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CLASSICAL LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
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The French writer Charles Péguy once observed that "Homer is ever new; nothing is as old as the morning paper." One of the best reasons for studying the works of the oldest of dead white European males is their very novelty. Moreover, in reading the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, you are engaging the same texts that influenced virtually every educated person in our history. So if you want to understand the mind of Descartes or Abraham Lincoln or William Faulkner or even Clint Eastwood—and if you want to understand yourself—you need to understand the classics.
Virtually every university's classics department offers an introductory course of classical literature in translation that will cover both the Iliad and the Odyssey. There will also be a few tragic plays, often Sophocles' Antigone or something from the Oedipus cycle, and if you are lucky, a comedy or two, such as Aristophanes' Lysistrata or else The Clouds. Many universities have separate introductory Greek and Roman literature courses, but most will combine the two by covering at least the great classic of Roman literature: Virgil's Aeneid.
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The story of the West begins with a story. The blind bard, Homer (c. 8th century B.C.), recited tales so compelling that they seized the Greek imagination for centuries. Homer's Iliad is the story of a fair young warrior, Achilles, who takes the leading role in the defeat of a great and ancient city, Troy. Achilles is one ideal of the Greeks. The Greeks were conscious that theirs was a "youthful" civilization. They knew that they inhabited a world in which there existed more ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Persia, and also a world in which civilizations had risen and fallen, such as that of the Minoans—and that the Greeks were implicated in that fall. In Plato's dialogue Timaeus, an Egyptian priest says to the lawgiver of Athens, "O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are always children, and there is no Greek who is an old man. You are all young in your souls, and you have in them no old belief handed down by ancient tradition, nor any knowledge that is hoary with age." The Greek spirit was one of youthfulness; they were parvenus in a world that valued the wisdom of age. Consequently, there is a remarkable freshness to Greek writing, and that is a freshness that continues to define the West.
Moreover, Achilles is not the leader of the Greek forces—Agamemnon is—and this is important. Achilles is one of many lesser warlords, though certainly the greatest in skill at arms. That at the origin of Western literature lies the story of an exemplary individual who is not the paramount ruler sets the West apart from other civilizations whose most ancient and formative literatures are accounts of the exemplary and seemingly effortless acts of emperors or gods.
In the Iliad, we also see something else peculiar to Western thought: a sympathetic treatment of the enemy, especially the valiant Trojan Hector, who is perhaps the noblest character in the entire epic. The most touching scenes of domestic happiness are portrayed in the doomed city of Troy; the realization that all this will be put to fire and the sword moves us, as it moved the ancient Greeks, to sorrow for their adversaries.
The Iliad is about the wrath of Achilles: "Tell, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles" is the epic's first line. This anger, which is the root of the great warrior's courage, and therefore of his heroism, proves to be the hero's undoing. This is man's tragic circumstance: whatever his excellences, man cannot escape the limits of his existence. Indeed, all the heroes of the Iliad find themselves trapped by their situation and the roles they are called upon by tradition to play. The Iliad, however, culminates in an unusual act of magnanimity on Achilles' part: perhaps there is a way for man to "defeat" fate? The Iliad is thus the story of a hero contending against the limits of human nature, at least as he knows that nature reflected through the myths of the Greek world. The poem asks, in effect, What is possible for man? What may he hope for? And can he live with the truth of his state? These are questions that are as important for every one of us today as they were to the Greeks more than twenty-five centuries ago.
The companion epic to the Iliad is the Odyssey, a more entertaining read and the story of another hero—Odysseus—and his wandering search for home after the end of the Trojan War. Viewed together, the Homeric epics are a meditation on the human condition. Is the human condition, the human "homeland," fundamentally that of the Iliad? Are we all, effectively, naturally, in a world of strife and war? Are we "made" for war? Or is humanity's true home the world of the hearth, of the domestic life of peace—the goal of Odysseus in the Odyssey? Or are we natural wanderers, wayfarers? And what is best in life—the glory of military victory, or the quiet happiness of family life, or something else? The question of the best life is a very Greek one, which might lead us to ask why it is a question we hardly ever ask today.
The Iliad ends tragically while the Odyssey ends comically. These may be the two limiting extremes of human experience, and therefore of poetic invention—or perhaps not. In either event, Greek drama soon afterward developed both genres. Tragedy came first, and comedy followed; and that sequence is significant. For the tragic sensibility depends on man's intuition of his own greatness in collision with human limitation, particularly the limit of fate. But Greek comedy emerged with a sudden doubt about the greatness of man. Perhaps man is really a ridiculous creature? If so, it is best not to probe too deeply into his condition. The comic playwright penning his most scatological scenes is in reality issuing a cautionary warning.
Ultimately, attending carefully to the Greeks should lead us to understand both our similarities with and our differences from the oldest dead white European males. A great mistake of cultivated minds throughout our history has been to overemphasize continuity. Nineteenth-century Englishmen read their Greeks and found in Athens a culture of proper gentlemen. A well-raised Englishman, it was contended, could have walked into Periclean Athens and felt deeply at home. Germans of the same period read their Greeks and found the romantic souls of German Volk. Today, some find the Greeks to be the fathers of a bourgeois liberalism not unlike modern America. There is an element of truth in each of these characterizations, but none is true simply.
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Ever since the Renaissance, a bias against the Romans has prevailed among the learned. The Romans' legal, political, military, architectural, and engineering accomplishments are admittedly great, but what of their philosophy and their art? Derivative of the Greeks, it is said. Yet Virgil's epic, the Aeneid, is both an imitation of Homer and also something quite new. We see this in the very first line of the poem. In Homer's epics, the Muse sings out. But Virgil's Aeneid begins with the line, "I sing of arms and a man...." I sing. That is new. And for Virgil, the destiny of pious Aeneas is not quite the fate of the Homeric heroes. A close comparison of the Aeneid with the Iliad shows how Virgil (70-19 B.C.) grapples with the Homeric tradition so as to surpass it, and it is this engagement with tradition that led T. S. Eliot to name the Aeneid "the classic of all Europe."
One of the best reasons to read the Aeneid is that it will disabuse you of a silly notion you may have picked up in high school English classes. Namely, the opinion that what literature is fundamentally about is the struggle of the individual with society. A bright student is apt to get this impression in large part because the works commonly found in high school curricula are designed to connect with young people who are coming to understand and define their individuality. But much great art has nothing to do with this theme. And there is probably no better example than the Aeneid, an epic that was actually commissioned by the Emperor Augustus as political propaganda, and in which the hero is individuated by his service to society. In the Aeneid, we might even say that we find represented that classical ideal against which all the rebellious American high school literature is aimed.
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What can you expect from your professor in the typical introductory classics course? The older generation of classics professors are among the finest members of the academy. The rigor of their language studies and the quality of the texts they have pored over for years have made them perhaps curmudgeonly, but also deeply humane. Not infrequently, however, the younger generation of classicists have learned all the worst habits of postmodern literary critics. You should become suspicious when a professor begins to use code words and catch phrases such as the "social construction of homosexuality" or "retrieving women's experience." Since any great work of literature contains an entire world, it is a gross reduction to view that world through the narrowing lens of sex or gender.
The principal error that beginners in the study of literature encounter is that their professors' interpretations of the text, so powerfully presented in expert lectures, overwhelm students so that they can then not really see other possibilities for interpreting and understanding. Despite themselves, students then parrot the professor's line. A good way to combat this natural tendency is to consult several editions or translations of the text and read the introductions. Very frequently these introductions are written by some of the finest literary minds—and if they have any biases, the best way to observe them is to read other introductions.
The literature on classical literature is vast, and your library is filled with marvelous introductions to the ancient writers. Cedric Whitman was the author of some of the best works on classical themes in the tradition of the New Criticism, the critical tradition that examines poems as integral pieces of art. Whitman's Homer and the Heroic Tradition (Cambridge, Mass., 1958) is an excellent introduction to the Iliad and the Odyssey, and his Aristophanes and the Comic Hero (Cambridge, Mass., 1964) discusses the major themes and plays of that poet. Bernard Knox, The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy (Berkeley, Calif., 1964; reprinted, 1983) provides a powerful reading of tragedy similar to that of Whitman.
For other views, Jasper Griffin's Homer on Life and Death (Oxford, 1980) is an example of the best of traditional scholarship developed in a life of teaching undergraduates. Louise Cowan's Terrain of Comedy (Dallas, 1984) includes a wise interpretation of Aristophanes.
T. S. Eliot's essay "Vergil and the Christian World," in his book On Poetry and Poets (New York, 1957), contains the thoughts of the greatest English-language poet of the twentieth century on the classic of Roman civilization. C. S. Lewis's Preface to Paradise Lost (London, 1942) contains an excellent chapter on the Aeneid as well. For more extended treatment, Brooks Otis's Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry (Oxford, 1964) is a penetrating study of the Aeneid and other works.
If you want to understand the social institutions of the Homeric age, M. I. Finley's World of Odysseus (New York, 1954; second edition, 1979) attempts to uncover the historical facts of life of an age so different from our own. The Oxford History of the Classical World, edited by John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray (Oxford, 1986), is likewise a reliable source of such information. For a philosophical view of the meaning of classical civilization in general, Eric Voegelin's World of the Polis (Baton Rouge, La., 1957), while difficult, is illuminating.CHAPTER 2
INTRODUCTION TO ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY
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Having tasted the wisdom of the classical poets, you'll discover something unsettling quite soon in a course on ancient philosophy: virtually every Greek play and countless lines of Homer would have been censored, banished from the ideal political community described in Plato's great work of political philosophy, the Republic. Plato's teacher, Socrates (c. 469-399 B.C.), the famous gadfly of Athens condemned to drink poisonous hemlock for corrupting the young men of his city, appears in the Republic spiritedly arguing against the poetry of the Greeks, for he believes that such poetry is corrupting. Very early in the Western tradition, we already see powerful arguments against the "traditional" curriculum. Such a tradition of examining tradition is one of the signal achievements of the West.
That most ironical philosopher, Socrates, is the one who "brought philosophy down from the heavens and into the city," according to Cicero. Before Socrates, philosophers sought to understand the workings of nature (physis in Greek)—biology, physics, the motions of the heavens. Socrates, by contrast, turned his attention to man and the meaning of his existence; he sought to uncover the unchanging nature of man. In his philosophizing, Socrates opposed a group known as Sophists, who focused their intellectual energies not on the heavens or on man but on lawyerly expertise in rhetoric so as to control the political assemblies of the Greek cities. In effect, the Sophists seem to have held the opinion that there are no universal truths to be found in human affairs, all is relative, and so the only thing worth knowing about human affairs is how to manipulate them: the point of learning, for the Sophists, was not wisdom but power. Socrates was the great critic of the Sophists, a philo-sopher or lover of wisdom (rather than of power).
Philosophy is sometimes called "Socratism"—Nietzsche called it that—so crucial was Socrates to our understanding of what philosophy is. And it is recorded that Socrates believed that philosophy is something that cannot be written down. Philosophy for Socrates was not some set of asserted doctrines but rather a way of life, a life of constant questioning in the quest to determine that which is. Conversation is thus the central philosophical activity. This is why Plato (427-347 B.C.), who did write down a philosophy, did so in the form of dialogues, which are rather like small dramas or plays.
But whereas poets such as Homer or Sophocles seek to represent the human condition, to display it in all its concrete variety, philosophers are driven by the thought that what we "see," what we think we "know" about the world around us, is in some way a mask or an illusion. Philosophers seek to penetrate behind appearances to grasp what is "really real" both in nature and in human nature. For instance, faced with the many differing customs of men in different cities, Socrates did not conclude, as the Sophists did, that all is relative in human affairs. Rather, he redoubled his efforts to discover the unchanging human nature behind or within such customs.
At the heart of Plato's Republic, Socrates recounts the famous analogy of the cave. In this tale, a group of men have been chained down since birth and forced to watch puppet-shadows playing on their cave wall. These chained men are like us, Socrates says, but we know that this is true only when we are freed and dragged out of the cave, where we can see the truth of things by the light of the sun. Another fundamental contention of all ancient philosophy is, then, that philosophy is the road to liberation, for only by philosophy can we discover what is—including the life that is best by nature. In this course, you just might experience that Socratic liberation for yourself.
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In your readings you will first encounter Plato's meditation on the trial of Socrates, the Apology, which most directly discusses the philosophical way of life. What does it mean to be a philosopher? Why is the philosopher necessarily a problem for the political community? And is the philosopher's life really the best life? The Crito and the Phaedo then recount the last days of Socrates after his trial and before his execution. These dialogues examine Socrates' political obligation and his thoughts about the soul and the afterlife: philosophy, it seems, is really about learning to die.
Plato's other dialogues each address a particular fundamental question. In the Meno, we see what the Platonic Socrates understands as knowledge. True knowledge is like a geometrical proof: once it is known, we can't imagine not having known it all along. It is as if we "remembered" this knowledge, though we had never learned it. To know the properties of an isosceles triangle is truer knowledge than to know who won the Battle of Waterloo, for the properties of an isosceles triangle cannot but be. The philosopher wants all his knowledge to be as demonstrable as that, which is why the gate of Plato's Academy bore an inscription warning away anyone ignorant of geometry.
Excerpted from A Student's Guide to the Core Curriculum by Mark C. Henrie. Copyright © 2000 Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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