A few nights ago, Jim and I sat up late discussing philosophy.
Yes. We really do this sort of thing.
Jim admitted he’d never really understood philosophy or why the questions philosophy tries to answer are important for us to study. When I’d been an undergraduate, Fordham University had just re-designed the curriculum in reaction to some of the more unstructured educational theories of the 1970’s. Therefore, I’d actually had something closer to a classical education. This included metaphysics, epistemology, some existentialism, and, later on, a very interesting course in bioethics.
Despite all of this, I confessed to Jim that I didn’t really understand why philosophy mattered until I learned more about the historical context in which it evolved. Despite my excellent professors and my own extensive later education, none of this was what opened the door for me. What did was a novel by Mary Renault called The Last of the Wine.
I’m not sure when I first read a Mary Renault novel, but I’m pretty sure the one I first encountered was The King Must Die, her excellent retelling of the story of Theseus from Greek mythology. In it, she takes the scattered hero tales, places them in a historical context that includes many of the archeological discoveries of Evans on Crete, and makes them into a coherent story. The sequel, The Bull From the Sea, follows up with the later part of Theseus’s life.
I liked these novels a lot, especially since even then, long before I met my archeologist husband I was interested in anthropology. I’m pretty sure that when I picked up The Last of the Wine, I was hoping for more of the same. Instead, what I got was a historical novel set in the time when Athens was a ruling power in the Greek world not only in military strength, but in cultural impact.
Alexias, the main character, begins the novel as a boy rising into manhood. Since we’ve talked about narrative hooks before (WW 10-19-11), I can’t resist sharing the novel’s opening lines:
“When I was a young boy, when I was sick or in trouble, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.
“You will say there is nothing out of the way in this. Yet I daresay it is less common than you might suppose; for as a rule, when a father decides to expose an infant, it is done and there the matter ends. And it is seldom a man can say, either of the Spartans or the plague, that he owes them life instead of death.”
I was caught from that moment on. The first line might have been that of any young man in a modern novel caught in conflict with his father, but the second opens a door to an entirely different world view – one where a father killing his son is routine and acceptable. The final sentences provide the historical context, including Spartans and plague.
As The Last of the Wine continues, we enter this world. Americans in particular are taught to see the Athenians as our ancestors. Like us, they valued democracy as a system of government. However, Mary Renault shows us not only the similarities but the differences. And, through Alexias (a fictional character), we come to know Sokrates, Alkibiades, and other historical figures to whom philosophy was not a matter of dry texts taught in stuffy classrooms, but an unfolding way of thought that would transform Western civilization – and their own life choices.
With this novel, why philosophy mattered suddenly made sense to me. I’d go as far as saying I wish it had been the very first text taught in my introductory philosophy course. I think if I’d read it first, Plato’s symposia would have made a great deal more sense and Aristotle might not have put me to sleep.
Yet it is a novel. I’m certain Mary Renault did her absolute best with the historical documents available to her at the time. Doubtless, there have been new discoveries since the 1950’s when the book was published. Would they invalidate the novel as a tool for understanding the Athenians and their world?
I know that further archeological discoveries on Crete have shed doubts on Evans’ interpretations of his archeological discoveries. Does that mean The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea have lost any value as anything other than entertainment?
I’m not sure. I know I learned more about not only the Napoleonic wars but the larger context in which they were fought from the novels of Patrick O’Brian than I did from any history course. George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels gave me a twisted but interesting view of the spread of the British empire. Yet both of these novelists state in the notes to their novels that in the interests of narrative they took liberties with the order of historical events.
Should fiction be intermingled with history in the classroom or would there be too much unlearning to do? Just wondering and wandering on…