Posts Tagged ‘Ancient Greece’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Remember “The Cosby Show”?  If you are too young to answer in the affirmative, you better go check it out on Netflix or Youtube.  Go now, I will wait…..Okay, now that you realize what you were missing, did you see (or do you remember) the episode in which Theo and Cockroach need to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth for an English test?  The two boys talk about girls, clothes, sports, cars and music, but they have no desire to read the play.  So, they look for a supposedly easy out.  The slackers attempt to avoid reading Shakespeare by listening to a recorded version of the play instead.  They get the recorded album (it is the 80’s remember) of Macbeth from the library; they think listening to it will allow them to avert hard-work.  To their disappointment, they find it is not simple to listen to Shakespeare.  With the album of Macbeth out of the picture, the boys stumble upon “Cleland Notes” that provide a quick summary of the tragedy.   Have a look at a couple classic scenes:

“The Cosby Show” always had a lesson.  This episode obviously was attempting to tell kids that hard work (like reading Shakespeare) would pay off, and trying to get around it by doing something easier would come back to haunt you, like a ghostly blood-stained dagger. The show’s moral could be stated even more bluntly: Reading is good.  Don’t avoid it.  Just do it.  Cockroach and Theo need to learn this the hard way. They likely fail the English test.

Who would disagree with this moral? In our society, most parents stand with Cliff and Claire Huxtable, arguing that reading is an absolute good; always the best learning methodology.  But, these arguments don’t hold water. We don’t live in a world of absolutes, and reading is not always a complete good.  The two boys are right.  Reading ‘The Bard’ can be a chore. On the other hand, watching and listening to Shakespeare is unforgettable.

Dear reader, you must understand that I am a bibliophile extraordinaire.  If I have free time, I read books.  I read on the train; in between classes; before bed; with my morning coffee. I love reading.  It is my hobby; my passion.  I agree with Cliff and Claire Huxtable’s unstated moral: Reading provides enjoyment, intellectual stimulation and self-betterment. But, there are just certain things that should be heard, seen or experienced, and not read.  Sit down and read Sophocles to yourself; then listen to or watch Oedipus the King.  The difference is staggering.  Reading the words provides beauty, but watching the tragedy performed is incomparable.

51noqEetVvL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_This topic is on my mind because I am teaching at a branch campus this quarter, and hence, I am in the car for a couple hours a day. When in the car, I listen to audiobooks to pass the time. I would initially grab audiobooks dealing with my preferred topics of study: History, psychology, philosophy.  I found that these books were good reading, but poor listening.  So, a couple weeks ago, I went with something more exciting. I grabbed the 11 CD audiobook of The Odyssey by Homer as read by Sir Ian McKellen.  Boom! Incredible.

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Homer?

This wasn’t my first run-in with Homer.  I read The Odyssey my Sophomore year in college for a Western Civilization course.  Our professor told us on Tuesday to read the 500-plus page epic by that Thursday.  This was ridiculous.  Of course, I read the book as fast as possible, skimming through the ‘unimportant’ parts.  My experience with Telemachus, Circe, Odysseus and the Cyclops was tainted.  Though it has so many recognizable moments, reading the work frantically felt repetitive, and truthfully, boring.

That was 15 years ago. I thought I would give it another go with the recorded version.  Listening to the words, not reading them to myself, clarified the absolute power of Homer’s masterpiece.  The beauty of the language and the psychological introspection of character was magnified ten-fold. Even the repetition (necessary since the work was orally relayed from bard to bard) started to become addictive and beautiful.  Listening to the reoccurring descriptions was a welcome occurrence,  not an annoyance.

The Greeks did not lionize the written word above other methods of pedagogy.  How could they with their cultural inheritance of Homer?  How could they when the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides were central to civic life?  How could they when Socrates was questioning Athenians in the Agora?  To be honest, Socrates thought quite negatively of the written word.  He was concerned that reading and writing may ruin the skills of conversation, argument and memory.  In this belief, Socrates was far too radical.  Reading is obviously wondrous.   But, the opposite belief that reading is the only correct way to learn is just as radical, and just as wrong.  Theo and Cockroach had the right idea about that, methinks.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Judge me if you wish, but I love using Hollywood films to teach history courses.  You want to know why I love it? Two reasons.  First,  movies provide students with an opportunity to empathize with figures of the past.  Lecture and textbooks rarely are able to bring raw human emotion into the classroom.  Films can do that. Second, movies often get history completely wrong….Wait, what?  How is this good, you might ask?  I find that analyzing the inaccuracies of historical films clarify historical reality since this reality is often more shocking and memorable once we compare it with Hollywood falsehoods.

“This IS SPARTA” from movie and graphic novel

Films dealing with the Ancient Greeks are particularly good for this, since the filmmakers often misrepresent Hellenic culture so blatantly. Two such films  are the 2007 flick ‘300’, based on the Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, recreating with much artistic liberty the Spartans’ sacrifice at the Battle of Thermopylae, and 2004’s “Troy”, which is loosely based upon the seminal work of Western literature, Homer’s “The Iliad”.   Neither of these movies would be considered ‘great’ films.  They are not award winning; critics generally panned them; and, quite honestly, they are a bit tedious.  But, I love to use clips from these movies because of how they represent, and misrepresent, a central tenet of Ancient Greek civilization:  Masculinity and sexuality. 

When it comes to masculinity, “300” has the most disturbing inaccuracy.  One of the most memorable scenes of the 2007 film comes when a Persian messenger arrives at Sparta to threaten the Spartan king Leonidas (actually, there were two kings in Sparta), requesting submission to the invading Persian king, Xerxes.  Leonidas turns the messenger down, explaining why he can’t submit.  Leonidas needs to worry about the Spartan reputation.  He is especially concerned about this reputation since the Athenians have already rejected the Persian offer, and Sparta can’t be shown up by Athens.  Leonidas makes this clear to the Persian messenger by deriding the Athenians as ‘philosophers and boy-lovers’.   After poking fun at the weakness and perversity of Athens, Leonidas then provided a lesson for the Persian in noble Spartan toughness by yelling “THIS IS SPARTA” while kicking the man  down a bottomless pit. 

You can hear the disdain in Leonidas’ voice when he talks about those Athenians; those boy-lovers.  For a modern audience though, there is never any further dialogue to provide an explanation as to what the Spartan king means by this insult. Do the movie-makers believe their audience understands this reference? Or, were they simply using the words of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, since that line originates with it?  Perhaps the movie-makers and Miller think it is obvious; loving boys, and the evident Athenian propensity for it, clearly separates Athenians from the uber-masculine, uber-militant Spartans.  It is implied for the movie-goer that ‘boy loving’ is something strong, laconic, Spartan warriors just don’t do.  Leonidas loves his wife; end of story. WRONG!  As Professor Paul Cartledge has written, the Spartans were a bit notorious among fellow Greeks for loving boys. Reality is that ‘boy love’ was common within all the Greek world, and Sparta was no different.

Achilles mourns for Patroclus

Achilles mourns for Patroclus

Let’s break away for just a minute  for some clarification.  The love of ‘boys’ sounds extremely disturbing to our 21st century ears. ‘Boys’ usually mean children to modern English speakers. But, we need to understand that ‘boys’ in the Ancient Greek context would be understood as young men.  Were they all consensual adults?  No, they were not, though no concept of ‘legal age’ existed for either men or women during this time period.  Furthermore, ‘love’ in the Greek context does not necessarily mean physical acts of love (though that was a possibility).  Loving a young man could mean wanting to be near him; teach him; protect him.  For the Greeks, love of young men was natural, and noble since the highest level of beauty was found in the physical body of a young, athletic male.   This was the Greek world; the Spartans were as much a part of it as the Athenians.

Perhaps not surprisingly, “300” is not the only film to misrepresent Greek culture when it comes to “Greek Love.” In the 2004 film “Troy”, the relationship between Achilles BradTroya_N(Brad Pitt), and his young ‘nephew’ Patroclus is central to the story.  As Achilles refuses to fight the Trojans because of his petulant anger at King Agamemnon, impatient Patroclus rushes into the battle wearing Achilles’ armor.  Patroclus dies at the hands of the Trojan hero Hector, and the killing of his ‘relative’ finally gets Achilles’ blood boiling.  Achilles desire for revenge, and his inevitable defeat of Hector is one of the central moments in Western literature.  Yet, the filmmakers of “Troy” completely misrepresent Homer’s vision. In the original epic, Patroclus and Achilles were not nephew and uncle. They were men who loved each other.   Perhaps not physically (or perhaps so), but they are as close as two men can be. The loss of his male love is what drives Achilles’ blood-lust. Family relations has nothing to do with it.

Our modern interpretations and misrepresentations of the past tell us a great deal about our own culture, but an analysis of why these films differ from Ancient Greek reality would be a whole other post.  However, when discussing this glossing over of ‘Greek Love’ in class the other week, one of my students made an astute comment.  She pointed out that the audience lining up to see ‘300’ and ‘Troy’ are usually composed of young men, and they may not feel comfortable with heroes being in love with other heroes.  I think she is dead-on, and her statement proves that young male masculinity in our society is similar, and at the same time, dissimilar to masculinity in Ancient Greece.  Much like the Ancients, youthful masculinity today is based upon aggression, and these films speak to that.  No need to change Sparta’s love of violence; Leonida’s love of victory; Achilles’ love of glory. But, unlike Ancient Greece, modern masculinity is based upon stoicism towards other males. Dudes don’t embrace each other, much less express the love they feel for each other in words.  It is no wonder movie-makers would be concerned that Achilles’ real relationship with Patraclus would be discomfiting for many  21st century young movie-going males. Heck, many of these ‘brahs’  won’t even sit next to each other in a crowded theater, leaving one seat in-between each wannabe Leonidas.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

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Socrates

I love Socrates.  It is hard not to.  In an age when physical beauty was all-important, Socrates was notoriously unattractive.  Big head, bulging eyes, flaring nostrils, pot-belly and dirty feet were his physical attributes.  When we say ‘true beauty is on the inside’, Socrates helps us prove the cliche is more than just talk.  It was his brain that made the man beautiful.  Of course, that beautiful brain would earn Socrates a death sentence.

In 399 BC Socrates drank a small cup of hemlock and died in seconds. Infamously, the reason he was put to death was for ‘corrupting’ the youth of Athens, and for introducing new divinities into the polis.  But, the real problem was twofold.  First, he kept company with men who would become enemies of the Athenian city-state.  These men admired and loved Socrates, and so, the philosopher was painted with the brush of disloyal collaboration.  Second, and more importantly, he simply asked too many damn questions that ticked off powerful people.

The questions Socrates asked were difficult to answer, and his dialogue partners often found themselves in the embarrassing situation of realizing that they were not quite as wise as they thought. Granted, Socrates asked some toughies. He wanted to know: What is virtue?  Why should people be good?  What is beauty? What is truth?  As he walked the streets, he understandably looked for those that society proclaimed as wise, powerful, and virtuous to get his answers. But, as he would frame his broad questions to chosen Athenians, he found (and so did they), that they had little idea how to respond. This embarrassment led to anger; anger led to punishment.

I always get excited to introduce (or reintroduce) Socrates to my students in Western Civilization and Comparative Worldviews.  In comparison to other great philosophers, his arguments are quite accessible and his hypothetical situations are made for classroom discussions.  (I find the Ring of Gyges is the best for heated debate.)  But, I realized there is something else that makes Socrates so understandable and easy to empathize with: Every student has known a Socrates. Every student has even been a Socrates themselves.  Then they grew out of it.

Raising my own children has provided me with a perfect, recognizable analogy for Socrates.  At about three, our girls both turned into mini-Socratic thinkers. They grasped the wisdom that the only thing they knew was that they knew nothing. And so, what do little 3 and 4 year olds do?  They ask ‘why’?  “Why this, and why that”; why everything.  “Why do you go to work, daddy”?  “Why do you garden, mommy”? “Why are we Americans?” “Why do I need to go to bed”?  “Why do people die”?

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Nemesis

How do parents respond?  We usually get frustrated.  “Stop asking”!  “Why? Because it just is”!  “I said so, that’s why”! Or, we buy them off. “Wouldn’t you like some ice cream”?  Such responses are based upon more than simple annoyed exhaustion.  Parents realize that once three or four consecutive “whys” are thrown our way, we don’t really have an answer anymore.  Parental frustration stops being simply about answering questions, and soon becomes self-examination of our lack of wisdom. We stop children dead in their tracks with logical fallacies, and the changing of subjects because we want to keep living within our caves.  We find that our children’s  questions can make us squirm with discomfort.

We are able to buy children off with some frozen treats, or scare them with raised voices.  For those in Ancient Athens, Socrates was not so easily disabused of his questions.  Ice cream wouldn’t do it.  Anger wouldn’t do it.  Socrates argued that he was the only thing keeping Athens awake and aware, and would never stop buzzing around them with questions.  So they killed him.

Athenian democrats silenced a voice that made them feel uncomfortable, frustrated, and frightened.  They never had to hear those “why” questions from the old man again.  Ah, but fate is fickle. Nemesis, the Greek goddess of divine retribution brought comeuppance. Though Athenians killed him off, a new Socrates was born in Athens everyday.