Blog Archives

Great Books Project: End of Part I

I am now about six months into my Great Books project and this seems like a good time to stop and take stock.  I have now read and blogged about works written up to the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE) in the Hellenistic tradition and up to the establishment of the Second Temple (516 BCE) in the Hebrew tradition.  Up to this point, the two have had almost no first-hand intellectual contact.  Soon, though, they will begin influencing each other to an increasing degree, beginning with Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire and continuing until Paul and other evangelists permanently fuse them together to create the new tradition of Christianity.

I have come to think of the death of Socrates in 399 BCE as the end of Part I of the Great Books.  Socrates wrote no books himself, yet he brought together all previous Hellenic philosophy and all future Western philosophy owes something to the work of his disciple Plato, who is the next author whom I plan to cover.

Before I go on, I thought it would be useful to present a timeline of the lives of the Hellenistic authors in this first section.  I also included Plato and Xenophon because, though I think of them as belonging to the next period, their lives overlapped with the others.

Great Books Authors Timeline: Ancient Greece (Click to Enlarge)

Great Books authors timeline: Ancient Greece (click to enlarge)

I think the most striking thing about this timeline is that, other than Homer who really belongs to an earlier age, all of these men lived within such a short span of time.  Only 139 years separate Aeschylus‘ birth and Aristophanes‘ death.

I also recently drew this diagram to express how the different strands of Western thought are related in the ancient world.  It is over-simplistic and not particularly scientific, but I find it’s helpful to think about how the ideas relate to each other.

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome (click to enlarge)

Finally, now that we have reached the end of Part I, I need to mention that I will be posting more erratically for the next several weeks.  Other literary commitments, including finishing my own book and doing editing work for clients, will take most of my time.  I also don’t want to rush the Plato section, since his work is so important.  I will try to post at least two or three times per month over the summer, however.

Thucydides Book V: Enter Alcibiades

Thucydides’ fifth book marks an intermission in the Peloponnesian war.  Neither Athens nor Sparta has much to show for a decade of bloodshed and expense, and both are exhausted.  Brasidas and Cleon, “who had been the two principle opponents of peace on either side”, have both been killed in the battle of Amphipolis, clearing the way cooler heads to negotiate a peace treaty.  None of the root causes of the war have changed, but neither side is interested in recommencing hostilities on the mainland yet, even though abroad the “unstable armistice did not prevent either party doing the other the most effectual injury”. This time of comparative peace lasts nearly six years, but it is a tense time for all of Greece as alliances shift.  Argos, a powerful city which has remained neutral so far, begins lure away many of Sparta’s allies and is clearly preparing to make a move of her own.

Against this background, Thucydides introduces one of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, characters in Greek history.  “Alcibiades, son of Clinias, a man yet young in years for any other Hellenic city,” is the new star of Athenian politics.  He maneuvers the Argives into siding with Athens and attacking Sparta, traveling to Argos to personally oversee raids.  Later in Book V, he is promoted, becoming the youngest of the Athenian generals.

Portrait of Alcibiades, Willem van Senus [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Portrait of Alcibiades, Willem van Senus [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Even in his own lifetime, Alcibiades seemed larger than life and more than human.  He is gloriously handsome, athletically gifted, and indecently rich.  The scion of one of the most famous noble dynasties in Athens, he has been fostered by Pericles and educated by Sophocles.  Even his enemies admit that he is a brilliant diplomat and commander.  When we meet him in Book V, Alcibiades has already distinguished himself in the army and, now in his early thirties, has emerged as a leader in Athens’ pro war, pro democratic party, filling the vacuum left by Cleon’s death.  There are many who fear his growing influence, naked ambition, and questionable personal morality,

[A]lthough publicly his conduct of the war was as good as could be desired, individually, his habits gave offence to every one, and caused them to commit affairs to other hands, and thus before long to ruin the city.

His ostentatious lifestyle too is a cause for concern.  Amidst the austerity of war-time Athens, he is famous for his decadent parties, the splendor of his home and clothing, and for the unprecedented act of entering no less than seven chariot teams in the Olympics.   He rationalizes these expenses as being good for the city,

“The Hellenes, after expecting to see our city ruined by the war, concluded it to be even greater than it really is, by reason of the magnificence with which I represented it at the Olympic games, when I sent into the lists seven chariots, a number never before entered by any private person, and won the first prize, and was second and fourth, and took care to have everything else in a style worthy of my victory. Custom regards such displays as honourable, and they cannot be made without leaving behind them an impression of power. Again, any splendour that I may have exhibited at home in providing choruses or otherwise, is naturally envied by my fellow citizens, but in the eyes of foreigners has an air of strength as in the other instance. And this is no useless folly, when a man at his own private cost benefits not himself only, but his city: nor is it unfair that he who prides himself on his position should refuse to be upon an equality with the rest. “

Many are unconvinced.  For the moment, though, Alcibiades’ rise seems unstoppable.

We will be hearing of Alcibiades again, and often.  From this point on, he is one of the central personalities in both Thucydides’ history of the war and Xenophon’s sequel, The Hellenica.  He is also heavily featured in Plato’s dialogues, and Plutarch’s Lives and appears in the pages of Aristophanes, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and others, down to the modern day.

One of the things that makes Alcibiades so fascinating is how un-Greek he is.  The polis, or city state, was the basic unit of Greek society.  Plato, Aristotle, and others wrote at length about how no one could live a happy life outside the polis.  Individualism was always subordinated to the good of the state and a man without a polis was an alien everywhere.  Yet Alcibiades switches sides several times in the course of the war.  He is an individualist at a time when individualism was subordinated to the state, a humanist centuries before the humanist movement, and a Nietzschean superman centuries before Nietzsche was born.  Alcibiades served only Alcibiades.  He was one of those people who were so brilliant that they didn’t believe the rules applied to them.  In many ways he seems like he would have fit in better as a hero in the epics of Homer than as a politician in the histories of the classical period.

One of the most ingrained assumptions of the Greek society was that hubris was always punished.  Alcibiades’ refusal to follow the rules, whether it be by mocking the Gods or impregnating the King of Sparta’s wife often got him into trouble.  He spent a large portion of this life as a hated fugitive and died early and violently.  But he also experienced many moments of glory and triumph and his enduring fame, his kleos, is based as much on his ability as on his ethical failings.  Perhaps he would have seen that as an acceptable trade-off.

Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress, Louis Jean François Lagrenée [public domain via Norton Simon Museum]

Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress, Louis Jean François Lagrenée, c. 1781 [public domain via Norton Simon Museum]

Herodotus and History

This week I am reading the work of Herodotus. Herodotus was, if not the world’s first true historian, then the first who’s work has come down to us. Because of this, any discussion of Herodotus must begin with the deceptively simple question, “What is history?”.

Earlier in my Great Books project I wrote about Homer’s Iliad which is a history, in a sense, of final year the Trojan War. I also wrote about the Deuteronomistic History, the seven books of the Hebrew Bible which tell the national story of the Hebrews from the time they arrived in Canaan to their conquest by Babylon. However, neither of these works are histories in the purest sense. Both were written to advance cultural and theological agendas, so their was no attempt, or even concept of, objectivity. More importantly, neither makes any attempt to explain why events happened as they did, which is the fundamental question of history. The self evident answer was that things happened because God, or the gods willed it.

We don’t know much about Herodotus’ life. It seems that he was a relatively affluent merchant from the Greek city of Halicarnassus, which was part of the Persian empire. Herodotus became fascinated with the Persian-Greek war, and event about as far removed in time for him as World War II is for us. Because his business dealings often took him to Athens and other Greek cities he had plenty of chances to listen to oral accounts of the war and interview survivors from the period. Using these sources he wrote a book which not only describes the events, as he understood them, but tried to give the context and reasons they occurred.

A Reproduction of a Persian-War Trireme [public domain via wikimedia]

Reproduction of a Persian-War Trireme [public domain via Wikimedia]

Many encyclopedia articles and other writings about Herodotus are critical of his methods. They say that he lacked objectivity and took too many accounts at face value without cross checking them, or that he failed to develop a coherent theory of the causes of the war. These criticisms would be more valid if we here talking about someone’s modern PhD History dissertation. When applied to Herodotus they fail to give him enough credit. He was not a trained historian because there were no previous historians who could have trained him. The sources he had were a mixture of hearsay and recollections by old people who would have been quite young during the war. Despite these limitations he managed to write a book which is still read, as a history text, almost sixteen centuries later.

I am particularly impressed because I am currently writing a book which includes quite a bit of history from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Thanks to the Internet I have access to many newspaper clippings, court records, and government documents from the era–none of which would have been available to Herodotus. Even so, there are gaping holes in my understanding of some of the events. Like Herodotus, I have been interviewing people who lived during that time, or even their children and grandchildren if I can find them. I find that even when the witnesses memories seem clear, they often didn’t pay attention to or never knew about things which seem critical to me. From these sources I must develop hypotheses about causes and effects and present my findings in a readable form, yet avoid opening myself to criticism for lack of objectivity or failure to meet a burden of proof. Even with all my modern technology and training as a researcher, I’m not sure I’ll be able to do as fine a job as Herodotus. Hopefully, though, studying him and the other historians on my Great Books list will inspire me to succeed.

A Note About Editions:

Herodotus only wrote one work, The History, which is made up of nine books. A fairly good English translation is available from Project Gutenberg. The first four books contain background on the Persian Empire, Egypt, and other areas of the known world. The parts which deal with Egypt, while interesting, are not considered to be very accurate. There is some question whether Herodotus ever actually went there himself. Books five through nine are the actual history of the Persian War. For college courses books five through nine are often bound together in an edition called Herodotus: The Persian War which is very readable and includes explanatory comments, but omits some passages that are not directly related to the war. I have both, and have found myself flipping back and forth as I read.

The Bardic Memory

I would like to conclude my study of Homer with some reflections on one more subject which I find fascinating.  Both the Iliad and the Odyssey were originally oral works, composed completely in Homer’s mind and and transmitted, possibly for generations, without benefit of writing.  Let’s pause for a moment and consider how monumental this accomplishment was.  When we print each poem today it runs to about 500 pages of text.  How many of us could commit something that size to memory?  Yet even hundreds of years after the poems had been written down we read of aristocratic Greek boys memorizing them the full text of one or both poems.  A fully trained bard like Homer might well have known a repertoire of dozens of epics.  During the classical period poets often recited the Iliad and Odyssey, competing to give the most word-perfect rendition.  Gladstone, in Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, points out that this tradition is probably why the versions of Homer that came down to us are so free of variation, since additions and improvisations would have been penalized.  How did all of these people memorize such long poems?

Homer Sings the Odyssey.  Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Homer Sings the Odyssey. Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bards weren’t unique to the Greek dark ages, either.  It seems that the majority of cultures developed a similar role at some point.  Our own Indo-European language group has a diverse tradition of (originally) oral epic poetry including The Bhagavad Gita, the medieval French chansons, the Celtic epics, and the sagas of Scandinavia.  In many cultures the bard is also a priest or shaman.  In ancient Ireland, for example, bards were members of the priesthood who ranked only slightly below druids.  In Homer’s Greece it was considered sacrilegious, or at least very unlucky to kill a bard.  For this reason, the bard is one of the only men whom Odysseus spares when he massacres the suitors.  Perhaps the bard’s incredible memorization abilities were one of the reasons they were considered to be so special.

Writing was known in Homer’s time.  The idea had been imported hundreds of years before from the Phoenicians and/or Egyptians.  But it was thought to be beneath the dignity of warriors and  bards.  As Will Durant says in The Life of Greece,

The Achaeans leave to merchants the and lowly scribes the art of writing, which had presumably been handed down to them from Mycenaean Greece; the prefer blood to ink and flesh to clay.  In all of Homer there is but one reference to writing, and there in a characteristic context; a folded tablet is given to a messenger, directing the recipient to kill the messenger. (p. 52)

Homer had little use for writing, but he admits how hard the task of memory was.   The hardest part of either of his poems to remember and recite would certainly have been the “Catalog of Ships” which takes up the second half of Book II of the Iliad.  This section lists every important person who fought at Troy, where he came from, how many ships he commanded, and, usually, what he was known for and who his parents were.  Getting through this section is such a “mighty labor” that before he begins the bard inserts a special plea for help from the muses,

Say, virgins, seated round the throne divine,
All-knowing goddesses! immortal nine!
Since earth’s wide regions, heaven’s umneasur’d height,
And hell’s abyss, hide nothing from your sight,
(We, wretched mortals! lost in doubts below,
But guess by rumour, and but boast we know,)
O say what heroes, fired by thirst of fame,
Or urged by wrongs, to Troy’s destruction came.
To count them all, demands a thousand tongues,
A throat of brass, and adamantine lungs.
Daughters of Jove, assist! inspired by you
The mighty labour dauntless I pursue;
Or urged by wrongs, to Troy’s destruction came.
To count them all, demands a thousand tongues,
A throat of brass, and adamantine lungs.
Daughters of Jove, assist! inspired by you
The mighty labour dauntless I pursue;
Their names, their numbers, and their chiefs I sing.

Gladstone’s book, from which I borrowed the following maps, explains how Homer organized the information in the catalog to make it possible to memorize it.  Basically, Homer uses a technique similar to a mind palace, an ancient technique in which information is visualized in concrete form inside an imaginary “mansion” or “palace”.  Fans of the television show Sherlock will be familiar with this from the interesting visual sequences showing Sherlock’s thought process.  Homer’s mind palace, however, is the entire Greek world.  He traces a nearly circular arc that encompasses the Greek mainland, Crete, and the islands.  Along each subsection of this arc, he follows a zig-zag path which allows him to mentally recreate a journey through that part of the countryside, visualizing each city and its chieftain.

Locations Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships.  from Gladstone (1855) [Public Domain].  Scanned by Project Gutenberg.

Locations Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships. from Gladstone (1855) [Public Domain]. Scanned by Project Gutenberg.

Locations Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships - Greek Mainland.  from Gladstone (1855) [Public Domain].  Scanned by Project Gutenberg.

Locations Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships – Greek Mainland. from Gladstone (1855) [Public Domain]. Scanned by Project Gutenberg.

Homer most likely never saw a map in his life, so he was probably mentally stepping through his own memories from his wanderings, or imagining the oral descriptions of other travelers.  The technique is surprisingly effective–much more so than the alternative.  Have you ever tried to list all the state capitals without looking them up?  I bet you missed one, and couldn’t figure out which it was.  Perhaps next time you should try mentally driving from each capital to the next.  That’s what Homer would have done.

My partner, who was a professional actor and performance artist for many years, gives another perspective on memorization.  She says that she was trained to remember her lines kinaesthetically.  She feels different lines in different parts of her body and uses particular movements to unlock memorized text.  We don’t know how much the Greek bard moved around while they were reciting, but they may well have used some of the same tricks to trigger their memories.  Most likely, they used a combination of several different memory techniques, and learning these techniques was as important a part of their apprenticeship as learning the lines of the poems themselves.

With that, I leave Homer.  I will be back to Greece and her poets before long, but, for now, I have begun reading another body of work which was initially transmitted orally:  The Hebrew Bible.

The Odyssey

I’ve just read the Odyssey, which means that I have finished reading the first author on my Great Books reading list. In some ways the Odyssey is much more accessible to us modern readers than the Iliad. The basic format, in which the hero journeys from one fantastic encounter to another before finally returning home, is quite familiar to us from works like Huckleberry Finn, The Hobbit, and thousands of others. Fans of Joseph Campbell will recognize it as a classic “hero’s journey”. The Iliad, on the other hand, is a type of epic that focuses on battles and the deeds and lineages of heroes. This form would have been just as popular in the ancient world, but seems a bit strange to us moderns. Also, in the Iliad, in the words of W.E. Gladstone (1855), “a more antique tone on colouring prevails, as it is demanded by the loftier strain of the action.” Even so, I found that the Iliad was my favorite of the two. This might be due to the translations I used, however: Alexander Pope worked alone to translate the Iliad, but he subcontracted several chapters of the Odyssey, which may have made it harder to make the text flow smoothly.

Odysseus and the Sirens. Gerard de Lairesse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Odysseus and the Sirens. Gerard de Lairesse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Odyssey is still a wonderful story, and very well worth reading. Few authors have ever had Homer’s gift of sketching such vivid characters and locations in only a few lines of poetry. Even after nearly three millennia, these people and places live for the reader. As a writer, I have an almost irresistible urge to borrow from Homer and put my own stories in his universe, and I am hardly alone. Virgil, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and a legion of others through the ages read Homer and were inspired to write what our era would call “fan fiction”. Homer is the mother of all expanded universes. Even today a quick scan through Amazon shows hundreds of modern novels, plays, and movies that adapt Homer’s stories. It’s easy to see why. I feel I could take nearly any character from the Odyssey, even bit players who are only mentioned on a few pages, and create a short story, if not a novel, about them.

This is gratifying, since my main motivation to read the Great Books is to improve my writing. I can only hope that the other 146 authors give me so many ideas.

Odysseus Yearns for Ithaca.  Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Odysseus Yearns for Ithaca. Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Structurally, I found a few surprises about the poem. Most adaptations of the Odyssey focus on the journey itself. Of the twenty-four books in the original, however, the first four follow Odysseus’ son Telemachus and his frustrations with the boorish suitors who have come to woo his mother. Unable to force them to leave, he sets off to the mainland to find news of his father. As characters, Telemachus and his mother, Penelope, are at least as developed as Odysseus himself. The last twelve books occur after Odysseus arrives home in Ithaca, so that only the eight books in the middle deal with his epic journey. Furthermore, I noticed that some of the most fantastic elements of the story, such as the encounter with the cyclops and the incident when Circe turns Odysseus’ men into swine, are actually told by Odysseus himself in the form of flashback dialogue. One wonders if the cunning king was embroidering his stories a bit in order to impress his hosts. Overall, the story structure is much more sophisticated than I would have expected from such an ancient work. It is fabulous to me that his poem, composed (probably) in the 7th century BCE and translated in 18th century English, reads so much like a modern novel, but I suppose that is what makes a Great Book.

See also: You may be interested in an essay I wrote several years ago about the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? and its relationship to the Odyssey and Campbellian meta-mythology, or another essay I wrote about Constantine Cavafy’s poem Ithaka.

The Iliad

Last week I blogged about how I was planning to work my way through the reading list from Adler’s and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book. I just finished the first work on the list, Homer’s Iliad, and I thought I would share some of my reactions.

Before talking about Homer, we must place him in history. Scholars think that the Iliad and Odyssey were probably composed around 750 BCE. No one knows for sure if Homer was a single poet, a group of poets, or the name of a literary style–nor does it really matter. Personally, I have a feeling that there was an original single author, though his work has obviously been edited and transmitted by many others.

The eight century was the middle of Hellenic society’s Dark Age. The warlike but relatively stable Mycenaean society of the Late Greek Bronze Age had collapsed in flaming ruin around 1200 BCE, brought down by some combination of outside invasion, internal wars, or cultural stagnation. The triumphs and learning of classical Greece were hundreds of years in the future. Even the ancient Olympic Games, held in 776 BCE, were a relatively recent phenomenon.

As in every Dark Age in history, I’m sure that normal people spend most of their time keeping their heads down and trying to make a living while staying out of the way of whatever local boss-man was nominally in charge.

Some of the greatest literature comes out of dark ages, when authors try to channel the supposed glories of a past Golden Age. The Homeric works remind me the Arthurian legends and similar epics which came out of our own civilization’s Dark Age. They are just as focused on the deeds of heroes. They convey the same sense of a time when men where greater and more noble, and war was more stylized, yet somehow more meaningful. Likewise, you see the same historical inaccuracies. To a Dark Age poet it is inconceivable that the technology of the Golden Age was inferior to his own. Ironically, military technology in particular advances very rapidly in times of uncertainty. But still we read about the Knights of the Round Table using (who, if they existed, would have lived in the 6th century) wearing 12th century armor as they sat their heavy war horses in stirrups. Homer’s Bronze Age heroes wield iron arms, fight in phalanx formations, and conduct rituals that did not become widespread until centuries later.

At the same time, an incredible level of simple barbarity comes through in the Iliad, reflecting the sort of war Homer would have heard about in his own time. His heroes are happy enough to throw rocks at each other when they run out of spears. Every death is described in gruesome, explicit detail. They also spend an inordinate amount of their time fighting over who gets to loot which bodies and who gets to rape which women. It isn’t surprising that it took Agamemnon ten years to take the city, considering how woefully undisciplined his troops were. The Iliad is a peculiar mash-up–thuggish brigands from Greece’s dark ages playing out a story from a heroic age that never really was.

Achilles Killing a Prisoner

Achilles Killing a Prisoner (Wikimedia Commons)

And yet, a nobler moral message shines through. The characters of the Iliad are human. They have flaws, quirks, and failings. Above all else, they are conscious of their own mortality. Even the two greatest warriors, Achilles and Hector, accept from the start that they will not survive the war. We are reminded repeatedly, usually in the scenes of dialogue between the gods, how fleeting human life is. The few characters of mature years, such as Nestor and Priam, dwell repeatedly on how weak old age has made them. Death and mortality run through the poem. For an epic hero, the only possible response is courage. Courage to stand and fight, to keep their loyalty and honor their oaths, even though they know it will result in hideous death. Only through courage can a hero achieve lasting fame (κλέος), which is the only true immortality.

Sometimes, their courage fails. Paris, for instance, finds excuses to avoid combat and, when he does fight, tends to lurk on the sidelines with a bow. He is universally hated and derided by both sides. Occasionally men are taken captive and shamefully beg for their lives, causing their captors to slaughter them out of hand. Even brave Hector’s resolve fails him at one point. He stands in front of the walls, knowing Achilles is coming for him for the final showdown, and his nerve breaks. Achilles literally chases him three times around the walls of Troy. But Hector is redeemed when he gets hold of himself and stands to fight and die, thus proving that he is a true epic hero.

Achilles Slays Hector (Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Achilles Slays Hector (Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A Note on Translations

Few of us read Homeric Greek, so we must read the Iliad and Odyssey in translation. Dozens of English translations exist, many of which are available to download from Project Gutenberg. I personally like Alexander Pope’s version, which is one of the finest examples of epic poetry in English literature. Even in his own time, Pope was criticized for paraphrasing too much, and many other translations are truer to the Greek original. Personally, though, I see Pope as a link in the continuity of the tradition which is Homer and his interpretations and additions as no less valid than say, they person who first committed the oral original to paper, or Zenodotus and Aristarchus, librarians of Alexandria, who first collected and edited the various versions. In the same way that no discussion of the Bible is complete without mentioning the King James Version, no discussion of the Homeric tradition is complete without mentioning Pope.