An Essay by Bill Hemminger
The question that initiates this program is a broad one: Why study ancient cultures? You might feel that the question is moot: students do study and will study ancient cultures; such study is an expected part of a tradition of intellectual development. The response to the why of the initial question is a matter of tradition, if not fact. A study of the ROMAN EMPIRE, a reading of Greek philosophy and literature, a look at the PYRAMIDS OF EGYPT — these are all accepted parts of a Western education, aren’t they?
Probably so: even today, in the plurality of approaches to the study of history and to the study of cultures, people talk about PLATO or DANTE or Krishna or Mohammed. But there is an important proviso: How you approach ancient cultures (or any other culture, for that matter) and how you conceive of the people of such distant worlds are of paramount importance. At this point, you might ask yourself these two additional questions: Do we study these cultures because, to some extent, all cultures share certain characteristics? Does our own culture reflect aspects of these other cultures?
The answer to the first of the two questions has historically been found in a discussion of universality. Consider, for a moment, the case of Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita. You might well ask how the battle that Arjuna holds off while frozen on his chariot relates, for example, to contemporary battles in World War II. Convinced that his relatives will die in this life only to be reborn in another, Arjuna can reluctantly permit the carnage to begin. No such choice is left to Schindler (featured in Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List), on the other hand, whose intervention on behalf of Jews saved many people in this life. The danger in looking for universals thus consists in reformulating other, possibly alien, views to fit our own. We must always guard against the assumption that other people think as we do — or that they should. Arjuna speaks within the context of one culture; Schindler acts within the confines of another.
The differences among cultures are of greatest interest here, and reading about ancient cultures is thus reading about other people whose lives were surely different from our own. The social organization of Socrates’ ATHENS — where a gimpy-legged man could hobble around interrogating citizens at will — differs profoundly from today’s world beset with modern media whereby people rarely get to see or literally hear their critics. How can we today understand the psychology of the thousands of Egyptian workers who, apparently unquestioningly, spent their lives dragging great blocks of stone across burning sands in the construction of staggering pyramidal edifices whose completion took many lifetimes? Interestingly, these differences may help us better to see — and know — the limits of our culture and the limits of our language and experience.
The problem with the second question lies in its formulation. What is a culture after all? This paper and this program proceed under the assumption that there is some sort of definition to the word culture. Most people would ascribe an abstract value to culture — that which produces good art, great literature, right behavior, etc. Yet the criteria of quality are scarcely international or inter-cultural: a revered “classical” work on the sitar resists comparison to a Mozart symphony beyond the statement that both are considered great cultural achievements in the context of their home cultures. Is, then, culture something that can be taught, or are its constituent parts more sweeping and pervasive than what can be learned from books or lectures? Answers to this second question already exist in the form of canons and reading lists, though there is much discussion today about what makes up those reading lists and about the assumptions concerning what should or should not fit on such lists.
Many people would like to conceive of history as a succession of movements or stages in an on-going (and, generally) ever-improving cultural novel of human life. For these people, the Romantic period is definable, its gifts to the human spirit are calculable. Yet, how can any culture speak for all its practitioners? Do all people share equally in the culture of which they are a part? It is precisely because AKHENATON chose to resist the pantheism that characterized pharaonic Egypt before and after his brief reign and instituted a qualified monotheism that he is remembered (and magically, too, in a contemporary opera by Philip Glass). So, a culture includes both the dominant tradition and its transgression.
As you begin your study of ancient cultures, you might want to recall these questions as you forge for yourself a meaning to the term culture. In the process, try not to measure others against your own cultural standard, which has, in many ways, formed you and your apprehension of the world. Instead, try for a moment to see the glittering battle scene with Arjuna’s eyes.