Tuesday, July 17, 2018

mee r sik munkee

I went into the ER Friday morning, was moved to another ward on Saturday, and discharged Monday afternoon, yesterday. What's wrong with me? They don't know, exactly. The leading theory is that it's an unknown virus, and the hope is that I'll recover within a few more days, as one would normally do from the flu. I was discharged because the hospital didn't know how to treat me, since they haven't yet figured out what's wrong (they will do more tests and keep trying to figure it out), and also because of the concern that I could get additional infection in the hospital and get worse.

I'm concerned that my home environment may have made me sick, and may make me sicker now that I'm back home, and finally, in the hospital, I started telling people about that concern, and I've been put in touch with some people who may be about to evaluate my living space and offer advice about what needs to be done. I've seen homes that were cleaner, and I've seen homes that were dirtier and the residents didn't seem to care. (Maybe they just hadn't admitted yet, like I didn't admit until I was hospitalized, that they were overwhelmed and didn't know what to do and is there anybody who can help?)

I don't want to get into the more gross details about my home here on the blog. I just don't. You're welcome. I just want to say: I wish I had mentioned to someone that I was overwhelmed and didn't know what to do a while ago. Despite what the libertarians say, nobody ever gets through life all on their own, and there's no shame in admitting you need help.

One thing the hospital visit made very clear, although I already knew it, is that I need to be around people more. There were hospital staff around 24 hours a day, and many of them were very friendly, and some of them I liked very much, and now here I am back at home alone except for the Internet. I need to get well and then get out of the house and mix it up. Probably in that order.

Monday, July 9, 2018

A Timeline of Giving Up on Latin


during the 13th century -- French replaces Latin as the official language of England.

ca 1302-1305 -- Dante defends writing in the vernacular in his (Latin) treatise De vulgari eloquentia.

between 1490 and 1539 -- French becomes the official language of France.

1773 -- Latin loses its status as one of the official languages of education in Poland-Lithuania.

1784 -- German replaces Latin as the official language of the Holy Roman Empire.

1794 -- Tom Paine publishes The Age of Reason, in which he states, "as there is now nothing new to be learned from the dead languages [Paine was referring to Latin and Greek -SB], all the useful books being already translated, the languages are become useless, and the time expended in teaching and in learning them is wasted."

1844 -- Hungarian replaces Latin as the official language of Hungary.

1847 -- Latin ceases to be the official language of the Sabor, the Croation parliament.

after 1920 -- In the Soviet Union, Latin is associated with the ancien regime and its study declines drastically at all levels of education.

1931 -- Yale drops its Latin requirement for admission. (The most I've been able to discover about Latin entrance requirements at other US universities is the frequent assertion that "many other universities later followed Yale's example.")

1960 -- Oxford drops its Latin requirement for admission.

1963 -- The Catholic mass is no longer celebrated exclusively in Latin.

1968 -- Latin courses are no longer required in middle school in France.

1972 -- Latin is no longer required for graduation from Gymnasiums in West Germany.

2012 -- The International Botanical Congress no longer requires that newly-discovered plants species be described in Latin.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority is proposing to drop the scholarship exam in Latin (for final year pupils) in 2019.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Continuity of the Classical Tradition

Joel and Ethan Coen have famously said that neither of them has ever read Homer's Odyssey, and implied that the credits to their film O Brother Where Art Thou?, which say that their screenplay is "based on Homer's Odyssey," should be taken with a chuckle. And yet, even if the credits had not mentioned Homer, anyone with a passing familiarity with the plot of the Odyssey could've seen the big obvious parallels, from the protagonist being named Ulysses, to the many adventures suffered by Ulysses and his companions on their way home, to the characters clearly based on the Sirens and the Cyclops, to Ulysses' having to to defeat a suitor to win back his bride once he's home, to name but a few.

Some might see it as a sign of the collapse of Western civilization that Joel and Ethan Coen, two of the most well-respected artists in contemporary culture, have not read Homer -- but look at it another way: Homer is still so much a part of our culture that they didn't need to read the Odyssey in order to make a great film based upon it.

In 1997 Charles Frazier published his first novel, Cold Mountain, the story of a man who deserts the Confederate Army near the end of the American Civil War and embarks on a long and hazardous journey to return to the love of his life -- a novel based on the Odyssey, and perhaps the best-reviewed American novel of the past 25 years. Since then, many books based on the Odyssey have been published, notably Margaret Atwood's novel The Penelopiad, which re-tells the story from the point of view of Odysseus' Penelope. In 1922 James Joyce published Ulysses, one of the most highly-regarded novels of the 20th century, and one very self-consciously and minutely following the plot of the Odyssey.

And those are just a few of the most prominent imitations of the poem. Just to name every well-received novel, poem, film, play, ballet and other works of art made in the 20th or 21st century based on the Odyssey would fill up a longish blog post, even if I stuck to just the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, whose 20th- and 21st-century culture I happen to know somewhat better than that of the rest of the world. I'm not well-acquainted with the literature of the Caribbean, but I do know that the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, of Saint Lucia, wrote a book-length poem, Omeros, which is based on the Iliad.

Looking at the cream of recent Western culture, it would seem that the continuity of the Classical tradition is mightily strong indeed. (And by the way: in the abundance of re-tellings of Homer, recent Western civilization resembles every single earlier epoch.) But some might say that it has declined drastically, and point to academia, always closely related to ambitious fiction and poetry, but never identical to them, to make that case. But I am not so sure. It's a matter of how you look.

Up until about a century ago, Western academia was with very few exceptions the preserve of affluent white men, a fairly small club which saw itself as the inheritors and preservers of, among other things, ancient Greek and Latin literature. Since then, much greater numbers of people have been going to college, primarily from groups which had been mostly excluded from it before: women, ethnic minorities and people who aren't quite so rich. Understandably, not everyone in these groups new to academia shares all of the same opinions about what is important as the traditional core of rich white guys. Some lament a decline of the study of the Classics, and compared to academia as a whole, there's no doubt that Classics have a smaller place than they had a century ago. But in terms of the actual numbers of people studying ancient Greek and Latin, writing books about it, teaching it to others and editing Classical texts -- well, there, I don't know how the actual total numbers today compared to those of a century ago, and I don't know whether anyone else knows either. If you know, please tell me! If you think you know, well, don't feel compelled to share your opinions. I have my opinions and am familiar with those of some other people. What I don't have are actual numbers.

It may well be that there is one huge advantage enjoyed by Classical Studies today compared to a century ago: it may be that the general level of enthusiasm in Classical departments is much higher today -- when no study of the Classics is required in most universities, meaning that the Classics departments are filled with students who have chosen to be there -- than a century ago, when a certain amount of Classical study was required of every single rich white guy, in college and before college, and to many of them, perhaps most, the Classics were a loathsome chore, to be endured and then, if possible, forgotten.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Facebook Pet Peeve #1

Pet peeve: people who post a picture or a link with the words: "no words." "No words" is not no words: it's two words. It's perfectly permissable to actually post a picture or a link on Facebook with no words. People do it all the time. If you're sharing another person's post, Facebook actually offers you a shortcut to share it right away, with no words from you added. Saying "no words" doesn't make you seem more sensitive or witty or whatever: trying to draw attention to how sensitive or witty or whatever you are only makes you seem less sensitive or witty or whatever.

If you actually are sensitive or witty or whatever, don't worry: people will notice!

If you don't agree with this Facebook pet peeve of mine, don't worry about that either: I've got plenty more.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Because We Need Swing-Voters Too...

Trump BAD! Democrat stop Trump! Yay Democrat! Democrat BLUE! Blue GOOD! VOTE DEMOCRAT! VOTE DEMOCRAT! Yay Democrat! Yeah Blue! Yaaaaaaay!


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Whom Can You Trust? Sources of Ancient History

There is not a lot of ancient written material to be considered, certainly not in comparison to modern written material. For the entirety of ancient Rome, almost a thousand years of history, most of it encompassing a huge area and millions of people, the works of only a handful of historians survive. I should say: part of the works of those historians has survived, part is missing. Other historians who wrote in and about ancient Rome are known by name, but there are not many of them, either.

And not everyone who used to be considered an ancient historian is still thought of that way: the Augustan Histories, formally regarded as the work of six different authors writing around AD 300 and covering the reigns of the Roman Emperors from 117 to 284, is coming more and more to be regarded as the work of one author, writing around 400 and pretending to be six different earlier writers. And more and more, it is thought to have been written as something other than history -- as a satire of historical writing, perhaps. So what we used to think happened in the Roman Empire between 117 and 284 has to be re-considered to a very great extent. This agonizing re-appraisal is going on right now.

Not that the actual ancient historians are trusted completely. Far from it. They're regarded as themselves being entirely too trusting of written accounts of events of which they themselves were not eyewitnesses; they're suspected of twisting their historical accounts to serve their political agendas (perhaps contemporary historians are not suspected of this as much as they should be), and much of what they write is what we today would call historical fiction: for example, speeches and conversations with which the authors would have no way of being familiar are written out word-for-word, clearly invented by the authors, for what we would call dramatic purposes.

Because of the small amount and suspicious nature of the ancient historical writings, historians have no choice but to turn to other sources: ancient authors of non-historical works, including fictional and legendary works, are combed through for whatever tidbits of history reality they may contain; ancient coins and inscriptions are studied; the few surviving legal works and official versions of speeches of emperors are inspected.

And since the 19th century, the papyri from the eastern part of which have been unearthed, mostly written in Greek, found above all at Oxyrhynchus, besides ancient copies of Biblical and literary texts, some of which had been previously lost, have also added everyday items like personal letters, petitions, shopping lists and so forth.


However, the major sources remain those written by ancient historians. And besides wondering how far these historians themselves are to be trusted, there is the addition question of how accurately manuscripts of ancient authors reflect what those authors actually wrote. The attempt to re-construct as closely as possible what authors originally wrote is called textual criticism, and textual criticism is a very large and endlessly fascinating part of Classical Studies. In the case of Classical Greek, the above-mentioned discoveries of papyri have added a great deal of evidence with which textual critics can work. In the case of ancient Latin, recent discoveries have come much more seldom. In the case of most ancient Latin authors, there are no existing manuscripts older than the 9th century (Charlemagne, God bless him, instigated a huge revival of the study of ancient Latin). In some cases, there are no known manuscripts older than the 15th century (when printing began to replace manuscripts), and in the case of some authors, there are no manuscripts left at all: we have printed editions, but the manuscripts from which the earliest printed versions were made are gone. It is to be assumed, in the course of hundreds or thousands of years of copying and re-copying, some alterations to the texts were made.

And so, in the discussions which revolve around the textual criticism of ancient historians, there are debates which may look to the untrained observer as if they are debates about what exactly happened at a certain place and time, when actually they revolve around what a certain historian wrote, completely apart from the extent to which it is historically accurate. I saw these sorts of misunderstandings often in online discussions of Biblical texts, because, generally speaking, laypeople are much more interesting in discussing the Bible than in discussing any Classical authors: scholars, all atheists, none of whom believe in anything miraculous or otherwise supernatural, might be discussing, or trying to discuss, the best possible Hebrew or Greek version of a Bible passage, the version as close as possible to what the author actually wrote, while at the same virtual time and place, New Atheists and fundamentalists argue over whether or not the miracle describe in that passage actually occurred, and mostly ignore my attempts to tell them that the scholars were discussing, or trying to discuss, something entirely different.

Similarly, scholars might be discussing Vulgate manuscripts online, talking about whether the text of a particular manuscript showed that it was a copy, or a copy of a copy, of a manuscript made in a certain place and time, while constantly being interrupted by people asserting and disputing the literal historical accuracy of the Vulgate.

If you want to join a discussion, it's good to have a clue about what the people there are discussing: are they talking about what happened in a certain ancient time and place? Or what an ancient historian said about what happened in that time and place, or what we can infer from an ancient non-historical author? Or about what chance there is that the surviving manuscripts accurately what that historian (or other author) wrote? Or about what he or she may have written instead of what is in the manuscripts? Or about what the pattern of mistakes in manuscript A say about where and when the now-lost manuscript α was made, from which manuscript A was copied, or from which another now-lost manuscript, β, was copied, from which A was copied? Or one of many other topics which are not what happened at a certain time and place, but which may be a vital part of constructing a more accurate idea of what may have happened at that time and place?

Friday, June 22, 2018

Ancient History Deserves More Respect

In the following essay, I have used the terms "historian" and "Classicist" as if they were somewhat interchangeable. This may distress some historians and Classicists, to whom the distinctions between their disciplines are extremely important. To them, I apologize. Those distinctions are quite simply not as important to me.

Along with countless smaller shocks, three major ones have brought me to the conclusion that the study of ancient history is in a dire state of neglect:

First, a few years ago, I became aware of the New Atheists. One of the first things I learned about them was that their most prominent and well-respected member -- indeed, their widely-acknowledged leader -- is Richard Dawkins. I had read read two books about biology by Dawkins, The Selfish Gene and The Ancestor's Tale. I had heard about his more recent book The God Delusion but hadn't read it. However, I assumed, on the basis of the other two books, that it must be brilliant, and that any atheist movement with him at its head must be out there actively making a lot of good sense.

An atheist since childhood myself, I eagerly joined New Atheist communities online, but soon became very impatient with people repeating, ad nauseum, ridiculous memes such as calling the authors of the Bible "Bronze Age goat herders," or: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." I wondered when I was finally going to get to some well-educated New Atheists, when some of them besides me was going to try to correct some of the more dopey memes.

Then came the first of those above-mentioned three major jolts: I learned that those two memes and a lot of other oft-repeated New Atheist slogans were direct quotes of, or paraphrases from, Dawkins himself. I heard or read about Dawkins saying shockingly racist things in the guise of an enlightened critique of Islam. Dawkins, who'd called the Old Testament God "jealous and proud of it," but reserved most of his most poisonous comments for Islam, has never read the Koran, and never will, and is proud of that.

Despite the good advice of Alcoholics Anonymous, that when we assume we make an ass of you and me, I had assumed, on the basis of The Selfish Gene and The Ancestor's Tale, that Dawkins was incapable of writing a bad book or saying a horrid thing, although, in order to make this assumption, I had had to ignore a jarring clue right there on the first page of the first chapter of The Selfish Gene, "Why are People?" where Dawkins approvingly quotes GG Simpson to the effect that all attempts to describe human nature made before 1859 are worthless and should be ignored.

As a matter of fact, all sorts of eminently-sensible things written before 1859 point out the hazards of people telling you to ignore entire eras while simultaneously telling you non-stop about those very eras, about which they are proudly ignorant.


The second major shock came from Stephen Greenblatt's inept book The Swerve, which claims that Poggio was solely responsible for saving the text of Lucretious from oblivion, that Lucretius was solely responsible for rescuing Epicurian philosophy from oblivion, and that Epicurian philosophy, via Lucretius, via Poggio, ushered in the Renaissance and the modern world, three ridiculous assertions. After having heard so much praise of the book that I finally decided I had to read it for myself and see if it was as bad as it descriptions of it sounded, I found that it was actually worse. The shock was not that such a bad book was written, nor that it was a bestseller. There are books far worse on the bestseller lists all the time. The shock was that this book had won so many awards and gotten such high praise from so many people I who, I would have thought, were well-educated.

Or should I say: these people are well-educated, of course they are, and the shock was in perceiving how small a role a knowledge of history could play in a good education.

And most recently, the third shock came when I learned that the story of Christian having willfully destroyed the great library at Alexandria had been passed along, and perhaps greatly popularized, by Carl Sagan on his TV series Cosmos.

Thanks to people like Dawkins and Sagan, the general public is now in touch, to some degree, with cutting-edge science. That is an immense and lauable achievement. But very often, cutting-edge scientists, working at the West's greatest universities, are not in touch with the bullet-points of the current study of history. (I don't know whether historical illiteracy is as widespread in the science departments of the great non-Western universities, and I won't pretend as if I know. Dawkins does enough of that sort of pretending for himself and me both.)

I believe that history is every bit as important as science. I can't prove this as directly as a scientist explaining climate change and what can be done about it, but perhaps I can persuade the reader to give it some thought. (Some readers won't need much convincing: for instance, if they're familiar with one of the non-English languages which call history a science.)

Science deals with how things work, and history with what happened. If we don't know what happened, we're in no position to know how things work, or to know much of anything at all. If we're satisfied with any old account of Greek philosophy, or ancient libraries, or the Renaissance, or with a version which matches our political agenda or the axes we wish to grind, then, in effect, we're content not to know what happened. There are specialists working full-time on uncovering these subjects, uncovering them figuratively and also literally in the case of the ancient libraries, and if we don't consult them and see what they've made of the texts and other artifacts of the times they study, before we ourselves make pronouncements on related subjects, then we're acting very much in the spirit of Richard Dawkins and GG Simpson and Stephen Greenblatt and Henry "History is bunk" Ford.

(That seemed much more impressive in my head before I actually wrote it down. But perhaps it's a start.)

What can historians themselves do in order to introduce more of their work into the public consciousness? There's one thing I can think of, which the historians might very much not want to do: they might become a little less polite. How have most Classicists reacted to Stephen Greenblatt's book The Swerve? With one of the most fearful weapons in their arsenal: they mention Greenblatt's name more seldom. If one has become familiar with the community of Classicists and their mores, this shunning is chilling indeed. To the general public, however, it's almost entirely as good as imperceptible, and there's almost no way of learning that Greenblatt's assertions do not conform to the findings of current research. The few who've ventured further outside of the ivory tower in Greenblatt's case, to plainly state the distance between The Swerve and current scholarship, are solitary needles in the haystack of rapturous reviews of The Swerve by laypeople. And then there are those Classicists who've written reviews of The Swerve which are negative, but so polite that to many laypeople they may seem positive.

(We could make a game of this, and see which readers can guess which very famous Classicist I have, in a searing rebuke, deliberately avoided mentioning in this essay. But how would we discuss this? Not publicly, surely not.)

There are non-specialists selling millions of books, scientists reaching television audiences of tens of millions, who sometimes get things entirely wrong when it comes to ancient history or ancient texts. If historians and Classicists want to do anything about this, they might not have to become rude, but they will certainly have to speak up much more emphatically. The historians and Classicists who work on the same campuses as scientists who are wont to spread public misconception on historical topics could, perhaps, be so bold as to speak to those scientists about such things. Perhaps even face-to-face and out loud.

They could ask to be heard. They deserve to be heard.