Tuesday, June 28, 2011


The Most Economical Intellectual Investment One Can Make

Garry Wills, Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer (New York: Viking, 2010), no page numbers in Google Books preview (this passage describes a conversation in jail with Karl Hess):
An autodidact and devourer of books, he asked what was the volume I carried with me through the arrest. It was the Greek New Testament. He asked why I had it. I answered that I read it every day for spiritual sustenance. Besides, "It's the most influential book in Western culture." Yeah, but why Greek?

I said that learning Greek is the most economical intellectual investment one can make. On many things that might interest one—law and politics, philosophy, oratory, history, lyric poetry, epic poetry, drama—there will be constant reference back to the founders of those forms in our civilization. Politics and law will refer to Aristotle on constitutions and balanced government. Philosophy will argue endlessly with Plato. Historians must go back to Herodotus and Thucydides. Students of Virgil or Milton have to gauge their dependence on Homer. Drama harks back to Sophocles or Euripides for tragedy, to Aristophanes or Menander for comedy. Oratory is measured against Demosthenes or Isocrates, lyric poetry against Sappho or Anacreon. The novel begins with Longus and others. It helps, in all these cases, to know something about the originals. He objected that the remains of ancient literature seem exiguous. That is partly true. Only three of the dozens of Greek tragedians survive, and only about 10 percent of their output. But that gives a kind of detective-story interest to their study. To rebuild the social setting for judging them, one must call on the study of papyri, coins, inscriptions, vase paintings, and archaeological ruins. (The only art history course I ever took was a graduate class on Greek vases.) Karl liked the puzzle aspect of this.
I haven't read the book—I owe my knowledge of the quotation to the review by Michael McDonald in The New Criterion (June 2011).

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