on the same problems. Moment by moment, becoming a Classicist became almost inevitable. Indeed, Petrarch certainly sees the transience of human life through a Classical frame.

Instead, what I want to point out is there is at the base of Classical Humanism a deep and abiding contemplation of what it means to be human (including what it means to be mortal). I fear too often that Philology and many current academic practices emphasize minutiae and actually disincentivize any thought about larger pictures. To return again to Seneca, he laments that too many of us turn “to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology” (adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est, EM 108).

When I read Seneca’s Moral Epistles now, part of what emerges is the sense of a writing practice to remind oneself that life must be lived. From his first letter to Lucilius, Seneca emphasizes that time is the only thing we really have and that most people do not realize how valuable it is. Even though he insists in the de Brevitate Vitae that life is plenty long and the problem is that most people waste it, it argues in the Epistles that we must still “embrace every hour” (omnes horas complectere). Indeed, in a different essay, Seneca begs his reader to seize life because not even the next hour is guaranteed.

And how Seneca himself does this is an object lesson. He does not mean we should spend every hour in pleasure or its pursuit—indeed, he would be a hypocrite if he meant this. No, what he means is the living of life with intention and meaning. His writing of the Moral Epistles is actually a demonstration of this, of a life lived through and for contemplation but not in contempt of the experiences of the body and of others.

Seneca, Moral Epistles 76.3-5

“You must learn as long as you are ignorant—if we may trust the proverb, as long as you live. And nothing is more fit to the present than this: as long as you live you must learn how to live. Nevertheless, there is still something which I teach there. You ask, what may I teach? That an old man must learn too.”

Tamdiu discendum est, quamdiu nescias; si proverbio credimus, quamdiu vivas. Nec ulli hoc rei magis convenit quam huic: tamdiu discendum est, quemadmodum vivas, quamdiu vivas. Ego tamen illic aliquid et doceo. Quaeris, quid doceam? Etiam seni esse discendum.

Plato famously has one of his speakers say that “In truth, those who practice philosophy correctly practice dying” (τῷ ὄντι ἄρα, ἔφη, ὦ Σιμμία, οἱ ὀρθῶς φιλοσοφοῦντες ἀποθνῄσκειν μελετῶσι, Phaedo 67e). I cannot disagree with this, but I think that it needs to be explained a bit. Cicero’s gloss on this “that the life of philosophers, as the same man says, is a contemplation of death” Tota enim philosophorum vita, ut ait idem, commentatio mortis est (Tusc. Disp. 30.74-31.71.5) gets a little closer to what Montaigne understands: that without understanding death and acknowledging it for what it likely is, we make the mistake every day of not remembering to live. To contemplate death is to remind ourselves every day that life must be lived and should be lived well. To ignore it, is pretty much the opposite. This practice is not about learning how to die but instead about learning to accept that we are mortal and through that acceptance to learn truly how to live.

I started writing this in honor of turning 40 this week. I am not delighted about this number—even though I know that this is irrational and that 39 was in no real material way that different. Oh, how strange the number 40 is! My students think I’m old; my older colleagues think I am still young. I feel generally the same as I have for years, except I know rationally that the number of years which have passed are most likely now to outnumber those that remain.

To celebrate this, I am leaving the country. My wife surprised me with a trip to Greece and this is a big deal because, somehow, I have never actually made it to Greece. I know it is ridiculous that a Hellenist has never been to Greece and I am sure that this among many other things exposes what a charlatan I am, but there are plausible explanations. My parents never possessed passports; a good deal of my travel abroad was funded by someone else. Etc. etc.

When my wife told me she had booked a trip to Greece to mark (or perhaps avoid?) this auspicious occasion, I had to wonder aloud if we could afford to go. She said, can we afford not to? Who am I to argue with wisdom so deep?

So, for the next week there will be a series of pre-scheduled posts about Athens, a place I deeply love from texts, but a world to which I have never truly been. Until then, a reminder from Martial.

Martial, 5.58

“Postumus, you always say that you will live tomorrow, tomorrow!
But that ‘tomorrow’ of yours – when does it ever come?
How far off is that ‘tomorrow’! Where is it, or where should it be sought?
Does it lie hidden among the Parthians, or the Armenians?
That ‘tomorrow’ is as old as Priam or Nestor.
For how much can ‘tomorrow’ be purchased?
You will live tomorrow, you say?
Postumus, even living today is too late;
he is the wise man, who lived yesterday.

Cras te uicturum, cras dicis, Postume, semper:
dic mihi, cras istud, Postume, quando uenit?
Quam longe cras istud! ubi est? aut unde petendum?
Numquid apud Parthos Armeniosque latet?
Iam cras istud habet Priami uel Nestoris annos. 5
Cras istud quanti, dic mihi, possit emi?
Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est:
ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri.

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