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Homer Lives!

Third, the current generation of Classicists (their own capitalization throughout) is directly responsible, in large part, for that demise. Hypocrisy, obscurity of pronouncement, theory run wild (this means postmodernism, described as a “new religion”), and creeping relativism are all fingered. Our discipline (I write as a classicist, lower case) stands accused here, not only of failing to “explain the relevance of Greek thought and values in a critical age of electronic information and entertainment,” or of what Hanson and Heath describe as our “usual wage of sloth, complacency, and arrogance,” but, worst, of cashing in on ephemeral social trends for academic advancement.

This last crime apparently consists of deliberate efforts “to adulterate—even to destroy—the Greeks” by means of “a lie and a treason” aimed at the public, assurances that “as Classicists [we] knew best just how sexist, racist, and exploitative the Greeks really were.” I can no more figure out how one would go about “adulterating” an ethnic group than how the Athenian admiral Conon was supposed, by the Spartans, to be “adulterating the sea”; but there’s more than fuzzy conceptualization, or what Hanson and Heath refer to as their “populist stance,” involved here. What is being expressed is a new kind of politically correct denial. To look no further than the Athenians (as is Hanson and Heath’s practice): What happens to their treatment of women (nonvoters whose best virtue was to shut up and not get themselves talked about, said Pericles), their concept of the Barbarian Other (deal with them like animals or plants, said Aristotle), or their exploitation of the empire’s subject-allies (a splendid scam for the Athenian demos, said the Old Oligarch2 )? These matters are all largely ignored by Hanson and Heath. As this brief list demonstrates, the thesis of Who Killed Homer? is clearly going to involve a bumpy populist ride.

Hanson and Heath close their prologue with brief autobiographical sketches, a prudent admission that “we have both been guilty—insidiously and flagrantly so—of many of the professional crimes we rebuke here” (thus obviating colleagues possessed of long memories coming back at either of them with a fabula de te narratur charge). In a concluding statement they claim they do not want to be alarmists or simply air dirty professional linen. The catalog of what they did feel, their reasons for writing this book, are worth citing in full:

We simply tired of encountering one too many unemployed Classics Ph.D.’s, one too many smug senior professors who rarely teach, one too many redundant and incomprehensible articles on power and gender, one too many phone calls from the talented jobless asking to teach courses which no longer exist, one too many classes in the university on therapeutics—and one too many debt-ridden students who were never taught anything about the Greeks or why Greek wisdom was something of real value.

They confront this bill of particulars in five chapters and an appendix. They first contrast, with some impressive-looking but delicately fudged statistics,3 the fall-off in students of classics with the increase of publications in the field, sketch the history of the discipline’s decline, and plead for more talented odd-man-out amateurs (like Schliemann, Michael Ventris, the decipherer of the early form of Greek known as Linear B, and—of all people—the Harvard Homer scholar Milman Parry, who would certainly have resented the label of amateur).

They then try to explain, by random examples and off-the-cuff assertions, what the always rather nebulous concept of “Greek wisdom” actually means. As should by now be apparent, tight definitions are not their strong point. (How Homer, for instance, is supposed to accommodate their instances of democratic or scientific wisdom is never made clear.) During this sixty-page ramble they attribute their “Western paradigm”—individualism, freedom of expression, etc.—to a “hard-headed logic” created by “the self-reliant way of life of the agrarian demos.” They then argue that this demos died in the fourth century BC, but also insist that “human nature is constant over time and space.” For a Greek of the polis, we learn, “word must match deed”—yet where, as Hanson and Heath themselves ask, does this leave bullheaded Homeric heroes such as Achilles or Ajax?

We then read that the Greeks were fatalistic, action-conscious, believed in the supremacy of culture, while also fighting each other more or less non-stop, were creatively and technologically innovative, and practiced shock tactics; yet despite their military brutality they saw the evils of war “more clearly than any culture of the time.” This survey (which also includes numerous sneers at such modern phenomena as politically correct euphemisms or situational ethics) winds up with a triumphant reminder that whether a foreigner wants freedom, a superior education, or the best new weapons system, it’s to the West that he turns, and that these ingredients of the “good life” are all the products of—Greek wisdom.

The third, and longest, chapter is a flat-out attack on what they see as the professoriate’s betrayal of that wisdom and the ideals it embodies. The fourth and fifth discuss Hanson and Heath’s positive concepts of teaching Greek language and culture, and their educational priorities in general. The appendix lists some modern studies that they feel embody the virtues at which they aim. These include one of my own books, a fact which caused me a certain degree of embarrassment.

How well do they make their case? I think the first point to note is, despite their claims of all-inclusiveness, how limited a target they are in fact attacking. There can be no more than three or four universities, at most, left in the US where classics professors do virtually no teaching, and can draw on endless funds for sabbaticals or conference-hopping. All but a few of us have heavy workloads, and are lucky to get partial support to attend even one professional meeting annually, for which the grant is contingent on the actual delivery of an invited paper. Thus the self-indulgent and irresponsible mandarin conjured up by Hanson and Heath’s rhetoric is, at best, a marginal hangover from the bad old days when classics were prescribed in Ivy League colleges and classicists were overconfident of their superiority.

Yet, paradoxically, as their chapter “What We Could Do” makes clear, required courses and specially privileged teachers are precisely what Hanson and Heath want to resurrect on a large scale, only this time with professors like themselves in charge. Classics is to be a core curriculum, run by professors of Greek who teach six, eight, ten courses or even more a year. The hard sciences are to be relegated to their proper ancillary place, practical illustrations of the world view offered by (how did you guess?) Greek wisdom. Spellbinding lectures at the podium are the leitmotif here: Hanson and Heath have no enthusiasm for tutorials or one-on-one conferences. Even the doctorate comes low in the authors’ pecking order (though not so low as the graduate seminar), and if it doesn’t involve instruction and deal in large generalities, just scrap it. The question of quality, of standards, in classical scholarship is never mentioned, much less discussed.

The same sense of disproportion strikes one in Hanson and Heath’s attacks on classics professors’ supposed generic addiction to speculative theories couched in deliberately obscurantist jargon. That such theories, and such jargon, exist, and that classicists have been known to dip into them, no one would for one moment deny, and Hanson and Heath have no trouble in lining up a smorgasbord of choice examples culled (naturally) from studies of Homer.4 My own favorite is a passage from Irene J.F. de Jong, beginning: “This chapter is devoted to the narrative situation of complex narrator-text or embedded focalization, NF1 [F2Cx]….”)5

But there are several important points to note here. First, the degree to which classics has been affected by this virus is negligible: the real offenders are English departments, as anyone who’s attended an MLA conference recently can testify. Though Hanson and Heath’s assembly of texts may look impressive, it is drawn from only a small proportion of the available scholarship on Homer and the background of early epic, most of which is free of jargon, innovative, and exciting. Let anyone who doubts this try Martin West’s The East Face of Helicon (1997), Mark Edwards’s Homer, Poet of the Iliad (1987), Denis Feeney’s The Gods in Epic (1991), or, for beginners, Peter Toohey’s Reading Epic: An Introduction to the Ancient Narratives (1992).

Secondly, literary criticism, whether of the kind Hanson and Heath deplore or not, is one element only in the vast, complex, and, yes, multicultural enterprise which is subsumed under the heading of “classical studies.” Who Killed Homer? reads as though the authors had never heard of the great art historian Andrew Stewart, or of distinguished students of ancient science like Geoffrey Lloyd or Heinrich von Staden, social and political historians of the caliber of Amélie Kuhrt, Brian Bosworth, or Susan Treggiari, or explorers of Greek religion such as Robert Garland or Jon Mikalson.6 The book is attacking scholars who are (to borrow one of Hanson and Heath’s favorite images), with very few exceptions, as extinct as the stegosaurus, and the criticism that they reject forms no more than a very thin slice of a large and variegated pie. As for archaeology, epigraphy, papyrology and numismatics, subdisciplines that have transformed the study of classics in this century, they are barely mentioned, and then dismissed as “scads of nineteenth-century overstuffed furniture”: at best they are regarded as tools to higher ends, at worst as vehicles for technical-minded obscurantists. For Hanson and Heath (as, ironically, for the stegosauri) it’s the texts, and only the classical texts, that really count: sacred scriptures embodying that never-defined entity, Greek wisdom.

But when one puts together the book’s various positions on teaching, research, and scholarship in general, a rather disconcerting picture emerges. The teaching promoted is relentlessly generalist, folksy lecturing from the podium to undergraduates, on a work schedule calculated to leave no time for anything else. (Hanson and Heath’s pages of specimen chat on Homer and Greek tragedy could have been lifted directly—and for all I know were—from just such lectures.) A five- or six-course annual workload for teachers of classics is seen as the basic minimum, with more encouraged. Graduate seminars, postdoctoral fellowships, and high-level or technical research of any kind are relentlessly mocked throughout, together with the publications that result from them.7

Apply these principles to a discipline like medicine, and their inadequacy is at once apparent. It’s as though future doctors were to be lectured for four years at first-year level, while medical research was required to restrict itself to the ethics of the profession, in language that carefully eschewed all technical terminology. These ideas seem calculated to kill all original thought. It occurred to me more than once while reading Who Killed Homer? that Hanson and Heath’s underlying attitude toward students is one of intellectual contempt. “No college curriculum,” they assert, “can transform dysfunctional, ignorant adolescents into productive and ethical, much less informed and educated, citizens.”

It’s bad enough that they should want to package generalized and ill-defined “Greek wisdom,” de haut en bas, for what they see as latter-day Yahoos. That they should use a heavy arsenal of rhetoric to try to dragoon the rest of the profession into following their example is offensive. The old truism that teaching and research are symbiotic, that you can’t have one without the other, seems to have passed them by. What they want to offer students is a reductive version of the ceaseless modern intellectual research whose detailed content they completely ignore. What, eventually, will happen to the ideas disseminated through such scholarship if they are cut off at the roots in the manner the authors propose? I find it symptomatic that advanced philosophical discourse nowhere figures in their curriculum, and that their index doesn’t even contain the word “philosophy”—an omission that does not bode well, to put it mildly, for their self-appointed role as guardians of “Greek wisdom.” Nor does their shying away from specificity help their case, as when they rhetorically assault the universities for “the increasing avoidance of anything general, broad, and all-inclusive,” and other classicists’ use of the term “the Greeks” as containing innumerable variants.

Still, one can see why they’re worried. A perusal of Who Killed Homer? makes it abundantly clear that what they mean when they talk about “the Greeks,” nine times out of ten, is Athenians, and not just any Athenians either, but a select group from the fifth, and to a lesser extent the fourth, centuries BC: the great playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, thinkers such as Plato and Socrates, and what has recently been described as “Pericles and his circle.”8 To pin down just what they mean by “Greek wisdom” is a far harder business, since they not only put forward a whole slew of attributes, but also assume, rather testily, that any right-minded person should know what it is, and that to take issue with their specific claims is just one more proof of academic obscurantism. It reminds me of A.E. Housman’s observation in his famous lecture “The Name and Nature of Poetry” that he could no more define poetry than a terrier could define a rat, but that both could recognize the object of their interest by the emotions that object aroused in them. Hanson and Heath assert that “the Greek way of looking at the world—what we call Greek wisdom—offers a vision of human nature and the place of man in the world unique to the preindustrial Mediterranean and central to all subsequent Western thought.” But their account of this doesn’t offer a unified conception; it offers, simply, as we have seen, a random selection of attributes; and attributes, as Socrates well knew, are no substitute for a definition.

What they regard as “Greekness” includes—to recapitulate—both commonplaces and improbabilities. Acquiring knowledge, they inform us, should be independent of both religious and political control. Religion and military power alike must always remain subservient to civilian authority. In all matters, the right of dissent remains fundamental. Hence in the US, courtesy of the Founding Fathers, who are taken to have absorbed Greek traditions, “a free economy, constitutional government, an egalitarian ideal, and a tradition of liberal dissent.” Okay so far? Throw in a bleakly tragic, absolutist view of human existence, fate, and the law of atonement. Predicate the unchanging quality of human nature. Banish relativism (a move that would have surprised Herodotus and the Sophists, as Hanson and Heath seem to concede elsewhere), and polite euphemisms (something at which the Athenians, according to Plutarch in his life of Solon, excelled).

For Hanson and Heath the conclusion follows that “freedom of speech and permissible deviancy from religious norms were also Greek ideas.” What was permissible clearly didn’t include what Socrates was up to, and freedom of speech was cheerfully ditched by Pericles when the comic theater began to hit a little too close to home for comfort. Apropos of women in the polis we read that “there the veiled, mutilated, and secluded were not the norm.” “Mutilated” is about the only word most scholars would agree with in that sentence. The authors’ concept of “Greek wisdom”—as becomes clear when we put all these references together—is arbitrary, selective, and in parts highly debatable. I would feel extremely uneasy about letting either of them loose on any undergraduate class of mine.

The further one reads in Hanson and Heath’s book, the more insistent the impression of total unreality. We are not only told that the authors’ bundle of platitudes and misrepresentations should form the core of a college educational curriculum, but that all higher research should be jettisoned in order to implement it. Worse, we are invited to reject, as generally representative of a classical professoriate that’s taken the wrong turn, straw men whom most of us have never met. Worst of all, Hanson and Heath summon us, peremptorily, to lament the incipient demise of the tradition to which some of us have devoted our lives when to the best of our knowledge it’s flourishing, against odds, in a hard and competitive world.9

I have detailed and long experience of two state university classics departments, one extremely large, the other relatively small; and neither of these resembles even remotely the doom-and-gloom picture drawn in Who Killed Homer? Students of classics have increased steadily in numbers over the past two decades. Tenure-track positions are being added. My Ph.D. students are not only being hired, but win prizes, start new departments, run old ones. No one is flinging grant or conference money at us, and senior professors teach every kind of course, from beginning languages to graduate seminars. Instruction, research, publication, and administrative services—in what we hope is a useful balance—keep us very busy indeed.

The mandarin layabouts of Hanson and Heath’s fantasy wouldn’t last five minutes under such a regime. Literary theory (to pick up their other bugbear) is simply one possible field of study among many: departments such as ours try to go on exploring, in stringent detail, the different facets of immensely complex ancient societies, not reduce them to simplistic generalizations that we peddle in lecture courses to the mentally lazy. All the huff-and-puff, in the last resort, is simply irrelevant to the general state of American classics today.10

That is what, I suspect, explains their quite extraordinary populist rhetoric, of which the following, picked at random, is a characteristic sample:

Rarely are any rotund and aproned Aunt Beas now to be found in Classics, smiling professors scurrying across the floor with cookies and Cokes, wiping brows and squeezing hands at the rear of the class, now fainting, now huffing, “Come on back, kids, it’s not so bad, stay in Greek and have a slice of pie over irregular comparative adjectives.” Even to hungry undergraduates, three hours a night in the library is too much to pay for dessert. Classicists can no longer huddle to the rear in the surf as waves of their greenhorn Greek and Latin 1A-ers are machine-gunned in the sand. If we are going to lose Greek, let us do so with burly, cigar-chomping professors, red-eyed from overload classes, wounds oozing from bureaucratic combat, chests bristling with local teaching medals and complimentary Rotary pens from free lecturing, barking orders and dragging dozens of bodies forward as they brave administrative gunfire, oblivious to the incoming rounds from ethnic studies and contemporary cinema.

I ask myself, as R.G. Collingwood asked himself apropos Thucydides11 : What is wrong with these people that they write like that? And I answer, as Collingwood did, that they have (I suspect) a bad conscience, and in their heart of hearts know very well that the case they put forward is not only parti pris but in essence a fantasy. If we ask ourselves why this should be, I can only guess. But Hanson and Heath’s blueprint for the future suggests that they bitterly regret the absence of what classics most certainly lost in this century: the prescriptive and moral authority it carried from the Renaissance onward.12 If they are attacking the few surviving mandarins, it is because mandarin authority is what they covet most. In that dream, middle-class American classical scholars, working quietly, doggedly, and sometimes passionately at what they believe in, are as dispensable as the tiers état in Plato’s Republic.


Who Killed Homer?’: An Exchange June 24, 1999

  1. 2

    The so-called Old Oligarch (his true identity remains uncertain) was a fifth-century BC antidemocratic pamphleteer who attacked the Athenians, inter alia, for forcing their “subject-allies” to have court cases heard in Athens, and then dishonestly manipulating the judicial process for profit (1.16-18). The most easily available text, with translation, is to be found as an appendix to E.C. Marchant and G.W. Bowersock, translators, Xenophon: Scripta Minora (Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 461-507.

  2. 3

    Their figures for proliferation of published work are taken from the international annual bibliography of classics, L’Année Philologique, the coverage of which is worldwide. However, when analyzing the decline of student enrollment, they use sources that cover only the US: see pp. 275-276 nn. 2-3.

  3. 4

    The seventeen authors quoted run from A.L.T. Bergen, “The (Re)marriage of Penelope and Odysseus: Architecture Gender Philosophy. A Homeric Dialogue,” in The Ages of Homer, edited by J.B. Carter and S.P. Morris (University of Texas Press, 1995), to V.J. Wohl, “Standing by the Stathmos: The Creation of Sexual Ideology in the Odyssey,” in Arethusa, Vol. 26 (1993).

  4. 5

    Irene J.F. de Jong, Narrators and Focalizers: The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad (Amsterdam: B.R. Grüner, 1987), p. 101.

  5. 6

    See, e.g., Andrew Stewart, Faces of Power: Alexander’s Image and Hellenistic Politics (University of California Press, 1993); G.E.R. Lloyd, The Revolutions of Wisdom: Studies in the Claims and Practice of Ancient Greek Science (University of California Press, 1987); Heinrich von Staden, Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria (Cambridge University Press, 1989); Amélie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East, c. 3000-330 BC (Routledge, 1995); A.B. Bosworth, Alexander and the East: The Tragedy of Triumph (Oxford University Press, 1996); Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage (Oxford University Press, 1991); Robert Garland, Introducing New Gods (Cornell University Press, 1992); Jon D. Mikalson, Religion in Hellenistic Athens (University of California Press, 1998).

  6. 7

    It is, perhaps, worth pointing out to these cultural iconoclasts that even the theories they dismiss have something to offer the discipline if critically examined: see, e.g., Pietro Pucci’s by no means wholly laudatory exploration of “Lévi-Strauss and Classical Culture,” in Arethusa, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1971), pp. 103-117.

  7. 8

    Anthony J. Podlecki, Perikles and His Circle (Routledge, 1998).

  8. 9

    Humanistic disciplines do indeed have a lot to put up with these days, but by and large the difficulties aren’t those that Hanson and Heath have dreamed up: to understand them one must take account of not only the deficiencies of American high school education but the post-World War II academic inflation of grades, enrollments, job expectations, and faculty size. I hope to return to this subject elsewhere.

  9. 10

    They may, indeed, simply be renewing, for this generation, the kind of antiestablishment diatribe that tends to surface every thirty years or so: almost every charge they make can be found, mutatis mutandis, in, of all places, Arion: see Vol. 1.2 (1962), pp. 95-122. The article, by Georg Mann, entitled “The Decline of the Humanities, or, Where’s the Bloody Horse?,” trots out all the same enemies of classical learning—disaffected students, professors “as inbred as the Ptolemies,” diminishing job opportunities, obscurantism, and mandarinism. But here we still are.

  10. 11

    R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford University Press, 1946), pp. 28-29.

  11. 12

    For a scholarly and convincing analysis of the same process of loss in England, see Christopher Stray, Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960 (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 271ff.

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