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The Homeric MOOC: Will It Revolutionize Education?

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust
Drawing by Edward Gorey from Rex Warner’s Men and Gods: Myths and Legends of the Ancient Greeks, published by NYRB Classics

On the morning of Sunday, June 10, 2012, the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Virginia were notified of a palace coup. The university’s president, Teresa Sullivan, had been forced to resign by a small faction on the board of trustees. The conspirators were led by the board’s chair (the “rector” in local parlance), a Virginia Beach real estate developer named Helen Dragas.

The motives for the coup have never been entirely explained, perhaps because those responsible were themselves not quite sure what they were trying to accomplish. But the mythology of the affair has emphasized two issues. Sullivan was viewed as insufficiently aggressive in pursuing what the conspirators on the board saw as the next big wave in education: massive open online courses (MOOCs), in which a single instructor teaches thousands or tens of thousands of students over the Internet. She was also said to have resisted proposals to close obscure and unprofitable programs—in particular the department of classics.1

The sequel is well known. After two weeks of protests by students and statewide criticism, the conspirators were forced to back down and Sullivan was reinstated. But the episode has come to symbolize a tension between classic ways of teaching (for what could be more classic than classics?) and new, “disruptive” technologies, symbolized by the MOOC. As Gregory Nagy’s new book illustrates, the reality is murkier.

Nagy earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1966. Still in his early twenties, he was immediately hired as a faculty member, and except for a brief stint at Johns Hopkins he has been there ever since. He has attained most of the honors to which an American classicist can aspire, including the presidency of the American Philological Association and the Sather lectureship at Berkeley. He has been a generous mentor to two generations of graduate students, an agile impresario of several series of scholarly monographs, and, most recently, director of the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. Now over seventy, he has managed to become an éminence grise without ever quite ceasing to be an enfant terrible.

All of Nagy’s work has dealt with early Greek literature, and almost all of it, directly or indirectly, with Homer. Many of his characteristic concerns are already present in his first book, the austerely titled Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter (1974). Like all modern Homerists, Nagy starts from the demonstration by Milman Parry (1902–1935) and his then assistant Albert Lord that the Homeric poems reflect—and reflect on—a long tradition of oral composition and performance. Parry died tragically young, seven years before Nagy was born, but Lord was one of Nagy’s teachers and for many years his colleague at Harvard (he died in 1991).

Nagy himself has combined an emphasis on oral composition and performance with training in Indo-European linguistics and an interest in structuralism. The latter grows out of his linguistics background but has also been enriched by personal contacts with French classicists like Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne, and Nicole Loraux. The resulting approach achieved a wide scholarly audience in his acclaimed second book, The Best of the Achaeans (1979). His subsequent work has extended it and applied it to some new material, but not fundamentally altered it. Nagy’s publications, in fact, make up a self-contained (and highly self-referential) system; if one were handed a random page, it would be hard to guess whether it was written in 1980 or 2010.

Nagy has for many years taught a large lecture course on “the Greek hero,” both to regular Harvard undergraduates and to continuing education students. That course has now been transformed into a MOOC, to which his recent seven-hundred-page book serves as a kind of textbook. Its jacket promises “an exploration of civilization’s roots in the Homeric epics and other Classical literature, a lineage that continues to challenge and inspire us today.” In reality, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours is a much stranger book than that, in both content and form.

Nagy’s central subject is the relationship of the Homeric poems (and, by extension, other Greek literature) to hero cult. This last term requires some explanation. In addition to the familiar Olympian and other gods, the ancient Greeks worshiped the shades of famous mortals. These “heroes” were not quite gods in the same sense as Aphrodite or Zeus: their power was less awesome, their influence more localized. Yet they enjoyed immortality, were capable of appearing to their worshipers at important moments, and were honored by rituals, including sacrifices and athletic contests.

A good example is the figure of Protesilaos, a warrior mentioned only briefly in the Iliad, though he appears elsewhere in ancient literature. Reputedly the first Greek to die at Troy, he was an object of cult worship at the town of Elaious on the Hellespont. There, during the Persian Wars of the early fifth century, he was believed to have punished a Persian governor who had made the mistake of appropriating his shrine. His busy posthumous career is also celebrated in a dialogue called the Heroikos by the third-century AD rhetorician Philostratus. When Nagy speaks of “the ancient Greek hero,” it is such cult heroes that he has in mind.

Now, Homer’s heroes are not explicitly represented as cult heroes. Indeed, they are explicitly not so represented: the final mortality of Achilles and Hector is central to the Iliad as we have it. Other sources imagine an Achilles transported after his death to a mysterious but pleasant-sounding “White Island,” where he marries Helen and lives happily ever after. Such stories have no place in Homer, any more than invulnerability or magic weapons do. Yet for Nagy, the poems are always aware of hero cult, and at certain moments they betray that awareness (rather as a detergent commercial might let slip the existence of “another leading brand”). Indeed, Nagy would go a step further: his Iliad and Odyssey actually do regard their main characters as cult heroes, albeit of a somewhat unusual kind. Characters like Achilles or Odysseus achieve posthumous immortality through Homeric poetry itself, and their cult worship consists of the ritualized recitation of that poetry at festivals like the Athenian Panathenaia.

The first half of Nagy’s book is concerned with epic: eight “hours” on themes from the Iliad (including some related lyric poetry), three on the Odyssey, one on Hesiod. The second half deals with Herodotus and Philostratus, various tragedies (Aeschylus’ Oresteia; Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus; Euripides’ Hippolytus and Bacchae), and Plato’s Apology and Phaedo. Each of the hours is built around an important Greek word or words. Some of these are notoriously untranslatable, like ate, the madness-leading-to-catastrophe that afflicts the House of Atreus.

Others have long been objects of fascination for Nagy. Prominent among these is kleos aphthiton, the “imperishable glory” Achilles will receive in exchange for his early death at Troy. For Nagy it is the poetic counterpart to the actual immortality Greek heroes receive in cult worship. And it has a cognate formula in the Sanskrit of the Vedas, suggesting that the idea goes back to Indo-European verse. Another important term for Nagy is sema, a word that can mean “sign” (as in English “semiotics”) or “meaning” (as in “semantics”), but can also designate the physical tomb or burial mound of a hero. This ambiguity prompts much extended meditation, not easy to summarize or even, sometimes, to understand.

One of Nagy’s recurrent tactics is the ascription to unexceptional Greek words of a specialized ritual sense. When Sappho tells us that “I seem to myself (phainom’ emautai) to be little short of dying,” we are instructed to render the initial phrase as “I am manifested to myself in an epiphany.” The term nostos (“homecoming”), so central to the Odyssey, is to be understood as “return to light and life,” following a 1978 book by Douglas Frame that most critics have found more eccentric than convincing. Therapon, a word used of Patroklos in relation to Achilles, is connected with an apparently related word in Anatolian and interpreted as not (or not just) “attendant, squire” but “ritual substitute.” When Patroklos’ ghost recalls his having committed an involuntary homicide, he describes himself as nepios (normally rendered “foolish”). But for Nagy the key phrase means not “I was an idiot” but “I was feeling disconnected.” As such Nagyisms pile up, they amount to a cumulative rereading of Greek literature; a deceptively placid landscape turns out to be mined with ritual undertexts to which the reader must be initiated by Nagy.

It’s true that Greek words don’t always map neatly onto English equivalents, and that’s particularly true of words that reflect significant mental or cultural concepts. In their very inelegance, such Nagyian retranslations have a welcome estranging effect. In such a context it becomes easier to see the songs written for Spartan maidens by the ancient Greek choral lyric poet Alcman as the Greek equivalent of the Navajo and Apache initiation rituals to which Nagy fruitfully compares them. But one often feels that Nagy is giving undue weight to remote and sometimes speculative etymologies. A revealing example—because not central to the argument—is the observation that many people still talk loosely of “records” when they mean CDs. “I suspect we speak this way,” comments Nagy, “because the idea of memory is embedded in the word records.” But of course this isn’t why we sometimes refer to CDs as “records”; the term has simply been extended from one technology to its successor. Initially the record store sold records, then it sold records and CDs, then, before it folded, just CDs. But in organizing a record collection, we don’t think of the heart (Latin cor) as the seat of memory, any more than we think of a carbon paper copy when we “cc” someone on an e-mail.

For the general reader, a more pervasive problem is the selectivity of Nagy’s interest. Because his aim is to expose a discourse that the text conceals or occludes, the book focuses on individual moments where that material seems to bubble to the surface: Odysseus’ planted oar, Electra bringing libations to her father’s tomb, Patroklos emerging from his tent “equal to Ares.” Nagy is a passionate close reader, but he reads passages, not works. And his interests cohere better with some texts than others. Alcman’s songs for maidens do have some kind of ritual background, for example, and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus really is about cult heroization. But woe to the readers who take up The Ancient Greek Hero expecting a general introduction to Homeric poetry or Greek tragedy, or who emerge under the impression that they have received one.

So much, then, for the ancient Greek hero. But why “in twenty-four hours”? The figure might remind us of Aristotelian unities. It also bears a suspicious resemblance to a conventional college lecture course. Throw in an introductory class—Nagy’s “Hour 0”—plus a midterm exam, and you have a standard thirteen-week semester. It is tempting, then, to see The Ancient Greek Hero as a book-of-the-course, like C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image or Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature. Yet in some ways, the volume feels more like the course itself. Its style and presentation reflect time-honored strategies of lecturing. Each lecture is introduced in a similar way (“The key word for this hour is X…”). There is much use of the lecturer’s rule of three: time and again we are told what we are going to be told, then told it, then assured that what we have been told is now “in place” and Nagy can move on.

  1. 1

    Whether classics was actually on the block remains unclear. At the height of the protests the rector held a secret early-morning parley with faculty representatives. An individual who was present tells me that Dragas specifically disclaimed any designs against “the Classicism Department.” Ironically, it may have been President Sullivan who introduced classics into the dispute; in an April meeting with department chairs she had cited classics as an example of a field that was indispensable to a university even if not profitable, and some remembered the comment when the board’s corporate mentality became an issue in June. 

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