Awakening Compassion through the Greeks
Nina Papathanasopoulou writes about the value of teaching Classics in the 21st Century.S
even boys sit upright in their desks reciting Aeneid, a Latin epic poem written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC. A teacher’s voice is heard evaluating each student on his recitation. One of the students, Moritz, makes a mistake and inserts the word enim (‘for’) instead of ille (‘that one’). The teacher pauses giving him another chance. The boy makes a second mistake trying olim (‘already’) this time. The teacher becomes increasingly upset. Another student, Melchior, intervenes suggesting that olim would actually fit the meaning of the Latin text and tries to initiate a discussion on the interpretation of the text. Furious, the teacher repeats that the boy has made an error. He disregards Melchior’s suggestion and adds that “our world has been littered with more than sufficient critical commentary on textual conjecture.”
The scene comes at the opening of Spring Awakening, an inspiring production of which was recently staged by the Connecticut College Theater department. The play is about teenagers who fail to receive guidance and support from their parents, teachers and society in which they live. Dramatizing the pressure these high school students are subjected to, the play presents them engaging in this aimless and fear-fostering exercise. The students want to embrace life, experience love, and dream about their future, but the adults in their lives prevent them from learning to communicate and to stand up for themselves. You wouldn’t know that the play was written more than a century ago as it seems to capture modern day sentiments about learning Greek and Latin: a useless endeavor and one more suitable to the elite education of primarily white boys in 19th century Europe.
A recent statement by AAC&U and AAUP on the value of a liberal arts education included the following: “In recent years, the disciplines of the liberal arts, once universally regarded as central to the intellectual life of the university, have been steadily moved to the periphery and increasingly threatened. […] The study of the history of human societies and forms of human expression is now too often construed as frivolous, and several colleges and universities have recently announced the wholesale elimination of liberal arts departments.”
The statement proceeds to defend the liberal arts and argues that institutions of higher education “should provide more than narrow vocational training and should seek to enhance students’ capacities for lifelong learning.” Indeed, studying Classics in the 21st century can offer that and more.
Greek literature focuses on human relationships, the role of the divine, intergenerational conflicts, gender issues, the concept of justice, and the definition of goodness. The Iliad and the Odyssey, the earliest works of Greek literature that we have, strive to define what it is to be human, and explore the limits of human ability and thought, by comparing mortals to animals or gods. They also often ask: are humans responsible for everything that happens to them, or is there something called fate that determines human actions?
The Greeks realized early on that humans are unique, terrible and awe-inspiring (deinon) creatures, capable of lofty and sophisticated thoughts, but also of destructive savagery. Much of Greek tragedy deals with human limits, and centers on humans who exemplify this paradox. It also speaks to many issues that concern countries around the world today: how to respond to cruel dictators or an administration that does not have the support of the majority.
As the Greeks created democracy and moved from being ruled by kings to being rulers themselves, they began to ask new questions about themselves. Were they primarily members of a family, or members of a greater community? And when the values and goals of these two entities differed, should they remain loyal to their family, or do what was best for their state?
Aren’t these like the mundane and not-so-mundane questions we all wrestle with today? How do we relate to our parents, our teachers, our students, our friends, our partners, our children? Don’t college students often feel at odds with their parents, while striving to understand themselves and their purpose in life? Do you believe in God? And if God exists, is he (or she) the one responsible for bringing justice to the world? Is everyone striving to be good and just? What is our responsibility to ourselves and to the communities in which we live? It is not easy to answer these questions and always act according to your beliefs. The Greeks struggled with such questions too.
It is important to focus on such questions when teaching Classics today, in the 21st century. Classical mythology and Greek drama deal with many issues that are of current interest. In the U.S. today, for example, the role of women and immigrants are at the forefront of political discussions. The Greeks were constantly thinking about the role of women, foreigners, and immigrants in their society too. Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Antigone, and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata all focus on the role of women and their relationship to authority figures, to their husbands, and to fellow women. In the absence of her husband, Clytemnestra chooses a lover for herself and takes over her husband’s rule; Antigone dares to go against the city’s laws and confronts authority even at the cost of her life; Lysistrata suggests that women can and should be involved in politics too.
Euripides’ Medea seems especially relevant in the era of #MeToo. Though a foreigner scorned by her husband, Medea finds the power to speak up for women’s rights and against men’s unjust and abusive treatment of women. Women are “obliged to buy a husband” and “accept him as the master of [their] body (despoten somatos)”, she says. “It is not possible to say no to the things a husband wants,” Medea continues, probably referring to the fact that a husband had the right to sexual intercourse regardless of his wife’s wishes.
However, according to Medea women were trapped and destined to endure such suffering: to leave one’s husband and return back to your parents’ house was considered “shameful (in Greek aklees, i.e. with no kleos, no reputation)” and humiliating; on the other hand, to live with an abusive man she considers worse than death. Medea explains that the situation is quite different for men: if they are dissatisfied at home, they can easily find relief elsewhere. Given the numerous cases of sexual harassment today (Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump are two of many examples) Medea’s concerns do not seem too different from those of women in the 21st century and confirm men’s long-lasting abuse of power in male-dominant societies.
What’s remarkable, however, is that in the 5th century BCE a male playwright, a male producer, a male sponsor, and male actors decided to put up a performance where men dressed up as women would speak up at the most important festival of the year, in front of a primarily male audience of around 15,000 people and condemn men’s abusive behavior. To study these texts inspires students to be self-critical, but also courageous; to give a voice to the weak and abused; to speak up and not feel ashamed of their experience.
Greek literature can also be insightful in thinking about immigrants and refugees. The Odyssey showcases the Greeks’ insistence on hospitality and respect for strangers, while Herodotus examines the Greeks by encouraging us to look at and compare them to other people who may have completely different traditions and perspectives. Herodotus’ famous phrase nomos basileus “custom is king of all” points to the extraordinary differences in values he saw from culture to culture in the ancient Mediterranean and near East. It also highlights the power of custom and the difficulty we may face in accepting something to which we are not accustomed.
Greek literature also invites us to look at the perspective of our enemies or victims. Euripides’ Trojan Women, for example, focuses on the suffering of the enemy, in this case, the Trojans. At the same time, however, the play emphasizes that whether Greek or Trojan, the Trojan women are primarily human and therefore worthy of our respect and compassion. Indeed, in 2013 a group of Syrian refugees found great comfort in this play and retold their own stories by using the voices of the Trojan women. In Queens of Syria, a documentary about their experience, the Syrian women make it evident that reading and performing Euripides’ play gave them confidence, strength, and hope.
One might ask, however, don’t fields like sociology or political science dedicate themselves to studying such issues? Indeed they do; but to look at these issues through the field of Classics can be particularly rewarding for two reasons.
First, the issues are discussed not in theory, but through intriguing and fascinating stories. The Greeks were exceptionally skilled in storytelling, offering entertainment and excitement to generations after generations, and making their way into numerous literary and artistic creations of different ages.
Second, to study philosophical, social, and political issues through ancient texts and to see the similarity between our concerns today and those of people that lived 2,500 years ago provides us with a sense of continuity and helps us come to terms more with our own humanity and purpose in the world.
The Theater of War project is one of several contemporary projects that use ancient Greek literature to help veterans of war deal with trauma and loss. Bryan Doerries, its artistic director, speaks about the importance of the texts’ age. “Because they are so old,” he says, “they are not threatening to audiences. When a military audience sees one of those ancient plays they don’t feel like we are accusing them of anything. We are asking them to reflect and ask what they can recognize in this. When service members and soldiers of today see their own experiences reflected in an ancient story, it brings immense relief. People discover that they are not alone and most critically not alone across time.”
The Greeks and their literature are fascinating in and of themselves, but to use them as a teaching tool to elicit sympathy and compassion for human beings across time and across the globe is sorely needed today. For our world to be a better place, we don’t only need more scientists and entrepreneurs—though we do need those; we need people who are more sensitive to their environment and more compassionate toward other human beings. The Greek texts explore the human tendency for competitiveness, violence, and victory, even as they encourage compassion and a consideration for the other’s humanity. And compassion is vital for the well-being of any society.
Nina Papathanasopoulou specializes in Greek drama and mythology and has been teaching Classics and theater courses at Connecticut College since 2013. She regularly plans student trips to numerous Greek-related performances, from Strauss' opera Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera, to Martha Graham's Greek-inspired dances at the NY City Center and Trinity Rep’s Black Odyssey in Providence. Last spring Nina led her ancient Greek students on an eight day field trip to Greece. In 2019, she is also working as the Public Engagement Coordinator for the Society for Classical Studies, finding opportunities to bring together scholars and students of Classics with the broader community.