The Classical Paradox

The Classical Paradox

As of late, I have spent considerable time with Gregory Nagy’s The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. It is a phenomenal work of scholarship, a must-read on par with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces in terms of literary value in understanding the classics, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

But reading Nagy has confirmed a suspicion that I have had for some time now, and which has some serious implications for attempting to understand the stories of classical heroism that form the body of the classics field of study:

There is nothing less ‘classical’ — less heroic — than a classics professor.

I actually want to avoid defining “heroic” for the time being because to go down that rabbit-hole would be to miss the point. Definitions follow after the experience of heroism; something strikes us as noble and beautiful and glorious in someone else, and then we set about attempting to constrain and describe ex post facto what that experience actually is. Such semantic constraints are often very useful, but in this case they are the problem. Heroes like Achilles and Hector and Odysseus strike us as heroic before we define them as heroic; the definition follows the recognition. And as a general rule, classics professors — for all of their knowledge — do not convey this experience.

Such was not always the case. Perhaps the most famous and influential Homer-scholars of the 20th-century were Milman Parry and his student Albert Lord. These two men spent their youth traveling through the rugged Balkan mountain-country, visiting the rural tribes there so that they might better understand how epic poetry was composed.

This is what they looked like:

It runs in defiance of all modern convention and moral taste to judge by appearance. But if we are to assume that the classics are worth studying because they have something to teach us, it should be relevant to observe that judging by appearance is something quite frequent in the classics, perhaps most notably in the evaluation of Thersites (Iliad book II, 245-324) and in Priam and Helen’s judgment of the Achaean forces (Iliad book III, 194-291). By my own judgment, Parry and Lord have the appearance of champions, men of the same spirit as Thor Heyerdahl and the crew of the Kon-Tiki.

Heyerdahl himself was an academic of sorts, and the journey of the Kon-Tiki was a test of a scientific hypothesis (whether travel to the South Pacific from South America was a viable explanation for the arrival of the indigenous peoples there). But these early to mid-20th century “academics” fit an Indiana Jones persona that is closer to the characters around whom the “classics” revolve. One gets the sense that the source material left an impression upon these students, one which altered their lives in a way that justified studying the classics in the first place.

By contrast, Gregory Nagy is the picture of the modern classics-scholar:

Born in 1942, Nagy had earned his PhD at Harvard at the age of 24 and began teaching there the same year. So far as I can tell, he never left.

I do not mean to pick on Nagy. The man is a phenomenal scholar, and is a must-read for the student of the Homeric classics. But the point remains: his appearance — like the appearance of the generation of classics professors, of whom he is only an example — is antithetical to the heroic world around which their very field of study revolves.

This is an important point with serious implications for understanding heroic classics like the Iliad, for reasons that Nagy himself identifies in The Ancient Greek Hero around the story-telling medium of the ainos, a short rhetorical and parabolic form characterized by ambiguity and metaphor:

2§72. The ainos as told by Phoenix, to which he refers as klea andrōn at Iliad IX 524 as quoted in Text B, connects with the overall klea andrōn as told by the master Narrator. The connection is made by way of poetic conventions distinguishing the ainos from epic. One of these conventions is a set of three features characterizing the rhetoric of the ainos. Unlike epic, the ainos requires three qualifications of its listeners in order to be understood:

  1. The listeners must be sophoi, ‘skilled’, in understanding the message encoded in the poetry. That is, they must be mentally qualified.
  2. They must be agathoi, ‘noble’. That is, they must be morally qualified.
  3. They must be philoi, ‘near and dear’, to each other and to the one who is telling them the ainos. That is, they must be emotionally qualified. Communication is achieved through a special sense of community, that is, through recognizing “the ties that bind.”

First off, I believe that Nagy is incorrect in his interpretation of agathoi. From the research of Nietzsche (another classically-trained philologist), “nobility” in Greek antiquity had very little if anything to do with morality. Certainly not morality as understood today. Nietzsche argued that “nobility” had to do with power, joy, health, and being loved by the gods. This interpretation more closely matches the perceptive experience of heroic “nobility” we see in the world. If an academic is lacking in this kind of nobility, then their interpretations of the ainos that form micro-narratives within the greater epics (and thereby constitute the epics themselves, contra Nagy’s distinction between ainos and epic) may miss the mark.

Related to this, the third requirement — philoi — may be understood not only as “near and dear” to the speaker, but also “near” to the lives and experiences of the speaker, such that there may be common points of reference in communication. If a hero is communicating from the experiential basis of a heroic life, then the academic who does not share those experiences and that mental framework will not be philoi to the narrator.

Let this not be construed as a dismissal of the value of modern classics scholars. Their work can still provide invaluable insight into the meanings of the text, especially where basic words are concerned.

Rather, what I am saying is that the modern classicist’s work is not sufficient for a true understanding of the heroic classics. They assist in the necessary development of sophos, but less so in philos, and they may even injure one in the development of agathos.

And with such an imbalance in the development of the requirements for understanding classical epics and stories, we see the emergence of a kind of paradox in modern classics-studies: those most deeply immersed in the ancient texts seem often to be the most separated from the actual spirit of those texts.

Studying the heroic classics — the Iliad, Beowulf, Shakespeare, the sagas, etc — is a wonderful and worthwhile activity. But to truly understand them, the student cannot simply learn the academic language — sophos. He must also be agathoi and philoi.

Such “academics” exist, those who not only understand the ancient texts, but whose lives and appearance bear out a likeness to the heroes of the past.

But these days, one usually has to go outside the university to find them…

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