Speaking of Centaurs…Nestor’s Tale in Iliad 1

In the first book of the Iliad, Nestor attempts to intervene in the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. He eventually tells both men to simmer down—Achilles should act insubordinately and Agamemnon shouldn’t take Briseis. Neither of them listen to him. The reason—beyond the fact that neither of them are in a compromising state of mind—may in part be because of the story Nestor tells.

Il. 1.259–273

“But listen to me: both of you are younger than me; for long before have I accompanied men better than even you and they never disregarded me. For I never have seen those sort of men since, nor do I expect to see them; men like Perithoos and Dryas, the shepherd of the host, and Kaineus and Exadios and godly Polyphemos and Aigeus’ son Theseus, who was equal to the gods; indeed these were the strongest of mortal men who lived—they were the strongest and they fought with the strongest, mountain-inhabiting beasts, and they destroyed them violently. And I accompanied them when I left Pylos far off from a distant land when they summoned me themselves; and I fought on my own. No one could fight with them, none of those mortals who now are on the earth. Even they listened to my counsel and heeded my speech.”

ἀλλὰ πίθεσθ’· ἄμφω δὲ νεωτέρω ἐστὸν ἐμεῖο·
ἤδη γάρ ποτ’ ἐγὼ καὶ ἀρείοσιν ἠέ περ ὑμῖν
ἀνδράσιν ὡμίλησα, καὶ οὔ ποτέ μ’ οἵ γ’ ἀθέριζον.
οὐ γάρ πω τοίους ἴδον ἀνέρας οὐδὲ ἴδωμαι,
οἷον Πειρίθοόν τε Δρύαντά τε ποιμένα λαῶν
Καινέα τ’ ᾿Εξάδιόν τε καὶ ἀντίθεον Πολύφημον
Θησέα τ’ Αἰγεΐδην, ἐπιείκελον ἀθανάτοισιν·
κάρτιστοι δὴ κεῖνοι ἐπιχθονίων τράφεν ἀνδρῶν·
κάρτιστοι μὲν ἔσαν καὶ καρτίστοις ἐμάχοντο
φηρσὶν ὀρεσκῴοισι καὶ ἐκπάγλως ἀπόλεσσαν.
καὶ μὲν τοῖσιν ἐγὼ μεθομίλεον ἐκ Πύλου ἐλθὼν
τηλόθεν ἐξ ἀπίης γαίης· καλέσαντο γὰρ αὐτοί·
καὶ μαχόμην κατ’ ἔμ’ αὐτὸν ἐγώ· κείνοισι δ’ ἂν οὔ τις
τῶν οἳ νῦν βροτοί εἰσιν ἐπιχθόνιοι μαχέοιτο·
καὶ μέν μευ βουλέων ξύνιεν πείθοντό τε μύθῳ·

lapiths-and-centaurs

Ancient commentators praise Nestor elsewhere for his ability to apply appropriate examples in his persuasive speeches:

Schol. Ad Il. 23.630b ex. 1-6: “[Nestor] always uses appropriate examples. For, whenever he wants to encourage someone to enter one-on-one combat, he speaks of the story of Ereuthaliôn (7.136-56); when he wanted to rouse Achilles to battle, he told the story of the Elean war (11.671¬–761). And here in the games for Patroklos, he reminds them of an ancient funeral contest.”

ex. ὡς ὁπότε κρείοντ'<—᾿Επειοί>: ἀεὶ οἰκείοις παραδείγμασι χρῆται· ὅταν μὲν γάρ τινα ἐπὶ μονομάχιον ἐξαναστῆσαι θέλῃ, τὰ περὶ ᾿Ερευθαλίωνα (sc. Η 136—56) λέγει, ὅταν δὲ ᾿Αχιλλέα ἐπὶ τὴν μάχην, τὰ περὶ τὸν ᾿Ηλειακὸν πόλεμον (sc. Λ 671—761)·
καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἐπὶ Πατρόκλῳ ἄθλοις παλαιοῦ ἐπιταφίου μέμνηται ἀγῶνος.
b(BCE3E4)T

The scholia also assert that such use of stories from the past is typical of and appropriate to elders:

Schol. ad Il. 9.447b ex. 1-2 : “The elderly are storytellers and they persuade with examples from the past. In other cases, the tale assuages the anger…”

μυθολόγοι οἱ γέροντες καὶ παραδείγμασι παραμυθούμενοι. ἄλλως τε ψυχαγωγεῖ τὴν ὀργὴν ὁ μῦθος.

Continue reading “Speaking of Centaurs…Nestor’s Tale in Iliad 1”

On Not Reading Homer

Xenophon, Symposium 3.5

“And what about you, Nikêratos—what kind of knowledge do you cherish?” And he said “My father, because he wished for me to be a good man, compelled me to memorize all of Homer. And now I can recite the whole Iliad and Odyssey.” Antisthenes said “Has it escaped you that all the rhapsodes know these epics too?”

ἀλλὰ σὺ αὖ, ἔφη, λέγε, ὦ Νικήρατε, ἐπὶ ποίᾳ ἐπιστήμῃ μέγα φρονεῖς. καὶ ὃς εἶπεν· ῾Ο πατὴρ ὁ ἐπιμελούμενος ὅπως ἀνὴρ ἀγαθὸς γενοίμην ἠνάγκασέ με πάντα τὰ ῾Ομήρου ἔπη μαθεῖν· καὶ νῦν δυναίμην ἂν ᾿Ιλιάδα ὅλην καὶ ᾿Οδύσσειαν ἀπὸ στόματος εἰπεῖν. ᾿Εκεῖνο δ’, ἔφη ὁ ᾿Αντισθένης, λέληθέ σε, ὅτι καὶ οἱ ῥαψῳδοὶ πάντες ἐπίστανται ταῦτα τὰ ἔπη;

Over the past few weeks there has been a bit of a frenzy over Oxford University’s potential move to drop Homer and Vergil from their required curriculum for Classics. We have heard the typical cries of “O Tempora, O Mores” in articles lamenting the fall of education and the decline of the west. This news even made The Blaze!, quoting only a student who calls it “a fatal mistake” because “Homer has been the foundation of the classical tradition since antiquity.”

(And you know that if a cultural question got Blazed. it is of real, deep, ethical concern.)

The ‘terrible’ nature of this decision is not just blamed on “diversity” but also on the inability of modern students to cope, supported by cherry-picked quotations from faculty. And this has also been characterized as part of a “diversity drive” with the adjective there used as a dog-whistle for cultural supremacists and not a sign of progressive, inclusive intent.

You know what I haven’t heard much of? People defending this proposal. Well, here I am, and that’s what I am going to do.

I am a Homerist. I have spent more than half my life reading, teaching, and writing on Homer. To say that I love the Homeric epics is such an understatement that it breaks my basic constative ability to do so. But this proposal makes sense. Let me tell you why.

Leonardo Bruni de Studiis et Litteris 21

“What is lacking in Homer, that we should not consider him to be the wisest man in every kind of wisdom? Some people claim that his poetry is a complete education for life, equally divided between times of war and peace.”

Quid Homero deest, quominus in omni sapientia sapientissimus existimari possit? Eius poesim totam esse doctrinam vivendi quidam ostendunt, in belli tempora pacisque divisa

First, the brouhaha mis-characterizes the proposal which is to make Homer and Vergil optional. From years of teaching Homer to undergraduates, I know that fewer are prepared to read something of this length and depth. They have read little in pre-collegiate classes of this length and intricacy. And we do not have the time in class to move from understanding a sentence to its relationship to the whole to its critical engagement with cultures over time.

The worst thing I see happening—and I know this happens at Oxford—is teaching Homer badly. Students don’t have the cultural frameworks, or the training to understand what they’re looking at. And this is in part because many people who teach Homer have a backwards idea of what the epics are and how they work.

These backwards ideas come from a teleological perspective that has over time selected from the past only works that conform to certain expectations and then force them to conform to others. Teaching Homer badly is objectively a bad thing. It turns students off to Homer; it gives them misconceptions about the ancient world; and it harmfully enforces the history of European literature.

Homer contains some nasty stuff. Taught in the wrong way, it glorifies violence, perpetuates misogyny, oversimplifies “heroes”, their faults, and gives terrible lessons on life and death. “Reading” a text is not merely passing one’s eyes over it or uttering the words aloud. It requires patience, contemplation, identification, alienation, communion with others and repetition

This is about the way we teach Homer as a holy, simple thing, with clear messages and heroes who can be understood in a few lessons. Homeric epics are dialogic, they are complex creations between audiences and the words themselves and without time, deep learning, and space, they function to advance a simplistic, but powerful policy of canon-enforcement

Henry David Thoreau, from his essay Walking (1862)

“The poet to-day, notwithstanding all the discoveries of science, and the accumulated learning of mankind, enjoys no advantage over Homer.”

Homer as often taught as canon—which is the main argument in many articles—is a product not of antiquity but of the time between antiquity and now. To disentangle the layers of interpretation and the centuries of misunderstandings that have accrued, students need sensitive reading skills and agile teachers.

Before reading Homer, students need to learn to read, to understand the relationship between text and audience, and the operation of literature—and especially the literary canon—as part of cultural discourse. We are better off by spending time teaching students a few poems by Sappho or lyric and elegiac poets, if what we want to learn about is Greek culture and poetry.

(And all of this sidesteps what modern program in Classical Studies is for. If we have only a small handful of credit hours to enlighten the mind and prepare it to engage fruitfully with the world it encounters, is slogging through an epic the best use of our time?)

But if you read even passively, the stalwart Homeric defenders aren’t really interested in the past. They are interested in Homer as a marker of their own culture. And look at the way people defend it! In one piece, the author cries that Homer is the beginning of a Trojan war story that made London “New Troy”. No cultural supremacy or appropriation there.

Yes, understanding Homer can be important for cultural literacy of the past, but it is not the only way to gain this (and most Renaissance paintings based on myth are not Homeric). Yes, Homer poses important questions about what it means to be a Human being—but Homeric universality is wildly overplayed. Who gets left out?

Werner Jager, Paideia (tr. Gilbert Highet, pp.35-36)

“We are right in feeling such bare utilitarianism to be repulsive to our aesthetic sense; but it is none the less certain that Homer (like all the great Greek poets) is something much more than a figure in the parade of literary history. He is the first and the greatest creator and shaper of Greek life and the Greek character.”

Homer, as taught in many places, is a ‘genius author’ who laid the foundations of western literature. Homer “wrote” the Iliad and the Odyssey and handed down the guidebook for mimetic narrative and human achievement. These ‘facts’ are demonstrably false and yet the way many teach Homer and position the epics as canon are based on these premises.

The ‘lie’ of Homer is an originary tale of ‘authenticity’ and cultural hegemony which intentionally overlooks that the Homeric epics are products and well as producers of this culture. This is deeply connected to how easily the Classics can be appropriated by white supremacists.

They are classics because they have been selected and handed down as such. This “tradition” (Latin for “handing down”) reinforces its own authority and aesthetics in the process of transmission and reception.

And the ‘Homer’ we possess is one of our own creation. There is a fundamental problem here in the concept of the word “authentic”, a quasi-religious belief and consequent search for the original, authoritative, and authentic form of Homer which goes back to antiquity (once “Homer” was separated from its performance context and reassembled by Hellensitic authors) and which is reborn and supercharged in that overlapping space between Classical and Biblical philology. M.L. West’s, an Oxford prodcut, posthumous text of the Odyssey, for example, operates on the principle that there was a single author and a single text and that the task of a textual critic—and philology at large—is to help us get closer to that original, that authentic, that divine genius.

And there is a Christian, revelationist stance in some of the philology that emerges from this background. In his recent commentary to Odyssey book 1, Simon Pulleyn, rejecting the idea of an oral tradition as critical to the epic we possess, tradition, revealingly combines belief in God with belief in Homer: “Just as the faith once put in God reposes nowadays largely in committees, so we are invited to see the epics not as masterpieces of an individual artist but as the product of numerous generations of bards each contributing their bit. We are asked to rid ourselves of anachronistic notions of the genius of individual authors” (2019 39).

Too much of what we call “classical studies” and canon are retrograde assumptions about the world and what it means to be human. They reduce everything to divinely-derived aesthetics and marginalize people and creeds who do not confirm to “Western” measures (as defined after the age in which the epics were formed). When we talk about what we should teach as the foundation of Classical Studies, we need to think about what our goals are, what we want students to be able to do when they are done.

When one author writes “Within attempts like this to increase access to higher education lies a short-sighted philistinism as destructive as anything that emerged from the Trojan horse,” he is really decrying the collapse of a simplistic and counterfeit system of values based on the idea of Homeric poetry rather than the thing itself.

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.

Making Homer optional is not “watering down” the curriculum. It is opening up our education to do what we are supposed to do: critically and pointedly examine the past. Sure, advanced students, graduate students, professionals in the field, they should probably read Homer, but should everyone?

I am not saying that we should not have students reading Homer—but that if we only have a small collection of classes, they can acquire critical language, reading, reasoning, and cultural skills in other ways. This is important both in focusing on what our undergraduate learning goals are and in thinking about what we want classical studies to become in the future.

Are we going to merely perpetuate the same training, beliefs and ideas over and over again without reflecting on where they come from or what they mean? Are we going to ignore the fact that our histories of the Mediterranean have been figuratively and literally whitewashed in the service of colonial, nationalist, and racist discourse? Or are we a field where we train people to think critically, to re-frame the past, and then reclaim it?

As a Homerist, I think I’ve found myself in part by searching for “Homer”—and I think this is indeed one of the most salubrious effects of literature. But this is not the only goal and this is not the Aristotelian end for Classical Studies. We need students to enter with the world with the ability to question and reframe the worth of the pasts we have inherited.

Because if we keep doing the same thing over and over again, it is not going to turn out well. And soon.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Liberorum Educatione

“The ancients decided that reading should begin from Homer and Vergil, though it requires a firm sense of judgment to understand their virtues.”

Veteres instituerunt, ut ab Homero atque Vergilio lectio inciperet, quamvis ad intelligendum eorum virtutes opus esset firmiori iudicio.

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Homer and his Guide (1874).jpg
Adolphe Bouguereau Homer and His Guide

Lucky By Nature

Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics 1247b

“If certain people are good natured—just as some musical people who do not know how to sing yet are still born for it—and without any logical training are inclined towards basic nature and desire what is right in the time and way that is right, such people will find success even if they are really irrational fools just as some people may sing well even though they don’t know how to teach it. People who are generally successful without thinking about it are lucky like this. Based on this, we can say they are lucky by nature.”

εἰ δή τινές εἰσιν εὐφυεῖς (ὥσπερ οἱ ᾠδικοὶ οὐκ ἐπιστάμενοι ᾄδειν οὕτως εὖ πεφύκασι) καὶ ἄνευ λόγου ὁρμῶσιν ᾗ ἡ φύσις πέφυκε καὶ ἐπιθυμοῦσι καὶ τούτου καὶ τότε καὶ οὕτως ὡς δεῖ καὶ οὗ δεῖ καὶ ὅτε, οὗτοι κατορθώσουσι κἂν τύχωσιν ἄφρονες ὄντες καὶ ἄλογοι, ὥσπερ καὶ εὖ ᾄσονται οὐ διδασκαλικοὶ ὄντες. οἱ δέ γε τοιοῦτοι εὐτυχεῖς, ὅσοι ἄνευ λόγου κατορθοῦσιν ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολύ. φύσει ἄρα οἱ εὐτυχεῖς εἶεν ἄν.

E123869
A juggler in a gradual, Harley MS 4951, f. 298v (from this blog)

Attracting the Greatest Numbers of Students with the Least Truth

Isocrates, Against the Sophists 9-10

“We must rebuke not only those sophists but also those who promise to teach political oratory—for these guys don’t care at all about the truth but instead think that it is an art because they get the greatest number of students thanks to the small size of their fee and the greatness of their pronouncements and then they get something from them.

They are so imperceptive and imagine everyone else to be that even though they write speeches worse than some of the untrained masses compose, they still guarantee that they will make their students the kinds of politicians who never leave out any of the possibilities in a matter.

Even worse, they don’t derive any of that power from their experiences or the talent of a student, but they say that they can train the knowledge of speaking as they would basic literacy—in reality, each of them believe that because of the insanity of their promises they will be objects of wonder and that people will think that training in their discipline is worth more than it is. In this, they have not even considered that the people who make arts great are not those who dare to boast about them, but those who have the ability to discover what the power of each art is on its own.”

Οὐ μόνον δὲ τούτοις ἀλλὰ καὶ τοῖς τοὺς πολιτικοὺς λόγους ὑπισχνουμένοις ἄξιον ἐπιτιμῆσαι καὶ γὰρ ἐκεῖνοι τῆς μὲν ἀληθείας οὐδὲν φροντίζουσιν, ἡγοῦνται δὲ τοῦτ᾿ εἶναι τὴν τέχνην, ἢν ὡς πλείστους τῇ μικρότητι τῶν μισθῶν καὶ τῷ μεγέθει τῶν ἐπαγγελμάτων προσαγάγωνται καὶ λαβεῖν τι παρ᾿ αὐτῶν δυνηθῶσιν· οὕτω δ᾿ ἀναισθήτως αὐτοί τε διάκεινται καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους ἔχειν ὑπειλήφασιν, ὥστε χεῖρον γράφοντες τοὺς λόγους ἢ τῶν ἰδιωτῶν τινες αὐτοσχεδιάζουσιν, ὅμως ὑπισχνοῦνται τοιούτους ῥήτορας τοὺς συνόντας ποιήσειν ὥστε μηδὲν τῶν ἐνόντων ἐν τοῖς πράγμασι παραλιπεῖν. καὶ ταύτης τῆς δυνάμεως οὐδὲν [293]οὔτε ταῖς ἐμπειρίαις οὔτε τῇ φύσει τῇ τοῦ μαθητοῦ μεταδιδόασιν, ἀλλά φασιν ὁμοίως τὴν τῶν λόγων ἐπιστήμην ὥσπερ τὴν τῶν γραμμάτων παραδώσειν, ὡς μὲν ἔχει τούτων ἑκάτερον, οὐκ ἐξετάσαντες, οἰόμενοι δὲ διὰ τὰς ὑπερβολὰς τῶν ἐπαγγελμάτων αὐτοί τε θαυμασθήσεσθαι καὶ τὴν παίδευσιν τὴν τῶν λόγων πλέονος ἀξίαν δόξειν εἶναι, κακῶς εἰδότες ὅτι μεγάλας ποιοῦσι τὰς τέχνας οὐχ οἱ τολμῶντες ἀλαζονεύεσθαι περὶ αὐτῶν, ἀλλ᾿ οἵτινες ἄν, ὅσον ἔνεστιν ἐν ἑκάστῃ, τοῦτ᾿ ἐξευρεῖν δυνηθῶσιν.

Vaticanus Graecus, 65. 121v Public Domain

 

Vacation: Putting the Skholê back into Scholarship

Dio Chrysostom, On Retirement 3

“No, these guys are obviously running away and going AWOL. They have no excuse and could expect no pardon for this kind of vacation and desertion.”

ἀλλ᾿ οὗτοι μὲν δῆλον ὅτι φεύγουσί τε καὶ δραπετεύουσι, καὶ οὐκ ἂν εἴη πρόφασις αὐτοῖς οὐδὲ συγγνώμη τῆς τοιαύτης σχολῆς τε καὶ ἀποδράσεως.

scholar 2

As many people know, the word scholarship is somewhere in the past derived from the Ancient Greek skholê for “leisure” (since literary and linguistic studies were both the sorts of things people did in their leisure time and you had to be a person with leisure time to do them). This also happens to be the word that Woodhouse’s English-Greek Dictionary provides as the translation for English “vacation”.

(also, just ruminate on the Latin etymology of vacation for a minute, the implied emptiness…)

Vacation

One of the popular—and politically expedient—myths about people who teach (both at the college level and lower) is that we are people of leisure—we have too much idle time to engage in (1) not doing ‘real’ work or (2) brainwashing those naïve children society entrusts to us. The truth—especially for college faculty on contract or in contingent positions, for those early in their career or looking for jobs, or for anyone who teaches elementary through high school—is that the past generation has seen the slow but steady erosion of the boundary between leisure and work.

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 7

“When will this year end?” One man gives games and even though he set a great worth on being able to do so, now says, “When will I flee them?” Another lawyer is praised over the whole forum and attracts a great crowd extending farther than they can hear, yet he complains, “When will I get a break?”

Everyone hurries life on and suffers a desire for the future and a weariness from the present. But the one who dedicates all his time to his own use, who orders every day as if it is the last one, neither desires nor fears tomorrow.”

“Quando hic annus praeteribit?” Facit ille ludos, quorum sortem sibi optingere magno aestimavit: “Quando,” inquit, “istos effugiam?” Diripitur ille toto foro patronus et magno concursu omnia ultra, quam audiri potest, complet: “Quando,” inquit, “res proferentur?” Praecipitat quisque vitam suam et futuri desiderio laborat, praesentium taedio. At ille qui nullum non tempus in usus suos confert, qui omnem diem tamquam ultimum ordinat, nec optat crastinum nec timet.

This boundary has moved not in our favor but in the direction of creating an environment in which teachers and academics never stop working. This is true for many fields where technology and the unholy god of efficiency has extended work hours and expected employees to take work home and to answer work communication at all hours. But it is especially damaging for mental health in higher ed and high school where we buy in to the idea of the life of the mind and willingly submit to the elision between our personal and professional selves.

This means that high school teachers grade until 9 or 10 at night (on an early night) because they are with students until almost dinner time. This means that professors teaching adjunct courses still feel compelled to answer emails at 1 AM because they don’t want lower teaching evaluations. This means that early career professors in the tenure track put off having children or being in relationships for decades because they don’t have the time. This means that life passes us by because we are trying so hard to make the most out our lives.

A few years back in Facebook, Dr. S. Culpepper Stroup (a fantastic name of which I am very jealous) makes a great point about the difference between otium (leisure) and negotium (business) in Latin. The long-and-short of it is that the Roman lexicon reflects an inverse relationship between our work and vacation. But, here are her finer words (quoted with permission):

Speaking of *otium* (as I always do) and its centrality to the Roman intellectual sphere, consider its opposite: *negotium*. Latin instructors often team *otium* as “leisure” and *negotium* as “business,” both of which absolutely miss the train in terms of semantic designation.

(Leisure comes from the Latin *licet*, so it indicates a time when one is *allowed* to do a specific activity, which absolutely lacks the strong autonomous sense of *otium*.)

Anyway, *negotium* is—obviously—the privative of *otium* (early on we see it in Plautus as “nec otium mihi”). *Negotium* is the time when you are deprived of *otium*.

The English “vacation” completely reverses that, making work the “full” thing (full of work, that is), and vacation the privative.

I far prefer the Roman sense of *otium*, as a self-owned time that needed no apologies.

Euripides, Hippolytus 383-384

“Life has many pleasures
Long talks and leisure, a pleasant evil…”

… εἰσὶ δ’ ἡδοναὶ πολλαὶ βίου,
μακραὶ δὲ λέσχαι καὶ σχολὴ τερπνὸν κακόν.

Smarter and more well-informed people than I can make the argument about the evils of neo-liberal capitalism and the commodification of everything. They can point out the insidious culture that insists us to see our online persona as our actual selves and to envision the ‘life’ we pursue there as a never ending process of branding and re-branding to ensure that we will never be less than fully commodifiable. I can merely confess that the anxiety, workload, and self-identification has shaped me in such a way that it is really, really hard to take any time off.

I was grading exams the days both of my children were born (and I got reprimanded by my chair for not entering grades soon enough after). When my daughter was learning to walk, I cheered her on as I furiously finished a book and a few articles to ensure I received tenure. I took one week off when my father died suddenly. I have brought sick kids to class repeatedly. I took one day off when my grandmother died.. None of this is necessary, admirable, or worthy of praise; all of it is from guilt, pressure, and our toxic work culture. And I know I don’t have it particularly bad. I have tenure. I have a place in the world, job security, and safety.

But at this point, I am what I do and I do what I am. I take articles to read at the playground. I proof articles while my kids are at swimming lessons. I have dragged work to Italy, India, France, Germany. Somehow I have not totally ruined my relationship with my spouse by slinking out of bed regularly at 5 am or answering emails after the children are asleep. I have lived through my work and despite my work. And I worry about the long-term consequences.

But I keep going because I love my material, because I love my students and my institution, and because of the fear and guilt: I know there are many others who are smarter, who have worked harder, but who have not had some of the dumb luck I have (or the privilege to which I was born) to end up where I am.

Cicero, Pro Murena 28

“No one can be famous for being wise if it is concerning the type of knowledge which is worthless anywhere beyond Rome and even at Rome too during a vacation. No one can be an expert on something which everyone knows because there can’t be any disagreement on the matter. A subject cannot be considered difficult just because it exists in a very few and rather obscure documents.”

Sapiens existimari nemo potest in ea prudentia quae neque extra Romam usquam neque Romae rebus prolatis quicquam valet. Peritus ideo haberi nemo potest quod in eo quod sciunt omnes nullo modo possunt inter se discrepare. Difficilis autem res ideo non putatur quod et perpaucis et minime obscuris litteris continetur.

At the end of the day (and a life!), I cannot be sure that work that I do is worth the emotion I have put into it. But, of course, this does not mean I can or will stop. I can, however, try to reset definitions a bit and remember to enjoy life a little more and take time off.

So, I am not going to go all memento mori and carpe diem today. (My students already think I have some sort of death-obsessed insanity.) And I won’t claim to be especially unlucky when I know the opposite is true. But I will say that we have a problem in education, especially: we spend a lot of time claiming that we can teach about the value of human life even as we fail so terribly at honoring the worth of our own.

So, the next week of posts will be repeats, cleverly repackaged along with a few retrospective posts I threw together earlier. I am going to try not to do work for a week. Again.

Ok, wait, Screw it. We are ALL GOING TO DIE. Here’s some advice from Ashurbanipal:

“Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart
By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.
I am ash, though I ruled great Ninevah as king.
I keep whatever I ate, the insults I made, and the joy
I took from sex. My wealth and many blessings are gone.
[This is wise advice for life: I will never forget it.
Let anyone who wants to accumulate limitless gold.]

εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,
τερπόμενος θαλίῃσι· θανόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις.
καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ σποδός εἰμι, Νίνου μεγάλης βασιλεύσας·
κεῖν’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔφαγον καὶ ἐφύβρισα καὶ σὺν ἔρωτι
τέρπν’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ καὶ ὄλβια πάντα λέλυνται.
[ἥδε σοφὴ βιότοιο παραίνεσις, οὐδέ ποτ’ αὐτῆς
λήσομαι· ἐκτήσθω δ’ ὁ θέλων τὸν ἀπείρονα χρυσόν.]

Image result for Ancient Greek Leisure
It is a race, but we all know where it ends.

The Annoying Liberal Arts

Seneca, Moral Epistle 88

“But, truly, the knowledge of many disciplines is pleasurable”. Ok, then, let’s keep only what is necessary from these arts. Do you think that the person who considers superficial matters equal to useful ones and for this reason makes his home a museum of expensive products is reprehensible but not the man who is obsessed with the superfluous aspects of academia? To want to know more than is enough is a kind of excessive delusion.

Why? Well, this extreme pursuit of the liberal arts makes people annoying, wordy, bad-mannered, and overly self-satisfied, even though they have not learned the basics because they pursue the useless.

The scholar Didymus wrote four thousand books. I would pity him if had only read that many useless works. In these books he searched for Homer’s homeland, the real mother of Aeneas, whether Anacreon is more licentious or just drunk, whether Sappho was promiscuous and other various questions which, if you learned them, would have been necessarily forgotten. Go on, don’t say life is long. No, when you turn to your own people too, I will show you many things which should be pruned back with an ax.”

“At enim delectat artium notitia multarum.” Tantum itaque ex illis retineamus, quantum necessarium est. An tu existimas reprendendum, qui supervacua usibus conparat et pretiosarum rerum pompam in domo explicat, non putas eum, qui occupatus est in supervacua litterarum supellectile? Plus scire velle quam sit satis, intemperantiae genus est.

Quid? Quod ista liberalium artium consectatio molestos, verbosos, intempestivos, sibi placentes facit et ideo non discentes necessaria, quia supervacua didicerunt. Quattuor milia librorum Didymus grammaticus scripsit. Misererer, si tam multa supervacua legisset. In his libris de patria Homeri quaeritur, in his de Aeneae matre vera, in his libidinosior Anacreon an ebriosior vixerit, in his an Sappho publica fuerit, et alia, quae erant dediscenda, si scires. I nunc et longam esse vitam nega. Sed ad nostros quoque cum perveneris, ostendam multa securibus recidenda.

These are themes close to the old man’s heart, elsewhere too:

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 13

“This sickness used to just afflict the Greeks, to discover the number of oars Odysseus possessed, whether the Iliad was written before the Odyssey, whether the poems belong to the same author, and other matters like this which, if you keep them to yourself, cannot please your private mind; but if you publish them, you seem less learned than annoying.”

Graecorum iste morbus fuit quaerere, quem numerum Ulixes remigum habuisset, prior scripta esset Ilias an Odyssia, praeterea an eiusdem essent auctoris, alia deinceps huius notae, quae sive contineas, nihil tacitam conscientiam iuvant sive proferas, non doctior videaris sed molestior.

Seneca, Moral Epistle 108

“But some error comes thanks to our teachers who instruct us how to argue but not how to live; some error too comes from students, who bring themselves to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology.”

Sed aliquid praecipientium vitio peccatur, qui nos docent disputare, non vivere, aliquid discentium, qui propositum adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est.

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ca. 1350 | The Morgan Library & Museum

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship (Ausonius)

“It is difficult to imagine that a man capable of writing such trifles as these (not to mention his lines on the Caesars and on celebrated cities) had some ten years previously (in 378 a.d.) filled the splendid position of praetorian praefect of the provinces of Gaul (an official whose sway extended even over Spain and the opposite coast of Africa, and over the southern part of Britain), and, in the four years between 376 and 380, had seen his father honorary praefect of lllyricum, his son and son-in-law proconsuls of Africa, and his nephew praefect of Rome. It seems as if, on his return to the scenes of his early work as a professor at Bordeaux, the praefect relapsed into the ‘ grammarian ‘, spending his time on learned trifles, which are among the least important products of scholarship, and consoling himself in his tedious task by recalling Virgil’s famous phrase: — ‘in tenui labor, at tenuis non gloria’. We may regret that Ausonius does not appear to have used his great opportunities for reforming the educational system which prevailed in the schools of the Western Empire, and thus rendering a lasting service to the cause of learning; but we may allow him the credit of having possibly inspired the memorable decree promulgated by Gratian in 376, which improved the status of public instructors by providing for the appointment of teachers of rhetoric and of Greek and Latin ‘ grammar ‘ in the principal cities of Gaul, and fixing the amount of their stipends ‘. “

The Shame of Mock Slave Auctions in Secondary Classics

Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in a Virginia public school. She has published several collections of Latin mottoes online and has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on Twitter.

The Junior Classical League purports to foster interest in the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome and is one of the largest academic clubs in the world with 50,000 members and 1,200 chapters. For the last six decades, JCL has also supported mock slave auctions as a source of entertainment. Humor derived from dehumanization and degradation have no place in our society, especially given our country’s shameful history of enslavement and other forms of systemic racism.

My essay should end here. Ideally, the notion of mock slave auctions in an organization sponsored by the American Classical League should prompt outrage, activism, and sustained action. Too often, though, this kind of racism is tolerated and normalized by those both inside and outside of secondary classics. Latin teachers and other stakeholders, even those who purport to care about social justice, often protect the field over individuals marginalized and harmed by patterns of racism and hostility in secondary Latin. 

We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the state of secondary Classics. We are in dire need of reform.

The Junior Classical League is a space so insulated from the realities of racism that slave auctions have been a common source of entertainment and fun for decades. In 2016, a story about a mock slave auction went viral after black audience members were subjected to this racist spectacle at an Illinois Junior Classical League convention. In a demonstrably deceitful response, the National Junior Classical League and the American Classical League claimed they “regret to hear of the incident” and that “this incident in no way reflects the values we have as an organization.” 

The Junior Classical League did not “hear of the incident,” they have organized, promoted and sponsored similar events for the better part of a century. In the 1950s, a teacher wrote in Classical Outlook, “One boy bought a pretty girl just to have her following him around… The club has been asked to repeat the auction in assembly before the whole school.” 

1950s

Slave auctions continue in the Junior Classical League, often sanitized with the branding “Rent-a-Roman.” The 2011-2012 National Junior Classical League scrapbook contains a picture of a “slave” posing with her “master at the annual Rent-a-Roman.” In 2012, an event affiliated with the California Junior Classical League included this description: “You can offer yourself up for sale or bid on the merchandise to purchase a companion/ money-servant for the rest of the lunch hour.” In 2014, a write up in the newsletter of the Classical Association of the Midwest and South include a teacher touting activities that included a “master/slave program.” The 2017 California Junior Classical League constitution included a reference to slave auctions as a fundraising opportunity: “Should a slave auction be held at the state convention, the money acquired shall go to the state scholarship fund.” In 2018, the Pennsylvania Junior Classical League newsletter contained a report on a Saturnalia event where club leaders are “auctioned off to serve as ‘slaves’ for the night… these individuals will be ordered around by their new masters to fetch food, sing, dance, and entertain.”

Mock slave auctions are just one example of a much larger, pervasive problem in secondary Classics that includes trivializing slavery and turning oppression, and the oppressed, into a source of humor. In 2017, Erik Robinson documented problematic portrayals of slavery in secondary text books. The National Latin Exam, which over 140,000 students take, is notorious for their regressive treatment of slavery and other forms of oppression (e.g. sexual assault). There are too many examples to list here, but one recent question echoed the racist myth of the loyal slave. Loyalty is predicated on autonomy and feelings of allegiance, which mitigates the culpability of enslavers and misrepresents the realities of slavery. 

loyal slave

It is beyond the scope of this article to explain why slave auctions are racist and how this kind of humor, even in the context of ancient Rome, supports the messaging and strategies of white supremacy groups. Suffice it to say, these kinds of events are unethical and harmful. Recently, the New York attorney general’s office investigated a school for holding a slave auction, finding “that the teacher’s re-enactments in the two classes had a profoundly negative effect on all of the students present — especially the African American students — and the school community at large.” A student who witnessed the Illinois JCL slave auction told the Washington Post, “Since JCL is primarily white, they are so into their, like, white privilege, I guess, that they don’t know how they can affect minorities.”

The Junior Classical League has abused its monopoly and imposed a twisted value system on its members. JCL membership appeals to students looking to build their college resumes. And, many teachers are contractually required to sponsor a chapter. Our dues should not support this kind of culture. We should not cultivate students’ interest in this distortion of Classics.

The American Classical League has hired a diversity consultant, and in most of my correspondence with them, I am reminded of this fact. It is a positive step for the ACL to obtain the services of an outside expert, but a diversity consultant should be a small part of a larger strategy to eradicate racism from secondary Classics, not a standalone solution. As long as stakeholders in secondary Classics and our post-secondary colleagues protect the status quo through both action and inaction, this culture will persist and become even more toxic.

Concern for people affected by these systemic failures must trump the defense of the organization. ACL, JCL, NLE, and other affiliates exist to promote Classics. Nothing in the promotion of Classics should also include the promotion of racism and white supremacy, especially when hundreds of thousands of children are affected by the way the ACL has shaped the field. 

It is time for decisive action and commitment to change.

The co-chair of the National Latin Exam accused me in a late-night Twitter direct message of wanting a spectacle. I do not want a spectacle. (Perhaps that accusation was wishful thinking.) I want the culture of secondary Latin to stop supporting racism and narratives of white dominance.

This goal will take work, not just words. If you are interested in advocating against racism in Classics and want to know how to help, feel free to email me at dani.bostick@gmail.com 

Meanwhile, here are a few ways the American Classical League and its affiliates can begin to change the culture in secondary Classics. This list is far from exhaustive:

1)  Apologize for your role in perpetuating white supremacy and racism. Stop treating each instance of problematic content and practices as some sort of aberration. 

2)  Remove leaders and volunteers who have aggressively defended and perpetuated the status quo and who prioritize the interests and image of the organization over the well-being and safety of students.

3) Provide information to teachers about how to talk about white supremacy and dangerous appropriations of Classics. Our field has supported racist ideas and is used to legitimize hate and violence. We have a responsibility to equip students to recognize and counter these appropriations, even when they come from within our own field.

4) Remove all content immediately that is incompatible with the goal of “Classics for All” and release an accompanying statement that explains why the material was harmful. Do not legitimize offensive content and practices by engaging in a ‘both sides discussion’ and hiding behind procedure and tradition. Swift action and adherence to procedures are not mutually exclusive.

Colleagues in post-secondary Classics. Here are a few calls to action and points to consider: 

1) Find out if JCL held a mock slave auction on your campus. If so, apologize. Do not allow them on your campus. Fraternities have been suspended for holding slave auctions. It is even worse when they are held as entertainment in the context of an academic program for children. 

2) Formally condemn the practice of slave auctions and call on the Junior Classical League and, more broadly, the American Classical League, to own its uncomfortable past and repair the damage it has done through events like these and the culture they reflect. 

3) If you publish a newsletter or promote activities in secondary Latin, vet them before you provide a platform for abhorrent practices. There is no excuse for a “master/slave” activity to have been featured in a CAMWS publication (or any publication). 

4) Stay informed about what is going on in secondary Classics and hold organizations accountable for failures that affect both current students and the future of the field.