"Who Killed Homer?"
September 28, 1998
David Gergen talks with the authors of "Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom."
JIM LEHRER: Now a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," talks with Professors Victor Davis Hanson of California State University and John Heath of Santa Clara University. They're the authors of "Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom."
DAVID GERGEN: Gentlemen, welcome. John, you say in your new book that the study of the ancient Greeks and their vision of life, once a backbone of education, has now been largely abandoned. Can you tell us about the decline?
JOHN HEATH, Co-Author, "Who Killed Homer?:" Well, if you want to measure it just in terms of sheer numbers, over the last 30 years we've had a tremendous decline in the number of students studying the ancient languages. We've dropped 80 percent in the high schools at least; we've dropped between 20 and 40 percent in the colleges. The kinds of things students are studying has changed drastically. One of the ironies is that as these numbers of students has dropped we've increased the number of professors; we've increased the number of publications. Now we have 600 BA's in classics graduating each year out of a million.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, for years and years, of course, Americans did study the classics. The founding fathers seemed to be steeped in the classics, great admirers of the Greeks, especially the Romans, when you think of Jefferson or Adams, or Madison.
JOHN HEATH: For example, one of the passages we quote from Jefferson in the book in his later years said when finally you get down to it, what's left is Homer and Virgil and perhaps Homer alone. The founding fathers were steeped in the classics in Greek and Latin and in the traditions of the democracy of Athens, the republicanism of ancient Rome, and these things influenced their interpretation of what a "polis," a community should be.
DAVID GERGEN: Victor, Jefferson talked about in the end maybe there's only Homer. What do we miss today from Greek wisdom? What are we losing?
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON, Co-Author, "Who Killed Homer?:" Everybody has their own Greek wisdom, but - and besides the normal or the traditional definitions of Greek wisdom, high art, great literature. I think especially now in our own culture, we were interested in the cultural values. And that consists of a core menu or protocols of consensual government, free enterprise, private properties, civil liberties, free speech.
DAVID GERGEN: All of these institutions originated with the Greeks.
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: We can't trace them any earlier than the Greeks, and yet they are adapted, rejected, modified. But that blueprint survives in the West. But along with that core - central core, we also have some checks, bridles, bits, that restrict people, and they tend to be things like religion and shame and the use of tradition, property, family values that are not written, they're not written on any stone, but they teach people, or they inculcate people that they shouldn't do what they're otherwise allowed to do in a free society.
DAVID GERGEN: So, in other words, the Greeks believe in freedom for their citizens, not everybody was a citizen, but those who were citizens, they accorded freedom too, but they were worried about the excesses that might come with that.
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: Yes. It's a great tragedy and it's formed and seen and interpreted as a tragedy or a dilemma at least that man is not necessarily a wonderful person innately. But within the polis, he's allowed to express himself culturally, artistically.
DAVID GERGEN: The polis -
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: The city state or the community in the West. And it puts an enormous responsibility on the individual that he should not always do things that he's otherwise free to do, and great thinkers in the West, starting with Plato and Aristotle, at various points in their life they became disillusioned or frustrated with this problem that we face today in our own society. What you do in a western society when the only system that works is a free society, a free economy, and yet that tends to create an evolutionary spiral to excess and hyper individualism, so we keep looking in the West through other mechanisms to check our behavior. And I think that's a message that we really need today, and people do not really understand that dilemma of western culture.
DAVID GERGEN: But the Greeks - in wrestling with it - were looking for ways to have a culture, which did restrain people, which introduced self-restraint.
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: Absolutely.
DAVID GERGEN: And they didn't try to do it through laws so much.
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: They realized that the system of free expression and freedom and law and private property and free economic was the only system that worked. But they had to have some other mechanism that would create stability - what they called total meson, the middle course. And they did that with literature; they did that through public shame, through responsibility to the community in exchange for rights to the individual. And that's - the problem in the West is it's never written down, because we're so afraid of autocracy that we depend on ourselves to create a community.
DAVID GERGEN: So is your argument that we have maintained and strengthened many institutions that originated with Greeks, but we've forgotten the restraints that went along with it?
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: We've forgotten the restraints; we've forgotten the spirit of the Greeks, what lay behind those institutions. And it was never that these institutions are wonderful; it was more these institutions are sort of wonderful, and they're the only things that work, and we're on an experiment now, and let's not ruin it. Somebody like Eucydides looks at Pericles in Athens or the Parthenon, and then you also see the execution of innocents at the island of Milos, or the awful expedition to Syracuse. So they were aware that people in the assembly who were free would do some horrible things, and we see that in western culture.
DAVID GERGEN: John, just to help us out a little bit more with this, these events did take place some 2500 years ago, the point Victor is making then about the Parthenon's being built, this wonderful structure, was such an expression of artistic beauty and freedom, at the same time Athenians are slaughtering people in Sicily.
JOHN HEATH: In Sicily. And they are also slaughtering fellow Greeks all over the Mediterranean, that is, they are rightly accused of an imperialistic bent. And what you see is the double side of letting human nature free. And so one of the things I think the ancient Greeks had to offer us is perhaps a different vision of human nature and the relationship between human nature and the community. They had a vision of humans as being not completely bad, but capable of the most horrendous crimes at any moment if the constraints of society didn't control them. And rather than try to reinvent human nature, which I think much of modernity has tried to do, they tried to deal with human nature in the best possible means, and that is through the bridles of the community. And so yes, the Parthenon is a tribute to the human greatness and it's a tribute also to some of the most base acts that humans are capable of.
DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you about the general public then, John. If people who come out of college now - they want to go back and understand the Greeks - I think I've only met one person in life who went back and learned ancient Greek at an older age, and that was I.F. Stone, Izzy Stone, the famous journalist, and he wanted to write about the death of Socrates, and he went back and learned Greek. But most people can't. And what should they read? If you pick up the "Iliad," it's darn hard to get through. How should someone in the general public, who wants to get some of this wisdom, go about it?
JOHN HEATH: I find the question interesting in itself because it means that we have failed to educate the general public in our systems of education about the Greeks and Romans. In fact, they do have to go back, and, in fact, many people do try to come back. In the book we list 10 authors they can read, but, as you say, picking up the Iliad can be very challenging. We also list 10 books. There are good books out there that have been written not just for the classicist but for the general audience, and I think that any of those books would work. There are books on Homer, books on the ancient Greeks. I don't know if you want me to pitch anybody's particular text, but there are books, and if you'll look at the list, you'll notice that most are written before the 1980's, many were written by British scholars, and perhaps have a broader training and a more eccentric vision of the world that can appeal to a broader audience, but they're out there, hard to find, in texts published in the 1990's. One of the challenges we issue to our field is to go to the library, check out a book that was written in the last five to ten years, and see how many times it's been checked out by anyone from the public or from the university. It's a very depressing opportunity.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, gentlemen, on that depressing note, John Heath, Victor Davis Hanson, thank you both for joining us.
JOHN HEATH: Thank you.
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: Thank you.