Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Were Homer's Works Taught in Classical Schools? A Second Rejoinder to William Michael

Of the seven points William Michael makes in response to my response to his critique, one of the statements he makes is this: "There is no evidence of anyone ever studying Homer as part of any school curriculum in classical or Christian history." 

I'll have to hand it to him: he's doesn't pussyfoot around. He comes right out and says what he thinks. 

I have read this assertion about the role of Homer in classical education. I have read it again. I have tried to think if there is something I am not seeing. If there is possibly a shade of meaning I have missed. I have looked for another statement nearby that might mitigate the definitiveness of the statement. But, no. There it is, with no qualifications whatsoever. He really means it:

Homer was never a part of any school curriculum in classical or Christian history.

Now this is what, in formal logic, is called a "universal negative," that is, a universal denial. There is no case in which Homer was taught in a school curriculum. And the only thing required to falsify a universal negative is one case in which the thing denied happened. Just one. That's all it takes. But this statement is so at odds with reality, and there are so many examples and statements from historians of education that directly contradict it, that we need not settle for just one example.

So my first response is to simply point out that this statement is completely, utterly, and demonstrably false. And it doesn't take much to establish that fact. I simply walked into my library and pulled out a few books, all of which say exactly the opposite of what Michael claims here.

1. Homer was explicitly taught in the schools of ancient Greece

Let's start out with Greece, and with one of that civilizations most exemplary figures. Plato explicitly calls Homer "the educator of all of Greece" (literally, Homer "has educated" Greece). Now his famous critique of Homer in the Republic does not detract from this fact, but only enhances it, since it is very clear that Plato is pushing back against practices then extant in Greek education. He wants to exclude Homer's account of the gods (and the accounts of other poets) from the education system of his Republic because they portray the gods as acting badly and god he thinks it reflects badly on them, and that, since God is good, this is a false portrayal.

And not only was he generally the "educator of Greece," he was explicitly taught in Greek schools.

Athens, notwithstanding this [Plato's] expulsion, continued to learn Homer by heart, and this ancient custom was continued far beyond the Athenian age. Even at the close of the first century of our era there were Greeks in the Troad [a reference to Troy] who taught their children Homer from the earliest years [emphasis added]. In fact, from the Athenian age to the present day, the study of Homer has never ceased. (John Edwin Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship: From the Sixth Century B. C. to the End of the Middle Ages, (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1906), p, 31)

There is a scene in Aristophanes "in which a father, who believed in the old-fashioned style of poetic education," who is "represented as examining his son as to the meaning of certain 'hard words in Homer'." (Ibid, p. 32) "[F]rom the days of Solon to those of Aristotle, Homer is constantly studied and quoted, and was a favourite theme for allegorizing interpretation and for rationalistic and rhetorical Treatment." (Ibid, p. 37) In Sparta among the efforts to "cultivate their children's minds Homer and Hesiod "were recited and committed to memory (James Bowen, A History of Western Education: Volume I: The Ancient World (London: Methuen & Co, Ltd., 1972), p. 54).

"According to Plato, Heroditus, Thucydides and Xenophon, as well as Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Nietzsche, Homer was the educator of the Greeks, the theoretical founder of classical civilization." (Peter Ahrensdorf, Homer on the Gods and Human Virtue (Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 2) The Sophists, says Sandys, "had naturally much to say of one whose poems formed the foundation of all education in Athens." "To be a Greek was to be educated, and the foundation of all education was Homer" (Ahrensdorf, p. 3)

Not only do we know that boys in Greek schools recited Homer, but they sang his poems. We even know what instrument was specifically used by students for the singing of Homeric poems: the lyre. (Sandys, p. 43)

2. Homer was explicitly taught in the Roman Curriculum.

The Latin poet Andronicus authored a Latin translation of Homer's Odyssey which was used as a "text-book" in schools when Horace was young. (Sandys, p. 169). 

And then we have probably the greatest educational mind Rome ever produced, Quintilian who puts it quite plainly: It is therefore an admirable practice which now prevails, to begin by reading  Homer and Vergil ..." (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, (London: Harvard University Press, trans. H. E. Butler), p. 149) [Emphasis added].

3. The reading of Homer and other classical authors was part of the curriculum of European and early American schools.

The entrance requirements at the University of Virginia established in 1826 by Thomas Jefferson included "the ability to read Virgil and Horace and Xenophon and Homer, sight translation of Latin into English, and knowledge of basic algebra and plane geometry." (Stanley M. Burnstein, "The History Teacher," Nov., 1996, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Nov., 1996), p. 30) Other colleges of the time had similar requirements.

In other words, a reading knowledge of Homer was expected to already have been accomplished before entering the university, indicating that even secondary schools (at least the more elite ones) must have been teaching Homer. Jefferson also famously claimed that even American farmers read Homer, which is undoubtedly an overstatement. But the fact that he even claimed it is an indication that there were some farmers probably did, and that says something about the then current education in America.

At Yale the freshman class "read Latin out of Livy and Horace and Greek out of Homer, Hesiod, Sophocles, and Euripides..." (Lawrence Cremin, American Education: The National Experience 1783-1876 (New York: Harper Collophon Books, 1980), p. 404)

This education continued on at many English and American schools well in to the 19th and early 20th centuries, where schools were teaching the Greek and Latin poets, many times in the original languages. It is hard to believe that Homer, the chief of the Greek poets, was not represented in many, if not most them. This was still going on (and, in a handful of schools still is) in boarding schools when Simmons attended one. He can still hear him (I was there on one occasion when he did it) recite the first lines of the Iliad in Greek from memory. 

In have said nothing about continental European schools since the Middle Ages, nor of the education conducted in the Eastern Roman world, although there is evidence Homer was a part of the Eastern Christian Greek education. And Homer was not read in the Christian Middle Ages for the simple reason that the text was not available in the West, although the stories of Troy were available in a few other, secondary sources.

The only way in which Michael's claim could make any sense is if he is assuming a very restrictive definition of the term "classical Christian education." I have noted before that he seems to be assuming a definition that would confine the scope of classical education to some medieval iteration of it. And, indeed, on his website he commends to his readers a very specific version of classical education. It is the Ratio Studiorum of 1599, a Jesuit document which outlines in very fine detail how education should be done. "It is this very mission" he says about the document, "that we seek to serve and promote."

But here's the problem: P. 77 of the Ratio Studiorum, the statement that articulates the "very mission" Michael seeks to serve, contains, in the section on "Rules of the Teacher of Rhetoric," this passage:

The Greek prelection, whether in oratory, history, or poetry, must include only the ancient classics: Demosthenes, Plato, Thucydides, Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, and others of similar rank (provided they be expurgated), and with these, in their own right, Saints Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Chrysostom. During the first semester, orations and history are to be studied, but may be interrupted once a week by reading some epigrams or other short poems. [Emphasis added]

In other words, not only is the study of Homer a common and customary practice in classical education in Greek, Roman, English, and modern versions of classical education, it is a stated part of the very kind of education that he himself recommends on his website.

But all that one needs to do to prove it wrong is to point the actual practice of classical educators and, apparently, to Michael's own website.

Look, I am sure that a student would get a very fine classical education at Michael's school. But to prowl around the internet casting aspersions on those who are trying to classically educate their students and calling what they are doing "fake classical education" when your own claims are demonstrably false is not going to help anyone.


William C. Michael said...

Thanks for this. Good to get into some details, even if they not be from primary sources.

You wrote under your first point:

"Athens, notwithstanding Plato's expulsion, continued to learn Homer by heart."

Your argument here is that those Athenians who put Socrates to death, and rejected Plato's judgment on education, did, in fact study Homer. I'll grant you that argument, but ask--Why are you, recommending the practice of those who REJECTED the judgment of the wise men in classical Athens?

You've admitted this to be the case yourself.

William C. Michael said...

You've responded without any context to my criticism, which I will remind you of.

In your video on classical education, you asserted that Homer was "simply read", as a story book, with children in schools as a means of character formation, as a modern literature or "Great Books" class would be conducted today.

I argued that no such practice ever existed.

So, you are misrepresenting my argument and refuting a straw man as you did in your first response.

You quote part of a sentence from Quintilian, pulled out of the 8th chapter, after the course of Greek Grammar study had been explained in detail. From the Greek text of Homer, he says the student should,

"...let his mind be lifted by the sublimity of heroic verse, inspired by the greatness of its theme and imbued with the loftiest sentiments."

Homer was not being recommended by Quintilian as a book for "character training", but was studied in Greek as a model of poetic form, and for student imitation in Greek composition.

This is echoed in the Ratio Studiorum, which includes the study of Homer not in some literature course, but in the Rhetoric course, where students are studying advanced Greek Grammar and using Homer as the source for the study of Greek prosody (the third part of the art of Grammar).

Neither of these sources support your assertion that Homer was "simply read" as a means of character-training, which was my argument. They both prove that students were formally studying the classical liberal arts and merely using Homer as one of many sources for their Grammar studies.

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