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.

Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!

Ecclesiastes begins with the rather disconcerting exclamation, “Vanity of vanities, … vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The exclamation is made more disconcerting by the place of Ecclesiastes in the canon. In the canons of both Jews and all major Christian groups, Ecclesiastes follows immediately after the Book of Proverbs. Tradition, in fact, claims the selfsame author, Solomon, for both books. While Solomon extols the virtues of wisdom in the Proverbs, however, he seems actively to disparage it in Ecclesiastes. The word commonly translated “vanity” in English translations of Ecclesiastes is rendered as ματαιότης in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Bible, a translation used by most of the Greek-speaking early Christian communities. As the New Revelation of Christ sheds light on the Old Covenant, the use of this word in the writings contained in the New Testament necessarily holds value for any attempt to interpret Ecclesiastes.

According to Strong’s Concordance, the word ματαιότης refers to “what is devoid of truth and appropriateness,” with secondary and tertiary meanings indicating “perverseness” and “depravity” as well as “frailty” and “want of vigour.” The word’s stem, μάτη, refers to folly. The word occurs three times in the New Testament. In Romans 8:20, ματαιότης is translated by the ESV as “futility” in the course of St. Paul’s discourse on the hope and eager anticipation experienced by creation as it awaits salvation. Until the fulfillment of this salvation, says Paul, the creation is subject to ματαιότης. In Ephesians 4:17, the ESV again translates ματαιότης as “futility” in Paul’s admonishment to the Christians, “that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” This thought continues in the following verse (4:18), where Paul states, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” Finally, in 2 Peter 2:18, the ESV translates ματαιότης as “folly” in St. Peter’s warning against false teachers “speaking loud boasts of folly.” In each instance, the apostles use the word ματαιότης in a condemnation of false or worldly wisdom which cannot bring salvation. In Paul’s uses, the wisdom referred to is the wisdom of the pagans. In Peter’s, it is the wisdom of Christian heretics.

An examination of these New Testament uses of ματαιότης sheds some light upon the message of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. It is not wisdom itself which is vain. On the contrary, both the biblical and post-biblical Christian traditions have identified wisdom, σοφία, with the divine. Solomon himself did so in Proverbs 8:22-31. It is, rather, the wisdom of the world, the wisdom which leads from God rather than to God, that is referred to. This “wisdom” is perhaps more properly referred to as wisdom falsely so-called, about which Paul warns in Colossians 2:8. True wisdom, as Solomon makes clear at the close of the Book of Ecclesiastes, is that which leads man to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Far from vanity, this is the very reason for which man was created.

Enuma Elish vs. Genesis

By far the best supplementary readings I can recommend in the wake of my most recent entry in our History of Christianity series are the Enuma Elish and (at a minimum) the first three chapters of Genesis. The Enuma Elish is a text, only (re)discovered in the late nineteenth century, which contains the Babylonian myth of creation. Almost from the point of its recent discovery it was recognized that this story was clearly in the same vein as and probably a source for the creation story in Genesis. The similarities are notable, to say the least. Even more notable, however, are the ways in which Genesis departs from the Enuma Elish in its vision of God, man, and world. Genesis, in a sense, de-mythologizes the story of the Enuma Elish, for example eliminating the idea of a cosmic battle between the gods. Perhaps the most remarkable way in which Genesis deviates from the Enuma Elish is in its vision of God’s relationship to man. In the Enuma Elish (Table VI) man is created to serve the gods by completing their labor for them; in other words, man is, in the vision of the Enuma Elish, created from the very first as a slave. The vision of man, his creation, and his purpose offered in Genesis is strikingly different. I’ll let you make the rest of the comparisons and contrasts for yourself.

The Enuma Elish is not especially lengthy and you can read the whole thing online at the Ancient Encyclopedia of History. They also offer a concise introduction and summary of the work.

The text of Genesis is, of course, widely available online and off. I recommend reading it at Blue Letter Bible as they offer several English translations and their language and interpretation tools are a great resource for further inquiry.

Those who want to go even deeper might enjoy taking a look at the Septuagint (Greek/Christian) text of Genesis in side-by-side comparison with the Masoretic (Hebrew/Jewish) version which is used in most English translations of the Bible.

I’d love to hear your thoughts of how these texts compare and contrast with each other in their ideas.