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The Approach - Short Version

The Gods Remain book cover

I have never heard of anyone else in the modern world who has deliberately and consciously approached historical subject matter in the way that I have. I began all this with no motives and no ideas, I simply had a question: Are the classics, that is the Greek classics, really so pre-eminent in all our literature as to be the classics? And if so, why? I was ready to accept whatever answer appeared, and what appeared was, yes the Greek classics are really that pre-eminent, and here’s why:

The ancient Greeks had a very clear-minded and accurate way of describing what we would call "the Real World," "Reality," "that which is most fundamentally important," they thought of it as "The Sacred."’ The Greek’s "Sacred" was not determined beforehand as it was in Egypt or Mesopotamia, it was perceived, it was often what we would call a moment in time, often historical time. It was perceived and then brought into form, usually as music or literature or dance, often as all three, so that anyone could easily understand it. They perceived something in the real world, and then they brought it into form. In other words, they thought. Of course I took the same approach, I perceived whatever I perceived, and then I expressed it in whatever form seemed to "say" it best. Sometimes that form would fall more into the category of poetry or literature, other times it would be the sort of thing that would be categorized more as "ideas," or more likely it would seem like something of both. Simply, it is thought. I learned how to think from people like Sophokles and Homer, and above all I learned from the subject matter itself.

Plato and Aristotle and those who followed them did not do this, they did not think. They performed mental exercises that they had decided were of the proper kind, or that they had been taught were the proper kind. But these mental "disciplines" have never accomplished anything except to establish the performer as being a certain kind of person, as part of a certain elite. They are not thought, they never can be thought, and sadly they permeate the humanities. In humanistic studies, one is taught to work one’s mind in a certain kind of way, to be a certain kind of person. One is not taught to think, and actual thought is often illegal. This is nowhere more true than in "classical studies." Ever since Plato and Aristotle the point behind such studies has been to establish the elite status of the student, and this elite status now gets established by being in a classical context and by doing something, anything, in the context of the Greek language. As a result, almost anything that can be done through an extensive knowledge of Greek grammar has been done and done well, whereas anything that requires thought rather than stylized mental exercises mostly hasn’t happened.

These are The Classics, these are supposedly the supreme expression of Western Civilization. I found that they are indeed that, but what I also found, to my astonishment and horror, is that after all these centuries and all this human effort, almost no one has really thought about them. Far from being finished and dead, classical studies is a wide-open field, and anyone willing to actually think about the classics can accomplish wonderful things.

There is also a lot of autobiographical material in this chapter, a lot of "how I came to write this book." I never intended to write about myself, and frankly I feel embarrassed that it’s there. At a very early stage in the writing, I think about 1983, the book began with a version of "Creation of the Iliad" that was much inferior to the one you read now. I thought that this was not the best possible way to start a book, and I had just written a letter to someone I hadn’t seen in years: How have I been doing? Here’s how. I stuck the letter in temporarily, I figured I could easily take it out. But it did say some good things, and as I kept adding to it, it ended up saying a number of good things, and everyone who reads it likes it, so it’s still there. But I still feel strange writing about myself.