What do the classics still have to tell us? Classical literature has been on the syllabus of schools and colleges for more than two thousand years; intelligent and learned minds have put it through every imaginable process of interpretation and exegesis, of polemics and apologetics. What, to come closer to home, do professors of classics still have to tell us? Ruth Padel is not the holder of a full-time academic position, but she has taught at the universities of Oxford and London, and she has the expertise of a professional, and she is also a poet. She has written a subtle and haunting book about the mind and emotions as they appear in the plays of the Greek tragedians. Karl Galinsky is a pro, professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written a set of provocative and entertaining essays on the interplay of ancient and modern and the ways in which postmodern architecture, multiculturalism, the Aeneid of Virgil, and the fall of the Roman Empire can illuminate one another and the state of the modern world and of contemporary America. The bucket will go to the well a good many times yet before the ancient waters shall run dry.
Greek tragedy prefers to deal with extreme states of mental suffering. King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia; his son Orestes must kill his own murderous mother and be hounded across the world by the nightmare Furies who avenge her death. Medea kills her children in order to torture her husband. Oedipus puts out his own eyes and lives on to face his intolerable guilt and pain. Pentheus is torn to pieces by his own mother, who must then realize what she has done. As the Iliad of Homer concentrates on the physical pain of wounding and death in battle, the Greek tragedies home in upon the internal sufferings of guilt, passion, remorse, indecision, and despair. Greek tragedy is full of music, dancing, and singing; it is as close to opera as to the tragedies of Shakespeare. Characters and chorus alike speak and sing at great length of their terrors and their sufferings. In doing so they reveal, to the patient and perceptive eye, an entire picture of the self, and of human consciousness in its relations with the human body, with the outer world, and with the gods.
Ruth Padel’s closely written book is the product of years of reflection. It sets out to show that the Greeks’ picture of the mind is inextricably involved with their picture of the body, and also with their view of divine (“daemonological”) management of the world and intervention in human emotions. The heart is said to knock, to shake, to jump; it swells with rage, moves in the breast, cries aloud. The liver is gashed by love and slashed by fear. Heart and mind fill with anger, are drowned in the flow of bile. Dark liquids within the body seep or flood into the vital organs of perception, emotion, and reason; for thought, too, is associated with the heart and with the phrenes (midriff or solar plexus). “At the end of the fifth century, by the end of extant tragedy, most people assume that they think and feel with internal organs.”
Most writers on these topics have made two assumptions. First: all this is essentially metaphorical, and the Greek words for “heart” and liver” and the rest referred primarily to the physical organs, and only by extension to emotional events. Second: there was an intelligible chronological development, so that the words which at first referred to physical things came later on to be used for mental ones. Padel denies both these assumptions. We cannot find a time when Greek literature did not use these words in both ways, and with an intimacy and frequency that show their profound identification. Padel’s case, supported by careful examination of the text and implications of the Homeric poems as well as tragedy, is impressive. It has been all too easy to apply our own notions of the physical and the mental to the literature of a remote time and place, without asking how far the Greeks had their own, very different, pictures and assumptions. We try to distinguish metaphorical from literal, physical from abstract, with systematic sharpness; not so all other societies. Intellectual and emotional activity are in early Greek inseparable, and psychology was firmly attached to the inner organs of the body.
The interior of the human body is a dark and mysterious place. What is the function of all those organs, so disconcertingly similar to those of animals? It must be remembered that before our own time animals were much more familiar than they are now. Their behavior, including their sex lives, was everywhere going on; it was not something to be viewed on educational TV stations. Their anatomy, too, was brutally apparent and familiar, as oxen and sheep and chickens and fish were chopped up, and the bleeding joints cooked and eaten; it was not tastefully concealed by cellophane and clinical cleanliness, as we buy our separate and prewrapped joints at the supermarket. Speculation grappled with the perceptible facts of the body, so much less familiar to us, though we have X-rays and they had not. What was the liver for? How did the conception of offspring work?—a question typically discussed in the form, “Who is the real parent of the child: the father, or the mother?” Like other patriarchal peoples, the Greeks liked to say that it was the father, the mother providing only the receptacle in which his seed was nurtured: analogy—the sowing of seed into the passive earth. But there were always other views competing for attention, and Aristotle, for instance, maintained that women, too, had a kind of seed and so were truly parents.
Above all, then as now, there was the great question: What was consciousness, and how did it relate to the organs of the body? That it was the function of the brain was only ever a minority, highbrow view; partly, no doubt, because what was taken as the most obvious example of mental activity was not reasoning but emotion. If I spend the day writing at my desk, it is my head that feels tired in the evening; but if I am hunting, or being hunted, or fighting, or playing football, what I feel is much more like sudden tightenings of the innards, spasms in the guts, poundings of the heart, in response to danger, opportunity, exultation.
The body is vulnerable to penetration from outside. Greek society was warlike, and fighting meant stabbing with the spear, not long-distance and almost abstract slaughter with rockets and bombs. Wounds were visible and comprehensible. But since thought and emotion were conceived of as the work of physical organs, it was natural to think that emotions and even ideas were also invaders from the outside, which attacked and shook. When the chorus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon expresses its dark forebodings, it sings (a very hard passage to translate) in these terms:
My thumos (spirit) within me is singing a dirge of the Fury…my innards are prophetic, my kear (heart) wheeling in circles of meaning against my truthful phrenes (mind: diaphragm)…my heart would utter all this, outrunning tongue, but instead it is muttering in the dark, paining my thumos in despair of ever unravelling a remedy, though my phren is on fire. (Agamemnon 991ff.)
What are we to make of this? The Greek words are systematically impossible to render adequately into English because, as Padel says
I suspect that all fifth-century uses of these words have some somatic tinge, more or less strong in different contexts, but always available, in direct relationship (here the contrast with us is very strong) with what Greeks believed was inside people.
By the “contrast with us” Padel means that we can still speak of hearts on fire or piercing sorrows, but that such language is for us purely metaphorical, without connection with what we believe to go on within the body—rather as we speak of “good humor” without awareness of the ancient doctrine of the four humors in the body, or of “influenza” without supposing that the illness is caused by the influence of the stars, or of “hysteria” without implying that the condition is connected with displacement of the womb (compare “hysterectomy”). These are simply fragments of old explanatory systems, surviving in our speech. For the Greeks—the suggestion is a seductive one—the position was very different, and metaphorical language went hand in hand with attempted diagnosis of what was really happening.
The body could be invaded by disease, which was seen as an intrusion from outside; and the dark inner organs were vulnerable to flooding, whether with fluids or with the blasts of air. A word like thumos behaves at times like an abstract: “anger,” “spirit”; at times it is like a liquid which boils and swells in the innards; again, it can be like a breath, which fills the lungs. The lungs can also be flooded with wine. Nous, “mind,” a word at the intellectual end of the scale, sometimes purely rational, can be described as having desires, and also as “swelling with bile.” Even the word which we regularly have to translate as “soul,” psyche, can be “moist” (which is bad) or “dry” (which is good), according to pre-Socratic philosophers.
The outside can invade the inside by direct divine interference, as when a god may put a thought into a human mind; such language may mean anything from “God knows where that thought came from” to “It was a real God-send.” It is interesting that we, who no longer believe in Muses or in gods who pop thoughts into our heads, not only say vaguely, “Something must have come over me,” but also cannot manage without the idea of inspiration, for great artists and thinkers. The outside can invade also by more apparently rational means, as air or wind enters the body through “pores.” Externally, climate and weather can change the health of the body; air can also get in and set up a storm inside, stirring the dark bodily fluids, which are physically perceptible, as blood, bile, etc., and also form and control the emotions. Such surges of breath and fluid together can impel men to extreme actions, and that is how Aeschylus describes King Agamemnon at Aulis, making his fearful decision to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia. It was hostile winds, here called “breaths,” which prevented the ships from sailing to Troy and so forced the king to an extreme act of expiation; and, faced with his terrible choice, Agamemnon was
breathing a wicked, veering, godless, impious wind (breath) in his mind—and so he became reckless enough to dare anything.
As Padel observes, it is not made explicit whether the mind is inhaling a wind of wickedness, or exhaling wicked thoughts, or both at once; that ambiguity is at the heart of the interplay of personal guilt and external impulsion which runs through the whole of the Oresteia.
In addition, the divinely sent storm winds which are blowing in the physical world, the winds which are creating the situation that impels Agamemnon to his monstrous act: they, too, are part of the whole complex of psychology, guilt, and divinity. That brings us to Padel’s account of another aspect of the unity of this world. The inner parts of the body, in which the emotions seethe and rest, are also capable of revealing the pattern of events and the will of heaven. Expert seers can read the divine purpose in the entrails of sacrificed animals; the human heart itself, opaque and secretive as it is, could be “read,” could tell us what each man or woman is really like, if only we could open up the chest and look at it—a wish repeatedly expressed in early Greek poetry.
Again, the eye works by a two-way, not a one-way, process: it radiates outward, as it receives images inward. It can scatter “desire,” making its target fall in love; just so it is itself struck with desire for a beautiful person and transmits that message inwardly to the heart. The organs of sense, internal and external, are akin to the nature of the world which they must experience, and they deal with desire and fear as well as with “pure” perception. Even the movements of birds and of animals may be a sign of the divine will.
The innards are “black” and “dark”; in the grip of the passions they darken still more; they are affected by the black roots that witches know how to gather by night. They are awash with mysterious fluids, too; and in both ways they resemble the dark earth, which contains the secret rivers of the Underworld. But Mother Earth is also an oracular goddess; so is Night. Dreams are a source of knowledge, seers may be blind like Tiresias or Homer, and it forms a pattern with all this that the innards, too, can be spoken of as possessing prophetic knowledge and forebodings. Such language is used repeatedly in the Oresteia. Madness, too, can be a source of supernatural insight.
Being dark, hidden, penetrable, pervaded by strange fluids, the mind has a kinship also with the Greek picture of the female. It is in accord with this that the mind is so often, in tragedy, described as passive, responsive, acted upon, and caused to suffer by what happens to it. Madness, a favorite theme of tragedy, is a temporary form of possession, and other emotions, too, fly above us and swoop down or are sent down by gods. The divine source is never lost to sight, and it is fundamentally from that level that such impulses come. Caught in such a world, the human heart is hunted and vulnerable.
Padel’s account of all this is full of interest. Unfamiliar connections and perspectives will make the book important for professionals, and the vivid portrayal of an intense and exotic mental world will appeal to the serious general reader. It must be remarked that this world is especially characteristic of Aeschylus, and above all of the Oresteia. The plays of Euripides are by no means consistently set in a whole world of that kind, though they may indeed on occasion use such language. Scheming and unpassionate Euripidean characters, such as Jason in Medea or Admetus in Alcestis; political time-servers like Menelaus in Orestes or Agamemnon in Iphigeneia at Aulis; edifying Athenian good guys like Theseus in The Suppliants—such typical Euripidean figures are not much susceptible to being approached from this angle. And the long, searching, introspective choral songs of the Oresteia were out of fashion in the second half of the fifth century. Neither Sophocles nor Euripides wrote them; and so a great arena for the discussion of such themes ceased to exist. It is essentially as a guide to the heart of darkness in Aeschylus, and its forerunners in Homer and other early writers, and to a lesser extent as part of the world of the other two tragedians, that In and Out of the Mind has its high value.
Karl Galinsky is a Latinist, author of important books on Roman poetry. He also was for sixteen years chairman of the classics department of the University of Texas at Austin, which (in true Texan style) boasted, by the end of his tenure of office, “the largest classical faculty in North America.” His new book is explicitly devoted to the interplay of contemporary concerns and the tradition of the ancient world.
Postmodern architecture is a tricky topic. Many people who had grown bored with the “modernist box” and “Miesian minimalism” are still disconcerted and at a loss to know how to judge the buildings of this latest architectural style. Galinsky discusses and illustrates the Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, designed by Charles Moore and completed in 1979. I happened to come upon this site just before reading Galinsky’s book, which says of it:
The ground plan of the site is circular. A topographic map of Italy, made of stepping stones, extends from the middle of the large arcade through an eighty-foot pool…. The waters come from a fountain, framed by a collage of temple fronts and colonnades, replete with Latin inscriptions evocative of the great public buildings and places of Italy, and representing all five classical orders: Doric, Ionian, Corinthian, Tuscan, and Composite. This suggestion of monumental dignity, however, is permeated by humor. Neon tubing is part of the reconstruction of the Ionic and Corinthian elements of the central arcade. The Doric columns really are curved sheets of stainless steel with streams of water mimicking the fluting. The metopes are really “wetopes,” as sprays are mounted in each of the cutout spaces in the entablature. In a similarly playful vein, the architect is immortalized by two water-spouting masks in the central arch of the Doric colonnade.
Coming to the piazza unprepared and uninformed, I was amused, intrigued, and incredulous. The topographic map of Italy, clear enough when photographed (as here) from above, was from ground level inscrutable; the yellow columns with their gleaming silver capitals, apparently made of stainless steel, looked as if Martians, having been given a garbled account of the classical architecture of Planet Earth, had set to work with enthusiasm to produce their own irreducibly alien, unarguably Martian, version—like but utterly unlike the terrestrial model. Never did a European feel farther from home.
Another example, well illustrated and discussed, is the AT&T Building in New York, by Johnson and Burgee, with its massive pediment like a huge white grandfather clock (“another triumph of allusive eclecticism”). Such buildings leave the viewer wrong-footed. Gasping amid the architectural allusions (Galinsky lists the Duomo in Florence, San Andrea in Mantua, “the Carolingian lobby” and “a Pazzi chapel centering on the hilariously kitschy, gilded statue of the Genius of Electricity”) we are clear on only one thing: the joke is on us, and the architect has foreseen and accepted, or discounted, our response in advance. This “eclectic, serious yet playful classicism” releases a flood of associations, which the viewer or the user of the building may or may not catch, but which humanizes for him the arid and all too abstract spaces and forms that were all he was allowed by the Modernists. Galinsky suggestively points out that Mies van der Rohe was a Platonist in his belief in fundamental geometrical forms—one sophisticated classicism is now driving out another. Other discussed and illustrated buildings have such “classical” features as “four squat and grandiose clapboard columns, reminiscent…of Doric temples,” “almost Minoan columns,” “four colossal architraves piled on top of one another,” “the telephone booth that is turned into a monstrous baldachin with giant ears,” and “the Seven Dwarfs holding up the pediment” (of the Disney Company’s headquarters in Burbank, California)—needless to say, the dwarfs stand in front of a “modernist glass wall.” As Galinsky puts it, “thus the ironies abound.”
Some of the photographs are certainly arresting, such as “a frontier Erechtheum” at Seaside, Florida, which combines its classical reference with American vernacular wood house construction, and the Humana Building in Louisville, Kentucky, which as a whole looks like “a colossal masked creature,” and which has a number of classical features, including a small temple above the twentieth floor, cantilevered out and looking, in the picture, rather like an air-lock through which to enter a space rocket, if one were to dock at that point. Galinsky likes these buildings. They get us away from the idea that buildings, have no reference beyond themselves; they give the spectator the fun of recognizing or guessing sources and allusions; and they humanize space. “What is recaptured, above all, is a classical humanitas that incorporates play,” he comments approvingly.
The trouble is that play and humor hover dizzyingly, in some of these works, on the very edge of kitsch, or beyond it; and a whole city of joky buildings, lining up in irregular array to poke us in the ribs as we walk the streets is, in some ways, a depressing vision. “Less is more,” Mies’s slogan, may not be true universally; but there is a lot to be said for it when we come to consider just how many witty postmodern buildings we should be happy to have in any one town. It is certainly a striking fact that the classical tradition retains enough vitality to thaw the Modernist ice age, and Galinsky is right to insist on that; right also to insist that classicism, while it still has a contribution to make, can do so only as one element in an eclectic culture and a pluralistic school curriculum.
What else can we learn? A haunting fact about the Roman Empire has always been that it fell. Why? Does its fall have a warning or a lesson for us? Alexander Demandt in his long book Der Fall Roms (1984) listed 210 causes suggested by one historian or another, and Galinsky with deadpan humor reproduces the catalog (“…Fear of life. Female emancipation. Feudalization. Fiscalism. Gladiatorial system. Gluttony. Gout. Hedonism. Hellenization. Heresy. Homosexuality,” and so on, and so on). He has four favorites of his own. The first is the growth of bureaucracy—and in the US, from 1968 to 1980, “the ranks of local and state employees ballooned by 4 million.” Second, inadequate Romanization of immigrants (“Contrast this with our immigrant procedures today: anyone who wants to become a US citizen must become familiar with American history and our Constitution and system of government”). Third, the cult of the individual, parallels to which nowadays are “a phenomenon that merits our concern without being an axiomatic portent of the impending fall.”
Finally, “dissatisfaction with or apathy toward existing governmental institutions.” Here one might worry about the low turnout in elections, but in fact, according to Galinsky, “it is amply counterbalanced by the emergence of an intensive participatory democracy at the grassroots level.” So: all in all, the fall of Rome—in any case a slow, varied, and in part evolutionary process, rather than a sudden catastrophe—need hold no terrors for the US, which has such a commanding superiority over the ancient world in technology, health, and education. What we do need to worry about, Galinsky argues, and where we can learn, is the importance of vision, leadership, shared values, and the concerns which give meaning to the lives of individuals. A robust, progressive, and self-confident conservatism, unafraid of past or future, will, he believes, see us home.
The question of leadership comes up again, in an interesting discussion of Augustan Rome. Scholars, he argues, have exaggerated the absolutism of Augustus’ reign. He was no Louis Quatorze, but an exemplar of hard work and devotion to duty; and his poets were not propagandists but morally serious artists, who worked with Augustus in a dialogue about values which helped to form, not merely to trumpet, Augustan ideology. The emperor thus gave a kind of leadership which set out to transform, to raise the level of conduct and of aspiration among his people. He wanted his citizens to accept social responsibility, and the Augustan ethos emphasized “human toil, challenge, and achievement, and divine tutelage.” We too need such leadership. We too need a culture that resembles, not the stereotype of a despotic and immobile Rome, but Augustan Rome as it really was, dynamic and evolving, combining innovation and conservation.
There can be agreement that the late and immensely influential Sir Ronald Syme formed his negative view of Augustus to some extent under the impact of Mussolini, a far less subtle and varied character, while since 1945 scholars have been quick to see, in every personal ruler, the features of Adolf Hitler. Yet in his twenties Augustus was an autocrat who put a large number of his opponents to death; he gave the highest honors of the state to boys in their teens because they were his adopted grandsons, rebuilt the historic center of Rome in his own name and that of his father, exiled the poet Ovid for life without trial or indictment, and held power, ultimately, by his monopoly of military force. He did indeed want a moral revival, and his poets expressed the same wish, but they larded it with flattery of the dynasty which exceeded the norms of decency, ancient as well as modern. And it must be a serious question, whether a modern democracy would be prepared to accept anything resembling the amount of uplifting rhetoric, much less the concentration of power, which Augustus exerted in Rome, and which he retained for fortyfive years. For good or ill, the jaded Nineties are not likely to accept a heroic leader without a struggle.
It is an interesting idea to invoke the Graeco-Roman world as a model of multiculturalism for troubled educators today. Galinsky wants to offer a model which will allow “creative adaptation of an alien culture rather than its rejection”: the various peoples of the Mediterranean world did not have to choose between passively adopting the dominant classical culture and rejecting it outright. The Greeks, when under Alexander and his successors they conquered the East, did not try to impose Hellenism on everybody; and Syrians and Babylonians were soon making their own contributions to Greek literature, distinctive yet within the tradition.
It is not necessary to deny one’s cultural identities in order to be part of the more universal evolution from chaos to kosmos, which implies order.
Non-Greeks, like the Carthaginian Clitomachus, could be eminent philosophers in the Greek Schools, and the Syrian Meleager introduced new notes into Greek love poetry. Hellenism, in fact, provided “a loose and yet unifying and universally intelligible commonality.”
Rome, too, was not exclusive racially; eminent Latin writers hailed from Africa and from Spain. In the end, by 200 CE, an African could be emperor—the formidable Septimius Severus, founder of a dynasty. Rome itself had wholeheartedly adopted Greek culture, adapting it to its own needs; it now did not forcibly impose the resulting Graeco-Roman artistic styles and ways of life on the rest of the Empire. It was up to the natives to choose to be Romanized. In the end, “Roman identity replaced the older concepts of self”—hence the striking uniformity of style and conception of all those amphitheaters and arches and temples which still impress the tourist, all the way from Portugal to Iran. In the same way, we nowadays can offer the ideal of an inherited culture which does not aspire to crush alternatives but to develop along with them—for true classicism, in education as in architecture, is constantly in motion, active and developing.
The vision is appealing. So is Galinsky’s final essay, on the classics in America today, which argues with energy that modern America could learn from Republican Rome that a constitution can work well because of the spirit in which the rules are applied. The possibilities for gridlock existed in Rome, but for centuries it did not happen, because a general sense of the common good prevented it. In the US it is not the existence of checks and balances but the absence of leadership that causes the breakdowns.
A new American multicultural classicism: Is that to be the way forward? Galinsky is right, I think, to regard the classical tradition as one rewarding strand among others in the multicultural web, and to believe that it continues to possess the ability to excite and attract people from many backgrounds, if it is on offer to them. But his vision of the ancient world itself is in this respect rosier than the reality. The Greeks did not strive to impose their culture, but they regarded other cultures—if they regarded them at all—as clearly inferior; and while the Romans tolerated native ways and were not racially prejudiced in the same way as modern whites are (they had some prejudices of their own), the culture that was fostered by the Empire was surprisingly uniform.
The beliefs of Illyrian shepherds, the songs of Berber tribesmen, the sculptures of Alpine mountaineers: all of these were of no interest to the Roman high culture, and they did not contribute to it. That high culture was not, in the end, racially based, but it was always a class matter, and depended on an elite education. True, men of provincial origin could identify with that culture, become proficient in it, create powerful and respected works within it; but the native element was very small, the classical form overwhelming. Galinsky’s lively and provocative essays open up very interesting lines of thought, and their reasoned opposition to “cultural tribalism” is timely; but it is not easy to imagine the minorities of modern America—or, at least, their leaders—settling happily for such a solution.
June 24, 1993