Asebeia? An Outsider’s Claim on the Classics

Tully Williams

I didn’t set out to be anything resembling a Classicist. I’m a regular guy who loves reading and learning as I fumble my way through life working as a Computing Infrastructure Engineer. It was only after years of reading that it slowly dawned on me that I was naively wandering lost in the Classics. At every turn of a page, I was – and still am – confronted by more questions than elucidations. Maybe Classics is the natural antecedent to any good ol’ fashioned Existential Crisis?

Although this is a personal account, there certainly must be other ‘lay readers’ of the Classics who feel a similar mixture of fascination and enjoyment on the one hand, and frustration and bewilderment on the other. This naturally raises the question: do the opinions and experiences of someone outside of academia belong in any learned journal? Or are we mere trespassers into a realm reserved only for scholarly minds and academic opinions? Even worse, perhaps, are our experiences and opinions something to be patronizingly indulged by the experts?

Here I hope to show that a lay reader’s experience is meaningful not because of some kind of comparison to an esoteric academic standard, but rather because of the intrinsic value it gives to the individual – as measured against that very individual. At least, this is true for me, and I suspect it is for many others like me, since I don’t read to measure myself against someone else’s standards.

Young man reading by candlelight, Matthias Stom, 1630s (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden).

It was a gradual process that led me eventually to the Classics. Growing up, I was a struggling brooding guy, as if out of some “angry young man” film from the ’60s. I didn’t have money, but I had my books. During this time, I was intractably drawn to so-called “Existentialist” thinkers,[1] Friedrich Nietzsche in particular (typical, I know!).  What I realized, as I read more of his works, was how important an understanding of Classical Greece was in order to know his thought better. After all, he had been a Professor of Classical Philology in Basel. The more I investigated each of his Classical Greek allusions, the more intrigued I became. What a heady concoction his Apollonian/Dionysian theory – with all its licentious implications) – was for me at the time!

An angry young man for angry young men: Nietzsche in his early thirties (c. 1875).

As I left “Existentialism” and Nietzsche behind, I started reading everything I could get my hands on by Walter Kaufmann (1921–80). Known primarily for his translations of Nietzsche, Kaufmann was a Professor of Philosophy at Princeton who challenged popular notions about both Existentialism and analytic philosophy. He became for me the guiding light of my critical thinking, leading me away from Existentialism.

More importantly, Kaufmann taught me to understand how I could admire and enjoy a thinker without having to agree with his or her intellectual position. I could read and admire writers and thinkers like Albert Camus, Leo Tolstoy, Plato, and even Nietzsche without having to be some kind of apostle. Prior to this, I felt I had to be some kind of adherent of someone’s intellectual Grundlegung (to borrow Immanuel Kant’s term for philosophical foundations) in order to read and appreciate their works.

As a consequence of this realization, those arcane Classical references that I encountered again and again in my intellectual heroes now became open game. But even with this revelation, I didn’t jump in right away. After all, I didn’t think I had to, since I wasn’t planning on making a career of the subject, or in fact on doing anything specific with it at all. Moreover, I had plenty of other passionate pursuits that took up much of my time and efforts, such as family, studying computing technologies for work, reading other subjects, and playing in a rock band.

A transformative trip of 1989 to Santorini (Ancient Greek Thera), one of the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea.

However, the allure was subtle and inescapable. How could I truly appreciate the thinkers I deeply admired – such as Sigmund Freud, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and G.W.F. Hegel – without having a deeper knowledge of the Classics from which they drew so much inspiration? It is neither hyperbole nor hubris to be amazed at how many modern ideas were born and nurtured by the Classics. If, as they say, all roads lead to Rome, they also venture onward to Greece.

Enthusiastic and curious to learn the source materials of my intellectual heroes, I decided to give the Classics a try. Little did I know how far that decision would take me. But, first things first, where does a self-taught guy like me start? Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89)? Livy’s History of Rome (20s BC – 10s AD)? Herodotus’ Histories (440s –420s BC)? Sumerian culture (c. 4000 –1750 BC)? Not to mention the huge catalog of modern scholarly works on the subject. After some thought into this tricky question,[2] I decided to solve this problem in a manner just as inelegant as how Alexander dealt with the Gordian Knot: Homer. Since literature starts with him, I will too – and for the time being I will ignore the Homeric Hymns and other such early source materials.

Even when I decided to start with Homer, this didn’t simplify things for me. First, I needed to do a little reading beforehand, because I didn’t want to experience his works without at least a cursory knowledge of the context. So I began with books like The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age (2008), The Cambridge Companion to Homer (2004), E.R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational (1951), Seth Schein’s The Mortal Hero (1984), and Thomas Martin’s Ancient Greece (1992), just to name a few. Still, the question haunted me then as now: is this too much background information, or is it not enough? How important actually is it to be able to distinguish early from late Homeric interpolations, or a spondee from a trochee? Just how important is the “Homeric Question” for someone like me?[3]

Armed with a better historical understanding – which in the end combined early Minoan tholos tombs, the Sea Peoples of the Late Bronze Age, Heinrich Schliemann and his trench, Evans and the Linear B text, Milman Parry and the oral tradition – the question of translation next came up. For I have to put my cards on the table: I simply do not have the luxury of time to learn Ancient Greek. So do I read a translation that’s more faithful to the hexameter rhythm of these poems but less so to their literal meaning, or vice versa? Or one that is more accurate to the character and tone of the Ancient Greek but seems old-fashioned to us, or instead one that is more contemporary and can better capture the linguistic spirit of Homer for the modern reader? I eventually settled on and read Robert Fitzgerald (Odyssey 1961, Iliad 1989), Robert Fagles (Iliad 1990, Odyssey 1996), and Richmond Lattimore (Iliad 1951, Odyssey 1967). I figured the more translations I read, the more “authentic” and complete my experience to the original text would be, as each would offer a different emphasis.

Who actually knows the way? William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Homer and his Guide, 1874 (Milwaukee Art Museum, WI, USA)

The curiosity that had initially led me to Homer eventually turned into a deep appreciation of his works, in particular the Iliad. That is not to say the Odyssey doesn’t hold a place of fascination with me. It just strikes me as outlandishly fantastical, with its more human and relatable moments being divorced from the frequent intrusion of monsters and the supernatural. It’s hard for me to feel any kind of pathos when Odysseus encounters such creatures as Scylla and Charybdis, unless these episodes are to be taken as some kind of allegory, which in turn dilutes any immediate concern you might feel for him and his crew.

The Iliad, on the other hand, feels more timeless, being devoid of freakish creatures but filled with relatable and all-too-human moral inadequacies (pride, spite, lust, etc.) that seem to be ameliorated only by a kind of Stoic fatalism: what will happen will happen and should be endured as best as can be. Amplifying this human condition – our susceptibility to our lesser instincts – the Iliad is a story propelled forward by one moral failure after another, compounded by misguided actions and other such frailties (both mortal and divine) until it reaches its pathetic denouement. I can’t see this tale, which has been read for almost 3,000 years already, becoming outdated anytime soon.

Priam Pleading with Achilles for the Body of Hector, Gavin Hamilton, c. 1775 (Tate Britain, London)

Yet this story is made bearable, and even inspiring, precisely because of the kinship we share with the characters as fellow human beings in our ageless struggle to be fully realized. Ironically, once the differences between Homer’s world and ours cancel each other out, they lead us to find what is common between us, though we are separated by three millennia. One doesn’t feel so alone.

I find it strangely moving that the last soliloquy of the Iliad belongs to Helen, speaking not of revenge, everlasting glory or anything heroic, but of kindness.[4] A striking coda to an epic filled with both mortal and divine obstinate pride and brutal exploits. It’s the compassion that Hector showed towards Helen that is left echoing in our minds after the story comes to its end. Is this simply a literary ploy to heighten further our sense of overall suffering, or is it meant to remind us of a higher sense of our humanity, even when the walls of our existence will eventually give way? I’d like to think the latter.

Helen causes Menelaus to drop his sword, as Eros and Aphrodite look on (red-figure crater by the ‘Menelaus Painter’, Athens, 440s BC; now in the Louvre Museum, Paris)

It’s clear that, in spite of my foibles and struggles, my earnest journey into Classics has been worthwhile and enriching already. It certainly doesn’t rank among the intelligentsia on some Mount Parnassus (pictured at the top of this piece). But like any meaningful journey, it’s not where you end up that matters, it’s how far you’ve come. It would sadden me greatly if Classics ever becomes the purview only of an intellectual few. I’d much prefer to think, as I now know to be true, that there is something there – or something here I should say – for everyone to enjoy, learn and share.[5]

Tully Williams is a husband, father of a young daughter, a classically trained musician, and a Computing Infrastructure Engineer, with a love for reading, music and day sailing.


1 ‘Existentialism’ is an approach to philosophy that treats the individual as an autonomous agent in a world that may be too complex and problematic to understand holistically. For a more detailed exploration of ideas grouped under this term, see the excellent Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article here.
2 Over the years, many of the books that I had read (both historical and literature) had given me a decent idea of the vast spectrum that makes up the Classics. By gleaning their footnotes and sources, I found guidance about where to move to next.
3 ‘Interpolations’ are words or lines written by someone other than the author after the production of his/her text but which later become falsely incorporated into the original work. Both the ‘spondee’ (two long syllables) and the ‘trochee’ (a long then a short syllable) are rhythmic units that are used in Greek (and Roman) verse. The Homeric Question is the famous problem of whether one or plural poets are responsible for the text attributed to ‘Homer’, whether he/they wrote new and original material rather than curated and rearranged inherited verses from the oral tradition, and when and where he/they composed these ‘Homeric’ works. Many millions of words have been written on the problem.
4 This speech, which begins at Iliad 24.762, can be most conveniently be read via the Chicago Homer.
5 Asebeia (ἀσέβεια) is the Ancient Greek term for impious behaviour, whether against religious, political or intellectul authorities: I am glad that Antigone sees the humour in my title.