Monday, April 6, 2015

Celebrating with Homer – an invitation

Thirty five years ago, on Saturday 12th April 1980 Dr Anthony Kenny, the Master of Balliol was giving a lecture in my philosophy seminar in Prague on a contrast between the ideals of Aristotle’s Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics. I would have liked to celebrate the occasion at Charles University in Prague and at the University of Oxford. With that aim in mind, on February 8 2015 I offered a lecture on ‘Plato’s Parmenides in the light of Aristotle’s testimony’ to the President of the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Charles University, and on February 9 2015 I offered it to the Master of Balliol at Oxford University. I have received no reply from Prague and no reply from Oxford, and so I decided to celebrate the occasion online, with Homer. Why Homer? There is nothing better I can think of. And so, to celebrate the event, allow me to invite you to my reading in the original of the 1st Book of The Iliad of Homer on my website

When I think of the benefits I derive from the Ancient Greeks, from Plato, Aristotle, and Homer in particular, I can’t help thinking that such benefits should be open to all. What a thought! – one might exclaim. There is a saying ‘It’s Greek to me’, i.e. ‘It’s beyond my grasp’ and ‘not worth bothering about’. It must come from the days when children in public schools were drilled in translating Greek into English, English into Greek. Good riddance, you may say – and I fully agree. If people are to reap the benefits the world of the Ancient Greeks is offering us, we must approach the Greek language, literature, prose and poetry, rhetoric and philosophy in a completely different way. A good teacher would direct his pupils/students from the very beginning to understanding Greek in Greek, using his English to elucidate the Greek not to translate it. There are plenty of translations of any text of importance, which the students ought to be taught to use to elucidate the Greek, when their teacher is not around.

Imagine I am talking to my students, opening the first lesson as follows: ‘Listen to the first line of the Iliad: Mênin aeide thea Pêlêiadeȏ Achilêos. I may translate ‘Goddess, sing the wrath of Achilles, the son of Peleus.’ To render the sentence in English, I had to change the word order. Greek is a language that declines its nouns and conjugates its verbs, which allows the poet to open his poem with ‘Wrath’ by putting mênis (‘wrath’ in the nominative) into the accusative mênin. And so the poet can compress the whole of his poem, the Iliad in its entirety, into the opening word; the poet brings Achilles’ wrath to life in his song.

The poet goes on to describe how the King Agamemnon dishonored Achilles, how Achilles, overcome with woe, begged his mother Thetis to persuade Zeus to support the Trojans against the Achaians, so that Agamemnon will learn that without Achilles he and his army are doomed. Here the theme of ‘mênis’ is reemphasized by Thetis. She promises to go to Olympus, persuade Zeus to bestow honor on her son; in verses 421-2 she tells Achilles alla su men nun nêusi parêmenos ȏkuporoisin // mêni’ Achaioisin, polemou d’ apopaueo pampan. ‘But you, now, sitting by the swift ships, // give vent to your wrath against the Achaians, and completely abstain from the war.’ The Ancient Greek language can turn the noun mênis, ‘wrath’, into a verb mêniȏ, and put it into the imperative mênie, which I must translate in a cumbersome way ‘give vent to your wrath’ to preserve the connection between mênis and mêniȏ. Putting the noun Achaios into the dative plural allows the Greek to use one word Achaioisin, which I must translate ‘against the Achaians’, losing much of the intimate connection between Achilles’ wrath and the Achaians, which the Greek mênie Achaioisin conveys.

But let us return to the beginning of the poem. Take the second verse: oulomenên hê muri’ Achaiois alge ethêken, which means ‘the accursed wrath that gave grief to countless Achaians’. Oulomenên ‘accursed’ does not need the support of ‘wrath’ to make sense of it; as an adjective in the accusative it points to mênin, which it describes; but not just to mênin; it qualifies mênin Pêlêiadeȏ Achilêos, thus bringing Achilles’ wrath once more in front of our mind’s eye – as an accursed wrath. A cognate adjective oulos ‘destructive’ comes up at the beginning of the 2nd Book. Zeus gets a brilliant idea of how to bestow honour on Achilles. He sends Agamemnon oulon oneiron, a ‘destructive dream’, which will persuade him to unleash an all-out battle against the Trojans, convinced that Zeus will grant him the capture of Troy on that day …’

I believe that any student whose mother tongue is English would benefit from getting acquainted with the very notion of a language that can change nouns and verbs according to different functions they perform in different contexts. I don’t know of a better suited language for this purpose than Ancient Greek, and of no text that is better suited for this purpose than the opening verses of the Iliad. Teaching pupils to recite a few lines of the Iliad in hexameters might be suitable even for year 6 of primary school. Those few, who would find the study attractive and worthwhile, might then choose Ancient Greek as their subject in secondary school, having been warned that if they really want to enjoy all the benefits that their time-travels to the world of Homer can open for them, they would be committing themselves to a life-long task.

I began to learn Ancient Greek in my mid-twenties, after finishing my university study of philosophy. I worked as an editor in philosophy in the publishing house of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. Onto my desk arrived a translation of the 2nd volume of Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy. After reading a few pages I realised that the translation was faulty, revised the first thirty pages and brought it to Professor Patočka, the head of the editorial commission for the publication of the philosophy classics. Patočka then persuaded the publishing house to relieve me of all other duties and devote myself fully to the revision of the text. I accepted the task on the condition that I would visit Patočka after revising every 50 pages and that we would go together through all my revisions. Patočka was a disciple of Edmund Husserl, one of the greatest German philosophers; the 2nd volume of Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy is devoted to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and Hegel in the text quotes in the original every important philosophical concept he is elucidating. Of course, proper understanding of Hegel’s German depends on proper understanding of the Greek; I could not do it without Patočka, and our meetings were the best thing that ever happened to me. During our meetings always came a moment when Hegel, Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle inspired him to make captivating excursions into the thought of these giants of philosophy. And yet, perhaps even thanks to these journeys into philosophy with Patočka, I was deeply frustrated by my handicap.

I chose Patočka as the opponent of my doctoral thesis. After obtaining my doctor's degree I asked him in which direction I should pursue my further study of philosophy: towards natural sciences, which would mean that I should study mathematics, at which I was not very good, or to the history of philosophy, which would mean that I should study Ancient Greek and Latin. Patočka told me: ‘Husserl asked me on my first visit to his seminar: “Do you know Ancient Greek?” I replied “No, I don’t” “And how do you want to do philosophy?” he asked. And so I started to learn Ancient Greek.’ I decided to follow in Patočka’s footsteps.

My motivation to learn Ancient Greek was thus very powerful; it was very personal, and the question is, whether anybody in the present day and in this society can be sufficiently motivated to undertake the life-long task of getting properly engaged with the Ancient Greeks. I intend to explore this problem in my blog as part of my celebration. I shall be asking what light neurophysiology can shed on the benefits that can be derived from Ancient Greek. I shall use as a point of reference Carpenter’s and Reddi’s Neurophysiology, as I have done in ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ on my website. The authors write: “Conceptually, a neuron is quite simple. But brains are not. On the one hand we have all the unspeakable wonders of our minds, of which we are so inordinately proud; on the other hand, when we open up the skull and peep inside all we see is a porridgy lump containing millions and millions of these untidy little neurons. The fundamental problem of neuroscience is that of linking these two scales together: can we trace the relationship between molecular and cellular mechanisms all the way to what was going on in Michelangelo’s head as he painted the Sistine Chapel? Very nearly, and the trick is to force yourself to think of the brain as a machine that carries out a well-defined job. The job is to turn patterns of stimulation, S, into patterns of response, R: the sight of dinner into attack and jaw-opening; a page of music into finger movements. How it does this is clear, in principle at least. The brain is a sequence of neuronal levels, successive layers of nerve cells that project on to one another. At each level, a pattern of activity in one level gets transformed into a different pattern in the next. Thus the incoming sensory pattern S is transmitted from level to level, modified at each stage until it becomes an entirely different pattern of response R at the output.” (Roger Carpenter and Benjamin Reddi, Neurophysiology, A conceptual approach, 5 edition, Hodder Arnold, London 2012, p. 9.) – Since neurophysiology aspires to explain what was going on in Michelangelo’s head as he painted the Sistine Chapel, I feel entitled to ask in what way and to what extent it can help me to understand what goes on in my head when I am recording Homer’s Iliad.

I hope you will enjoy my reading of Homer’s Iliad.

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