Sunday, September 10, 2017

Emily Katz Anhalt's "Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths"

Emily Katz Anhalt teaches Classical languages and literature at Sarah Lawrence College. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University and is the author of Solon the Singer: Politics and Poetics.

Anhalt applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths, and reported the following:
From page 99:
“…he fell face first upon the corpse far from fertile Larisa, nor did he give recompense to his dear parents in return for their rearing him. But his lifetime was brief, as he was laid low by the spear of high-spirited Ajax” (Iliad 17. 293-303). Ajax may feel proud of this conquest, but the narrative prevents the audience from sharing his enthusiasm. We imagine instead the grief of far-away parents.

The details in these descriptions of death emphasize the contrasts between the values of the characters and the perspective of the audience. Warfare, for the characters, provides the opportunity to win glory. But the similes and little vignettes evoke the experience of the victims and validate the lives lost…. The Iliad makes us see all dying warriors, not just Greek ones, as fully human and important and their deaths as tragic.
The ancient Greeks established the world’s first-ever democratic political institutions. Over centuries, their myths accompanied and promoted this historically unprecedented transition from tribalism to civil society and emphasized the crucial first step: recognize that rage-fueled violence doesn’t serve you very well, and stop admiring violent rage in other people.

Stories we read, watch, or tell shape our attitudes and priorities. They teach us what to admire and what to condemn. Ancient Greek myths remind us that you can make all the economic and institutional changes that you want, but unless you address the human propensity for violence, you are not going to find yourself living in a desirable, flourishing community. In practice, democratic procedures and institutions can easily promote tyrannical abuses of power and even atrocities. Over many centuries, Greek myths exposed rage-fueled violence as short-sighted and self-destructive. They criticized the abuse of power and introduced the concept of verbal debate as a more constructive alternative.

Each chapter of Enraged includes a retelling of a tale from Homer’s Iliad (c. 8th-century BCE) or two 5th-century BCE Athenian tragedies followed by a discussion of the story’s significance.

Page 99 discusses the Iliad’s depictions of hand-to-hand combat in the Trojan War. Similes and biographical details of fallen warriors emphasize the tragic loss of each human life, Greek and Trojan alike. Distinguishing the audience’s perspective from that of the characters, the Iliad began – more than 3,000 years ago -- to challenge the Greeks’ traditional enthusiasm for violence and to cultivate the audience’s capacity for empathy.

Democracy wasn’t even a concept until the late 6th century BCE, when the Athenians coined the word and tried the experiment. Non-violent democratic decision-making largely prevailed in Athens for nearly two centuries (508-322 BCE). In the 21st century, however, we are moving in the opposite direction, often reverting to violence in tribal and partisan confrontations. World-wide, we are empowering strongmen, autocratic rulers who may even be popularly elected. Ancient Greek myths remind us of the costs to ourselves of relying on rage-fueled violence as a political tool. They remind us of the value of empathy, self-restraint, and productive discussion.
Learn more about Enraged at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue