Book Review: Who Killed Homer?

Who Killed Homer?:  The Demise Of Classical Education And The Recovery Of Greek Wisdom, by Victor Davis Hanson & John Heath

I do not believe that I would be considered a classicist within the context of Academia.  As fond as I am of Greek and Roman history and literature (in translation) [1], my knowledge of classical and koine Greek and Latin is at best very modest.  This book is written by two people who are obviously insiders in the world of Classical studies, and like most insider perspectives of a field or institution in turmoil, this is not a pretty picture.  It is not a surprising picture, to be sure, but it is not a pretty picture.  Even if I am not sure that this book is aimed at me, seeing as I am not an insider in the world of the authors, it is certainly a book I was able to understand and appreciate.  And as odd as it may seem, I actually found the authors somewhat likable in this book, which is somewhat rare in the case of Victor Davis Hanson, whose work I have a deep feeling of ambivalence about due to our similarities in some respects and our deep differences in others.

Despite being nearly 300 pages in length, this book contains only five chapters along with an acknowledgments and prologue section.  Of the two writers, only Hanson is one whose work as a classicist I am familiar with, and he is certainly enthusiastic about the Greek perspective, although less strong when commenting on other traditions.  The other author is someone who appears to be a little less well-known but of the same general mindset.  The authors begin with a discussion of how Homer is dead (1), specifically how it is that classical education has been such a failure in not only providing a classical education to college students but in convincing anyone that it needs to exist in the contemporary academy.  After that the author discusses what it means to think like a Greek (2)–something the authors are more sanguine about than I am–but which requires both serious thought as well as deep knowledge of the Greek language and classical Greek literature.  After that the authors discuss who killed Homer–Academics who corrupted the classics for political and cultural ‘relevance’ (3)–and why they did so.  Then there is a frank and often humorous discussion of how teaching Greek is not easy, which the authors vividly demonstrate with examples of the complexity of the Greek language (4).  The authors close with a bit of hope by discussing what can be done to preserve what remains of classical learning (5) and end with some book recommendations in an appendix.

At the end of the day, this book does demonstrate the authors to be somewhat snobbish when it comes to their view of the excellence of the Greeks.  The authors seem to think that the Greeks are anti-European, neglecting the commonalities that show them to be fallen cultures of considerable corruption that borrowed without attribution a great deal from the cultures around them and tried to pass themselves off as more original than they were.  Nevertheless, even as someone whose feelings about Greek and Latin culture and history and thought are deeply ambivalent, the authors have more than a few points about what can and should be done and what it would take for the preservation of what is worthwhile about Greek culture and language (the book focuses less on Latin language and culture, perhaps viewing the Catholic Church as a strong enough defender of that) in contemporary society and education.  Whether or not you agree with everything the authors have to say, this book is certainly both entertaining and more than a little bit bittersweet as the authors tilt against windmills and seek to preserve and recover a mindset and cultural perspective that is being lost to history due to our contemporary philistinism.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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