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A Meeting of Greek Minds

They are grad students, retired profs, a diplomat, a vet. They read Plato in ancient Greek, for fun. Deinos!

You’ve learned Greek. Now what?

But, of course, that’s probably not a question you’ve ever had to face. Most people in this too busy world never get around to learning ancient Greek, for the good reason that it’s very demanding, and for the less good, but still persuasive, reason that it’s not overly practical. When, from some desire to become brilliant and far too original, I enrolled in Introductory Greek – back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth – there were eight people in my class. Four of us survived to the final exam, which was so intimate it could have been held at my kitchen table.

Greek 100 was far and away my most enjoyable university course, which is not surprising since it completely took over my life. Greek is like that – it’s a language of passion and beauty and intoxicating wisdom – and when I finally accepted that I couldn’t make a living reading Thucydides on the timeless agonies of war, I also realized that something extraordinary was about to start slipping out of my world.

We mean well. We put our university texts on the bookshelf, the ones that opened our minds and gave us pleasure in the bargain, and we vow that we’re going to keep up our studies – which quickly becomes a vow to get back to our studies, which all too soon turns into boxes of books quietly disappearing into the basement and mid-life acceptance that we’re not who we thought we’d be.

Not so fast, I kept telling myself. If you can take time to flip through the TV channels on a nightly basis and complain ad nauseam that there’s nothing on, surely you can make room for a little Plato. And that is how, at 7:30 on a cool Thursday night in early November, I found myself sitting at a long table in the Classics library on St. George Street rediscovering my inner Socrates.

There were 20 of us gathered round the table in the book-lined room, far more than I’d ever encountered in an undergraduate Greek class, and the fact that we were all talking together represents one of the more admirable achievements of the University of Toronto. In official terms, this was the Greek reading group of the collaborative program in ancient and medieval philosophy. In a much more flexible, much less officious reality, this was the Greek philosophy after-hours club, a sort of academic speakeasy for that community of fanatics who want – and need – to read ancient Greek.

By the standards of the average class or seminar, this was a remarkably diverse crowd: it included a number of seriously eager Classics and philosophy graduate students, a retired professor or two, academic pilgrims from McMaster and Waterloo, a bookseller, a librarian, a wayward classicist masquerading as a journalist and a retired diplomat named Don Waterfall, who confided to me, “It’s a nicely rounded group. In the academic world, unlike the professional world, you can have respect for people of very different ages.”

I’d been told there was even a veterinarian who showed up from time to time, but on this night he was evidently off tending the sick and mangy. Still, what I saw around me was an ideal image of learning that Socrates would have approved of: young sat by old, specialist mixed with non-specialist and town blended with gown. Presiding over this symposium (a word that is much more fun-loving in the original Greek) were two extremely good-natured University of Toronto professors: Doug Hutchinson from the department of philosophy, and Classics chair Brad Inwood, who started the original version of the group in his home almost two decades ago.

“You’ve got all these high-powered professors in there,” post-doctoral fellow Monte Johnson told me with still palpable enthusiasm after we’d collectively parsed and puzzled our way through pages of Plato’s Protagoras, “and yet everything’s up for dispute – there’s no official version. Reading these texts on your own can sometimes feel like decoding a puzzle, but in this environment, you get a much better feel for Greek as a living language.”

I had experienced a strong sense of that 2,400-year-old vitality as we were working our way through the conversation that Plato recreates between Socrates and his designated victim, the pompous professional educator Protagoras. When describing Protagoras, Socrates uses the highly ambiguous word deinos – its meanings can range from “terrible” to “clever” to “wonderful.” One of the hipper professors in the crowd suggested translating it as “wicked,” pointing out helpfully, “You know, the way teenagers use the term.” There were a few instinctive snorts from the younger element in the room. “Yeah, 30-year-old teenagers,” someone said with a laugh.

Banter is an essential part of the Greek reading group, but so is a rigorous devotion to the meaning of the text – classicists aren’t big on long-winded theorizing. “It’s an exhilarating experience,” said Inwood, almost as a statement of the reading group’s principles. “You can’t get the philosophical ideas clear until the problems of the Greek get solved. It’s a huge amount of fun, but it’s fun achieved with brains, which is largely what we’re supposed to be doing.”

For the students who make up roughly half the gathering, the sense of fun is paramount. “That’s what’s so cool about it,” said Rob Butler (BA 1992 Victoria, MA 1996), who is working on a PhD in Classics. “It’s what the ancients had in mind when they talked about philosophy. Instead of one person lecturing and everyone taking notes, you’ve got a lively discussion where everyone has a voice.” When the official session broke up around 9:30 p.m., the debates about what Socrates was really up to simply adjourned to the Graduate Students’ Union pub, another thing the fun-loving Greeks would have approved of.

For the reading group members from the wider community, the opportunity to put the brain through some much-needed calisthenics is as important as the good times. “Greek is a great leveller,” said Donald Smith, manager of Atticus Books and a man renowned for bringing in an Arabic translation of Aristotle to help with some tricky passages. “But there’s a sense of power that comes from a knowledge of these things. You feel like you have a kind of leverage on the world.”

I wasn’t too sure of my power after a two-hour workout with Socrates. But as much as my Greek muscles ached, the long-lost pleasure was palpable, particularly after the second pint at the GSU pub. If this is what the Greek philosophers meant by fun, nothing was lost in the translation.

John Allemang (BA 1974 Trinity) is a writer for the
Globe and Mail.

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