Phi Beta Cons

Why We Need the Old Books

In the current Claremont Review of Books, Professor Anthony Esolen reports on a new Peter Green translation of Homer’s Iliad. There must be close to 500 different Iliad translations. Does the world really need another one?

Absolutely, since there can be no perfect or final translation, especially of poetry. Each new incarnation of the poem causes academic excitement and a sense of regeneration. Excitement because scholars will vigorously debate the merits and deficiencies of the new translation, comparing it to all the other ones; regeneration because each new translation is a rebirth of this seemingly inexhaustible epic. That’s a good thing.

Professor Wilfred McClay, addressing the Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC) in 2009, argued that “Sometimes the past can be far more vital and life-giving than the present, precisely because contact with it frees us from the prison of the immediate and the familiar, a world cluttered and smudged by too many human fingerprints, and brings us closer to the beginnings of things.” He says, “It is in that sense, then, that old books are younger than new ones.”

The “old books,” the Great Books, often depict a very different but just as human world (Achilles’ universe includes human sacrifice, codes of martial honor, and an aviary of supernatural beings). Some translators try to smooth out the difficult patches and make it all sound modern. However, Esolen notes that Green “wishes above all to make the strangeness and the Greek peculiarity of the original available to the reader without Greek, rather than to render the Greek into a current argot.” Esolen continues, “If [something] sounds strange to us, perhaps it should sound strange” [my emphasis].

Although some ancient works can seem foreign to modern sentiments (often they are politically incorrect), the classics are still filled with human beings like ourselves making their difficult way. Thus, Professor Julia Heyduk, in her 2014 keynote address to the ACTC, argued that “For a Classicist, the main goal of both teaching and scholarship is to help ourselves and others enter more deeply into that peculiarly intimate relationship with the dead which emerges through reading, in hopes that this bond may in turn affect our relationships with the living.”

That is, we need those old books, from “the beginning of things,” whose stories reassure us that human problems are perennial and that people have faced them before. Writing on The Epic of Gilgamesh, Kenneth Rexroth says:

[This epic] is the direct embodiment of a vision and judgment of the human condition that is permanent and universal. The absurdity of life and death, heroic wistfulness, nostalgia for lost possibilities, melancholy of missed perfection were as meaningful five thousand years ago to the Sumerians as they are to us.

Speaking on another classic epic, Virgil’s Aeneid, Heyduk says that what she considers “the greatest text” can teach us is:

That moral issues are more complicated than can be expressed in bursts of 140 characters. That erotic love is dangerous. That the nature of evil doesn’t change. That the lust for shiny objects is deadly. That stability, of the self and society, is fragile. That suffering can transform cartoon bad guys into pitiable human beings. That freedom is not to be taken lightly. That even our screw-ups may light the way for others. That the most meaningful life may not be the one that maximizes self-gratification. 

As reading Great Books migrates from the core of a college education to the margins, it’s worth reflecting on just what students are missing and celebrating that there is a new addition to the Iliad family.

Professor David Clemens teaches composition, literature, and critical thinking at Monterey Peninsula College. In 2000, his victorious struggle against a college loyalty oath to multiculturalism was covered ...

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