Who Killed Homer?
While I haven’t read any of Victor Davis Hanson’s work, an article in the Boston Globe caught my eye. Maybe it was the reference to where I grew up, the San Joaquin Valley, as a cultural wasteland. Maybe it was the call to a return to Greek values—I’ve been reading Plato’s Euthydemus the last few days.
Hanson is a neo-con who has the ear of G.W. and Cheney, and a history of damning postmodern theory in favor of a return to classical values of citizenship. The eristic values of warlike behavior, that is. The article puts a certain spin on Hanson’s ideas: the values he wishes to promote are those of the yeoman farmer—not just the values of Plato and Aristotle and the Athenian Greeks. Hanson has some commonality with some of the critics of academia in blogging circles, calling universities “rotten institutions.”
I find this stuff really scary. One thing I dearly loved about the romantics is that they shared a rejection of classical values of celebrating war. Blake, in particular, was sure that the adherence to classical values was at the root of the world’s misery. Blake thought we needed new models. What drove me to muse about this was a post by Gary Sauer-Thompson (whose site is down right now, or I’d link it) regarding the role of the humanities in teaching citizenship. I tend to blame a lot of things on Greek values, and I read them using a variation of Blake’s “infernal method.” I side sympathetically with the adversaries of Socrates, and marvel at Plato’s ability to wrangle them using eristic methods, while damning the warlike, eristic nature of sophistic methods.
The schism between vocational education and the humanities was promoted by Plato—I think of the problem that Gary explores as just another piece of fallout from our classical heritage that is still glowing. Socrates states the case plainly:
In reality these persons who partake in both are worse than both for each thing which politics and philosophy are important for, and although they are really third, they try to be thought first. (306 e)
It was Plato that killed Homer, not “modern” life. The values of a well trained citizenry were thought best furthered by a separation between the aesthetic and the practical. Reading the interpretation of people like Hanson, I wonder if Socrates wasn’t right. But then I catch myself, and realize that I do still believe that if the average citizen has a better understanding of aesthetic practice, they will be able to make better decisions. Separating art and politics is always attractive—and yet ultimately dangerous. There was no mythic unity between art and politics in the classical era. It’s the same old battle, just on a new battle ground.