Bill Long 3/24/09
The purpose of this page, and the expositions that are linked at the left, is to give provide an introduction to our Western epic classics. In addition, since 2010 I have begun to study Confucius in the original Chinese, and my essays on the Analects, one of the most influential books of Eastern philosophy or literature, are also included. The expositions will be textually-oriented, literarily aware and, I hope, detailed enough to give you a deep taste for the language and ideas that make epic literature memorable. These five texts have, in addition to the Bible, shaped Western literature to a considerable extent; thus, my expositions are designed to tap into the magic of epic language and imagery so as to fuel the literary and creative imaginations of us all. I begin my expositions today, and I hope to be able to add to the essays on a frequent basis.
My introduction to epic literature was, like that of most people, desultory. I read portions of most of them in high school and college, with more focused attention on Homer in graduate school. I was in a "memorization" phase in college/grad school, a phase and commitment that ran quite counter to the dominant strands in educational theory at the time (and in our times), and so while I was committing hundreds of Biblical verses to memory, I decided I would also begin to memorize the Iliad, in Greek. I got through the first 200 lines of Book I in the summer of 1978 before deciding that I didn't have the time, support or drive to do any more of that. So I left my memorization (and deep study) of epic aside, though I have, since that time, always had a gnawing sense that I must return to epic, study the texts closely in the original languages, write extensively on them, memorize them, and incorporate the language and thoughts in my daily conversation and work. That is, I made a commitment to epic, as some might make a commitment to faith, in 1978. Now, 31 years later, I hope to be able to discharge that commitment. I made a fitful start on that in 2008, when I memorized the first 250 lines of Paradise Lost, but I felt I needed to start with the classical epics in order to make a good beginning. As I begin, I discover what most know about many things, that the more you give yourself to something, the more it rewards you.
There is another reason I begin with the ancient epics. I had a professor in college and graduate school, Horst Moehring, who was seemingly caught in an intellectual time warp as it had to do with the classics. He taught biblical studies but really was most proud of his training in the classics. Though he didn't have the luxury/discipline of a classical Gymnasium education in his native Germany, he seemed always to idealize and idolize those youth from Germany who would memorize the Odyssey on their own in addition to their classical training at Gymnasium. I don't know if his stories were true, but the image of 19th century classical powerhouses fueled my imagination on the memorization of texts. I learned by age 18 that epic, biblical and other noble language that sinks into the soul actually does shape the way you read, think and write. I don't speak widely about memorization because of the truth I stated in one of my Billphorisms: "Tell people you are memorizing texts and they think you are a moron; show the fruit of memorization and they think you are a genius." Thus, all I do on these pages is to exposit epic texts, with close attention to the way that language powers the epic.
I begin this day with Virgil's Aeneid. I am currently reading it in Latin, having finished Book IV yesterday. I start with Virgil again for a personal reason--I was finally so fed up with not having Latin "at my fingertips" that I decided to devote hundreds of hours to "getting Latin back." I find old (that is, pre-1970) high school and college Latin textbooks to be very helpful in this endeavor because they provide copious notes and explanations of phrases/sentences. I begin with Book IV of the Aeneid because it is the story of unsuccessful love--an experience in life that connects immediately with most people. My first essay--"On Female Vulnerability in Love," points not simply to an epic truth but to an epochal truth.
My final reason for expositing epic, however, is the sense that I, too, want to run a little "counter" to the prevailing culture. Don't get me wrong; I strive in what I do to be a person able to engage at the highest levels of our current cultural and political realities. I testify before a legislature, I lead a social movement, I write articles on beleaguered people or on current legal strategies used in the common law countries, I consult with people who want to know how to interpret the Internal Revenue Code for their nonprofit entity. I love listening to and learning from today. But one of the characteristics of today's learning is that it ignores about 95% of what goes before it and, at the same time, it considers unimportant what the past provides. A case in point are hundreds of great Latin and Greek school editions that teach young people how to learn those ancient languages. We have mostly discarded that advice and, when we teach those languages, we require about 1/2 to 1/3 of the knowledge of them to get into college or get classics degrees as was the case 100 years ago. This is one place where knowledge is receding, rather than increasing. Thus, by trying to recapture epic and by mining books 100 years old, I am, as it were, saying to the present that I think we have lots to learn from the past--lots to embrace from a series of books that people would say are just "dead" books. But Christianity isn't the only place where the dead come back to life and transform everything. I believe that deep learning, through textual mastery and literary focus, of epic literature can be key to sharpening the mind to face any problem that is on our plates in the 21st century. My love of the present is never so great as when I have the privilege of loving the past.
I hope you enjoy the essays and learn to take the time to master an area of intellectual inquiry you might not otherwise learn.