This year the Ingersoll Foundation has decided to present the Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters to a professor of classics. Amidst joy and gratitude, this will bring to the fore some of the uneasiness that has been associated with the word and concept of “classics” for a long time, an uneasiness that seems to shift between defense, nostalgia, and resignation. Indeed the claim implied in the concept of “classical” has come under continuous attack during the whole of this century, and if from time to time the attacks seem to die away, this may be due to the impression that the victim is finally dead.
Apparently the claim of “classical” is difficult to maintain for any cultural production these days, whether in literature, art, or philosophy. The word was coined to signify what belongs to a category of value beyond dispute, what is distinguished by a generally recognized and invariable standard, an authoritative model of achievement. This status had been conferred on ancient Greek and Roman culture, or at least on certain Greek and Roman writers, poets, philosophers, and historians, and on Greek and Roman works of art and architecture in past generations since the Renaissance; their praise has resounded through the centuries, and all sorts of copies and imitations fill our museums and libraries and even the streets and public places in our cities.
But it is evident that classical art of the traditional kind has lost its immediate appeal, that it has had little impact on what constitutes modern or postmodern arts and fashions; that contemporary literature has mostly pursued forms other than classical lyrics or classical drama, let alone epic, which has been extinct for a long time; that the “end of history” has been proclaimed recently, preceded by the end of classical historiography; and that science has reached levels of sophistication that ancient philosophers and scientists would hardly have dreamt of or even considered desirable. Most violent attacks, I come to learn, have been directed in this country against the cultural inheritance of old Europe, including its ancient background, attacks against the preponderance of “dead white men”; and the ancient Greeks, being the oldest of these, should be more dead than any of them. We are living in a multicultural society amidst rapid and worldwide communication, with multifarious and changing lifestyles, tendencies, fashions, and slogans. In this whirlpool the European heritage is dwindling, let alone the heritage of ancient Greece. And yet the Nobel Prize winner in literature of 1992, Derek Walcott, a native of the Caribbean who has remained consciously indebted to Afro-American culture, has entitled his principal work (completed in 1990) Omeros. Homer, the most ancient of the ancient Greeks, still appears to be around, to be not so dead after all.
If I take the occasion to look back on my own work, which I have pursued for about 40 years, I find that in a way I have always been sidestepping the “classical” aspect of classics. Taking for granted the rational achievements of the Greeks, I have been mainly interested in what was before and beside rationalism. A book that made a profound impression on my studies was The Greeks and the Irrational, published in 1951 by E.R. Dodds. Thus in my own book Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism (1962) I tried to understand what was there before geometry, before mathematics and astronomy, before science, and I found perplexing miracles, shamans, primitive but consistent rules of life, sayings of wisdom striving to encompass the whole of the cosmos.
I went even farther back into prerational behavior and symbolism with the study of religious ritual, delving down to the Paleolithic and beyond in the continuum of life, guided by ethology as taught by Konrad Lorenz; I pursued the strange fascination with death and violence in sacrificial ritual, which means to slaughter animals at altars stained with blood for serene and immortal gods. Why must religion be that cruel and sanguinary? The answer seemed to lie in the reversal of the question, as the ineradicable cruelty of life seems to be realized, to be transformed and channeled into an order of the sacred through religion. I doubt whether I would dare to write a book such as my Homo Necans (1972) today, a synthesis that is only possible if one avoids staring at every pitfall or precipice that threatens the advance of the argument. Still, Greek literature, which we used to call “classical”—Homer and tragedy most of all, the pre-Socratic philosophers, and Plato—never receded into the background; on the contrary, there seemed to be a chance to better understand it by seeing tragedy and sacrificial ritual in their mutual relation, by perceiving Greek religion in its compelling character without losing sight of its dark and so-called primitive antecedents. This meant situating “classical” ancient civilization within the horizon and against the background of more general anthropology. If there is progress in the “history of the mind,” in the accumulation and processing of knowledge, and in the basic assumptions that are to conform with reality, the basic problems of life with which humans are confronted seem not to have changed too much in the past 30,000 years.
After my general account of Greek Religion (1977) and further explorations of myth and ritual in my Sather Lectures, entitled Structure and History (1979), I have spent time getting better acquainted with the ancient Near East, searching once more for the historical antecedents and parallels of “classical” Greek achievements. The outcome is a book on archaic Greece with the title The Orientalizing Revolution (1992). It is perhaps more than coincidence that this recent work of mine evolved parallel to the book whose very title has had quite an impact on classical studies in America, Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. I find the designation “black” preposterous, as far as antiquity is concerned; but it is arguable that Greece, ancient Greece, belonged to Oriental rather than to “Western” civilization; at any rate, the Greeks are the most Eastern of Westerners. In a way these Oriental studies lead back to fields treated in my earlier Pythagorean investigations of seers, oracles, and prescientific wisdom about the divine and the cosmos. Even here, though, “classical” Greece is seen in a fresh light, particularly what the Greeks have brought to light and what, in some way or other, will abide with thinking man.
To give some examples: philosophy, mathematics, and physics are Greek words, Greek concepts discovered by the Greeks from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C. Yet it is clear that Oriental forms of literature and science, proven to have existed more than 1,000 years before any possible date for Homer, did not only anticipate discoveries in mathematics and astronomy but led toward Greek natural philosophy in a double way, through wisdom and literature as well as through cosmogonic myth. Both traditions, wisdom and cosmogony, were taken up in a form remarkably close to Oriental antecedents in the works of Hesiod, about 700 B.C.; detailed correspondences with Hittite mythology wrought a sensation when they were discovered more than 40 years ago. There are repercussions of both wisdom and cosmogony even in Homer’s Iliad. Later on the so-called pre-Socratics, in the 6th and 5th centuries, continued the trends of Homer and Hesiod with the addition of empirical knowledge and further Eastern impulses. But there is a new stance and a new spirit, an aspiration toward the absolute, reflection based on the Greek language but going far beyond in consequence.
The book of Heraclitus, about 500 B.C., must have been quite close to more ancient collections of “wisdom” in its form, such as the proverbs of Solomon, which we read in the Holy Bible. Let me quote the beginning of Solomon’s book: “The sayings of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel . . . in order that they may give intelligence to the inexpert . . . and even a wise man may hear them to increase his wisdom . . . “; contrast the beginning of Heraclitus: “This is the formula of Heraclitus, son of Bloson, the Ephesian: Of this formula. which is eternal, men prove to be uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when they have heard it for the first time.” This sounds like a scornful parody. “This is what the inexpert may learn, and the wise man too”—this is Solomon, optimistic and naive in his appraisal of knowledge. “This is what people do not understand even if it is burning on their nails”—this is Heraclitus in his paradoxical arrogance. Why such arrogance? The word translated as “formula” is logos in Greek, which means word, speech, account, calculation, and proportion.
Later in his book, we find among the sayings of Heraclitus: “All things are exchangeable for fire and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.” This is a simile taken from market economy; it is labeled “Heraclitus’ theory of fire” in all manuals of the history of philosophy. Some earlier interpreters, in the wake of Aristotle, found the formulation of Heraclitus queer; Heraclitus must have meant, they presumed, that fire is a substance that takes on various states, so there should be modification, not “exchange”; the simile appears to be incorrect, misleading, “archaic.” Strangely enough, if seen from modern physics Heraclitus’ sentence will look much more intelligent. Our modern specialists constantly talk about subatomic particles exploding into other particles or coalescing from these, with energy emitted or absorbed, with calculable relations of mass and energy in each of the processes. “All things are exchangeable for fire and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods”—energy instead of mass, mass instead of energy. This is not to say that Heraclitus had the faintest idea of subatomic physics, but that he was stating a principle of change that constitutes reality, not just the permanence of stones or of other things of the kind, or even of gods, but a formula, a logos; it is the case that such change can be expressed in a formula, a logos, which means speech, account, calculation, and proportion. Thus according to Heraclitus it is the logos that is permanent—and somehow he was right, difficult though it may be to resume his insight in a single modern phrase; we can hardly replace physics with “sayings” of wisdom any more.
Or take Heraclitus’ quasi-contemporary Parmenides with his paradoxical thesis that “the naught,” “nothing,” does not exist and his startling consequence that there is no change at all, that it is impossible for anything to come into existence or perish totally, because this would mean that it had risen from nothing or would dissolve into nothing. How right he was we realize today with desperation, as we try to get rid of all the refuse our civilization is producing—worst of all, the radioactive refuse: there simply is no possibility of dissolving it into nothingness, in spite of all that fantasy or speculation might suggest. Parmenides intuitively had the impulse to formulate the most basic laws both of logic and of natural science, the exclusion of contradiction and the preservation of being—of mass or energy, in our view. He tried to prove his insight from an analysis of the Greek verb “to be,” which implies persistence in contrast to “becoming,” esti versus genesis or physis. This surely is not a compelling starting point for those who are ignorant of Greek. It seems more generally acceptable that Parmenides insisted “being” be in strict correspondence to “cognition” and to “speech”: you can only come to know that which (s, and to say something meaningful is to say what is the case, to pronounce being. This correspondence of logos—to come back to the word used by Heraclitus—and “being” has remained fundamental for the whole of Greek philosophy.
I have the impression that it is here that our world has lost contact with what was taken for granted by our civilization for so many centuries. Physical reality has proved to be much more complex and enigmatic than our habits of speaking and thinking had presupposed; correspondingly, in our more and more refined debates on linguistics, hermeneutics, or semiology, plain reality, “that which is simply there,” is found to evaporate. This also means that claims of factual truth seem to become more and more evanescent, as if arguments were just for self-indulgent edification or direct political fights and not for establishing what is the case. In the 50’s, eminent classicists such as Walter F. Otto and Wolfgang Schadewaldt could still say that Homer’s achievement was to reveal “being.” Today, in the more modern and postmodern interpretations, self-reflecting structures are brought to light, texts refer to texts that can all be “deconstructed,” or else the bias of ideologies is indicted—the interests involved in the production and reception of texts and all other cultural achievements. There is even the unmasked irruption of group interests, which try to dictate what must be true and what cannot be the case because it must not be.
I know we cannot get back to the ideal of “classical” man with classical learning, classical books, and a closed and classical world view in which everything is neatly and finally put in its place; “classical man” of this kind was living in quite another world than ours, if he ever was alive. We have consigned the logos to computers, which make it incredibly effective yet unintelligible (safe, specific details perceived by specialists of details), and to the media, where entertainment successfully masks the tyranny of money.
The study of humanity’s evolution in history—and this finally is what classical scholars, for their part, try to do—may still encourage a fuller understanding of our world in which humans are confronted with each other and with reality, confronted with the strangeness of people and the strangeness of being, to be—one can hope—overcome by insight. The hope of Greek philosophers that it is possible to speak with intelligence about what is real should still persist, and even a Hellenist will acknowledge that this must not necessarily be done in Greek—although a lover of ancient Greek must be deeply grateful to the Ingersoll Foundation for calling attention to the classics.