The English novelist and essayist Maurice Baring is often credited with the quip that it wasn’t Homer who composed the Iliad and the Odyssey, but another man of the same name. Regardless of who said it, we get the joke. Homer, the Ur-poet of Western civilization — and usually the first author listed on any Western Civ syllabus — has over two and a half millennia become a legend, not a personage whose life we can chart more or less accurately. Even in Aristotle’s day, as imagined by Rembrandt, Homer was already an icon, a bust, an object of distant veneration. Over the centuries many sleuthing scholars have surmised that the blind bard never existed, that he was an artful composite of multiple poets: a grand idea, not a grand man.

That we shall never know the truth makes this mystery all the more enticing. So instead of penning a biography of Homer, a fairly impossible task likely to produce thin work anyway, the Argentinean critic and translator Alberto Manguel offers a so-called biography of the epic poems themselves, and it turns out that we find in their lives reaching back over 2,000 years all the complexity and contradictions of any eminent life, and then some.

But of course Manguel begins with the man belonging to history, the poet himself — or herself, or themselves. Theories regarding the identity of Homer vary widely, we might even say extravagantly. We have the now traditional story that he was a blind rhapsodist who lived centuries after the events surrounding the Trojan War he recounts in the Iliad– though Eratosthenes, otherwise known as the man who first measured the circumference of the earth, believed Homer to have lived contemporaneously with Achilles and Hector. We have the provocative notion propounded by Samuel Butler in the 19th century that the author of the Odyssey, in particular, was an authoress. And the idea — widely accepted today — that Homer was, in effect, a committee of poets, a chorus of generations. He is the first and perhaps most conspicuous asterisk attached to literature. Seven places vie for the honor of his birthplace — Smyrna, Chios, Colophon, Salamis, Rhodes, Argos and Athens — and the unlikelihood of pinning it down lends support, if not proof, to the position that Homer the person is utterly unknowable.

Such cannot be said of the poems, peopled with that “spectacle of human shadows,” which have been woven deeply into the fabric of the Western mind, a legacy that began with the ancients. The 5th-century B.C. poet Aeschylus claimed that all his plays were merely “slices from the great banquets of Homer.” Homer provided object lessons for philosophers: Plato mentioned him no fewer than 331 times in his dialogues. To Greeks of the generation that fought the Persian Wars, memorizing vast swaths of the Homeric poems and being able to comment on them with facility constituted a liberal education in itself. When the Romans gained both political power and cultural hegemony, they too considered Homer’s works the basis of all schooling — though they emphasized the moral lessons to be derived more avidly than the Greeks had done — and their own masterwork, Virgil’s Aeneid, is unthinkable without the literary patterns set by the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Manguel spends the balance of his book throwing pleasing light on the many ways these poems have come down to us through the years. Christians spun them out for their own purposes, Muslims for theirs. As with all literature of cultural consequence and high imaginative wattage, Homer has had to be rediscovered in every generation, each taking him to be speaking to itself uniquely. In the Middle Ages, Dante kept him elevated in the pantheon of luminous spirits of the past, and the unearthing of Greek texts (they had been known mostly through Latin translations until the 15th century) served as a spur to the Renaissance. Milton wrote with epic Homeric aspirations. English literature is barely imaginable without Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad and its influence on Keats, among others, and certainly the history of the 20th century would have been singularly different had we been deprived of that benchmark of modernism, James Joyce’s Ulysses. This isn’t just a matter of toting up allusions; every writer since the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed belongs to the fraternity of the Homeridae, the descendants of Homer.

Yet it’s the residue these poems have left on our imagination, the echoes they have sent vibrating through our minds, that most recommends them to us now and always. They have provided two of our guiding metaphors — life as a battle (Iliad) and life as a journey (Odyssey); Troy has come to stand for every city and Odysseus for Everyman. They gave us a vocabulary of human struggle and hope. As Manguel says, long ago, with these poems, “we already had words to name our most bewildering experiences and our deepest and most obscure emotions.” More than one perspicacious reader through the ages has noted that these two majestic stories carry an eerie, discomfiting open-endedness. With all their warring and wandering, with all their tears and triumphs, the poems of Homer end, but they don’t quite resolve. In that way, they’re like much of life itself. *

Tracy Lee Simmons is the author of “Climbing Parnassus” and director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. Following in an interview that first appeared in Interrrogatory September 4 , 2002 Q&A by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Greek to You
Is classical education dead?

Tracy Lee Simmons, an NR contributor, is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He holds a master’s degree from Oxford in the classics and is author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: When you write about classical education you mean more than learning enough Latin to help with the SATs. What is a classical education?

Tracy Lee Simmons: This was the Humanist’s education, in the sense in which Erasmus and Thomas More were Humanists. A classical education used to mean simply a curriculum based upon Greek and Latin. Of course, that curriculum also included math, history, and literature, but they were secondary; the two ancient languages were primary. Greek and Latin were what made the curriculum classical, nothing else. Unfortunately, as I say in the book, a classical education can mean lots of things these days, practically everything from Shakespeare to phonics. But, on the upper end, most definitions seem to have in common a fairly demanding curriculum and a serious reconnection to the history of the Western world — but often without the languages themselves. I think this is deadly, because it excludes the rigor. Over time it gives us the illusion of knowing things we don’t. So I’ve tried to reemphasize Greek and Latin as being vital, in fact central, to a classical education. It’s not really my definition, mind you. It’s what everyone from T. S. Eliot on back for hundreds of years would have recognized. A classical education forms the mind by classical models of thought and language and gives us a past.

Lopez: Should everyone be getting a classical education, to some degree? Where do you start in terms of grade/age level?

Simmons: Well, after admitting, as we should, that no time is too late to start — high school, college, or later — we must also acknowledge a few humbling facts. If the classical languages are to serve their formative function, a training in them should begin as early as possible. It’s still common in European countries, for instance, to begin Latin around the age of ten, and that’s usually after the child has already begun a second modern language. Let’s not kid ourselves: that kind of schooling is not merely different from ours, it’s superior. Children end up maturing sooner and knowing more. Who should get a classical education? In a perfect world, everyone would have a shot at it, at least at the beginning. But the real answer is, whoever can. That is, whoever is blessed with a good mind, as well as with the advantages of good schools with traditional values and practices — remember, we need both. Where Latin is still available in America, students still start somewhere near the ninth grade. That’s okay, but it’s later than it needs to be. Under the older system, which some American schools followed, a Latin student could be reading Virgil — or a Greek student, Homer — by that stage. I see no reason to waste time the way we do in this country, though we can see where we’ve gone wrong. If we’re not worried about the immediate and obvious utility of a subject, we’re worried that our children will feel bad about themselves if they don’t get straight-A’s. Both motives are low and unbecoming, and they don’t, as we say now, send a very good message to young people about the life of the mind.

Lopez: What are the current trends? Who is getting classical educations? Who is studying Greek and Latin?

Simmons: Again, whoever can. It’s a parched world out there, but there are signs of hope. The Catholic schools could once be counted on at least for teaching Latin, if not Greek, and many still do. But you find a disturbing number of Catholic schools getting rid of Latin, and failing to stress it where it survives, which means of course that it probably won’t survive very long. Many homeschoolers are trying to provide Latin, and mostly for all the right reasons. But if the parents haven’t had Latin, or not much of it, they can’t take their children very far without expert tutoring. The best places remain good private schools where, for whatever reasons, the good and rigorous subjects remain and are well taught by extraordinary, if underpaid, teachers. Those schools are out there. You even see Latin returning here and there to public schools, and that should put the Catholic schools to shame.

Lopez: Among the advantages of Greek and Latin is the discipline that comes with memorization. Rote learning is out these days. Is a comeback possible?

Simmons: Yes, I think a comeback of rote is probable. The Gross National Stupidity might force the issue. To say that Latin helps your English is to say the least, but it still doesn’t say much. More disturbingly, people are beginning to see that their intelligent children don’t know very much. Here they are, with minds as strong as any the world has seen, and those minds simply don’t contain very much, nor are they very well molded. And they’ve frittered away their childhoods on public-school silliness like multiculturalism and time-wasting projects instead of reading books. They know things, but they haven’t learned much systematically. If they had taken, say, French and Latin by the age of twelve — along with Algebra I — they’d not only know all that comes with them; they’d have gained the ability to teach themselves whatever comes along. Rote memorization is a prerequisite to real knowledge. As my colleague Jeff Hart has said, what else are you supposed to do with French irregular verbs? Well, use them, obviously. But first you must learn them, and that can be hard work for a

Lopez: You say this is all a lost cause, don’t you? Is it really? Then what are your goals?

Simmons: It’s mostly a lost cause, but not completely. It’s certainly a lost cause as far as the educational establishment — the NEA and AFT and so forth — is concerned. Talking to them is like talking to a mud fence. I guess my goal is to encourage the creation of a remnant of those who know what’s good and what will promote a healthy society, which is of course healthy, intelligent individuals, not big schemes for social improvement. We need to start small. And since I’ve pretty much given up on the education establishment to reinstate some decency, I suppose we must form a dis-establishment of civilized people. It’s possible. Maybe we’ll need to return to monastic schools, where the mind and soul are formed together. That would be best. The Benedictines have had it right for 1,500 years. They brought salvation, sanity, and civilization — not a bad deal, all things considered.

Lopez: You teach college students. How much enthusiasm to they have for classics?

Simmons: Here’s another reason why this is not a completely lost cause. I see tremendous enthusiasm for classics, at Hillsdale College and elsewhere. When I was an undergraduate, twenty years ago, most classics students I knew studied classics in order to become classical scholars, or at least classics teachers. Now I see undergraduates — and remember, I teach journalism and writing, not Greek and Latin — who wish to major or minor in classics and carry that credential with them for the rest of their lives, to take it to their professions, professional schools, what have you. They’re not worried about their curriculum helping them to get jobs. They want to be complete as intelligent beings. That makes them a cut above my self-serving group. I can’t tell you how much I admire them for that.

Lopez: Where would you send parents who want to ensure their kids get a classical education or some sort?

Simmons: Start from home. As I said before, some public and parochial schools continue to retain their classics, and they might be just around the corner. You may not need to go to an expensive private boarding school. Here’s one sign to watch: generally, the earlier the students start their languages, with grammar and everything, the better and more serious the program is likely to be. Be wary of those who prefer smiling children to intelligent children; same with adolescents, only more so. Be careful with those schools offering Latin because it’s a current fad; they must be committed to it, regardless of what the latest studies are saying. Incidentally, make sure that the parents aren’t running the school, because that’s a recipe for an oozing demise of anything like real education. Sad to say, the average Baby Boomer parent these days is as ignorant of the goals of a humane education as children are, and good things and good people always get hurt when ignorant busybodies prevail. If your local private school isn’t offering Latin, be bold and ask the headmaster or principal why, and watch him squirm. Often the reasons are not very good, and usually schools that provide more computer training than intellectual formation are ensuring a lifetime of mediocrity for those children. If that’s what you want, go for it. Otherwise, politely walk away.

Lopez: How has the decline in classical education effected modern thought?

Simmons: The decline of classics has made us more trivial, less weighty, in our thinking, and certainly less wise. The decline of the serious study of rhetoric, for example, has reduced politics to sound bites and number-crunching. We don’t see many statesmen about nowadays. We don’t care if politicians talk like snake-oil salesmen, but we should. I suppose that a more direct effect of that decline is its exposing us to pseudo-sophisticated language of the kind we get from the social sciences, like psychology and sociology: if it sounds scientific, we think, it must be intelligent. Anyone with a humanistic education would see through that very quickly — and act accordingly.

Lopez: What’s the relation between virtue and the classical languages?

Simmons: Well, that’s the best question of all. The wisest ancients, both sacred and secular, sought as their social ideal the good man or woman who could speak well. A clever use of words wasn’t enough; one had to use words for right and good ends. And when we study the classics now, we can’t help but notice the preoccupation with the connection between virtue and eloquence. Men of the Renaissance understood this as well, as did almost everyone till the 19th century. John Henry Newman — who, as a Greek scholar, was very much the believer in classical education — lived to see that idea slipping away. Also, the ancients have taught us to distrust, or at least question, our emotions, our passions, which they seemed to consider guilty until proven innocent. That would be heresy on the afternoon talk show circuit now but, between Seneca and Oprah, I know whom I’d rather trust.

Lopez: When did your interest in everything classic first take root?

Simmons: I really can’t remember. It must have started with tales of Greek mythology I saw in children’s books; I recall liking the quasi-biblical quality of those stories. They were foreign and familiar at the same time. Then watching Ben Hur, The Robe, and films like that. Then, after I started Latin, I noticed the way that that marvelous language opened up the world of words to me more intensely, and I guess I was hooked. There were no epiphanies; it was gradual. To be honest, in the earlier years of school, classics was mostly work, but I must have had some tiny talent with it all. Not until much later, in my mid-twenties, did I look back and see all I had gained. I would be a different human being altogether without classics. I agree with C. S. Lewis, who once said that losing Latin and Greek would be like losing a limb.

Lopez: WFB wrote the intro to your book. How did you first come to know him?

Simmons: He tells the story of our meeting in the foreword. I wrote a review of one of his sailing books, he wrote to me, and a month later I was writing and editing for National Review. It was a fantastic opportunity, and I’ll be forever grateful to him. And, in a sense, Climbing Parnassus was his idea. I must have talked a good deal about my devotion to the classics, and he said what he often does to others taken with something: Make it solid, write it up. It made all the sense in the world for him to write the foreword. I was, and am, honored.

Lopez: Besides him, of course — who are you favorite modern writers? Clear thinking, classically trained, you’d want to hand a high-school or college student?

Simmons: Well, surely I’ve already said enough. But among modern writers of the older set, you can’t easily go wrong with T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, or Graham Greene. I always go back them. For today, Jacques Barzun is the finest voice we have. Victor Davis Hanson is writing the best war commentary conceivable. But I try not to let the fact that they were all classically trained prejudice my opinion!