Beautiful Mirrors of Beautiful Things

Plutarch, Moralia Dialogue on Love 765 a-b

“When we are sent back there, love does not come near our soul through its own devising but through the body. Just so, teachers of geometry, when their students are not yet capable of comprehending thoughts of the incorporeal or the concepts of immutable essence, they make shapes, manipulable and visible representations of spheres, cubes, and dodecahedrons to give them. In this way, heavenly love creates beautiful mirrors of the beautiful things, mortal versions of the divine, changeable manifestations of the unchanging, and merely sensible representations of pure thought.

By creating these things in the shape and color and image of the beautiful people in their youth, Love moves our memory carefully, and it is kindled first by these things.”

Ἐνταῦθα δὲ πάλιν πεμπομένων αὐτῇ μὲν οὐ πλησιάζει ψυχῇ καθ᾿ ἑαυτήν, ἀλλὰ διὰ σώματος. ὡς δὲ γεωμέτραι παισὶν οὔπω δυναμένοις ἐφ᾿ ἑαυτῶν τὰ νοητὰ μυηθῆναι τῆς ἀσωμάτου καὶ ἀπαθοῦς οὐσίας εἴδη πλάττοντες ἁπτὰ καὶ ὁρατὰ μιμήματα σφαιρῶν καὶ κύβων καὶ δωδεκαέδρων προτείνουσιν· οὕτως ἡμῖν ὁ οὐράνιος Ἔρως ἔσοπτρα καλῶν καλά, θνητὰ μέντοι θείων καὶ ἀπαθῶν παθητὰ καὶ νοητῶν αἰσθητὰ μηχανώμενος ἔν τε σχήμασι καὶ χρώμασι καὶ εἴδεσι νέων ὥρᾳ στίλβοντα δείκνυσι καὶ κινεῖ τὴν μνήμην ἀτρέμα διὰ τούτων ἀναφλεγομένην τὸ πρῶτον.

an Etruscan Mirror and the Dallas Museum of Art

Milk, Wine, and Rambling On

Galen, Hygiene 347k-348K

“I guess I’ve talked about milk and wine for a little longer than is strictly needed. Really, it is better, once someone has said what benefit the elderly get from these drinks, to indicate what has already been taught about the selection of the material and how diluted each of them should be and especially on the differences of each—once we’ve established that the warmer and more urine-producing wines are better for the elderly and that we shouldn’t give milk to everyone, but only those who can digest well and don’t sense any problem with their right hypochondrium.

But thanks to the lack of effort of those who are too lazy to read the books where more is written about the substance of cures we sometimes have to drag out our explanations. So, hopefully someone will pardon my style of teaching, that I am not precise and brief in the approaches I have generally taken.”

καὶ νῦν γέ μοι δοκῶ μακρότερον ἢ δεῖ τοῖς ἐνεστῶσι διεληλυθέναι περί τε γάλακτος καὶ οἴνων. ἄμεινον γὰρ ἦν εἰπόντα τὴν ἐξ αὐτῶν ὠφέλειαν τοῖς γέρουσι γινομένην ἐπὶ τὴν τῆς ὕλης ἐκλογὴν ἀποπέμψαι τὸν ἤδη μεμαθηκότα τάς τε κοινὰς δυνάμεις καθ’ ἑκάτερον αὐτῶν καὶ τὰς ἐν μέρει διαφοράς, ἐπὶ μὲν τῶν οἴνων εἰπόντα τὰς διαφορὰς τοὺς θερμοτέρους τε καὶ οὐρητικωτέρους ἀμείνους εἶναι τοῖς γέρουσι, ἐπὶ δὲ τοῦ γάλακτος, ὡς οὐδὲ πᾶσι δοτέον, ἀλλὰ μόνοις ὅσοι γε πέττουσιν αὐτὸ καλῶς καὶ συμπτώματος οὐδενὸς αἰσθάνονται κατὰ τὸ δεξιὸν ὑποχόνδριον. ἐπεὶ δ’ ἔστιν ὅτε διὰ τὴν πολλῶν ὀλιγωρίαν οὐχ ὑπομενόντων ἀναγινώσκειν τὰ βιβλία, δι’ ὧν ἐπὶ πλέον ὑπὲρ τῆς τῶν βοηθημάτων ὕλης λέλεκται, μηκύνειν ἀναγκαζόμεθα πολλάκις, εἰκότως ἄν τις ἡμῖν καὶ νῦν συγγνοίη τοῦ τρόπου τῆς διδασκαλίας, οὐ κατὰ τὴν ἀκριβῆ βραχυλογίαν ἐπὶ ταῖς καθόλου μεθόδοις προερχομένοις.

If you have children, these are the most precious substances in the world. (From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Red_Wine_%26_Milk.jpg)

Teledidaskalos, Or, How I am Trying to Teach Greek in a Pandemic

Gnomologium Vaticanum

164: “Glukôn the philosopher called education a sacred refuge.”

Γλύκων ὁ φιλόσοφος τὴν παιδείαν ἔλεγεν ἱερὸν ἄσυλον εἶναι.

This semester I am teaching Introductory and Intermediate Ancient Greek fully online. I had the experience of “emergency remote” teaching in the spring and I taught Greek in a hybrid (both online and in person) format almost a decade ago. At my institution, we had the choice to teach in-person, “hybrid”, or fully remote. For reasons of safety and equity, I did not select the first option. I avoided the second option too because “hybrid” in this case is really a bi/multi-modal delivery which also has serious problems in equity and relies on incompletely tested technology.

Solon, fr. 18

“I grow old, always learning many things.”

γηράσκω δ’ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος·

Given the likelihood of another surge in cases and family considerations (our children will be remote learning as well), I considered it best for student learning to stay in the same mode and practice for an entire semester. Subjects like languages can be taught well in an online format because they present discrete sets of material which can be presented clearly. The challenge is practice and assessment.

I am writing up my process of preparing for this type of teaching not because I have any special insight into teaching online (there are other places and people that do that better than I do) but because some readers might be in similar positions and find it useful and, equally, because some might have good feedback or suggestions for doing this better.

Pindar, Olympian 8.59-60

“Teaching is easier for someone who knows; not learning first is stupid. “

τὸ διδάξασθαι δέ τοι εἰδότι ῥᾴτερον• ἄγνωμον δὲ τὸ μὴ προμαθεῖν•

Here’s the syllabus for the class. One of the things I emphasize in the syllabus and in the teaching of the class is transparency about learning. I explain to the students in the first class that there is a difference between assessment of learning and grading and that the course is built on a basic tell-show-do model with a “flipped” lecture.

Heraclitus, fr. 40

“Knowing much doesn’t teach you how to think.”

πολυμαθίη νόον ἔχειν οὐ διδάσκει

Our schools LMS (learning management system) is a home-grown modification of blackboard called LATTE. I find most LMS platforms to be over-engineered with a range of tools not really worth using for classes under a certain number. I use our platform for file and link sharing and centralized communication. Each chapter of the semester gets its own module.

So week 1 looks something like this:

For each chapter of the book I have a prerecorded grammar lecture where I go over new material in the book (the “tell”) and then go through an exercise and some practice (“the show”). Part of the students’ work for each week is to submit a response to the lecture through google forms where they tell me three things they learned, three things that confused them and three things they want to learn more about. (I cribbed this from my friend Norman Sandridge a few years back).

Alcman, fr. 125

“Trying is the first step of learning”

πῆρά τοι μαθήσιος ἀρχά 

The classes meet twice a week for 90 minutes virtually, so the asynchronous videos provide extra work with Greek and the trissakephalos sheets provide both (1) feedback to me for how effective the videos are and (2) structure for talking about the grammar at the beginning of the first class. Class time is then dedicated to a combination of exercise review, group work, and problem solving

I provide students with two kinds of videos. The first is a narrated powerpoint presentation. (You can make these by recording the slide show with narration). I have added some material from the text book to do some practice within the grammar presentation and I suspect in the future I will have to add more of that. Each video is around 20-30 minutes.

Making a video from a slide show is easier than it used to be. You can select export from the file menu and create a video directly.

Sophocles, Fr. 843

“I learn what can be taught; I seek what
can be found; and I ask the gods what must be prayed for.”

τὰ μὲν διδακτὰ μανθάνω, τὰ δ’ εὑρετὰ
ζητῶ, τὰ δ’ εὐκτὰ παρὰ θεῶν ᾐτησάμην

Students come will (ideally) come to class after viewing this video and submitting the trissakephalos sheet. I designed a simple form using google forms and just copied it for each chapter. I have provided a link to each form in LATTE for the students.

So a given week looks something like this. I may add assignments to be completed in the future, but for now I am going to keep it really simple. With the asynchronous videos and the 90 minute class meetings, the students are getting more contact hours than typical. I also am worried about how much focus students will have out of class in a pandemic. My basic assumption is that most of the work they will do for Greek will be with me

Libanius, Autobiography F90 17

“The education of the young had been taken up by people little different from the young themselves.”

τῆς ἀρχῆς τῶν νέων ὑπ᾿ ἀνδρῶν οὐ πολύ τι νέων διαφερόντων ἡρπασμένης

For the first session of every week we will spend our time reviewing based on the questions from the trissakephalos sheets and then working on reading and exercises in the textbook. I have also created supplementary videos for them to watch in between the class meetings. I made these using zoom’s “record on this computer function”.

Zoom is a good enough utility for this because you can (1) record, (2) share a screen while doing so, and (3) annotate the screen while talking. As you can see from the shot below, the students get my face, voice, Athenaze, and my mad scribbling, so it is almost like being in the room!

Quintilian, 2.19

“In sum, nature is education’s raw material: the latter shapes, the former is shaped. There is no art without substance; material has a worth apart from art; and yet, the highest art is superior to the best material.”

Denique natura materia doctrinae est: haec fingit, illa fingitur. Nihil ars sine materia, materiae etiam sine arte pretium est; ars summa materia optima melior.

I also almost forgot to talk about my tech setup. In addition to a second monitor attached to my laptop using the extend screen function I use a galaxy tablet. I login through a different ID and use the tablet to check what students are seeing.

The setup looks a little messy from my angle, but it allows me to use the tablet to write on a whiteboard that students can use too.

Coffee not included with tablet. Note I also use an affordable USB camera and a USB microphone. These allow me to create higher quality videos (marginally).

My main challenges are getting students to learn vocabulary and then quizzing them on it alongside morphology. A real simple solution is to meet with them individually on zoom and quiz them (which is intense for me), to create a google form quiz or LMS quiz, or to stray from quiz like assessments and use more games and activities in the class time. I am going to practice using the exercises on Ketos and other similar sites.

All exams in the class are going to be take-home because I am trying to emphasize learning the skills students are actually here for: reading Greek on their own. This means it is ok if they have access to a dictionary or grammar.

Zenobius 1.89

“The doors of the muses are open”: a proverb applied to those readily acquiring the best things in their education.”

᾿Ανεῳγμέναι Μουσῶν θύραι: ἐπὶ τῶν ἐξ ἑτοίμου λαμβανόντων τὰ κάλλιστα τῶν ἐν παιδείᾳ.

“Ability, Practice, and Time”: Some Ancient Sayings about Education

These sayings [‘Apophthegmata’] are drawn from the Gnomologium Vaticanum. Most are apocryphal.

 

24: “Aristippos used to say the he took money from students not in order to straighten their lives but how so they might learn to spend their money on fine things.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς παρὰ τῶν μαθητῶν λαμβάνειν ἔφασκε μισθόν, οὐχ ὅπως τὸν βίον ἐπανορθώσῃ, ἀλλ’ ὅπως ἐκεῖνοι μάθωσιν εἰς τὰ καλὰ δαπανᾶν.

 

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

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

 

87: “When he was asked whom he loved more, Phillip or Aristotle, Alexander said “both the same—for the first gave me the gift of life and the second taught me to live well.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθεὶς τίνα μᾶλλον ἀγαπᾷ, Φίλιππον ἢ ᾿Αριστοτέλην, εἶπεν· „ὁμοίως ἀμφοτέρους· ὁ μὲν γάρ μοι τὸ ζῆν ἐχαρίσατο, ὁ δὲ τὸ καλῶς ζῆν ἐπαίδευσεν.”

 

164: “Glukôn the philosopher called education a sacred refuge.”

Γλύκων ὁ φιλόσοφος τὴν παιδείαν ἔλεγεν ἱερὸν ἄσυλον εἶναι.

 

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

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

 

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

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔφη τὴν παιδείαν πρὸς εὐδαιμονίαν αὐτάρκη.

 

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

῾Ηράκλειτος τὴν παιδείαν ἕτερον ἥλιον εἶναι τοῖς πεπαιδευμένοις ἔλεγεν.

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Democritus and Protagoras by Salvator Rosa

Beautiful Mirrors of Beautiful Things

Plutarch, Moralia Dialogue on Love 765 a-b

“When we are sent back there, love does not come near our soul through its own devising but through the body. Just so, teachers of geometry, when their students are not yet capable of comprehending thoughts of the incorporeal or the concepts of immutable essence, they make shapes, manipulable and visible representations of spheres, cubes, and dodecahedrons to give them. In this way, heavenly love creates beautiful mirrors of the beautiful things, mortal versions of the divine, changeable manifestations of the unchanging, and merely sensible representations of pure thought.

By creating these things in the shape and color and image of the beautiful people in their youth, Love moves our memory carefully, and it is kindled first by these things.”

Ἐνταῦθα δὲ πάλιν πεμπομένων αὐτῇ μὲν οὐ πλησιάζει ψυχῇ καθ᾿ ἑαυτήν, ἀλλὰ διὰ σώματος. ὡς δὲ γεωμέτραι παισὶν οὔπω δυναμένοις ἐφ᾿ ἑαυτῶν τὰ νοητὰ μυηθῆναι τῆς ἀσωμάτου καὶ ἀπαθοῦς οὐσίας εἴδη πλάττοντες ἁπτὰ καὶ ὁρατὰ μιμήματα σφαιρῶν καὶ κύβων καὶ δωδεκαέδρων προτείνουσιν· οὕτως ἡμῖν ὁ οὐράνιος Ἔρως ἔσοπτρα καλῶν καλά, θνητὰ μέντοι θείων καὶ ἀπαθῶν παθητὰ καὶ νοητῶν αἰσθητὰ μηχανώμενος ἔν τε σχήμασι καὶ χρώμασι καὶ εἴδεσι νέων ὥρᾳ στίλβοντα δείκνυσι καὶ κινεῖ τὴν μνήμην ἀτρέμα διὰ τούτων ἀναφλεγομένην τὸ πρῶτον.

an Etruscan Mirror and the Dallas Museum of Art

Digital Diversions

I have posted before about my colleague Dr. Alex Ratzlaff and our students doing interdisciplinary work with the Brandeis Techne group Autodesk Technology Center and in partnership with the Brandeis MakerLabrun by Brandeis’ very own Ian Roy.  They’ve used digital designs to create new field tools for archaeology over the past few years. And now, they are back and they have their own website: sciencethepast.com

ScappScreen

Rather than be defeated by the epidemic, Dr. Raztlaff and her students have used departmental funds from Brandeis Classical Studies to hone their skills and prepare new ideas for fieldwork, whenever it is possible again.

Check out their work. Check out the new website. Give them a holler. Collaboration and open sources are key to their game.

 

 

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

 

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