BMCR 1998.05.13

Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom

, , Who killed Homer? : the demise of classical education and the recovery of Greek wisdom. New York: Free Press, 1998. xxiii, 290 pages. ISBN 9780684844534. $15.00.

Education was once conceived almost exclusively as the cultivation of values and tastes that distinguished the learned from the masses, the culturally enlightened elite from the functionally literate Lumpen. Now, however, we inhabit a world transformed both by expanding scientific horizons and by the agendas of new social and intellectual movements, from the critique of unfettered capitalism and the “universal” codes of the West to debates over endemic problems of class, sexism, racism, pollution, and homophobia. Over the last twenty years, scholars influenced by these developments have clashed, as cultural historian Andrew Ross has observed, “with a reactionary consensus of left and right, each unswervingly loyal to their respective narratives of decline: charges of post-sixties fragmentation and academification from unreconstructed voices on the left, and warnings of doom and moral degeneracy from the Cassandras of the right.”1 Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath’s Who Killed Homer? draws on the rhetoric of both camps, combining fire-and-brimstone denunciations of the ethical failings of contemporary academics with bitter words against politically and theoretically informed scholarship of all kinds. Through this mixture run broad streaks of the peculiarly American anti-intellectual populism that De Tocqueville first observed in the nineteenth century, combined with a pessimistic millenarianism characteristic of many late twentieth century voices: as the authors see it, American life is being transmogrified by a “fluid and corrupting process that affects all of us everywhere” into an existence of “quasi-voluntary servitude … [where] millions of voters live from fix to fix, hooked on the dole, lounging listlessly before Geraldo, Ricki, and Montel” (xxi, 115). This is only natural, they say, in a society whose radical political and social revolutions have destroyed the community, the family, and the very concept of personal responsibility. In a phrase, we have abandoned the Greeks.

Hanson and Heath seek to cure our ills in four ways: first, they attack the current state of Classics (and, by implication, the humanities in general); second, they blame the decline of the field on classicists themselves, especially those whom they call “the politically correct.” Next, they argue that, despite recent efforts to undermine or deny the Greek legacy, the Greeks were indeed great, and must be acknowledged as such; and finally, they recommend specific strategies for revamping the discipline of Classics and the American university system on their own terms, with an emphasis on a strict core curriculum (212ff.), the early tracking of students unsuited for higher education into trade school (211), and a newly sharpened focus on the wisdom of the Greeks, which “alone inaugurates the Western experience” (88, emphasis theirs).

The putative targets of the book’s attack on recent scholarship in Classics are scholars engaged in feminist studies, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, narratology, and rhetorical studies. Their efforts to critique and demystify Greek and Roman antiquity make them, in the authors’ words, “traitors” to the cause of classical education (82), who have placed the dismembered limbs of the Greeks on a silver platter and offered them up on the altars of high theory and selfish careerism. Once the reader has sliced through the thick layer of familiar neo-conservative slogans that coats this book, however, she or he will find that recent trends in classical scholarship are not the things that really disgruntle Victor Hanson and John Heath. In fact, the book is driven by their conclusion, born of disillusionment after years in the field, that the Greeks, and “Greek wisdom,” play at best a marginal role in the contemporary American cultural landscape. How to explain this appalling situation? Most classicists, they say, respond that “television, the corporations, videos, the economy did it to us…. Yet these are but the age-old wages of Classics: those who study the ancient world have always borne the burden of demonstrating to the living the importance and relevance of the long-ago dead… But … the academy has for three decades now offered no response to the usual challenges” (6). Instead, we ignore our students to loll at conferences, wallow in a deluge of research grants and fellowships, produce unreadable, over-specialized research, and generally violate the public trust.

Hanson and Heath are right to identify the last half of the twentieth century as a time of radical social upheaval, though those scholars who remain politically active and aware will find their pessimistic history of the sixties tendentious. But in their claim that classicists either made no effort to respond to these changes, or, even worse, that we began to tailor our research and course offerings to pander to the “increasingly relative” values of American society and academe (xxi), they abandon the problems of Classics and American intellectual discourse at large in favor of a foggy discourse on contemporary moral decay. From the outset, I think, we should question a history of the late twentieth century that primarily ascribes its major social transformations to an ethical cause. Not that this kind of history-writing is exceptional: in this respect, Hanson and Heath are indeed the heirs of the classical tradition, from the elder Seneca to Tacitus, Libanius to Gibbon. Nonetheless, there is little point in exploiting the rhetorical effects of the ethical account of change while ignoring the complex and deeply rooted economic and political issues that lie beneath it.

Instead, the language and behaviors associated with “political correctness” bear the brunt of Hanson and Heath’s attack. These, they say, are crippling two important aspects of the Greek legacy: free speech and the capacity to distinguish right from wrong. “Faced with a monster like Caligula,” they complain, “our teachers, psychologists, and lawyers would deny that he was morally evil, asking instead ‘Was Gaius ever really hugged?'” (43). Homer, by contrast, should be admired for his accurate labeling of spades as spades: neither the poet nor his Greek audience had time for the extenuations of disability, old age, bad upbringing, or social maladjustment that corrupt modern moral sensibility and legal judgments. “Homer’s men say, ‘He is better by far than you.’ No ‘imprecise allusion’ there” (50). Here, the authors’ satirical dismissal of complex recent developments in legal and social ethics blinds them to what even the first-time reader of Homer observes: that the opinion expressed in this line speaks to the tensions at the very heart of the Iliad, as well as all the Greek poetry drawing on the Homeric tradition. Who is the best man, in Homer, Sophocles, or Euripides? Is it Achilles? Hector? Odysseus? Ajax? And by what criteria do the authors, or their readers, pass judgment? Most Greek authors, I think, address this question in by no means so simple a fashion as Hanson and Heath would like us to believe.

In the same section, the authors criticize a recent translation of excerpts from the Bible, which, in their view, weakens, bowdlerizes, and distorts the text by substituting gender- and race-neutral language for the original “hurtful” words: “apparently the sensitive academic is equipped to do what God could not” (50). Having quoted from the translation’s introduction, in which the editors explain that they have “corrected” references to Judaism in order to avoid imprecise allusions to the crucifixion, Hanson and Heath go on to say that “for good or evil,” the matter of the crucifixion is clear: “readers know who did it and why” (50). As with their quotation of Homer, this is a curious thing to say of an issue that has received so much scholarly attention precisely because of its lack of clarity. In the 1940s, the French historian Jules Isaac argued that the synoptic gospels wrongly blamed the Jews for the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus; in 1974, with her book Faith and Fratricide, Rosemary Ruether further asserted that anti-Judaism was an intrinsic aspect of Christian self-affirmation—and hence of the ideology driving the composition of the Christian scriptures. 2 Hanson and Heath, because they are so deeply invested in proving the transparency of ancient texts, here categorically deny the possibility that the gospels’ account of the crucifixion is complicated by prejudice or other political motives. Let me add, from my own perspective, that there are compelling arguments to be made in favor of retaining the sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic language of the scriptures and other historical texts. As the theoretician Rosi Braidotti recently wrote, one of the central issues at stake for feminism and other politicized intellectual movements is how to inscribe the complexities of the historical past into our desire for change—emphatically not the other way round. 3 Indeed, the task as she sees it would be impossible if the texts of the past were rewritten in accordance with the reforms of the present.

The authors’ tendency to simplify matters of literary discourse is reflected in their representation of classical social structure, and specifically of the “average citizens” or “yeomen” of Greece who were the “spiritual forerunners” of our own middle class (32-33, 45-46, 109ff.). 4 Even if they are correct in their assumption that the middle class was represented in Athenian texts as the primary force shaping Athenian politics and society, they need only look to contemporary America for insight into the power of literary discourse to camouflage harsh socio-economic realities. 5 However, this is only one of the many points at which the book denies the complex interactions between text and society. The status of Greek women, for instance, while admitted to be “sadly” inferior to that of men, is in their view virtually balanced out by the appearance of strong female characters in Greek art and literature: Medea and Clytemnestra, Iphigeneia, Alcestis, Antigone, and Penelope. As for the gods, “the sensuous, proud Venus de Milo is no Penthouse titillatrix” (103). The fact that such characters exist proves to Hanson and Heath’s satisfaction that the Greeks had the capacity to think critically about their own gender hierarchies, and even, in some cases, to invert them (103-5). But these “inversions” turn out to be the byproducts of superficial literary analysis. The authors say, for example, that “there is no doubt that Medea was an evil woman,” but Jason is far worse, the most “dislikable figure in classical literature” (103); Clytemnestra killed her husband, but, after all, he isn’t particularly dramatically memorable (105). Can we, from this evidence, safely assume that the playwrights’ sympathies lie with their heroines? Even if these characters get all the good lines, as Hanson and Heath point out, we should recall that eloquence not only fails to justify criminal behavior in ancient drama, but rather tends to enhance its frightfulness—especially in the mouths of women. Further, we may question (as have many scholars for the past three decades) whether the representation of characters like Medea undercuts traditional notions of femininity and inferiority, or instead highlights certain elements of “the feminine” in the Greek cultural imaginary, from uncontrolled passion to a close association with the natural and the supernatural. In any case, it does not seem at all obvious that the compelling nature of these representations is sufficient to make careful study of them unnecessary, let alone to make the Greeks the first travelers “on the long road to full egalitarianism” (106).

Throughout history, the authors say, women have never enjoyed equal rights and responsibilities. At least in Greece, “the veiled, mutilated, and secluded were not the norm” (57). Why waste time, then, as feminist scholarship does, “merely demarcating the exact nature of the sexism of the Greeks and the West” (102)? From their point of view, in fact, the real legacy of feminism is the destruction of the values of family and community: “unlike us, the Greeks knew that before a utopia (like those of Plato or Aristotle) of gender equality could be realized, the citizenry first had to figure out how to eat regularly, maintain safety, and stay free of foreign attack” (109). The book’s jokes at feminists’ expense ignore the realities of contemporary feminist activism, which has exerted itself to address, among others, problems of labor, poverty, education, and world hunger. “Yes, college louts should not have sex with coeds who have imbibed alcoholic beverages. Yes, we should have more female mathematicians in the university. Yes, the girls’ softball stadium should be as impressive as the boys’. But any Greek would warn that an entire subculture of millions infected with disease, addicted to drugs, and left stranded without hope of employment or rudimentary education is society’s far greater problem” (110). Feminists, apparently, had better wait for the eradication of poverty and the establishment of global peace before they try to solve the comparatively minor problem of gender equality. 6

What Camille Paglia calls in a recent review the authors’ “flights of savage indignation” are not limited to their political commentary. “The authors boldly name names,” she says, and this is certainly true. 7 The third chapter consists largely of excerpts from recent classical articles and books, taken out of context and very briefly critiqued, using standards outlined in Victor Hanson’s recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times. In that article we hear that “what has nearly killed classical learning is not too little, but rather too much, scholarly information about the unscholarly Greeks”: classical scholarship consists of “high-flown jargon,” inferior to the comments of Hanson’s own undergraduates. 8 With this attitude, it is hardly surprising that Hanson and Heath find most scholarly writing useless; what is most striking is the specific tone of their dismissal: “our own generation moved on to reduce the most influential heroic narrative in the history of civilization to a bog of gender-reversals, narrative loop-holes, architectures, centripetal tendencies, and homoerotic discourses. We hid from the world Homer’s harsh honesty and uncluttered vision of human insignificance and ultimate dignity… How did we manage … to make Homer silly and absolutely dull?” (141). The authors cannot have it both ways here. If classicists are responsible for the destruction of the field because we care nothing for making ancient texts relevant to modernity, then our work would float free of connections to our culture. But, as the authors themselves complain, this is not the case: they recognize that when classicists engaged in feminist, gay, and cultural studies unpack the ways in which ancient texts speak to current beliefs and practices, they are doing so partly in response to the cultural imperatives of postmodernity.

If one of the ways in which the Greek intellectual tradition continues to influence twentieth-century discourse is its valorization of self-criticism, then Hanson and Heath, as the professed defenders of Greek values, should have taken a closer look at their own insistence on the unadulterated greatness of the Greeks and the transparent nature of their cultural production. For they insist that theoretically informed cultural and philological approaches are meaningful only when they “celebrate the classical texts” (141). In general, the authors’ views on theory reveal gaps of understanding that, in my view, seriously compromise their critiques of individual scholars in Chapter Three. Take their careless remarks on social constructionism: “language and social behavior are socially constructed, and therefore unrelated” (52). This statement entirely misses the point, and the power, of constructionism as a mode of analysis, which lies precisely in its recognition of the complexities of the relations between the linguistic and the social. Constructionists are above all concerned with the ideological grids that map out the production and organization of difference and the hierarchies arising from difference in linguistic and social discourse: they argue that “naturally” self-evident terms such as “woman,” for example, are generated by and through material, legal, ideological and other discursive practices. 9

One of the more interesting aspects of this passionate, muddled work is its constant vacillation between two very different target audiences. In their attempts to negotiate between the two, Hanson and Heath might have learned useful lessons from rhetorical discourse (the study of which they decry in this book). But for whom is their work intended? The first and most obvious answer is other classicists, who might be expected to be familiar not only with the scholarly works actually cited in the text, but also with the multitude of vague references to theory, miscellaneous -isms, and other “academic” issues that are invoked throughout the book without the help of a glossary or bibliography. The other notional audience here, however, consists of the admirers of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, John Silber’s Straight Shooting: What’s Wrong With America and How to Fix It, and similar books (approving blurbs from the latter are featured on the back cover of Who Killed Homer?). Hanson and Heath are not unaware of this connection, to the point that they try to distinguish their efforts from previous critiques of contemporary American education (252-6); it strikes me, however, that their attempt to reach this audience may explain the most egregious act of intellectual question-begging in the book: their simplistic representation of the impact of Greece and Greek thought throughout the history of the west.

Hanson and Heath love the Greeks. They also believe, though they never make a consistent effort to prove this, that Western culture is the direct and unadulterated descendant of the Greeks. The authors do not speculate on the fascinating complexities of the Greek influence on, say, the American constitution, notions of private property and consensual government, the state of modern science and philosophy, or the existence of a middle class. Instead, we hear that from the greenhouse effect to the Internet, “we can thank the paradigm of the Greeks” (75). Or do they mean “the West”? On the same page, the authors claim that the “entire freight of Western civilization … has spread through the blood and iron of Western infantry” (75). We hear again and again of “the Greeks and the West,” blended together in a curious and undefined mixture (e.g. 97, 101, 212). Christianity, it may come as somewhat of a surprise to hear, is “Classical, unmistakably Western in spirit” (127), while the worst kinds of oppression of women are not (106ff.). Even though gunpowder was not a Greek or Western invention, it was only fully exploited when it arrived in Europe, so it too may be treated as Western (73). These are inexcusable, unscholarly, and dishonest lapses in a book that purports to make a serious argument for the relevance of the Greeks. In its fast and loose ideological world, we might assume that algebra, common law, the Magna Carta, capitalism, and the industrial state are all Greek. Here they are, permanent and righteous elements of Euro-American life: why not call them Greek?

To explain the all-encompassing nature of their referential language, Hanson and Heath invoke a vague, unexamined, and disturbing notion of ineffable cultural identity. Often, these passages are truistic to the point of absurdity, but they reveal quite invidious cultural presumptions. “Something explains why an American or a German who now picks up the Medea or Thucydides’ history immediately recognizes something modern, if not resonant with his own experience, in a way not true of Aztec sacrifice, Chinese poetry, the Koran, or hieroglyphics. That something—not race but culture—is a very unusual tradition that begins with the Greeks and persists with us today” (27). Now, throughout the book, the authors claim that the Greeks cannot be viewed as racist (nor, in their view, truly sexist or classist) because they did not essentialize their judgments; that is, they allegedly based their beliefs in their superiority in their cultural achievements rather than their ethnic identity or their place in the natural order of things. But observe the slippage between the “cultural” and the “natural” in the following passage: “The Western paradigm is not automatic and it did not appear to the Greeks ex nihilo—nor did it survive to the present without centuries of excursus, interruption, and assault” (36). So there is, we find, something “natural” in the Western paradigm, “unchanging absolutes” (39) that seem to exist outside culture. Who has access to this paradigm? The authors have already denied that race or gender is a factor. Geographical location? But they have little to say about modern Europe; and as we shall see below, America is the true keeper of the Greek flame, despite the fact that it lies far from the Mediterranean. Well, what, exactly? Part of the answer lies in passages like this:

“[E]ven the most vociferous academic critic of the West would prefer to fly Swissair, check into the Mayo Clinic, scream obscenities in Times Square, run a red light in Omaha, swim with his girlfriend on Santa Cruz beach, or live next to a U.S. army base in Texas rather than board a Congolese airliner, leave his appendix in Managua General, use Allah’s name in vain in downtown Jeddah, jump the curb in Singapore, wear a bikini and Speedos in Iran, or vacation near the home of the Korean National Guard. Why? The Greeks” (57).

If Hanson and Heath did not intend their readers to interpret such claims in terms of race, they should have written them more carefully. At the very least, they should have given more thought to the connections, if any in fact exist, between the advantages of western modernity enumerated in this and other passages and the life of the Greeks. Indeed, how many average Hellenes could arrange easy and cheap transport all over the globe, enjoy reliable access to excellent medical care, offend their fellow citizens and the gods in public without retribution, enjoy the beaches of Attica with a free and enfranchised girlfriend, or happily inhabit a village in a war zone? However overheated and jingoistic it may be, the authors’ rhetorical style does not disguise the fact that nowhere in their book do they make a historically plausible case for crediting the Greeks with Swiss technology or modern surgical techniques, let alone classical liberalism or the emancipation of women.

It is not uncommon for angry books to be self-contradictory and hyperbolic. The problem with Who Killed Homer?, however, is that nearly every page implicitly denies the liberal ideals that the book purports to uphold. Why, if the authors are self-identified liberals who praise the Greek separation of the pursuit of knowledge from religious and political authority, do they color their own rhetoric with religious and conservative overtones? It seems neither intellectually responsible nor politically productive to set up today’s scholars as the amoral defilers of the classical tradition, and to lament the demise of conventional morality without, at the same time, considering the heavy costs of our past. Given all this, I think that it is inaccurate to conclude that Classics “grandees,” and still less assistant professors looking for a job, deserve the blame for the current decline in the study of the humanities. The issue of research and teaching, for example, about which Hanson and Heath have much to say, is an excellent example of the failure, not of faculty, but of the American university as an institution to address its own changing situation. It is a common observation worth repeating in this context that university teachers confront ever larger numbers of students whose prior education is often deficient, and whose reasons for attending college are ill-defined; meanwhile, however, the “publish or perish” mentality of the old academic system remains firmly in place. Real issues such as this—the enormous economic and social pressures that have shaped the institutional structures of our schools, our aspirations as scholars, and the thought-world of our students—require a kind of serious and concentrated analysis that Hanson and Heath are unwilling or unable to provide. 10 Instead, they turn to the time-honored solutions of desperate men: talk of decay and the creation of scapegoats. This, in their book, is what feminists, deconstructionists, and all the rest really represent, no more and no less.

1. Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture, Routledge: 1989, p. 211.

2. John G. Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity, Oxford: 1983, p. 20.

3. Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects : Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, New York: 1994, p. 20.

4. V. Hanson has defended his views in The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization, New York: 1995. For discussion of the existence of the middle class in Greece, see Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton: 1989, pp. 27-30 and accompanying bibliography.

5. Political discourse, too, often obscures deep-rooted patterns of civil injustice by hyping middle class achievement, however minor in reality that may be. See William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears, New York: 1996, pp. 196ff.

6. Here, for purposes of comparison, are activities of the Seattle chapter of NOW, as enumerated in their spring newsletter. Along with affirmative action, abortion rights, the roles of women in the military and in the industrial workplace, and Take Back the Night marches, they organize political action on homeless shelters, the criminalization of hate crimes, education reform, domestic violence, workers’ rights, welfare reform, handgun control, AIDS activism, immigrant protection, economic reform, the need for safe and affordable childcare, and health care.

7. Camille Paglia, review, The Washington Post, Sunday, March 29, 1998.

8. Op-Ed page, The New York Times, Saturday 18 April.

9. Essentialists, by contrast, claim that the natural is repressed by the social. See, for example, Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference, London: 1990, pp. 2-6.

10. Some productive contributions to this debate, across the political spectrum, include Michael Bérebé and Cary Nelson, Higher Education Under Fire: Politics, Economics, and the Crisis of the Humanities, New York 1995; Bill Readings, The University in Ruins, Cambridge 1997; Cary Nelson, Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, New York 1997; Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity, Cambridge 1997.