Reignite the Spirit of Inquiry by Revisiting the Classics
“If the mighty roll call of Greek writers - Plato, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Sophocles - can seem daunting or inaccessible, I hope to help you unlock some of their richness, and discover afresh what makes them so exciting, moving, hilarious, and shocking. Reading the Greeks is a joy that is at risk of slipping quietly out of our grasp if classics continues its drift away from curricula and from the mainstream.”
- Charlotte Higgins, Introduction to It’s All Greek to Me
Socratic Engineering seeks to help modern readers find value and enrichment in reading ancient authors. I refer to these texts as “the classics” because this is how they are labeled in most institutions of higher learning but many other names would suffice as well, from the enigmatic “Philology” to the more obvious “Greek and Latin Studies.” Most people are aware these texts exist, readily available, and would not be surprised to learn they contain vast treasure troves of wisdom, yet rarely do we choose to tackle these readings of our own volition. For numerous reasons, the undertaking always seems unnecessarily intimidating: Homer’s language is too archaic, Plato’s thoughts too convoluted, Aristotle is too rhetorical, Euripides so far removed from Hollywood, and how do you even pronounce Aeschylus anyway? Can’t we just reap the fruits of their thoughts in more manageable modern distillations?
None of these criticisms are untrue. Until recently, most recommended translations of these great works were still done by older British men working nearly half a century ago. Not only are we reading about a culture far removed in time from our own, but we are asked to view it through a lens we do not relate to either. No offense to these older translations, many of which are beautifully done by intellectual giants of their own time, but, as the saying goes: every generation needs its own Homer. We have been fortunate to see new voices tackle new versions of Homer over the last few years, but the other ancient authors need to be refreshed each generation too.
I hope these posts point the reader, in the smallest of ways, to editions and translations of these works that make their enduring value most clearly apparent, providing a glimpse into this world of our shared past and igniting a desire to reap the benefits of these vast fields of enrichment. The ancients, like all writers, wrote first and foremost about the society they inherited and lived in, so a familiarity with ancient daily life and society is often helpful to understand the subtitles and nuances of these philosophers and playwrights. To this end, many historical events will be discussed here, but simply relating history is not the end game; rather the goal is to show how an understanding of this history can inform our beliefs and perceptions of the world as it is today. The way modern thought is organized and studied (in the West at least) is heavily indebted to the Greeks, for good and ill, and their influence can still be seen in all things from science to art to politics. A thorough immersion in this material, this ancient world, can teach us much about why we are the people we are today and how the metaphorical “engine of progress” is powered.
The goal is not to romanticize this ancient world but to elucidate and uncover the wisdom and counsel it has to offer. There is certainly much that can, and has, been romanticized in ancient thought (though there is far less to be romanticized in the realities of ancient day-to-day life) but this amounts to little more than navel gazing if one’s heart or intellect is not enriched by the process. I hope to share snapshots to spark interest in further research and learning, to put forth questions and kindle a burning curiosity. Critical analysis, the ability to assess a writer’s reliableness and determine the viewpoint being communicated, is a skill that will only become increasingly more important in the future, and reading the classics, in all their mystifying glory, gives one’s brain an excellent opportunity to practice this skill.
Socrates, perhaps the most famous Greek thinker of all, did not give lectures or sermons but preferred to share his views by conversing with members of society. There was no spirit of “let me tell you why I am right” when he spoke, only a maddening deluge of questions that could cause a listener to lose faith in previously held beliefs that had never been tested. Learning was triggered from within as the brain reworked its own conclusions, as opposed to having new ideas forced in from the outside. Ideas simmered throughout a discourse and beyond, with topical additions always welcome, like cooking a flavorful stew, and the lofty scaffolding upholding the ‘Truth’ was erected by many hands...
The point here is that there was no dogma of thought, and this is an ideal we need to reclaim today. We must learn from each other, through conversation, and not simply engage in explaining why “we” are right and “they” are wrong. We need to have these conversations with real human beings, but they can be informed by the conversations we’ve had with great thinkers of the past, through their writings. These blog posts are tiny windows into these texts, to poke one’s head through and experience for one’s self. The highest reward and measure of success would be if you finish reading one hungry to learn more.
**In organizing these thoughts, I found Charlotte Higgins’ work It’s All Greek to Me immensely useful and highly recommend it as a light-hearted introduction to the Greek world. I could have quoted from it much more liberally and likely will at some future date.