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Professor Richard Lawrence Hunter
University of Cambridge

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readings of Homer then and now

On March, 23 2006, the Onassis Foundation Scholars' Association organized a lecture by Professor Richard Lawrence Hunter of the University of Cambridge on "THE SILENCE OF THE SIRENS: readings of Homer then and now" at the ceremonies' hall of the University of Athens.

Why, to what extent and in what way should ancient Greek be taught in schools is still the focal point of a rather lively controversy, as it emerges from the pages of your newspapers. Crucial in this debate was and still is the contribution of this university's members. The debate itself however, goes a long way back:

As of the second post-Christian century, the attempt of a specific elite to speak in a form of Greek language “consecrated” from its use in classic literature and “purged” from all kinds of modifications related to uncultured speech has bequeathed us some of the funniest parodies of antiquity, the writings of Lucian from Samosata, Syria. The ultimate objective of such a fabricated language -at least the way presented by Lucian- was the social and political posting of its speakers (how you speak says everything about you), and not the unbiased interest in the current linguistic situation. The short-sighted cultural values underlying Lucian's ingenious works found a different way of expression in 19-century England, when verbal competence in ancient Greek and Latin was believed to constitute a considerable skill for the future governors of the British Empire colonies. Unfortunately, the British soon found out that, despite Alexander the Great's conquests in this country, very few people spoke ancient Greek as their mother tongue in 19-century India. Furthermore, up until recently, professors who tried to defend the place of ancient Greek and Latin in schools were often forced to protest that the study of these classic languages improved their students' English, as they featured “logical structure” and thus, promoted lucidity of thought. This, however, didn't apply to Modern Greek. The well-known comment of the 19th century, “How can one take seriously a language in which the word 'from' is followed by an accusative?” offers an approach to language most likely to be now considered politically incorrect, if not totally subversive. Yet, in a time like this, when everybody understands English, at least when one speaks it loudly and accompanies it with expressive gestures, we have finally managed to get rid of noun cases once and for all. It may take us some time to do the same with prepositions (though, with text messages, we seem to be on the right path). The common point of these phenomena is, of course, the idea that the study of classic Greek targets at certain goals beyond language itself and the literature written in it. Even if we have now departed from the most preposterous expressions of this concept, we shouldn't think the concept itself has been forgotten.

What is more, if we claim that the teaching of ancient Greek in schools should have as its major goal to read classic literature, we will only find out that we have transposed the problem one step further - or rather, one step back.

Why should anyone study ancient Greek literature? In Greece -the country of Kavafis and Seferis- the answer won't match the answer one would give in England, let alone in Australia. The Minister of Internal Affairs in Britain publicly stated that the study of classic literature and medieval history in universities is nothing but a waste of taxpayers' money. The main criterion, however, according to which one should choose what to study is the subject's usefulness; though, of course, politicians are the ones to decide, thanks to their god-given instinct, what is useful and what is not.

The truth is that usefulness has always constituted the main criterion on which classic literature -as any other literature actually- was judged. At the end of the 5th century B.C., the only thing the tragedians, Aeschylus and Euripides, agreed on (at least in their portrayal by Aristophanes in Frogs) was that poets make people better citizens. Five centuries later, Horace took for granted the fact that poets, apart from entertaining, also wish to be useful. In the same way, Plutarch -who I will come back to later- believes that we should allow the young to draw a little pleasure out of reading poetry, the 'main course', however, and the aim of the whole venture should be to draw “what is useful and leads to morality” (the useful and the beneficial).

For most of our ancient sources, which reflect the speculation of a wealthy and quite cultivated social class, the main reason why should anyone study the great classics of the past had been the precepts they offered, while the purpose of taking in such precepts was to become a decent and worthy member of society. At this point, we may realize, with a somewhat startling surprise, that the rhetoric of the ancient masters is not such a far cry from that of modern politicians. Ancient pedagogues and moralists do not project society's financial well-being as the main target of education. One could actually argue that they consider as its main aim, the ensuring of social well-being as is conveyed through its members' values, even in an indirect way. Of course, ancient pedagogues, as modern politicians, deemed it natural for the society to progress only when power was at the hands of people like themselves.

Except for its highest levels, ancient education is therefore, mainly conservative and promotes the maintenance of the dominant ideology. Apart from special occasions, such as in the second half of the 5th century before Christ, when Socrates and the sophists proved that bequeathed moral values and political ideals could be subjected to examination, as could everything else for that matter -with different ways- at the end of the '60s, education was aimed at the reproduction of society rather than at its reversal. In today's Britain, where I live, civil education is a subject taught at schools. In Plato's Symposium, Pausanias's speech represents the knowledge conveyed by the older man to a younger one, hoping for him to accept his sexual propositions in return. Certain things have changed, I presume.

The problem, of course, is that -as Plato knew better than anyone else- neither literature nor its readers could always behave as we would have wanted them to. If the young are left free, they can indeed find out inappropriate, even subversive messages in literature. Poetry, says Plutarch, resembles the head of an octopus, which may be its tastiest part, but can bring about some very weird and disturbing dreams.

If we cannot always obstruct bad dreams, we can however, protect the young from the agitations caused by the visions of poetry, offering them what Plutarch calls “government”. This idea for education inspired by the navy appears earlier in the same work as a variation of the great epicureanist illustration, in which education is compared to the image of tying a young man on a stable and straight rule of reasonable thought during the reading and listening of poetry, just like Odysseus tied himself up to the mast of the ship to be able to listen to the song of the Sirens (15d). In this way one could guide the ability of the young to take the right decisions, to make the right judgments (in Greek crisis, where the English word criticism comes from) on the right path and far from the deviations likely to be brought about by the pursuit of (literary) pleasure.

It is easy to discern the selfish agenda of the ruling class. Like, in my childhood, Indonesia enjoyed a regime of “ward democracy”, the young of the upper classes also had to perform a “ward reading” of poetry during the Imperial Era.

In Book XXIV of the Iliad, in an intense dramatic scene, Achilles tries to consol Priam by talking to him for the cruel fate of mortals.

So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
Live on to bear such torments - the gods live free of sorrows.
Iliad, book XXIV, 525-26. Greek translation by N. Kazantzakis
and Y. T. Kakridis

At this point, both we and the naive young may think that the emphasis placed on the common and universal human fate of death is of crucial importance in a scene where Achilles finally accepts that his place is not actually different from the others', but Plutarch (22b-c) perceives the death that lurks:

The poet did not declare that Gods gave a life full of sorrows to all people invariably, but only to the poor, who he often calls “unfortunate” and “pathetic” as they are miserable and wretched because of their corruption.

If you study Plutarch, you'll find many such “recipes” for “politically correct” readings, which shouldn't be treated as absurdities of an older generation who shook at the thought of what a newer generation might do to them but as an acknowledgement of the power of literature and one that stems from the distinct plutarchean concept that art urges its audience to imitation, a concept which continues to constitute the basis of modern perceptions and laws concerning censorship, film and TV programme categorization depending on the age of those allowed to watch them.

It's a kind of an allegorical interpretation according to which Homer offers us through his stories teachings both for ourselves and the world. Thus, Odysseus's adventures become a parable where the wise and prudent man surpasses his foolish violence (the Cyclops), the sexual temptation (Circe, the ideal of a fatally beautiful woman, at the sight of whom men transform into pigs), gluttony (Charybdis) and so many more dangers.

A significant consequence of pursuing usefulness in literature was the persistent occupation with the characters' motives. Modern perceptions according to which the literary text should be left to say “what it has to say” do not belong to ancient literary critique. Let's all remember Odysseus's arrival in Ithaca after his wanderings. The reason why Odysseus is sleeping during his trip from Scheria on the Phaeacian ship had been troubling those who studied the classics in antiquity while their modern colleagues still remain fascinated by this issue. Here, more than anywhere else, however, we must accept that Homer himself is the best interpreter of Homer:

Thus with spread sails the winged galley flies;
Less swift an eagle cuts the liquid skies;
Divine Ulysses was her sacred load,
A man, in wisdom equal to a god!
Much danger, long and mighty toils he bore,
In storms by sea, and combats on the shore;
All which soft sleep now banish'd from his breast,
Wrapp'd in a pleasing, deep, and death-like rest.
Odyssey, v.101-105. Greek translationby D. N. Maronitis

An echo of the beginning of the poem signifies as much the end as a new beginning: the sleep represents the end of the sufferings and the beginning of a new story. Plutarch, however, mentions two more interpretations, both of which seem to be quite comic. Some, he states, claim that the Etruscans preserve a tradition according to which Odysseus was sleepy by nature and therefore most people found it difficult to socialize with him! We could say this is an example of an extreme literal interpretation. Most interesting may be the explanation (which is distinctly opposed to the most obvious interpretation of the text) that Odysseus was simply pretending to be asleep, because he was embarrassed not to have brought presents to the Phaiakes to thank them and because his presence on the island would be more quickly noticeable if accompanied by a bunch of sailors. And at this point we see how literary characters are shaped according to the manners and common sense existing in the world of the readers themselves. They become “like us”. The same happens with Odysseus's first action when he wakes up on the shore of Ithaca and checks whether all the gifts given to him by the Phaiakes are there. Plutarch mentions two possible explanations, one that is flattering for Odysseus and one that is not. We could attribute this action of his to a pathetic avarice, a quality we would rather Odysseus, as our epic's hero, did not have. Otherwise, we could say that Odysseus thought that, if his belongings were all there, it would mean that the Phaiakes had treated him with honesty and he surely was in his homeland. The impression we get by the ancient readings of Homer's works is that the text is subjected to constant examination: “why”, “why”, “why”. This is the incessant question posed. Homer was an important man and wouldn't be left to his privacy until all of his secrets were unveiled.

Classic literature continues to play a significant role. Some of Plutarch's questions continue to trouble us up until today, while the answers are usually different. Let's, however, go back to the issue of to what is the study of classic literature useful. For Plutarch, the study of classic poetry, when done according to the rules we have just described, prepares us for philosophy, and the central philosophical question, at least since Socrates's era, was how we should live. The question is more urgent when it comes to the individual than (at least immediately) for the common well-being of the states, and their internal turn towards dealing with morality constitutes a familiar trait of philosophical movements both of the Hellenistic and the Roman world. The image of the “ship-state”, a very common image in archaic and classic poetry, was then replaced by the image of the citizen as a ship in need -as we've witnessed- of guidance in the rough waters of moral choices. The equivalent of this philosophical turn in literature was mainly, as we saw in Plutarch, the focus on individual behavior and the choices of the great heroes, rather than on the texts as monuments of how collective bodies, like states, should be ruled. The consequences of such a focus continue to exist, as the constantly growing number of books on Homer indicates. I don't think we should ponder on this moral aspect of ancient (and modern) literary criticism, but we shouldn't confuse what we actually do with what is considered “natural”, either. Criticism bears certain context and especially a historical one. This could be more easily discernible in cases of older researchers, like Plutarch, than in our case. British colonists, who believed that the good knowledge of Homer would help to preserve the empire in India did not simply reflect the place of classic studies in the education of a specific social class, but could really call upon a very old relationship between the empire and the government in general, and the epic. Let's not rush to be sarcastic.

So where are we after that? If Plutarch's approach as to how the young should study poetry seems from restrictive to sterile, we should perhaps reflect on a much greater danger - and that is to deprive our descendants of the possibility to listen to the Sirens' song. The ancients were right to perceive that it was Odysseus and not his crew, who had closed their ears with wax, the one who had the privileged knowledge, the trophy worth to be won. The Sirens, offered him pleasure and knowledge, the two axes around which all ancient debates revolve concerning the value of literature. When they offered to narrate all the sufferings the Argives and the Trojans had gone through in Troy because that was what the gods wanted, it is difficult not to think that they were actually offering him (but us as well) the chance to hear Homer's Iliad. Teaching people (of every age) so that they acquire sufficient knowledge of the ancient Greek language in order to seize this opportunity, when it presents itself, requires a significant attempt, and here and in England, we cannot pretend educational conditions are as favourable for this challenge as they were fifty years ago. If, however, the difficulty of the challenge makes us renounce it for the sake of easier tasks, then this knowledge of ours will be lost, or, in the best of cases, will become a monopoly for a limited group of scientists interested in preserving it as a dark expertise, totally cut off from society's general interests. Sirens will sing once more but nobody will be listening, and without an audience the music fades away and perishes. We shouldn't have illusions as to who is responsible for that. Schylla and Charybdis will be lurking and we should know how to face them.

Professor Richard Lawrence Hunter
University of Cambridge