Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Entertaining History

Famous Greeks, by Rufus Fears, Read by The Author, Famous Courses, 2001

I can’t help but think of Woody Allen when I hear or read the phrase “adult learning.”

Cue Annie Hall:

(Shaking her head)
You don’t think I’m smart enough to be
serious about.

Hey, don’t be ridiculous.

Alvy moves over to the bed and sits down next to Annie.

Then why are you always pushing me to take
those college courses like I was dumb or

(Putting his hand to his forehead)
‘Cause adult education’s a wonderful thing.
You meet a lotta interesting professors.
You know, it’s stimulating.

Then later:


Annie stands at the open door of a cab, Alvy next to her gesturing as people
and cars move by.

Adult education is such junk! The
professors are so phony. How can you
do it?

A bit rapidly. I don’t care what you
say about David, he’s a perfectly fine

David! David! I can’t believe this!

All of which makes my feelings mixed about checking out The Teaching Company’s wide, wide, wide catalog of “courses for lifelong learners like you.” Something about their packaging come-ons make me feel like someone out there doesn’t think I’m smart enough.

Yet how can one pass up the opportunity to hear Ivy League professors spouting on (within proscribed limits, just like a real class) about the topic for which they’re most famous? And having always wished to learn more about ancient Roman and Greek culture (on which so much of our own culture is based) without tackling multi-volume epics of history such as Gibbon’s, Rufus Fears twelve lectures on Famous Greeks seemed an ideal opportunity.

Granted Fears is, like many historians and history teachers, conservative in thought, and he makes no bones throughout his lectures that he views history not as a wide-ranging grouping of social forces, economic pressures, environmental influences, or any such newfangled liberal-minded ideas, but as the work of great persons throughout time who have molded the world in their image. That is, he views history not from the Marxist approach, but from the Carlyle school of great men.

Now, I won’t state baldly that either method is the one true grail when approaching history, but I think such a view might be more applicable in the past than it is today. Clearly, when kings held dictatorial power over their nations (and their citizens were their chattel), it would be easy to shape events all by yourself. And certainly today, one person, sufficiently motivated, could alter the course of a nation, but stepping back we then have to ask, well, what shaped that king, what shaped that one person? Historical influence is not a chain of Theseus passing the torch to Homer who passed it Lycurgus and on down the line.

And Fears doesn’t shirk from providing historical context and placing these Famous Greeks in their appropriate place in their society, nor is his insistence on teaching what he loves unpopular. More people will line up to see a movie adaptation of The Iliad than will turn out for The Trials of an Ancient Greek Shepherd; King Arthur still commands more attention than an anonymous apothecary of the time. There is something in our sociological makeup that leads to widespread interest and reverence for important figures.

That said, the real value lies in Fears enthusiasm for his subject. You can hear it in his voice as he delivers these lectures (in front of an audience who laugh, cough, and applaud at points throughout). He clearly relishes (as do apparently all classical scholars) the bloody battles and tests of manly fortitude, yet he can at length discuss Sophocles and Socrates — though it is often how those two relate to politics and war.

Along the way, he relates fascinating accounts of the differences between such well known societies as the Spartans and the Athenians, the first widely caricatured merely as bloody minded warriors to the poetic philosophers of their rival city’s residents. Even if both societies had their specific failings, I came away with more admiration for the stability and equality prized by the Spartans over everything. Lycurgus, their lawgiver, believed that the key to a long-lived, stable society was education and civic participation which would lead to virtue. A proto-communist society, Spartans were allowed to go into each other’s homes and borrow what they needed when necessity compelled. Equality was considered such a hallmark of good governance that the men ate at collective meals with all the other men, joined even by the king. The only person a Spartan man ever called master was his wife who ran the whole of the family home and land.

And, of course, no accounting of Sparta is complete without the 480 BCE Battle of Thermopylae. The fractious Greek city states in a loose coalition faced down the might of the Persian Empire (here personified as Xerxes the King, one of Fears twelve Famous Greeks, despite not being Greek, so outsized was his influence on Greek culture). After wave after wave of Persian troops were mowed down trying to take a small pass in order to descend to the Greek mainland, the Persians were assisted by a Greek traitor* who showed them another route around the passage. Encircled, 300 Spartans stayed behind to give battle. Their forfeiture of their lives allowed the Athenians to regroup their navy and defeat Xerxes’ navy at the later Battle of Salamis, which lead to the final battle at Plataea and the end of the Persian Empire.

Fears’ voice practically cracks with emotion as he retells this story of self-sacrifice, and it is a good tale.

What’s more, there is always another good anecdote coming up in this series. And Fears manages to tie these into a sub-theme running through his lectures, the role played by hubris in the lives and fortunes of the Greeks. Time and again, he sets up his Famous Greeks, spooling out their stories until we come to the crucial moment when they make the fateful mistake of tipping the scales toward pride and overreaction. Thus Xerxes’ whipping of the water is hubris in action. Thus Pericles will be punished by a plague death for his instigation of the Peloponnesian Wars.

Later, in analyzing critics of Pericles, Fears turns to Sophocles the playwright who was himself one of the great man’s enemies. Nothing he says for the first half of the lecture on drama will be particularly new to anyone who’s studied or read much literature. We learn of katharsis, purgation, tragedy as medicine for society as well as individuals. What’s notable here is how Fears puts Sophocles’ Oedipus into context: Pericles had instigated the war on Sparta, the Spartans had attacked the city, the Athenians had barricaded themselves up within the city walls to endure the onslaught, and naturally plague tore through the city (killing even Pericles’ two sons). We turn to Oedipus, and find that Thebes too is riven by plague, its cause a mystery, its cause internal. Thus Oedipus is an immortal rejoinder to Pericles for the hardships faced by the Athenians: You Stupid Motherfucker.

In recounting the life of Alcibiades, Pericles’ nephew, who goaded the Athenians on to one fresh disaster after another and who sought for nothing so much as the destruction of the Athenian democracy to be replaced by an oligarchy, Fears’ story is ripe with hubris. With one peace established after the first war with Sparta, Alcibiades provoked another. Fleeing Athens after his machinations are uncovered, Alcibiades sleeps with the wife of the Spartan king and brags about it, leading him to flee to Persia, where he convinces the new king to fund both Athens and Sparta so they will exhaust each other in battle and be ripe for conquest.

After more successful battles with the Persians, Athens is eventually sacked by Lysander the Spartan who gives them the oligarchy Alcibiades wished through all his dealings, though he isn’t around to enjoy it. Thus began a period of judicial executions and the confiscation of many family estates, lead by the Thirty Tyrants, the most bloodthirsty of all being Critias, an associate of Socrates.

Put into such a context, the judicial proceedings against Socrates take on a different color. Smarting from having let themselves be led into one foolishness after another by Alcibiades, the Athenians naturally asked, “Well, who taught this young whipper-snapper to be so clever in oration and rhetoric?” Terrorized by the purges of their citizenry and the complete decimation of their rights under Critias, the Athenians likewise naturally asked, “Who instructed this man in morality and duty?” The actions of the Greek judges may be scapegoating when they fixed on Socrates, but this account makes far more sense than the traditional impiety charges and other such nonsense thrown up at the trial as related by Plato.

Taken as a whole, Fears’ lectures were entertaining as well as educational. The time passed quickly by as I learned new things and was forced re-examine long held assumptions. Fears’ small portraits of Famous Greeks and their lives owes a debt of gratitude to Plutarch’s histories too immense to be understated, yet in his passion for the material and his occasional, understated way of linking it here and there with contemporary times, he brings history to a vibrant life the moment you encounter him.

You know, it’s stimulating.

*At the risk of beating a dead horse here on the Trojan Wars, it is notable that when Odysseus gains entry into Troy for the Greek forces, this subterfuge is praised for its cleverness even though it leads to widespread slaughter of non-combatants. Yet at the same time, when the traitor Ephialtes gives the Persians the key to getting around Greek forces, this is seen as nothing more than baseness and even the Persians are slimed with this deed’s supposed wickedness.

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