'Pleasure' is Greek and Homer Lives
Two books take a fresh look at Ancient Greek. While one finds the language an endless source of fun, the other rages that in modern America the study of classics is obsessed not with 'what' was said, but 'how' and 'why'.
By Mark Dragoumis
GREEK civilization is revisited anew by each generation. Here are two examples -- one from Britain, one from America -- of contemporary Hellenists who have undertaken the voyage of discovery and written about it.
Peter Jones, co-founder of the prestigious Friends of Classics, explains in the introduction to his book Learn Ancient Greek (Duckworth 1998) that he likes Greek because he likes pleasure. "Being a joie de vivre man myself," he reveals, "I can think of few things more useful than pleasure." In introducing chapter 7 entitled "From here to infinitive" he exclaims: "What a wonderful thing it is when you're having fun."
The 'Def Art'
He takes his fun either in large doses, by writing books such as this, or in smaller weekly ones, by writing his popular column Ancient and Modern in the Spectator. He travels to antiquity and back with the relaxed ease and effortless superiority that come from scholarship worn lightly and long educational experience coupled with journalistic talent. Anything can serve him as a peg for his weekly stories. When, for instance, the football idol Gazza is admitted to an alcohol abuse clinic, Jones thinks of Plato and his advice to Athenians to stick to social drinking as peer pressure can restrict excesses. He proves, every week, that the writings of the ancients are an inexhaustible repository of precedents that we ignore at our peril. Well, no longer, if we learn Ancient Greek with Learn Ancient Greek.
Jones extends the pleasure principle to his teaching. His book is great fun especially when the subject-matter gets abstruse. "The verb 'to be"' -- he points out -- "always seems not to be (yes, Hamlet, a question?) regular." While others will attempt to explain and wonder how highly inflected Greek really is, Jones simply draws attention to the definite article (ο, η, τo singular oι, αι, τα plural) or "Def Art" as he calls it for short. "The really vital point about Def Art ... is that it alerts you to what is to come next. It screams at your 'E-oop, subject singular coming, or object plural' before you have even come to it."
Instead of casting the pupil in the role of the half-witted barbarian who must strive hard to grasp the higher linguistic subtleties that he, the teacher, has mastered, Jones has no compunction in siding with the bemused learner. So he despairs, for instance, in trying to explain why the Greeks have two forms of negative, namely ου and μη
Where he allows himself a field day is when he decides to deal with the vexed subject of cases. He introduces the subject surreptitiously noting, for instance, that the preposition εν (in) is always followed by a dative. When he comes to deal with the cases proper, he displays a new form of classroom humour by blurring the distinction between grammatical cases and ordinary suitcases. So, neatly, the nominative is the one "in which you pack your subjects", the accusative, the one "in which you pack your objects", while in the genitive case "you pack ... your possessions". He adds with a degree of contrition: "This is a pathetic pun. I explain. The basket of the cat means the basket ... in the cat's possession." This is not the only case (sorry!) when Jones makes a pun to make a point. Dative, he clarifies, has nothing to do with dates.
Some of his jocular remarks are real gems as they elucidate concepts that often seem beyond the understanding of mere mortals. Take aspect for instance, "a verbal form", according to the Oxford English Dictionary, used to express action or being in respect of its inception, duration or completion". It all becomes clear when Jones decides to reverse the roles in order to explain the many forms of the aorist infinitive in Greek. " Pretend you are an ancient Greek," he tells us. "You are learning English. You find that παύω means, 'I stop, I am stopping, I do stop. You would be justified in saying "Oi, look squire, παύω does us perfectly well in Greek. Why does English need three forms of the present? 'Well,' we would reply, thinking fast, it's all a matter of, um, aspect, the way you look at the action: the simple fact expressed in 'I stop', the sense of action going on in 'I am stopping' and the abruptly emphatic 'I do stop'. So with the aorist in Greek."
One learns a lot in these twenty chapters that guide you with irrepressible verve through the intricacies of Ancient Greek. At the end of the process, one will be able to read the New Testament, Xenophon, Plato, Sophocles and even Homer.
Source of wisdom
Homer, however, seems to belong to an endangered species according to some. In trying to unlock the mystery of economic growth Τhe Economist (6 March 1999) asked a number of questions without providing an answer: "Why has America been more adaptable than Britain? Because of its science education system? Because its society values engineering over Ancient Greek?" Two American academics, Davis Hanson and John Heath, deal with the last question in their 290-page-long "classicist thriller," as they call it,
Who Killed Homer? The demise of classical education and the recovery of Greek wisdom
(1998, Simon & Schuster Inc.)
As there were never any holy texts in Greece, the authors explain, the Odyssey and the Ιliad never acquired the status of a sacred book. Homer was an "educator"; his works became a kind of "cultural encyclopaedia" that both ordinary people and Alexander the Great consulted from time to time. While Thomas Jefferson idolized him, his architect believed that the Ιliad "conveys no information which can ever be practically useful".
Of course it doesn't. For information, the authors explain, read manuals: for Greek wisdom, read Homer. "From the beginning," they point out. "Homer has triggered the familiar philosophical debate over what constitutes a useful and necessary education liberal basics or technical skills." One thinks here of the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott who wrote that Ancient Greek was valuable precisely because you could never book a hotel room in this language and because by using it you came into contact with the wisdom of the Greeks.
Who wants 'Homer' dead?
Hanson and Heath deal in some detail with the modem denigrators of "Greek wisdom", the "killers of Homer", as they call them. They regret that today's anthropologists tend to focus exclusively on disparities. "To the social scientist," they say, "a southern Mediterranean people of two
So far, so sad. What, however, seems to infuriate the authors even more is a kind of contemporary trahison des clercs, a treason of the intellectuals, ie the classicists themselves. In a trenchant style, they are accused of hypocrisy, careerism, playing to a variety of "politically correct" galleries, silliness, dispensing boredom through their works, sinking into new depths of irrelevance by organizing seminars on ancient transvestism and becoming antediluvian "bookosauruses". "How sad," they complain, "that is how the Greeks said it, why the Greeks may have said it but rarely what the Greeks said is now the business of classics in America.
Who killed Homer has been criticized for its intemperate language. Nonetheless, this scholarly, witty, grippingly written book has already sold more than 50,000 copies, proving perhaps that 'Homer' is still alive and that Hanson's and Heath's passionate plea for the survival of "Greek wisdom" has not been ignored.