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The Stupidity of Professors

The Stupidity of Professors

Let’s do away with the dumb “not-all” caveats. There are plenty of professors who are excellent, both in their craft and as teachers. But we also need to acknowledge that there are some who are absolutely clueless, and yet are arrogant in their cluelessness.

I have occasionally been struck by feelings of imposter-syndrome: I want to write about philosophy, or these days, about Homer, but the genius and depth of knowledge of truly great scholars can be so awe-inspiring that it leaves one with the sensation that there is nothing left to say. At least, nothing for you to say.

And then you hear someone with a PhD say something like this:

What’s always puzzled everybody, ever since they were created, is how do you get from — let’s say I’ve got two hours with you, and I’m going to tell you the story of the duel between Hector and Achilles. Fine! How do you get from that to the Iliad? which is a selection from lots and lots of stories added together with a theme. And it starts out, the theme is announced in the very first line: Menin, the anger of Achilles. Now that’s brilliant! That’s why it doesn’t end with the siege of Troy, because Achilles’ anger is assuaged — as Adam poetically, brilliantly puts it — by the reconciliation scene with Priam. The conquest of Troy is for him secondary. But who thought of that? I think it takes an individual genius.

The travels of Odysseus are much easier for a lesser intellect to conjure up, because it’s one damn thing after another. It’s a guy traveling from A to B via C, D, E, F, G, and having extraordinary adventures. Now that doesn’t take so much of a brain to think up.

Paul Cartledge, 2014

This should be transparently stupid even to the casual reader of Homer. The descriptions are actually completely backwards: the Iliad begins at the beginning of the story and proceeds chronologically — one damn thing after another — to its conclusion… which, incidentally, is not the reconciliation with Priam. The conclusion of the story is the burial of Hector.

The Odyssey, by contrast, begins somewhere in the middle, goes backward, proceeds to its starting point, and then finishes, all the while referencing past events and even foreshadowing future ones which we do not find in the book itself. It is exactly not “one damn thing after another.” Like the Iliad, the Odyssey also has a theme which is summarized in the first line: andra (“man”), around which the story revolves. And if professor Cartledge — A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge — thinks that these stories told by Odysseus are merely “extraordinary adventures,” then not only does he not understand the story; he doesn’t understand the story-telling medium in which the Odyssey is told.

If the most brilliant novelist of the 20th century — perhaps ever — held the Odyssey as the rabbit to chase in complex writing, you’ll have to forgive my skepticism of the good professor’s judgment.

The takeaway here should not be to laugh at stupid ideas, but to remember never to get too cowed by the brilliance of the greats. It can be easy to think — after reading too much Aristotle, Nietzsche, Pirsig, or some other top-notch thinker — that you have nothing to say. Whenever you get in that mood, pick up a copy of Twilight… or at least think about holding that stack of wasted tree pulp in your hand. And remember that people read Stephanie Meyer more than Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Pirsig combined.

Most stuff out there is trash. Always try to emulate the greats, but never be intimidated their superiority. At worst, you’ll at least die a little bit more like them, and a little bit less like someone who reads Breaking Dawn.

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