Promoting Classics in Spain

This just hit my twitterfeed as I was heading out the door and I fear it will scroll away before I get a chance to post it … a promotional video for Classics in the Spanish education system:

CJ Online Review:Thibodeau, Playing the Farmer

posted with permission:

Playing the Farmer: Representations of Rural Life in Vergil’s Georgics. By Philip Thibodeau. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011. Pp. viii + 326. Hardcover, $60.00. ISBN 978-0-520-26832-6.

Reviewed by John Henkel, Georgetown College

Its author describes this book as a “large-scale exercise in compare-and-contrast” between the Georgics and the tradition of Greek and Roman agricultural writing (5). Most modern scholars have treated Vergil’s agricultural poem as a vehicle for some other message—whether political, moral, or literary—but Thibodeau hopes to renew interest in the poem’s treatment of agriculture for its own sake. Based on a thorough knowledge of Greco-Roman agronomy and a broad survey of relevant sources, he shows that Vergil’s presentation of agriculture differs significantly from that of his contemporaries, and he makes an attractive argument that these differences reveal part of Vergil’s purpose in the Georgics.

In Chapters 1–4, Thibodeau argues that Vergil’s intended original audience was wealthy landowners, whom the poet aims not so much to instruct as to entice to rustication and the further study of agronomy. The civil wars forced many of this class into an unhappy retirement from political life in the city, so the Georgics can be seen as a work of consolation carried out through a protreptic to agriculture. As Thibodeau shows, the Roman tradition before Vergil is generally hostile to the vita rustica, largely because its isolation precludes social and political advancement. Vergil, however, systematically distorts country life in ways that characterize it as a worthy alternative to the city and even, paradoxically, as a place where one could achieve glory. This argument is not only convincing, but also simple and elegant enough to teach with; one may hope it will finally supplant the dated view of the Georgics as an agricultural handbook advocating a return to the simpler days of peasant farming.

Thibodeau’s steady focus on agronomy—with its corresponding de-emphasis on the poem’s literary background—makes these chapters valuable as historical and economic context for any study of the Georgics, but also creates some blind spots. Thibodeau shows, e.g., that Vergil’s positive depiction of manual labor is foreign to the Roman agronomical tradition, but he fails to connect this perspective to Vergil’s literary model Hesiod, who enjoins work on his brother Perses throughout the Works and Days. Still, the book’s new perspective on Vergil’s audience gives it new traction with some previously difficult passages, like the Laudes ruris at the end of Georgics 2: where Ross and Thomas have seen the poem as provoking skepticism and pessimism through its “lying” presentation of rustic life as easy (e.g., fundit humo facilem victum iustissima tellus, 2.460), Thibodeau shows that much in this passage makes good sense from the perspective of a wealthy landowner, whose staff would handle the day-to-day difficulties of farm life.

In Chapter 5 Thibodeau departs from his early focus on agronomy to consider the Georgics in light of ancient literary criticism. Although it is not quite clear how this chapter fits with the rest of the book, it is nevertheless full of valuable insight into Vergil’s poetic method and its development. Proceeding from the ancient critical disagreement over the purpose of literature—instruction or entertainment (psychagōgia)—Thibodeau explores the poem’s “psychagogy,” i.e. its ability to excite and then relieve strong emotions in its readers, analogous to the excitement and catharsis of pity and fear that Aristotle saw in tragedy. Although didactic poetry was sometimes condemned for its failure to draw readers in emotionally, Thibodeau plausibly suggests that Vergil adapts technical advances by Nicander—who excited fear and pity by describing the effects of snake bites—and Lucretius—who excited and then undercut strong emotion to demonstrate its vanity—to involve his readers emotionally in his project of agricultural protreptic. To demonstrate, Thibodeau looks at how Vergil excites pathos in the Georgics, and how he “scripts” the emotional responses of his readers, finding (inter alia) that he creates emotional tension by exciting an emotion but ordering his addressee not to feel it (e.g., he should not forgive the horse’s pathetic old age, 3.95–100), and that he excites strong emotion only to purge it (catharsis) by channeling it into wonder (e.g., Aristaeus’s grief over the loss of his bees, 4.321–32 is dispelled by his wonder at his mother’s underwater home, 4.363–73). Thibodeau’s argument here is indirect, but his points are of great interest, and Vergilians will see implications for the Aeneid as well, since these techniques prefigure that poem’s well-known polyphony and its use of wonder/ignorance as a closural device (e.g. after Aeneas views his shield, 8.729–31).

Different parts of this book will be useful to different readers. Students will profit from its convenient Introduction, which lucidly surveys trends in the poem’s interpretation; teachers of literature and history will find Thibodeau’s narrative helpful for their accounts of the Augustan period; and scholars will find much of value in his endnotes, his survey of the poem’s early reception (Ch. 6), and his two highly informative appendices, which include a catalogue of the poem’s known early readers. The book’s greatest virtue is this assemblage of data, which allows Thibodeau to make good observations and novel suggestions. Not every detail of Thibodeau’s argument is equally satisfying, but its general contours emerge as both right and useful. And although some scholars may see insensitivities that result from his emphasis on economics, Thibodeau is remarkably sensitive to how Vergil creates an effect, even when one disagrees about why.

Classics in Nigeria

A glimpse from the Nigerian Tribune:

The relevance of Homer’s works to Africa was the focus at the Fourth Biennial Constantine Leventis Memorial Lecture, which was organised by the Classical Association of Nigeria, in collaboration with the Department of Classics, University of Ibadan, last week. Adewale Oshodi reports on the lecture, which highlighted similarities between the ancient Greek and Roman cultures and that of Africa.

Is the study of Classics still relevant today? This is the question that made the Classical Association of Nigeria, in collaboration with the Department of Classics, University of Ibadan, to bring in Professor Michael Lambert of the University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, to speak during the Fourth Biennial Constantine Leventis Memorial Lecture at the Conference Centre, UI, last week.

The fact that the premier university is the only institution still offering Classics as a course tells a lot – either that the course is no longer relevant to modern day living, or Nigerians can’t simply apply it to their advantage.

However, a prominent business executive and graduate of Classics, Dr Gamaliel Onosode (OFR), believes the foundation of education itself has its roots in the study of Classics.

Dr Onosode, who was the chairman on the occasion, said Classics had made great contributions to the development of the country through its graduates. Citing people like the late Chief Bola Ige, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Ambassador JTF Iyalla, among others, Dr Onosode said the study of Classics definitely had a great impact on these lives, while calling on government to reappraise its stand on the study of Classics.

“If today, we can only find a Classics department at the University of Ibadan, then there must be something not right, or something seriously wrong with the nation in absorbing Classics in its education system”, Dr Onosode said, while admitting he had no regret he studied Classics.

In his submission, the Dean, Faculty of Arts, Professor Remi Raji-Oyelade, believes the study of Classics is relevant today as it was in the past. Professor Raji-Oyelade, who was represented by the Head, Department of Communication and Language Arts, Dr Ayo Ojebode, said at this period of global economic upheavals, it was important we went back to learn from the ancients, especially on how they also survived turbulent periods similar to the one the world is experiencing at the moment.

In the lecture entitled, Why Read Homer in Africa?, Professor Lambert highlighted the similarities in the ancient Greek and Roman cultures with that of the African culture.

“Through Homer, we can actually discover ourselves; since there are similarities of cultural values between Africans and the Greeks and Romans, then Homer’s works can solve some of the problems we are facing on the continent.

“Homer’s works deal with relationships, sexuality, compassion, rule of law, xenophobia, interaction, among others, and these are issues we are facing in Africa”, Professor Lambert said.

While also highlighting the similarity between the Greek and African culture, a former HOD of Classics, Professor Folake Onayemi, cited the work of Homer, Iliad 22. Ibid, 353, which reads: “Hektor, my child, respond to this and have pity on me, if ever I gave the breast to soothe your trouble…”, saying the passage reveals a common act among African women who use their breasts to appeal to their children on certain issues.

Therefore, from the submissions of the various speakers, it is clear that the study of Classics is still relevant in today’s world, and this is what the secondary school students who attended the lecture took away with them.

Earlier, the longest serving HOD of Classics, Professor James Ilevbare, had commended the support the Leventis Foundation had rendered the department in the past, and are still rendering.

“The Leventis Foundation has, in no small measure, been supporting the Classics department through the donation of books, award of undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships, as well as in the area of academic support for teaching staff.

“For more than 25 years, we have enjoyed all these from the Leventis Foundation, and we hope this will continue”, Professor Ilevbare said.

In her remarks, the current HOD, Dr Olakunbi Olasope, thanked the Leventis Foundation for its continued support for the department, saying it was definitely going a long way in sustaining the quality and standard of the department.

The lecture was attended by academics, students and officials of the Leventis Foundation in Nigeria.

FWIW, I’m often struck by how many articles my spiders bring back from Nigerian (and Ghanaian) newspapers which have passing Classical references in them … the sorts of things you couldn’t really just drop into, say, a Canadian newspaper and expect people to get the reference.

CJ Online Review: Mayhew, Prodicus the Sophist

posted with permission:

Prodicus the Sophist: Texts, Translations, and Commentary. By Robert Mayhew. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xxix + 272. £50.00/$75.00. ISBN 978-0-19-960787-7.

Reviewed by Michael Gagarin, University of Texas at Austin

Although Prodicus was an important fifth-century thinker, he remains relatively little known today. Socrates several times alludes to Prodicus as his teacher and we have numerous indications of his concern for correct word usage; but his longest surviving fragment, “The Choice of Heracles,” gives little indication of this concern or of any philosophical sophistication, and most scholars’ picture of Prodicus derives largely from Plato’s vivid and humorous parody in Protagoras. A new reassessment is thus most welcome, though I confess that my first thought on being asked to review a book on Prodicus was to question how one could fill a book with the scanty material in Diels–Kranz—twenty testimonia and eleven fragments, of which seven are labeled genuine (including the “Choice”), two doubtful, and two false. Part of the answer is that Mayhew considers not just these texts but “all the relevant ancient evidence.” This amounts to ninety texts, each with a facing translation, grouped into Life and Character; Language; Natural Philosophy, Cosmology, Religion; and Ethics. There follows a commentary, four brief Appendices on doubtful or falsely attributed fragments, notes on the source of each text, a Bibliography, and Indices.

So, what do we learn from Mayhew’s fifty-nine additional texts, all of which are late, some very late? Unfortunately, very little. They provide fodder for speculation about Prodicus and especially about his image in later antiquity, but almost nothing that is reliable enough to help us understand Prodicus’ thought. Some texts are even included “for the sake of completeness” (in one case “to warn against using it as a reliable source”). Completeness is arguably a worthy goal, with no great harm being done by additional texts, even if they add nothing; there is the danger, however, not entirely avoided here, of losing sight of the forest for the trees. This is especially regrettable because Mayhew presents an interesting sketch of Prodicus’ ideas in his brief Introduction.

For Mayhew, Prodicus’ contributions included three semantic propositions (no two words should have the same meaning, no word should have more than one meaning, a word’s meaning should match its etymology), a two-stage evolution of religion (humans first deified aspects of nature, then they deified people who brought them benefits), and a “sophistic” view of morality. This last, in my view, is Mayhew’s most interesting suggestion. For him, Prodicus’ “Choice” is not an argument for Virtue, as almost everyone beginning with Xenophon has thought, but rather a sophistic “double argument,” making the best case for each side. Mayhew stresses the conditional nature of both arguments: “if you want to be great and win honor, follow Virtue” vs. “if you want the most pleasant and easy life, follow Vice” (I oversimplify, of course). Both arguments, he thinks, are valid and so the choice is which kind of life one wants. Choosing Vice is thus not only rational, but is probably the choice Prodicus made for his own life.

My main difficulty with this is that unlike other sophistic double arguments, the Choice is clearly unbalanced: each speaker first argues for her way of life but Virtue then gets to add a long argument against Vice’s case, whereas Vice is only allowed one objection to Virtue, that its road is difficult, a point that Virtue herself has already emphasized. Even in the agon in the Clouds the stronger Logos, who promotes traditional virtues, is far from faultless. By contrast, Prodicus presents nothing but traditional arguments for each side and thus provides no reason to question the traditional judgment that Virtue is preferable.

Far more interesting, in my view, and more characteristic of the sophists, are Prodicus’ views on language. Here Mayhew misses a chance to connect Prodicus with other sophistic thought, especially with Protagoras (his alleged teacher), whose views on gender and mood appear as provocative as Prodicus’ lexical distinctions. But even here one wonders how much original thought Prodicus contributed. Plato’s presentation of Prodicus’ lexicology in Protagoras verges on ridicule (especially in the discussion of Simonides’ poem), suggesting that he may not have taken Prodicus very seriously.

Mayhew’s conclusions will not persuade all scholars, but they should, at least, stimulate interest in Prodicus. For this, however, the book’s format presents an obstacle. Mayhew presents his views of Prodicus in the Introduction, but his defense of these views comes in the commentary, where in most cases it is scattered among a number of different texts. Finding this defense (without a Subject Index) thus requires readers to work through a lot of the commentary, including much that is of little or no value in interpreting Prodicus’ thought. Eliminating peripheral material from the commentary (such as discussion of the dates of other authors like Herodotus) would help; even better, Mayhew could have gathered together the interpretative parts of the commentary into a single presentation of Prodicus’ views, making it easier for readers to evaluate his ideas and leaving it up to them to consult as much (or as little) of the commentary as they wished.

In sum, anyone seeking to produce a full study of Prodicus’ thought will find this book useful, indeed essential. For others, however, a much shorter treatment (like Dan Graham’s recent redoing of Kirk–Raven–Schofield) will provide virtually all that is wanted.