Community Discussion: Fostering Civil Dialogue

We are pleased to share the following video, which was filmed for a HeroesX segment of AlumniX.

In this clip Professor Nagy responds to a question about whether or not heroes can hope to achieve something that is beyond their portion or fate [huper moiran]. Nagy argues that within the ancient Greek song culture, the poetic phrase “beyond fate” can be equivalent to saying something is “beyond tradition.” This idea becomes especially clear when Achilles and Aeneas, “two men who were by far the best,” face off in Scroll 20 of the Iliad.

In this episode, which is analyzed in chapter 15 of The Best of the Achaeans (available on the Center for Hellenic Studies website), we witness a battle not only between individual warriors but also heroic traditions. At the climax of the battle Achilles almost kills Aeneas, but at the last second Poseidon rescues the Trojan from death by shedding a mist over Achilles’ eyes and removing Aeneas to safety. The god then instructs Aeneas to avoid direct confrontation with the main hero of the Iliad.

Poseidon, shaker of the earth, then came near to him [330] and said, “Aeneas, what god has egged you on to this folly in fighting the son of Peleus, who is both a mightier man of valor and more beloved of heaven than you are? Give way before him whenever you meet him, lest beyond fate [huper moiran] you go down to the house of Hadēs. When Achilles is dead you may then fight among the foremost undaunted, for none other of the Achaeans shall slay you.”
(Iliad 20.329–339)

This episode is also notable because it emphasizes the danger of mental and social disconnection through the repeated use (6 times in about 100 lines) of nēpios and related terms. In fact, both heroes are called nēpios at different moments when they seem to lose touch with the fated and traditional outcome of the battle (Aeneas must survive to accomplish heroic deeds after the sack of Troy). In contrast with these moments of mental disconnection, the rescue of Aeneas coincides with an eye-opening realization for Achilles:

[340] The god left him [Aeneas] when he had given him these instructions, and at once removed the darkness from before the eyes of Achilles, who opened them wide indeed and said in great anger, “Alas! what marvel am I now beholding? [345] Here is my spear upon the ground, but I see not him whom I meant to kill when I hurled it. I see it now—Aeneas also must be philos to the immortal gods, although I had thought his assertive speech [about his divine genealogy] was idle. Let him go hang; he won’t have the heart [thūmos] to fight me further, [350] since rejoicing [asmenos] he just now escaped death. I will now give my orders to the Danaans and attack some other of the Trojans.”
(Iliad 20.340–351)

From Achilles’ new perspective the miraculous absence of Aeneas signals a divine rescue and marks the truth of his opponent’s assertive speech. This kind of effective speech and the expected progression into battle is contrasted with the public trading of insults and blame between women as depicted by a simile earlier in the scroll. These insults are ineffectual and even false, and so will never lead to kleos.  In this light, the confrontation between these two heroes prompts a discussion about the value and necessity of defending our understanding of these traditions in an assertive and effective way–especially when those views face a direct and public attack. As this confrontation between heroic traditions shows, if undertaken without regard for appropriate dialogue, such conflict can weaken and even threaten the legitimacy of the entire system. On the other hand, if assertions are backed up by clear evidence,  even the most antagonistic figures can engage one another in a way that strengthens the system.

This is true for Homeric scholarship as well as for Homeric heroes. The Center for Hellenic Studies is committed to fostering a civil and effective intellectual debate where scholars can assertively and substantively defend their work from unsupported arguments, insults, and personal attacks. In order to develop a conversation about this topic, I’m sharing a link to the “Defense Mechanisms” issue of Classics@ first published in 2011 and edited by Carol Gilligan, Leonard Muellner, and Gregory Nagy. Their stated goal is “to publish online research papers and essays in Classics and in other disciplines, related or unrelated, that explore strategies where the primary purpose is to defend assertively rather than attack. The justification is straightforward: discoveries and discovery procedures in research require and deserve a reasoned defense.”

The editors would also like to engage our HeroesX/CHS community in a dialogue about civil academic discourse.  One place we might begin our discussion is with a recent statement by Gregory Hays in a review of H24H that he published in the New York Review of Books (“The Homeric MOOC: Will It Revolutionize Education?” May 22, 2014). In this piece, Hays objects to ritual connotations being ascribed to “unexceptional Greek words” such as nēpios  and nostos: “The term nostos (‘homecoming’), so central to the Odyssey, is to be understood as ‘return to light and life,’ following a 1978 book by Douglas Frame that most critics have found more eccentric than convincing.” After dismissing Frame’s work without even a single citation, Hays claims that such definitions lead to a “rereading” of Greek literature.

Is there a reasoned defense to be made in response to the quoted statement? How and why would you respond to this criticism? How can members of an intellectual community reframe an ineffectual conversation to defend innovative ideas and methods in a more effective way? How do you respond when you are arguing with someone who is reluctant to engage with your content, methods, and ideas in a direct way because they upset established readings and arguments? How do you defend assertively while leaving “doors ajar” for new ideas and perspectives? How can our community help model and encourage lively and civil debate based on strong and substantive evidence?

We hope you will join us in developing a meaningful conversation about civil dialogue.