ἱστορία and the κόσμος
by Philip S. Peek
If you want to make the world a better place, if you care about justice and equality, if a life of curiosity and skepticism, lived with values, purpose, and reflection intrigues you, read on.
Today, there are ample opportunities in higher education to engage in coursework aimed at people like you who are eager to make a difference now.
You know that doing what is right is often without financial profit. You know that doing what is right is not an easy path. You also know what the right choice is and that when you choose it, the journey down this path is a rich one, filled with failures and successes, difficulty and joy, tears and laughter. Learning ancient Greek is one of these paths.
“What,” you say? “Ancient Greek? Really? Isn’t it a dead language, spoken by an ancient culture some 2000 years ago? Isn’t learning it difficult? There’s no way it can help me.”
Yes, ancient Greek is dead and yes, it was last spoken many, many years ago. And yet it continues to exert influence on contemporary culture, reminding us how, in essential ways, life on earth has changed very little. And yes, it is difficult, but only because it is different. Every year countless students throughout the world successfully learn this ancient tongue. And what Mark Twain quipped about French—that in France even the children speak French—is it true about any language. Were you born in Halikarnessos 2,500 years ago, you would speak ancient Greek fluently and look with eyes askance at those speakers of English with their funny clothes who don’t know how to spell or pronounce things correctly, or how to choose a dynamic and harmonious arrangement of words in a sentence.
Studying ancient Greek can help you.
“How,” you ask?
It can help you get a job. Throughout your working career, it is estimated that you will hold ten or more jobs. It is no surprise that employers seek to hire those who have learned the general skills of collaboration, communication, problem-finding and problem-solving. If you are unsure of your career path and wish to find your way, it can also help by encouraging you to think more deeply about your choices, improving your understanding of yourself and others.
The process by which it does so is both simple and complex. As you learn about the many ways people from different worlds live, love, fight, and die, you come to understand yourself in a way that is fundamentally different from what is was before. You, your knowledge, your understanding, your values, your creativity change and grow, offering you a richer life filled with choice, intention, and possibility. This richness enables you to imagine a new life and many possible worlds, that you can then live into existence.
“But,” you say, “learning any of the disciplines of the humanities can teach me these things as well as learning ancient Greek can.”
You are right.
And so what is special about learning ancient Greek?
I personally have found that my study of ancient Greek has given me an improved understanding of how my native language and culture work. From the basics of grammar and syntax to the powerful arrangement of words to create melody and rhythm and tension, I’ve learned the transformative power of the arts to make sense of the incredible, by enacting point of views different from my own. From ablaut, direct objects, and spurious diphthongs to Medea, Iphigeneia, and the cannibals of the Massagetai, I continue to grow and learn.
As author and translator Caroline Alexander notes, Classics offers you better training for your use of English than anything else she can think of. Caroline observes that if you have command of the English language and you’ve learned how to analyze data and history and have some perspective, you are equipped to do just about anything you want. Learning the ancient Greek language and culture equips you with these essentials.
To offer you some history and some perspective, I will write a series of posts that focus on areas the Greeks excelled in. The guiding principle is this: it is through active engagement with learning the ancient Greek language and culture and with thinking about the totality of the ancient Greek achievements—both good and bad—that we understand better ourselves and others, our own humanity and inhumanity, our life’s purpose and direction. What precisely you take and learn from the study of its content will vary as each person’s fingerprints differ from the other’s.
First, ἱστορία inquiry: the Greeks were curious. They wanted to understand what made things work. They were skeptical of mythological explanations of their perceived reality and so sought to explain phenomena through science. Long before Einstein and his theory of relativity, they explained the workings of the cosmos and offered theories that attempted to explain everything. Parmenides of Elea c. 500 BCE reasoned that the earth was a sphere and that sense perception was illusory. Demokritos of Abdera c. 460–370 BCE imagined that the universe was made up of atoms and void, offering this as his unifying theory. Aristarkhos of Samos c. 310–230 BCE, an astronomer and a mathematician, placed the sun, not the earth, at the center of the galaxy in the first known heliocentric view of the universe. They also sought to explain human interaction. Herodotos of Halikarnessos c. 484–425 BCE invented history, travelling around the Mediterranean basin to record humankind’s great achievements and to explain why the Greeks and the Persians warred against one another. Thoukydides wrote about the Greeks fighting against one another in his history of the Peloponnesian War, reasoning that his work would be a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεί, possession for all time because people are more similar than different and as a consequence will react in similar ways to the various stimuli of life.
And so, examining what, why, and how the Greeks inquired helps inform our own exploration into the whats, whys, and hows of our world.
As “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life” (Picasso), studying ancient Greek can clean from our eyes the dust that impairs our vision, giving us the skills and knowledge to find our way in today’s world and to pursue the life we seek and are meant to live. It is a life that is well-lived, filled with value, purpose, struggle, intention, and reflection.
Next up: βίος ὁ ἐξέταστος, the examined life.
For course materials that will enable you to start learning ancient Greek for free, visit https://www.theancientandmodernworld.com/ and download the textbook for free here https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/1487.
Φίλιππος ὁ Ἑλληνικός, κοσμοπολίτης
Philippos the Greek, citizen of the universe