Hum 110 | Reed Classics | Reed Library | Reed | Perseus

Nigel Nicholson, Convocation, 8/27/03

Aristocracy, Athletics and Education

Along with the many fine works that have come down to us from the ancient Greek world are a whole host of rather less impressive offerings, and among these is a life of Homer. It is an odd text for many reasons, not least because the whole idea of a life of Homer is preposterous: Homer was not a real person, since orally composed poetry does not have an author as such. Yet I find the text rather interesting: through the fictional character of Homer the life somehow seems to have fastened on to certain significant and yet hidden themes in the epics; and one of these themes is teaching.

According to this biography, teaching played a major part in Homer’s life. While he is still a youth, his mother, who is poor and somewhat in disgrace, agrees to marry a schoolteacher, who, rather surprisingly, has the same name as Odysseus’ minstrel, Phemius. Homer can then attend Phemius’ school, where he shines. Indeed, he proves to be such a fine student that, when Phemius dies, he passes the school on to Homer, and Homer becomes a schoolteacher. It is only after teaching for a while that Homer, with thoughts of composing major national epics, disbands his school and accepts an offer to travel the world with a merchant, as a sort of personal assistant.

What interests me about this fictional life’s emphasis on teaching and teachers is that it highlights their absence from Homer’s epics. Perhaps because I am myself a teacher, I am struck by the fact that in the Odyssey Odysseus has no teacher to tearfully reunite with on Ithaca – it would not have to be a schoolteacher (schools would be anachronistic), but no tutor, trainer or pedagogue remains behind on the estate either. He reunites with his son, his wife, his dad, his nurse, his swineherd, his oxherd, and even his dog, but no teacher. Equally, Telemachus is not said to have or have had a tutor or trainer to teach him public speaking or the arts of war.

Moreover, even when the Odyssey mentions teachers, it really seems to be denying that anyone had a teacher: the minstrels are regularly said to have been taught by the gods, but what this claim means is most unclear. In one of the strangest lines in the Odyssey, in book 22 (390-91), Odysseus’ minstrel Phemius declares “I am self taught, and the god grafted into my mind the varied ways of song.” In his translation, Fitzgerald renders this “No one taught me: deep in my mind a god shaped all the various ways of life in song.” This is an elegant translation, but it hides the oddity of what Phemius actually says. He says that he was taught, albeit by himself, not that he was not taught; indeed what he seems to say is that he was taught, but not by anyone else. It appears that in the Odyssey, one can be taught by oneself, or by the Muses, but not by an experienced mortal musician.

Understanding these lines is less important than recognizing their oddity. Their oddity indicates that teaching raises awkward ideological issues; it indicates a desire within the text to avoid speaking of teachers. In this lecture today, I will explore this desire, and argue that it is in fact central to the aristocratic idea of excellence that the Odyssey promotes that teachers be hidden away.

The Odyssey is certainly an aristocratic text. Broadly speaking, it supports the idea that some people are simply made of better stuff than others, that this superiority gives them the right to enjoy a greater share of society’s power and resources, and that this superiority is passed from father to son by birth. Book 24 is particularly illuminating here; interestingly, it is often seen as the poorest of the books, and many think it a later addition, but, when viewed from the point of view of ideology, the importance of this book to the whole becomes clear. First, the book guarantees the right of aristocrats to act in their own interests without regard for the feelings of the townspeople: the gods support Odysseus and make sure that no repercussions arise from his slaughtering of all the major figures in the country. Second, it demonstrates that quality runs in the family: just as Odysseus and Telemachus killed the suitors, so now Odysseus’ father Laertes kills the father of one of the suitors’ ringleaders. As Odysseus rather bluntly comments, “We have excelled this lot in every generation.”

A culture’s idea or ideas of excellence are often illuminated by its sports, so the athletic contests that Odysseus’ engages in in book 8 seem like a good place to look for the Odyssey’s idea of excellence. In this book, the Phaeacian princes go outside to compete in athletic contests. These competitions all go very smoothly until one prince tries to get Odysseus to take part. He politely declines, but the prince then suggests that he looks like a merchant or a businessman, not an athlete. Stung into action by this unbearable taunt, Odysseus discards his cloak and throws a discus much further than any of the Phaeacians. An embarrassed silence follows, but the king heals the rift with lots of praise and presents.

This is a fascinating book. One could spend time discussing the sports that are on offer: all the sports are individual sports, sports that require no cooperation with others, at least until the humiliated Phaeacian princes turn to dancing and acrobatics. One could discuss who takes part, and who wins: sports are clearly the preserve of the upper class, with the most kingly expected to win. And one could discuss what success in the games mean: most strikingly for Odysseus, his impressive showing in the discus is somehow seen as proving that he is not a merchant. But I am interested today in the fact that skill, and the need to train and develop those skills, is never mentioned as one of the factors in winning the events, even the discus. This is absurd: to be good at the discus, or at boxing or wrestling, one has to develop particular skills; you cannot simply pick up a discus and throw it a long way.

Unfortunately, Fitzgerald’s translation obscures this. He has done a good job, but all translations have their blind spots, and Fitzgerald shows less sensitivity to politics than melody. On two occasions his translation speaks of skill as a feature of athletic prowess (8.168, 257 Fitzgerald), but in neither case does skill appear in the Greek. Vaguer words like “excellence” are used, which in fact avoid pointing to skill as a component of victory. Though misleading, Fitzgerald’s mistake is therefore also in some ways helpful: its additions pinpoint what is missing from the Odyssey’s presentation of the events. We naturally assume that victory depends on skill, but in this part of the Odyssey, it does not.

What replaces skill suggests why it is absent. The qualities offered as central to victory are basic bodily qualities: strength, physique, vigor. Being a fine athlete seems to follow easily from having a fine body, and to require no particular competence in addition. Odysseus boasts that he could have won any of the events, as if a fine boxer is naturally a fine discus-thrower.

As far as aristocratic ideology was concerned, it was crucial that strength, and not skill, was thought to determine the outcome of the events, since strength was seen as something natural, while skill was seen as something acquired or imported. The aristocrats maintained that excellence was something in one, something one had from birth, and not something that could be acquired or altered, and so excellence was represented as dependent on natural qualities, qualities inherited at birth. Those who were better would always be better, while those who were worse would always be worse. For this reason, there was no proper place for skill or, say, diet in an aristocratic account of athletic victory or defeat: if it were admitted that skill or diet played a significant role in discus-throwing, excellence would be revealed as dependent on one’s training and conditions.

Teaching and training were thus themselves also awkward. Teachers and trainers transmitted the skills on which excellence depended, and so their very profession (unless carefully disguised) implied that excellence was not a permanent fact about someone, but a learned performance.

Interestingly, book 8 still frequently mentions knowledge: Odysseus is challenged to show that he knows or has learned athletics, and then boasts that he has. This is surely what leads to Fitzgerald talking about skill. It seems to make sense that if there is learning involved, one must be learning skills. But it is ideology and not sense that governs the language of book 8. What we have here is a learning of athletics that is without skills. We are meant to believe that one learns, or gets to know athletics, much as one gets to know a city, or a friend; the same words are used in both situations. Two kinds of knowledge are here confused: on the one hand, the knowledge of how to do something, a technical knowledge that encompasses skill and competence, and on the other hand, acquaintance, knowing of something through some contact. In effect, when the Phaeacians observe that Odysseus looks like someone who knows his games, what they mean is that he looks like someone who has taken part in games before, not someone who has been trained and has developed the requisite expertise. That sort of training, the training that involves teachers, is not implied; indeed one should go further and say that attention is drawn away from it by all this talk of a different kind of knowledge.

This is not to say the Odyssey has no idea of education; it does, but its idea has no room for the acquisition of skills or technical expertise. The education of Telemachus in the early books is illustrative here. Telemachus has mentors, including Mentes and the aptly named Mentor, but there is no formal process of instruction, and no effort to inculcate skills. His education is left to the gods, and he is simply expected to develop certain sorts of ability. As Eumaeus declares in book 14 (208-12): “By the gods’ grace [Telemachus] grew like a tough sapling, and I thought he would be no less a man than his great father, strong and admirably made.” Eumaeus’ emphasis on strength is telling – growing up is about becoming strong. Equally telling is the image of the “tough sapling”: maturation is seen not as a process of socialization in which abilities are acquired and faculties developed by training, but as a natural process, akin to the growing of a tree, in which what is already there blossoms forth without any human attention.

It is possible that this was how young aristocrats in the late dark age and early archaic period were left to grow up, but I doubt it, and certainly it is an absurd account of how one comes to be a fine discus-thrower. But this absurdity has, as I hope I have shown, a political logic: it preserves the basic aristocratic ideology of excellence, according to which excellence is an innate possession of a person.

How controversial this idea was in its time is hard to judge, not least because of the special nature of the Homeric epics. These poems were one of the primary artistic influences on Greek society, if not the primary one, for several centuries, and did not maintain the same form. The texts as we have them now probably reflect efforts in the late sixth century to fix them, and certainly by then the idea and practice of teaching was giving many Greek aristocrats sleepless nights. Theognis and Pindar, two of the principal spokesmen for this class in the sixth and early fifth centuries, put particular effort into belittling teaching: Theognis declares that “one will never make a bad man good by teaching him” (437-38), while, ironically, filling most of his poetry with advice for a rather worthless young man on how to improve himself. Meanwhile, Pindar, who composed poems for victorious athletes, pronounces that “what is natural is victorious in everything, yet many men have striven in vain to win glory with excellences acquired through teaching” (Ol. 9.100-2). Such fulminations are, of course, a sure sign that many others thought differently, seeing teaching, and not nature, as the foundation of genuine excellence and success, and the way that the elite became superior. Such perceptions were fuelled by the development of a trade in teaching and training, but this only gained significant prominence in the fifth century. One should probably conclude, therefore, that there was some dispute about the nature of excellence throughout the archaic period, but that as the period developed, opposition to the aristocrats’ account increased in both its intensity and its reach.

In the Odyssey itself we can certainly see signs of an alternative account of excellence—indeed, oddly enough the second half of book 8 seems to challenge the account offered by the athletic contests in the first half. As part of his efforts to patch up the quarrel caused by the suggestion that Odysseus looked like a merchant, the Phaeacian king invites him to enjoy some music performed by his minstrel, Demodocus. Odysseus is treated to a song about an adulterous wife being caught in the act. Hephaestus’ wife, the beautiful Aphrodite, has been having an affair with Ares, the god of war, and so Hephaestus constructs a trap around his bed to catch them next time they use it. The trap works beautifully, except that some of the gods find it all very funny, and suggest that they would willingly be caught in the trap if they got to sleep with Hephaestus’ wife. Inexplicably, Odysseus, who spends most of his time worrying about his own wife’s fidelity and usually weeps when the minstrel sings, also finds the story most entertaining.

Even more odd, however, is that the song appears to be a kind of commentary on Odysseus’ athletic exploits. In this story, skill and technical expertise are repeatedly mentioned (though ironically, Fitzgerald uses craft and cunning when the Greek word for skill, techne, appears); moreover, one of the gods who is thoroughly enjoying the whole episode comments that Hephaestus’ victory illustrates how skill can defeat natural talent, observing that through skill, the tortoise has caught the hare, that is, that through his skill the lame Hephaestus has defeated the swift Ares in this race. It is as if the song is meant to uncover the role of skill in athletic victory that the previous narrative has obscured.

The connection with Odysseus’ athletic performance is pretty clear: that Odysseus is worried about his wife’s infidelity provides an obvious link with Hephaestus, but there is also a deeper connection. Like Hephaestus, Odysseus is a craftsman, a man of skill. Odysseus is regularly compared to craftsmen: when he builds his raft to leave Calypso’s island, he is compared to “a master shipwright” (258), and the same comparison reappears when he drills out the Cyclops’ eye (417). While never quite directly stated, it is regularly implied that Odysseus’ excellence is comparable to the excellence of a craftsman, that is, that his excellence at least partly founded on his possession of various skills.

Indeed, the figure of Odysseus himself has an underlying ambivalence as regards aristocratic ideology. On the one hand, he is certainly a vehicle through which ideas of inherited excellence are promoted; but on the other hand, he seems to be a figure where these ideas are put to the test. We can think not only about his reliance on skill here, but also the problem which occasioned the whole athletic display, the fact that he could be mistaken for a merchant who keeps a careful eye on his property. However impressive his discus exploits, it is clear that Odysseus is rather like a merchant; his interest in property is not only for its prestige, but for its utility; not only for the relationships created through the act of giving, but also for the actual things received. [We may compare here an amusing half-faux pas of his son’s, when he rejects Menelaus’ gift of horses on the grounds that horses are not much use in Ithaca. In some sense, Telemachus is missing the point of an aristocrat’s gift – it is the thought and the gesture of friendship that should be uppermost, not the utility of the thing given. Like father, like son.] The point here is not that Odysseus is not a proper aristocrat, but that all aristocrats do not really measure up to their own canons of aristocracy: they engage in exchanges much as merchants, and their excellence really is largely a product of learned skills.

Although preeminently aristocratic in its bias, the Odyssey’s representation of excellence, skill and teaching thus contains some elements that challenge the aristocratic account, as we might expect from a text that has some popular roots. But what are to learn from this mixture? First, that ideas of teaching and learning are deeply political, intimately bound up with ideas of what people are capable of, and how society should be organized. And, second, that what a group says about its teaching and learning does not always accurately reflect its practice. This is surely the lesson to be learned from Odysseus’ reliance on skill: that he is like a craftsman does not simply show that the aristocrats’ ideology of excellence was false, but also that practice and ideology can disguise each other. In effect, Odysseus represents the ability of Greek aristocrats to have their cake and eat it too – to maintain an ideology of innate excellence that justified their exclusive hold on power while also learning the skills and undergoing the training that enabled them to be more successful than those outside the elite. Odysseus and the Odyssey thus offer important lessons, especially at the beginning of a new academic year: all of us, in whatever capacity we are involved in this institution, must examine how we talk about teaching and learning, and how far the ways we talk about teaching and learning are matched by the ways we teach and learn. Further Reading: Peter Rose, Sons of the Gods, Children of the Earth (Ithaca, 1992)

Hum 110 | Reed Classics | Reed Library | Reed | Perseus