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Blacks in Antiquity

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Running from fate (Oedipus Rex)

One aspect of the story of Oedipus that has long intrigued me is that Oedipus, in a sense, brings his fate upon himself by attempting to run from it while simultaneously, if unconsciously, seeking it out. This running from fate begins, of course, when his parents attempt to abandon him on the mountainside after they hear the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. This attempt to escape from fate, however, only pushes him further toward his fate by giving him the false assurance that the couple who adopts him are the parents referred to in the same prophecy when he hears it as an adult. His runs again, fleeing from the home in which he was raised in order to escape his fate and yet falls again into it when he encounters and kills his real father along the road and unknowingly marries his mother after saving Thebes from the Sphinx.

In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus evinces this ability to simultaneously run toward and away from fate through the play. He pursues his fate through the questions he asks even while he attempts to run away from it, hoping that the answers to his questions will reveal that he is innocent.

In the light of last month’s reading of the Iliad, there is a great deal of comparison to be made between Achilles and Oedipus in the way that each grapples with his fate. Where Oedipus goes wrong, it seems, is in his failure to accept his fate. Boethius’s quite Greco-Roman notion of accepting one’s fate with a sort of virtuous resignation comes to mind here. One wonders, given that his avoidance of his fate is what walks him into it, how things might have worked out for poor Oedipus had he adopted Boethius’s advice.

 

What is life?

I have not posted for some time here because I have been consumed with my studies. As the semester draws to a close, I will spend the next few months catching up on both my reading and my blogging, focusing, of course, on the Great Books of the Western World in particular. The next several posts will be somewhat out of the order in which these works are listed in our reading plan because I have been selective with those I have been able to sneak in here and there while reading, choosing those I was most interested in at the moment rather than whatever was next on the list.

For now, though, we are on track as I will be here briefly discussing Homer’s Iliad. It is fitting, it seems to me, that the title of the last work of last year’s reading was What is Life? Although that book is about a quite different topic, the question is an apt one to apply to Homer as well, and this work especially. (To be honest, it could be applied with equal force to nearly any of the Great Books).

This is the heart of the question that Achilles must answer when he chooses what sort of life he will live. His famous choice of two fates–to live a long, peaceful life or a short, glorious one–is one of the defining moments of the story. And it is, in a sense, the sort of choice that each of us must make. Behind this choice lies that question: what is life? What is the purpose and the value of a human life? For what are we intended? Achilles’s choice is well-known enough: glory–and an early death to go with it.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus visits Achilles in the underworld. During this visit, Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a poor farmer on earth than be dead. I don’t recall that it’s ever made explicit, but it seems evident to me that if Achilles were given a second chance he would choose a different fate for himself.

Book Review: Who Killed Homer? by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath

Something is amiss in higher education and has been for some time. Unfortunately, this something amiss in higher education has also steadily trickled down to primary and secondary education, so infected them that these too are now permeated by the same ailment — or, rather, ailments. As Hanson and Heath (the two authors of this book) and a number of other brave souls have pointed out, these ailments, though they come in a variety of forms, can be narrowed down to three basic categories: multiculturalism, vocationalism, and careerism. Tackling each of these and the symbiotic relationship that exists between them specifically in the Classics departments of America’s universities, Hanson and Heath do a great deal to diagnose while also providing some excellent advice for a future cure.

Multiculturalism has, of course, brought havoc to nearly all of the American education system, ironically doing the most harm to those it was supposed to help. Rather than empowering African American, Hispanic, and other minority students, however, multiculturalism has further disadvantaged these students by denying them access to the knowledge that would make them education and successful denizens of Western Civilization. As Hanson and Heath show, multiculturalism has harmed all of us by denigrating the civilization that we are the inheritors and whose thought world we continue to live within while heaping up a large and steamy pile of sophisms about the history of the West and its relation to other civilizations.

Vocationalism may be the ailment in American education that has entrenched itself the deepest. It now runs from the kindergarten all the way through the doctoral program. There is a constant and consistent focus on what makes money rather than on what is good, true, and beautiful. Classics has been one of the majors hardest hit by this focus on vocationalism as the refrain of “how will you make money with that?” has steadily worn down the numbers of students willing to pursue a costly college degree in a field that, they are continuously assured, they will never be able to earn a sufficient income with. Damned be the truth that a man with a BA in Classics will undoubtedly prepare anyone to be a fast learner with solid interpersonal skills fit for nearly any job in business or education.

Tied closely to these ailments, and, in a sense, providing the filth upon which they feed, is careerism. It is remarkably difficult to find a professor or even a K-12 teacher who is not focused on their career above the needs of their students. The professor seeks an ever decreasing course load in order to pursue ever more specialized (and therefore ever more irrelevant) research that no one will read. The K-12 teacher kowtows to the educational authorities’ latest pedagogical fads and buzz words, teaches to the test, and dumbs down the curriculum so everyone will pass. The result is a woefully undereducated, distracted populace that can handle only “Greek Mythology in Cinema 101” rather than “Introductory Homeric Greek.” And the fate of the Greeks — and the civilization they gave us — is sealed.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in an insight into the profoundly depressing world of modern academia. But, remember, it’s not all doom and gloom: the light of the end of the tunnel is you, if you so choose.

What is history?

Herodotus, the “father of history,” begins his Histories, arguably the first book of history, with an explanation of his method and purpose in writing his book. In the first sentence, he informs his readers,

These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.

Within this single sentence, the world’s first historian offers a succinct definition of the field of human knowledge which he pioneered.

Herodotus begins by referring to his work as ἱστορίης, or “researches,” knowledge attained by observation and inquiry. Here Herodotus indicates his most significant departure from those who came before him. The telling of stories about the past, of course, existed well before Herodotus wrote his book in the 5th century BC. Herodotus distinguishes himself from these earlier storytellers, however, by basing his stories upon his personal research rather than upon a received ancestral narrative. Rather than passing on old stories in a version of the “telephone game,” Herodotus used observation and reason to discover the past and create a plausible narrative based on available evidence. After mentioning his method, Herodotus goes on to delineate his purposes for writing.

The first of his stated purposes is “preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done.”  Herodotus, in other words, wishes to protect and perpetuate the memory of the activities of certain persons beyond the personal life span of those particular persons. History is, then, in a sense, an extension of the personal memory. The historian is therefore a guardian of the collective memory of mankind, expanding the memory of each particular person backwards to encompass the totality of significant events in the life of mankind as a whole.

Herodotus’s second stated purpose for his writing is “preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory.” In addition, then, to merely preserving the record of past human activity, Herodotus wishes to render honor to those who were responsible for this activity. He desires not a mere chronology of dates and events but a narrative which inspires to reverence. In turn, of course, reverence will inevitably provoke imitation.

Herodotus’s final stated purpose for his writing is “to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.” He wishes to preserve not only the events and the activities of those involved in the events, but the causes of their actions as well. In preserving the causes of human activity, Herodotus imparts a doctrine of human beings as rational agents. Human activity is, for the historian, understandable and reasonable because it is traceable to particular motivations.

In his stated purposes, Herodotus makes implicit claims concerning human nature, claims which provide reason and basis for history as a discipline. In his desire to “preserve … remembrance” Herodotus claims for mankind the desire to remember the activities of other members of their species who lived before them, a claim that can be made for no other species than the human species. Herodotus also highlights further aspects of the discipline of history which can only aptly describe human activity. Activity that is predetermined or unfree is undeserving of any “meed of glory” and activity without “grounds” is random and irrational. Herodotus, then, in his second and third statements of his purpose, makes the implicit claim that human activity is free and rational.

Herodotus, no doubt, was merely prefacing his work with a statement of his own methods and purposes in writing. In so doing, however, Herodotus became the progenitor of a field of human knowledge which had not hitherto existed in its pure and independent state. By defining history as a field of research and inquiry intended for the preservation of the memory of human activities and their respective motivations, Herodotus discerned one aspect of the human drive to knowledge of self while setting its boundaries with other fields of human knowledge.

Alexander the Great (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.11)

Aristotle had many outstanding students. One of his students, a man named Theophrastus, for example, wrote two of the earliest books on botany. Perhaps the most famous and important of Aristotle’s students, however, was a young prince named Alexander.

Alexander, who would later be known as Alexander the Great, was not a Greek. Instead, he lived in a small kingdom just north of Greece called Macedonia. His father, Philip, was the king there. Aristotle was hired by Philip to be Aristotle’s personal teacher. Alexander learned many things from Aristotle. Among the subjects Alexander most enjoyed learning about were philosophy, religion, and art. Alexander was also very interested in literature. He loved the works of Homer so much that Aristotle gave him his own copy of the Iliad. Alexander later carried the book with him every time he left home.

In 336 BC, Alexander’s father, Philip, died and Alexander became king of Macedonia. Alexander had been eagerly waiting for the day when he would become king. He was very inspired by the stories of the great warriors and kings who had come before him. He dreamed of a conquering a vast empire like the conquerors he had read about.

Alexander set out on his conquests almost immediately. Within twelve years, Alexander conquered the largest empire that the world had ever seen. Alexander’s conquests included even the once-powerful kingdom of Egypt and the Persian Empire. In all of the twelve years he spent on his conquests, Alexander never lost a single battle. By the time Alexander was 32, his empire stretched from Macedonia to India.

He probably would have continued to conquer more land and expand his empire. At the age of 32, however, Alexander suddenly fell ill and died. After his death, Alexander’s empire was divided up among his top generals. The world would not see another empire as large as Alexander’s empire until the formation of the Roman Empire several hundred years later.

Although Alexander lived a short life and his empire broke up very quickly, he still had a very large impact on history. Through his conquests, Alexander spread Greek culture to other lands far away from Greece, such as Egypt. Greek language very quickly became the most popular and important language nearly everywhere around the Mediterranean Sea. Greek ideas, such as those of Plato and Aristotle, also spread nearly everywhere around the Mediterranean and changed the way that people thought. Most of all, Alexander’s conquests set the stage for the conquests of the Romans that would soon come.

 

Review Questions

 1. Who was Alexander the Great’s teacher?

2. What happened to Alexander’s empire after he died?