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Who Killed Homer?

They were supposed to keep the Greek and Roman flame burning. Instead, the authors argue, today's classicists have trashed their own field, squandering the legacy that shaped Western civilization and destroying a noble profession.

Blair Drawson

By John Heath and Victor Davis Hanson

This winter, a new crop of PhD students in classics will troop off to academic conferences in search of teaching posts. These would-be professors of Greek and Latin have done exactly what they were told and read precisely what was assigned. Most of them can scan hexameters, know something of rhetoric and ideology and are ready to quote French theorists like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. They think, talk, act and even dress like those who have taught them.

And therein lies the problem. The young scholars who are supposed to explicate the origins and complexity of the West, whose fresh blood is needed to invigorate a fading field, too often have been taught very little about the Greeks -- and act and think like Greeks rarely at all. The public will never know who these obscure academics are, read what they write or be enlightened by what they say.

So many PhDs in classics, so few jobs. So little teaching of the Greeks, so much impenetrable writing about them. So many new theories and cleverly entitled talks, and still almost no one is listening -- because there are almost no undergraduate students. Why? Because there is really no interest in the Greeks in or out of the university.

Classics is about dead.

You object that the disappearance of a tiny world of cloistered professors is not intrinsically significant. Must you suffer once again through some petty turf-war between pampered PhDs, a mock-epic struggle of nocturnal creatures croaking and scratching at each other for their tiny pad on an evaporating pond, one final Battle of Frogs and Mice? Who cares?

Yet every American should care. The demise of classics means more than the implosion of an inbred academic discipline, more than the disappearance of one more bookosaurus here and there. For chained to this sinking academic bureaucracy called classics are the ideas, the values, the vision of classical Greece and Rome. These are the ideas and values that have shaped and defined Western civilization, a vision of life that has ironically come under increasing attack here in the elite universities of the West just as its mutated form is metastasizing throughout the globe. Very few in America now know much about the origins of the West in ancient Greece -- and our citizens are moving further from the central philosophical and ethical tenets that are so necessary if we are to understand and manage the leisure, affluence and freedom of the West.

This ignorance of Greek wisdom should be of crucial interest to every American -- not because the West is being supplanted by some global multiculturalism (as so many academics proclaim), but quite the opposite: because its institutions and material culture are now overwhelming the world. The Greeks -- and the Greeks alone -- bequeathed us constitutional government, individual rights, freedom of expression, an open economy, civilian control of the military, separation of religious and political authority, private property, free scientific inquiry and open dissent. And for better or worse, these are the things most on this earth now desire.

But it is foolish -- and dangerous -- to embrace these conventions of the West without understanding that the Greeks also insisted that such energy was to be monitored and restrained by a host of cultural protocols that have nearly disappeared: civic responsibility, philanthropy, a world view that is rather absolute, a belief that life is not nice, but tragic and ephemeral (Greek words both), a chauvinism of the middle class and an insistence on self-criticism. The death of the Greeks means an erasure of an entire way of looking at the world, a way diametrically opposite to the new gods that now drive America: therapeutics, moral relativism, blind allegiance to progress and the glorification of material culture.

From Thucydides' account of the senseless murder of poor schoolboys in the backwater town of Mycallessos to Euripides' desperate Pentheus, Medea and Phaedra, we learn from the Greeks that man is, well, man. He's an insecure creature, in his aboriginal state not entirely vile but nonetheless capable of great evil should the custom, tradition and law of his city-state, the polis, ever give way.

For the Greeks, natural impulse unchecked by the constricting bridles and bits of law, tradition and civic order leads not to truth or justice -- much less liberation and self-fulfillment -- but more likely to a holocaust. Heraclitus says that people must fight for their law as though for the city wall. Both keep out the enemy within and without. The city-state was a social organization that curbed desire without stifling initiative, demanding responsibilities in return for granting limited rights. It was not a therapeutic institution or all-encompassing belief system that could free us by reinventing the very temper of man himself -- the aim of fascism, communism and, increasingly, modern democracy alike.

Yet the nature of this life-giving polis -- the relationship between the community and the citizen -- was also the chief topic of scrutiny for Greek artists and intellectuals. What is so often misunderstood about classical literature is that almost all of it was composed as a critique of Greek society and the very values that allowed it to flourish. The most important legacy of classical antiquity is this uniquely Western urge to pick apart everything -- every institution, tradition and individual. Only in this way do ideas change at all. Cynicism, skepticism, parody, invective and satire are all Greek and Latin words -- a rich vocabulary of public and private dissent unequaled in non-Western languages. The macho world created by Homer, the smug polis of Aeschylus, even Virgil's holy Rome -- all are held up for review, and none emerges unscathed.

The Greek legacy of philosophical and scientific inquiry imparts to its adherents the terrible strength to change -- or to destroy -- the existing intellectual and material environment radically, almost instantaneously. The Greeks bequeathed us the tools to alter the physical and spiritual universe, either for good or evil. They also gave us the means to curb our basest instincts in order to provide for the common good.

Strange it is, then, that the Greeks who started it all are so little known in modern America. Now, at the very moment in our history when the Greeks might be helping to remind us who we are, why we got here and where we should go, only a handful of Americans know anything about them.

Those who study the ancient world have always borne the burden of demonstrating to the living the relevance of the long ago dead. Until recently the missionaries of classics, energized by the texts they read and the art they studied, always met -- and took a perverse delight in -- that challenge. But the academy has for three decades now offered little response to the call for relevance.

More than that. Our present generation of classicists helped to destroy classical education. Yes, what they wrote and said was silly, boring and mostly irrelevant, worse even than the arid (but often valuable) philology that drove away so many undergraduates in the 1960s and '70s. Classicists now, along with the best social constructionists, moral relativists and literary theorists in the social sciences and comparative literature departments, "privilege," "uncover," "construct," "cruise," "queer," "subvert" and "deconstruct" the "text."

But while this academic cant may be forgivable -- like all fads, it too will pass -- what classicists did to the Greeks themselves is not. Our generation of classicists, faced with the rise of Western culture beyond the borders of the West, was challenged to explain the importance of Greek thought and values in an age of electronic information, mass entertainment and crass materialism. Here they failed utterly. Worse, the dereliction of the academics grew out of a deliberate desire to adulterate, even to destroy, the Greeks; to demonstrate that, as classicists, they knew best just how awful, how sexist, racist and exploitative the Greeks really were. This was a lie and a treason that brought short-term dividends to their careers, but helped to destroy a noble profession in the process.

Classics was now strangely led by individuals who saw their field as but another stepladder by which to enter the realm of a professional elite. Departments of Greek and Latin were reinvented as places of reduced teaching loads, extended leaves, think-tank hopping, conferences, endowed chairs, grants and petty power politics -- often decorated with a patina of trendy leftist ideology or neoconservative scorn, depending on how the volatile winds of budgets and funding sources blew. Teaching and advising students, offering courses on broad topics, writing for a general audience and exploring what the Greeks actually said rather than how they said it -- all were abandoned for a little prestige and a handful of perks, the petty recompense for their wholesale destruction of Greek wisdom.

All of this would be depressing enough if the new multiculturalist classicists actually believed what they wrote. But not one of them (despite the fashionable rhetoric) really wishes to adulterate our core values from the Greeks, to live under indigenous pre-Columbian ideas of government, Arabic protocols for female behavior, Chinese canons of medical ethics, Islamic traditions of church and state, Japanese ideals of race or Native-American notions of private property. The very tools that today's critics in the university use to attack Western culture and to deny the Greeks their progeny are themselves inevitably Western. No multiculturalist thinks his academic freedom is oppressive, her notion of a university separate from the church and government burdensome, or her presentation of research and opinion in journals free from state censorship "hegemonic," "patriarchal" or "racist." All make their arguments in the comfort (material, psychological and legal) of Western institutions that guarantee their rights -- rights that descend directly from the Greek vision of the world, rights that now incidentally include guaranteed employment for life. Intellectually naive at best, this form of academic multiculturalism is hypocritical to the core and entirely alien to Greek wisdom.

Classicists -- especially classicists -- should know better. Instead, entire departments are even now diluting and perverting the study of the Greeks by metamorphosing into ancient Mediterranean studies programs. But the Egyptians, Sumerians, Phoenicians and Carthaginians were not the Greeks. The choice between the Greeks and these other civilizations is stark: to have an assembly or a Pharaoh, three classes or two, a Herodotus or a court toady with a chisel. You can turn the intelligentsia loose to write poetry and attack the elite -- or make them build tombs, flatter The One and incise obsequious pictographs. A man can own a piece of land outright or hoe on the Great King's estate. Make the rich endow plays and build a navy, or allow them to carve up and possess outright the entire countryside. Listen to "Zeus is no more" or decapitate the haughty who do not bow to Tut. Ostracize, audit, ridicule, publicize and investigate, or wait for the midnight bang on the door. In the end, that choice determines whether young children have a better chance to eat, live free of disease, grow up safe from mutilation and capricious death, see and describe the world as they choose -- and enroll in the modern university to learn how awful that entire culture of their childhood actually was.

Our hope, then, is that when classics falls, the Dark Age of Greek will give way in our children's age to a new Greek era, one accessible to, and the property of, everyone, more in the spirit of the true Greek polis. New leaves in a different spring will sprout, for the roots of Greek are deep and cannot be so easily infected.


John Heath, MA '80, PhD '82, and Victor Davis Hanson, PhD '80, adapted this essay from their book, Who Killed Homer? Used by permission of the Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.

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