Going Back the Ancient World: Part 1
I have been in many classes that begin with the words “Approaches to (fill in the blank).” These classes are designed to expose students to the many roads that can lead to insight in and around a given field. Professors, including me, sometimes put in Jung and Freud for many of these classes in Liberal Arts and then give the basics of their theories. There’s not a lot of time to do this, the following week is usually slotted for the likes of Durkheim, Hume, or some other theorist in an adjacent field as we race through 16 weeks of information.
What kills me is the fact that few of us talk about the fact that all these brilliant men and women who were pioneers in their fields were also Classicists. They knew the ancient stories, translated them, analyzed them, parsed them, loved them, and perhaps hated them (Latin and Greek are not easy to translate…especially the poetry). The foundations of the West are Classical…ok…there are actually some roots that go back further than that, but we can credibly make Greece and Rome a good milestone marker. For all of us who suffer, stagnate, rise again, and soar to the stars, our maps for theses journeys are in the ancient literature. The stories are not done revealing the mysteries of the human condition. They are still ripe for the picking, begging to have a conversation with YOU.
The glorious thing about ancient literature is that no matter what you need, no matter where you are on your journey, there is a great story waiting to support you, reflect you, inspire you, or console you. Some of the stories are short and sweet; they come in, say their peace, and get out in a very pointed way. Some have more to say; they are complex friends who have seen a lot, and done a lot. They know your pain and the relief you seek. The ancient stories know that no one gets out of the underworld unscathed, and you cannot successfully navigate a deep and tumultuous ocean alone. So, how do you get into this seemingly dusty stuff?
The hard part is getting through our initial reaction to ancient literature. It usually goes something like, ‘Bleh. It’s sooooo weird, boring, and repetitive. I just can’t. I wonder what’s happening on Insta.’ Stay the course, and bravely go forward to find great treasures–they are not too big for you.You may not love them all but some of them will be your best friend if you let them.
Step 1, find a good translation to a good story. DO NOT pick the 1920-somthing translation of The Iliad. Look up reviews of the translations, ask on Quora, or see if anyone on Reddit has a suggestion. My personal favorite is the Odyssey translated by Fagles. Somehow Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus have been able to teach me something new every time I’ve gone back to it for something like 20 years now.
Step 2, don’t worry about reading it quickly. You may be able to rip through a smaller story quickly, but let the longer stories sink into your bones. Even listen to it with the book in front of you so you can highlight, dog-ear, and annotate. Also, like any great literature, it’s better if it’s shared and discussed. Go a bit slower than you do with a normal piece of fiction, and find a place to talk about it.
Step 3, open up the way you think of it. Look for the symbolism, plumb it for the big allegories. Let the road maps for all the different journeys you’re on open up. Let the characters challenge you, and don’t be afraid to challenge them. Remember, just because you are a man does not mean Penelope has nothing to say to you. I identify with Odysseus at times as much as I do with any of the women in the text.
But, what is the point of this? What can you expect from this journey? That's coming up...