A. What kinds of media were used to convey such concepts as the “heroic” and the “anti-heroic”? Here are seven that we will study in this course:
a) epic and lyric poetry, b) wisdom poetry, c) drama, d) history, e) various other forms of prose, f) ancient art, g) religious practices (worship of heroes and gods. In the first two dialogues I concentrate on (a) and briefly mention (g).
Most of you have never studied most of these media before. Even those of you may have already read the Iliad or the Odyssey in translation will nevertheless find that this course will give you perspectives that are different and even new. In any case, there are no prerequisites for this course. There is no language requirement, and there are no previous readings required or assumed.
B. This course gives you a major part of the core of Classical Greek literary masterpieces (for a more detailed list, see the syllabus):
#a) all of Homer for epic; highlights from lyric, #b) Hesiod, #c) 7 Greek tragedies, from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; #d) highlights from the History of Herodotus; #e) two works by Plato about the last days of Socrates; the Gospel according to Mark; highlights from the Heroikos of Philostratus; #f) a slide dialogue on heroes as represented in Black Figure painting. I will also provide for you, in the dialogues and in the notes to the dialogues, #g) documentation of ancient Greek religious practices involving the worship of heroes.
So, your readings give you a very full knowledge of Classical Greek culture (especially the literature), which is an important aspect of becoming an educated person. But your goal, I hope, is not only to achieve a solid foundation in Classical civilization. An education in the Classics is not merely a commodity, something that can be evaluated and even rated by a Consumer’s Report mentality.
C. Work-load. While we are on the subject of consumerist
People tell me that the reading load for this course is light. Well, there is less in volume than in other courses. But here is the essential thing: the reading experience in this course is very different - more challenging in many ways than what you read in other courses that focus more on our own cultural values. Reading in ancient Greek culture was a very different experience from reading in our culture.
D. The readings in this course will expand your ways of thinking. I will encourage you to produce your own ideas on the basis of the facts you will learn and, even more important, on the basis of the new reading skills you will develop. The best advice I can give at this point: keep thinking while you listen to the dialogues and keep thinking while you read the assignments. And take notes about what you are thinking: these will be very useful for you later, when the time comes for your work to be evaluated.
E. I hope you and I will have a chance to talk, at the very least via e-mail. I enjoy talking with students about ideas, about facts, about anything at all (though I don’t enjoy quarreling about grades!).
F. In short, this course is about how to think about literature - a very different kind of literature.
G. A word about the history of the course. What makes this course similar to other courses taught in other colleges and universities about Greek literature in translation? The answer is that this course has a "Great Books" dimension, since we will be reading so many of the major works of the Classical Greek canon. And what makes this course different. The answer has to do with the perspective on ancient Greek religious practices and thinking as reflected in the literature. This perspective is tied in with one of my own major research projects, as reflected in the 1979 book that is recommended for the course, The Best of the Achaeans. Around the time when I finished writing the book, I started teaching an earlier version of the course you are now taking, and I have been teaching the course ever since, almost without interruption. Why? Because I wanted to find a way to communicate my research with those who are not experts in the Classics. Two models for this kind of communication have been the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Erwin Rohde on Greek concepts of heroic psukhê, death, and immortality. As for the research that forms the basis of the course, it draws from a variety of different disciplines, such as comparative literature, study of religion, history, sociology, anthropology, linguistics. I have also applied the perspectives of the study of oral traditions, as pioneered at Harvard by Milman Parry and Albert Lord. The main point of interest for me is the study of literature: how to read it in new ways, how to communicate about it in new ways - as well as in old ways.
H. A word about Classics as a field of study. In the history of European civilization, the study of Greek and Roman Classics has been the core of humanities - and of humanism. In the past, it was availalbe only by and for the élite. More recently, however, Classics has become democratized in places like the United States, much as the ideals and the life-styles of aristocracy were democratized in 5th-century Athens. But it has not always been a smooth journey. Even in the history of the U.S., Classics has in the past tended toward social élitism. This tendency, which can have a variety of negative consequences for the field, has been for the most part transcended in recent times. Another negative tendency, one that the field has in many ways also transcended, is an attitude of intellectual superiority leading to the slighting or even exclusion of other fields. The resulting dangers are obvious: (1) any exclusiveness in the field of Classics impoverishes its own humanism and (2) other disciplines will try to bypass the Classics, thus cutting themselves off from the historical core of humanism. The study of Classics at Harvard reflects the ideals of the field: intellectual inclusiveness and vigorous concentration on learning and thinking about central facts and values of civilization.