Sometimes we are called upon to defend, and therefore to think about, what we have long taken for granted. This, for me, is such an occasion. As long as I can remember, I have loved the Greeks, have read them over and over, have taught them upon the slightest excuse to students who have seldom complained. Students are, no doubt, too polite to complain, but it is possible that they actually enjoy the experience. They may be relieved to discover that the Greek classics, as classics generally, are not spiritual or noble works to whose level they must struggle to elevate themselves for a time before sinking back into the more congenial mud baths of real life. They find themselves regaled by stories of sex—heterosexual and homosexual—of greed, ambition, war, murder, treachery, heroism, love—discovering an ultimate source of that universal art form, the soap-opera. All the familiar plots and the broad array of human types—golden playboys , strong ruthless women, clever plotters, stolid warriors, garrulous oldsters, young lovers , cowards , heroes, creators , thieves—they are all there—all the great roles and all the great stories. It is entertaining enough, and even, if we are inclined to think, thought-provoking. When one is reading the Greeks the need to justify the activity does not seem to arise. But if we ask, today, why we should read the Greeks, why they should play a central part, or at least serve as a starting point, in our college education, mere habit and mere pleasure cannot be a sufficient answer.
In our world, full of rapid change and novelty, struggling with a flood of innovations in science and technology, shaken by changes in attitudes about gender and the family, troubled by once-unnoticed forms of oppression, newly aware of our insensitivity to the dignity of ethnic minorities, frightened by our irresponsible power over biological destiny and precarious environment, bewildered by instantaneous awareness of what is going on everywhere, dazed by an enormous knowledge-explosion, threatening ourselves with disaster amidst the ruins of grandiose ideologies—in such a world it may seem oddly unreal to suggest to a responsible generation of intelligent college students that they actually turn from these urgencies to study the Greeks. There is much hand-wringing about our lack of computer-literacy and the deficiency in mathematics and science that may doom us to subservience to foreigners toiling with grim energy to undermine the once-envied standard of living seen as the proper consolation for our fading spiritual supremacy. But among all the complaints about our educational failings few tears are shed over our dust-covered neglect of Homer or Plato or Thucydides. Why, under our circumstances, should we bother to study the Greeks? That is not an easy question to answer.
First, let me put aside or dismiss some perfectly good answers as not really good enough. The Greeks are interesting, but the fact that you find something interesting is not always a sufficient reason for doing it, especially when there may be something more important that needs doing. There are many Great Books, but that a book is great may not be a good enough reason for reading it at a particular moment in one’s life. So I put aside the facts of interest or high quality as true enough but as not a sufficient reason to give them an important place in modern education.
I also put aside, with some hesitation, the rather odd fact that the ruling class of the small island that presided over an Empire upon which the sun never set—that ruling class was raised on, fed its mind on, the Greek classics. Rulers, as we know, are not fitted for their tasks by the study of science, or even social science. They are seldom masters of the cognitive arts, of research or scholarship. A ruler, a governor, a college president is always surrounded by people who know more than he or she about almost anything. If we knew that someone was destined to be President or Prime Minister or King, it would be a waste of time to try to teach her Physics or Chemistry or even sociology or psychology. She should be raised on great literature—stories, histories, tragedies, epics, beginning especially with the Greeks. But this odd point—the special bearing of the classics and the Greeks upon the ruling function—is a point I will not linger over here—even though in a democratic age , when everyone is supposed to be educated for the ruling role, it is a point with special force. It raises the question of the difference between discovering general principles and uncovering particular plots and the proper place of each, of science and the humanities, in our education—a question I will not pursue here.
I also put aside, as not to be taken seriously, a related point having to do with “cultural literacy” or with the certification of upper-class status evidenced by the nod of recognition upon hearing the names of classical authors—the familiar nodding acquaintance with the classics.
College education is, for most of us, the last formal or official chance to deal with the two great questions that will plague us all our lives. Those questions are: (first) What am I supposed to do? and (second) What is going on? (What is it all about?)
What am I supposed to do? is, of course the great vocational question. What am I to do with my life, what is to be my task, to what am I to devote myself, what is to be my job? This is, I think, the dominant question for all of us. Have I a vocation, a task that will absorb my energies, develop my talents, provide me with a lifetime of satisfying and useful work so that in the end I earn the great accolade “well done thou good and faithful servant!” Are we to devote our lives to the great struggle for justice? Are we to try to master the arts of healing, to prolong life and banish pain? Are we to learn to turn stones into bread, transform swamps and deserts into gardens, preserve forests and animals and fresh air? Are we to entertain or teach and enlighten? Or are we to learn to make money so that we can do whatever we should do that money makes possible, while we make up our mind. I need not labor the urgency of the vocational question. It is only when we fail in this quest for vocation, when we remain or become physically or spiritually unemployed, that we must reconcile ourselves to the bitter life of the mere consumer, and one of the aims of education is to help us avoid that fate. Each of us must endure some version of the vocational crisis, presented Biblically as a young man’s temptations in the desert. What am I to do with my life?
But the other question is equally urgent and basic. If it is important to find the part you are to play, to find a part to play, to discover your vocation, it is essential to know what the game is. Finding a role, playing a part, is playing a part in an ongoing story, and not to grasp that is to go through the motions without understanding what you are doing, to live without a sense of significance, to go through life as a sleep-walker. The anguished quest for a glimpse of the great scenario—a quest with which religion is concerned—is a central part of the experience of everyone who is not content to remain a mere uncomprehending cog in a machine or a pathetic pleasure seeker. “What is it all about?”, “what have I been born into?” is an unavoidable question, and it cannot or ought not be altogether evaded by the institutions of education‑–although, it must be said, they try with considerable success to evade it.
So we are looking for an answer to “what is it all about?” That, I think, is really the same question as “what is going on?” But “What is going on?” is a more helpful way of putting it. It is as if each of us has been dropped by the stork on a large playing field and, as we become aware of things, we find balls flying in all directions and people running and clashing and shouting‑–all very confusing to an infant. (When we are born, says Lear, “We cry that we have come to this great stage of fools.” Delivered by the stork to the wrong place!) The problem is to discover the point, to come to understand what is going on and even, after a while, to take part. Things are going on all around us, something we are born in the midst of, something taking place now, something that may be part of a fairly long-running game. So the great orienting question is, “What is going on?” And the problem, of course, is to how to find out.
To begin with, we need to remember a simple fact about time, about the past and the present, as it relates to “what is going on.” The present is sometimes thought of as a thin razor’s edge, separating a no longer existing past from a not yet existing future. This thin conception of the present is seriously misleading. It is a “present” in which nothing can go on. So, as we all come to realize, the present in which we are living and in which things really do go on is not at all like a thin razor’s edge but is in fact remarkably thick or fat. The real present is not a discrete instant but a duration—a duration long enough to make sense of something going on, long enough, even, for a long story.
Consider a simple melody. It is, I suppose, made up of single notes, each of which sounds singly and for an instant. But if we hear only a single note, if only a single note is “present” what happens to the melody? Unless we hear, are aware of, the whole series we do not hear a melody at all. But we do hear the melody, it is the melody that is present, and the “present” thickens to the duration necessary to contain the melody. We are listening to and enjoying the melody present to us in the present. How thick is the musical present? It must vary. Some can carry or be aware of or hold in mind a fairly simple tune. Some, not I alas, can have a movement of a concerto in mind, and listen not to notes or brief snatches but to a long movement as I can listen to or hear a simple melody. When a musician listens, I suppose the whole symphony may be “present” to him. There is no melody, no music, without a thick enduring present.
Or take another example. For someone who doesn’t understand what he is seeing, who does not grasp what is going on, a tennis game may shrink to what his untrained mind merely “sees”—someone hits or serves a ball—an event that , taken by itself, is quite uninteresting. He may learn to follow the ball back and forth across the net for whole point. The complex exchanges are seen as a unit. He may learn to see the point as a point in a game. If he understands more, he can have the set or the match or the tournament before him. It is the tournament that is now going on, that is present. And it is that that makes sense out of the tactics and strategy that are invisible to one who sees only the single shot in a thin present that has no time for these things. Many of us recently watched the Connors match at the US Open. Consider what you had to understand, to have in mind , in order to make it more than the dull sight of two men running around, hitting the ball back and forth. You had to be aware of the saga of an aging ill-mannered millionaire trying to redeem himself by driving himself into competition with gifted athletes half his age, winning forgiveness for two decades of boorishness by a display of amazing persistence and courage. Unless you were aware of something like that going on—unless that whole long story was present to you—you did not see or know what was going on.
Or consider “reading”. You do not merely read a word or a page or a chapter. A word does not have a plot. A book does. You read a book. That is the unit that has the plot or the story. In a real sense, that is what is present, what you are going thru, what you are living through. The “present” to a reader is not like a spotlight going from word to word. If someone asks what it is all about, what you are reading, you do not glance at the next word and say I am reading “dog”. To read is to endure through the present story and you cannot do that if what is present shrinks to the single word.
These examples are to say that the present—what we are living in and through—a melody, a game, a story—is an enduring span. What we are presently living through is a long story, (what Adam, in Paradise Lost, called a “long day’s dying” ) part of an even longer story, an enduring now. And just as the musical present is thicker for one who grasps and understands music, as the game is richer for the fan who understands or grasps the series or even the wonderful present season or the story of the great series of seasons, as the book is richer for the one who grasps and is aware of more than the present page or even the present chapter—so a life is a different matter for someone who does not suffer a mere moment to moment existence but begins to grasp what is going on.
A life is, in a sense, a long present span of existence. For each of us there is a story—a childhood, youth, maturity, old age, a history. For each there is a biography. But this biography—and here I suppose I approach the point, is a chapter in a longer story, in the story of a family or a community or a polity or even a culture. When we ask “what is it all about?” or “What is going on?” we are like chapters looking for our books, and it is only as we begin to see that that we begin to see the significance of what we are and what we do. We are moments or episodes in a continuing series, in an enduring present, chapters in a longer book, moments looking for their explanatory and encompassing contexts. How to discover that? How to find the answer to “what is it all about” in the discovery of “what is going on” is one of the great tasks of education.
We, assembled here, are living thru an episode in the present long running story of Western Civilization—an episode in the history of this Island, of Canada, to be sure, but that is merely part of the story of Europe, and the earlier bits that go back, to the Mediterranean and, for our purposes, to the image of humans at war on the plains of Troy.
I suppose you may be objecting to all this and suspicious of where it comes out and are thinking of how to defend the view that everything is simply a collection of points and instants and all the rest is illusion, that the past is already gone, nonexistent, unreal. But as long as you have allowed me to go this far, let me stress that our lives are to be seen as episodes in a longer story and that that story—not itself the whole story—is the story of western civilization and that the story line runs thru Greece and Rome to Europe and England to North America. It is a complex story with plots and sub-plots, themes and sub-themes, recurring motifs, cyclical movements, and even evolutionary tendencies. We are part of that story not because we have chosen to be but by the fact of our birth and nurture in which everything, every part of the furniture of mind and character is at least second hand, inherited, To think we have made it up is simply a parochial prejudice. We are, above all, inheritors and most of our creativity is marginally trivial. To think otherwise is the sin of pride. The play we are enacting did not begin when we opened our eyes. We are not the authors, we have not invented ourselves. At most we are part of the cast of characters challenged to play a role. If we reject this view and try to pretend we start with a clean slate, it is no wonder that we will soon complain of the meaninglessness of life and have problems of identity—just as one who thinks only the present note “exists”, who insists on hearing only that, may wonder where the melody, where all the music, has gone.
And now I ask you to tolerate another stretch of imagination. Imagine that there is a creature, a person, called Western Humanity enduring all this time, to whom all this history is biography, is happening, a sort of not-quite-immortal being, and that each generation is really only a sort of regeneration, like the growing of a new skin. A single complex enduring great person whose life is the enormous “present”. And now let us imagine that about every 30 years or so this person is stricken with amnesia, all memory wiped out. So we always seem to have on our hands, as part of the culture’s regenerative process, generation after generation of total amnesiacs. The problem for the survivors who have not yet been shed, the dying, the teaching, generation, (Yeats’ “Those dying generations—at their song…”)—the task of those who still linger, is, before they go, to restore awareness of identity. Every new generation mutters “Where am I, who am I, what am I doing here?” as it groggily rubs its eyes and stirs into awakening. What we can call liberal education is the art of restoring these amnesiacs to their senses. They have to learn the language all over again, how to read and write, how to behave, and what is going on, what the game is into which they have been born with minds somehow mislaid. How would you do it?
It is really not so far fetched. Every generation, every person born into this continuing cultural life knows nothing of it and the process of growing and learning, acquiring awareness of what is going on, may perhaps be more crudely described as initiation than as being brought to remember. In either case it involves being brought to grasp the story, being clued in to what is going on. It can take a short shallow form or a longer deeper form. The instruments of that initiation or recollection are the great moments , the great landmarks, the great clues, the high points of achievement. The minds that have given the culture—us—its great special shape are the Homers, the Platos, the Virgils, the Dantes, the Shakespeares, the Miltons… It all begins for us, at least, for the West, with Athens, that small town in Greece, and flows in an unbroken line from then to now, from them to us in a great living present. In this great present story, it is Socrates who dies rather than give up the freedom to question and examine. It is Athena who invents law courts to settle great moral conflicts that otherwise lead to never-ending war, teaching us to subordinate moral indignation to judicial verdict. It is Antigone who, in the face of that, asserts that you are to follow your moral judgment when it is in conflict with the law. It is the story of Oedipus, that great victim of child-abuse, who ends up killing his father and marrying his mother, suggesting that if the home is dangerous to the infant the infant may grow into a menace to a normal home, etc…
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that we are still working out, moving within the framework of the great dilemmas posed for us by the Greeks, we are still singing the song they struck up, acting out the roles in the story we are still enacting. If we do not know that, we hardly know what we are up to, what it is all about. We remain children who have not yet been let in on the whole story, our cultural memory has not yet been restored, our initiation into the game has not yet been fully completed. And those responsible for the cure of amnesia, for the generational regeneration will have failed in their primary responsibility. The Greek classics are like great clues left for us to decipher. They reveal us to ourselves.
And that, ultimately, is why we should study the Greeks. Not merely because they are great works of the human mind, not because, once we get the taste for them, they give us great pleasure. But because if you are interested in your identity that is where you get a good part of the answer. You are the present note in the prolonged existence of western civilization. You may not like that answer and may try to reject it. That is, you may have an identity crisis. But it is simply an inescapable fact. You can close your mind to it, but that will not change the fact; it will merely warp your mind.
We begin with the Greeks so you will know who you are, will begin to catch on to the game into which you have been born, will recover from the amnesiac ordeal and find your part to play in that enduring on-going story. I stress that this is really not a matter of choice. We are a living part of a living enduring western culture. That is a fact about us. You did not chose it any more than you chose your mother tongue, To hate it is a form of self-hatred. It is better to try to get to know it, to learn its movements and currents, to become familiar with its themes, and in the end to try to make the best of it. If you are going to look for your roots, you have to go back to the Greeks, or more broadly speaking, to the Mediterranean that adds Jerusalem and Rome to Athens.
It is from some such considerations as I have been trying to convey that the real answer to why study the Greeks gets its force. If you learn the Greek themes, few things after that will seem altogether strange. I remember a rather striking time in the 60’s in Berkeley. Flower children, street people, drugs, strange wild music, disorder, rebellion, anti-establishment energy. It seemed to be, claimed to be, something new under the sun. But to Berkeley students in a program not unlike yours it was, intriguingly, a familiar reenactment of the Bacchae of Euripides, in which, under the inspiration of Dionysus, those outside the Olympian establishment hurled themselves against the cold rational world that seemed to have no room for the passions. Just as other campus scenes were recognized by our students as a halloween reenactment of Paradise Lost. What we are living in and thru is a great Theme and Variations. And the theme is presented in Athens.
I suppose I should acknowledge that I am aware of the powerful challenges to this conception of education as helping us to discover what is going on and guiding us into taking part. First, perhaps, is the indignant rejection of the idea that a new generation does not start with a clean slate, free to make of the brave new world what it wills, but is born with debts and commitments, with hand-me downs, that the note is “continuation” and not beginning from scratch, that it is encumbered by the expectation of gratitude towards its generator. I am always amused when I read Paradise Lost by a great passage in which Satan, launching a rebellion against his creator, is reminded by another angel of his great debt to the creator who, after all, made him what he is. Where did you get that ridiculous idea? replies Satan. Who says we were created? As long as I can remember, I was there. I made myself. My generation was ungenerated. . . This satanic repudiation of the debt to the creator happens every year, and there are even educators who pander to it. I’m sure you recognize this mood of rejection of what exists, of the soiled, spoiled, sin-pervaded parental world and the determination to start all over, afresh, on a new game. (Or at least, as Electra swears, to be better than her mother…) But, alas, the world does not present you with a clean slate.
Or, discovering that our culture is a story full of oppression, unfairness, injustice, a determination to turn ones back on it and find or make another that is not oppressive of class or race or gender and that, therefore, education should steer clear of the landmarks of the oppressive culture that, if we attend to them, will warp our minds and souls. But the path of reform or regeneration leads through, not around, the mastery of the powers of our culture—through the incarnation, not the avoidance or rejection, of those powers.
Or the objection that emphasis on a particular cultural life is an explicit or implicit repudiation of the value of other strains. There are, of course, other great cultures into which members are awakened. It would be stupidly provincial to deny that fact. But a deep initiation into ones own, whatever it happens to be, is a precondition of everything. Just as a mastery of ones mother tongue is generally a precondition of a mastery of language, and not an assertion that one’s mother tongue is superior to other languages.
There are, I am sure, a host of other objections, but, on this occasion, I will not stop to pay my respects to them…
Significance is not a cosmic but a human notion; it is not to be found by turning away from the human drama we are born into. We are born into a world of games, of styles, of ways of life, and it may be futile to yearn for another game, as if in that game everything will be better. I once characterized this yearning as based on the hope that if only we had a different mother tongue all the mistakes in our language would not be made—if we spoke French or Chinese instead of English.
The conception of the human person as basically a creature of his culture, not someone standing outside of it free to take it or leave it is strikingly expressed in one of the great parables in Plato’s Republic. In what is usually called the Myth of the Metals, that I take in fact to be the real heart of the Republic, Plato develops what I think of as the conception of the marsupial birth of the human being. We are born in two stages. When we emerge from the womb we are, of course, incomplete and unviable. We are then placed in the second womb, the community, or polis, the marsupial or kangaroo pouch, in which the crucial stage of development takes place. We are equipped with our language, habits, values—everything distinctively human—living a sort of limbo-like existence as minors—until we complete our growth, and emerge or are born as adults. The community is, in this birth process, parental—and our fellow-sharers of that womb are siblings or fellow citizens who are to carry on the life of the community. Note, it is not a mere handing on or transmission of a culture as if one is delivering a message. It is a carrying on of a community’s life, in which each is to discover and play a proper part. Thus the art of education is the art of bringing a human being to full birth, it is an obstetric art. In that spirit, I have suggested that reading the Greeks is part of the process of bringing to birth a person fully aware of his identity. The myth of the metals is one of the great creation parables at the heart of western culture and a clue to what education is all about.
I would like to supplement this Greek parable with our other great Mediterranean parable of the creation or growth of a human adult. Adam and Eve are seen as a young couple living not so much in a wild garden as in a model Kingdom. There is a ruler. There is Law. There are subjects living in a situation they did not create, with tasks or functions. They are told to perform their caretaking tasks and to use their best judgment. But there is one thing they are not to do. They are not to presume to know about good and evil, to presume to act on their own judgment against the Law. The story as developed by Milton has Eve considering that the law makes no sense. Why not know about good and evil, to better serve the good and to avoid evil? The command, to avoid the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she thought, made no sense. What made no sense did not deserve respect, an unreasonable law need not be obeyed, and, in a fateful moment she, with Adam following her lead, disobeyed the law, put their own judgment of good and evil above the law. As we all know, that moment of disobedience to the command of the parental creator when that command seemed to make no sense, that constantly repeated moment, is one of the great crises in human development. It is the moment in which having learned to use one’s reason the children turn their reason to the evaluation of the law and demand that the law make sense to them if they are to obey it. That is, having been taught to think, the pupils, the children, think about the system within which they have been raised, which has shaped their character, subject it to criticism, and, wisely or not, decide to make up their own minds about good and evil, to follow their own moral judgment. And at that crucial point they cease being children living in the parental garden and must go out into the world beyond the nest, a world in which they will experience pain, suffering, and carry on life as they think best in a world they did not make, with what they have learned in the garden of their childhood, and must try, after the discovery, in due course, that their children are capable of murder, to recreate a rule of law all over again.
These two great creation myths lie at the beginning of the story of which we are the present chapter. The reminder that when we are born as adults we emerge from the second womb, the community, that has restored us to our senses by giving us our culture—our minds, our characters—and that it is only by virtue of this action by the community that we are really born at all, and that we owe a filial debt of gratitude to our real parental creators. The popular denial of these facts of life expressed in some forms of individualism is an act both of amnesia and ingratitude.
And the reminder that, nevertheless, we must, if we are to reach childhood’s end, turn our minds, thus shaped, to a critical examination of the received law, to subject it to the ordeal of reason.
These two notes, appreciation and criticism, go hand in hand and need each other. Appreciation without criticism perpetuates the docility of the childlike inheritor. Criticism without appreciation will doom us to the futility of pandemonium—as Satan’s rejection of the established order resulted only in the recreation of a feeble parody of that order. So initiation into the life of our culture requires that we do both, incarnate the powers of the culture and cultivate the habits of criticism that are themselves the habits of that culture. Both of these begin, for us, with the Greeks, and that is why an education that does not begin with the Greeks is a bit like listening to Bach’s Goldberg variations without listening to the great opening statement of the theme of which the variations are variations.
So among all the possible answers to “why the Greeks” I would rest on the fact that The Greek Episode—the theme of a community developing the arts of inquiry and government and self-government moving tragically, almost irresistibly to its own self destruction, struggling to understand freedom and authority, law and conscience, selfishness, ambition, and selfless devotion to the common good—that this episode states with clarity and depth the great theme upon which our current life is merely a variation in the song or story of the culture within which we play out our transient turn.
Implicit in all this is perhaps a rejection of the view of Progress or at least of progress in everything. There are, as we know, at least two realms. There is the realm in which we seek knowledge, the world of science and of technology, in which there is clearly improvement, so that the ancients may have little or nothing to teach us about physics or biology or geology. But that fact of Progress in the world of knowledge does not extend to something that may be quite beyond knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom, and it may very well be the case that the pursuit of knowledge is not the path to wisdom–that we are not in fact wiser about life , about parents and children, about individual and community, than the ancients, than the Greek and Mediterranean generators. Technology and other trivial things change, but it may be that on fundamental matters there is no Progress, merely the playing out of variations on a theme—that on fundamental human concerns, time does not really matter. The world of the Iliad is a world at war. There are spears and chariots. Our modern technology provides us with different weapons. But no one can read the Iliad without recognizing that the human beings on the plains of ancient Troy are the same as those recently deployed nearby around the Persian Gulf. In the moral domain, the domain of wisdom, as contrasted with the domain of science and knowledge, there may indeed be no progress but simply the perpetual movement between the demands of the political and the demands of the domestic, between public and private, between, as in the case of the Trojan war, the expedition and the city, the quest and the home. To say that in the moral domain there may be no progress is not necessarily a judgment of despair; it may merely be the recognition that on fundamental matters there is not much change in the human situation—that the vices and virtues are permanent features of the human scene, that there may be a deep human nature appearing from time to time in a new wardrobe, but fundamentally unchanged. This may even suggest that a common human nature expresses itself in all cultures, western and other, and that as we come to understand our own, we can begin to understand others, but that we will never understand others if we do not understand our own. So that if we begin with the Greeks we may not only cure our own cultural amnesia but may even begin to grasp the common human basis underlying all human culture. That is why, I suggest, that we begin with our great opening act, in the midst of things, on the plains of Troy where people are displaying all of human nature while dying in the odd quixotic quest to recapture an elusive and faithless beauty.
This essay, based on a lecture delivered at the inauguration of the Malaspina College program at the end of Sept 1991, originally appeared in The Beleaguered College, Institute of Governmental Studies Press, 1997.