Thursday, May 29, 2014

Who Killed Homer?

Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom
© 1998 Victor Davis Hanson
290 pages

For hundreds of years, the study of the classics was at the heart of a liberal education, thought essential to the cultivation of free men.  Yet today speaking Latin would be regarded as a sign of eccentricity, not erudition. People now attend university for technical  expertise in fields like business, engineering, or nursing, and such a focus is lauded as practical.  A degree in Greek literature would be derided as useless as a degree in art history, the epitome of wasted public finance.  Victor Hanson argues that vocational training is not the point of a university education; an education is not what you know, but how you behave. In Who Killed Homer? he examines the soul-forming virtues of the classical tradition and contemplates their reason for their unnecessary but imminent demise.

Hansen begins by arguing that the greatest virtues of western civilization have their origin, and sustaining permanence, in the Greek tradition.  Drawing from philosophical treatise (to the Greeks, a category broad enough to cover politics, science, and more) in addition to extant literature, Hanson reviews a spectrum of values with origins in Greece.  These range from concepts given overt legal protection (consensual government and the open criticism thereof, armies subordinate to civil power, free enterprise, etc) to ideas understood at a deeper level, and contributing to the others.  These more fundamental appreciations include the belief that every polis' wellbeing depended on the average middling citizen, not the aristocracy or the mob, and that the world was fraught with meaning. Mysterious yet rational, the world was a place imbued with limits -- limits that extended to man. Part of the Greek heritage are more obvious than others; the very shape of US government structures bears witness to their past, and most histories of science will begin with the Greek enterprise. Other appreciations have been forgotten;  like the belief that man was nothing without the polis;  only the power of culture and threat of sanction by others kept the human animal from behaving worse than beasts.  It is in civilization than man finds salvation from his own destruction. This is a hard lesson given an obscene and brutal summation by Hanson: "Man is nothing without the state."  Ultimately, classical education imparted a cohesive view of the world in which science, politics, and philosophy were knit together, a part of the whole.

If these truths are indeed timeless, how have they fallen by the wayside during the 20th century? Hansen lays the blame solely at the feet of the Classicists, who have thrown away the responsibility of their tradition in the pursuit of status and fortune. They ought to know better, and here Hanson's attitude reveals how seriously he takes his belief that education was the moulding of character, not acquisition of knowledge. To Hanson,  those who have committed themselves to knowing the Greek mind, who have studied it in earnest, bear responsibility for practicing it. Just as we expect a minister to conduct himself with greater care than the average parishioner, so to does Hanson expect classicists to be, if not moral champions, at least contenders;  he expects them to live the values of the Greeks, to take their place in the hoplite ranks of the mind and defend what is theirs, to rise to the challenge of revealing the classics' enduring relevance. Instead,  they focus on increasingly more pointless esoterically in pursuit of esteem,  viewing fellow classicists as competition to be beat for choice university positions in which they can focus on their 'research' and leave the actual teaching to grad students, producing not keen minds but papers on mathematical relationships governing the use of similes in The Illiad.  The comprehension of the whole is lost, and insult is added to injury when said scholars apply tortured modern interpretations,laying waste to The Odyssey by accusing it of being the wellspring of western sexism. Instead of defending and advancing the Greek way, classicists have allowed it to become the scapegoat for every moral self-doubt of the west. After outlining his case against his colleagues, Hanson proposes ways to put the focus back on the meaning of the classics,  in part by forcing classicists to teach."Publish or perish" is anathema to this professor who sees his primary vocation as  giving young people a structured education, not advancing his own  prestige. The work ends on a bitter note, however, as he does not expect the modern world's slide into the moral abyss to be arrested. Instead,  we will probably have to wait for civilization to collapse and demand strong men again, men who will rediscover the Greek truths.

That final bitter retort casts a pall over a strongly-argued book already shadowed by contempt for the modern world, especially ideologies like multiculturalism and relativism. The Greeks understood nuance, but in Hanson's view they stood by everlasting truths. Hanson's own stand is strident at times, to the point that he's less a Pericles calling forth citizens to stand with him and more a Leonidas rallying the troops before a final stand. His appraisal of Greek contributions is surpassed by the analysis of why classical studies have faltered, but Who Killed Homer does double duty as a traditionalist critique of modernity and a passionate appraisal of how much value the tradition still holds, even for moderns overawed by their own cleverness. As a classical partisan myself, I found it invigorating, but Hanson's zeal may spook the unconvinced.



  1. A great review of an excellent defense of classical learning. I agree that it is an invigorating book in spite of the jeremiad-like quality of parts of the text. Fifteen years after Hanson's critique his book is more relevant than ever.

  2. Have you chanced to read his "Bonfire of the Vanities", coauthored with Bruce Thornton? From the table of contents it seemed similar to this so I wasn't quite sure of launching in.

  3. While I have not read it from cover to cover I have dipped into it a bit and believe the contributions of Bruce Thornton may add enough to make it worth reading. His Plagues of the Mind is on my TBR pile, for what that is worth since the pile seems to grow faster than I can read books.

  4. The more books we read, the more we discover in their suggestions and references! It's a dangerous if fulfilling positive feedback loop.

  5. When I picked up an interesting non-fiction book I almost always went straight for the bibliography.... A very dangerous habit!