The humanly full life is concretely local and intellectually wide, to be lived in a face-to-face community whose members can talk to each other about anything, where nothing of human interest is interdicted; where no one owns a specialty so that others have to venture opinions with the disclaimer, “Of course, that’s not my subject.”
As far as I know, a sense of guilt was not a recognized affect in the pagan world where about forty-nine percent of my moral allegiance lies; otherwise, I would apologize to you—apologize for being about to suggest to you a way of life, a way that may not jibe with your purposes and plans as graduate students, who have chosen your place in the academic organization of studies at a large university, as I did over half a century ago. The least I can do, however, is to give you my bona fides, although, as I will tell you in a moment, I did not exactly keep the faith.
About fifty years ago I haunted Phelps Hall, as you do now. The tutelary deities of those days were called Bellinger, Bennett, Dawson, Immerwahr, and Silk. I recall them with the tenacious affection that the young conceive for their teachers. Not that we were all that well taught: We learned not what we needed to know but what our professors wanted to teach. It is my impression, gained from our students’ reports and appointment interviews, that you graduate students are far more rationally and rigorously prepared than we were. Perhaps that, too, has its downside. In any case, our teachers were giants, but our education was haphazardly splintered.
Nonetheless we scrambled ourselves into some semblance of learning, but above all we achieved what we really wanted: to get to Greece, or Rome, or wherever our hearts lay.
I went to Athens, full of philhellenic fervor. It was an uneasy first year at the American School of Classical Studies. I learned that the Hellas of my dreams—partly, I guess, a legacy of my German childhood, but more, I like to think, the manifestation of some aboriginal memory—was most reliably accessible in the secure irrealities of my imagination, as I was before long to learn that the Greeks were most inexpugnably alive in the volumes of my then incipient library. Yet the place, Greece itself, was pervading my reading and imagining with its sensory lucidities: the pungent aroma of the thyme at landfall on Ceos after a wild, nauseated crossing from Sunion, the backlit blown poppies growing on Hymettus, but above all the then still pristinely diaphanous atmosphere of Attica, which gave sensory truth to Aristotle’s saying that light is the activity of a transparent medium. (De Anima 418 b9)
Unfortunately, this nominal landscape was overrun by latter-day squatters, the modern Greeks. I must have been infected with this attitude from my elders, but I certainly colluded in it. It was only eventually that I began to wonder with some empathy what it must feel like to be the rightful, yet very remote heirs to all that broken and buried glory. We archaeologists were, in any case, called to be intent on ruins above ground which were meant to be salvaged from the daily business of a modern—and then very poor—city, and from the detritus—a treasure trove to us—from which we scraped the earth away, careful trowelful by trowelful. Not that I did that myself; I wasn’t any good at it, capable of sweeping away millennia at a trowel-stroke, while inspecting at puzzled length what a discerning eye would have immediately identified as discombobulated fill. Also, I was intimidated by the Greek workmen who had been competently at this job for generations.
But I saw what we were doing, and I studied what we brought to light. For one thing, there was a melancholy to it. A colleague of those years, Seth Benardete, once said to me that Roman buildings were enhanced by ruination, while Greek temples were diminished. It seemed true, but why? I now think it is because Roman edifices anticipate romanticism, as it were, for they have in them something that lends itself to the deconstruction into that suggestive incompleteness which is indeed one characteristic of the romantic. A cracked Roman column will gather around itself a pastoral veduta; a Greek column drum will focus the eye on its collapsed perfection. For romantic is what the Greeks are not, at least at their canonical best: plan and detail participate in each other reciprocally; ruination cannot enhance them. A shorn or broken temple or treasure house is a kind of animadversion on passage. One might say, fancifully, that temples disapprove of time.
I am going somewhere with these divagations. (You will, by the way, forgive all the vocabulary. There is an expansive pleasure in being among people who, by reason of their profession, are able to decode, even if they don’t know, all the excellent words our Grecolatinate Anglosaxon English holds in store for us.) What I’m wandering toward are all the intellectual aporiai, the perplexities, that bedeviled that essentially glorious first year—the intellectual ones, I mean; I’ll spare you the personal ones brought on by youth and Attic nights. These perplexities were far more engaging than the mere, idly sweet melancholy of being too late in history.
First, I should say that I fell heart and soul into the activity that engendered these perplexities. I was endlessly lucky and still feel full of gratitude for falling in with an organization like the American Excavation of the Athenian Agora—if there are many like it. To put it succinctly: These were fanatics; they worshiped at the fanum of scrupulousness: of digging technique, of cataloguing protocol, of generous collegiality. In the fifties, not all the foreign schools were up and running, and visiting unhoused scholars would marvel at the institutional hospitality they received. The Agora was a model for canonicality: everything that was done was done exemplarily, from spelling to photography, from restoration to exhibition. There was a kind of communal concentration on the work, any joining of two sherds, each discovery of a pottery workshop or (glory of glories) of a pot painter, every convincing serialization of artifacts was noted with interest.
I got into this meticulous enterprise in a way I can’t account for to this day. I was invited to come down from Soudias Street on the slopes of Lycabettos to the Agora below the Acropolis. Homer Thompson, the director, took me through the show rooms where the unpublished potsherds were laid out and asked me what I’d like to work on. I pointed at some attractive looking stuff; never was there a luckier index finger. It landed on the Late Geometric and Protoattic pottery, the period when the black praying-mantis like figures of the Dipylon funeral amphorae were morphing into rounded polychrome human representations, and the funerary somberness was replaced by sometimes intentionally comical exuberance.
I might inject here that that very inclusive respect for all times and populations of the Athenian market place which is now doctrine in the humanities was practiced earlier in the American excavation, perhaps there first and most paradigmatically. But there was—or seemed to me—to be something behind it, something tacit but palpable, which lent both backbone and pathos to the studious objectivity of the research: Everyone knew that there was a center, quite literally evident in the study vitrines of our museum and workrooms, the Stoa of Attalus. There was a culmination, a standard, a reference point: the Athenian mid-fifth century, the Classical Period. No one would have dreamed of saying so, but it was known, the way in a decently egalitarian community everyone knows to whom the aristeia would go if there were to be a competition, but no one has the bad taste to say so.
I left archaeology. One way to explain it is that there were just too many issues no one had the bad taste to broach. I might as well mention the tacitly proscribed word: It was philosophy. My leaving was, in a very mild way, felt to be a defection by those who had helped me and meant me to have a career in archaeology. I still feel a twinge.
We were all deeply engaged in our work. I remember a night when those funereal stick-figures off a Geometric pot marched across my brain in a dream. But what was that work?
We were erecting what had fallen and turning up what had been buried, often in actual graves. Were we mounting a renaissance for real life or a reburial in display cases? What, to leap to the largest context, was the human intention behind all those latter-day “-logies” and “-graphies”—archaeology, topography, chronology, epigraphy? What did we mean by reaching back into time, resurrecting the dead through their artifacts and making what was earliest appear latest? I recall sitting in my apotheke, my work and storage room, with all those eighth- and seventh-century pots, when Homer Thompson, who was not only a brilliant but an attentive director, stuck his head in and asked: “What’s new?” What could be new? I was cluing out laboriously what the most ignorant potter’s ten-year-old paidion would have known as a matter of course. A friend and I once figured out that it took fourteen times as long to study one of those little oil lamps the excavation produced by the thousands as it did to make one.
What were we doing? Were we not systematically and well-intentionedly, yet literally, abusing what we had seized on in research? Take drinking cups: kotylai, sky phoi, kantharoi—I could type and serialize them, yet I’d never drunk from one of them; it would have been against protocol. Take ancient texts: We mined them for topography, chronology, prosopography, but we didn’t read them, not as words meant to tell human truths.
I learned the lingo, the serviceable dialect of the trade, the necessary initiation into the mysteries of the guild, one dialect in the very language you are now learning to speak with aplomb. I used it appropriately, but did I know what I was saying?
Archaeology is, if anything, grass-roots history. Who can doubt that there is Herodotean history? Historia is inquiry; of course one may inquire, as he does, into great and wonderful human deeds to keep them from falling into oblivion. It makes immediate sense. But historical research as an academic discipline, and particularly archaeology, is concerned also with pots and pans and babies’ potty chairs. (The Agora has several.) A sophisticated intellectual structure is needed to warrant the study of what one might call “deedlets,” ergidia (to coin a term) rather than a deed, an ergon, a significant action. For we should wonder under what hypothesis the essentially surd realia of the long dead begin to speak: How does an artifact, especially an undistinguished one, express its maker’s world? And how should we care: engagedly to learn of our advances and our losses, or objectively, just for the heck of it, just because what is buried beneath asks to be exhumed, just as a mountain is climbed because it is there?
I spoke, as we all did, of development: pot-shapes developed, evolved. How, by what detours through the potter’s vision-governed hands, did inorganic pieces reenact the evolutionary lines of organic species? We spoke of chronology and were intent on establishing datings, but what was time that it could be accounted for through excavational strata, the spatial laminations of time, as it were? The measurement of time by motion is problematic enough, but its visible capture in vertical stasis—nothing is more anathema to an excavation than a disturbed stratification—is terminally puzzling.
We all talked of proportion: The masked standard was classical harmony. The degenerate members, say of a series of amphorae, were long and lank, while earlier examples were refreshingly, finely young, and tautly chubby, like those archaically smiling korai. But of the theory of proportion, probably the greatest topic of Greek mathematics, we never spoke, and to the question: “What must the world be like for the parts of a whole to be in a proportion, to have the same ratio to each other?”—of that we seemed never to think. Some of you probably know the remarkable answer to that very question: How is it possible that a first element of a shape is to a second as a third such element is to a fourth? Only in a Euclidean world is such proportionality possible; there are other realms in which two shapes may be the same, but no two can be similar, so that one canonical proportion cannot govern differently sized items.
One cold winter’s week I went down to Corinth to look at the Protocorinthean pottery collection in the American excavations. I had the excavation house to myself; at night there was a fire in the common room and a hot meal. There I perpetrated a horrible deed, all unknowing—as Greek hamartiai are ever committed. I got hungry at midnight and ate up the Corinthian starter yogurt in the icebox, the one that made the far-famed, the finest, creamiest yogurt in the archaeological world. There also I found a bookcase of the olive-green Loeb series and determined in youthful hubris to master in the cozy evenings all thirty-six Platonic dialogues, both those certainly genuine and also those probably spurious. I came back with an anathema on me for the yogurt and treasure in my heart from the Plato.
I have been at my college, St. John’s, for the past half-century, thinking back now and then on my early years as a graduate student of classics and archaeology. I think I am intended to wax wise on the basis of age, and I’ll take the challenge. You must know that where I come from we have no professors, authorities, or specialists, and our students are meant to look on us as just better-prepared fellow learners. That is not hyperbole but actual practice. As a result, none of us tutors, as we call ourselves, wilt readily under scepticism. So if you find the following three lessons I’ve drawn from my two lives doubtful or even repugnant, I can’t ask for anything more familiar than to hear you say so.
Some of you, very few I would guess, are scholars to the bone. The pursuit of a delimited problem through thickets of opinion and mountains of evidence gives you a soberly orgiastic pleasure. You don’t need advice, you’ll do what you love and gain the recognition you deserve. But others among you, quite a few I would again guess, know in your heart of hearts that your enthusiasm for scholarly research is a little forced, more drawn by duty than by joy; that the minuscule adjustments to previous opinions that you tweak into an issue and the slight variations you contrive upon old contextures give you only a meager satisfaction. When you acknowledge this condition in yourself, finish your degree, by all means. But, on the supposition that you do want a life of learning, forget about the university and go teach at a good small college. By good I don’t mean prestigious. Lovely things go on in fairly obscure places, where unsophisticated but willing young students often bring their teachers back to basics, to elementary questions of the sort that scholarly research races too far ahead of. As Thomas More advises a promising but very corruptible young man in one of my favorite plays, “A Man for All Seasons:” “Be a teacher.”
Try not to think, in fact never think, of the writing you do as “my work.” Those of you who are researchers at heart must believe—though there is something problematic about it—that they are part of a common progressive work, the advancement of learning. As I say, it’s problematic whether there is any actual progress in the humanities, or whether as the cutting edge digs into the future, the past silts up and sinks into sedimented oblivion. Yet, whoever is nonetheless committed to scholarship must surely believe that they can own no real estate on the orbis intellectualis where all is common ground tilled for the increase of knowledge. So much the sadder is it to hear teachers speak of “my work.” Is teaching not their work?
To put it another way: The scholarly world is more and more a virtual world, spatially expansive but often topically constricted. For my part, I think the humanly full life is concretely local and intellectually wide, to be lived in a face-to-face community whose members can talk to each other about anything, where nothing of human interest is interdicted; where you don’t have to mount a colloquium to have a colloquy, where there are no taboos except indifference and incivility; where discourse does not divide into either shop talk or chat but observes the truly interesting human mean; and above all, where no one owns a specialty so that others have to venture opinions with the disclaimer, “Of course, that’s not my subject.” Once I knew more about Protoattic pottery than anyone then alive in the world, an Englishman or two excepted. It is an experience everyone should have sometime. And then they should stop and live in that acknowledged semi-ignorance which is both proper to human inquiry and the ideal state of teachers, who, before producing another article, should set themselves to learn what their students ought to know.
Let me make sure here that I’m rightly understood: These instructions aren’t meant as categorical imperatives, unconditional commandments. They are rather what Kant calls “hypothetical imperatives,” of the “if-then” type. The protasis of each is: “If you want to live happily”—as Aristotle thinks of happiness: the soul activated in accordance with human excellence. The apodosis is: “then try doing it this way.”
Socrates is said to have told the Athenians in his last public appearance that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being;” “ho… anexêtastos bíos ou biotôs anthrôpôi” (Apology 38A). I think he is being more absolute than “worth living” conveys. I would translate: “the un-inspected life is not a lived life.” Socrates is uttering both a claim and an injunction. The injunction is to ask yourself what you’re doing, and the claim is that if you don’t, you aren’t all there, not quite alive. To me, what Socrates says seems utterly true, and on that hypothesis I’ll proceed. What are we mostly doing, we who are at home in the world of learning? That’s plain: mostly we use words. To be human means to have logos—and indeed we do hardly anything but employ logoi—rational speech in general and special words in particular. It is, then, part of our peculiar business to know what we are saying.
So don’t use words you don’t understand or don’t mean to come to understand, at least partly. Graduate school is rightly more training than education, more preparation for a profession than learning for the sake of being all there. Hence, the possession of a professional vocabulary, often well-invented and always serviceable for expressing yourself within the guild—and, I can’t help adding, for marking greenhorns and amateurs—is not only an accomplishment but also a professional deformation. So talk human whenever possible and know something, at least a little, of the explicit or implicit theory behind the language of the humanities.
You might construe what I’ve just said as an invitation to theorize, to engage in theory. Not so, just the opposite. It is an incitement to philosophy, which is just the name for the questions Socrates thinks will make you come to be all there, all aware. Moreover, here’s a claim some of you will resist and some of you will recognize as the articulation of your own suspicions: Theory is the enemy—were I given to hyperbole I would say, the deadly enemy—of philosophy, more accurately, of Socratic philosophizing. I mean, say, legal critical theory, literary theory, every kind of social theory; I’ve just come off a bout of reading “desire theory,” and I know whereof I speak. I could talk for hours about this displacement of thought, perhaps with some of you for a while afterwards. But for now I’ll put it in capsule form; I understand philosophy to be everyone’s business, certainly a classicist’s. It is the desire to look as straight, deep, and directly into yourself and out into the world as you can. (It has, of course, only a tenuous, occasional connection to the academic subject by that name.) That effort I am speaking of, introspective and contemplative, looking within and gazing at the heavens, used indeed to be called theory. Theoria has had a long and fascinating passage of diminution into “theory.” Theory is a rational screen, a mental jig under which things are re-formed into pre-assigned shapes. It is a form of rationalization, but not always of thinking. It is logos, however, not plus receptive love but plus willful manipulation. A theory is fun to devise but the devil to inherit, because duty demands that we grasp it and wisdom asks that we resist it. Here’s another way to put it: When you spot trendiness or recognize ideology—the marks will be a jigged and unnatural terminology—become a porcupine, all quills up.
My third hypothetical imperative does verge on the categorical. There is a sort of human minginess that appears characteristically in academic settings—not that academics typically practice it, but that it lurks as an endemic danger of mutual infection. I have heard it said that its meanness is large in inverse proportion to the minuteness of the issues. Many of you will soon be members of departments and will be absorbed in departmental politics. The issues are not in fact so very small, since they concern the way the life of learning is lived, and it is right, or seems right to me, to be passionately involved. But passion is not pathos; beware of false moral drama. Be as little ignoble and ungenerous as you can.
I could fill Twelve Tables with negative advice, but I’ll close with one piece particularly pertinent to this talk. In published research plagiarism is a serious offense. In reflective conversation it is a lovely compliment. If as teachers and colleagues you find ideas you thought were yours by priority turning up in your colleague’s conversation, smirk with inner satisfaction and then offer a serious critique of your own thoughts, lest your borrowers fall into the original sin of the intellect: holding opinions that have been purloined but not appropriated.
I’ve kept you too long, but that’s what happens when an elder of the tribe is urged to talk. Yet, before I stop, one afterthought: If you could all band together to found a movement for the abolition of the “original contribution” requirement of the doctoral dissertation you would do the world of learning a great service. For in the humanities the drive for originality and the search for insight are too often at cross purposes.
This essay was originally published here in September 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. The occasion for this talk was the award of the Yale Graduate Alumni Association’s Wilbur Cross Medal as well as the celebration of the sixtieth year of Yale’s Directed Studies, a Great Books Program. It was delivered on October 12, 2006. It appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 50, No. 1, 2007).
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