June 14, 2019

1. Jaeger on Ancient Greece

A. Lyric Poetry

Homer wrote of individual prowess, individual glory. The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus wrote of devotion to the polis, sacrifice for the polis. What sort of poetry emerged from the constitutional city-state, from the polis that was based on law? This type of polis was inherently un-poetic; its specialty was legal prose. But it did produce some epics about the founding of particular cities, epics like Vergil’s Aeneid, which Jaeger calls “the last and greatest work of the type.”1

While the polis preached patriotism and sacrifice, a new type of poetry emerged that preached pleasure. This new poetry dared to ask, Is life worth living without pleasure? Why should I care if my name is on a plaque after I’m dead? I want to live now, experience life to the full, enjoy myself. I value my own feelings over public opinion. “When a poet begins to write freely of his private pleasures, it is a new step in poetry, and one which deeply influences human culture.”2

When Homer spoke of the shortness of life, it was a prelude to “tragic heroism.” But when these new poets spoke of the shortness of life, it was a prelude to “burning hedonism.”3 Homer’s poetry is objective, he doesn’t express his own feelings or experiences, he doesn’t use “I”. But these new poets expressed themselves, spoke in their own voice. If they talked about politics, they expressed their own partisan views, they spoke of their own rights.

If we set our sights on pleasure, does it slip through our fingers? Can we attain happiness by direct pursuit? Proust said that happiness comes, not when it’s pursued directly, but as a by-product of other pursuits. The hedonist poets often lamented

the shortness of life and the transitoriness of sensual pleasure; both these complaints [are] heard throughout post-Homeric poetry.... The deeper one plunges in natural delights, the more profound is the melancholy resignation that follows.

This new poetry insisted on limiting the power of the polis, the power of society. It insisted on leaving room for private life, private pleasure. During the Classical Period (c. 450 BC), this private domain was respected; in his Funeral Oration, Pericles says, “We do not grudge our neighbor his private pleasures, nor do we make him repent them by our bitter looks.”

In the constitutional city-state, law bound people together, it had a centripetal tendency. The new hedonistic poetry celebrated private life, it had a centrifugal tendency, it was “a force in loosening the social structure of the city-state.”4 Pericles was justly proud that classical Athens had struck a balance between these opposing tendencies, that it respected both public life and private life.

One representative of the new poetry was Archilochus. Archilochus wrote about 650 BC — about the same time as Tyrtaeus. In one poem, Archilochus speaks light-heartedly of abandoning his shield in battle — a serious offense in the eyes of the polis. “I myself escaped the end, which is death. Let the old shield go! I shall buy a better one!”5 Archilochus has little use for posthumous fame: “After his death no one is honored or famous among the citizens: while we live, we pursue the pleasure of living, but the dead are always very badly off.” Honor is conferred by public opinion, but Archilochus scorns public opinion: “If one cared for the gossip of the people, one would never have much pleasure in life.”

If the mission of Tyrtaeus was “to assert a higher ideal against nature,” the mission of Archilochus was “to vindicate nature against the excessive demands of an ideal.” Archilochus represents individual freedom against conventional respectability. He feels that he is “more natural and more honorable than the slave of traditional honor and morality.”6 Archilochus plays Sancho Panza to Tyrtaeus’ Don Quixote. Human nature oscillates between these two poles, idealism and hedonism, Tyrtaeus and Archilochus, the super-ego and the id.7

One of the main themes in Greek philosophy is the contest between pleasure and nobility. “The culmination of Plato’s philosophy is the defeat of pleasure in its claim to be the highest good.... They met in a final harmony in Aristotle’s ideal of human personality.”8

Archilochus was known as a psogos, a satirist or scold. Iambic poetry was the poetry of invective. Jaeger says that the iambics of Archilochus had an educational tendency, and his audience “placed him next to Homer as the educator of the Greeks.” If epic poetry is the praise of great deeds, iambic poetry is the blame of misdeeds. Both have an educational effect. Iambic poetry has a long history; “Catullus and Horace... inveigh relentlessly against the scandals of their time.”9

Archilochus believed that we have an obligation to be angry at misdeeds, he was scornful of “the inability to feel righteous indignation.” The Peripatetic School (Aristotle’s school) also believed that it’s a “moral deficiency” not to feel righteous indignation, not to be angry at injustice.10

Jaeger now turns to the famous female poet, Sappho of Lesbos. He says that Sappho’s lyrics are “the voice of pure emotion.” Apparently Sappho had a kind of private school. “Her friends are girls who have just left their mothers’ sides... dedicated to serve beauty by their dances, games and songs.... Women were educated to attain the highest possible nobility of spirit.” Jaeger says there may have been a sexual element, he speaks of “the power of Eros to release the forces of the spirit.”

Sappho’s poetry was often inspired by someone entering or leaving her group. It was meant to be sung to a lyre. Jaeger says that Sappho’s group/band/thiasos was “consecrated to music.”

At that time, marriages were usually arranged by parents, one didn’t marry for love. Relations between the sexes were physical without being romantic, so Sappho’s romantic passion was unusual in Greek poetry. “No masculine love-poetry among the Greeks even approached the spiritual depth of Sappho’s lyrics. For Greek men distinguished spirit and senses as two opposing poles of being.”11 Sappho writes of passionate love, and also of lost love. Jaeger speaks of “the vast sorrow which gives her poetry not only the tender charm of melancholy but the higher exaltation of true tragedy.”

B. Solon

Solon lived in Athens around 600 BC. He was a political reformer, known for designing Athenian democracy. He was also a poet. “Boys at the beginning of their schooling learned his poems by heart; and they were constantly cited as the classical expression of the soul of Athenian citizenship.”12 We think of poetry and law as worlds apart, but the ancient Greeks thought of them as closely connected, two forms of paideia/education. Solon is perhaps the best example of the poet-lawgiver. His poems “are all exhortations addressed to his fellow-citizens, and all inspired by a grave and passionate sense of his mission to his country.”

In Solon’s time, Athens was largely agrarian, with serfs dominated by landed aristocrats. Jaeger speaks of, “the downtrodden populace, whose deep despair is movingly described in Solon’s great iambic poem.”13 Solon’s political movement “drew its strength from the poor,” and Solon cancelled the debts of the poor.

But Solon wasn’t a demagogue, he was a mediator. “The leading aim of his reforms was to find a just medium... between privilege and serfdom. Therefore he could wholeheartedly support neither party in the state.” His strength came from his “moral authority.” Apparently he gave the common people a feeling that they had a stake in society, a feeling that society was governed by Justice and they would be treated fairly. In contrast to Sparta, city-states like Athens

found in the ideal of justice the organizing principle of a new social order; and at the same time, by abolishing class privilege and establishing the liberty of all its members, gave each individual citizen room for the free development of his own potentialities.

Athens managed to respect both the state and the individual, public life and private life, in contrast to Sparta, where public life dominated private life, and in contrast to Ionia, where private pleasure was celebrated and the state neglected. “Because he brought together the state and the spirit, the community and the individual, [Solon] was the first Athenian.”14

In Solon’s day, the aristocracy was powerful, “the masses were still politically inexperienced... democracy was far away.” The aristocrats didn’t fear an uprising of the masses, they feared the rise of a tyrant, “the domination of one noble family... supported by the common people, over all the rest of the aristocracy.” This danger came to pass at the end of Solon’s life, when the tyrant Pisistratus seized power, and confiscated the estates of aristocrats.

Solon observed the history of other city-states, and this enabled him to predict the rise of a tyrant in Athens. Solon failed in the short-term (failed to avert tyranny), but his ideas helped to create a balanced system in the long-term.

Like Hesiod, Solon emphasizes the power of Justice (Diké).

He, too, is convinced that justice is an inseparable part of the divine world-order. He is never tired of proclaiming that it is impossible to ignore the power of Diké, because it is always victorious in the end. Sooner or later punishment comes, and man’s hubris must pay the penalty for overstepping the bounds set by justice.

The power of Diké was later the theme of Athenian tragedy. Guilt will be punished, “and if the guilty man escapes punishment, his innocent children and his descendants suffer in his stead.”15

Solon believed in a moral order in the universe, but can we share that belief today? Perhaps we can believe that greed and crime don’t achieve happiness, but are they really punished? And if they escape punishment, can anyone today believe that the criminal’s children will be called to account by the moral order of the universe?

Jung tells of a criminal who escaped the police, but was punished by her own psyche:

A woman is obsessed with her friend’s husband, murders her friend, and marries the husband. Now her shadow takes over, and begins to arrange her life, begins to destroy her. First her husband dies young. Then her daughter grows up, grows apart from her, moves far away, and severs all ties with her. Then her horses grow nervous, and throw her off; she is forced to give up riding. Now she has nothing left but her dogs. Her favorite dog becomes paralyzed. Finally, in despair, she visits Jung, and confesses everything (though without revealing her name).

So there certainly are cases that indicate a moral order, the sort of moral order that we find in Solon and in Greek tragedy. But if we don’t believe in the gods of the Greeks, and we don’t believe in the God of the Christians, can we have more than a tentative, partial belief in a moral order? Aren’t there many cases of innocent people suffering/dying, and some cases of guilty people living/flourishing?

Hesiod said that the gods punished injustice with disasters like plague and famine. Solon, on the other hand, viewed divine punishment as “immanent in the state, for every transgression of justice is a disturbance of the social organism. A state thus punished is afflicted by party feuds and civil war.” Solon tried to save his society from ruin, from party conflict. One of the causes of conflict, Solon said, is greed: “Driven by avarice, the leaders of the people enrich themselves unrighteously.”16 We need a Solon today who can calm the waters of party strife, and restrain greed.

Just as Hesiod described a just city, so Solon described a well-ordered, harmonious society — Eunomia. According to Solon, people sometimes suffer from natural disasters, misfortunes, but more often they suffer from their own misdeeds, “evil action deliberately willed.” In Solon’s view, “every man is a responsible moral agent with a duty to be done.” While the Ionian poets preached resignation, Solon preached resolute action, Solon resisted tyranny, greed, injustice, etc. At the end of his life, when he was about 70, he would stand in his doorway in full armor, encouraging passersby to resist the tyrant Pisistratus.

For more on Solon, consider Plutarch’s short biography, and a longer work by Ivan Linforth called Solon the Athenian.

2. Academia

Interesting piece by Jacob Howland in a magazine called City Journal. Howland discusses the decline and fall of the University of Tulsa, where he has taught for some 30 years.

A Harvard Business School professor recently predicted [Howland writes] that up to half of all American colleges and universities will go bankrupt in the next 10 to 15 years. While this may be a worst-case scenario, universities have for years been offering an increasingly inferior product at unsustainably high prices to an ever-more skeptical group of prospective students. Many institutions below the top tier are scrambling to respond to the collapse of the higher-education bubble by jettisoning the liberal arts and pumping up the practical ones: health care, computer science, business, and other technical fields that promise to yield jobs immediately after graduation. This approach has been employed in a particularly crude and short-sighted manner at the University of Tulsa, where a new administration has turned a once-vibrant academic institution with a $1.1 billion endowment and a national reputation in core liberal arts subjects into a glorified trade school with a social-justice agenda.17

City Journal is a quarterly published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank run by Reihan Salam. The conservative intellectual Roger Kimball recently published a piece in the New York Post, a piece that was even more critical of today’s colleges:

It is time to think about closing them rather than reforming them.... A modern society required institutions to pursue science and engineering. But the humanities, which at most colleges and universities have devolved into cesspools of identity politics and grievance studies, should be starved of funding and ultimately shut down.18

Kimball’s piece suggests creating “competing institutions, outside the academic establishment, that welcomed conservative voices.” Such institutions are the subject of a non-partisan piece in the New York Times, a piece called “The Anti-College Is on the Rise: Students, teachers and reformers are pushing back against the failures of mainstream higher education.”

If the purpose of college is career-preparation rather than education, why not go to a trade school that costs far less than a traditional college? Software “bootcamps” teach people to code in about eight weeks, and their graduates often find high-paying jobs. Will this model spread to other fields?

One early critic of colleges was Samuel Johnson. Johnson said, “People have nowadays... got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken.” Five years ago, I mentioned a website called UnCollege.org. Its motto is a quote from Good Will Hunting: “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.” I myself learned almost nothing at college, I learned far more by reading on my own.

I recently heard the conservative intellectual Jordan Peterson on Youtube. Peterson said he was on the faculty of the University of Toronto, but he could teach more effectively through Youtube than in the classroom.

3. The Inner Oracle

A Zen master heard several students describe their sufferings, then said, “Don’t just describe your sufferings, frame a question, ask for advice, then let that question sit for a while in the back of your mind. An answer will come suddenly from your unconscious, an answer will suddenly appear, and you’ll know it’s the right answer, it will carry conviction.”

This story reminds me of the way Zen masters ask a koan, then the student ponders the koan, lives with it, sleeps on it, until the answer appears suddenly and spontaneously.

This story also reminds me of how one is told to approach the I Ching with a question. In an earlier issue, I wrote, “Jung felt that one should approach the I Ching with a serious question, as one might approach a psychotherapist.”

This story also reminds me of how philosophers/scientists have an idea land in their head — appear spontaneously, not through research or reasoning — and it carries conviction, they’re sure it’s true. As Emerson put it, “Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due.”19

© L. James Hammond 2019
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1. Ch. 7, p. 115 back
2. Ch. 7, p. 129. “The hedonist school of poetry marks one of the most important phases in the history of the Greek spirit.”(Ch. 7, p. 129) back
3. Ch. 7, p. 128 back
4. Ch. 7, p. 130 back
5. In Athens, one who abandoned his shield was “severely punished and lost his civic rights.” (Ch. 7, footnote 11, p. 445).

The term “Archaic Poetry” is used for poetry that’s post-Homeric and pre-Classical. So poets like Archilochus and Sappho are called Archaic. back

6. Ch. 7, p. 120. Jaeger says that Archilochus and other Greek poets aren’t purely subjective, they remain connected to “the world of nature and the world of human society.” Perhaps only the modern artist has lost himself in pure subjectivity, the Greek artist was “objectively subjective” (to coin an awkward phrase).

Jaeger describes the poetry of Archilochus and others as “the Aeolian lyrics and the elegiac and iambic poetry of Ionia.”(Ch. 7, p. 116) Aeolia is the coast of Asia Minor (Turkey), north of the Gediz River (north of the city of Izmir), while Ionia is south of the Gediz River. Aeolia should not be confused with the Aeolian Islands, which are off the north coast of Sicily.


7. One might say that idealism and hedonism complement each other — opposites are complementary. Later Jaeger says that “the self-forgetfulness of Dionysiac intoxication [was] complementary to the severe restraint of Apollo’s creed.”(Ch. 9, p. 168) back
8. Ch. 7, p. 129 back
9. Ch. 7, p. 123. Jaeger says that “when an iambic poet criticizes a person, an opinion, or a tendency, which has for any reason attracted public attention, he is not voicing a casual dislike of his own, but speaking as the representative and teacher of his fellow-citizens.”(Ch. 7, p. 123) back
10. Jonathan Swift didn’t have this “deficiency,” and he often felt indignation. On his tomb, he wrote that he had gone “where savage indignation can no longer lacerate the heart” (ubi saeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit).

Sometimes Archilochus addresses himself in his poetry. “He calls to his will to rise up from the whirlpool of desperate sufferings in which it is sunk, to stand firm and boldly resist the enemy. ‘Neither exult openly in victory, nor lie at home lamenting in defeat; but take pleasure in what is pleasant, yield not overmuch to troubles, and understand the rhythm which holds mankind in its bonds.’” Again we see the educational, didactic quality in Archilochus’ poetry.

Jaeger says that “rhythm” means “the cycle of human affairs... the rise and fall of human fortunes.” Democritus spoke of “the rhythm of the atoms... their pattern — or as Aristotle perfectly translates it, their schema.” (Ch. 7, p. 126) I’m reminded of Heraclitus’ enantiodromia, Hegel’s dialectic, and the theory of life- and death-instincts. back

11. Ch. 7, p. 134. In my book of aphorisms, I wrote, “Romantic love originates with the medieval troubadours.”

Jaeger concludes this chapter by mentioning “an ode discovered not many years ago.” Apparently a substantial amount of ancient poetry was discovered between 1850 and 1950. back

12. Ch. 8, p. 136 back
13. Ch. 8, pp. 138, 139. When I say “Athens,” I mean not just the city but also the surrounding territory (Attica). back
14. Ch. 8, p. 149 back
15. Ch. 8, p. 144. This is a quote from one of Solon’s poems. back
16. Ch. 8, p. 141. In another poem, Solon says that Pallas Athene is protecting Athens, “but the citizens themselves in their folly wish to ruin it by avarice.” (Ch. 8, p. 143)

Solon divided life into periods: “His poem of the hebdomads... divides man’s life into seven-year periods, and gives each age its own special function”(Ch. 8, p. 148). “Hebdomad” is from the Greek word for seven. Confucius divided life into ten-year periods. back

17. A few months ago, I read a piece by Howland in another conservative periodical, Roger Kimball’s New Criterion. Howland’s piece is called “Prophecies of democratic leveling: On the philosophical foreseers of tyrannical equality.” back
18. Kimball attributes this view to British philosopher Roger Scruton, but it’s clear that Kimball agrees. Kimball mentions a Quillette article with a similar theme. The Quillette article mentions a Youtube documentary on the same subject. back
19. “Self-Reliance” back