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Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives

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We've become accustomed to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks being trotted out by conservatives in the name of timeless virtues. At the same time, critics have charged that multiculturalists and their ilk have hopelessly corrupted the study of antiquity itself, and that the teaching of Classics is dead.

Trojan Horses is Page duBois's answer to those who have appropriated material from antiquity in the service of a conservative political agendaamong them, Camille Paglia, Allan ...

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Overview

We've become accustomed to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks being trotted out by conservatives in the name of timeless virtues. At the same time, critics have charged that multiculturalists and their ilk have hopelessly corrupted the study of antiquity itself, and that the teaching of Classics is dead.

Trojan Horses is Page duBois's answer to those who have appropriated material from antiquity in the service of a conservative political agendaamong them, Camille Paglia, Allan Bloom, and William Bennett. She challenges cultural conservatives' appeal to the authority of the classics by arguing that their presentation of ancient Greece is simplistic, ahistorical, and irreparably distorted by their politics. As well as constructing a devastating critique of these pundits, Trojan Horses seeks to present a more complex and more accurate view of ancient Greek politics, sex, and religion, with a Classics primer. She eloquently recounts the tales of Daedalus and Artemis, for example, conveying their complexity and passion, while also unearthing actions and beliefs that do not square so easily with today's "family values." As duBois writes, "Like Bennett, I think we should study the past, but not to find nuggets of eternal wisdom. Rather we can comprehend in our history a fuller range of human possibilities, of beginnings, of error, and of difference."

In these fleet chapters, duBois offers readers a view of the ancient Greeks that is more nuanced, more subtle, more layered and in every way more historical than the portrait other writers, of whatever stripe, want to popularize and see displayed in our classrooms. Sharp, timely, and engaging, Trojan Horses portrays the richness of ancient Greek culture while riding in to rescue the Greeks from the new barbarians.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A lucid and utterly persuasive book that shows how the classical Greek world might serve as a rich and complex resource for contemporary cultural and political analysis. duBois counters effectively those who would idealize classical Greece as the origin of a narrow notion of civilization, demonstrating with wit and poignancy how a progressive and complex view of culture and politics can be derived from a knowledgeable reading of its texts and institutions. There is no single line that runs from the classical world to conservative cultural politics, and duBois shows us quite distinctly how we might begin to think plurality, nature, imagination, and sexuality anew by drawing from this importantly equivocal past."

-Judith Butler,Maxine Elliot Professor, University of California, Berkeley

"Page duBois loves the classics too much to permit them to be embalmed, calcified, or imprisoned in a rigidly conservative straight jacket. Her Greeks are guides to sexuality, democracy, and the sacred. With zest and courage, Trojan Horses rides into the global future."

-Catharine R. Stimpson,Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science, New York University

"Page duBois forcefully weighs in on the contentious debate about the role of the Classics and the ancient Greeks in education today. Grounded in a deep understanding of the Greeks and their texts, Trojan Horses is at once polemical and imaginative, open-minded and passionate. Those who only want a treacly version of the ancient world will try to discount duBois' argument, but readers who are themselves prepared to engage in the adventure, and risk the dangers, of the unending historical quest, should read this book. I recommend it to anyone as a bracing introduction to the study of the ancient world. "

-Ralph Hexter,

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
DuBois (a professor of classics at UC-San Diego and author of Sappho Is Burning) proffers a highly polemical attack on what she believes are ill-founded attempts by conservatives to use the literature, history and mythology of Greco-Roman antiquity to advance their moral agendas. Some of her targets are well known, like William Bennett (the book's main villain) and Allan Bloom; others will be familiar primarily to those who follow academic discourse. The arguments against the offending conservatives are many, but the book's major target is the claim that there are enduring moral and political lessons to be learned from ancient wisdom that we can use to improve our own society. DuBois disputes these conclusions by arguing that those with whom she has issue distort through simplification the context and meaning of much of their evidence evidence that is open to a more nuanced and sophisticated interpretation. The book concentrates on evidence from " the sexual practices of the classical period in Athens, the radical democracy of ancient Athens and the polytheism of the ancient Greeks." The author argues that, when looked at in detail, the ancient wisdom used by conservatives is culled from a brutish, warlike and sexist culture that offers little of the ethical comfort to the modern world that conservatives claim. (Mar.) Forecast: Despite the heat of the cultural debate, duBois's scholarly text may generate some controversy but it is not likely to be read outside the academy. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
DuBois (Sappho Is Burning; classics, Univ. of California, San Diego) begins by noting the simplistic view of ancient myth and culture found in popular culture. She shifts, however, to the equally simplistic way that conservative thinkers, such as William Bennett and Allan Bloom, posit that the classics are a repository of perennial wisdom. She then outlines the complexity of ancient views on race, sexuality, gender, and community. While she is accurate in both her thesis and her response, her complaints about the reductive appropriation of ancient Greek and Roman culture are hardly new. Further, her targets are no longer as prominent on the contemporary cultural radar, dating her book. She would have done better to examine the simplistic view of the ancients in popular culture than to throw barbs at straw men. Aimed at the converted, this book is more a tempest in a teacup than a Trojan horse. Not recommended. T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
DuBois (classics and cultural studies, U. of California, San Diego) has written a passionate account of the Greek classics, the richness of which comes alive in her retelling of the tales. The goal of her book is twofold: first, to show why the classics are unquestionably worth including in school curricula and secondly, to demonstrate how conservative thinkers, particularly William Bennett and Allan Bloom, have sanitized these stories to conform to their agenda of what American families should be and think. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814719466
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2001
  • Pages: 164
  • Product dimensions: 4.82 (w) x 7.89 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

Page DuBois is Professor of Classics and Cultural Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her books include Sappho is Burning, Torture and Truth, and Sowing the Body: Psychoanalysis and Ancient Representations of Women.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

Whose Greeks?


What can't be exhausted is the always-new adjustment every age makes to the classical world, measuring itself against it. If we set the classicist the task of understanding his own age better by means of antiquity, then his task has no end.
—Nietzsche, "We Classicists"


I believe that reading ancient Greek art and culture can illuminate and enrich our present circumstances, but also that the Greeks were far stranger, more complicated, and more ambiguous than they might appear in much that circulates about them in the current climate. There is more to know, and much more to say about our relationship to the past of classical antiquity. The interpretation of the Greek and Roman classics, rather than dead, as some alarmists claim, remains as always a contested field, one in which conflicting interpretations clash, one about which I want to have my say here.

    Americans are witnessing a resurgence of interest in the classics. Garry Wills discussed this phenomenon in an article in the New York Times Magazine (February 16, 1997), calling attention to a rising tide of books, films, and television programs devoted to the ancient Greeks and Romans. We have seen the success of a television series on the deeds of the mythological Greek hero Hercules, and a miniseries version of Homer's Odyssey. The television program "Xena, Warrior Princess," features a heroine modeled on the ancient myth of the Amazons, like Wonder Woman before her. Disney has released an animated feature film on Hercules, andfollowed it with stage shows and spectacles at various Disneylands and -worlds. Best-sellers recount the myths and legends of classical antiquity. Self-help books point to the ancient gods and goddesses as timeless paradigms of human character. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, people continue to be fascinated by the remnants of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, two millenia distant in time.

    Enrolled in my course in classical mythology are students of literature and the classics, but also students majoring in political science, animal physiology, cellular biology, art history, general biology, structural engineering, physics, economics, human development, history, ecology, media, and anthropology. These students come from many cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They don't have to take this course; it doesn't fulfill requirements for their majors. But they are nonetheless curious about the stories of ancient Greek heroes and gods, of Helen, of the wooden horse that smuggled the Greek heroes into the city of Troy, of Herakles—as the Greeks called Hercules—and of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter seized by the god of the dead, who ate a pomegranate seed in the underworld and was required forever to spend a third of the year with her husband in the world of the dead, while her mother mourned above and brought winter to the earth.

    I want to share with contemporary readers, many of whom read the myths of the ancient Greeks in school long or not so long ago, the variety within ancient Greek culture, its fascinating practices in the domains of politics, sexuality, and religion. There is much new scholarship in these fields, some of which is listed at the end of this book, and I would like more people to know another version of the Greeks from that often promoted in the popular press. Among other things, some of these Greeks thought women had dangerously powerful sexual drives, that the public allusion to sexual positions was comic, and that homoeroticism was one of the gifts of Aphrodite. These Greeks participated in a radical democracy, one in which each citizen had a right to speak and vote without being represented by an elder or a better, and in which the citizens themselves made all political decisions. These Greeks inhabited a world full of gods, where Hermes protected the boundaries of their property and their states, and guided them into the underworld when they died, where the god Dionysos was in the wine they drank, where drinking wine, Dionysos's gift to human beings, was an act of worship, and where the actors in the dionysiac theater were possessed by the god.

    I'm alarmed because I see in the popular press these same Greeks and their stories travestied by those who want to justify their political platform for America by means of a slanted, polemical appeal to the Western past, by a reductive, one-dimensional, shallow interpretation of Greek and Roman civilization. I think of William Bennett's Book of Virtues and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, among others. These contemporary writers use the Greeks to argue for their views. Their positions lend implicit support to politicians and religious leaders who advocate so-called family values, restriction of women to their homes and the requirement of obedience to their husbands, and the dissolution of separation between Christianity and the state, while arguing for homophobia, militarism, xenophobia, and the restriction of immigration. Still other scholars sound the death knell of the study of antiquity, blaming those they call "multiculturalists," that is, all those who disagree with them about politics in the present. I fear not only that such arguments will succeed in communicating their monolithic and polemically reductive ideas of the ancient world to readers, but also that classics as a field will wither like Egyptology because of its association with such reactionary ideas. As a friend of mine said, "They're right that we should read the Greeks, but for all the wrong reasons."


Let me begin with the story of Daedalus, the first human being to fly, whose story is, like so many Greek myths, full of violence, bestiality, and strangeness:

    The mythical Daedalus descended from Hephaistos, god of smiths. Once upon a time Hephaistos conceived desire for the virgin goddess of Athens, Athena, and tried to rape her. She fought him off, and in the process he ejaculated on her cloak. Athena brushed off her garment with a bit of wool, let it fall to the ground, and thus fertilized the earth, the goddess Gala, with the smith god's seed. From this union were born the Athenian people. The storytellers trace the lineage of Daedalus back to this scene; the Athenians come from this moment of violence, and belong to their own land in a way like no other people. They called themselves "autochthonous," born from the earth itself. The Greeks named Daedalus's own father both "Eupalamus," "Skilled of hand," and Metion, "Man of cunning intelligence," to mark Daedalus's ingenuity and dexterity. The Athenian Socrates, teacher of Plato at the very beginnings of philosophy, himself the son of a stonemason, traced his family line back to Daedalus.

    According to legend, Daedalus killed his nephew, perhaps jealous because the nephew, who invented the saw, was even more skillful than he. After that, Daedalus fled Athens and moved to the island of Crete, situated in the middle of the Aegean Sea between mainland Greece and Africa, to serve its king. Daedalus had already become the maker, the first human being to invent and fashion many beautiful and useful things that enable and adorn civilization—elaborate jewelry, statues, weapons, and armor. He created marvels on Crete. His name first appears in Homer's Iliad as the maker of a dancing floor for Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete. His story here gets tangled up in the plentiful store of legends concerning this Mediterranean island, a center of civilization long before the Greeks became powerful, an island marked by its ancient connections with Asia and Africa.

    King Minos of Crete was a descendant of Zeus, greatest of the Olympian gods. Zeus, in one of his many unions with mortals of both sexes, seduced Europa, daughter of the king of Tyre, in Asia Minor, appearing before her on the beach in the form of a charming little white bull. Europa was so enchanted by the beauty of this bull that she mounted on his back, "his softness fooling her," as the poet Charles Olson says. Zeus carried her off to Crete, where she gave her name to the continent of Europe. There she gave birth to Minos, who in his turn married Pasiphae, daughter of the sun, and she bore him several children, among them a daughter, Ariadne. One day Minos prayed to Poseidon, god of the sea, who sent another beautiful bull from the sea, this time for sacrifice; Minos found the bull so lovely that he could not kill it, even to please the god. Poseidon, in revenge for this slight, caused Minos's wife Pasiphae to conceive lust for this bull. She appealed to Daedalus, and he constructed an elaborate disguise for her, so that the bull, believing her to be a cow, mounted the queen and had intercourse with her. Impregnated by the bull, Pasiphae gave birth to the Minotaur, a monster, half bull and half human. Horrified, the Cretans asked Daedalus to hide this hideous offspring away forever from human sight. He built a maze, the infamous labyrinth, and concealed the Minotaur at its heart.

    After a time the Athenian hero Theseus arrived on Crete, one of an annual shipment of twelve Athenian youth, six boys and six girls sent as tribute to the Cretans, who planned to sacrifice them to the Minotaur. But Theseus escaped death by winning the heart of Ariadne, Minos's daughter, the girl of the Homeric dancing floor. She persuaded Daedalus to help her save Theseus from being devoured by the monster. The maker of the maze gave her a thread, which she passed on to Theseus, telling him to fasten it at the mouth of the labyrinth, and to unwind it as he moved inside. He found the Minotaur at its center, killed him, then wound the thread back to the entrance.

    Daedalus, with his ingenious schemes aiding the women of Minos's house, had angered the king, who imprisoned him on the island along with his son Icarus. Unhappy in his subjection, Daedalus hatched a plan for the two of them to escape from Crete. In the Roman poet Ovid's account of his story, Daedalus says that King Minos blocked his escape on land and sea, but the sky still remained open: The king was unable to control the sky above them. In Ovid's telling, Daedalus changed the laws of nature by taking to the air. He laid out feathers, attached them in graduated sizes with thread and wax, bent and curved them so that they resembled the wings of birds. Before take-off he warned his son Icarus to fly a middle course between the sun and the water, and they rose on their brilliant wings and flew. Those below, a shepherd and a plowman, looked up in amazement at their flight. But Icarus daringly flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, his feathers failed, and he fell into the sea and drowned.

    When Vergil's great hero Aeneas, survivor of the ruined city Troy and founder of Rome, arrived in Italy, he found a set of doors made by Daedalus in the land of the Cumaean Sibyl. They marked the spot where Daedalus first landed on his solo flight from Crete, having lost his son to the sea. The architect had built a great temple to Apollo there, in thanks for his own safe arrival, and left his marvelous wings as an offering to the god. He depicted his own story on the temple's doors, in a version that recalls Aeneas's own disastrous dalliance in Africa with the queen of Carthage, Dido:


Here can be seen the loving of the savage bull and Pasiphae laid out to receive it and deceive her husband Minos. Here too is the hybrid offspring, the Minotaur, half-man and half-animal, the memorial to a perverted love, and here is its home, built with such great labor, the inextricable Labyrinth. But Daedalus takes pity on the great love of the princess Ariadne and unravels the winding paths of his own baffling maze, guiding the blind steps of Theseus with a thread.


In Vergil's account, the mourning artist Daedalus had tried to depict the fall of his son Icarus on this work of art, but his hands had fallen, helpless. Soon Aeneas himself descended into the labyrinth of the underworld, into the land of the dead, in order to encounter past and future, to visit his dead father and see Dido and his heirs still to be born. He carried a marvelous golden bough as a talisman to protect him and guarantee his safe return to the land of the living.


The legendary Daedalus was the first human artisan, carpenter, sculptor, engineer, architect, builder, pilot, and artist. The adjective associated with his name, daidaleos, probably the root and origin of his name, was associated from earliest times with highly worked armor, jewels, vessels, musical instruments, ships, and furniture. The Greeks and Romans admired him as the inventor of carpentry, of the axe, the auger, glue, and the masts of boats; he was said to have built many of the most ancient temples in the Greek world, and to have made wonderful wooden statues capable of opening their eyes, walking, and moving their arms. His genius made him almost divine, capable of turning inanimate wooden images into animate, mobile creatures.

    Poets in antiquity retold the story of Daedalus countless times. It was passed on to our own day in the visual arts as well as in literature by, among others, the painter Brueghel, who showed the fall of Icarus in a painting's background, with a heedless plowman at the center of his canvas. This painting in turn inspired the twentieth-century poet W. H. Auden, who described that fall in his poem "Musée des Beaux Arts." Auden wrote about how the "Old Masters," painters like Brueghel, understood suffering, which "takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along." Auden describes Brueghel's Icarus, how the plowman hears the splash and the cry of Icarus's fall, but how "for him it was not an important failure."


... the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on
.


The poem uses the painting's record of Icarus's fall as an emblem for everyday life's indifference to martyrdom and suffering or the miraculous human flight, great dramas witnessed casually by human beings going about their mundane and necessary business. In the twentieth century the story of Daedalus inspired many interpretations and rewritings. The hero of James Joyce's autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is Stephen Daedalus. This Daedalus also moves through a single day of Dublin life in Joyce's labyrinthine masterpiece Ulysses.

    The ancient story remains rich in significance for understanding classical civilization. It responds to questions the ancients asked themselves, the implications of which endure in Western culture. How did human beings come into existence? Are we the descendants of gods, born from the earth, autochthonous, like plants? Who invented all the techniques, the skills, and sciences that separate us from the animals? Why is it that some human beings have what seem incredible, almost inhuman talents? How is it that most of us have sex only among ourselves, and not with animals? What civilizations preceded the Greeks' and the Romans'? The story points to connections between the Greeks and Asia, the Near East of Tyre, and between the Greeks and Romans and Africa, so close to the southern coast of Crete, so crucial to Roman history. The story presents the passage of ancient Greek culture westward, from ancient Tyre, home of Minos's mother, to Crete, to Italy. It touches on the theme of the extraordinary man, the person of uncommon skill, and also on the anonymity of thousands of craftsmen, architects, and sculptors, workers whose names will forever be lost to history and for whom Daedalus stands. Daedalus's story reminds us of both the generosity and the indifference of the ancient gods. It recalls the special status of the Athenians, born from the artisan god Hephaistos and the primeval goddess Earth, and the invention of philosophy in Athens. The daring of Icarus reminds us of the classical Athenians' fears, expressed in Greek tragedy, of those who strove and achieved too much, likening themselves to gods, in danger of attracting the gods' jealous attention, and in need of control by their fellow citizens. The myth touches on the theme of paternal authority, the vexed relationship between fathers and sons echoed in other myths like that of Oedipus. The story includes murder, adultery, bestiality, the impossibility and the even more fantastic possibility of human flight, the relationship between master and servant, king and architect, the death of a son and the father's responsibility for the risks that led to this great loss, mourning and recovery from mourning. It is a celebration of human ingenuity and a meditation as well on the costs of that ingenuity.

    And yet, in the best-seller The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, tales for those destined to be trained in his conception of virtue, William Bennett tells a painfully narrow and reduced version of the story of Daedalus, this first artist. Most of the story is elided in Bennett's account. Bennett retells only the story of Daedalus's and Icarus's flight, which he glosses ponderously; in his view, the point of this great and elaborate myth is that Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, was disobedient, a bad boy who deserved his unhappy fate.

    After recounting the episode of the flight and fall, he concludes:


This famous Greek myth reminds us exactly why young people have a responsibility to obey their parents—for the same good reason parents have a responsibility to guide their children: there are many things adults know that young people do not.... Safe childhoods and successful upbringings require a measure of obedience, as Icarus finds out the hard way.


Bennett underlines his moral with this praise of obedience coupled with a threat of disaster for the disobedient. The elaborate mythical narrative, so abundant in themes of significance for understanding the Greeks and ourselves, is reduced to a moralizing parable and subordinated to Bennett's message about hierarchy and so-called family values: The son must obey the father. Bennett stresses obedience to authority in this text, yet fails to acknowledge that Daedalus in his turn exhibited disobedience as he defied the commands of his master King Minos. Even the truncated mythic episode explores the limits of authority and of paternalism. And it also celebrates the yearning for free flight even as it expresses anxiety at the prospect of flying free. In Bennett's account there is no awareness of the wealth of meanings in this reduced fragment of the myth, of the story's exploration of human beings' paradoxical needs for freedom and security, no mention of the celebration of human skill and ingenuity, questions of power, audacity, and genius, of the father's disobedience of King Minos, and of Daedalus's great loss and mourning. Even as an interpretation of this tiny morsel of the myth of Daedalus, Bennett's moral appears strikingly inadequate. In Bennett's book, full of stories mostly "drawn from the corpus of Western civilization" (15), the "great moral story" of Daedalus and Icarus appears in the section called "Responsibility," one of those traditional values that the former drug czar and Secretary of Education seeks to instill in Americans. Responsibility, resembling his other categories Work, Perseverance, and Self-Discipline, requires first and foremost obedience to one's superiors.

    In a further development of his pedagogical mission, Bennett's stories, reissued in a special edition for children, have been shown in animated form on television. And on PBS, often the target of Bennett's vigorous fulminations against its public funding: "When I learned about [the PBS involvement], I chuckled, because people know that I'm a critic of public funding of television." The television program is preceded by an announcement that Cigna, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, and the Olin Foundation contributed funding. The televised tales of virtue, animated not in Bennett's West, but in Korea, are framed by the continuing story of two children, Zack and Annie, who confront problems of virtue in everyday life. They are guided, incongruously, by a buffalo with a deep voice called "Plato," a figure for Bennett himself. His companions are a bobcat, "Soc," for Socrates, resembling Sylvester ("I t'ot I taw a puddytat") the Cat, and a prairie dog named "Ari," for Aristotle—thus have the mighty of Western philosophy fallen. These male personages are joined by a female red-tailed hawk, for no apparent reason but gender diversity, named "Aurora," or dawn. The feminine principle guides us ever upward. The buffalo is clearly in charge. He is huge and manly, boasting horns and thick black eyebrows.

    In the program on Responsibility, the girl Annie encounters a problem about some cakes baked by her mother, cakes she had promised to deliver but dropped because she was led astray by a friend on a bicycle. The buffalo counsels her in his deep voice, and reads to her from his book the exemplary stories of England's King Alfred, who failed to watch a peasant woman's cakes and let them burn ("leadership and responsibility go hand in hand," says the buffalo), and of an old woman (English, again) who must lure her greedy children into caring for her by deceiving them with a locked treasure chest that they discover, after her death, contains nothing but broken glass. The buffalo also solemnly reads the tale of Icarus and his father Daedalus. In the animated version of the Icarus story, the father's voice is that of John Forsythe, familiar to American audiences as Blake Carrington of television's long-running prime-time soap opera, Dynasty, that exuberant ode to wealth and Reagan-Bush America. Here again, of course, there is no mention of the union between Pasiphae and the bull, nor of the mysteries of Minotaur and sacrifice and labyrinth, nor of Daedalus's failure to obey the authoritative commands of King Minos. The animated Daedalus is impatient and instructs his son: "You must watch and learn, listen and obey." After the boy plummets vividly into the sea, drowns, and is buried, "Plato" the buffalo moralizes portentously about the irresponsibility of the child Icarus. The son knew the danger, but chose to ignore his father's advice and paid a terrible price.

    After another episode about Compassion, including the Roman story of Androcles and the lion, the evening concludes with an advertisement for Bennett's Children's Book of Virtues, and footage of actual, unanimated children, of various colors, saying virtuous things. The last word is spoken by a beautiful little blonde girl, who says, "without virtue, the world would be kind of like a grumpy old place without any happy people."

    In The Moral Compass, sequel and companion to The Book of Virtues, Bennett again mines classical antiquity for inspiring stories, citing Hercules and Perseus, Alexander the Great and Ulysses. The section called "Standing Fast" curiously offers up the example of Oedipus the king of Thebes who killed his father, married his mother, and fathered children with her—who is Freud's paradigm for what he believes to be a universal desire on the male child's part to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Bennett's version cozily omits such horrors, central to the sexual history of the West in the twentieth century, and concludes that Oedipus, after having morally "stood fast" against the Sphinx, "became king of Thebes, and wisely and well did he rule, and for many a long year the land prospered."


In such settings, the culture of ancient Greece is once again, as before in American culture, reduced and manipulated to persuade readers and viewers of the immemorial truth of the most illiberal of political opinions. Bennett's collections of uplifting anecdotes are an affirmation of eternal human nature and the rightness of the things already and always known to be so. "Children—and everyone else—should stand fast, and should always obey elders and betters."

    The author of these widely-read anthologies is a conservative activist. William Bennett is a codirector of Empower America and the John M. Olin Distinguished Fellow in Cultural Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation. He was a founder of the neoconservative Madison Center for Educational Affairs, once head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, fellow of the Hudson Institute, chairman of National Empowerment Television (a project of the Free Congress Foundation), also drug czar, and Secretary of Education under conservative Republican presidents.

    In this book, I want to point to some things left out of William Bennett's view of the ancient Greeks, parts of the story that are forgotten or suppressed or sanitized in order to present an ancient world that shores up and validates his political opinions of today. As we know from work on fairy tales, even children can absorb, think, and fantasize about complexities reflected in stories inherited from the past, stories that register the range of human experience and are not bowdlerized and rendered politically correct for their consumption. My presentation of the ancient Greeks seeks to restore a more complicated culture, one that is different from our own but which has human possibilities we might well remember now, that render unfamiliar some of the domestic, sexual, political, and religious arrangements we take for granted, that we sometimes believe to be grounded in eternal "human nature." I would like to bring to light some aspects of antiquity discussed in valuable recent scholarship which polemicists such as Bennett suppress in their selective appropriation of the past, in interpretations they present as timeless truth justifying a particular view of human nature and authorizing their ideas. They give us not the full range of ancient culture, its contradictions, heterogeneities, differences from, and similarities to our own, but idols erected by themselves as victors over the rich and complicated history of ancient Greece. Theirs is a selective and impoverished version of ancient culture, one that for the most part erases historical difference and, looking through the window of history, finds the Greeks motionless as in a diorama, caught in a tableau vivant exemplifying the moral virtues of conservative twenty-first-century America. Conservatives fetishize a particular stereotype of the Greeks by fixing and repeating it, and they distort history for their political purposes.

    We need a picture of the Greeks that is more accurate, multifaceted, and variegated than theirs. The Greeks cannot all be lumped into a set of anecdotes demonstrating contemporary virtues; they differed radically from one another, and were in fact notoriously contentious. They had subtle and complicated interpretations of their own inherited myths and stories. Their culture changed dramatically, even over the three centuries of the classical period. My survey here seeks neither to idealize nor to denigrate ancient Athens and the ancient Greeks. The classical Athenian male citizen kept slaves, subjected women, hated and frequently brutalized his enemies, and forced slaves to work and die in the city's mines. Ancient democracy was based on exclusion and frequently on imperial expansion, on the Athenian state's ambitions throughout the Mediterranean world. If I stress here particular elements of ancient Greek culture, my reading is generated as a response to the popular press, to a version of antiquity I find unrecognizable. Ancient Greece was not a utopia, cannot be reconfigured retrospectively as an Eden for left or right. But little about the various, contradictory, heterogeneous, and polymorphic culture of the Athenians has in recent years been registered in the mass media and the popular press, and I see mine as a compensatory reading. Except for the work of Michel Foucault, David Halperin, and Jack Winkler on ancient sexuality, the important recent scholarship that has transformed many scholars' view of ancient Greek society has had little impact on most people's idea of antiquity.

    It is of course impossible fully to recover ancient civilization. But we can acknowledge the interests scholars bring to their work, the ways in which their location in the present affects what they see when they look at the past. I see not sameness in antiquity, but difference and complexity, an unfamiliar world which can offer not a mirror image of ourselves, but rather a contradictory, complicated set of beginnings for Western culture. Like Bennett, I think we should study the past, but not to find nuggets of eternal wisdom. Rather we can comprehend in our history a fuller range of human possibilities, of beginnings, of error, and of difference. I believe my presentation of ancient Greek culture, though brief, is more accurate, more multifaceted, and more intricate than theirs.

    I will focus on three different aspects of this culture that recent classical scholarship has made more visible: the sexual practices of the classical period in Athens, the radical democracy of ancient Athens, and the polytheism of the ancient Greeks. In all three of these cases, the Greeks were anomalous, often strange, and different from us, not just storytellers of fables about obedience to the father.


We inhabit the present, accept it as reality, and think (except perhaps for those who read a great deal of science fiction) that this is the way things have always been, will be, and ought to be. We live in a world in which contemporary culture preoccupies many people, where any reading of ancient history may seem irrelevant. Even some academics seem to be giving up on history entirely, turning toward popular culture, with its aleatory, seemingly anarchist array of representations. Some regard American popular culture with fascinated passivity, perhaps yearning for its randomness to yield up something new. Critics invest in an expectant survey of music, television, and comic books, some with the hope that everyday life, in its rush, will produce something unexpected, some novelty, that the utopian might emerge in some incalculable way, or that some unforeseen mutation will point the way to the future, even a future of resistances that might transform experience. Hope, pleasure, or dread keep many of us transfixed in a gaze at the very near future, as if paralyzed by the machine of the world, as if it will give us something we want, something hitherto unseen.

    I don't want to ally myself with those who oppose the teaching of popular culture and cultural studies. We need to know how to produce critiques of the world we live in, to analyze our own culture. Nor would I advocate a position of elitist pessimism, mourning the loss of European high culture. I believe there are resistance, pleasure, compelling interest, even utopian elements in the culture of the present. But in this present, we also need some critical relationship to other times and other places. I think we should still read the dead, among them those Greeks who not only invented philosophy and democracy and the jury system, but also kept slaves and excluded their women from political life. Their culture was diverse and heterogeneous, and we need a fuller sense of all that it offers to contemporary readers. For example, our reading of a poet like Sappho (whom I'll discuss later), a female poet at the threshold of the creation of the very idea of the writer, might allow us to see the diverse, vivid, complicated, and contradictory beginnings of Western civilizations.

    One of the great rewards of reading history is the realization that things have not in fact always been the way they are now, that people in other times and places have organized human societies, of whatever size, differently. If we allow ourselves to be open to the myriad lost possibilities of historical human cultures, we amplify our present often limited sense of human potential. We can throw open the narrow window through which many people now see the ancient world, and look at much more that is recognizable in our repertory of human possibility and in our inheritance from the ancient dead.

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Table of Contents

1 Whose Greeks? 1
2 Their Greeks 25
3 Aliens 57
4 Sex 75
5 Democracy 97
6 Gods 113
Notes 139
More Reading 143
Index 147
About the Author 151
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