Can the study of ancient Greek help you live a better life?

Posted on: 03 March 2022

How the study of Ancient Greek can help us live a better life was the focus of Professor Ahuvia Kahane’s inaugural lecture delivered earlier this week.

In a lecture entitled ‘The Boar, the Scholar and the Ethics of Classical Philology’ Professor Kahane began with an anecdote about a scholar, a wild boar, a stroll in Bagley Wood and an ‘illegible’ Greek book by Aristotle. That tale, however light-hearted, drew Kahane into the deep forests of Greek language and literature, their complex and fragile beauty and their sometimes problematic ethical, social and political perspectives.

The event was held to mark Professor Kahane’s appointment as the Regius Professor of Greek (1761) and A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture (2017) at the School of Histories and Humanities. You can watch a recording of the lecture here.

A Trinity tradition, an inaugural lecture represents the official recognition of an academic’s promotion to Professor. The lecture provides an opportunity for the new professor to showcase their achievements in research, innovation, engagement and teaching activities before an audience of members of the University community and the general public.

Provost Dr Linda Doyle and Professor Ahuvia Kahane, Regius Professor of Greek (1761) and A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture (2017).

In his lecture Prof Kahane discussed the foundations of his discipline, its topics and its values and what he termed the ‘ethics of philology’. He explored our responsibility as students of the past and the meaning of cultural ancestry.

In the lecture he drew on a broad range of sources, ancient and modern, on philosophy, poetry and art, on elements of the relations between humans and other animals, on aspects of gender relations narratives of violence and conceptions of world order. He also drew on Arisotle’s Politics and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, on critical thought, linguistics and contemporary science. He reflected on ethics, method and historical difference.

‘Illegibility’, Kahane suggested, is an inherent property of the past that does not preclude precision and is an essential postulate of the ethics of scholarship.

At the end of his lecture, Kahane returned to the subject of wild boars – and to a famous scene from Homer’s Odyssey – telling the story of how the hero of the poem, Odysseus, when a boy, was taken on a boar hunt by his grandfather. The boar is killed by the end of the chase, but not before it gashes young Odysseus’ leg – leaving a scar, an ‘illegible’ sign written on the body, meaning nothing more, or less, than precisely what it is – a true sign of the hero’s identity.

Like the Scar of Odysseus, Prof Kahane argued, the past is a mark of identity upon the body of the present: it is not more nor less than what it is. Philology, he concluded, is the science of reading historical ‘scars’.

Prof Christine Morris, Prof Orla Sheils, Provost Dr Linda Doyle, Prof Ahuvia Kahane and Dean AHSS Prof Gail Mc Elroy.

About Ahuvia Kahane

Ahuvia Kahane is the 17th Regius Professor of Greek and the first A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Trinity College Dublin. He was born on a commune in Israel/Palestine and grew up in Jerusalem and  Berkeley.

Ahuvia received a BA in Greek and Latin from the University of Tel Aviv and a DPhil in Classics from Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied with Jasper Griffin. Before joining Trinity College Dublin in 2019, he held positions in the University of Oxford, Harvard University (the Centre for Hellenic Studies), Northwestern University and the University of London (joining the College as  Professor of Greek in 2004), where he was also Director of the Humanities and Arts Research Institute for many years.

He is a philologist whose areas of interest include ancient Greek and Latin literature and culture, modern philosophy, the politics of form, the sociology of learning, visual studies, and the relations between ancient and modern literature and thought. He has published extensively on early Greek poetry and Homer, on technical elements of the ancient Greek hexameter and the wide methodological and philosophical conditions of performance, reading and reception. He had developed the Chicago Homer, a digital research tool that attracts millions of hits annually, has translated Homer’s Odyssey into Modern Hebrew, has written on fan fiction, the sociology of education, modern visual art, political philosophy, and more. As a graduate student, he edited the Oxford English Hebrew Dictionary, and has been for many years a Senior Associate of the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in the University of Oxford.

Ahuvia is currently completing a book on the relations between literary form and historical time (Epic, Novel, and the Progress of Antiquity, Bloomsbury), a book on the ethics and poetics of early Greek hexameter (Oral Theory, Complexity and Homeric Epic, De Gruyter) and editing a book about the philosophy, public culture, visual spaces and politics of walking in times of lockdown and restricted movement (Routledge), with contributions by critics, philosophers, artists, architects and other colleagues from Royal College of Art, Birkbeck, University of London and other institutions.

Ahuvia is a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a hereditary Freeman of the City of Durham (which gives him rights of pasturage for his flocks on Palace Green in the city). He is married to Georgina, a human rights and discrimination lawyer. They have three children, Berenike, Erasmus and Lysander.

*Cover image: Ancient Roman art in the Bardo National Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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