A Conversation with Mary Lefkowitz

The Postil is most pleased and deeply honored to publish this interview with Mary Lefkowitz, professor emerita of Classical Studies, at Wellesley College. Her husband was the late Classics scholar, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones. She is the author of such important works as, The Victory Ode: An Introduction, The Lives of the Greek Poets, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn From Myths, among many other works. She has also been a stout-hearted and brilliant opponent of the “Black Athena” fantasy-theory, as laid out in her two books, Black Athena Revisited and Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History. She further described her ordeal in History Lesson. Currently, she has co-edited, The Greek Plays. She is interviewed here by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): The first time I came across your name was in the second half of mid 1980s. I found an article you wrote in the English Conservative magazine, The Salisbury Review, edited back then by Sir Roger Scruton. It was an anti-feminist article – an article written by a female scholar of antiquity. Yet you wrote several books about women in ancient times, in tragedy. One can’t think of Greek tragedy without women. My question is: Where does your interest in ancient women come from? Clearly, given your stance on feminism, it was not just a fashion: A woman writing about women.

Mary Lefkowitz (ML): That article was one of several articles which I wrote about revisionist histories. In the seventies and eighties some feminists were using Greek myths to argue that early in human history there had been peaceful matriarchal societies that were eventually usurped by men, and I tried to show why myth couldn’t be used as historical evidence. I can’t imagine that there ever was a time when women were in continual charge of their societies. Until relatively recently in human history, anatomy was destiny.

ZJ: When you look at your antifeminist articles, your book Not Out of Africa, and watch today’s academic landscape, do you think fighting it, writing against it, changed anything? I can come up with a few names of female scholars in your field (Mary Beard and Edith Hall) who write about the Greeks and the Romans as if feminism and Marxism were an orthodoxy. Beard’s popular history of Rome reminds me of the Marxist interpretations of Roman history which I read in Communist Poland: Roman masses are her hero. Now the same message comes from the most prestigious British universities.

ML: Feminism, Marxism, and Afrocentrism are like religions; believers are not persuaded by arguments based on known, warranted facts. But (as I think I said) I’m not against feminism per se. Rather, what I object to is the use of mythology as history.

ZJ: The position of women in Greece was not the same as in Rome. There is no Greek Livia, Augustus’ wife, who—if we follow Robert Graves’ account —was the real force who shaped Augustus’ politics, and so many others. Given different stature of women in Greece and Rome (Greek women, from what we know, did not yield the same power, even behind the scene), how do you explain the importance of women in Greek tragedy? Did the Greeks see some fundamental difference between men and women which the tragedy explores?

ML: In fifth-century Athens women certainly did not have any political power, but women in Sparta had considerable political influence, and Artemisia of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor commanded her own ship fighting against the Greeks in the battle of Salamis. But in the Hellenistic Era, there were powerful women rulers who had even more power than Livia, e.g. the Macedonian Greek Cleopatra VII of Egypt. Such women were all from royal or aristocratic families.

ZJ: What is striking about Greek tragedies is the importance of female characters. Neither Ismene nor Chrysothemis in Sophocles’ Antigone and Electra seem to have much to contribute to the plot. They serve as a contrast to Antigone and Electra. What I mean by contrast is the personae of Ismene and Chrysosthemis—their femininity. They want to live, have families, children. Antigone and Chrysosthemis, on the other hand, are obsessed with one idea: vengeance. But for it to work, they have to turn off their emotions, forget about their feminine charm, their feminine nature. There must be a reason why both playwrights chose women to be there, why they constructed the pairs of women to act this way. Do you think there is something about women, their psychology, their nature, that Sophocles and Euripides saw and explored? After all, one could use a male character there, but they did not.

ML: I suspect that Greek women, then as now, had plenty to say, even though they weren’t officially in change – that’s apparent even in Homer. Contrasting strong women with weak women allows the dramatist to show that women can be as heroic as men in life and death situations.

ZJ: Unlike in a number of other disciplines, there are and were many outstanding female scholars of antiquity: you; Jacqueline de Romily in France; in my native Poland there were several; Lidia Winniczuk, H. Kronska, Maria Dzielska. There is Grace Harriet Macurdy, professor at Vassar College, whose book Hellenistic Queens was published in 1932! One can also invoke the name of the 18th century translator of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, Mrs. Carter. And, of course, Edith Hamilton, the author of very popular books on Greece and Rome. You can probably come up with many more names. What attracts women to Greece and Rome? You said, “Contrasting strong women with weak women allows the dramatist to show that women can be as heroic as men in life and death situations” Is it just a question of weak versus strong women? Why should we assume that the strength of women lies in their being “as heroic as men”? Why should we measure strength of women by analogy of what is valuable in men? Why not assume, as we did even in the Enlightenment period, that the virtues of women – of which Rousseau in his Emile or La Nouvelle Heloise and Laclos in his Education of Women wrote – are different and they should be measured as such? Would you not agree that to judge women against men – whether they can be like men – is to capitulate to the democratic idea of equality.

ML: How do we measure qualities like courage? How can we measure courage? Or constancy, or determination, or whatever other qualities we can think of? More men have been greater mathematicians and physicists than have women, but is that because men have more testosterone in their systems than women, or because women have not had the same encouragement or opportunity?

I suspect that what attracted women to the study of antiquity is what has attracted men to the study of antiquity: the challenge of learning difficult languages, the excitement of reading great literature. In my own case, learning Latin helped me understand the structure of English grammar. Greek seemed to me to be particularly interesting because the words seemed to be more literal, closer to what the parent language must have been like. I tried to make myself study something more practical, like Chemistry, but couldn’t stop wanting to read Sophocles. So that’s what I did.

ZJ: T. S. Eliot once said, tragedy is impossible in the Christian world, or Biblical world – I cannot remember. But the Old Testament story of Job seems to indicate that he had both in mind. I made it my habit to teach the Book of Job to students to draw a contrast between the Greeks and the Hebrews, and, more precisely, between Job’s attitude and Epictetus or the Stoics. My standard questions after reading the two texts is: “Was Job a Stoic?” If you were to look at Job from Mars, you would not know whether he reconciled himself to his fate because he had faith in God or whether he reconciled himself because he was a Greek Stoic philosopher, a man who accepted life “as it happens.” “Don’t seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen,” says Epictetus. Perfect one-line expression of the Greek mind. Was Eliot right? Tragedy in the Biblical tradition—whether the Jewish or Christian versions—seems impossible. No savior, no messiah. The universe is blind and deaf, and thus, human life is tragic!

ML: Eliot was right. You can’t have tragedy in a universe where divinities are supposed to promote human welfare and cooperate with one another. Ancient Greek deities disagree with one another. Hence the Trojan War, the death of Hippolytus, Juno’s wrath against the Trojans in the Aeneid.

ZJ: If you think of what happened to Oedipus, he does what he was bound to, but then when he discovers what he did—killed his father, slept with his mother—he blinds himself. Another proof: Fatum is blind, we must account for our “sins” even if we did not know, which makes me think of Agamemnon and the origin of a fundamental issue in European culture: Justice.

The Trojan war. It starts with the abduction of Helen. The Greeks gather at Aulis. Agamemnon goes hunting; crosses the sanctuary of the Goddess of Nature, Artemis, who demands sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia; reluctantly, he does it because the winds will not blow; he goes to Troy, comes back, he gets killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, who, to avenge the death of their daughter, kills him. The filial duty falls on Orestes and Electra, the two children, who kill their mother, and who must be killed. It is a domino effect. Those involved in the killing must suffer too. Why? Because Agamemnon unknowingly crossed the boundaries of the Goddess sanctuary. Ignorance, like in Oedipus’s case, is no excuse in the eyes of the gods. Finally, Apollo intervenes because Orestes and Electra would have to be executed for killing their mother, which they had to do.

The moral is: Vengeance is not mine; to do justice we have to transfer it to the impersonal entity, the State; family members cannot exact justice. Is this so? Is this the point where and when European civilization begins – with the recognition of creating a system where emotions must be turned off? Would you agree with such a characterization?

ML: I wouldn’t put it quite that way. Fate isn’t blind; we are. Hamartia doesn’t mean “sin,” but rather “missing the mark,” “making an error in judgment,” which is what Oedipus did when he thought he could avoid fulfilling the oracle that he would kill his father and marry his mother by leaving Corinth, and the people he thought were his father and mother, which enabled him to fulfill the oracle by heading for Thebes. Tragedy reminds us of this fundamental human weakness. We always know less than we think we know. Tragedy allows us to turn our emotions on, and to reflect on the limitations of our own knowledge.

ZJ: Let me continue by moving to a special topic: Western Civilization. In AeschylusPersians, the playwright makes the Persian king listen to his advisor, to understand that the Greeks govern themselves in an incomprehensible way: they are governed by the many, not one king. The explanation comes when the Persian defeat is just about to happen. Let me point out, if the Greeks were to lose, there would be no democracy, no republic if the Persians were to invade and conquer Italy, no system of government that we take for granted today.

Western civilization is a complex entity, built over two thousand years but the question is what are its foundations, the ingredients without which it would not exist. When I teach I use an image of what we call in America: a melting pot, but it is a Western Civ. pot: here are my ingredients: The Jewish/Biblical One God, love your neighbor, in the Christian form, love of all others, other nations; Greek ingredient is philosophy, mathematics, architecture, tragedy, and democracy; my Roman ingredient: Roman law, administration, architecture (arches; aqueducts, dome), republican form of government (two chambers). You mix it, you get the basic dish: European civilization from which the Middle Ages and Renaissance sprang. In it you have the foundations of Modern Europe.

Yet, all of this is today under attack: colonialism, racism, misogyny, patriarchy. Why are we so ungrateful to the Greeks and Romans? You spent your life in Ivory Tower. Life of the mind is the most precious thing, and yet, it is the academics who are destroying it.

ML: Academe hasn’t been an ivory tower since the student revolutions of the late 1960s, as the result of which curricula became increasingly politicized. Academics and students wanted to study society’s problems so they could do something about them. They wanted action and had no time for reflection. What they didn’t and still don’t understand is that knowing something about the past and human nature could help them better to understand the present.

ZJ: Several years ago, I came across the name of a Saudi Arab intellectual Ibrahim al-Buleihi, former Saudi Shura Council Member, who in an interview titled “Western Civilization Has Liberated Mankind” said many things that few professors in America would have the courage to say. Here it is:
Buleihi: “My attitude towards Western civilization is an attitude based on obvious facts and great accomplishments; here is a reality full of wonderful and amazing things. [Recognizing] this doesn’t mean that I am blindly fascinated. This is the very opposite of the attitude of those who deny and ignore the bright lights of Western civilization. Just look around… and you will notice that everything beautiful in our life has been produced by Western civilization: even the pen that you are holding in your hand, the recording instrument in front of you, the light in this room, and the journal in which you work, and many innumerable amenities, which are like miracles for the ancient civilizations. If it were not for the accomplishments of the West, our lives would have been barren. I only look objectively and value justly what I see and express it honestly. Whoever does not admire great beauty is a person who lacks sensitivity, taste, and observation. Western civilization has reached the summit of science and technology. It has achieved knowledge, skills, and new discoveries, as no previous civilization before it. The accomplishments of Western civilization cover all areas of life: methods of organization, politics, ethics, economics, and human rights. It is our obligation to acknowledge its amazing excellence. Indeed, this is a civilization that deserves admiration… The horrible backwardness in which some nations live is the inevitable result of their refusal to accept this [abundance of Western ideas and visions] while taking refuge in denial and arrogance.”

‘Okaz: “Sir, you can admire this civilization as much as you want, but not at the expense of others, especially our own civilization.”

Buleihi: “My admiration for the West is not at the expense of others; rather, it is an invitation to those others to acknowledge their illusions and go beyond their inferiority and liberate themselves from backwardness. [Those others] should admit their shortcomings, and make an effort to overcome them; they should stop denying the truth and closing their eyes to the multitude of wonderful achievements. They should be fair towards those nations that achieved prosperity for themselves but did not monopolize it for themselves and instead allowed the whole world to share the results of this progress, so that other nations of the whole world now enjoy these achievements. Furthermore, Western civilization has given to the world knowledge and skills which made it possible for them, the non-Western nations, to compete with it in production and share markets with it. Criticizing one’s own deficiencies is a precondition to inducing oneself to change for the better. Conversely, to glorify one’s backward apathetic self is to establish and fortify backwardness, to strengthen the shackles of apathy, and to eradicate the capabilities of excellence. Backwardness is a shameful reality, which we should resent and from which we must liberate ourselves.”

What is your reaction to al-Buleihi’s statement?

ML: I agree with what he says. The students who chanted “Western Civ has got to go” were only considering the downside of Western Civ, which is pretty much the downside of human nature generally, anger, violence, self-aggrandizement, etc. Plato and Aristotle showed us ways in which all people could lead more constructive lives, but their visions did little to address social issues, like oppression of certain people, such as slaves.

ZJ: There is a tendency today to just go over religious traditions (plural) as if religion was never part of any culture. Why do we operate in this religious vacuum and how does it obfuscate our understanding of both Antiquity and Modernity? You probably know the movie Troy with Brad Pitt. It is, in my opinion, a very well-done movie. However, same thing: no gods! Last year in November, Joseph Epstein wrote a nice piece for the Wall Street Journal about Thucydides. I always enjoy finding something like that. The title of it is “History Made by Men, not Gods.” To ignore gods is to miss the point of the Iliad. Gods are as important as humans. I remember Sir Moses Finley’s several articles about Socrates, whose trial, according to him was motivated to a large extent by the suspicion that he really did not believe in the gods, and the Athenians, remembering well the plagues that visited Athens and devastated population during the war, thought disbelief was a serious problem. What is your view here when it comes to taking religious views seriously? Can one understand culture, Greece and Rome, in particular, by simply saying – myths, gods…

ML: I believe that you cannot understand ancient Greek literature, history or philosophy unless you take account of ancient Greek religion. Although it’s hard for us to understand, Greek theology (I prefer that term to mythology) assumes that the gods exist for their own benefit and for the benefit of human beings, and that they often work at cross purposes from one another. It provides a means of understanding why bad things happen to good people, and the forces of evil are so often successful.

ZJ: Is what I implied in my previous question a matter of changing world-view (un-religious, a-religious, atheist, skeptical, scientific, or whatever else you want to call it or; ignorance, or a-historicity), which makes us create worlds of the past that do not correspond to historical reality and from which we can’t learn.

ML: We could learn from ancient Greek religion that there is only so much we can do to shape the courses of our own lives, much less the lives of our communities or nations.

ZJ: When did the awareness of the Ancient world start dying in the US, in the West? Complaints go back to the 19th century. I have in front of me two wonderful little books by Henry Nettleship, a great scholar of antiquity: The True Aim of Classical Education and The Moral Influence of Literature, and The Moral Influence of Literature: Classical Education in the Past and at Present. Two Popular Addresses. Both books aim at explaining the importance of the classics. The decline of interest can be traced, I think, to the late 1970s. The map of heavens is Greco-Roman, so were all space programs: Geminin Apollo, etc. Then, things changed. No Greeks, no Romans. Columbia, Challenger, etc. and the nail in the coffin was… Jessie Jackson in 1988: “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western culture’s got to go.” So, the Greeks, the Romans, the West are gone. You as a teacher of the Greeks in a prestigious college are well qualified to explain: Should we feel more sorry for the Greeks, or for ourselves?

ML: For ourselves, of course. Western Civilization has many shortcomings. Greek philosophy has not solved all the world’s problems, because it is essentially elitist and relies on the existence of a working underclass. But the critical thinking that it encourages offers the best means of finding equitable solutions for the disparities in our society.

ZJ: This leads me to the question that made you to be probably the most known classicist in America. The controversy in which you were involved. It concerned the book by Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Can you briefly say what the book claims before I ask you about your role in this controversy? You responded to Bernal’s book with your own book: Not Out of Africa: How “Afrocentrism” Became An Excuse To Teach Myth As History. Something must have deeply gotten to you that made you write an entire book to debunk a myth. Was it just scholarly integrity or something else? After all, not all scholars of Antiquity bothered to write a sentence. Why did you pick the fight? What do you think motivates people like Bernal to write such books?

ML: I believe that Bernal (an Englishman) resented the prestige associated with studying Greek and Latin in British public schools (=of course, elite British private schools) and may have had an unimaginative Classics teacher at his school, because he believed that learning conjugations and declensions numbed the minds of anyone who studied Classics. My experience with learning Latin was just the opposite: it helped me understand the structure of the English language and encouraged me to think about the etymology of words. Greek was even more exciting because it was even more foreign and harder to put into English. The first Greek text that I bought was the New Testament, which I was able to read on my own because the syntax was easier than that of earlier Greek prose writers. Reading the first sentences Gospel according to John in Greek helped me understand how much had been lost in translation.

ZJ: We’ve come to the point in our conversation when I have to ask you about PC in America, at American universities. It is a destructive force. No one, perhaps with the exception of Allan Bloom in the 1980s, understood how influential and destructive certain trends can be. Serious academic life is close to being gone, and it is not only because of myths about African origins of classical civilization, or relativism, that Bloom was concerned with. No one even uses this term today. Today we look at everything through the lenses of sexism, racism, misogyny, feminism, colonialism (the last term is a bit passé).

ML: Political correctness is an orthodoxy, like that of a monotheistic religion. (Ancient polytheism was much more open: new gods could be added ad lib.). Monotheists look down on polytheism as superstition. Any questioning of orthodoxy is heresy, punishable by exclusion, exile, etc.

ZJ: Do you think we can survive this level of intellectual barbarism which we see around? It is a total disregard for truth, scholarly procedures, life of the mind, and it is not an ordinary American on the street who is supportive of it, but the academics.

ML: We survived the orthodoxy that existed when I was a schoolgirl and an undergraduate (1940s and 1950s) and for a few decades afterward. White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism was the norm, so Catholics and Jews were treated with caution and some suspicion, African Americans were segregated even in the North; all of these were subject to quotas as students and faculty members at many schools and universities are in this country.

ZJ: I started my university education there, in Poland, not in Stalinist times, to be sure, but never experienced what my students are experiencing in America today. Some of them see that something is not right, but are too afraid to say anything. Only last week, a female student came up to me and said, “Dr. Janowski, do you realize you are the minority of one here; in other classes students who disagree with professors are berated; other students attacked me.” My student’s feelings are now common. Many of them are afraid. Do you see a way out of it?

ML: The way around it is to do what you are doing, to encourage students to think independently and to question orthodoxies.

ZJ: What role can and should Classical education play in rebuilding sanity? Is there a way of explaining the importance of classical education to the general public, to give support to what appears obvious to me and you.

ML: Learning about foreign and ancient cultures requires us to think, to use our imaginations, and to get out of ourselves into very different worlds. Ancient Greece and Rome are particularly worth studying because their writing and thinking and art have had such a profound influence on Western culture. But I am not suggesting that we should regard those cultures uncritically; quite the contrary. And we should acknowledge their debts to other ancient cultures, such as those of Egypt, India, and the different civilizations in Asia Minor.

ZJ: Let me finish this conversation with something I tell students. I make them take a map of British Empire—the massive Empire. I say, look at it and ask yourself how one little country could colonize such vast areas. They must have had skilled people to do it. What do you think they studied? There was no department of Administration, Foreign Affairs, Public Relations, etc. They, as the Brits say, “read” Classics and History. Both give you intellectual skills to understand many things that no specialized, narrow discipline will never give you. Even today, plenty of people in the City of London, graduate from Oxbridge and make big money without a degree in business. What do you think?

ML: I agree with you. Studying ancient Greek and Roman literature is a great way to prepare for any number of careers, first because the process makes you get away from yourself and the times you live in, and reimagine other, different societies and ways of thinking, and then because the subject matter allows you to understand something about the beginnings of European civilization, and its good and bad characteristics.

ZJ: Thank you, Professor Lefkovitz.

The image shows, “Ulysses and the Sirens,” by John William Waterhouse, painted in 1891.

Why Study The Classics?

The Greek and Latin classics have managed to survive up to the present day because they make it possible to grasp some fundamental truths about the nature of human existence. Ancient writers understood that these truths could most effectively be conveyed through stories. In ancient narratives of the myths, mortals come to realize the full extent of their own ignorance. To take just one example: in his drama Antigone Sophocles shows how people remain confident, that they know what they are doing until (as he puts it) they burn their feet in the fire. That “famous saying” to Antigone, who brought about her own death by burying her brother against her uncle Creon’s orders. That saying soon applies also to Creon, whose son kills himself because Antigone is dead. It also applies to everyone who watches or reads the play, because it is human nature to rely on incomplete knowledge when we make major decisions, especially in political situations that later prove to be complex and dangerous.

Even today everyone knows about the disastrous decision made by the Trojans, to bring in the wooden horse left outside their city wall as a “gift” from their enemies, the Greeks. Why did the Trojans make the choice that brought their own destruction, when they could have so easily saved themselves? All they had to do was leave the horse where they found it, outside the city walls – or better still, set it on fire. But instead they decided to bring the horse in, drag it up to their city’s acropolis, and then sit down around it.

They did so (as the Roman poet Virgil tells the story) because almost everyone (including their king Priam) was prepared to believe an attractive story told to them by Sinon, a young man captured by Trojan shepherds. He said that they had left the large wooden horse as an offering to the goddess Minerva (the Greek Athena), and that they had made the horse so large in order to prevent the Trojans from dragging it into their city, and thus to keep the goddess from supporting the Trojans if, in the future, they sought to invade and conquer Greece.

Anyone who had doubts about that story was soon persuaded of its truth by another event. The priest Laocoon (who had advised them not to take any gifts from the Greeks) had been near the seashore, sacrificing a bull to the god Neptune, when suddenly two huge serpents came out of the water, ate both his sons, and crushed him to death. The serpents then went to the temple of Minerva and took shelter around the feet and behind the shield of her statue. Hearing this, the Trojans immediately assumed that Minerva had punished Laocoön.

They opened the gates of their city and tore down part of their walls so they could bring the horse to the goddess’s temple, hoping to win her favor. That night, there were celebrations. After the Trojans had gone to sleep, the Greeks (who had been just out of sight in their ships behind the nearby island of Tenedos) sailed back to Troy. Sinon then opened the door of the horse and let out the Greek soldiers hiding inside, as the Greek army rushed in through the city’s open gates.

Virgil makes it clear that the disaster might have been prevented by asking questions and finding the answers, all of which were readily available. Why accept Sinon’s explanation for the size of the wooden horse? Why didn’t the Trojans bore a hole into the side of the horse to see if anything was inside—Laocoön had already shown them that it was hollow.

Why didn’t the Trojans also make sure that the Greeks really had gone away and were not lying in wait? The Trojans also might have asked themselves if there was another reason why the serpents attacked Laocoön and his sons. Did Minerva and the other gods want to get Laocoön out of the way so that he couldn’t stop the Trojans from bringing the horse into the city? Instead of asking any of these questions, the Trojans were eager to believe that the Greeks had given up the war and gone home.

As Virgil relates it, the tale of the Trojan horse is par excellence about the state of mind that leads to self-delusion. It isn’t just that the Trojans ignored Laocoön’s sensible advice to look inside the horse before they dragged it into the city. Why didn’t they didn’t interrogate Sinon to make sure that his story was true. Why were they prepared to trust their king Priam’s judgment, when they all had every reason not to? They knew that Priam had been warned that a male child born on a certain day would cause Troy to be destroyed, and his wife, Hecuba, had herself dreamed that she was about to give birth to a firebrand. The Trojans would never have become involved in a war with the Greeks if Paris had not been allowed to live.

Paris’s judgment was no better than his parents’: a selfish decision that he had made was the direct cause of the Trojan War. When as a young man Paris was shepherding his flocks on Mount Ida, the god Mercury (Hermes) asked him to pick which of three goddesses was the most beautiful. Each of the goddesses – Minerva, Juno, and Venus – offered Paris a gift. Minerva offered him wisdom and victory in battle, and Juno (Hera) offered him rule over all of Asia. But Venus (Aphrodite) offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, the daughter of Jupiter (Zeus). Paris was bound to get into trouble whichever of the three goddesses he chose because he would anger the two goddesses whose gifts he had declined.

In such circumstances, the most sensible course would have been for Paris to refuse to make the decision – or at least to pick the most powerful goddess, the one who could best protect him against the other two. That goddess was Minerva. Instead Paris chose Venus, the weakest of the three goddesses, who gave him Helen as his reward, even though Helen was already married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta, who then came to Troy with his brother Agamemnon and an army to bring her back. So it was not coincidental that after all those years of fighting, the Greeks won the Trojan war by deception rather than by sheer force.

It seems that people will ignore well-informed and well-intentioned advice if it goes against their own desires. When a person holds two conflicting beliefs or ideas, people tend to pick the belief or idea that pleases them more, even when it does not comport with reality. Priam and the Trojans wanted to believe that the Greeks had given up their siege and gone home. They liked the idea of bringing the horse into the city because that was precisely what the Greeks supposedly did not want them to do.

The American historian Barbara Tuchman chose to use the story of the Trojan horse as the first chapter of The March of Folly, From Troy to Vietnam (1984). In that book she explores the failures of leadership over the centuries. But leaders cannot succeed without cooperation from their citizens. In Tiepolo’s painting “The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy” shows the Trojans struggling to push and drag the horse into their city. The people of Troy shared the blame for the disaster because in their ignorance they wanted to believe that what their leaders had told them was true. History would have looked more favorably on the Trojans if they had tried to circumvent their leaders’ commands, and if by causing delays they had managed to save themselves and their country.

Mary Lefkowitz is professor emerita of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.

The image shows, “The Consul Louis Fauvel at his Easel in Athens,” by Louis Dupré, painted in 1819.

Who Killed the Classics? Or, How to Ennoble Democracy

“Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ Has Got to Go …” (Jessi Jackson, Stanford University, January 15, 1987).

Defending Classical education, or the Classics, is not easy. Many attempts have been made, but they were rather unsuccessful. Even the best arguments of distinguished classicists and scholars of Antiquity sound like desperate plea for survival. One can also wonder why it is only the classicists who defend their discipline. One does not hear, for example, the Medieval or Renaissance scholars weeping over lack of interest in their periods, and low enrollment in their courses.

One explanation is that they know that as important as the knowledge of their historical period is, their epoch is a closed chapter, and the ideas those periods generated have little significance for our lives. This does not seem to be the case with the Classics, particularly the Greeks. Their world is, or that is what the Classicists believe, as important today as it was over two thousand years ago.

Before I explain why Classical education is important and why it died, or is dying, let me briefly recount a few historical facts. If one looks at the history of roughly six centuries in the West, the Classics had many moments of good fortune.

The first was the Renaissance, the epoch which resurrected Classical or Greco-Roman antiquity, and whose literal definition is “Rebirth.” It was a rebirth of the Greco-Roman world, the world whose institutional structures collapsed in 476 AD. However, the Renaissance was not only a rebirth. It was also the time in Western history when, after almost a thousand years, Europe achieved a comparable level of cultural development which we find in the late Roman Empire.

The 17th-century was by no means a continuation of the Renaissance. Despite the fact that 17th-century thinkers attacked the ancients, 17th century was a classical age par excellence. It was an “age of eloquence”; an age of French theatre, of Corneille and Racine, who applied strict classical rules in their plays and rhetoric. Were it not for the genius of Shakespeare, who broke those rules, the ancients would have been indisputable winners in this contest. Painters (Paul Rubens, Nicholas Poussin, Claude Lorraine, and many others) made Greece and Rome the subject of their many works.

The 18th-century was different, but equally lucky. Rome seized the imagination of the artists, major and minor. One can easily discern Classical motives in Baroque and Rococo ornaments. Giuseppe Vasi was obsessed with antiquity, just like his student, Giovani Baptista Piranesi. He was particularly taken by Rome; so were his successors Luigi Rossini and Gabriele Ricciardelli. Those who are lovers of Roman antiquity cannot free themselves from the memory of the dark ink dripping from Piranesi and Rossini’s engravings.

Late 18th-century “inventory” of antiquity, initiated by German historian and archeologist, Johann Joachim Winkelmann, was at the root of the West’s second love affair with the world of Greece and Rome. Prints with details and measurements of ancient temples and sculptures became a commonplace at the end of the 18th century. Their cheaper, less illustrious versions flooded the printing and book market in the first half of the 19th-century.

“Greeks are Us,” was the motto of all European Romantics, from Goethe to Byron, to Keats and Shelley, to Chateaubriand and Valéry, to Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki. Some of them could even compose their poems in Latin. In contrast to copper plates, which were used in the 17th- and 18th-centuries, the invention of steel-plates in the 19th century made it possible for thousands of ordinary readers of weekly magazines to familiarize themselves with the images of Greek and Roman architecture.

Albums with steel plates illustrations were printed in countless editions, and their prices were sufficiently low for anyone interested in antiquity to purchase them. The last act in the Greco-Roman tragedy of decline was the rise of the school of Neo-Classicism in painting and architecture. At the beginning of the 20th-century, the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans came to an end.

Paradoxically, this happened when Classical scholarship was at its peak, when complete critical editions of the ancient authors had been published. Individual editions were widely available, and Classical scholars could start working on their meticulous interpretations of each and every individual work that survived.

Proceeding roughly from the end of WWII, the number of hours devoted to studying Greek, Latin and the ancient authors would decline decade after decade. Today, learning Classics in most Western countries is not even required.

There are reasons why we find ourselves where we are and why the Classics have been demoted. The reading of Henry Nettleship’sClassical Education in the Past and at Present” (1890) and John Stuart Mill’s “Inaugural Address to the University of Saint Andrew’s in Scotland” (1867), makes today’s reader aware that the mid-19th-century mind was already aware of the necessity of making room for science. The number of hours devoted to the study of different branches of science had to increase, but it was not the reason why the teaching of Greek and Latin started declining. The decline had roots in the rise of democratic mentality.

In 1816, in his speech “On the Liberty of the Ancients and the Moderns,” occasioned by Napoleon’s imperial adventures, rebuilding an empire, Benjamin Constant made an important observation: Napoleon was a ghost from the past, the man who tried to revive the ancient world, incompatible with the spirit of modern times.

Modern times, modern liberties, Constant argued, are incompatible with the bellicose and aristocratic spirit of ancient republics; modern life is based on commercial transactions, the desire to cultivate the private realm, independent of the collective, characteristic of the ancient Greek polis. The famous painting by Jacques-Louis David of Napoleon standing by a desk, under which there are two massive tomes of Plutarch’s Lives, is an allusion to where the spirit of the Empire comes from: The Greeks and the Romans.

In 1864, the French scholar Fustel de Coulanges published an influential book, La cité antique (The Ancient City). In it, he argued, that the state and religion in ancient Greece dominated every aspect of individual existence. Ancient democracy meant collective sovereignty; not individual independence protected by individual rights. Imitation of ancient republics would mean, as it did during Napoleon’s reign, giving up individual freedoms for the sake of ancient virtues.

The insights we find in Constant and de Coulanges do not make a case against Classical education, but they do point to the differences between the Greek and Roman world and Modern commercial democracies. The message was rather clear: modern man’s commercial spirit, need for privacy, and independence are incompatible with the ancient way of life. If so, it appeared more and more clear, classical education was unnecessary, or even useless.

Modern life and modern democracy called for a new, practical, form of education. Education meant no longer education to virtue – this being different in men and women – but education to democratic citizenship. The works by Rousseau (Emile and La nouvelle Heloise), or Laclos (On the Education of Women) looked out-of-date in the new world, just like reading Homer and Plutarch. Enough to contrast 20th-century books for children with their 19th-century counterparts, which were still heavily influenced by the Classics and told children stories about virtuous Greeks and Romans, to see the difference. Contrasting them with today’s children’s books, one gets the full picture. The characters are ordinary “kids,” living ordinary life, having ordinary problems. Hardly if ever they are inspired by a sense of greatness or excellence that the classics taught.

John Stuart Mill who since childhood was steeped in Classical education was reconciled to the advent of democracy, but saw it as fundamentally lacking in excellence. In his analysis of the differences between the ancient and modern mind, he finds the modern mind to be superior only in one respect.

Modern poetry, Mill writes, “is superior to the ancient, in the same manner, though in a less degree, as modern science: It enters deeper into nature. The feelings of the modern mind are more various, more complex and manifold, than those of the ancients ever were. The modern mind is, what ancient mind was not, brooding and self-conscious; and its meditative self-consciousness has discovered depths in the human soul which the Greeks and Romans did not dream of, and would not have understood.”

This is certainly true, and in this regard, the Moderns, who invented the novel – a form of writing unknown to the ancients – could indeed claim superiority. However, Mill also notices that in the manner of expression, the ancients were superior.

Their superiority stemmed from the fact that they addressed their writings to a small leisure class: “To us who write in a hurry for people who read in a hurry, the attempt to give an equal degree of finish would be loss of time. But to be familiar with perfect model is not the less important to us because the element in which we work precludes even the effort to equal them. The shew us at least what excellence is, and makes us desire it, and strive to get as near to it as is within our reach.”

Mill was not isolated in his observation, and most likely borrowed it from the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, who, during his visit to America, observed a degenerative tendency of literary style in democratic societies. The claim of the superiority of the ancients in the realm of style, eloquence and historical analysis, to which Mill refers, invoking Thucydides, Quintilian, Cicero, Demosthenes, could, it would seem, serve as a strong argument for the mandatory teaching of the Classics in a democratic society: If the modern democratic mind cannot achieve the same level of excellence on its own, then, it follows logically, it should and ought to learn from the voices of their ancient predecessors.

This is what the American writer Henry David Thoreau postulated in the chapter on “Reading” in his Walden (1854). “For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave… Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind… No wonder that Alexander [the Great] carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics.”

Thoreau’s use of the word “aristocracy” reveals the essential point in the discussion over the problem of classical education in a democracy. When, in 1987, Allan Bloom, The University of Chicago professor and a lover of Plato, published The Closing of the American Mind, he was viciously attacked. His book sold over a million copies. Bloom, the critics claimed, was an “elitist,” which was another way of saying, Bloom supports hierarchy!

But Bloom’s “elitism” was of a strange kind. Bloom encouraged students to read the Classics to understand what virtuous life is. He understood that the Greek and Roman Classics contain a world’s greatest treasure which cannot be found anywhere else. Ancient Greece, and Rome which perpetuated and spread the Greek intellectual heritage, was not one of many civilizations. It was the civilization par excellence, a yardstick against which we measure every other civilization.

The college curriculum given predominance to the Classics, in the language of his critics, was “discriminating” and based on “exclusion” of other cultures. And they were right! What is an elite, if not an aristocracy, and a class? But this strange class was not, like in the past, a class with hereditary privileges, but a class of readers – readers of the Classics. Bloom’s American “aristocracy” was not an aristocracy of color, ethnicity, hereditary privilege. It consisted of several thousand diverse students each year who read Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Cicero and others.

Instead of imposing “the elitist” curriculum on all, turning the American youth into the “elite,” the partisans of change – with Rev. Jessi Jackson, a loud proponent of educational destruction — did the opposite: They decided to close students’ access to the Greek playwrights, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, and others by doing away with Western Civilization courses.

Why did they do it? They did in the name of multiculturalism, which is nothing other than intellectual egalitarianism. It claims all cultures are equal and none should be privileged. Therefore, the authors from other cultures are as good as the Greeks and Romans. They perceived the existence of Great Books programs, as we call the Classics in America, to be a mechanism of perpetuating educational—and thus social and political—inequality. Paradoxically, in doing destroying the traditional curriculum, they did what the Founding Fathers feared.

Thomas Jefferson – the man whose obsession with equality and hatred of hereditary aristocracy finds no equal in modern times – thought of natural aristocracy as a pillar of the democratic system of government, one without which democracy is bound to degenerate.

In his letter to John Adams (October 28, 1813), he wrote “For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents… The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trust, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectual for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the office of government.”

A similar sentiment can be found in the English poet and a great literary critic Matthew Arnold: “We in England have had,” he writes in The Popular Education of France (1861; later published under the title, Democracy (1879): “in our great aristocratical and ecclesiastical institutions, a principle of cohesion and unity which the Americans had not; they gave the tone to the nation, and the nation took it from them… Our society is probably destined to become much more democratic: who will give tone to the nation then? That is the question. The greatest men of America, her Washingtons, Hamiltons, Madisons, well understanding that aristocratical institutions are not in all times and places possible; well perceiving that in their Republic there was no place for these; comprehending, therefore, that from these that security for national unity and greatness, an ideal was indispensable, would have been rejoiced to found a substitute for it in the dignity of and authority of the State.”

In contrast to Jefferson, who cherished the hope that we might find a mechanism to determine and select natural aristoi, Arnold understood that hierarchy is an indispensable component of every healthy society. Abolishing institutional hierarchy – written into the very fabric of society, either ecclesiastical or aristocratical – would mean to find an alternative mechanism that would make the wise govern. Reading Jefferson’s letter to Adams reveals that he had no clear idea how to solve the technical difficulty of finding democratic philosopher kings, without which – he, Hamilton, and Franklin thought — democracy could not last.

This asymmetry between democracy, understood as a universal right to vote, and the selection of the best (aristoi) from among the mass of enfranchised masses, has been resolved by neither Jefferson nor Mil. Retrospectively speaking, Arnold turned out to be more perceptive than Mill and Jefferson. He understood that aristocracy is not just a class of privileged people, but an idea, an idea inducing a sense of higher aspiration in ordinary people to ascend “higher” than where they actually are.

Such aspiration can be propelled only by the sense of greatness which the Classics teach us. When this sense of spiritual aspiration is no longer part of social and individual existence, a society is bound to lose the sense of cohesion and aspiration, and will slide into a moral abyss and lawlessness. And when it does, we will be forced to vest in the state power it should never have.

When undereducated, ignorant and vulgar citizenry lays claim to politics, one should not expect politicians to be anything other than demagogues. The annals of Greek political history are full of examples of demagogues, like the despicable Cleon. His power and influence were due, as we learn from Thucydides, to his understanding how weak depraved masses are and how to manipulate them. Anyone who happens to wonder why modern democracies display cultural malaise and galloping vulgarity in public and political realm should realize that there is a natural connection between virtue of citizens and the quality of public and political life.

In his quest for natural aristocracy in democracy, Thomas Jefferson reminds us of the Athenian philosopher Diogenes with a lantern in day-light. The latter was looking for an honest man; the former was looking for nobility in democracy. Their respective quests seem futile. After over two hundred years of modern democracy, one can say with certainty that we are unlikely to find nobility in democracy.

The only way to ennoble democracy is to teach young people the Classics. As Henry Nettleship wrote in his Classical Education in the Past and at Present (1890): “It must be remembered that the classics have still more than a merely literary function to perform. Greece was the mother not only of poetry and oratory, but—at least for the European world—of philosophy. And by philosophy I do not mean merely a succession of metaphysical and ethical systems, but the active love of knowledge, the search for truth. Will it be said that this spirit is not now as necessary as element in civilized human life as it ever was? In the long run it would almost appear as if it were mainly this which saves society from degeneracy and decay. The charitable instincts die out in an atmosphere of ignorance, for ignorance is the mother of terror and hatred…This is an inheritance as precious as Greek art and literary form; nay, if the continuous life of the nations be regarded, an inheritance even more precious.”

As a society, we have a choice between voluntary obedience to moral precepts we find in the Classical texts, or being forced to follow rules and regulations imposed on us by the State. Classics are not just about reading outdated works written by Dead White European Males. They also teach us virtuous behavior.

Zbigniew Janowski is the author of Cartesian Theodicy: Descartes’ Quest for Certitude, Index Augustino-Cartesian, Agamemnon’s Tomb: Polish Oresteia (with Catherine O’Neil), How To Read Descartes’ Meditations. He also is the editor of Leszek Kolakowski’s My Correct Views on Everything, The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers, John Stuart Mill: On Democracy, Freedom and Government & Other Selected Writings. He is currently working on a collection of articles: Homo Americanus: Rise of Democratic Totalitarianism in America.

The image shows, “The Sack of Rome by the Vandals in 410,” by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, painted in 1890.

Cynicism As Anti-Philosophy

Cynicism is not the same as cynicism. Cynicism with a capital ‘C’ refers to the truth-affirming provocations of the ancient Cynics and the specific mode of being of which they are an early representation; while cynicism with a small ‘c’ is, in its ‘postmodern’ form, ideological apathy towards truth and its ramifications for politics and culture. Some prefer to write Cynicism as Kynicism to further emphasize the difference. For now, I shall stay with writing a capital ‘C’ to refer to the concept in question.

What I am about to list as central to Cynicism is the product of a creative interpretation of doxographic and other material that I consider potentially useful for critical theoretical reflections on law, politics and society. Other writers will include different propositions and will have different emphases.

With that in mind, I will briefly cover Cynic elements in respect of style, theory, politics, and self-identity, which I translate to the following headings: parrhesia and embodied truth, antiphilosophy, antinomianism, and cosmopolitical subjectivity.

Parrhesia and Embodied Truth

The most celebrated relation of the Cynics to truth is parrhesia. As Foucault succinctly put it, when a speaker engages in parrhesia, he ‘uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.’

The early reference point is Diogenes the Cynic (circa 3rd–4th BC). Diogenes fully embraced the appellation Cynic (Kyon=Dog, whence also kynicism), introducing himself as such to Alexander the Great. When Alexander asked what he had done to deserve such a name, he replied, ‘I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.’

He saw himself as the kind of dog that all like to praise, but with whom no one dared go hunting.

He poured scorn on his contemporaries: he called the school of Euclides bilious, Plato’s lectures a waste of time, and the demagogues the mob’s lackeys.

When he saw someone being led away by temple officials for stealing a bowl, he quipped: ‘The great thieves are leading away the little thief.’

On hearing Plato’s definition of Man as a featherless biped, Diogenes presented a plucked fowl with the words ‘Here is Plato’s man.’

And when Alexander wished to honour him by granting any favour, Diogenes asked him to ‘[s]tand out of my light.’

Not surprisingly, he considered parrhesia ‘the most beautiful thing in the world’.

While parrhesia is not exclusive to Cynicism, it is worth noting that Cynic style is typified by the use of wit and humour. So again, for example, on his habit of continually masturbating in public, Diogenes quipped ‘I only wish I could be rid of hunger by rubbing my belly.’

Branham argues that the form of this humour acts as a ‘rhetorical syllogism,’ which invites the audience to discern the joke’s tacit premises and to infer a subversive truth from it, namely, that 1) natural desires are best satisfied in the easiest and cheapest way possible (euteleia); 2) one natural desire is the same as any other; 3) therefore cultural norms violate the ‘natural right’ to masturbate there and then in public.

Humour has the capacity to engage both intellect and an immediate, ticklish sensuousness. It has a material quality in drawing upon a rhetorical force beyond pure reason and also in the way it elicits an affect — a knowing smile, a cringe, a burst of laughter.

This brings us to another of the Cynic’s relations to truth, that of ‘bearing witness to the truth by and in one’s body, dress, mode of comportment, way of acting, reacting, and conducting oneself.’ This has traditionally included askesis where the worth of a frugal life — a dog’s life — is demonstrated by the strength and flourishing of the body. This is arguably different from the reactionary denial of the ascetic in popular consciousness.

In sum, Cynic truth is expressed, on the one hand, through witty, humorous, polemical and subversive rhetoric; and on the other hand through the Cynic’s authentic life, one lived in accordance with and as a didactic demonstration of truth. Cynic rhetoric reaches out to the mind and bodily senses while making of his own body a rhetorical device.

Antiphilosophy

With the Cynic emphasis on wit and performance instead of abstract theory, laughter rather than convention, free-spiritedness and risky provocations instead of the disciplinary structures of paradigmatic thought, there is a tendency to view Cynicism as a form of anti-intellectualism, despite a clear — albeit critical — interest in the intellectual pursuits of Platonic metaphysics.

Indeed, the Cynic enthusiasm for truth would, it seems, align them with the immense tradition of western philosophy, even if, as Hegel claimed, they had no traditional philosophy worthy of note. But if not philosophy, then what? I suggest we think Cynicism as an early form of antiphilosophy.

If one way to frame philosophy is in terms of its critical concern for truth and its articulation in theory, antiphilosophy, writes Badiou, deposes the category of truth, unravels the ‘pretensions of philosophy to constitute itself as theory,’ looks behind the fallacious mask of discursive appearances, and appeals against the philosophical act towards a radically new ‘supraphilosophical’ act.

Antiphilosophy is less a critique of truth than a therapeutics of truth. It is the cure for the self-satisfied belief of western philosophy in its ability to capture the meta-position of metaphysics, in being able to express universal truth without gaps, lacks, distances, contingencies, insufficiencies and/or a relation to particularities.

Badiou claims that for antiphilosophers like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and perhaps Lacan, what is important is the ‘distance without measure’ (for example, between individual and subject, god and man, infinite and finite), which cannot be proved within a conceptual framework.

For Nietzsche, in particular, his testimony and self-evidence is expressed not only in what he says about philosophy but also — in his Dionysian abolishing of the world as truth — what he does to it.

It is not surprising to learn that Nietzsche also writes that: ‘the higher man must prick up his ears at every Cynicism — whether coarse or refined — and congratulate himself whenever a buffoon without shame or scientific satyr speaks out in his presence.’ Eschewing grand theory and the pretensions of metaphysics, Cynic antiphilosophy combines rhetoric with humour, logic with wit, speech with performance, and truth with embodiment.

Antinomianism

Zeno, an initial follower of Diogenes, is credited by Kropotkin as being the ‘best exponent of anarchist philosophy in Ancient Greece.’ In Kropotkin’s words, Zeno ‘repudiated the omnipotence of the state, its intervention and regimentation, and proclaimed the sovereignty of the moral law of the individual.’

While one should be wary of claiming Cynicism as one’s own, there is no doubt that Cynicism, in its parrhesiastic embodiment of truth, tends towards subversiveness.

We can perhaps view this subversiveness more generally as analogous to Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadology, where the perpetual movement of the Cynic nomad (the universe as home, see cosmopolitical subjectivity below) collides inevitably with the state apparatus. Cynicism speaks truth to power and lives truth against convention.

For Diogenes, law and the city were considered civilized, where ‘civilized’ was most likely intended as a pejorative term. His view of social norms and civilized law amounts to an early radical antinomianism that preempts certain modern strains of critical legal theory; not only in terms of the idea of contingency, but also in terms of grounding antinomianism in something ‘other.’

However, while the ‘other’ for critical legal theorists is commonly understood in poststructuralist terms as an unknowable beyond, the Cynic other was simply nature and the authority that nature lends as a protoypical form of natural right.

This suggests there may be a constant thread in the intellectual history of subversion, one that resists always in the name of something other, some foundational or even post-foundational other, an other — whether justice, god, nature, etc. — whose complexities and paradoxes the Cynics, in their aversion to grand theory, never tied themselves up in.

Cosmopolitical Subjectivity

On being asked where he came from, Diogenes is said to have replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world [kosmopolitēs].’ Today, theories of world citizenship or cosmopolitanism are based on an idea of human unity from which moral and political commitments are drawn, typically involving the development of stronger global institutions, governance, human rights, and the rule of law.

Despite its metaphysical determination, human unity acts as powerful trope to critique parochialism and state sovereignty. Yet it is precisely because of its metaphysical determination, that its deployment in thinking ‘human’ subjectivity can also be problematic.

Given the Cynic tendency towards anti-philosophy and antinomianism, Diogenes’ cosmopolitanism was not a question of human unity and he certainly did not mean the institutional structure of the city made global. If anything, his cosmopolitanism can be minimally understood as a ‘commonwealth … as wide as the universe’ conceived in dialectical opposition to the bounded city.

It was therefore, again minimally, a way to subvert normal citizenship and the laws and mores of contingent social spaces in the name of an ‘other’ cosmopolitical subjectivity. This is not to say that when we infer the detail of what such a commonwealth might look like (property, wives, and sons held in common, as Diogenes and his epigones are reputed to have said), that this would be without its own problems.

Assessment and Conclusion

Throughout history, the insolence and shamelessness of Cynicism has tended to be ignored or derided by the mainstream. Yet those same qualities, stemming as they do from a profound sense of alterity and courage to speak out, has also spawned modern admirers, from Kropotkin to Nietzsche to Foucault.

This in itself indicates that, for those interested in radical critique — whether of law, politics, society, or culture more generally — Cynicism has something to offer. But before specifying what, it would be appropriate to mention its major sticking point or aporia.

Recall that the strength of the Cynic bite is drawn from a reliance on the authority of nature. To hold this line, the Cynic must make a decision on the nature of nature (what is the normative content of nature?) without which no lesson can be drawn.

However, such decisions are always subject to the limits of the discourses within which they are articulated. Of necessity, the Cynic’s view of nature is, like anyone else’s, a partial or incomplete view. This is a problem that plagues not just Cynicism, but natural law thinking in general. What Diogenes considers ‘natural,’ others, especially of a different time and place, do not. I have already hinted at the potential for differences of opinion on the content of a ‘universal commonwealth’ predicated upon our ‘cosmic nature.’

But to give a different example: on seeing a young man behaving in a way he considered effeminate, Diogenes is said to have rebuked him: ‘Are you not ashamed … that your own intention about yourself should be worse than nature’s: for nature made you a man, but you are forcing yourself to play the woman.’ We can only speculate what a modern Diogenes would have said when made aware of sex and gender distinctions.

Having duly recognized this significant limitation, what can Cynicism offer us today? I think it is important, firstly, not to monumentalize the Cynics, that is, to dogmatically assert their credentials as the original subversives. It is also important, given the stated problematics, not to simply imitate them, but to draw upon and reinterpret for our time the rich resource of possibility that they represent.

Foucault, in particular, already started to do this in his analysis of their parrhesia. But this is just the beginning. For the critical scholar, Cynicism can provoke myriad questions: Given the limits in thinking a norm-bearing nature, what are the possibilities of thinking a natural law whose particularized content has been evacuated – a kind of denaturalized natural law?

How could this link to a concept of truth or anti-philosophy or would it be more appropriate to think in terms of a philosophical non-philosophy (see e.g. François Laruelle)? What are the possibilities, limits, effects, and risks of using humour to go beyond critical satire and to directly intervene into political consciousness? Is there any value in pursuing Cynical askesis or some updated version of it today? How can we further think a Cynic cosmopolitanism that emphasizes dialectical opposition? And so on … .

Gilbert Leung, PhD, writes on law, critical theory and philosophy. He is the Director of Counterpress.

The photo shows, “Diogenes Looking for an Honest Man,” attributed to Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, painted in the second-half of the 18th-century.

Plato And Ayn Rand

The theory of moral obligation, as found in Plato’s Republic and Ayn Rand’s The Ethics of Emergencies, hinges on the idea of the self and its ethical and moral concerns within society. However, the approaches and conclusions are far from similar.

When we turn to Ayn Rand, we find a great deal of stress on the individual; in fact overly so. For her, a person’s life is the standard of moral value, and consequently, in a nutshell, happiness is each person’s moral obligation. Thus, Rand posits a cognitive/moral approach.

This means that in her philosophy, a strict moral accountability is consistently at the forefront. In effect, her philosophy is centered around man, rather than on a grander cosmology. This means that primacy is given to existence itself and the necessity for survival. However, this extreme objectivism that hinges entirely upon happiness as a moral force is ultimately self-negating.

The problem with Rand is that she consistently fails to ask what is good for society – it cannot be said that what is good for the individual is therefore good for society, since all people do not act rationally in order to eliminate inequality, for example.

In fact, each person’s happiness stems from different points of view and even different economies – and if one individual wins, another loses. This sort of disparity cannot lead to a just society (a concept that Rand is extremely hazy on), because for her people who cannot rationally determine what is good for them, can still be good people.

Secondly, Rand’s objectivism is false because she believes that a self-serving point of view will give us an undeniable and universal good. Thus, for example, slavery is perfectly rational, since it serves the needs of slave-owners, who need cheap labor in order to produce goods.

Rand would have us believe that all men act rationally (that is, in their own self-interest), and therefore every concept that is based on rationality will be universally accepted. There is extreme danger in promoting self-interest as a universal concept.

Rationality must depend on society, and the norms that it accepts. However, rationality cannot be transformed into a universal standard. It is perfectly rational to a murderer that he kills people; he may even enjoy it. But is it good? Morality cannot be relativistic.

Consequently, rationalism is based on the perception of reality; it is not the logical understanding of what reality actually is. Thus, Rand’s notion of morality does not rise above self-centeredness and therefore cannot be correct.

Plato, on the other, hand provides a far more cogent and useful definition of moral obligation. For Plato, such an obligation the description, study, and observation of morality in human action and human society.

Plato also gives centrality to the idea of happiness, as does Rand; and he calls it the highest good, which he identifies with God. Thus, moral obligation for Plato is for the individual to free himself, through his actions, and use virtue and wisdom to become like God.

However, Plato does not carried away with this mystical line of thought; he does recognize and encourage the use of logic, for in his philosophy there is no place for those opinions and pleasures that cannot be freed from passion. With a view to Rand, we find that her entire philosophy is based on pleasures that cannot be freed from passion.

It is the stress on virtue that greatly elevates Plato’s philosophy, which he considers to be essential to human happiness, since it is from virtue that important social concepts arise, namely, wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.

Further, Plato does not reduce the idea of virtue to its practical applications (something Rand is consistently guilty of). He abandons the utilitarian view and instead attaches to virtue an independent value, which lends virtue a greater worth.

Therefore, a person should strive to be virtuous, within the context of a society that likewise has virtue for its objective – because it is through this striving (both on the individual and societal levels) that morality can be established and maintained. Next, Plato defines the state as the larger man; he models it on the individual soul. This is the complete opposite of Rand’s notion of society being the place rational self-will is practiced.

Thus, Plato’s society is infinitely more moral and just than Rand’s, because there is no room for “selfishness” in it. In fact, Plato subordinates private interests to the good of the whole. In this way, he allows room for concepts such as justice and freedom, which are not merely adjuncts of someone else’s self-interest.

Therefore, we see that Rand’s philosophy is constructed entirely around the idea of rationality, and for her morality is only a choice (implying that there are other choices).

This equivalence of rationality with morality is false, since rationality is universal. Plato, far more cogently tells us that morality hinges upon justice, wisdom, courage, and moderation, which can only function within society. In short, Plato is correct because he goes beyond self-interest in order to define morality, which he tells us the good of the whole rather than the individual.

 

The photo shows, “Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia,” By Angelica Kauffmann, painted, ca. 1741-1807.

Kobe Abe: A Perspective

The novel, The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe, is a work that exists on various levels. The most immediate one is the mythic structure that becomes an integral part of the novel. In fact, the entire premise of the novel depends on the Classical myth of Sisyphus, and the journey into Hades; however, Abe is not content with merely retelling ancient myth. Rather, he takes this myth and transforms it into a viable parable for modern life.

The entomologist, Jumpei Niki, finds himself in a strange village, while looking for a rare beetle. Thus, from the very beginning, we have a journey, in which the hero seeks to find something unique and rare – very much like Jason seeking the Golden Fleece. Before long, Jumpei finds himself relegated to the pit, by the villagers, where he must remain, with only a woman as his companion, whose job it is to perpetually shovel the sand to keep the village and herself from being buried alive.

This incessant struggle to keep the ever-encroaching sand at bay certainly reflects the myth of Sisyphus, who must labor and toil to roll a huge rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back again. However, Abe transforms this myth intrinsically.

Whereas the work of Sisyphus is pointless and meaningless, what Jumpei and the woman do is extremely meaningful and useful – they are keeping themselves and the village alive. Thus, their job is similar to life itself, which finds meaning in the most mundane of existences: “In the final analysis, I rather think the world is like sand.

The fundamental nature of sand is very difficult to grasp when you think of it in its stationary state. Sand not only flows, but this very flow is sand.” Therefore, sand is the force of nature that will ultimately destroy the individual.

Thus, despite the absurdity of life – represented by the mindless task of shoveling sand day and night – there is also meaning in what we do. In effect, there is the important idea that we must create meaning in life, despite the fact that we may find ourselves trapped in a situation that in and of itself is entirely devoid of meaning.

From a larger perspective, the sand represents not only the force of nature that will destroy us all in the end; it also symbolizes the encroaching of a world that is alien to Japanese culture. The sand is the influence from abroad that must be continually thwarted in order to preserve that which is inherently Japanese. Again, Jumpei’s and the woman’s job is not entirely without meaning – for they are both guardians who must preserve not only their village, but also by extension, Japan.

It is this larger perspective that transforms the novel into a grand parable about the usefulness of life. A parable by its very nature must teach a valuable lesson, by way of a narrative. Thus, the tale of Jumpei and the woman, trapped in a pit, forever shoveling sand, is a parable for human existence itself.

We human beings are also trapped in life, in this world. Often we recognize our lives to be meaningless and absurd. But it is out effort and our will that transform our lives into an existence full of meaning. And this transformation is the result of our labor – just as Jumpei and the woman must labor daily and ceaselessly in order to live.

Thus, Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is work that transforms myth, and in doing so becomes a parable about the meaningfulness of life – and how we achieve this meaning through our own will and effort. It is ordinary life that is heroic, in the end, and what we achieve transforms not only the world outside us, but it also transforms us as well.

 

The photo shows, “A Woman Reading” on a postcard, by Yumeji Takehisa, Showa Era, ca. 1930s.

In Response To Psalm 50

Psalm 50:3: “Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him.”

 

September

Seven embers of thought enflamed,
a mind on fire, in a wooden frame.
That single wick of a candle, broken
into a shaft of smoke, crying
molten words unspoken.

The Ether

The ether,
suspended above the clouds
like a sunset whittled down
to its final shavings,
sucked up by the moon
into the vacuum of high noon,
where the echoes go on raving…
Raving…
Raving.

 

Airships

Blowing leaves,
motion without sound,
airships breaking heaven
where only silence is unbound.

 

Cosmin Dzurdzsa is the senior editor of The Post Millennial
The photo shows, “King David Playing the Harp,” by Gerard van Honthorst, painted in 1622.

The Very Idea Of Technology

Whenever people are trying to define the modern age, there’s an inevitable phrase that gets tossed around. We hear it all the time – “We are an age of technology.”

And when people are asked what this phrase means, they invariably generate a list – cars, televisions, space probes, computers, the microchip – all things that were mostly science fiction just a hundred years ago. How did we come so far, so quickly?

But are we technological because we have more gadgets than, say, the ancient Egyptians who, after all, did build the pyramids? But our culture is different from the ancient Egyptians. How so?

Our age is technological not because of gadgets, but because of the idea of technology. The gadgets are a mere by-product. The way we think is profoundly different from all previous human civilizations.

We perceive things in a systematic way. We like to build conceptual structures. We like to investigate and get at the root causes of things. We like to figure out how things work. We see nature, the earth, the universe, as a series of intersecting systems. And this difference is the result of technology.

Essentially, we are dealing with two Greek words: techne and logia. Techne means “art,” “craft,” or “handiwork.” But logia is more interesting. It means “account,” “word,” “description,” and even “story.”

It is the root of other important words in English, such as “logistics” and “logical.” And it even reaches into the spiritual realm, where “Logos” is intimately connected with the mystery of God in Christianity, where God (Logos) is made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, technology is not really about gadgets. The word actually means “a description of art,” or “a story of craft, handiwork.” Anything we create is technology. Be it the microchip, a film, a novel, an airplane, or a poem.

But this is only the first layer. We need to dig further. Why do we use a Greek word in the first place? This question lets us dig right down to the foundations.

The word is Greek because the idea is Greek. This is not to say that other cultures did not have technology; they certainly did; the Pyramids are certain proof of that, as are the Nascan lines in the desert.

However, we have already established that technology is not about gadgets, or objects that we create. It is a particular mind-set.

Technology is visualizing the result, or perhaps uncovering that which lies hidden within our imagination. It really is still about giving an account of art, about what we can do with our minds.

But how is all this Greek?

The idea of technology was given to us by one specific person – the Greek philosopher, Aristotle(384-322 BC).

At the age of twenty, Aristotle found himself in Athens, listening to the already famous Plato (428 B.C. to 348 B.C.).

But the pupil would become greater than the master. Interestingly enough, Aristotle too had a famous pupil – Alexander the Great. Aristotle certainly had the ability to transform the way people thought – down to the present.

It was Aristotle who stressed the need not only for science, but a conceptual understanding of science. It was not enough just to be able to do things, such as craftsmanship that was passed down from father-to-son in his own day, and in many parts of the world today.

It was important to understand how things were; how they functioned the way they did.

It was Aristotle who taught us to break down an object into its smallest part so we can understand how it is built and how it operates. Where would science be today without this insight – which we now take as common sense.

But before Aristotle, it was not common sense. The common sense before his time was to accept things the way they were, because the gods had made them that way, and who were we to question the will of the gods. This was the pre-technological mindset.

Aristotle, like Plato before him, taught that nature and human beings behave according to systems that can be recorded and then classified, and understood and then applied. These categories provided mental frameworks within which we could house our ideas.

Therefore, if nature is a system (and not mysterious and unknowable), then it can be understood. And if it can be understood, it can be controlled. And if it can be controlled, then we can avoid being its victims.

Our ability to classify, categorize, and explain – in short, our technology – is the invention of Aristotle. Before he came along, we were only groping in the dark – if we dared grope, that is.

 

The photo shows, “Cyclist Through the City” (“Ciclista attraverso la città”), by Fortunato Depero, painted in 1945.

The Humanities And Language

It is often assumed that the discipline of the Humanities involves anything and everything that cannot be properly be classified as a proper science. It is also commonly assumed that language is simply a method of communication – so that flapping one’s arms is the same as speaking; or, one may draw a picture, since a picture is worth a thousand words, as he adage tells us.

Before proceeding further, perhaps its best to define our terms so that we do not bogged down with assumptions.

Turning to language, we need to understand it as thinking more than communication. The founder of linguistic philosophy (Wilhelm von Humboldt) tells us that language is the expression of thinking peculiar to a people, even the most primitive of people, those closest to nature, as he puts it. Communication is only the simplest, basic level of linguistic use.

The most intensive use is the generation of ideas. The philologist Max Mueller continues Humboldt’s description when he describes language as “the outward form and manifestation of thought.”

And Humboldt further defines language as the medium through which humanity encounters reality – “Man lives with his objects chiefly as language presents them to him.”

The philosopher, Ernst Cassirer, succinctly described language as first the symbolic rendering of expressions and second the engendering of discursive thought; or, in other words, reason.

Thus language is the principle which serves to link together complexity in order to produce meaning, or what may be called abstract thought. In brief, for Cassirer, language is the entelechy of knowledge.

This obviously means that language has more than a denotative function – it is more than simply communication.

To quote the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev: “A language is that into which all other languages, and even all other conceivable language structures may be translated. In language, indeed only in such, can the inexpressible  be dealt with until such time as it is expressed.” Language, first and foremost is ideas.

Given the intimate association of language with thinking and knowledge – why do we hear the teachers of language referring to it as a “form of communication?” What purpose does this extreme simplification fulfill?

Having briefly defined language, we may do the same for the humanities. Again, we encounter confusion. The tendency nowadays is to view the Humanities as anything that is not science; and this confusion continues into areas which veer into science (like anthropology, psychology and sociology).

So, what are the Humanities? In a very straightforward way the Humanities have always meant the study of Greek and Latin – that is, the discipline of the Humanities has always been tied with the learning of language – because it was (and one hopes still is) believed that by learning a language, in a disciplined and structured fashion, a person became educated and refined.

Thus the Humanities are based upon the understanding that education is only possible through language. Therefore, the Humanities are not anything not science – but very specifically education in language – and those disciplines that promote language – namely literature, philosophy, biography and history. And it is here also that we have the very history of education.

But we now speak of skill, rather than education, and language is simply another tool to further the demands of the labor marker, rather than the promotion of being a good human being – the traditional goal of education. Skill is not about education – it is about labor and production.

Education is about building the good human being – or about the esthetic, moral and intellectual nature of humanity. Skill is about the material environment and its conquest. Skill is about bondage (the demands of labor). Education is about understanding the exercise of freedom.

And then there are countless falsehoods that permeate teaching institutions. The worst among them is the notion of “learning styles,” and the absurd notion of “right-brain” and “left-brain” learners. Study after study has amply demonstrated that there is no such thing as “visual learning” or “auditory learning,” or kinesthetic.

Nor does the brain function in left and right compartments. And yet, these false notions are so popular in educational institutions – and worst of all, entire pedagogies are built around these falsehoods. Why? As researchers recently observed in an extensive in the Journal of Psychological Science, “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing.”

Disturbing because students are being taught based upon false assumptions. Is an educational institution a place where pop-psychology should be followed?

And yet the popularity of these views in pedagogy is enormous. And the literature is enormous. But it is literature produced by the non-specialist – by the amateur. Why do teachers follow these falsehoods?

And recent studies also tell us that the only way possible for the brain to learn anything is through language. Thus, the physical brain is Humanistic. It is built primarily for language, for thought, for ideas. And the world that we live, the labor that do, is a function of thought, of ideas. The world that we inhabit is the product of Humanism.

Thus to neglect confuse Humanism with anything other than language is to deny the importance of thought.

 

The photo shows, “Le quai aux fleurs,” by Marie-François Firmin-Girard, painted in 1875.

Ways Of Persuasion

Aristotle conceived of three major types of rhetorical appeal. These modes of rhetoric, otherwise known as “proofs,” were the pillars of persuasive dialogue back in ancient Greece, and their foundation still holds to this day.

All rhetorical arguments can more or less be categorized under (or prescribed as a blend of) either: Pathos, Ethos, or Logos. Regardless of whether or not an argument is conveyed through speech or writing, these three proofs are undoubtedly the most useful means a speaker has in convincing their target audience of their desired point or belief.

In other words, if rhetoric is a battle of persuasion, these are the most powerful tools in the rhetor’s arsenal. However—there is a fourth proof that is oftentimes overlooked. While it can be assumed that the majority of readers are more than likely familiar with Aristotle’s three rhetorical proofs, very few people in my experience (besides rhetorical scholars like myself) have come across the elusive fourth proof: Kairos.

My intention in the remainder of this article is to refresh readers of what the three original rhetorical proofs are, and to enlighten many of you to the fourth (and my personal favorite) rhetorical proof.

 

Rhetoric

The art of persuasion, and how to effectively impact people through communication. Seeing as Rhetoric is the cornerstone of this whole piece, I figured I would provide my short definition that has helped guide me in my studies.

 

Pathos

Aristotle categorized Pathos as an appeal to emotion. Essentially, Pathos refers to anytime a rhetor attempts to tug at their audience’s heart-strings, so to speak. When a speaker brings up a tragic story from their past, references morality or the distinction between “right and wrong”, or even if they were to cry at the podium: this is all Pathos.

However, there are other forms of emotional appeal besides sadness or guilt. A speaker who invigorates their audience to join a cause is engaging in pathos. A comedian who makes their audience laugh is engaging in pathos. The politician that tries to make their community angry or scared enough that they’ll follow them is engaging in pathos. Pathos holds dominion over any and all emotion.

 

Ethos

This appeal is the easiest to break down in my opinion. Ethos simply refers to a speaker’s credibility. An argument that is founded upon one’s own trustworthiness or experience is grounded in ethos.

For instance, a doctor that tries to convince me my eating habits are unhealthy is engaging in ethos, as her word is rooted in knowledge and practicality. When you were learning to drive, and your father told you “listen… I’ve been driving for 40 years, I know what I’m doing so let me teach you…”—that was ethos.

 

Logos

Logos is the Greek word for form, meaning, and structure. Logic, in other words. Logos refers to the strength of a rhetor’s argument simply based upon its logical resiliency. If a claim is so air tight on a logical standpoint that it cannot be truthfully rebuked, it is an impervious argument in regards to logos.

When you’re going through a breakup, and your significant other breaks down all of the reasons why your partnership will no longer work—that’s logos. Any logical strong of thoughts with the intention to persuade others falls under this category.

 

Kairos

Finally, we reach the least talked about of all persuasive proofs, Kairos. The term refers to the art of timeliness, and the actual timing of an argument.

he technique of this proof is to actually choose when your line of communication will be delivered, as a means of strengthening your argument. A man about to propose to his girlfriend waits until the sun has set and the mood is completely right before popping the question—this is an act of kairos.

Waiting until the opportune moment can secure that your point will be well received, and is thus a hugely effective move by any rhetor. While this proof is often overlooked, its rhetorical potency shouldn’t be understated.

 

The photo shows, “The Irritating Gentleman,” by Berthold Wolyze, painted in the 1874.