Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 16: The Greek Way, Chapters 4 & 5

11/27/2016 11:36 pm ET

Chapter 4

Contrast the characteristics of Greek and Hebrew writing, and discuss their respective strengths and weaknesses.

Greek is clear, brief, cerebral, and to the point -- almost chilling in its austerity. It sees the beauty of common things and contents itself with the majesty of their unadorned simplicity. It has no use for ornament, exaggeration, or poetic license, and uses adjectives, imagery, and metaphors sparingly. It is like reading Wittgenstein's Tractatus in that its appeal is solely to the mind and does not condescend to emotionalize issues. In translating Greek into English, one should strive to be literal, for literality is the essence of the aesthetic experience in reading Greek.

Greek places great demands on its readers, who must work out for themselves implications which are often unstated. This compressed style may prove difficult for those new to the subject, since the author may be writing for the few. The unfortunate result is that some readers may become exhausted by the sustained level of concentration, lose the thread of the argument, and stop reading.

This is a common temptation, but if one persists, one begins to make headway. If one has had three years of high-school Latin, many of the problems of learning Greek have already been solved, since their grammatical structure is roughly the same. For those interested, Crosby/Schaeffer's An Introduction to Greek is a solid beginner's text, after which one might try a student edition of Xenophon's Anabasis, and then Plato's Apology.

Hebrew, on the other hand, appeals to the emotions by the stylistic devices of repetition, cadence, and a profusion of imagery, all of which cast a mood of enchantment over the reader. One need not work out the implications oneself as with Greek since the repetition of the same idea in different words and varied imagery will suggest additional perspectives, which might not have occurred to one reading Greek in English translation.

The problem with Hebrew, however, is that some may find it insufficiently analytical to examine its subject critically and be left with only an emotional response. Some prefer the Greek style of writing, and others the Hebrew. Each tries to affect its readers in different ways, and both are effective.

Are people convinced more by reason or emotion? Can a syllogism make converts? Why do some prefer rational arguments, while others favor emotional ones? What is each group seeking? Is it ethical to move people emotionally, or is this the only way of moving the heart? Can art transform someone's life and convictions? If you feel that it can, make a case that art should never be censored. Then argue the converse.

Should artists and writers be political? Should they serve the interests of the haves or have-nots, or should they be apolitical? If writers use their art to defend or attack the status quo, is that more honest than not speaking out and tacitly endorsing the way things are? Are the poor automatically in the right and the powerful in the wrong? In some countries, writers are the national conscience. What are they in America?

"Orator fit, poeta nascitur." ("An orator is trained; a poet is born.") Is this true, or an attempt to romanticize poets? What are the dangers of being a writer? Why do some writers fear success? What are some ways that an artist can "sell out"? What are some subtle ways for a government to control or silence a writer? What is the best kind of education for young writers and artists? Are writers the voice of the people, or of themselves alone?

Chapter 5

1. What is the meaning of the phrase "Nolo episcopari"?

"I don't want to be made a bishop." Is this solemn profession a foolproof way of weeding out unworthy candidates for high ecclesiastical office? What qualities of mind, heart, and spirit should such a candidate have? Should he or she be chosen by church authorities or the people? What are the pros and cons of each method? "I care not whether a man is good or evil; all that I care is whether he is a wise man or a fool. Go! Put off holiness, and put on intellect." Good advice by William Blake for choosing a bishop? What are good reasons for wanting power? Are these reasons rationalizations? What are some bad reasons? How can one prevent bad people from coming to power?

2. According to Pindar, who alone is fit to rule and why?

Pindar, an aristocrat and lyric poet (518 - 438 BCE), felt that only aristocrats had the training and vision to rule. They were the blue bloods, with the necessary discipline, wisdom, and judgment, tempered by hard-headed practicality that came of running city-states for generations. They alone knew what was best for their people. Does history contradict this self-serving view? Does this brief description sound like propaganda for the aristocratic class?

3. Why did Pindar celebrate the past?

The past was a Golden Age, and the present was but a pale reflection of its bygone splendor. To celebrate this vision of past greatness Pindar went from court to court singing of those former times when noble lords set radiant examples for their obedient subjects, who looked to them for inspiration and guidance. Wherever he went, he urged his grand hosts to cultivate these pristine ideals and to pass on this legacy to insure stability and sound rule. Only by clinging to the past could they give their people hope and a sense that all was still right with the world. The magnificent odes he composed for these court visits were designed to remind his audience never to lose sight of their sacred calling.

What would prevent aristocrats from discarding these noble sentiments and exploiting their people? What recourse would his subjects have if they discovered that they were being ruled by a tyrant who was seeking to destroy them? How would you explain those who continued to give him allegiance?

4. Why doesn't a gentleman "join the staring crowd"?

An aristocrat should always inspire his subjects, who are apt to pursue the unseemly because this is the nature of impulsive creatures. An aristocrat who engages in behavior unbefitting his high office would only lose caste in the eyes of his subjects. Nothing common must excite his interest, nor should his gaze linger upon the unbecoming. He must be master of himself at all times. Staring at what is base is the pastime of subjects; communing with the lofty is the province of kings.

5. Explain the statement, "Not every truth is the better for showing its face unveiled."

An aristocrat should never feel compelled to utter what he knows. He is the keeper of secrets, which can never be revealed. He must wrap himself in silence so that when he does speak, his words will find receptive ears. He is always on stage, his life a performance, with all eyes upon him. He should be wary of what he says, when, and to whom, for only what is exemplary should cross his lips. (For 16th- and 18th-century updates of this code, see Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier and Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son.)

6. Explain the admonition, "Strive not to become a god."

An aristocrat must always remember his human limitations no matter how high his station, and be mindful of what befell Icarus. He must beware lest he offend the gods by hubris, since he, too, is a man, "a creature of a day and a shadow's dream." He must avoid excess of any kind for wisdom resides in moderation.

7. Was Pindar naïve about human nature?

He was, and for two simple reasons: (1) It is hard to imagine that someone so well-traveled with a knowledge of men could possibly have believed that an aristocratic class was as noble and selfless as portrayed in his Odes. A man who died at the young age of 30 might be forgiven such naiveté, but someone who lived until 80 should have been a better observer of human nature and more closely informed about Greece during its so-called "Golden Age" of the previous three centuries. Greece from 800 - 500 BCE experienced continual class tensions between the aristocracy and the poor over land scarcity, which fostered mass migrations around the Mediterranean world.

There was never any paternal solicitude for the poor as implied in his Odes, which understandably omit any allusion to these three hundred years of social unrest between these two classes. We have no recorded reaction to these events from the poor, since the upper classes alone could write, so that much of what we know of antiquity is seen through upper-class bias.

(2) An aristocrat who associated only with aristocrats, Pindar believed his own propaganda. If liberals associate only with liberals and conservatives with conservatives, they may assume that everyone would share their views, unaware of mankind's infinite variety beyond their charmed circle. Pindar was too insular and thought this a virtue. Class privilege became class prejudice, then class narcissism, and finally class psychosis, for which the only cure is more air and perspective. One cannot always preach to the choir.

Or taking a sociology course, which teaches the meaning of Robert Burns' words: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us! It was frae mony a blunder free us, an' foolish notion." ("O would some Power give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us! It would from many a blunder free us, and foolish notion.")

8. Pindar in the Dock

The Prosecution: Pindar was willfully blind to the waning of his aristocratic world and the emerging democratic order by the defeat of the Persians. He should have known better when he saw the handwriting on the wall and failed to warn his fellow aristocrats that their time in Greek history was essentially over. Instead, he deluded them with nostalgia for a non-existent mythical past he invented that became more important than political reality.

Failing to acknowledge the events at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea, he chose to be on the wrong side of history by creating a self-congratulatory myth. At that moment, he ceased being an artist to become aristocracy's minister of propaganda, thereby endearing himself to this class and validating its wish to hold on to power. His Odes became its Gone with the Wind, a nostalgic whitewashing and denial of class guilt for its harsh treatment of the poor in previous centuries.

He could never admit that this mythical age was subject to that same fate that touches all things human as chronicled in that haunting work whose dark wisdom he could never accept: "I have seen all the works that are done under the sun, and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit . . . . One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever."

The Defense: Pindar and his class weren't aware that they were living at the end of one age and at the beginning of another, a blindness for which they could hardly be accountable without the hindsight of later generations. Similarly, the French nobility who partied at Versailles in 1789 and their Russian counterparts making merry at the Winter Palace in 1917 had no inkling that they were causing two revolutions that would undo their worlds forever. They needed a few generations to understand what had occurred.

Pindar was a true believer in an aristocratic code of honor, to which he and his ancestors had devoted their lives. To him, the military defeats of the Persians may have been only temporary setbacks until the day when they again would return to exact retribution. To put heart into the aristocracy until then, he was reviving a proud tradition of an older Greece until the future was decided on the battlefield.

For this reason, we cannot judge an artist like Pindar, who believed in a cause that we might ourselves disagree with. Nor can we judge by modern standards an artist who lived 25 centuries ago in a culture very different from our own.