Monday, April 25, 2011

The Mysteries of Homer and Greek History

When we  take a look at the story behind the great epics Odyssey and Iliad, many mysteries present themselves. The identity of the creator (one Homer or two), the origin of the works, and the historical references are major areas where the truth is missing. It’s unfortunate that so little is known about this first great literary work of antiquity.

The oldest written copy of the Homeric legends we have dates from circa 300 B.C. Before that, the poems were carried down as folklore for perhaps 400 years. We know they were written to be recited by professional story tellers because of their style and format tell us so. They are written in poetic form and carefully constructed using smooth sentence transition and repeated phases, which lend themselves to memorization.

An example of the latter is “Down he fell with a thud and his armor clattered around him”. Phase devices like this accomplish two purposes: the give the speaker time to formulate his next phrase, which may vary, and they also repeat words that the listener has heard before, creating familiarity during a portion of the story new to him.

Homer took oral tradition and made it into great poetry. How much of the technique (and the story) he inherited from his predecessors is unknown.

Now let us move on and look at the history itself. The first thing that stands out is that Homer is not writing a contemporary account but history of a previous period. Since the facts in the epics resemble those from Mycenaean history, there is a gap of 400-500 years between the actual events and legends describing them. How was that possible given the fact that the Mycenaean Civilization was unknown to the Greeks living in the Dark Ages? Obviously, we have to assume that the history was passed down to a point when the poems were created. Could the epics themselves have been told in Mycenaean times and then handed down? There’s no way to know for sure, but there are clues. One of the characters in the Iliad carries a body shield that “looks like a tower”.  Such a shield did exist during the early Mycenaean period but went out of favor. A warrior’s helmet is also described as made from boar’s tusks. This also resembles a actual helmet from early Mycenae, which also fell into disuse early.

The Iliad is focused on the Siege of Troy, of course, which may have occurred near the end of the Mycenaean Age – at least the most likely dates make it seem that way. But there are inconsistencies too.  For example in Mycenae the dead were buried, while in the Iliad they were cremated.

Geography is another interesting point of comparison. in the Iliad, Homer describes  a catalog of ships from nine towns including Pylos. He also mentions nine areas of a “hither” province, but Pylos is not one of those. None of the names on these two lists match. When he describes Ithaca, the home of Odysseus, the geography is wrong, making it obvious he had never been there. He also places Mycenae on the southern shore of the Corinthian Gulf rather than  inland from the Argolikos Gulf.

Perhaps Homer was an Ionian Greek who never traveled to Greece and, instead, relied on the descriptions of others. Maybe his use of the Ionian dialect explains his origin.

In spite of any inconsistencies, we have to remember that Homer was a poet and not a historian. The history he used was part of creating the story, and it’s the story that’s important. Still, it’s fun to use Homer to try and understand the Mycenaean culture. We certainly don’t find any personality in those Linear B tablets.
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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Education and Its Roots in Antiquity V – The Athenian Legacy

Here is the short version of what I’m about to discuss:

Alexander conquers the world.
That world becomes Greek.
The Greek educational model spreads to the conquered lands.

Now let’s look at the details.

The Greek educational model achieved its final form in the generation following Aristotle and Alexander, spreading through the entire Hellenistic world as part of the inherited Greek culture. That model was so influential the Romans chose to adapt it to Latin rather than creating a system of their own.

So what happened to the old political infrastructure that Alexander conquered? The traditional model of the ancient kingdom was broken up and the city became the center of civilization. Everywhere except Egypt the number of urban centers increased – and the administrative apparatus of the old kingdoms was transferred to them. But the cities had changed too. They were no longer independent political kingdoms from the people’s standpoint, but merely places were the people happened to be living. The new Hellenistic man was psychologically a “citizen of the world” in outlook and did not derive his sense of well being from his Polis.

And this Hellenistic man was not the physical man, but the human person who was now free of the totalitarian pressure of the past, and can embrace his own capacities and freedom. In other words, it was the rise of the ego. If he Sophists stated that “man is the measure of all things” then the Hellenistic man saw himself as “the personality which is the measure of all things”.  Here, as Marrou points out, education is pushed to its limit and made absolute.

Paideia,  the technique of teaching in the Greek system turns into anxesis, which is the same word in Hellenistic Greek with a new meaning. No longer an educational method, the word now meant attainment of a cultural ideal through education.

Wherever the Greeks went – Babylon, Egypt, or Susiana – they brought their own institutions with them, including the schools. An education was essential in a foreign land because the Greeks had to train their sons to be successful adults. This “classical education” was nothing more than preparation for a Greek way of life.

This concept of education had now advanced from the subsidiary role in Plato’s world to an equal player in the development of the rational Hellenistic adult. Hellenists saw their education as the most valuable asset his life, as evidenced by those who were buried with their grave markers highlighting their educational accomplishments. Stilpo, when asked if he needed to be compensated for losses incurred during the pillage of Megara said, “I have lost nothing that belongs to me, I still have my culture, my logos”.

Hellenistic education consisted of a comprehensive program of study that ran from age seven to age twenty. The initial period, that of primary school lasted until the child was fourteen. Higher education was next, which included a parallel program called the Ephebia. This was a one to two year course in civic and military training. Certain specialized centers of learning, like Alexandria, offered advanced education beyond secondary school. These programs included research mimicking what would later become the primary function of universities.

Education was now under the control of the state and no longer a private concern. By state we refer to the municipality and not the kingdom. The latter was still in existence but it only provided the services not available in the city. When the Hellenistic monarch got involved in education he was typically only taking the role of benefactor.

Association of Ancient Historians

I recently joined the Association of Ancient Historians, an academic organization founded in 1969 for discussion of important topics in Ancient History. The original founders were academic types from the universities in southern Ontario and The State University of New York, but now the organization has expanded to include leading ancient historians in North America and overseas.

The featured activity of AAH is the annual meeting held at a different university each year. I will be attending year's event, at Mercyhurst College in Erie Pennsylvania May 5-7th. When I get back, I'll write a post describing the highlights of the event.

I encourage all of my readers to consider joining. Dues are only $ 12.50 per year and if you agree to receive the newsletter via e-mail, the dues are only $ 7.50. What a bargain!

Benefits include the annual meeting and the ability to purchase books on ancient history at a deep discount -- typically $ 10 ea.

The association's website can be found at:


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Romans and Greeks

I’ve written before about the differences between Romans and Greeks, pointing out how these two great cultures of antiquity, in close proximity, developed in very different ways. Once again, as we see over and over again, geography is an actor in the play.

The Romans were inland dwellers; founding their civilization at a ford in the Tiber where traders would pass by. They were farmers, in the beginning hardly above the level of barbarians. Loyalty was their character and their tribes were comfortable in a totalitarian world of kings.

Rome is the story of survival of archaism, unlike Greece where the archaic point of view was thrown off in the 6th century B.C. The Romans never developed that independent intellectual streak of the Greeks, perhaps because they were not capable. They were always more comfortable retaining a loyalty to the state, which they would never give up even when the concept became an anachronism.

That is not to say that Roman archaic is Greek archaic. Rome began to develop when the Greeks were settling on the Italian peninsula, but there was little interaction between them. Education, when it began in Rome was for the peasants, unlike Greece where it was the knights who were trained. In Rome there was a rural aristocracy of landowners; in Greece an aristocracy of military leaders.

The Etruscan kings tried to change things by creating a city based political system but, in the end, they were defeated by the rural aristocracy when it threw them out and formed the Republic. So Rome remained essentially rural in point of view – patricians owned the land and worked it. Plebs were their workers. The Senate was a collection of rich rural landowners protecting their interests.

Roman culture was built around a system of moral ideals: sacrifice and absolute devotion to the community rather than the individual. The paterfamilias, the clan, and the tribe were its components – a structure so ingrained it could not be overcome by any outside force. Roman heroes received their accolades because of what they accomplished for the community and not what they accomplished for themselves. Their virtues were handed down from history: gravitas, dignitas, pietas, veritas, and the others.

In Rome the family was dominant and the point of view aristocratic. Old patricians were replaced by new nobility who shared the same values. The aristocracy continued generation after generation until its hardening effects on the oligarchy in the second century paved the way for aristocratic support of the Empire. Augustus helped by making it look like the aristocracy was now only slightly modified by putting one of their own at the top – a principate or Republic in new clothes.

The family ideal continued to be fostered through the Lars kept in the homes of the nobility - masks of the ancestors hanging on the wall as a symbolic reference for every Roman child. It was truly a myth of ancestor worship preserving the value of group over the individual.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Classification of My Posts

The move of all previous posts to their appropriate sub-discipline is now complete, but I have changed my mind about how future posts of this type will be handled.

As planned, a copy will be located in one of the sub-disciplines, but going forward, ALL posts will continue to appear on the main blog.

I wanted to preserve the content flow on the main blog for those used to accessing the material that way. For those interested in the sub-disciplines, you can go there and see content specific to that area.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Education and Its Roots in Antiquity IV - Isocrates

Isocrates? Who is he?

A great man destined to live in the shadow of Plato; then and now.

As Marrou puts it, “On the whole it was Isocrates not Plato who educated fourth century Greece and subsequently the Hellenistic and Roman worlds; it was from Isocrates that ‘as from a Trojan horse’ there emerged all those teachers and men of culture, noble idealists, simple moralists, lovers of fine phrases, all those fluent, voluble speakers, to who classical antiquity owed both the qualities and defects of its main cultural tradition.

And not only antiquity… but in so far as the three renaissances returned to the classical heritage, in so far as this tradition has been perpetuated in our own teaching methods, it is to Isocrates more than any other person that the honor and responsibility of having inspired in our Western traditional education a predominantly literary tone.”

Isocrates was an Athenian teacher of oratory from ~ 393-338 B.C. Originally a writer of law court speeches he transitioned to a career as a “political publicist” and later built a school near what would later become the Lyceum.

Starting with the Sophist’s advertisements of oratorical skill (one of their primary marketing tools), he created political set speeches designed to put forward his positions and arouse political action. The written versions of these public lectures would later become the basis for Hellenistic and then Western literature. Ironically, Isocrates had to use the written form because a weak voice and stage fright prevented him from becoming the orator he would have preferred to have been.

His school was designed to teach practical knowledge rather than the idealism of Plato. Isocrates remarked, “I either produce teachers like me or great debaters,” and he did both in volume. These were not the sons of aristocrats necessarily; they were also the average young men of Athens.

The goal of Isocrates’ educational model was to produce men who could speak well as the Sophists had advocated, but also allow them to acquire the practical education necessary for a career in politics. He trained scores of Athenian politicians and achieved what Plato had dreamed of doing. Plato’s model was to expose the student to such rigorous study that the effort would weed out  those who were intellectually unworthy, leaving those that remained to acquire perfect knowledge. Isocrates, on the other hand, wanted his students to become cultivated men; to create an inquisitiveness that would allow them to “hit upon” the real knowledge they needed to succeed.

Like the Sophists, Isocrates charged a hefty tuition, acquiring enough money to rank him as one of the richest men in Athens.

The school emphasized rhetoric, gymnastics, and mathematics. Isocrates position was  that rhetoric needs to be taught as a tool to be utilized by the educated man rather than merely a set of techniques. His teaching method was practical, encouraging the students to do develop creativity within themselves. Sensitive to the criticisms of the Sophists, accusing them of being shallow, Isocrates loaded up his art with content.

Philosophically, Isocrates was forced to fight on two fronts: one against Plato who he considered overly idealistic and the other against the second generation Sophists who had merely carried on their predecessor’s commercialism. That effort paid off to make  Isocrates method into the synthesis of the Sophists and Plato. He added depth and meaning to what the Sophists preached while keeping his teaching at a practical level to avoid the idealism of Plato.

Along the way Isocrates became a humanist; espousing the Greeks as men of the same culture, not just the same race or blood. He argued that Hellas was defined by the community and its political behavior, meaning it would be destroyed if that behavior was altered by a tyrant.

Isocrates separated himself once and for all from the Sophists by placing the responsibility for content on the orator, because a great speech depends on the correct language being put around a subject that matters to people. These new ideas led to organization of thought around the most important topics; the universals which gauge our understanding of the world. Literature, as the art of speech, is the recommended tool for sharpening judgment.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Is Capitalism the Problem with Democracy?

Now that Democracy has won the battle of the political systems, I find myself underwhelmed. I suppose it’s capitalism that’s the problem and not Democracy itself, but let’s look at both to examine the relationship between them.

Democracies generally foster a capitalist economy because the promote freedom to the individual and the state generally does not have ownership of industry. Some industries may be controlled by the state (health care) but these are usually components involving social services. It’s quite possible to have a capitalist system operating outside of a democracy, but that situation is rare. Some would say contemporary China is an example.

Comparing the Greek Democracy to the democracies of today is complicated by perspective. We can document the development of the Polis over time and understand the dynamics at work easily enough, but when we look at contemporary political structures we find ourselves in the middle of something with no way to gain an external point of view. Political systems evolve over time, much time, and a decade is too short a span for analysis. I century is better, but even that is not a long time. Without perspective we’re left to speculate about the dynamics we’re observing and how they relate to similar forces seen previously.

In ancient Greece, during the time of the mature Polis, the political system was structured to include significant participation by the people. The council of 500 consisted of citizens from each tribe and the citizens were chosen by lot. The assembly was the main voting body for new laws and its members were any citizens who chose to attend the assembly meetings. Participation was a right, but also voluntary.

This Athenian system worked because people were interested in making it work and had a common goal of building a society that would prosper within the context of the their culture. People who cared to participate got involved: people who didn’t participate could not complain about the results.

There were certainly capitalist elements in ancient Athens, including industries, such as mining, along with trade and investment, but there were no governmental systems designed to control business, which operated in a free market.

In the United States we have an system of indirect elections where the people elect representatives to act in their best interests rather than participating themselves. This form makes sense when the people are separated by great distance, and cannot easily participate in government. Here, the contract between the elected representative and the people is “serve me or lose the next election”. In recent times, however, the quality of that service has degenerated to the point that Congress has the lowest rating of all the agencies of our government, yet the same politicians keep being elected.

In my view, there are three reasons for our poor representation.

First, capitalist forces have too much influence over our elected representatives. Corporations have become powerful influencers of the political process in the United States and their rights (meaning interests) are now placed ahead of the needs of the American people. Capitalism is corrupting in the sense that it always puts its own interests above its workers or society, in order to please the shareholder. As corporations become larger and competition is reduced, the influence on government increases. Certain industries, like the financial firms of Wall Street defy all attempts to regulate them. When laws are passed to prevent illegal activity, they move on to new approaches outside the law.

The second reason for representational decay is the cultural relativism that has become part of the American fabric, splintering the unity of the people and eliminating the most important tool that can be used to influence Congress. The people can exert power if they are united, but when they aren’t, the special interests prevail. Somehow Americans have become convinced that they are more “different” than “like” other Americans. In other words, we feel that the need for individuality is more important than the need for unity.

Congress has lost effectiveness since the mid-nineties when the budget was balanced for the last time, and can now be called completely ineffective, in my view. No controversial issues are tackled, regardless of importance, because politicians are driven by factors that work against the public good. There is also tremendous momentum to keep the status quo, which works against the elimination of ineffective programs.
Pick an issue – military base closings. No politician will vote to close a base in his district because some people will lose their jobs. Doesn’t matter that the base is obsolete. Doesn’t matter that continuing to spend money there is wasteful. Doesn’t matter that we don’t have the money to waste. So we create a welfare system where American taxpayers fund jobs that should be eliminated.

Few politicians will vote to improve the tax code. Few politicians will vote for tort reform. So we tread water.

The third reason contributing to poor representation is the bloated federal bureaucracy, which threatens to drain all of the resources of the government while it ineffectively delivers services. Everyone has seen the data. Eighty percent of the federal budget is tied up in Medicare, Social Security, and defense. Congress is afraid to cut the budget in these three areas so the bureaucracy continues to grow out of control. Bureaucracies operate outside the control of government once they are put into place, so they are removed from the people’s control. How can our interests be served when there is no control?

In antiquity, the problems I have outlined did not exist, because of the immaturity of political systems, nationalism, and man’s notion of personal responsibility. That mix meant that people had greater influence than they do today.

Business was not in a position to influence the governments of antiquity because it was not a large component of the economy. Athens was mainly an agrarian society and the farms were small and privately owned. Tribal and clan systems were the sources of power because they were the historical human organizations.

Nationalism produced a unity that kept the people together through wars, famines, and other times of trouble. To be anti-nationalist was not normal:  personal responsibility was.

The Athenian government would never have conceived of a government programs of the type we see today. The poor were certainly recognized and helped by the government when possible, but people believed that their success and well being in life was their responsibility – not the government’s. The government’s main role was to keep out the invader and provide basic rights that could be turned into a useful life for its citizens.

There were essentially no bureaucracies in antiquity until the time of Caesar Augustus. Augustus built the first civil service system by taking work that had previously been contracted out to businessmen and bringing it into the government. Even then, the goal of the bureaucracy was to manage the machinery of government, not provide for the public welfare.

So what can be done about the fact that the American system is in a period of ineffectiveness? I don’t know the answer to that question. Progressives want more government not less, so their desire is to see the bureaucracy grow. Corporations are not going to lose their influence as long as they can buy politicians and turn policy in their direction. Can anything unify the people in a way that will make them hold their government more accountable? I can’t imagine what that would have to be.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Education and its Roots in Antiquity III – Reaction to the Sophists

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis – a logical approach usually attributed (erroneously) to the philosopher Hegel. It’s really the dialectic approach of the Greeks, where the goal is to arrive at a new truth through discussion - one point of view versus another point of view, back and forth, until a consensus is reached. This is the opposite of a debate where the opponents hold a position for the entire exercise.

In our first two articles about education in antiquity, we moved from the early aristocratic model, when the first schools appeared, to the time of the Sophists, when the Greek educational system exploded in many new directions. I consider the Sophists the thesis part of the dialectic – the first pillar of a “modern” educational system.

Now we come to the opposing force (antithesis) mounted against the Sophists – the Socratics and then Plato. The Socratics, of course, are defined by the man Socrates who rose up in opposition to the slick commercial veneer of the Sophists.

We see Socrates first as the guardian of the old aristocratic position, attacking the Sophist attraction to political virtue as opposed to ethical virtue. To him, they risk amoralism by their misuse of the word virtue. Education, to Socrates, is the process of obtaining moral virtue as the highest goal of man. Not the tradesmen he saw in the Sophists, Socrates harked back to the old “educator as tutor” who helped the student discover the truth, like one would unlock a secret box.

Secondly, to counter the Sophist claims that every branch of their teaching was an instrument, Socrates argued for the transcendent nature of truth. That is to say that truth and not power techniques are the proper path to virtue. Socrates saw the aim of education to “submit to the demands of the absolute” as Marrou puts it. Not that Socrates was opposed to all the Sophists espoused, but he certainly acted as a counterweight to their extreme commercialism and arrogance.

After Socrates death in 399 B.C, his followers (the lesser Socratics) carried on his work carving out for themselves a place between the Sophists and what Plato would represent. They taught wisdom rather than practical techniques but charged for their services ala the Sophists. Still, they were a philosophical school and not a school of rhetoric.

So now we come upon Plato, the man who wanted to be a politician and had his hopes dashed when he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Associated with the right wing aristocracy that tried to gain ascendancy during the period of the thirty tyrants, Plato’s opportunities were cut off when the new Democracy rose again in Athens, turning him into an anachronism. Frustrated at this turn of events, he travelled to Syracuse in an attempt to become the tutor for Dionysus the Elder. But Dionysus wanted sycophants instead of teachers, making Plato’s political theories a bad match for the situation. After coming close to an untimely end, Plato returned to Athens in 387 B.C. and founded the Academy, a school of philosophy and political science.

Plato’s role in the development of education could be called accidental in a certain sense. He sought to train political technicians who would become the rulers of Athens as part of his utopian concept of how governments should operate, similar to the old aristocratic approach, but he couldn’t have imagined that his model would form the basis of Hellenistic education after the triumph of Macedonia.

Plato built his system on the search for truth and designed it to create an understanding of the science of government superior to the imposter Sophists. His Academy was a fraternal organization of students and teachers who were engaged in the dialectic method as opposed to teaching through indoctrination. His organizational approach learning and personal philosophy are Plato’s great contributions to the history of education.

In Plato’s mind, education was a state concern. Teachers should be chosen by the government and managed by a special set of magistrates. Students would advance through several stages of learning: kindergarten before age seven, primary school where they would learn gymnastics, music, and mathematics until age ten, and then secondary school from age ten to eighteen. After secondary school, the brightest of the students would begin ten more years of training with advanced studies in all areas. When those had been mastered, philosophical studies could begin. 

Unfortunately, Plato’s system turned out to be too complicated for the practically minded Athenians. Frustration with the government’s unwillingness to embrace his model is reflected in some of the late dialogs which show bitter resignation.