Frank Breslin has been writing a series of essays for the Huffington Post about “Teaching the Greeks.” He taught the classic s and German before he retired.
He is one of those rare educators who doesn’t think about rubrics, data, or test scores.
He thinks about education, in its deepest sense. The drawing out of meaning from words and experiences of others.
In this essay, he explains how to teach Greek literature.
Here is a snippet of his lesson:
Greek is clear, brief, cerebral, and to the point — almost chilling in its austerity. It sees the beauty of common things and contents itself with the majesty of their unadorned simplicity. It has no use for ornament, exaggeration, or poetic license, and uses adjectives, imagery, and metaphors sparingly. It is like reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus in that its appeal is solely to the mind and does not condescend to emotionalize issues. In translating Greek into English, one should strive to be literal, for literality is the essence of the aesthetic experience in reading Greek.
Greek places great demands on its readers, who must work out for themselves implications which are often unstated. This compressed style may prove difficult for those new to the subject, since the author may be writing for the few. The unfortunate result is that some readers may become exhausted by the sustained level of concentration, lose the thread of the argument, and stop reading.
This is a common temptation, but if one persists, one begins to make headway. If one has had three years of high-school Latin, many of the problems of learning Greek have already been solved, since their grammatical structure is roughly the same. For those interested, Crosby/Schaeffer’s An Introduction to Greek is a solid beginner’s text, after which one might try a student edition of Xenophon’s Anabasis, and then Plato’s Apology.
Hebrew, on the other hand, appeals to the emotions by the stylistic devices of repetition, cadence, and a profusion of imagery, all of which cast a mood of enchantment over the reader. One need not work out the implications oneself as with Greek since the repetition of the same idea in different words and varied imagery will suggest additional perspectives, which might not have occurred to one reading Greek in English translation.
The problem with Hebrew, however, is that some may find it insufficiently analytical to examine its subject critically and be left with only an emotional response. Some prefer the Greek style of writing, and others the Hebrew. Each tries to affect its readers in different ways, and both are effective.
Are people convinced more by reason or emotion? Can a syllogism make converts? Why do some prefer rational arguments, while others favor emotional ones? What is each group seeking? Is it ethical to move people emotionally, or is this the only way of moving the heart? Can art transform someone’s life and convictions? If you feel that it can, make a case that art should never be censored. Then argue the converse.
Should artists and writers be political? Should they serve the interests of the haves or have-nots, or should they be apolitical? If writers use their art to defend or attack the status quo, is that more honest than not speaking out and tacitly endorsing the way things are? Are the poor automatically in the right and the powerful in the wrong? In some countries, writers are the national conscience. What are they in America?
“Orator fit, poeta nascitur.” (“An orator is trained; a poet is born.“) Is this true, or an attempt to romanticize poets? What are the dangers of being a writer? Why do some writers fear success? What are some ways that an artist can “sell out”? What are some subtle ways for a government to control or silence a writer? What is the best kind of education for young writers and artists? Are writers the voice of the people, or of themselves alone?
1. What is the meaning of the phrase “Nolo episcopari“?
“I don’t want to be made a bishop.” Is this solemn profession a foolproof way of weeding out unworthy candidates for high ecclesiastical office? What qualities of mind, heart, and spirit should such a candidate have? Should he or she be chosen by church authorities or the people? What are the pros and cons of each method? “I care not whether a man is good or evil; all that I care is whether he is a wise man or a fool. Go! Put off holiness, and put on intellect.” Good advice by William Blake for choosing a bishop? What are good reasons for wanting power? Are these reasons rationalizations? What are some bad reasons? How can one prevent bad people from coming to power?
2. According to Pindar, who alone is fit to rule and why?
Pindar, an aristocrat and lyric poet (518 – 438 BCE), felt that only aristocrats had the training and vision to rule. They were the blue bloods, with the necessary discipline, wisdom, and judgment, tempered by hard-headed practicality that came of running city-states for generations. They alone knew what was best for their people. Does history contradict this self-serving view? Does this brief description sound like propaganda for the aristocratic class?
3. Why did Pindar celebrate the past?
The past was a Golden Age, and the present was but a pale reflection of its bygone splendor. To celebrate this vision of past greatness Pindar went from court to court singing of those former times when noble lords set radiant examples for their obedient subjects, who looked to them for inspiration and guidance. Wherever he went, he urged his grand hosts to cultivate these pristine ideals and to pass on this legacy to insure stability and sound rule. Only by clinging to the past could they give their people hope and a sense that all was still right with the world. The magnificent odes he composed for these court visits were designed to remind his audience never to lose sight of their sacred calling.
What would prevent aristocrats from discarding these noble sentiments and exploiting their people? What recourse would his subjects have if they discovered that they were being ruled by a tyrant who was seeking to destroy them? How would you explain those who continued to give him allegiance?
You should google his earlier chapters. He is an educator.