The Heroic and the Anti-Heroic in Classical Greek Civilization
Prof. Gregory Nagy
Dr. Kevin McGrath
Fall 2009 Syllabus
What does it mean, to be human? This course takes a close look at the human condition ‐ as viewed through the lens of classical Greek civilization. The basic organizing principle is an objective study of two antithetical models of humanity, the hero and the anti‐hero.
Concepts of the hero dominate two of the core forms of classical Greek literature, epic and tragedy. In this course, there are two epics to be read, which are the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, and seven tragedies, which are Aeschylus’ Oresteia Trilogy, Sophocles’ two Oedipus dramas, and Euripides’ Hippolytus and The Bacchic Women. These classical concepts are linked to two historical realities in the ancient Greek world: (1) heroes were worshipped in cult, and (2) the focal point of this worship was the veneration of the hero’s body at the site of his or her tomb.
Concepts of the anti‐hero, on the other hand, assert themselves in alternative forms of Greek literature. In the readings of this course, such forms include two dialogues of Plato, the Apology and the Phaedo (both centering on the last days of Socrates), and selections from the New Testament, in particular, from the Gospel according to Mark; also included are selections from the dialogue On Heroes by an eminent thinker in the “second sophistic” movement, Philostratus (early third century CE).
In these readings, anti‐heroic models emerge. One of these is the “word” of Socratic dialogue, which figures as a radical alternative to the venerated body of the cult hero. Another of these anti‐heroic models is the figure of Jesus as presented in Mark 4:35‐41, focusing on “heroic deeds,” and 16:1‐8, focusing on the themes of the empty tomb and the resurrection. The “empty tomb” theme of the New Testament, which is considered the oldest element in the development of the Passion Narrative, will be analyzed as an alternative to ancient Greek practices of venerating tombs of cult heroes ‐ and to ancient Jewish and Muslim practices of venerating tombs of figures from sacred narratives, such as the tomb of Abraham and Sarah in Hebron. The theme of the “empty” tomb in the early Christian era will be compared with the rival theme of the “Holy Sepulcher” in the later Christian era of the emperor Constantine (fourth century CE), showing a reversion to the older heroic model of the cult‐hero’s tomb. As for the theme of Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent epiphanies in the New Testament, it will be compared with the rival “pagan” theme of the “double resurrection” and subsequent epiphanies of the epic and cult hero Protesilaos in the dialogue crafted by Philostratus. For the sake of comparing the ancient sense of “hero” with reinterpretations in the post‐ancient era, other alternatives to the classical hero will be explored in a paper assignment centering on two short stories from the German “romantic” author E.T.A. Hoffmann: “The Sandman” and “Don Juan.”
By the time the course comes to an end, the student will have learned that there are different definitions of the “hero” in different historical times and places. In the end though, the one true “hero” of this course will be the logos or “word” of logical reasoning, as activated by the Socratic dialogue. The logos of dialogue will require careful thinking, realized in close reading and reflective writing. The “last word” about this logos comes from Plato’s memories of words spoken in dialogue by Socrates during the last days of his life, which will be read towards the very end of the course. Such a “last word”, shaped by a deep understanding of the concept of the hero in all its varieties throughout the history of Greek civilization, will become the “latest word” for the student who earnestly engages in dialogue, by way of writing as well as reading, with heroic and anti‐heroic expressions of the human condition.
This course is driven by a sequence of dialogues that lead to such an engagement, guiding the attentive reader through many of the major works of the ancient Greek Classics. The recorded dialogues and supplementary proseminar sessions stem from the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences course, Culture & Belief 22. (In this course, all readings are translated into contemporary English and supplemented by selections from the ancient visual arts.)
Required Reading: Sourcebook.
Recommended Reading: For further background on and interpretation of the required reading, two
books by G. Nagy are available on the website, The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the
Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry; and, Pindar's Homer. These books supply background for
some, but hardly all, of the topics to be presented in the course.
SCHEDULE OF DIALOGUES AND READINGS
Beginning with the second week, you should complete the assigned reading BEFORE Thursday's Section.
Week 1 Reading: Reading: “Introduction 1: Facts about the ‘Heroes’ course.” “Introduction 2: Relevant facts about ancient Greek history." (Available on the website.) Dialogue 1
Week 2 Reading: “Introduction 3: The Epic Hero.” (On the website.) Introduction to the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey" (Sourcebook.) Dialogue 2
Week 3 Reading: Iliad, Scrolls I-VIII; and, selections from Alcman and Sappho; also, Nagy, “Lyric And Greek Myth”, and “Did Sappho And Alcaeus Ever Meet?” (On the website.) Dialogues 3 and 4
Week 4 Reading: Iliad, Scrolls IX-XVII; also, Nagy, “Homer And Greek Myth”. Dialogues 5 and 6
Week 5 Reading: Iliad, Scrolls XVIII-XXIV; Dialogues 7 and 8 [Draft of First Paper returned.]
Week 6 Reading: Begin reading Homeric Odyssey, Scrolls i-xii; Proclus, Summaries of the Epic Cycle (Sourcebook); and, also review second half of Nagy, “Homer And Greek Myth” about the Odyssey. (On the website.) Dialogues 9 and 10
Week 7 Reading: Odyssey, Scrolls xiii-xxiv. Dialogue 11
Week 8 Reading: Selections from Herodotus; Pausanias; and reread “The Epic Hero”. (On the website). (Herodotus, Histories: 1.1-91; 9.114-122. Pausanias, Description of Greece: 9.39.5-9.39.14; 9.37.5.) Dialogue 12
Week 9 Reading: Selections from Hesiod and Theognis; Aeschylus, Oresteia: Agamemnon; and, Nagy, “Notes on Greek Tragedy.” (Sourcebook.) (Hesiod, Theogony: lines 1-115; Works & Days, lines 1-286. Theognis: “Theognis of Megara”, not the “Appendix to Theognis”.) Dialogues 13 and 14
Week 10 Reading: Aeschylus, Oresteia: Libation-Bearers, Eumenides; Pindar, Pythian 8, and, “Key Passages Relevant to the Poetics of Pindar”. (Sourcebook.) Dialogues 15 and 16 [Draft of Second Paper returned.]
Week 11 Reading: Sophocles, Oidipus At Colonus; Oidipus Tyrannus Dialogue 17
Week 12 Reading: Euripides, Hippolytus; Bacchae. Dialogues 18 and 19
Week 13 Reading: Plato, Apology; Phaedo. Dialogues 20 and 21
Week 14 Reading: Selections from Philostratus, 1.1-16.6; 25.1-25.16; and 44.5--54.1. (On the website); the Gospel According to Mark, 4:35-41 and 16:1-8. Dialogues 22 and 23