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"Transforming Traditions"

By Elizabeth Vandiver, Clement Biddle Penrose Associate Professor of Latin and Classics

Good morning. I am deeply honored by this opportunity to welcome all of you—the class of 2013 and your families—to Whitman College. This morning I want to talk to you, and especially to the incoming class, about tradition—what we mean by tradition, how traditions shape us and our thinking, and how, as well, we shape the content of the traditions that we inherit and that we pass on in our turn. 

I have been thinking a great deal, this summer, about what we mean by tradition and what our traditions have to offer us. Since I am a classicist who teaches Latin and Greek and within that discipline am primarily a scholar of literature, I am most interested in literary traditions—the books that are produced by a culture and in turn shape that culture’s further developments. I was led to ruminate about traditions in part because of the book I have just completed, on British poetry of the First World War and the classical tradition—obviously writing that book involved looking at a very large tradition, one that encompasses the whole stretch of European culture from ancient Greece to early 20th-century Britain. But I was also led to think about this topic because of how, here in this much smaller community of Whitman College, our own collegial tradition is being reshaped by faculty and students alike, as we introduce our new version of Whitman’s first year common course this coming year. 

Let me begin by talking a bit about what I looked at in my book. I was interested in how British poets of the First World War used classics—that is, the languages, literatures, and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, the subjects I teach—in their own poetry. I’d like to explain to you where I got the title for that book, since I think the title, ‘Stand in the Trench, Achilles’, both encapsulates the book’s subject matter and also encapsulates how a rich and deeply felt tradition can work for those who inhabit it. 

In Book 18 of the Iliad, the great Greek warrior Achilles is about to return to battle to avenge his beloved friend Patroclus. Achilles has no armor—Patroclus was killed wearing Achilles’ armor, fighting in Achilles’ place, and Hector, the Trojan who killed Patroclus, took the armor. The smith-god Hephaestus will make new armor for Achilles, but in the scene I am describing to you Achilles does not yet have that divine armor. He remains unarmed, yet fervent for battle. He stands by the defensive ditch that the Greeks have dug around their encampment, and across the ditch are the Trojan enemies whom he so wants to fight for Patroclus’ sake. As Achilles looks across the ditch at the Trojans, the goddess Athena crowns him with flame – in his new, transfigured state Achilles terrifies and routs his enemies. The Iliad says (in Richmond Lattimore’s translation):

Achilles the beloved of Zeus rose up, and Athena
swept about his powerful shoulders the fluttering aegis,
and  … about his head circled
a golden cloud, and kindled from it a flame far-shining.
As when a flare goes up in to the high air from a city
… so from the head of Achilles the blaze shot into the bright air.
He went from the wall and stood by the ditch …  and shouted,
and from her place Pallas Athena
gave cry, and drove an endless terror upon the Trojans…. 
Three times across the ditch brilliant Achilles gave his great cry,
and three times the Trojans and their renowned companions were routed.1

Now to 20th-century British poetry and the use of that scene made by one particular poet. In 1915, during the Gallipoli campaign on the Chersonese peninsula, across the Dardanelles straits from the site of Troy, a British soldier named Patrick Shaw-Stewart wrote an untitled poem on the flyleaf of his copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Shaw-Stewart died on the Western Front in December 1917 and his copy of Housman, with this poem written in it, was found after his death. In 1915, Shaw-Stewart was on what he thought would be a week’s leave on the island of Imbros when he got orders that he had to return to the front line immediately, after only 3 days, to go into battle. He wrote (those of you who know Housman’s poems will recognize the meter):


I saw a man this morning
   Who did not wish to die:
I ask, and cannot answer,
   If otherwise wish I.
Fair broke the day this morning
   Against the Dardanelles;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
   Were cold as cold sea-shells.
But other shells are waiting
   Across the Ægean Sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
   Shells and hells for me.
O hell of ships and cities,
   Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
   Why must I follow thee?
Achilles came to Troyland
   And I to Chersonese:
He turned from wrath to battle,
   And I from three days’ peace.
Was it so hard, Achilles,
   So very hard to die?
Thou knewest, and I know not – 
   So much the happier I.
I will go back this morning
   From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
   Flame-capped, and shout for me.2

During the several years that I worked on my book, I was struck over and over again by the thought that, for the young British men who went to war in 1914 through 1918, classics was a living, vibrant, essential part of their mental framework. They didn’t just think about classics; they thought in classics. This was true not just for privileged upper-class poets such as Patrick Shaw-Stewart, one of the most brilliant classics scholars of his generation at both Eton and at Oxford; it was true for poets from other backgrounds as well. One of the most famous poets of World War One, Wilfred Owen, was from a lower middle-class family and did not attend a university, and another one of the poets I wrote about, John William Streets, was a coal miner who left school at age 14, who educated himself in classical literature at night, after his 12-hour shifts in the mines and a 7-mile walk to work and back. I came to admire this man so much that with his family’s permission I dedicated my book to his memory. For John William Streets, classics was poetic tradition; to be a poet, in his mind, meant to know classics. Classical literature and culture gave these poets and the others I studied the terms to express their deepest emotions, fears, anxieties, and delights – but also, it gave them terms in which to express rebellion, rejection, repudiation.  In short, for the soldier-poets of the First World War, classics did what anyone’s tradition should do – it was a very present help in time of trouble, but was also a focus for rebellion and for rethinking the world.  Shaw-Stewart’s poem does both these things, I think; he turns to his tradition, to the image of Achilles standing above the ditch, for a way to think about the war that he himself faces, but he also uses that tradition to question the point of his own war, to meditate on, and to question, what he is doing there: “Fatal second Helen,” he writes, “why must I follow thee?”

As I was working on proofreading and indexing my book this past month, I read the news reports that the last two surviving English veterans of WWI had died. One of them, Henry Allingham, was 113 years old and the other, Harry Patch, was 111. The men who fought that war are now all, or almost all, gone – there is one Australian left, and I have heard rumors of an American ambulance driver. But almost to a man, that generation has now passed away; and much as I hate, as a classicist, to admit it, the particular form of the classical tradition on which they drew has passed away as well. 

This led me to think about what a tradition is.  We use the word too casually sometimes, when we talk about “the Western Tradition” or “traditional beliefs.”  The word comes from the Latin verb tradere, which means “to hand down” or to “hand over” – traditio is what is passed from generation to generation, what allows us to position ourselves in the ongoing story of humanity and to recognize, and possibly even to understand, where and who we ourselves are. In that regard, to be human is to have traditions; the only tradition-free entity would be someone utterly cut off from any culture or any society whatsoever. To be a human being is to have a tradition – a set of texts (defining the term “text” very broadly) that resonate with you on the deepest levels. 

But because traditions are so inescapable, because they resonate with us so deeply, it is all the more important to think consciously and deliberately about what our traditions are and what presuppositions they imply for our thinking. Interestingly, the verb tradere can mean “betray” as well as “hand down” – to “hand over” in the sense of “to give to the enemy”, thus to betray. Tradition can do this if you passively adhere to it, without examination, without critical thinking about what your accepted traditional modes of thought imply, and what they exclude. If accepted uncritically, without curiosity, then tradition can be an excuse for not thinking, and so can become—as it is too often assumed to be—an imprisoning boundary, something that limits one’s ability to think, experience, learn.

That is what can happen if you are passive, if you do not examine, interrogate, explore, and expand the limitations of your traditional texts, assumptions, and beliefs. But if one approaches one’s own traditions both with “insatiable curiosity” and with a critical mind, then far from limiting our ability to think tradition enables us to think, gives us the tools with which to categorize and understand our own emotions, thoughts, and experiences. (By the way, critical thinking is one of the things we hope to encourage in you, and for which we intend to give you training, while you are here at Whitman. “Critical” in this usage does not mean “disapproving”, I hasten to add; it means applying careful, logical, reasoned analysis to statements, questions, and ideas.)

There is another reason to engage actively and consciously with your own tradition. Traditions are not closed or fixed; they do not and indeed cannot ever stay in one place. They are changing and malleable.  They build upon earlier iterations of themselves to reshape both what they are and what they will become; Greek literature was “tradition” for the Roman authors who were themselves part of the classical tradition for the young Britons I wrote about in my book, and some of those British poets—Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves—have become part of the tradition of English literature as we understand it now, in the early 21st century. Traditions are always in flux, always changing, always incorporating new elements and discarding older ones. 

This is as much the case in a small community such as Whitman College as it is in a larger community such as a nation. Many if not most of you probably visited Whitman as prospective students; most prospectives sat in on a first-year course called “Antiquity and Modernity”, more familiarly known as “Core.” And yet, by now you have undoubtedly noticed that when you registered for your courses for this coming semester, “Core” was nowhere to be seen and instead you found yourselves registering for a course called “Encounters.” So what happened? Where did Core go, where did Encounters come from, and why? 

The move to Encounters was an enactment, on the micro-level, of precisely the kind of ever-changing, evolving nature of tradition that I’ve been talking about.  Since Whitman is a small community and the curriculum is determined by a group (the faculty) who are dedicated, one might almost say excessively dedicated, to discussing, debating, and deliberating on every possible aspect of every action they take (that’s what academics do), the changes in our local tradition were consciously enacted in a way that does not normally occur in larger groups. But this conscious change was, in fact, a recognition by the faculty of precisely the sort of already-present changes in society, and in the larger tradition, that I’ve been discussing. The new course, Encounters, does not discard the texts we read in the old course’s syllabus, but augments them.   The new course recognizes that our society has many different threads, many different foundational texts, some of which are not texts in the old sense at all (thus the syllabus includes films as well as books). The course also recognizes the value, for modern American students, of examining strands of tradition that have developed in countries and cultures outside of Europe, thus outside of what has been called the “western” tradition, both to remind ourselves of how fluid tradition is and to open possibilities of new combinations and new sources of thought.

You will begin, next week, with the Bhagavad Gita—and after that, you will read the Odyssey. ‘Encounters’ thus starts by juxtaposing one of the foremost texts of Indian culture with one of the foremost texts of Greek culture. Both may be strange to you—even if you have already read the Odyssey in high school, the culture described in it is so radically different from the culture in which you live that it may seem all the more alien through its partial familiarity. This is part of the point; texts that have traditionally (pun intended) been considered part of the Western tradition can be strange, alienating, offensive. They invite you to interrogate them and to argue with them, not just to accept them as familiar and already known; in juxtaposition with texts from other traditions, these texts urge you to ponder questions such as:

—What makes a text resonate in a particular culture at a particular time?

—How do foundational texts shape the thoughts of people who read them?

—What texts do we, do you, want to incorporate into our ongoing view of the world as we move through the 21st century?

These—along with the larger questions of what it means to be human, what is the nature of existence, what is our place in the world—are some of the questions that your encounters with important texts, ancient and modern, familiar and unfamiliar, should raise for you. These texts will raise questions; they will emphatically NOT provide easy answers.  But as you grapple with these difficult, exciting, enthralling, and maddening texts, I hope you will come to understand what the title of my talk today, “transforming traditions,” implies. One of the beauties of the English language is the ambiguity of the present participle “transforming” in that phrase. (Sorry, I can’t help it—I teach Latin and Greek, so I find grammar beautiful.)  “Transforming” there can modify an implied subject “we”—and thus mean something like “how we go about transforming the traditions we have inherited”; or it can be taken as modifying the word “traditions”, and mean something like “traditions engaged in the process of transforming us”. I picked my title precisely for that ambiguity.  We transform our traditions—all societies do—by what we continue to value in the texts that have come down to us, as well as by what we choose to leave by the wayside and what we choose to add to the texts that have shaped our consciousnesses and our lives. A tradition that is not in the process of transformation is dead, and a dead weight, rather than a fountain of inspiration and expression. But equally, our traditions transform us. Confronting texts, both the familiar and the unfamiliar ones—encountering those texts—can have a profoundly transformative effect on how we view the world, how we interact with others, how we think about ourselves. We transform our traditions, and our traditions transform us.

As you begin your college careers, I welcome you into both of these transformative arenas. You—who will be the doctors, scientists, lawyers, artists, inventors, teachers, writers, explorers, philosophers, theologians of the 2020s, the 2030s, and the 2040s—will transform American tradition and culture by what you choose to value, how you choose to speak, write, and especially to think throughout your lives. But equally, your four years at Whitman College will transform you, not least through your encounter with Encounters, with the ever-changing, ever-developing, and ever-transforming tradition of your own multifaceted culture. Welcome to Whitman, and welcome to transformation. Thank you.

1Richmond Lattimore (trans.), The Iliad of Homer (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 380-1.

2Ronald Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart (London: Collins, 1920), 159-60; [Basil Shaw-Stewart, ed.] Patrick Shaw-Stewart 1888-1917 (Glasgow: privately printed, 1940), 49.

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