If the stated goal of the space adventures in Star Trek is “to explore strange new worlds,” we could say it falls to historians, classicists, and literary scholars to make sense of people who lived in their own strange worlds—the worlds of the past. Those who take on the quest must pilot their ships between a methodological Scylla and Charybdis.
Alterity and Discontinuity
On our starboard, we must avoid retrojecting our own presuppositions and worldview back onto the past: anachronism. Ancient Greek political theorists like Plato and Aristotle deserve to be read in the present, but we will badly misunderstand them if we fail to account for the fact that the largest city-states dotting their world had populations in tens of thousands, as opposed to modern polities which have millions or hundreds of millions of citizens. The cultural and political solidarity that was possible in their world is almost unfathomable to us moderns. Traditionally-minded scholars often commit a massive oversight when they baldly apply Aristotle’s insights to, say, governing the contemporary United States. The scales of our respective political worlds are utterly incommensurate.
Portside, however, we have an insistence on what is called “alterity”: people in the past were essentially different from us. More precisely, we share little to nothing essential with them. In more extreme forms, any sense of “human nature” and other “essentialisms” swiftly slide overboard. Thus, the past and those who peopled it remain more or less unintelligible to us in the present. You might find examples in anti-imperialism or anti-colonialism readings of the past. One suspects this attitude originally came out of good motives, where the less we claim to understand someone, the less we tend to insist on judging, meddling with, or otherwise bossing them around.
Variations on the same idea appeared in nineteenth and twentieth century European debates about the Turkish violence against Armenians, where some (not disinterestedly) argued that the Turks could not be held to “European concepts of morality.” Worse, an intemperate stress on alterity can rapidly devolve all the way down into solipsism. After all, each person has a certain “alterity” as an individual, and then even individuals within a given culture can contain multitudes, so to speak. One might even posit meaningful alterity between oneself now as an adult and oneself as a child—and so forth ad nauseam, if we lack a clear limiting principle to this insistence on alterity and discontinuity.
Framed differently, the dilemma of anachronism versus solipsism asks whether real cultural translation is possible, and if so, to what degree. Here, reading authors like Homer offers real insight. True, Homer (or the collective poets that we remember as the legendary “Homer”) sang in a language that is difficult even for many of those trained in ancient Greek. Yes, he lived almost three thousand years ago in a culture quite different from our own, in a place on the other side of the world. Beyond any question, his characters’ motivations and personalities are often puzzling: Why the obsession with tripods? Why the childish outbursts of grief or anger over perceived slights? Why such a casual, pitiless attitude toward violence?
Pathos and Recognition
There are, however, other scenes that leap across the centuries, such as the close of Book 22 in the Iliad, where Andromache imagines the pitiful fate of her orphaned son. Read also in Book 17 of the Odyssey the death of Odysseus’s prized, faithful hound Argos, who expires from the excitement of seeing his master’s return after two decades. As he gazes on the wretched shell of his faithful old dog, the disguised Odysseus hastily wipes away a solitary tear for fear of revealing his identity.
Again, take the Prodigal Son. We could stipulate for argument’s sake (as some scholars might claim) that Jesus never spoke a word of this story, that the compiler called “Luke” and his varied sources of written and oral traditions were the real minds behind the tale as it has come down to us, perhaps after many rounds of accretions and editorial deletions. None of this would diminish the literary brilliance of the story, with its insights into human psychology and family dynamics. The moral of the parable of this lost son (really, the two lost sons) still speaks to anyone who has ever had difficulty with parents and siblings. That would be everyone. Were alterity absolute, these scenes and stories should be moral and emotional gibberish. That we can make any sense of them tells us something important, about our relation to the people who told these stories in the past.
Why, then, do these masterful scenes of ancient literature still register with us, stirring up both pathos and recognition? Perhaps we’re not so different after all. Perhaps there is some commensurability in human experience. Anyone who knows another language already grasps this principle at least tacitly. Of course, virtually no translations are “perfect” from one language to another. Still, try telling a seasoned Hebraist that his decades of mastering Hebrew and Aramaic have not really afforded him any meaningful understanding of ancient Israel. “After all, they lived in a completely different world.” He might wryly respond, “Answer not the fool according to his folly.”
Clever critics might object (and have objected) that we only have some understanding of Homer, Jesus, or whomever because they contributed to the formation of our own hegemonic Western norms. To take an example from gender norms in culture, we only expect stoic reserve from men because Greek philosophy and later Christian asceticism coded emotional outbursts as immoral. There may be some true elements in that account, though probably to a lesser degree than our critics suppose. If we are to accept the general thrust of that reasoning, however, we find ourselves dangerously close to admitting that there is indeed such a thing as Western Civilization, or even “the classics”—and that they might deserve our special attention.