Jonathan Robie wrote:What motivates you about Greek? What makes it worth putting the time and effort into learning the language, and what do you particularly enjoy doing?
What demotivates you, and makes you want to turn to other things instead?
I suspect that this is a question that will evoke the most varied responses -- maybe that's what was intended by raising it.
Over the more than half a century that I have "fooled with" ancient Greek, there have been many different aspects of it that I have found attractive, fascinating, provocative, puzzling, profoundly satisfying, disappointing, encouraging ... I think I could keep adding adjectives to that list but I won't.
One of the first things I can remember about ancient Greek was the experience of looking at the Greek facing page of a Loeb edition of Homer's Iliad as a child and feeling that those printed lines were supremely beautiful to look at and someday I swore that I was going to learn how to read them. That, I think, was the first incitement. In later years I never ceased to have a deep aesthetic reaction to the way a page of Greek text looked: I remember how ugly (relatively speaking) the Nestle-Aland GNT type-font appeared to me, how much nicer the text looked in the UBS edition, how weird and "Gothic" the type-face based on some early cursive hand used by mid-19th-cenury Homeric texts, how handsome the font in the most recent Baker Academic edition of Holmes' Apostolic Fathers. I suspect that for many students the simple fact that the Greek alphabet, however familiar, doesn't really correspond exactly to the Roman alphabet, is a turn-off; for my part, I have always found it an enticement to look more closely at whatever the Greek text might be.
Another aspect of the experience of learning Greek for me was the "puzzle-solving" experience; I've always been an avid puzzler, whether it's jigsaw puzzles or word-games, but especially crosswords and nothing better than acrostic puzzles where you have to piece together the words of a text while also figuring out the author's name and figuring out all the clue-words. I found both the classroom experience and the first years of studying Greek texts was rich with that sort of puzzle-solving pleasures -- challenges that brought the satisfaction of solution as well as the incitement to work out the remaining problems. Of course curiosity -- ordinary intellectual curiosity is very much involved in this, and I suppose that the satisfaction that a scholar feels in researching a historical or scientific problem involves much this same puzzle-solving incitement and pleasure. Probably Aristotle comes as close to the heart of it at the beginning of the Metaphysics where he speaks of philosophy arising out of θαυμάζειν and the contemplation of an ἀπορία, the curiosity that is a sort of "itch" to seek out the answers to both "how" questions and "why" questions that arise from contemplation of something that is fascinating but unfamiliar.
Yet another aspect of the experience for me has always been the marvel of the sense that human beings who lived and died many centuries ago are sharing their experience with me, if only I will take the pains to open my eyes and ears and mind to how they expressed themselves in written words. I'm not sure what lies at the heart of this experience; in part it may be a sense of a community of humanity that is not restricted to the here and now but that extends to all eras and localities where human creatures have lived and loved and learned and shared their experiences -- not only with those who lived in their midst, but also with us, their far-distant-future ἐπίγονοι.This is probably not unrelated to the gratification which we take in acknowledgement of the bond we feel with our own kin (I'm currently exploring handwritten letters written by my forebears in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). I guess the satisfaction here derives from the sense of belonging to a community that reaches far beyond oneself and one's family and community and era, an experience not wholly unrelated to that described by the author of Hebrews (although his is a different point) in chapter 11:39 -- Καὶ οὗτοι πάντες μαρτυρηθέντες διὰ τῆς πίστεως οὐκ ἐκομίσαντο τὴν ἐπαγγελίαν, 40 τοῦ θεοῦ περὶ ἡμῶν κρεῖττόν τι προβλεψαμένου, ἵνα μὴ χωρὶς ἡμῶν τελειωθῶσιν. My point is that when we read and to the extent that we understand what these far-distant ancestors of our human community left us, we become part of the far greater community to which they belonged and all those who came after them also belonged.
I haven't mentioned what for many in this forum is the chief incitement for learning ancient Greek: gaining direct access to the inspired Biblical text. In fact, however, I don't really distinguish this motivation from the one I have just discussed above: it is a matter of gaining acquisition to an inspired literature that is far more extensive than the Biblical Greek texts that so many on this forum study Greek in order to read. Indeed, as I see it, that inspired literature extends far beyond Greek texts to extant texts in any language of any of our human ancestors; they all hold the promise of informing us of what was profoundly important to their authors, and most of those ancient texts, in whatever language, have survived because later generations shared the conviction that those texts still spoke to their own generation and to generations yet to come. When we read these texts and understand them, we become profoundly aware that the richest elements of human joy and sorrow and of human absurdity and grandeur are not just being discovered by our own generation. All that this awareness involves falls among the implications, as I see them, of one of our key GNT texts: ὁ λόγος σάρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν ... I cannot express this very clearly, but as I see it, our will to understand ancient Greek -- and other ancient and modern languages as well, in which humanity has archived its shared experience, is ultimately grounded in the incarnation of ὁ λόγος in the human community and in human literature.
Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)
ἄτοπον, ἔφη, λέγεις εἰκόνα καὶ δεσμώτας ἀτόπους.
ὁμοίους ἡμῖν, ἦν δʼ ἐγώ. Plato, Rep. 7 (515a)