Why The Classics?

Papoutsy Endowed Chair in Business Ethics
Inaugural Dinner and Reception
April 17th, 2002
Remarks by Mary Papoutsy

Left to right: Mrs. Mary Papoutsy; Mr. Christos Papoutsy; Mr. Ioannis Magriotis, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Hellenic Republic
We are often asked, with regard to this newly established chair in business ethics, "Why the Classics?" The question, of course, underscores the novel pairing today of business ethics and Classics, and illustrates the divergence in educational disciplines over the centuries. There was a time, in the not too distant past, when such questions would not even be asked because every educated person studied a canon of works, particularly those of the Greco-Roman world. The masterpieces of Homer, Plato, Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and many others appeared in the curriculum of every educational institution.

With the advent of fashionable multiculturalism, we as a society overlooked the enormous benefits of the Classics and the canon of works in the Great Books tradition. As the underpinnings or foundations of all later western intellectual development, these sagacious works provided our students with unsurpassed tools for mental discipline and academic development. Fortunately, experts in pedagogy have decried their absence and called for their reinstatement in the curricula of our schools, citing improved scholastic performances on standardized exams and in other criteria for measuring achievement. As a result, student enrollment nationwide has increased dramatically in courses where these extant works are taught and discussed, and in classes where the ancient languages are taught. The numbers of Latin and Greek students are now at record levels. And what's more, they are even being taught at the middle-school and grade-school levels. The sheer numbers of these students, as they advance through the school grades, are causing a resurgent interest among college-age learners for the Classics. And far-sighted administrators and leaders are responding to these changing interests. Here in New Hampshire, for example, study of the Classics has continued to draw large numbers of students; at the University of New Hampshire, because of the able leadership of enlightened administrators such as Dr. Marilyn Hoskin --who happens to be present this evening -- several junior professors have been hired recently to accommodate the demand for courses.

Changes in pedagogical techniques have given the Classics another boost, too. As more and more courses have been team-taught, with broader, interdisciplinary views, the Classics have been conjoined to other disciplines, particularly those within the sphere of Liberal Arts or Humanities.

But, until now, this nationwide trend has not affected business students. Why, I would ask? Business students, like all others, can benefit from these masterpieces. Business students will need the same core of knowledge upon which they must draw to function well and competitively. Just as students of the humanities may be called upon in their careers to exert good judgment, so, too, will business students and leaders. And if they have studied the Classics, they will be able to draw upon the ethical dilemmas and resulting discussions generated by studying the works of such masters as Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramatists.

As John Silber, the Chancellor of Boston University has said, "Persons who have studied the Classics will be prepared to live and die in a way that others will not." What person can read Homer's Iliad and not grasp the consequences of unbridled anger? What person cannot experience pity and compassion after reading about Priam begging for the body of his son? Who cannot learn from the travails of Odysseus about survival, identity, and loyalty?

There is a plethora of extant works from the Greco-Roman tradition, works that can address every ethical situation, enhance teaching in every academic discipline. Indeed these masterpieces have been underutilized. For example, in the Philoctetes by Sophocles, one reads of the lonely exile of Philoctetes on a remote island, shunned by fellow men because of a hideous illness. There he ekes out a meager existence in desolation, wracked by intermittent pain from a wound. His only tool for survival is the famed bow of Herakles. Unknown to him, Greek warriors at Troy have learned that they will not prevail in their battles unless they obtain the bow. So they send two emissaries, Odysseus and Neoptolemos, to try to obtain it. Odysseus favors a plan of deception and persuades the reluctant younger Greek to follow it. But Neoptolemos, after deceiving Philoctetes -- gaining his confidence falsely and promising to take him back to Greece -- steals the bow while Philoctetes recovers from a painful attack. Yet, the young man decides to go back, to return the bow, and to ask Philoctetes for it. Wily Odysseus attempts to thwart him, but Neoptolemos succeeds in giving back the bow and in preventing Philoctetes from venting his anger on Odysseus. Moreover, Neoptolemos agrees to take Philoctetes back to Greece, as he had promised earlier, effectively eliminating any possibility of bringing the famed bow to Troy. But, in the end, a vision from the dead hero Herakles convinces Philoctetes to take the bow and accompany Neoptolemos to Troy.

Imagine classroom discussion after reading this drama. Why does Neoptolemos return and give back the bow? He has ostensibly achieved his objective. What can he gain from returning? Why does Neoptolemos allow Odysseus to persuade him to do something that he is initially reluctant to do? Under what circumstances should any person today allow other colleagues or coworkers to persuade him or her to do something about which he or she is uncomfortable? What would any one of us choose to do if asked to do something unethical? Something illegal? How could this example relate to the Enron scandal? How does Neoptolemos benefit from his change in behavior? Could he become a better leader, a better person, by adhering to his own set of "values?" What is the definition of "deceptive"'? Who benefits from deceptive practices? Who loses? How could this example illustrate the concept)of alternity? Could this drama initiate dialogue about employee relations? Could the Philoctetes demonstrate policies of inclusiveness? How do the values of trust and honesty affect business relationships? What does this drama say about "exploitation" and those who exploit? What can we say about persons who take what they want by force, unable or unwilling to use methods of reasoning and persuasion? How do we address this issue of force in the business world? In the political world?

We could even turn to another drama by Sophocles, the Antigone, for discussion about laws, civil laws and unwritten laws. In this dramatization, Sophocles pits Kreon, Theban king, against his niece, Antigone, in a test of wills. Antigone defies a royal decree forbidding any Theban from burying one of Antigone's brothers who has waged war unsuccessfully against the city in an attempt to regain his inherited throne. She is caught and labeled a traitor. Her arguments that divine laws, requiring proper burials of all humans, supercede civil laws, do not persuade Kreon. He condemns her to die by slow death in a sealed cave. Warned by a seer, however, Kreon changes his mind and sets out to stop the execution. But, he is too late. She has already killed herself. Kreon's personal tragedy has not ended, however, because when he returns to his palace, he learns that he has lost not one, but three close members of his bmily. He pays a very high price for his hubris or arrogance. His own son, having fallen in love with Antigone, also ends up killing himself In her despair, Kreon's wife also takes her own life.

We may ask: How has anger been highlighted in these two examples? What role do they play? How can one relate the anger in these examples to anger in the work place? Are there any circumstances under which civil laws should be disobeyed? Are there laws that supercede civil laws? Are there unwritten laws in the business world? If so, what are they? Are we, any of us, bound to unwritten laws? What should be the consequences for acting according to one's conscience? What is the definition of appropriate or commensurate punishment? What is the difference between civil disobedience and traitorous action? Who should decide or enact laws? How does arrogance affect decision-making capacity? What role does revenge or vengeance play in business? And so the questions could go on, easily filling a thesis.

As these examples illustrate, there is an abundance of Classical material from which business educators can draw. The material is timely and appropriate. Ethics and values occupy the larger global stage today, affecting all facets of our society, from business, to politics, and to world affairs. The business student, like the students of the humanities and traditional honors courses, can similarly benefit from studying these masterpieces and discussing the universal questions raised by them. Armed with these basics, they can begin to prioritize properly, as Aristotle would say, and so exert good judgment. In short, the Classics can serve business students well, just as they have been serving students of other disciplines for millennia. This, then, is the ultimate reason for instituting an endowed chair in business ethics based upon the teachings of the Classics.