Essays step forward into a classical past

March 15, 1994|By Robert Taylor | Robert Taylor,Boston Globe

The title of Bernard Knox's scintillating collection of essays does not allude to the Michael J. Fox movie, itself nearly a decade into the past. As the director emeritus of Harvard's Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington points out, the title's source lies in the early Greek concept of the future lying behind us.

In other words, the past and the present are in front of us since we can see them. The future, invisible, is behind. Therefore we walk blind, backward into the future, rather than facing the future as we advance.

The idea that the future lies in front of us has inspired millenarian visions, the French and Bolshevik revolutions and, Dr. Knox believes, the dogmatic political correctness and multiculturalism that would eliminate such patriarchal and racist texts as Homer, the Bible, Dante and Shakespeare. "A society that turns its back on its past, abolishes its traditions and tries to replace them overnight with newfangled substitutes geared to a new ideology," he states, "is headed, history seems to suggest, for catastrophe."

On the other hand, a tradition-bound culture will stagnate. Tradition must be continually renewed and expanded. Dr. Knox cites as example Derek Walcott's poem "Omeros," "the only epic poem in English that will stand comparison with Milton's 'Paradise Lost.' "

This judgment seems a trifle overenthusiastic. Though Mr. Walcott's poem may well deserve it, we may be sure that he did not mean to justify the ways of God to men. Still, the conclusion is valid; Walcott appropriated Homeric tradition in order to illuminate the present, and by celebrating the dignity and courage of the black fishermen of an Antilles island his poetry renews the past in order to reveal a postcolonial world.

Again and again, Dr. Knox returns to the enduring relevance of Greek and Latin literature. "How Should We Live?" -- a consideration of Martha Nussbaum's "The Fragility of Goodness" -- concerns problems that "are still problems for anyone who finds it hard to accept the Kantian view that the domain of moral value supersedes all other values and that it is altogether immune from the assaults of luck."

In "The Athenian Century," Dr. Knox places side by side Athenian democracy and "The American Century" proclaimed by Henry Luce. And "Two Emperors" (Caligula, who probably has received an undeserved bad press, and Claudius, usually presented as a clumsy stutterer though he conquered Britain) opens with characteristic wit: "Francois Mitterrand's description of Margaret Thatcher's face -- 'the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe' -- must have left most of his audience wondering what Caligula's eyes looked like."

The opening group of essays concerns poets and heroes -- Homer's patrician Achilles as the essence of a private ideal of conduct; Catullus, both obscene and exquisitely lyrical; Ovid, exiled to the Black Sea for stumbling across a state secret or, perhaps less dramatically, banished by denunciation in the manner of Stalin's minions.

The focus expands in the second group, "Men, Gods, and Cities," in which the shrine of Apollo at Delphi receives judicious consideration. The priestess, known as the Pythia, delivered oracular prophecies while seated on a tripod; and in general the riddling pronouncements hedged every bet. But formulaic answers don't account for Delphi's preeminence over other shrines in the ancient world, since there were the site's recorded successes. (During the Persian War, the oracle told Themistocles that Athens' safety lay in its wooden wall, which he rightly interpreted as the navy.)

Lastly, the final group, "Renewals," extends the classics into the present day. "Why do you think I spend my life on Athenian inscriptions?" a Yale scholar once asked Dr. Knox.

The epigrapher was a refugee from Hitler's Austria. "It is because they are precious contemporary documents which can tell us how Athenian democracy worked -- and I am very interested in democracy. And in its enemies."

With the humanities under fire, fascism loose in Russia, ethnic hatreds rampant elsewhere, that is worth heeding.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Backing Into the Future: The Classical Tradition and Its Renewal"

Author: Bernard Knox

Publisher: Norton

Length, price: 351 pages, $25

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