Classics Students Blogging


Few academics blog. Even fewer students. Why?

One reason academics do not blog is fear. Fear of offending university authorities. Fear too of getting something wrong. If you make a casual comment face-to-face, and make a silly mistake, it vanishes into the ether. If you make a silly mistake on the Web, it may blemish your reputation for ever. Perhaps this is why Socrates and Aristotle preferred to teach orally.

However, the current generation of students grew up feeling it is OK to hold conversations on the net, so one would expect a few students to blog about their subject. Since starting this blog I received emails from one PhD student in Scotland, whose blog covers ancient world, ancient philosophy and early Christianity. Erlend MacGillivray’s blog is called Didaskelion.

Yesterday I had an email from Victoria Boorman drawing my attention to her blog Diary of an Ancient Geek. I am guessing an undergraduate student. She does not say which college. Recommended for an enthusiastic and fun conversation about studying Classics. Her opening posts invites the reader, ‘Take a look, feel free to send me your thoughts, ideas and suggestions and “aut disce aut discede” (Either learn or leave).’ None of the fear of error and loss reputation, then, which is one of the factors deterring some professional classicists from blogging!

Both those blogs are in my blogroll, on the left hand column of my homepage. I look forward to hearing of other chatty blogs. To be kept informed, rather than just to engage in sharing ideas and experiences, refer to Rogue Classicist, and Ancient World Online, both in my blogroll.

Vates: The New Journal of New Latin Verse


Christopher Stray, in Classics Transformed (Oxford, 1998, 68-74 and elsewhere), has a lot to say about verse composition in the history of English classical education. For him, verse composition was primarily a signal that its practitioners belonged to, and earned respect in, an exclusive social group. At no point does he stop to ask, ‘Was it any good? Is it Art?’ Analysing the practice of composing Greek or Latin verse from the point of view of social structures is interesting, provided one is not so distracted by structural or sociological theorizing as to miss the value of the content.

What, I wonder, would Dr. Stray make of the social significance of a journal of Latin verse composition founded in 2010? It is called Vates (and can be read online here). And what would the literary student make of the content?

The first piece in the first issue contains advice from Frank Lelièvre for the student beginning Latin verse composition. That advice is in Alcaics.

The first stanza (for those who want a taste before deciding whether it is worth clicking on the link!) reads:

perstare, credo, Musa suos iubet,
utcumque chordis dulcisonos negat
cantus et, exoptata quamuis,
peruigilem refugit lucernam.

Is it worthy of Horace? I am not sure. I have to say I find the poem as a whole satisfying and delightful.

The journal is not limited to classicizing pieces. The above lyric is followed by a lovely Haiku by Ginny Lindzey:

sola sedeo
tua in umbra grata
sed tu non ades.

For the reader of Latin verse, a little writing practice could surely teach as much as a shelf of criticism. Why do universities so rarely teach creative writing in Classics degrees, in spite of its obvious value? There are two reasons. First, many teachers have not the skills to pass on. They like me were brought up in an age when this skill was pruned away, perhaps because it was felt there was too little time for it in the curriculum. I was taught that to get good at the skill, and to maintain it, one really needs to practice it daily. Greek and Latin verse composition is an endangered skill. I was taught neither at school, though I had a little training in Latin verse at university with with the late D W T Vessey, who I believe was noted for his skills in composition while still at Eton (and whose Housemanesque English verses are charming). An endangered and ancient skill should be nurtured and revivified before it dies. It is central to the profession of a Classical scholar and teacher to maintain traditions (of texts, of teaching, of language), as well as to innovate. Second, teaching this skill requires either one-to-one teaching, or at most a very small group. Few universities can afford to offer this individual attention. The loss of verse composition, for all the more or less specious arguments which can be mounted for killing it off, is surely a major casualty of the current difficulty in funding individual attention for students in our universities.

Vates, at any rate, should be supported, encouraged, and (for anyone interested in Latin verse) read!

The ‘Support Classics at Royal Holloway’ Blog


Many American academics blog. British academics don’t on the whole. But the threat to Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, has spawned a Support Classics at RHUL blog as part of the campaign to save Classics at RHUL. I see two wholly disparate benefits which this blog, posted by Edith Hall, may bring: first, there are good arguments, to which I make a small contribution here, for keeping the subject alive at RHUL; second, the blog–generated by an unfortunate emergency–may turn out to represent one more small step in encouraging British academics to be more positive, and less resistant, to blogging and other informal conversations held publicly on the Net.

Why Save Classics at Royal Holloway?

Ending Classics at RHUL would be a mistake. The department has a distinguished history, and for reasons which are difficult to analyse precisely, the reality is that universities and colleges with a strong history of excellence in Classics tend to continue and transmit that excellence from generation to generation. That light should not be put out.

Universities must face financial realities. Not commercial realities: universities are not, at least not primarily, businesses. Financial realities, yes. Within that context, the manager motivated by money will ask, ‘What can Classics do for Royal Holloway?’ The manager motivated by academic values will say, ‘I do not ask what Classics can do for the college, but what can the college can do for Classics?’ If the management are so strapped for cash that they simply cannot pay salaries, they may be forgiven for destroying value. But the managerial team motivated by academic values will of course do everything in their power to maintain that excellence whose stewardship has been entrusted to them.

Classics is not in decline. I can remember a time when it was. The current generation of senior university managers formed their assumptions and perceptions of academic life in a generation when Classics was in decline, and it would be understandable if academics from other fields were not aware of how times have changed. They need to be made more aware of the vigorous interest the subject is attracting in the twenty-first century.

British academics have been sceptical about blogging

As said, part of the campaign for the subject is a blog. There are various reasons academics are suspicious, nervous, or dismissive of blogging. I understand those reasons, discussed in this Times Higher Education Supplement article from 2008, entitled By the blog: academics tread carefully. Only last night, a friend who holds a university post in Classics said ‘If you are going to blog, you need to get it right.’ I suggested in reply that there should be room for informal academic conversations, where there is space for error (and for replies correcting errors), to be held not only in private, or in seminars, but also in the broader and more public sphere of the Internet.

Getting the message out on the Net is important

The Royal Holloway blog is clearly not directly about the substance of what Classicists do. It is about an administrative and institutional matter. Nevertheless, as academics see the value of turning to the Net as a forum for advocacy for their work, it is likely some will be increasingly convinced of the value of not only of more or less technical publication in peer-reviewed journals and books, but also of more informal conversations about the substance of their work, on the Net. This will turn out to be a central to advocacy for the public and institutional support for, and interest in, their subject.

I do not mean to suggest that academics should blog about their work on the RHUL Classics campaign blog. In the context, that might be valuable, but it might be distracting and inappropriate. I am in no position to judge. But if this blog contributes to an increasing awareness of the value of Internet conversations, those conversations will come and they can only be fructifying for the academics themselves, and for Internet users (who are numerous) generally.

Social Net as a method of persuasion

Incidentally, I did look for a Save Classics at Royal Holloway Facebook page. Perhaps that would seem frivolous, yet marketers know the value of such networking. Today I heard Stephen Fry’s programme on Radio 4, on Persuasion. An advertising expert said that we know advertising works, even though we often do not really understand why. Persuasion works at a subliminal level. Speaking for myself, I do not see that any route to getting the message out is ‘inappropriate.’ Non-Classicists brought up at a time when Classics was in decline need to be persuaded of the current health of the field by reason, but also by effectively presented reasoning. These days, Internet conversations are key to persuasion. A blog, like a Facebook page, is not just an advertisement, it is social in the sense that it engages in a conversation of sorts. For example, the latest post on the RHUL blog is a comment from Ian Hislop. By contributing, he has engaged in and continued a conversation.

Such conversations have great persuasive power, which marketers understand. One of the blogs on Mary Beard’s blogroll purports to be by a young lady interested in fashion. It is (I believe) written by professional hacks as a marketing tool. 99.9% of its readers assume they are engaging with a real person when they read the blog: Internet marketers are so desperate to promote conversations on the web that they fake them, it is one of their secret weapons. Real conversations held by academics on their subject will be hugely valuable both for the matter they contain (not only didactic matter: bloggers, like geniuses, flourish when they risk mistakes); they will also be valuable for promoting public awareness of the subject. The student of classical Greece also knows the value of conversation: would a twenty-first century Socrates have published in peer-reviewed journals, or would he have held conversations on the Net? The answer is obvious

In conclusion, this post, having strayed into the topic of academic blogging, might seem a little tangential to the RHUL Classics campaign, but my support for it is direct.

The Scholar’s Gaze: A Prefatory Scratch at Classical Scholarship


You start by going to university to read Classics. At some point you become a ‘scholar,’ engaged in what I can best describe with the German word Altertumswisseschaft. Instead of enjoying and learning from the Classics as companions and teachers, you study the Classical world as a collection of interrelated objects. These exercises are not the same thing, any more than experiencing a dream, and analysing it are the same. The analytical and objectifying gaze allows you mentally to possess any material you turn it on. The ‘Wissenschaftler’ might turn his attention on anything which can enhance our understanding of the ancient world, from a papyrus of Sappho, for example, to a papyrus containing a wet nurse contract in Greek.

So what is the purpose of Classical Scholarship?

Is anything lost in terms of direct experience by pursuing this scientific project? I think it is. Being a scholar does not prevent one reading Homer, as Pope did in An Essay on Criticism:

Be Homer’s Works your Study, and Delight,
Read them by Day, and meditate by Night,
Thence form your Judgment, thence your Maxims bring,
And trace the Muses upward to their Spring;
Still with It self compar’d, his Text peruse;
And let your Comment be the Mantuan Muse.

Pope is the critical student, both experiencing the text, and seeking to understand why the text works as great literature, rather than dissecting it as another piece of evidence for antiquity. The analytical scholar, however, betrays his sense of loss, as well as gain, when, after a laborious reconstruction of some nugatory fragment, he adds, more or, sometimes, less apologetically, ‘it is not, after all, too bad as literature.’ He might remember his enthusiasm for Homer, or Catullus, as a green Classics student, and think quietly (to use the language of contract law), non haec in foedera veni. It would be easy to point to examples. This ‘it actually has some literary merit‘ attitude was everywhere in a subject I took an interest in, the Greek novel. As the popularity of the field increased, and thus the confidence of its practitioners, the apologetic tendency in the positive evaluations weakened.

A comparable point is made with respect to English scholarship by the bookseller friend whom I described in my last post as having retired from his London shop to a leafy suburb:

Re: Starnbergersee

Dear John,

I will soon be writing those letters that English people who live in the county used to write, detailing how they purchased an ell of muslin for there wife s dress, and three ha pence worth of nails, and which OUP reprinted a Century later, to the universal applause of the critics. We should find someone who lives on a Council estate on benefits, with a pleasing style of writing and publish their emails, with scholarly annotation;- time passes so much more quickly now, even the world of our childhood would have a charming remoteness, imagine a world without mobile phones or computers, where children were beaten when they misbehaved and central heating was regarded as unusual.

The sun rising over the Austrian mouse farm, strikes me as not really poetical…

What would a scholar do with that fragment of an email? And why?

The history of scholarship has not really been written. I have read Pfeiffer, but he does not get to the post-enlightenment developments which made scholarship what it is today. I see there is a new edition of Sandys, and the original edition is downloadable. I am sure I looked there for the explanation of why scholars do what they do, and failed to find it. Perhaps I should revisit Sandys. For now, I admit this post makes a hopelessly inadequate scratch on a subject which troubled me. If anyone can illuminate for me what may be a stupid question, please do so.

Quote of the month–Greek Accents


In bidding a last farewell to a subject in which I never took
more than a languid interest, I may be permitted to say that in
England, at all events, every man will accent his Greek properly
who wishes to stand well with the world. He whose accents
are irreproachable may indeed be no better than a heathen, but
concerning that man who misplaces them, or, worse still, altogether
omits them, damaging inferences will certainly be drawn,
and in most instances with justice.

H. W. Chandler A Practical Introduction to Greek Accentuation (Second ed.) (Oxford: 1881), from Preface to the Second Edition


The Cambridge Latin Course: Failure and Survival


My first Latin lesson was in a classroom constructed almost entirely of asbestos. The boys (it was a boys’ school) called the block ‘The Cowsheds.’ I was 12. That year, my school became an early adopter of the Cambridge Latin Course. Like asbestos as a building material for schools, The Cambridge Latin Course was as misconceived as it was innovative. In order to survive, the course, and its early students, had to jettison (you could say, ‘betray’) its founding philosophy.

The first lesson was supposed to start with the teacher playing a tape. Our teacher had had difficulty furnishing himself with a cassette player, so he read the opening pages of the course himself. The school’s three full-time Classics teachers had all retrained to use the ‘authentic’ pronunciation propounded by Sydney Allen in Vox Latina (there is a copy of Vox Latina on Google Books). Nevertheless, their vowels were reassuringly English. That struck me as one of the good things about Latin. The tapes, when we heard them, were read in a (to us) grotesque and almost impenetrable Italianate accent.

Then one turned to the book. Or pamphlet, rather. Each unit was divided into something like ten modules, and there was a stapled pamphlet for each. The first ones had orange covers. Little pictures like a comic, with legends along the lines of ‘Caecilius est pater’ and ‘Metella est mater,’ mimicked the ‘do and say’ method used by some modern language teachers. It described a household in Pompeii. Conveniently, there was a slave, whose name slips my mind, and a fetching ancilla, who presumably performed the same kinds of service for the head of the household as a Swedish au pair.

a fecthing ancilla

A fetching ancilla: but what is the mistress saying to her? The Cambridge Latin Course made slavery seem cuddly.

This approach got you interested in Latin. When an enemy of Latin told me,

Latin is a dead language,

As dead as dead can be,

It killed the ancient Romans,

And now it’s killing me,

I was surprised. Latin was fun. I looked forward to the next unit, with differently-coloured pamphlets.

The pamphlets contained fairly huge vocabulary lists, with ostensibly lexical items like ‘ego sum=I am,’ ‘id est=it is,’ and ‘ita vero=yes.’ (Did first century Romans really not have a word for ‘yes’?) At the end they would slip in a little grammar. For example the singular of a second declension noun. Terms like declension were eschewed though. Vocative was ignored. Nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and ablative were forms A, B, C, D and E. The unconventional order together with unconventional names made these snippets of grammar impossibly confusing for a student to use in conjunction with any ordinary grammar book. But who cared? We were learning grammar by osmosis.

Eventually were given a reference grammar. Very patchy in coverage, the term ‘reference grammar’ indicated that the manner it which was supposed to be used was quite different than the use of Kennedy’s ‘primer.’ It was to refresh the memory. No one thought of learning paradigms, because they had been picked up by hearing, reading, and a quick scan of each pamphlet’s grammar section for the week or so during which it was on one’s hands.

This, of course, failed. In our fourth year of Latin it was time for the exams which one takes at 16 (at that time in England and Wales called O-levels, where O was for ‘ordinary’). In keeping with the presentation of Latin as familiar and personal, the set texts were selections from Catullus, and from Pliny’s letters. We were of course wholly unable to translate these with that grammar we had absorbed by osmosis from the entertaining pamphlets, and vaguely Mediterranean-sounding tapes. The teacher provided a translation, and any boy of reasonable diligence could get it by heart well enough to pass his Latin O-level.

The following year I started my A-level. It immediately became apparent that whereas a boy who had studied under the old system (which the school had abandoned the previous year) could construe and translate easier passages of Sallust, Caesar, Tacitus, Vergil and Ovid, we could not. The Cambridge Latin Course had spent four years convincing us that Latin was a great subject. Now we had to start learning it, hindered by our vague knowledge of bits of mis-ordered and mis-named paradigms. The idea that the tenses and moods of the Latin verb could be set out in tabular form, or that there can be said to be five declensions, was a revelation, and very helpful. I assumed the Cambridge Latin Course would die. It flourished by keeping its engaging materials, while gradually abandoning its core ideals.

Where did it go wrong? The spoken element was admirable, and there should have been far more of it, not less. A few minutes of a tape cannot compare with imbibing a language by hearing daily. But a catastrophic mistake was to remove the attempt to teach us to write Latin. What is the logic of teaching Latin like a living language, if you remove all writing skills, presumably on the basis that they involve learning a little syntax? Finally, for adults (even for 12 year olds), learning an inflected language without a little rote learning of accidence does not work. I picked up German from the TV, but I have read a few tables of articles, adjective inflections, and verbs and memorised them.

You could say the Cambridge Latin Course changed my life. It ensured I was not put off Latin, but it left me with lot a remedial work to do which probably changed the course of my school and university career, and which for a while caused me to go to the opposite extreme and adopt vigorously traditionalist attitudes towards philology and the learning of ancient languages. I did, and to some extent still do, resent the wasted years. But school was like that generally. If the Cambridge Latin Course is now helping students learn Latin well, it must be valued and praised.

Note on the Cambridge Latin Course today

This has  been a review of the Cambridge Latin Course as it was in its early days. Here is the homepage of the Cambridge Schools Classics Project, including the now-mature Cambridge Latin Course, which has to a great extent learnt from its youthful mistakes.

Free Digital Resources for Classicists, including the New Online Version of Liddell and Scott (LSJ)


Here are some quick notes on online resources, particularly from the perspective of someone in the UK who is outside the university system, and therefore looking for materials with free access.

In my last blog post I promised a piece about Raoul Schrott and his theory that both Homer, and Troy were located in Southern Turkey. However, I appear to have thrown away my notes on the Innsbruck University Symposium on the topic. In due course I will write something from memory, and whatever I can find. For now, the loss of my notes his led me on to want to write something about paperless resources in Classics: owning little and travelling a lot means I am heavily dependent on electronic resources. Without the Net my lifestyle would be impossible. It seemed worth sharing some thoughts about what is out there, and how to get hold of it for those who do not have institutional access (where that is possible at all).

Library access in the UK and electronic resources

It is true that I have access to libraries. Indeed, access to the British Library is all too democratic, since it is quite easy to get a reader’s card these days. That would be acceptable except that seats fill up, and there can interminable queues to collect books one has ordered. Once you are through the door of the reading rooms at the BL various electronic resources are open to you. In the case of certain expensive business and legal resources a member of staff has to put in a password for you. The same is true in the Bodleian (or was last time I visited). However, at UCL former students who obtain a library card are locked out of the computer system, which is annoying. However, libraries which offer off-site access to holders of readers’ cards are few.

Some UK public libraries are good for offsite access to press and certain reference works in English and modern languages. Just how good your library is, is a postcode lottery. Things are done differently in Germany: national licences for academic databases provide all German residents with a range of goodies beyond the dreams of any local UK public library. Howver the system is not particularly strong for Classics. Switzerland and Austria do not have this kind of arrangement, as far as I can discover. For everyone, regardless of residence, the London-based Wellcome Institute Library will give a card to anyone (in principle) and is rather generous with offline access to expensive resources. A pity they do not have better coverage of Classics! Their interpretatin of their field (history of medicine) is fairly broad: on that basis, maybe they could and would acquire more Classics resources.

Primary and secondary texts for classicists

Perseus offer a good range of texts, albeit without apparatus, and not necessarily in the edition you would choose. There are other online texts. For example, computer scientist Sean Palmer (whose website attests an astonishing range of interests) has attempted to provide a relatively up-to-date and complete text of Sappho online, with translations. Wikisource is in the process of publishing online Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (RE) but it is at an early stage.

Epigraphy, papyrology, and manuscripts

There are several databases for epigraphy. They are somewhat impenetrable to the non-epigrapher, partly because of the patchy coverage which is nowhere explained in an accessible manner. However, epigraphy in general is like that. There are several lists on the Net of what is available, but none of them hold your hand and lead you through it. I wanted to read graffiti from Pompeii. Ultimately it appears that the relevant volume of CIL is not digitised, free or otherwise. There is some material on Epigraphic Database Roma (which temptingly has links for versions of the site in languages other than Italian, none of which are live). The material which is there has little more than the bare text. It appears that these database are there to lead the electronic searcher to the correct volume, rather than to replace having a good library to hand. Other epigraphic databases apparently offer images supplementary to the material in the book version.

The situation with Greek papyrology is very much better. contains in some cases the kind of material one would expect in a published book. It is not merely ancillary to the book format: the website even invites suggested emendations of texts, to enable collaborative editing. And it is free.

It is fun to have digital images of a number of ancient manuscripts in minuscule offered by several libraries, notably for Classics the Greek manuscripts online from the British Library. A search brings up three works by Pseudo-Nonnus: I am not sure who is going to sit down and read them (though it tells you something about the importance of Nonnus!). Some of the images are no doubt useful for practicing one’s manuscript-reading skills, and useful if you happen to be working on a text which is included.

Downloading and breach of copyright

I won’t go into what may or may not be available for download, possibly breaching copyright. Somehow I feel that students should not have breach copyright in order to get hold of books. I feel electronic resources should be accessible. Why? When UK university courses are set to become a privilege for the modestly wealthy, why should electronic resources not be similarly restricted to the well off? Arguments would be easy to find, but (for me) convictions are less easy to find. Google Books appears to breach copyright with effective impunity, and I have no difficulty in recommending Google Books, not only as a source for old and out of print works on Classics (though it is great for that). The rules are different for a multi-national corporation, and we must all be grateful to Google.

Dictionaries for classicists

The free TLG search program Diogenes now comes bundled with the Perseus versions of Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary, and Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon for offline use. A pity there is nothing similar for Oxford Latin Dictionary: a paid version was promised by Libronix-Logos but does not seem to have appeared.

The new LSJ from TLG

I would particularly commended the new online version of Liddell and Scott (LSJ), which appeared earlier this year on the website of Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG). It is said to be corrected, unlike the Perseus version. There is a brief history of the TLG version of LSJ on the TLG website. It brings up the context of each quotation from the TLG database, even for non-subscribers. The ability to search definition text may also be useful, particularly to writers of Greek verse and prose (though I daresay most academics have better things to with their time than write verse like Sophocles, as schoolteachers of yore did).

Miscellaneous materials

This is a fast moving field. There are projects which will render this post obsolete fairly soon, I hope. I have not attempted to cover archaeological materials, or non-Greek and Roman materials. The Stoa Consortium website is a good place to look for links for more Greek and Roman-related websites. It was there I found the Online Suda, which I have not used yet, but no doubt will be using.

For more systematic coverage of what is available on the Net, turn to the Intute Classics page. This is an admirable resource, although according their website JISC has withdrawn funding, and it will not be kept up to date. In Germany (as noted above) the state just gets on and does what is required, quietly. The rhetoric of ‘Digital Britain,’ on the other hand, (like the rhetoric of ‘Education, Education, Education!’ before it), is like a snow storm, whereas the un-thought-through consequences of decisions which seemed good at the time will be like an Iliad. (My future post on rising university fees in England is still embryonic!).

There is a wider question about why any academic monograph should have to appear in a very expensive hardback, when it might suit universities and library budgets better to provide a version for electronic book readers such as Kindle. That will come, no doubt. Those outside the university system, like the scholars and readers formerly behind the Iron curtain, and in other under-funded places, must enjoy what is available. The offering is pretty good.

Lucretius – Can he be trusted?

The other day I asked a Classicist friend, Dr Armand D’Angour, what benefits if any Classics had brought to his life. He replied, ‘many,’ and particularly drew attention to Epicureanism. This caught my attention because I had just heard an edition of the Radio 4 programme In our Time, on Epicureanism. Although I have never studied Epicureanism directly, exposure to Lucretius gave me a fairly clear idea of its elements. Armand’s comment also recalled to me a term of commendation I heard Carlotta Dionisotti apply to Lucretius: she described his poem as pabulum (I am reminded of Paul Johnson, in the Spectator, calling Armand’s own book on innovation, The Greeks and the New, ‘nourishing’).

This conversation prompted me to get a copy of Lucretius De Rerum Natura from one of the boxes where the remnants of my library are stored. I took out the Bailey edition, the Monro edition, and the Oxford Classical Text. I was required to read this book as an undergraduate, and I recall reading the Latin text three or four times, and Monro’s commentary once, so it seemed time to look at Bailey.

Incidentally, some modern university teachers may regard the Latin as too difficult for undergraduates, but in fact that is a misleading first impression: if they were to persist a little with Lucretius they would notice that the Latin is not inherently difficult when one gets used to not being thrown by some of Lucretius’ slightly mad or at least odd turns of phrase. Lucretius perhaps struggles to adapt philosophical thoughts to the poverty of the Latin language (to which he refers himself), just as Germans once tried to write science in a German language free of foreign words (a policy they have long since abandoned in favour of writing in English, or at least, of using English words and turns of phrase in their German).

Perusing Bailey, I found a passage which expresses well my scepticism that treaties on ancient philosophy can assist us to live better. It is on p.11 of the first volume of C. BAILEY Titi Lucreti Cari De Rerum Natura Libri Sex (Oxford, 1947). Bailey is discussing the poet’s alleged madness (which is said, in the meagre evidence about his life, to have led to suicide):

The gospel of Epicureanism, of which Lucretius was the preacher, is a gospel of happiness in a life freed from the terrors of religion by a materialist philosophy. But amid Lucretius’ professional happiness from time to time surgit amari aliquid [something of bitterness arose]; ‘the voice’, as Guissani puts it, ‘of his own intimate soul, troubled and tormented by the violence of its feeling, by the violence of its own enthusiasm for the serentiy of the truth’. In this sense it is not difficult to imagine Lucretius suffering from a recurrent depression, which even had its influence on the ‘lucid intervals’ in which his work was done.

When someone invites his readers, (or, like the unfortunate James Arthur Ray, his high-paying students) to a belief and a practice which, it is promised, will make life so much better, and his own life or state of mind or ‘outcomes’ are a poor advertisement, does that matter? If the appeal of Epicureanism, for example, is to stimulate and ‘nourish’ your own exploration, which will lead you to a better life, then it may not matter. Setting aside that the testimonies for Lucretius’ madness and suicide are flimsy, it is easy to answer doubts about trusting the philosopher, like the psychotherapist, who is himself screwed up, with the rebuttal, “but how much more unhappy would he be without his philosophical or therapeutic system for making life more bearable?”. It is a question we can never answer. As soon as one decides, for some more or less inscrutable reason, to invest time, energy, and perhaps money in system promising a better life without any credible evidence base whatsoever, well it is a lottery.

With that in mind, I think I will while away a little more time on Lucretius. There are worse occupations. I am not sure how much time I will spend on Bailey. He displays an impressive industry for which few modern academic Classicists find time. But I will give Bailey too a chance, not least for the penetration of his subject’s apparent self-deception in the phrase ‘professional happiness.’

By way of postscript I will mention I was taught Lucretius by the late Dr. David Vessey, whose attitude was that we could work out linguistic and literary points for ourselves, so he should in teaching us draw our attention to philosophical issues which we risked missing. These were not required for the exam (does any modern teacher have the courage to focus specifically and deliberately on what will not be in the exam? I hope so). When I pointed out to him how distracting from reading Lucretius, reading Bailey could be, he suggested that one should read commentaries as self-standing works, and not at the same time as reading the text itself. So trying out this suggestion is part of my experiment. I am not sure it will work: I fear not that Bailey will distract me from Lucretius, but that Lucretius will distract me from Bailey.

Here is to a happier life of Epicureanism!

A New Classics Blog is Born, an Old One Dies

Yesterday I received an email from a Classics’ enthusiast who has started blogging at The Lyre and the Lexicon asking me to add the blog to my Blogroll. I have of course done so: the blog is congenial, in so far as one can judge from its two posts so far, one of a general introductory character. 

The Lyre and the Lexicon blog is congenial because its author shares his or her thoughts without feeling the need to satisfy professional standards. An amateur Classicist may be able to publish material and thoughts which a professional might not share unless they are worked up into a paper, for fear of professional humiliation. On the other hand, The Lyre and the Lexicon is anonymous. The author wishes the blog to be ‘judged on its merits.’ My first reaction is that this is a pity. A blog should have persona, but that persona receives substance by being linked in the minds of readers’ to an identifiable person. To explain what I mean, consider the diaries of the British politician Alan Clark. They were somehow more interesting because one knew who he was, and which English constituents that arguably amusing philanderer with a picture of Hitler in his safe represented. Yet there are excellent anonymous blogs (for example the blog of Ms Hedgehog relating to tango: though I daresay some insiders know the blogger’s identity). Perhaps the blogger of The Lyre and the Lexicon has good reasons, though, for anonynimity, bearing, who knows, the burden of office, or enjoying the privilege of a public profile and prestige which might distract from the substance of the blog.

I think The Lyre and the Lexicon will find readers. My own blog (the present one!) did and I suppose does find readers. It has all but died because it has done what it was meant to do: it has enabled me to get some things off my chest. There was a strand of elitism in it, I suppose: having expended an inordinate amount of time acquiring skills in Classical languages, I may have permitted myself a touch of irritation that those selected for university posts in Classical languages sometimes have skills which lie elsewhere, or at any rate only to a modest degree in the technical aspects of the specialisms they profess. Most of my prejudices however, are positive. Classics is ‘in’; an oral element in language training is valuable; Classicists should and increasingly do feel comfortable about sharing their personal reactions to their subjection on the Internet.

And so, like Chandler who, in the preface to is second edition waves a last farewell to his much larger work (about which I have blogged), I feel I am waving a farewell to this blog, but not necessarily to Classics blogging. My plan was that would be for this kind of highly personal reflection (personal to me, not to its subjects!). I acquired (at some expense) the domain for a more general Classics blog, perhaps with a more didcatic element, and at any rate a less quirky one. Maybe I will make that website in Drupal, rather than WordPress, and do lots of Web-clever things in it. But will I or anyone find the time or inclination to write it? I have no idea.

In the meanwhile, head over and look at The Lyre and the Lexicon. Thanks for reading.

Max Leone

I was approached some months ago by the mother of  young writer, Max Leone, and invited to review his sequel to the Aeneid. She sent me a hard copy, and I find a ebook is available on Amazon:

I read it and found much admirable about it, yet it did not click with me. One enthusiastic reviewer on Amazon says that, as she read it, she was ‘weeping tears of gold’. Yes, there is humour, there is mythography, there is a lot of fighting, and the key protagonists are the Olympians rather than the human actors. And yet the author’s voice is not formed. When a young person declares that he or she wants to be writer, should they be compelled to practice writing, and battle for publication, as was the way in the past? Or should they get on and publish and promote a book which a commercial publisher would probably not have considered a sufficiently finished product? Surely there is a middle way?

I conclude by wishing Max that his promise as a writer may be fulfilled. In choosing classical themes and a classical afflatus, he is surely well placed to ride the gratifiying wave of fashionability which Greco-Roman Classics are increasingly enjoying.

Magic Mountain and crossing the Alps

Sorry for the long silence. I have been away. Crossing the Alps. I went up to Schatzalp, the hotel at Davos where Thomas Mann is supposed to have set The Magic Mountain, or Zauberberg. It does bring the book to life, if anything. I was tempted to stay there, but the currently strong Franc made me think twice, and stay in a tent instead. This was probably more authentica an experience, since the Liegekur, or lying down treatment, involved breathing a lot of cold damp Alpine air, and even at this time of year, it was not warm in the tent!

Have now reached Luguria, and wondering which route Hannibal took. I did have tboughts of descending on Rome, but it is a bit far…

More when I am back.

Study Latin because it is Alien?

Why study Latin? The answers are obvious, and its alleged ‘alien-ness’ is no doubt part of the mix.

Last week’s issue of the German weekly broadsheet Die Zeit (11 August 2011) included a section on why people remember so little from school. One German professor has criticised this, and traced it in part to the fact that the curriculum is overloaded. Another professor interviewed said things are not so bad: he might not remember his school mathematics, but at least he learned from school that a subject with mathematical methods exists, and he learned to know what he does not know.

This latter expert, Prof Heinz-Elmar Tenorth, having said that German and English are necessary, gave a somewhat surprising defence of learning Latin. On p30 he says this:

ZEIT: You regard French and Latin as luxuries.
Tenorth: Yes, luxuries, which makes education complete. Let us take Latin. We learn it out of tradition. This language has no direct utility. It used to be said that with a knowledge of Latin you can learn other languages better, or be better at logical thought. That has long been shown to be an error.
ZEIT: Why should Latin still be taught, then?
Tenorth: It might sound esoteric, but I view it in the way that Nietzsche defended the study of Greek: when you go to school, you need something really alien [Fremdes], in order to recognize that you are in the world of education [Bidlungswelt]. A world, which has nothing to do with daily life, which has its own laws, rules, tradition and expectations. This transforms the student, Nietzsche said: the inescapable confrontation with the alien, gymnastics for the brain.

I should have thought that for alienness one would be better off with Korean. It sounds as though Latin is the chosen source of ‘otherness’ with which the student is intellecutally confronted only because the tradition happens to be in place. I am myself a strong believer in the value of appreciating liginuistic otherness, which improves one’s grasp of language generally and of one’s own language. I felt I learnt more of linguistic otherness first when I learnt a bit of Hebrew, but the otherness of Semitic would ave been far less clear without a background in Indo-European languages, having learnt enough French at school to pass an exam no doubt far harder than today’s GSCEs (but not enough French to order a beer in Paris), and three words of German. (Since then the study of German in British schools has entered a sharp decline.)

Professor Tenorth is wrong, of course, about Latin lack of practical utility. In spite of my purported translation from a German newspaper, I have never studied German beyond the three words Apfel, Vater, and Haus which the British education system taught me when I was seven, and I tend to identify with a car sticker seen on a car with a Bavarian number plate: ‘Ich kann Alles ausser Hoch.’ However, familiarity with the habits of an inflected language acquired from school Latin are a help in picking up a little of the other languages one encounters, if one travels outside the English-speaking world, and it is because I studied Classics than I have been able to pick up enough of the language from German speakers to make head or tail of a German newspaper.

This is one of the reasons I do look back with gratitude for having been introduce to Latin at school, in spite of my strictures on the Cambridge Latin Course, which was culturally brilliant, but linguistically misconcieved at its birth. It is (as Greek was for the Romans, you may think) at once a source of tradition, and yet enough ‘other’ to hold up a mirror to northern Europe, and to the present. From the wasteland of school, spending years learning as much mathematics and French as a well-taught child might acquire in a few months, Latin was one of the more beneficial uses of my time. Its value may be described in terms of an amalgalm of the traditional defences, the Johnson line, and Professor’s Tenorth’s Fremdheit (my word, not his).

The problem with the overloaded curriculum, as is pointed out in the newspaper section mentioned above, is that every discipline fights to get as much of its own subject into the curriculum. Admittedly by global or even Eurpoean standards the Germans tend to do better than most countries, which is not saying much. The broad curriculum is blamed for the large number of students leaving school without the very basic skills which employers require. The almost exclusive focus on Classics in the English schools in the nineteenth century did ensure a better ‘product’ than today’s schools produce. For all its undoubted faults, it was a golden age, but regrettably elitist.

Educators would have done better in fighting elitism if, instead of levelling down schools by eradicating quality, they had levelled up. Levelling down is the besetting sin of left-wingers, whose politics of smashing class enemies, rather than building value, have tended to dominate educational theory for decades. (Marx was of course right about capitalism, but the favourite imperative verb of the politics of protest is, signficiantly, Smash, used transitively.) It is sad for the left that efforts to offer the quality education which Classics offers has in England been left the Conservative Boris Johnson (see for example this Daily Telegraph column). But I don’t really care where it comes from: whatever one’s politics the promotion of Latin in schools can only benefit the students. Every politican, regardless of tribal leanings, who has heart and awareness, along with his or her necessary ambition and understanding of power, will support it.