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Homer Lives!

At first sight the rhetorical question Who Killed Homer? looks rather like one of those trick questions attributed to mythical lawyers, like “Have you stopped beating your wife?,” since with half a dozen paperback translations of the Iliad and Odyssey selling nicely, and more appearing every year, Homer might seem, to the casual observer, to be very much alive. But then we discover that Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath’s jeremiad against the alleged sins of academic classicists has itself sold about 30,000 copies in hardback and is to be issued in paperback by a major university press. 1

Whatever the merits of the case that the authors put forward, it’s clearly one that many people seem eager to hear, and—to judge from notices I’ve read and readers I’ve talked to—a considerable reservoir of emotional sympathy for it exists. At the very least, Hanson and Heath have tapped into this reservoir with psychological acuity and a shrewdly tailored rhetoric. What we have to ask ourselves is whether their charges, cleverly packaged and presented as they are, have validity in themselves. To untangle such an answer from so highly polemical a text is no easy business. But the effort must be made. What, precisely, are their claims? With what evidence do they support them? Are they completely right, partially right, or wrong all along the line?

Their subtitle sets the tone: what they are lamenting is “the demise of Classical education”; what they are hoping to promote is “the recovery of Greek wisdom”—an entity, as will appear, about as elusive, to judge from their various descriptions of it, as Lewis Carroll’s Snark, and seemingly so to them no less than to their readers. Their prologue is worth studying with particular care, since most of the thesis they present is there laid out in brief. They write as teachers of classics in small Californian colleges. No longer, according to them, does the professoriate quiz recent Ph.D.’s at job interviews with questions like “Why did the Mycenaean world collapse?” Instead it’s the candidates who ask the questions, beginning with “What is the teaching load like?” What, Hanson and Heath ask, has happened? Here are potential classicists who have done what they were told, look, dress, and talk like their teachers, “are eager to publish, keen to belong to a new school of criticism, and confident that they can now ‘do theory.”’ But something, somewhere, has gone wrong.

The trouble, according to Hanson and Heath, is that these young scholars “often know very little of the Greeks—and act and think like Greeks rarely or not at all. A very few may have successful careers as Classicists, but most will be failures as Hellenes, as explicators and stewards of Greek wisdom.” Hanson and Heath go on to draw a striking contrast between the larger world and the annual convention of the American Philological Association, where several hundred unemployed Ph.D.’s scramble for jobs, mostly at the bottom of the academic totem pole: at best, one-year (or even one-semester) replacements for professors on sabbatical, at the minimum university wage. Neither professors nor applicants so much as notice the millions outside who know nothing and care nothing about the Greeks—even though it was these same Greeks who “inaugurated the very culture that ensures [classicists] a liberty, bounty, and security found nowhere else.”

What the profession has, the authors argue, is too many Ph.D.’s, too few jobs, far too many books and articles about the Greeks aimed at a narrow professional audience, a plethora of new theories and approaches—but (a new point) virtually no students. Why no students? Because “there is really no interest in the Greeks in or out of the university.” To reverse this trend “we would need people who think and act like Greeks, not Classicists, to teach us about Greece.” Let us repress, for the moment, the urge to ask, which Greeks, and pursue the argument further. The un-Greekness of American classicists rouses Hanson and Heath to rhetorical illustration. These senior professors “do not look like those who held the pass at Thermopylae.” Well, no indeed, and how would we feel about them if they did? But Hanson and Heath’s further examples are even less happy. Rather too many ancient philosophers for my taste do talk, irritatingly, “like the condemned Socrates,” whose conversation the authors would like to see emulated. There’s active competition to “see the world…as Sophocles saw it.” I’ve known more than a few would-be “doomed Achilleses,” and as for “mournful Sapphos,” nowadays you can’t turn round at a convention without bumping into one. Not so many, it’s true, have “the humor of Aristophanes,” but the “solemnity of Thucydides” is, alas, almost a sine qua non these days for any ambitious classical pundit.

What’s the real nub of the argument behind such picturesque examples? Hanson and Heath see a paradox—ancient Greece is a fascinating topic, yet it is totally lacking in interest for most students—and try to explain it. How come the Greeks are so important, yet so neglected? In particular, why do so few professors (they assert) bother to teach us (when they teach at all) that many of our most fundamental concepts—inter alia free speech, free scientific enquiry, individual rights, civilian control of the military, separation of religious and political authority, Western ideas of constitutional government, and what they rather oddly describe as “middle-class egalitarianism”—are “both vital to our present existence and derive from the ancient Greeks”? (Those who, like me, are more likely to complain not only that Western Civilization courses drum such conclusions into their students ad nauseam, but also that the Greeks themselves, with their reversions to dictatorship, were pretty handy at subverting what they’d dreamed up, just have to be patient.) Hanson and Heath see a gulf between Greek vitality and academic timidity. They claim to be neither chronicling the Decline of the University in the manner of Allan Bloom, nor engaging directly in the “Culture Wars” (their phrase), though often it’s hard to take either disclaimer seriously.

Nor, they say, are they taking a swing at modernity as such, or at the liberal ethos they see permeating higher education (this last, being in fact derived largely from Greek ideas, is therefore, like it or not—and I’m pretty sure they don’t—off-limits). They are not, they tell us, making a political attack. When they charge their generic classicist with dissimulation, hypocrisy, and peddling methodologies, ideologies, or theories that say nothing to the average student or the public at large about the ancient Greeks, what primarily interests them, they assure us, is “the behavior and the culture” of the people who teach classics today.

To explain the supposed neglect of the “hard and peculiar way” in which the ancient Greeks viewed their universe, Hanson and Heath say they will lay out that view’s meaning. Readers may, however, be taken aback to learn that the word “Homer” in their title is there proposed as a definition of the notion of “Greek wisdom” to which they constantly refer, and that Homer is “the first and best creative dividend of the polis, and so serves as a primer for the entire, subsequent world of the Greeks.” In fact the ancient world’s most conscious emulator of Homer’s heroic ethos was Alexander of Macedon, and I somehow don’t think he was quite what Hanson and Heath had in mind.

Further, their summary of “Greek wisdom”—the “way the ancient Greeks viewed their universe,” which formed the basis for “our present Western notions of constitutional government, free speech, individual rights, civilian control over the military, separation between religious and political authority, middle-class egalitarianism, private property, and free scientific enquiry”—is to go hand in hand with an account of the way in which the academic discipline of classics has, as they see it, self-destructed. This prospect stirs them to what their readers will soon recognize as a characteristic flight of rhetorical fancy, as they meditate on “the petty power-politics of a dying institution, a mock-epic struggle of nocturnal creatures croaking and scratching at each other for their tiny lily pad on an evaporating pond, one final Battle of Frogs and Mice.”

But, for them, the “demise of Classics” means more than the mere “implosion of an inbred academic discipline.” What George Bush referred to as the “vision thing” is also involved. The ideas and values of ancient Greece and Rome are themselves going down, “chained to this sinking bureaucracy called Classics”—and going down, moreover, just as their “mutated form is metastasizing throughout the globe”: an opaque statement that I first saw as alluding to all those paperback translations of Homer, but now suspect may refer to the post-Soviet spread of capitalism. Classicists, they argue, see their West crumbling (though a little earlier, you’ll recall, it was stated that they weren’t interested in teaching the Western tradition), at the precise time when “the other billions on the globe would look to them to understand it” (though a little earlier, again, millions of these billions were presented as knowing and caring nothing about the Greeks anyway). A Whitmanesque capacity for, and right to, carefree self-contradiction is thus established very early on: as we shall see, a necessary precaution.

Theirs is not a Spenglerian prophecy of decline, either: indeed, Hanson and Heath assure us that the West, far from dying, is “overwhelming the world” with its various institutions and aspects of its material culture such as a free-market economy, free speech, individualism, and democracy. This news may come as a surprise to, say, the Chinese or the Taliban or the mullahs in Iran, where the only Western advance readily embraced is military dynamism and the high-tech toys that make it possible, while the spectacle of Greeks bearing other gifts is regarded with Virgilian suspicion. Be that as it may, Hanson and Heath argue that to embrace such gifts without any concept of the original world view behind them (seen as absolute and tragic), or the “cultural protocols” that they believe the Greeks applied to them (civic responsibility, philanthropy, and “communitarianism,” whatever that may have been in Greek eyes), can only be regarded as an unmitigated disaster. Classics as a profession, they claim, has absorbed the tools while ignoring the controls, thus becoming “materialist and careerist but no longer Hellenic.”

Having thus laid out their basic assumptions, Hanson and Heath follow up with what they describe as three “arguments” in support of their case (though these, being long on dogma and short on justification, are difficult to distinguish from the assumptions that preceded them). First, “Greek wisdom”—in this context identified with “Hellenic culture” and “core values,” an interesting semantic slide—is presented as “not Mediterranean but anti-Mediterranean,” in the sense of being at odds with that of any other contemporary and contiguous civilization (e.g., Tyre, Persepolis, Germania, or Gaul, though it might be argued that these examples were neither contiguous nor in themselves civilizations). Second, the demise of “Classical learning” Hanson and Heath describe is not only real but in their view quantifiable: they will offer statistics in support of it.

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    To be published in paperback by the University of California Press, spring 2000.

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