Pericles, or Why the Ancient Greeks deserve study

Yesterday, I had another one of those conversations about classics. Anyone who studied Latin, Greek or both to any level will have had something similar.

“Really, ancient Greek? Wow. What’s the point of that? I mean, I’m sure it’s interesting but why bother? What jobs does it set you up for?”

Everyone who treasures their classical education has their own reason for doing so. Mine were various: teachers, notably Nick Aldridge and John Claughton, inspired me; I enjoyed deciphering the language; I became mildly obsessed with the invention of tragedy and whether all heroes were “mad”; and more. Others love myths, or art, or ancient history, or the fact that it helps your spelling. Some of these loves are brief. My brother, sadly, was infatuated with Persian Naval tactics. The affair was brief and ended bitterly.

This time, finally – and yes it has taken me far too long – I think I managed to crystallise why I treasure the classics, and why I think Ancient Greece deserves study: it’s what you might call “the human adventure”. By that I mean this big old project all of us on planet Earth have of learning how to live together. Studying the classics, spotting some of the classical seams running through Western civilization, makes you feel part of something larger than yourself. Soppy perhaps, but hey ho.

And if you don’t want to take it from me, take it from Pericles.

“It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while the law secures equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognised; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty a bar, but a man may benefit his country whatever be the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private intercourse we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private intercourse, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having an especial regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as to those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.

‘And we have not forgotten to provide for our weary spirits many relaxations from toil; we have regular games and sacrifices throughout the year; our homes are beautiful and elegant; and the delight which we daily feel in all these things helps to banish melancholy. Because of the greatness of our city the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us; so that we enjoy the goods of other countries as freely as of our own …

Our city is thrown open to the world, and we never expel a foreigner or prevent him from seeing or learning anything of which the secret if revealed to an enemy might profit him. We rely not upon management or trickery, but upon our own hearts and hands. And in the matter of education, whereas they from early youth are always undergoing laborious exercises which are to make them brave, we live at ease, and yet are equally ready to face the perils which they face….

If then we prefer to meet danger with a light heart but without laborious training, and with a courage which is gained by habit and not enforced by law, are we not greatly the gainers? Since we do not anticipate the pain, although, when the hour comes, we can be as brave as those who never allow themselves to rest; and thus too our city is equally admirable in peace and in war.

For we are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes, and we cultivate the mind without loss of manliness. Wealth we employ, not for talk and ostentation, but when there is a real use for it. To avow poverty with us is no disgrace; the true disgrace is in doing nothing to avoid it. An Athenian citizen does not neglect the state because he takes care of his own household; and even those of us who are engaged in business have a very fair idea of politics. We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless; but as a useless character; and if few of us are originators, we are all sound judges of a policy. The great impediment to action is, in our opinion, not discussion, but the want of that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act and of acting too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection. And they are surely to be esteemed the bravest spirits who, having the clearest sense both of the pains and pleasures of life, do not on that account shrink from danger. In doing good, again, we are unlike others; we make our friends by conferring, not by receiving favours. Now he who confers a favour is the firmer friend, because he would fain by kindness keep alive the memory of an obligation; but the recipient is colder in his feelings, because he knows that in requiting another’s generosity he will not be winning gratitude but only paying a debt. We alone do good to our neighbours not upon a calculation of interest, but in the confidence of freedom and in a frank and fearless spirit.

To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace”

[Source: Jowett]

To do what needs doing

Michael Ellsberg has a book out called The Education of Millionaires, which outlines the 7 key skills you need to know to become a millionaire like college drop-outs Zuckerberg or Gates. The argument, loosely, is:

  1. yes college can teach you many wonderful things
  2. but those things do not transfer easily to the real world.
  3. various millionaires have done really well without a university degree
  4. so at worst, higher education may actually get in the way
  5. at best it obscures the key skills money-making college drop-outs like Dell and Gates have learned.

Vartan Gregorian has an excellent review.Along with the standard defence of liberal arts as a preparation for the ups and downs of life, one point in particular struck a chord.

What is also left out of the debate about higher education is that its purpose is not just to provide a pathway paved with gold for the nation’s elites. If we frame the discussion that way, we may unintentionally serve to disparage the people who are in charge of the daily management, maintenance and smooth operation of our civilization — the men and women who deliver our mail, comprise our police force, serve in our military, work in our libraries, teach our elementary school children, and devote themselves to a thousand other jobs that, if not performed with responsibility, commitment and creativity, would undermine the basic structures of our society. Though these individuals may not be reaching for the kind of stars that Michael Ellsberg and others would have them aspire to grasp, most are doing something even more important: they are engaging in the useful tasks of good citizens and contributing to the common welfare, including providing for their families. And perhaps they are even carrying out what Marcus Aurelius called “one of our assignments in life … to do what needs doing.”

Spot on, in my book. Any mass educational system will have a hard time dealing with those at either end of a bell-curve. But surely the failures of these systems to cope with exceptional cases does not invalidate them? Rather than eulogising these exceptional cases – Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg – as icons in the fight against an impractical education, they should be celebrated, I think, for having the self-awareness to decide that college was not for them. No less, no more.

Humanities in the 21st Century

Eloquently put I thought.

What can the humanities offer students in the twenty-first century? Merely the possibility of teaching them to pay attention, to contemplate, to appreciate beauty, to experience awe and wonder, to think with depth and sensitivity about life, and to know there are values beyond profit and self-interest. The humanities teach us habits of critical thought and the historical perspective necessary for citizenship in a democracy. And they help us to think about how to use technology to make the world a better home for humanity. This is not meant as a rallying cry for educational Luddites or to deepen the divide between the world of science and technology on the one hand and the humanities on the other. But it is meant as a reminder that the classics, from the ancient to the contemporary, became so because they endured, and they endured because their greatness in form and content transcends their time and place and thus speaks to everyone. The humanities speak to us, but the responsibility to listen is ours, and it is our responsibility to lead students into such listening.

link: Humanities in the Twenty-First Century | Edutopia

Devotion to Abstract Discussions

“lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.”

– from Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption

West London Free School – Home

We want to broaden the choice available to parents in our part of London by offering a type of education that isn’t provided by other state schools in the area. A classical education forms the bedrock of Britain’s most successful independent schools and we don’t see why it shouldn’t be available in the state sector, too. It’s a powerful tool that should be accessible to children from all parts of the community, not just the most privileged. It is the ideal preparation for future career success — not in a narrow, vocational sense, but in a broad, intellectual sense. Latin, in particular, trains children how to think logically and intuitively, an essential requirement if they’re going to excel in later life.

Source: here

Notes on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy #2

(Following on a little tardily from May’s notes)

Chapter 2: Modern discovery of Primary Oral Cultures

Early Awareness of Oral Tradition

  • Tradition of writing down sayings longlived:
    • Ecclesiastes 12:9-10

      “Besides being wise, Qoheleth taught the people knowledge, and weighed, scrutinized and arranged many proverbs. Qoheleth sought to find pleasing sayings, and write down true sayings with precision.”

    • By the Middle Ages, many (e.g Erasmus), got their sayings not from spoken utterance but snipped them from other writings.
    • Then there was the Romantic Movement’s concern for folk culture and their working over of parts of oral/quasi-oral tradition (e.g. Thos. Percy, Brothers Grimm, James McPherson, Francis James Child
  • And by the early 20th Century, writing was predominantly seen to represent spoken language in visible form (e.g. Saussure) (though Prague Circle did note some distinctions.)

The Homeric Question

  • Homeric question highlights what’s new in our current understanding of orality
  • Since classical times, Iliad/Odyssey have been seen as the most exemplary poems in western heritage.
  • And since classical times, each age has tried to show how these poems did what their own poems were aiming for, but better.
  • An awareness slowly grew that Homeric epics might actually have been a bit of a hodge-podge:
  • Vico (1668-1744)thought that Homeric epics creations of whole people not just one man
  • Robert Wood (1717-71) suggested that Homer not literate, and that memory played a key role. Homer populist rather than learned.
  • The Analysts of the 19thc saw epics as combinations of other poems/fragments (and tried to analyse what came from where). But strikingly they still assumed that poems/fragments all written texts.
  • The Unitarians, echoed the whole Paley and the God as watchmaker idea, by suggesting that big old Homer’s works were so well structured and uniform that could not be a succession of disorganised contributions but had to be the work of one single creator.

Milman Parry’s Discovery

  • Parry (apparently unknowingly) fused a lot of extant work (e.g. Ellendt’s, Duntzer’s, van Gennep’s, Murko’s, and Jousse’s) to create his own vision
  • And his groundbreaking discovery was this:

    virtually every distinctive feature of Homeric Poetry is a result of the economy enforced on it by oral methods of composition.

  • In other words, oral poets have an abundant repertoire of epithets. These are used to fit cope with any metrical exigency that arises as the poet stitches the story together. And the poems are different at each telling, since oral poets tend to memorise verbatim, but use these epithetic building blocks.
  • It doesn’t sound much but it’s got some BIG ramifications. For instance, the role of the poet was itself called into question. Poets were not “meant” to use prefabricated materials, but to be original and inspired. e.g. for the Romantics, “the perfect poet should be like God himself, creating ex nihilo”. That Greek word rhapsodein (to stitch together) became more and more ominous.

    “Instead of a creator you had an assembly-line worker”


  • Cliches became things of value:

    “Homeric poems valued and somehow made capital of what later [literate] readers had been trained in principle to disvalue, namely, the set phrase, the formula, the expected qualifier – to put it more bluntly, the cliche.

  • Eric Havelock showed how fundamental the cliche was, not just to poets, but to the entire oral thought process.

    “In an oral culture, knowledge, once acquired, had to be constantly repeated or it would be lost: fixed, formulaic thought patterns were essential for wisdom and effective administration.”

    [My note: as per proverbs, too many cooks, what’s good for the goose, etc…]. Writing, and stored knowledge, and especially interiorised alphabetic literacy freed the mind allowing it more original, abstract thought. Hence Plato forbade poets in his Republic – their reverence for thought meccano ran agin everything the philosopher was trying to build.

  • Oral thought habits continued in literate ages till at least the Tudor ages in the West through the teaching of classical rhetoric, only really being obliterated by the Romantic movement in the 1800s.
  • Many literate societies still rely heavily on formulaic thought/have never fully internalised alphabetic literacy: e.g. Arabic culture,

    Kahlil Gibran has made a career of providing oral formulary products in print to literate Americans who find novel the proverb-like utterances that, according to a Lebanese friend of mine, citizens of Beirut regard as commonplace.”

Consequent and Related Work

  • Parry’s work has affected a range of fields from literary history to anthropology.
  • Literary studies: e.g. Havelock (above); e.g. study of Serbo-Croatian oral performers (Lord); e.g. looking at African Epics (Isidore Okpewho) in this new light.
  • Anthropology: e.g. shifts from “magic” to “science”/prelogical to logical/Levi-Strauss’s “savage mind” to domesticated thought can be more economically explained as shifts from orality to various stages of literacy [Jack Goody(quicktime)]
  • McLuhan and ear-eye contrasts: the medium is the message.

Amazing really how much one takes for granted, in terms of how one thinks, and how others think. And how prevalent that “cliche” idea is in oral media like music (mixing, refrains, what have you). Anyway, the next chapter is about the different psychodynamics of oral and literate cultures, and is great. Will post some notes when I get a chance.

Notes on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy #1

This post is the first in a series of notes on Walter Ong‘s book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. The book, so far, is a corker, and looks to have significant implications for any discussion of “markets as conversations” and the like.

Chapter 1: The Orality of Language

  1. The Oral Character of Language
    • We’ve only recently woken up to the oral character of language and the differences between oral/written modes of thought and expression
    • Linguistics has been sounding a faint alarm. Ferdinand de Saussure commented that: writing has “usefulness, shortcomings and dangers”, but he saw writing as a complement to verbal speech, not a transformer of it.
    • More recently applied and socio-linguistics looking at changes in mental structures incident to writing
    • The BIG awakening, though, came from Literary Studies and Milman Parry‘s work on Homer and the more recent Slavic oral epic tradition
  2. Why was any awakening needed?
    • It seems obvious that orality and literacy are different.
    • e.g. roughly 3000 languages spoken today of which only 78 have a literature
    • e.g. writing extends word resources: English has more than 1.5million words (see OED), and most oral dialects have only several thousand words
    • in short, writing implies some orality in a culture, orality does not imply writing.
    • But: the reason our studies have focused on written texts rather than oral “texts” has to do with the relationship of study itself to writing.
    • “All thought, including that in primary oral cultures, is to some degree analytic: it breaks its materials into various components.. But abstractly sequential, classificatory, explanatory examination of stated truths is impossible without writing and reading. Human beings in primary oral cultures, those untouched by writing in any form, learn a great deal and possess and practise great wisdom, but they do not ‘study’.*” (p.8/9)
      * Study meaning extended sequential analysis.

    • Once writing makes study possible, one of the first things we tend to study is ‘oral’ language. e.g. Aristotle’s Rhetoric
    • BUT (and here’s the catch) the oral language we study tends to be written down. And that blurs the divide and so means we needed to be reawakened to it – e.g. understand that we can’t read a speech.
  3. Oral Literature
    • The assumption that oral verbalization essentially the same as written verbalization has odd consequences for thinkers
    • The notion of “Oral Literature” is perhaps the oddest.
    • because Literature wrapped up with writing (the Latin for letter of the alphabet is litera)
    • and because

      “Written words are residue. Oral tradition has no such residue or deposit. When an often-told story is not actually being told, all that exists of it is the potential in certain human beings to tell it. We (those who read texts such as this) are for the most part so resolutely literate that we feel uncomfortable with a situation in which verbalisation is so little thing-like as it is in oral tradition.”

    • If you don’t think you’re resolutely literate try thinking of a word for sixty seconds without spelling it out or visualising it in your head.
    • Oral “texts” makes more sense than oral literature, in that a) Homer et al were often referred to as rhapsodein (stitching songs together), and b) text stems from the word texere meaning “to weave together”. However, texts are predominantly thought of as written. Ong suggests oral “epos” or “voicings” as alternatives
  4. And the point of this book?
    • To use literacy to reconstruct primary orality, untouched by writing, and so to get a better understanding of how our literacy affects our approach to current and new modes of communication.

Friends, Bloggers, Countrymen

I’m getting more and more convinced that the study of rhetoric has something to offer blogging, and more generally information retrieval. It seems to hit all the right notes: audience attention, structure, style, mood, content, authority. Even relevance. I suspect I’ll be posting a lot more on this but for the moment, here is Cicero’s five-part theory of rhetoric.

Decide what you want to say. Think before you speak. (Don’t post gibberish)

Decide how you’re going to structure your message. The Classical way of structuring things had the following six steps.

1) Get the audience’s attention (headlines etc)
2) Tell them what you’re going to talk about (make sure the opening para is clear)
3) Tell them how you plan to treat the theme
4) Give the audience the content “hit”, one step at a time
5) Restate what you’ve said in brief
6) Conclude

[Reminiscent of journalism skills?]
Continue reading Friends, Bloggers, Countrymen

Haristotle Potter

is a good thing. Harry Potter has been translated into Ancient Greek. Anything that gets more people studying the basics is fine by me 🙂

LONDON (Reuters) – Harry Potter “Warrior Cup” and his enemy Voldemort “Scaly Death” in a translation of the schoolboy wizard’s adventures into Ancient Greek due for publication this summer.

Retired classics teacher Andrew Wilson told Reuters he had to stretch his linguistic ingenuity to turn J.K. Rowling’s magic boarding school fantasy into a language not used for 1,500 years.

Wilson, 64, was commissioned in January 2002 by publisher Bloomsbury to translate “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” into the Greek spoken in ancient Athens.

All I can say – and I loved translating Greek – is avoid the storytape 🙂