Rereading a Classic
Some decades ago the psychologist Mortimer Adler produced one of his many cultural “how-to” books with the preposterous title, How to Read a Book. If only Adler had first considered the question of how to write a book, he might never have indulged his vanity to the point of telling people they were only permitted to read the way that Mortimer Adler reads. In all his writings, Adler anticipates that Daily Mail’s unending series of pieces, often written by Australians, on how to brush your teeth, cheat on your spouse, or store bananas. The Mail usually headlines the story with something like, “You’ve been doing this wrong all your life!”
I am not saying that teachers and friends do not have a part to play in helping more casual readers to find what is most valuable in a book. That is precisely what a good pastor does, whether in preaching the Gospel or directing a class on the Scriptures. While it is true that all too often ignorant pastors and teachers try to warp the minds of their victims by imposing their own defective understanding on important books—rather like the child who scribbles in crayon over the words of Shakespeare or Milton--I am recklessly undertaking the same task.
Nonetheless, while keeping in mind my own bitter experiences of bad preaching and bad teaching, I am an incorrigible teacher, as family members and friends can attest. My poor friends who recently accompanied us to Greece would frequently forget their previous mistakes and ask a question like: “Were the Greeks really homosexual?” Or “Were the ancient Greeks as sports-obsessed as modern Americans?” I remind myself of Ralph Richardson’s performance in Bryan Forbes’ film, The Wrong Box, a souped up version of R.L. Stevenson’s fine story (co-written, whatever that means, with his stepson). Richardson plays a dotty old reader of encyclopedias. Picked up, after a train wreck, by a stranger in a cart, he proceeds to lecture him on the history of the bridle (or something else equestrian). In the film version, he presents his card at the end of the journey, “Joseph Finsbury, Raconteur Extraordinaire.”
Well, so far as I know, my friends survived the ordeal. While in Greece, I was reminded of a single fact about myself, namely, that most of my strongest interests in life—apart from the Navrozovian trinity of wine, women, and song—are connected in one way or another with the ancient Greeks, about whom a great deal of nonsense has been written for at least two centuries. It took little persuasion to convince myself that I really had to devote a considerable amount of time to revising and amplifying old lectures, essays, and reviews and cobble them together into a more or less coherent account of who the Greeks were, why they were and are so important, and how they thought. Titles I have toyed with and dropped include, “The Aboriginal Greeks” and “The Greek Conservative Mind,” and while I will probably not use either of them, those two titles indicate the ground I wish to cover.
In addition to this broad work, which will soon be available, chapter by chapter, for a small subscription price—which will enable the subscriber to purchase the published volume at a discount—I also intend to do a number of careful readings of important ancient works or, in some cases, parts of works. I think of this second set of pieces as a series of “soundings” that will enable us to look more deeply into the Greek mind. These will be available as regular posts on the website.
The first such post I propose is the first six books of Homer’s Iliad. I made this selection for several reasons. First, it is the beginning of the first important work of Western literature, one that has never been surpassed and hardly equalled except by a few other works by Greeks and Romans. This first quarter of the Iliad also introduces important themes of Greek religion, their view of man and his place in the universe and in society, their artfulness in narrative, their intense love of beauty. Finally, a personal reason: I am rereading Greek text of Homer with a “virtual” friend and student with whom I have corresponded for some years. He is a red diaper baby and lifetime communist, but also a Catholic who votes for Trump as the defender of ordinary people and common decency. Reading Homer again with an intelligent "student" has sharpened both my understanding and my appreciation of this great, perhaps the greatest literary masterpiece.
I am sure everyone has read a translation of the Iliad at least once and is familiar with the basic story. Each book is about 600 lines or less, and this makes about 3,500 lines of verse or about 300 lines shorter than Hamlet. In the words, a cursory reading of the whole six books should take less than two hours (though I would advise a more leisurely pace and a more attentive reading). At the rate of one book per week, that is not a lot of homework to assign.
We’ll be doing Book I next week. Instead of doing a single post at one time or a series of posts, I’ll put up an initial survey and add to it as the week goes by, especially in response to queries, comments, and objections.