What does it mean to be human?

As a humanities major, I had read most of the ancient Greek writers’ major works: Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sappho, Solon, Plato, Aristotle, Hesiod, Pindar, and many others. But Richard Jenkyns’ Document1 copyhas not only reintroduced these major figures to me, but he has also revealed how complex their work was.

It’s still amazing to read how profound they were at such an early point in western history. They were laying a foundation for what followed, functioning as guides into the complexities of philosophy, history, drama, poetry, and even the novel. Contemporary writers who haven’t read their work are incomplete without it.

Jenkyns, Emeritus Professor of the Classical Tradition and the Public Orator at the University of Oxford, has a fine ear for what sings in these early writers, his own prose clear and lilting. In this example, Jenkyns is reflecting on the Odyssey:

In the Odyssey poets are honoured but subordinate people who perform in the halls of chieftains, a picture which surely reflects a historical reality. It was a remarkable idea to give the greatest warrior imagination and sensitivity. The poetry of his mind comes out in two strange similes that he uses. In his most furious speech he likens himself to a bird collecting morsels for her young and going hungry herself—an odd image, and for all his passion almost a humorous one. Later, talking to Patroclus, he compares him to a little girl running alongside her mother and tugging her dress until the mother picks her up; that simile is teasing and affectionate, but also self-aware, for Achilles recognizes that he is going to give in to his friend’s request. And both times this supreme example of masculinity has the quirkiness to compare himself to a female. No one else in the poem talks like this. (page 9)

And no other classicist that I’m aware of has made this observation, setting up Achilles as a very different tragic hero, one who isn’t afraid of having feminine qualities as well as his obvious masculine ones. Jenkyns’ ability to see these works freshly opens them up in new ways, offering thoughtful, nuanced interpretations.

We moderns think we have progressed, leaving behind our forefathers/mothers. But just as with our biological parents, our belief that we have surpassed them (and sometimes we have) prevents us from really appreciating their gifts. So, too, with our culture’s classical period. As a novelist, I was amazed to discover that while the 18th Century witnessed the rise of the novel as we know it, there were earlier writers already exploring that form. The Golden Ass by Apuleius is the only ancient Roman novel (AD 125) to survive in its entirety, a precursor to the episodic picaresque genre. It contains several different narrators and stories, including Cupid and Psyche’s tale. Jenkyns translates what he believes to be “the most sheerly beautiful sentences ever written in Latin prose:

She sees the festive tresses of his golden head drunken with ambrosia, the clusters of ringlets that roam over his milky neck and rosy cheeks beauteously trammeled, some hanging a little before, some hanging a little behind, at whose excess of brilliance, flashing like lightening, the very light of the lamp wavered. Along the shoulders of the flying god dewy feathers glisten, their flowers sparkling, and although his wings are settling to rest, the ends of the featherlets, tender and delicate, wanton restlessly in tremulous dance. (p. 240)

It is gorgeous writing, and magical realism exists even then, each sentence swollen with those qualities that lift the reader from the mundane to the sublime. The ringlets come across as in motion, and this god has flowering feathers that end in the featherlets “tremulous dance.” The passage is a tour de force.

My comments here offer only a slice of what this study covers. I hope you gentle readers and writers will make time to read this inspiring work. It seems important in this tumultuous era to be grounded in material that still sings to us of what it means to be human. And it’s uplifting to be reminded that the ancients set us off on such a prolific path.

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