Interview with Professor of Ancient Greek Philology at the University of Athens, Mr. Vassilios Vertoudakis
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Is ancient Greek relevant today? What do the ancient Greek philosophers, poets and historians have to offer us? The winner of the State Literature Prize for the translation into Modern Greek of the work “Erotic Letters” by Aristainetos, a letter-writer of Late Antiquity, who studied in Greece and Germany, with a rich literary oeuvre and scholarships, Professor, Mr. Vertoudakis, talks to grtraveller, taking us on a journey through the language and culture that continues to exert its charm and still has much to offer the modern Western world.
Why did you choose classical studies, rather than another discipline?
The first impulse came in adolescence with the fascination of Ancient Greek. The structure of ancient Greek syntax and the plasticity of linguistic expression was for me a challenging intellectual exercise and an intellectual fascination, which until then I had not felt to such an extent even, say, in Mathematics, in which I was very good. Then, when I was 16, I happened to meet a gifted philologist, who – first of all – showed me that literature is much more than what a school teacher does. From then on things took their course: I studied at the Athens School of Philosophy and continued at the University of Heidelberg.
Nietzsche said “Be what you are”. What influences, what experiences led you to where you are today?
I am glad that you start with this quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, which I also use often, especially when addressing a student audience. Nietzsche here adapts a quote from Pindar in 2 Pythionicus to show the inner power of the human will. People absorb the world around them but not in the same way, not with the same intensity! The antennas of each subject receive those signals to which there are already modulated internal slots. Of course I was influenced by my family, the teachers I listened to, the books I read, the places I lived – the years in Germany were very dense in this respect. If I could sum up, the thirst for knowledge, the longing for understanding, the libido sciendi, as George Steiner says, defined me.
What do the ancients have to offer us in today’s age of digital advances, artificial intelligence and speed?
Whoever is converted to the ancient classics strengthens his thinking with a solid foundation and more readily acquaints himself with the more recent classics. He thus builds a solid education that offers him a broad horizon and valid analytical tools to read such a complex world. He is not easily bewitched by orators or ephemeral fads. Today’s era, with the inundation of virtual reality and the breaking of any hierarchy, requires a strong diagnostic criterion. And one more thing: Dialogue with the ancients erodes the omnipotence of the current cultural paradigm, that of the Faustian anthropotype. It leads us to think – and to follow as far as we can – a more modest, less hurried and abusive paradigm of life, in greater balance with nature, with less thirst for economic efficiency.
How do you think ancient philosophers, historians and orators would have commented on the international political situation today?
I understand the scandalous challenge of your question but such a question is not answerable! As Hegel so graphically put it, “Athena’s owl begins its flight only when dusk falls”, that is, philosophy, reason in general, studies reality when events have already taken place. Philosophers contemplate the things of man and the things of the world, but they do not contemplate the future.
Do the ancient poets inspire modern love?
Ancient Greek literature, as it represents a world of great ideological freedom that had decoupled erotic morality from any religious compulsion, can legitimize or de-legitimize in the eyes of many various sexual orientations and preferences. Consider, for example, that female homosexual eroticism, even in its naming, goes back to Sappho, the great poetess of Lesvos.
“They gave me the Greek language…”, wrote Elytis. But are we treating her today as we should?
A linguistic community at the level of the general population usually does not think about this question at all. It uses language simply to communicate. It is the poets, the prose writers, the scribes and scholars in general, who are concerned not only with what to say but also with how to say it. Certainly not in classical Athens of the 5th century did the bourgeois of the city speak or write like Aeschylus, Sophocles or Thucydides. However, it is nice, it seems to me, for each of us to try to communicate at an adequate level of Greek. I like to say that our linguistic expression is our intangible outer appearance!
If you were a time traveller, what era would you want to go to and why?
As a classical scholar I have many curiosities that a fleeting transition into the past would satisfy. To attend, for example, the premiere of Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles in the theatre of Dionysus Eleftheraeus in about 425 BC. Or to walk through the ancient marketplace and hear the Athenians pronounce the Attic dialect – and one moment Socrates emerges from a cobbler’s shop on Panathenaic Street barefoot! However, only for a short time! I would not like to live in another age.
Which classical poet or philosopher would you choose to tour the modern world and why?
Friedrich Hilderin! This great German poet and philosopher who loved freedom, craved the unity of nature and culture, enjoyed the empire of reason, was ecstatic with the experience of beauty and the experience of love, and who felt, as few others, the frustration and desolation of life.
What are your favourite trips to Greece?
A favourite place is Rhodes. Although Cretan by origin, Rhodes is my hometown. I served most of my military service there, I have been there for conferences and holidays. The island was marked by the Knights Hospitallers and the Italian rule. Greece has not only many variations in its geomorphology but also, depending on its size, in the cultural imprint left by the historical past of each region.