Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Essentials of Antiquity

The other day I was trying to think of a list of literary works from antiquity besides the Bible that could be described as 'essential' based on the criterion that most (or many) people have at least heard of them by title and/or author, even if that's all they know about them. It must, it seems to me, be a rather short list. Here is what I've come up with for the Greek side.

Aesop, Fables
Aristotle, Politics and, perhaps, Poetics
Homer, Iliad and Odyssey
Plato, Republic
Sophocles, Oedipus the King



Anonymous said...

I don't think most people have heard of even these. I didn't until after graduate school (engineering and business).

Perhaps the great books could be retitled in such a way as to pique the interest the average reader. E.g., Hesiod's "Works and Days" could be slightly edited and retitled, "Living Well in the Iron Age", with a Forward by Dr. Phil/Oprah. --Rusty Mason

dennis said...

I wonder if Rusty isn't correct.

It seems to me that things that were once a normal part of the passive reception of culture are increasingly absent (even the small, cliche references made in the cartoons of our youth are lost on kids today).

I think your list presupposes certain kinds of backgrounds, whether as readers or students. I think many people can go through college and do quite well without knowing a single title by a Greek philosopher or having any exposure to Greek tragedy.

The Iliad and the Odyssey are still up there, though Vergil's Aeneid is not. I found this out in a recent conversation with a family member.

I think most people have an idea of what 'a Greek tragedy' means, and that's generally some melange of death and incest. Oedipus is less a play than a complex to most people.

As for Plato, I think more people would recognize the Apology, but wouldn't know quite what it was. The Republic, again, is probably only known by readers and those with a liberal education.

On a multiple choice test I'd wager that a very small minority could match the authors with the works listed, and an even smaller minority could do so without choices.

Atheneion said...

Unfortunately I am afraid I have witnessed enough episodes and thus gathered enough evidence that Eric is overestimating the average classical culture – and not simply among the younger generations.
I am quite confident that the layperson might have vaguely heard (almost surely not read) about Homer's masterpieces, and most certainly he may merely be aware of an astute character named Ulysses (not Odysseus) who defeated the Cyclopes and survived the Sirens' appeals and travelled for 10 years to go back to his loyal wife waiting for him by the loom. As to the heroes of Iliad and the expedition and siege of Troy, they might even confuse them with Ulysses’ adventures as the paramount (and probably the only one known) episode is the famous Trojan horse – by chance nowadays even renowned since is a form of PC virus.
The only chance we have to raise the average is probably to count on some high-school girl who watched the WB movie starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom...
It is a pity that Classic culture has probably become a choice only for its true lovers, as even though its sources are easily available (libraries, bookstores and even the Internet) many - not all fortunately - have lost any interest in it.

Eric said...

I think you all are probably right. Dennis is correct that I am presupposing a certain kind of background; I should have been more careful and said something like most (or many) people with a college education, though, as Rusty points out, even this might be too grand a claim. I assume that many have probably at least heard of Homer due to such things as the wretched 'Troy' movie and 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'. Perhaps children still run across some of Aesop's Fables, but those could be passe now as well. I have heard the phrase 'man is a political animal' or something like it more times than I can recall but, again, I suppose this isn't universal but is rather restricted to certain milieux. Oedipus gets into much common speech via Freud, but this has the unfortunate side-effect of coloring perceptions about the play before it's even been read. Alack, alas. Is a series on HBO the only hope left for stimluating interest in the ancient world?

Kate said...

I'm fairly sure most people have still heard of the Iliad and the Odyssey, even if they couldn't provide the most basic plot summary or explanation of relevance. The Aristotle, however, is optimistic-- he seems to be most known among non-classicists as "an early scientist", not for his philosophical works on the humanities and social sciences.

Interestingly, a surprising number of people are aware of Sappho, if only because of the adoption of her name into other contexts.

Out of curiosity, do you think there are any Roman works that would be familiar to the general public? The Aeneid is, regrettably, probably not; Augustine's Confessions, however, are likely known by the religious, if you don't consider that too late for the "classical" period.

Atheneion said...

Bravo Kate!
I forgot Sappho! Obviously nowadays her celebrity is mainly due to this new fashion of female pop star kissing to raise both their fame and the sales of tabloids.
As to Latin writings I think that Virgil's epic masterpiece is less known - if not totally unknown - than Iliad and Odyssey, unless we consider some music connoisseurs thanks to Henry Purcell’s Dido and Eneas. Perhaps someone has heard of Petronius Satyricon, or Catullus poems and knows vaguely the meaning of bucolic (which does not imply he read Virgil’s eclogues). Maybe some theatre amateur has heard of Plautus (especially the character of Sosia), but surely not of Terence or Livius Andronicus.
I am positive that many know Horace “carpe diem”, again thanks to Robin Williams… as well as many others are sure that Cicero was an ancient Roman – but would not precisely be able to say who he actually was and what he did or wrote….


Anonymous said...

As for Latin writers, I suppose there is a substantial number of people that don't think of Julius Caesar as having invented the salad. But I wonder how many of those know he was also a famous writer or speaker, not only a general/emperor.

I see a big difference in the historical and literary knowledge of those older than me (in their 50's+) and those younger (30's-). I learn new things from my elders often and we are able to have interesting discussions. Those my age and younger are as clueless as a ten year old about history, language, and philosophy. Mind you, these are college-educated people. Probably half have never heard of any of the great books or know much history, almost none of them studied a foreign language.

The classically-minded certainly have their work cut out for them. I do see reason for optimism, though. In my homeschool group, twelve young students have joined my Latin study group. I am having to break some bad habits (last night they wanted to know how to say, "Yo, yo" in Latin. Argh!) but overall they seem willing to learn. Let's hope they stay the course! -- Rusty