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.

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 …

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Letters

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