Monday, February 26, 2001

Speaking of the Common Man ...

Lately, we at Classics Corner have been obsessed with Archilochus, the poet of Paros who died as a young man in about 640 BC. There isn’t much to work with: seven epigrams, three short poems, and twenty-three fragments. Unlike Homer, Archilochus didn’t need no stinking epic theme. He wrote gratuitously.

The son of an aristocrat and a slave, Archilochus was privileged enough to be literate, yet common enough to be a regular guy. When Archilochus wasn’t annoying people with his poetry, he killed them for money. At the time, mercenary work was a good middle-class job.

Archilochus loved his work. “By spear is kneaded the bread I eat,” he says. “By spear my Ismaric wine is won, which I drink, leaning upon my spear.” This may explain the warrior-poet’s short life span.

Like many writers of his day, Archilochus favored the elegiac poem, or epigram, which generally consisted of just one or two well-crafted lines. Our own favorite example of the elegiac poem appeared in an episode of The Simpsons: “Most fok'el never eat a skunk, but then again some fok'el, like Cletus, the slack-jawed yokel...” But we digress.

Time and again, Archilochus shows stunning common sense. His most famous epigram concerns losing his shield one day as he ran for his life. “I got away,” he says, “so what does it matter? Let the shield go. I can buy another equally good.”

In another famous epigram, Archilochus says he dislikes the long-limbed, clean-shaven officer with the lovely hair. He’d rather have substance. “Give me,” he says, “a man short and squarely set upon his legs, a man full of heart, not to be shaken from the place he plants his feet.”

Like any god-fearing Greek, Archilochus knows not to brag and to take all things in moderation. “Take some measure in the joy you take in luck,” he says, “and the degree you give way to sorrow. All our life is up and down like this.”

Archilochus is unimpressed with mere cleverness. “The fox,” he says, “knows many tricks. The hedgehog knows one. One good one.” You get the sense that he, like the hedgehog, and has a few good tricks of his own.

Nor is Archilochus overly fond of wealth. “Nothing to me the life of Gyges and his glut of gold. I neither envy nor admire him as I watch his life and what he does.” Extreme riches, he says, belongs to the “pride of tyranny.” He wants nothing of it. Archilochus would favor a strong estate tax. He’d make a great Teamster.

Archilochus knows that life, no matter how hard, is for the living. “I will make nothing better by crying,” he says. “I will make nothing worse by giving myself whatever entertainment I can.”

Finally, Archilochus is nobody's judge. Sometimes, he says, “when men stand planted on firm feet,” the Gods will “knock them on their backs, and then the evils come, so that a man wanders, homeless, destitute, at his wits end.” Some truths never change.

Sunday, February 18, 2001

Genesis Raises More Questions Than It Answers

We at Classics Corner have always asked the wrong questions. This made us a terrible Catholic. When we favorably compared Christianity to Communism in Sister Mary Jane’s social studies class, grave concern was expressed for our immortal soul. Priests were notified. Conferences held. Saint Mary’s School was not ready for Perfess’r Harris.

Maybe we never got over it. Still, when recent revelations from the Human Genome Project sent us scurrying to Genesis, the first dozen chapters or so left us more confused than ever.

For example, we all know about Adam and Eve, but who were those others east of Eden in the Land of Nod? What were they like? More to the point, what did they know and when did they know it? Did they have their own Trees of Wisdom, or were they just born wise? Who made the snake so smart? Was God of two minds?

What about Adam and Eve’s other kids, the unnamed sons and daughters of Genesis 5:4? Were they jealous of firstborn Seth? Did they still love Cain? Did they resent the loss of Eden? Did they ever stop thinking of the Tree of Life? Does the Angel with the flaming sword ever sleep?

Civilization, in all its lovely complexity, first arises in the sixth generation after Cain, with Jabal the herdsman, Jubal the musician, and Tubal-cain the blacksmith. Hardship made them strong. Work made them whole. God, however, thinks only of sin. A little omnipotence proves a dangerous thing.

His great flood ushers in a new age of inbreeding, alcoholism, incest, and war. Enter Noah, descended from Seth, who, with his wife, his three sons Shem, Ham, and Japeth, and their wives, repopulates planet earth. Who were these women? How did it feel to sleep with the Last Men on Earth?

Compared to this, Adam and Eve’s indiscretion was very small potatoes. The Original Sin was God's killing flood, and why not? God gropes his way through life just like everyone else, and like us, he makes mistakes.

Soon after the flood, Noah cultivates the earth, ferments some fruit, and drinks like a man dying to forget. He passes out naked in his tent. Noah has seen better days. Ham finds him and tells Shem and Japeth. They avert their eyes and cover him with a blanket. When Noah awakes, he randomly curses Ham's son Canaan. All of his progeny will live as slaves to the line of Shem.

This strikes us as a lousy way to renew the promise of humanity. Not surprisingly, Shem's family line leads to David, the great warrior king who kicks ass in the land of milk and honey. The Promised Land, oddly enough, is populated by the accursed Canaanites. David smites them. Blood runs. He has Noah to thank and God as an accomplice.

Long before David, however, we have perhaps the most under-reported event in the entire Old Testament. Shem begets Shelah who begets Eber who begets Peleg, and in his day, says Genesis 10:25, "the earth was divided." We’d like to know more about this. On that day, our world began.

Sunday, February 4, 2001

Thete of Being

Every so often, we'll be trundling down the street, whistling a happy tune, and someone will stop us to ask, "Perfess'r Harris — you know so damn much — why is it that poor people are so screwed?" And we'll stop, scratch our rapidly balding head, and reply, "Well, to answer that we'll have to go all the way back to Homer."

Americas dirty little secret is that most poor people, including those who don't have a place to live, work for a living. They just don't make enough money to stop being poor. Full time work at the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour simply does not go very far. Here in the Great State of Washington, a workers paradise if ever there was, the minimum wage is set at a whopping $6.72. At that rate, the lucky worker takes home just over a thousand bucks a month to wisely invest in whatever manner he or she likes.

Should a full-time worker need food stamps, a public subsidy, to feed their family? Our Congress, which voted down the last minimum wage increase proposal, would evidently reply, "yes."

In Homer's time, poor people were just as screwed. The Greek word was thete, which meant to be a serf or a menial or to work for hire. In ancient Greece, to be a lowly wage earner was in some cases worse than being a slave. At least a slave belonged to a community and could not be killed outright. The wage earner had no such protection. There was no Department of Labor and Industries.

The word "thete" occurs just three times in all of Homer. Let's review, shall we?

In the Iliad, Apollo and Poseidon reminisce over the days of their youth, when they were exiled from Olympus by Zeus to go work for King Laomedon. Poseidon built the walls of Troy and Apollo herded his cattle. At the end of the year, when it came time to be paid, the King refused and threatened to cut off their ears or sell them into slavery if they pressed the issue. Years later, they remained bitter. Were Laomedon now living in Wyoming, where the state minimum wage for agricultural workers is just $1.60 an hour, he could easily afford to pay them both and avoid any lingering grudges. But he probably wouldn't. Kings are like that.

The promise of low-wage work is used in the Odyssey by Eurymachos, one of the ill-mannered suitors who plague poor Penelope, to taunt a jobless beggar. When a disguised Odysseus replies by challenging Eurymachos to an old-fashioned grain-reaping contest, the suitor hurls a stool at his head. Later, during the climactic killing spree of Book Twenty-two, we are thrilled when Eurymachos is one of the first to die.

Our own favorite occurrence of the word is when Odysseus meets Achilles in the underworld. Our wily hero remarks that Achilles, being the above average sort that he is, must be running the place by now. "Don't get me started," Achilles more or less replies.

Then, by the Fagles translation, poor Achilles says "By God, I'd rather slave on earth for another man, some dirt poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive, than rule down here over all the breathless dead." The absolute worst fate Achilles can think of, outside of being dead, is to be a wage slave in somewhere like Wyoming.

So there we have it. Poor people are screwed because they don't make the rules by which they are forced to live. This is why so many of us, like Achilles, would do almost anything to avoid this fate. Unfortunately, not all of us have the option.