An impassioned, authoritative, and in-depth account of how the character-shaping ideas of education and culture developed in ancient Greece, and how the civilization’s first educators were its poets.
I forget how I first got to hear about this book. Probably it was offered by the recommendation engine on Goodreads or on Amazon. I was already acquainted with the Greek word paideia from reading the works of Mortimer J. Adler, the driving force behind the Britannica Great Books of the Western World. Adler himself had written a book with that word in the title: The Paideia Proposal: An Educational ManifestoThe Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. Published in 1982, when Adler was 80, it is a call for sweeping change to the American educational system, from elementary school to postsecondary learning. The vision of Adler and his colleagues is to wrench public education away from vocational training, which it had largely become even in 1982, and toward the ideals of liberal education. He and the other members of the Paideia Group believe that this is the only way to save American democracy. As he puts it in chapter 1:
Suffrage without schooling produces mobocracy, not democracy—not rule of law, not constitutional government by the people as well as for them.
Here in British Columbia, where I live, the issue of education is often in the news, usually in the form of conflicts between the provincial government and the B.C. Teachers Federation—the teachers’ union. They have fought over things like who is to determine class sizes. What’s never in the debate, at least not that I’ve seen, is the question of what education is for. What is the aim of our education system? Usually it’s assumed to be employment: putting our kids in position to get “good jobs.” Our universities are now almost entirely vocational schools: law, medicine, accounting, engineering, forestry, and so on. Adler was strongly critical of this approach. Vocational training does not teach us how to be citizens of a free democratic society—the society that we live in, or like to think that we live in.
Werner Jaeger, in this extraordinary volume, shows us how the ancient Greeks coped with this question. There was no such thing as public education, but, as he says at the very beginning of his introduction:
Every nation which has reached a certain stage of development is instinctively impelled to practise education. Education is the process by which a community preserves and transmits its physical and intellectual character. For the individual passes away, but the type remains. . . . [M]en can transmit their social and intellectual nature only by exercising the qualities through which they created it—reason and conscious will. Through the exercise of these qualities man commands a freedom of development which is impossible to other living creatures. . . .
This short extract gives a fair sense, I think, of the caliber of observation and thought that the author maintains throughout the 510 pages of this volume (which comprises the first 2 books of his series: Archaic Greece and The Mind of Athens).
The Greeks came to see that this process of education was a matter of shaping the soul, of giving it a desirable form in a manner analogous to the way that a sculptor shapes marble or bronze. This desirable form of the soul came to take the name of arete or “excellence.” The best men had arete in the highest degree, exemplified by mythical heroes such as Odysseus or Achilles. But how was this education effected? How were ordinary boys shaped into excellent men? In Jaeger’s words, the Greeks
considered that the only genuine forces which could form the soul were words and sounds, and—so far as they work through words and sounds or both—rhythm and harmony. . . .
Words, sounds, rhythm, harmony: we’re talking about poetry. The educators of ancient Greece were its poets.
Jaeger notes how every society attends to the training of its young: teaching children the practical and moral rules by which the society lives, and adding technical training to that, so that the children may have the skills needed to make their way in life. This process must be distinguished from what he calls cultural education, “which aims at fulfilling an ideal of man as he ought to be.” For this latter task, what counts is not utility but the society’s idea of the Beautiful. He thinks that the contrast between these two views of education can be seen throughout history, and proposes to refer to the former as education and the latter as culture. Jaeger goes on to say:
Culture is shown in the whole man—both in his external appearance and conduct, and in his inner nature. Both the outer and the inner man are deliberately produced, by a conscious process of selection and discipline which Plato compares to the breeding of good dogs. At first this process is confined to one small class within the state—the nobility. . . . But as the two types were taken over by the bourgeoisie in its rise to power, the ideals inspiring them became universal and at last affected the whole nation.
But this about the nobility is an important point, for Jaeger then says that
all higher civilization springs from the differentiation of social classes—a differentiation which is created by natural variations in physical and mental capacity between man and man. . . . The nobility is the prime mover in forming a nation’s culture. The history of Greek culture . . . begins in the aristocratic world of early Greece, with the creation of a definite ideal of human perfection, an ideal toward which the elite . . . was constantly trained. . . . All later culture . . . bears the imprint of its aristocratic origin. Culture is simply the aristocratic ideal of a nation, increasingly intellectualized.
That’s all taken from one paragraph on page 4. I find this to be a tremendously provocative set of ideas. When we remember that the original meaning of the word aristocracy is “rule by the best,” we can see the power of this notion of culture. The purpose of culture is to shape people into being the best that they can be.
Jaeger shows how this ideal of human excellence evolved in ancient Greece, and how the ideal was given given form and voice by poets, starting with Homer, whose works had enormous authority throughout the ancient world for centuries. Homer was universally studied not just for the quality of his verse, but because of the educative power of his poems. The Iliad and the Odyssey taught men—and women—how to be. The characters in these epics were the benchmark against which living men and women were measured.
As time went on, Greece changed, and its cultural ideals changed with it. The word paideia itself, which originally meant simply “child-rearing,” eventually morphed into the concept that we would call “culture.” Jaeger shows how these changes are reflected in the work of the poets after Homer: Hesiod, Tyrtaeus, Theognis, Pindar, and others. It’s not all about poets; other great minds also contribute, notably the lawgiver Solon. The birth of the city-state, the ideal of justice, the birth of scientific speculation, the rise of individualism—all these are reflected in the work of the poets, who express the ideas in potent, pithy form for their society. The ideas strive and clash with each other, poetry and society mutually shaping each other.
That’s all in Book 1, Archaic Greece. The volume also contains Book 2, The Mind of Athens, which focuses on the great dramatists of Athens, the sophists, and a final chapter on Thucydides, whom Jaeger terms a “political philosopher” and the first political historian.
Again and again I was amazed at the depth and reach of Jaeger’s thought. His understanding of ancient Greece must be virtually unrivaled. It’s not just that he knows that world and its art so well; it’s that he has reflected deeply on the significance of both, and their interconnection. And although the book is about ancient Greece, it reads like a discussion of the issues of today, for ideas do not die; they throb beneath our own body politic. It is tremendously relevant.
There is no actual poetry in the book. Familiarity with the poets and their work is assumed. I had read some of the works—Homer, Hesiod, the dramatists, and Thucydides—but I was still fascinated to read about the others I had not read. I could still experience the reflected glow of their work in Jaeger’s appreciative analysis. But of course, the more of it you have read, the more you can gain from his discussion.
There are 2 more volumes in this series on The Ideals of Greek Culture. I don’t know what’s in them, but I’m dying to find out. I’ve read thousands of books in my life, but only a handful compare with this one for depth and quality. I’m amazed at how much he achieved, and I’m really surprised that I had never heard of him before.