Sunday, May 17, 2015

An afternoon at Balliol – an invitation

Allow me to invite you to my reading of Homer’s Iliad, which will take place on Wednesday May 20 from 3pm to 6pm in front of Balliol College at Oxford.

If nobody comes, I shall enjoy reciting the Iliad just for myself. It will be a new experience. When I record Homer for my website I make mistakes. I read a dual ending (phȏnêsante, bante) when Homer speaks of two fighters or horses (autȏ,  Pandaros and Aineias, book V. l. 236), but he uses the plural (phȏnêsantes, bantes, l. 239); I scan two long syllables (ê ouch, V. 349) as a spondee when these two syllables must be scanned as one (by synizesis); sometimes I make eight or nine abortive recordings; then I begin to cough badly just as I am approaching the end of a perfect take. I always end by simply listening to what I have just recorded; I put it on my website only if I feel happy with it; enjoying it is a perfect reward for all this work. I must choose passages of manageable length, 50 lines on average, for the longer the passage I choose, the more mistakes I am prone to make. At Balliol I shall have the luxury of immersing myself in Homer for three hours, correcting my mistakes, but going on reciting. It will be the nearest I can get to re-living the experience of the rhapsodes reciting Homer to their audiences.

But the event could take an even more rewarding course. Oxford classical philosophers and classicists might come to question my approach to Homer and to Ancient Greek, or my views on Ancient Philosophy, as I questioned Oxford dons who visited my seminar in Prague thirty-odd years ago.  I have chosen Wednesday for my afternoon at Balliol, for my philosophy seminars were held on Wednesdays and they lasted on average about three hours.

The contention between me and my Oxford colleagues concerns Ancient Greek. For my colleagues, reading Greek texts in the original amounts to translating them into English. I do not translate texts I read; I understand them in Greek.

In the ‘good old days’, one became a true expert in Ancient Greek by virtue of translating English into Greek. Kenneth Dover speaks of his student years: ‘A very important ingredient of our work was “composition”, which meant the translation of sophisticated literary English into Greek or Latin prose and of passages of English poetry into Greek or Latin verse (Marginal Comment, p. 37). Speaking of his work at Oxford University, he says: ‘My tutorial work in the first two terms of the year was much the kind of thing I had experienced as an undergraduate in Mods: translation from sophisticated English, prose and verse, into Greek and Latin … I myself had always found that six hours or more spent on a composition (and I sometimes spent twelve) taught me more about the language than the same amount of time spent on reading texts (p. 67).’ ‘Reading texts’ does not mean understanding texts in Greek, but understanding Greek texts in English. Consider what he says on p. 128: ‘When we look something up in a Greek or Latin text, we do not translate the whole page, but home in on the words which tell us what we want to know.’

Dover says: ‘It is now more than a hundred years since classicists began to lament the decline in the part played by Greek and Latin in our educational system’. Willcock published his Commentary to the Iliad in 1978; by then the decline of classics was in full sway. Instead of directing his readers towards understanding Homer in Greek, he instructs them to translate Homer. In the first book of the Iliad Zeus addresses Hera as daimoniê (l. 561); Willcock remarks: “Translate ‘my dear’”. In the second book Odysseus addresses each king as daimonie (l. 190); Willcock says: “Translate ‘my friend’”. A few lines later Odysseus addresses a common soldier as daimonie, where neither ‘my dear’ nor ‘my friend’ is appropriate, for he commands the man to sit quietly, to listen to those, who are better than him, calls him unwarlike (aptolemos), impotent (analkis), of no account in battle (oute pot’ en polemȏi enarithmios) or in counsel (out’ eni boulêi, ll. 200-201). This daimonie Willcock leaves without comment, yet this is just the moment when he should draw the attention of the reader to the different shades of meaning of daimonie in different contexts. Explaining laisêia te pteroenta in Bk V. l. 453, Willcock says: ‘laisêia are clearly smaller and lighter shields than aspides or sakea. Most probably the laisêion had a fringe, or tassels, which would wave about in the air as it was moved. Thus “fluttering” will do as a translation for pteroenta.’

Willcock elucidates Odysseus’ daimoni’, ou se eoike kakon hȏs deidissesthai in Bk II. l 190 very perceptively: “The meaning of this line is ‘It is not right that I should try to frighten you as if you were a coward.’” His explanation of pteroenta I quoted is unobjectionable; those who aim at understanding Homer in Greek can derive great benefit from his Commentary. The decline of classical studies can be turned around, if our aim becomes enjoying the classics in the original instead of torturing the students with the task of translating them.

I should like to discuss with Oxford students and teachers the best ways of acquiring the ability to understand Ancient Greek. In the 1980’s, when I was permitted to give lectures and seminars at the Sub-faculty of Philosophy of Oxford University, I advised students to use translations as a help: ‘Read a sentence in Greek. Don’t translate it, read it in a translation, and if possible, in more than one translation. Then read the sentence again in Greek; don’t desist, until you understand it in Greek. Use French and German translations, if you can; for these translations will elucidate the Greek text, and after doing so ‘fall away’ without becoming attached to Greek. Read as much as you can, for you can’t learn Greek by virtue of reading one or two dialogues of Plato, one or two tragedies of Sophocles.’

Since the demise of Ancient Greek as a living language, it never has been so easy to enjoy Greek authors, as at present, when we can derive all the help we need from good dictionaries, commentaries, and translations, which past generations of scholars have prepared for us. But even with all this help, learning Ancient Greek is an arduous and a life-long task. Is it worth the trouble, worth the expenditure of energy it requires? I should like to discuss this question with Oxford neurophysiologists.

Carpenter and Reddi in their Neurophysiology define the fundamental problem of neuroscience as that of tracing the relationship between molecular and cellular mechanisms in the brain ‘all the way to what was going on in Michelangelo’s head as he painted the Sistine Chapel … 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 layer 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.’ (5th edition, Hodder Arnold, 2012, p. 9)

There is a fundamental flaw in the S (stimulus) → R (response) scheme presented by the authors, for they define S as ‘the incoming sensory pattern’. On p. 10 of their Neurophysiology they write: ‘Receptors in the eye convey information about only a miniscule part of the retinal image, in effect a single pixel; but after a few levels have been passed, in the visual cortex, we find units that are able to respond to a specific type of stimulus, such as a moving edge, over wide areas of the visual field.’ – The sight of dinner is a response to the information conveyed to the brain and processed on the way, beginning with the receptors in the eye, chemical transmitters on synapses, and electric currents in neurons. What happens in the visual cortex? The information that reached the visual cortex is coded there by the interaction of chemical transmitters on synapses with electric currents in neurons. Whatever may be the shape of the vast network of neurons involved in the coding, it is completely different from the shape of the dinner we see it in front of us on the table. There must therefore be something, which receives the information coded in the brain and transforms it into the sight of dinner. This ‘something’ is the subconscious part of our human spiritual nature, HSN.

Carpenter and Reddi maintain that ‘it is now simply superfluous to invoke anything other than neural circuits to explain every aspect of Man’s overt behaviour’ (p. 294).’ But they propose to view consciousness as ‘a spectator, watching from its seat in the brainstem the play of activity on the cortex above it, perhaps able in some way to direct its attention from one area of interest to another, but not able to influence what is going on.’ (p. 296) But a spectator watching from its seat in the brainstem the play of activity on the cortex above it would be unable to watch anything but a bewildering network of neurons with their axons and dendrites, chemical transmitters moving in and out of neurons, opening and closing ligand channels, action potentials propagated in neurons. None of all this enters our consciousness. Our consciousness is inseparably linked to the subconscious part of HSN, which transforms the brain activities into the world in which we live. HSN is as real and factual as are the scientific data provided by physics and by neurophysiology. When we realize this, our view of ourselves as human beings changes dramatically.

The ability to produce the world of our consciousness, the ability we all have as human beings, could not be acquired by our individual activities in our early childhood. Think just how long it takes a child to learn its mother tongue. This ability must be the result of the evolutionary process that started with the first living organisms acquiring the capability of sensing and avoiding external danger, of sensing sources of sustenance outside of themselves and moving towards them. Only spiritual nature, however primitive it may have been in its initial stage, could produce within itself what was outside these organisms, doing so on the basis of the effects that the environment had on those primitive organisms. Space and time, which Kant rightly views as a priori representations (a priori Vorstellungen), which precede and make possible all our sense perceptions (Empfindungen), are in fact the result of all this development, are its a posteriori. It is within the framework of this evolutionary development that we should view and appreciate human cultural development and the benefits that can be derived from Ancient Greek.

In the Phaedrus Plato’s Socrates introduces the theory of Forms, such as justice (dikaiosunê), self-control (sȏphrosunê), knowledge (epistêmê), wisdom (phronêsis), and beauty (kallos), these are true beings accessible only to intellect. He maintains that prior to their incarnation, all human souls had seen the Forms, for speech is communicated by a flow of perceptions, which must be gathered together by reason and understood according to Form (249b-c). The philosophic affinity between Plato’s Forms and Kant’s a priori concepts is obvious. In the last brief section of his Critique of Pure Reason Kant proposes the history of pure reason (Die Geschichte der reinen Vernunft) as the task that remains to be done; it is to be the history of philosophy as it culminated in the discovery of truth. A German philosopher W. G. Tennemann undertook this task, and he began to fulfil it with his System of Platonic Philosophy (System der Platonischen Philosophie, published in 1792). On the assumption that the more truth a philosophic system contains, the more it approximates Kant, he rejected the ancient dating of Plato’s Phaedrus as his first dialogue. In his view, Plato’s philosophy developed towards the theory of Forms in the Phaedrus, as all the subsequent philosophy developed towards Kant’s idea of a priori.

Paradoxically, Socrates’ idea that human speech is possible only on the basis of the Recollection of Forms, and that therefore all human beings saw the Forms prior to their incarnation, provided me with the main philosophic argument for taking seriously the ancient dating of the Phaedrus. For in the Republic Plato’s Socrates maintains that only those who can see the Forms should be allowed to study philosophy (496a), and in the Timaeus Plato’s sage from Italy, Timaeus, tells his listeners, Socrates among them, that only a tiny race of human beings (anthrȏpȏn genos brachu ti) can see the Forms (51e).

After our discussion on the Phaedrus in May 1980, I suggested to Kathy Wilkes that we should read the dialogue together. She obtained a grant for that purpose, and we spent four weeks in July and August 1980, my last weeks in Prague before going to Oxford, reading the Phaedrus. The summer was lovely, and so we did most of our reading in Stromovka, formerly a deer park of the Czech kings. Without being aware of it, we were photographed by secret policemen. My brother, who after the Velvet Revolution became the Head of the Police supervisory commission, donated the photos to me. Four of these photos follow.

Our joint reading provided me with a powerful argument in favour of the ancient dating of the Phaedrus. In the dialogue Socrates presents Polemarchus as a model philosopher. This follows Socrates’ assertion that those who pursue philosophy live a blessed and harmonious life here on earth. Polemarchus died at the hands of the Thirty Tyrants in 404 B. C., five years before Socrates’ death. The ancients believed that a man’s life can be considered good only if he meets a good end. Polemarchus’ end was not good; his brother Lysias gives a graphic description of the circumstances in which he died in Against Eratosthenes, written shortly after the demise of the Thirty. In my view, the Phaedrus had to be written and published prior to Polemarchus’ death. Kathy agreed. After arriving at Oxford we wrote together ‘Socrates in the Phaedrus’, which Kathy sent to The Classical Quarterly. The Editor, Anthony Long, replied that it was well written and that he thought of publishing it and be damned, but that in the end he decided not to do so, for publishing it would destroy my prospects as a philosopher. Later I learnt that Kathy had to return the grant she had received for her month in Prague.

These are some of the themes that I should like to discuss with Oxford colleagues.

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