Professor Gregory Nagy, director of the Centre for Hellenic Studies at Harvard University, rediscovers the “humanism of the Hellenic civilisation” and explains why
the Harvard Summer Program in Greece focus on “the jewels of the crown” (Olympia, Nafplion, Thessaloniki) in order to encounter with “Hellenic πολιτισμός”.
Interview By Christian J. Hadjipateras
Your established career, combined with your lengthy achievements, culminated in your naming of the Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature in 1984. What do you believe drew you towards Greek studies?
It was a series of accidents. From the start, I was attracted to the Greek language, both ancient and modern. When I was a first-year college student at Indiana University, I enrolled in modern as well as in ancient Greek courses. It was my good fortune that the professor for both these courses was the classicist/linguist F. W. Householder. He was a world-renowned expert in the history of the Greek language. In the Modern Greek course that I took with Householder, his graduate assistant was Kostas Kazazis, who later went on
I sense that there is a burning hunger out there for the spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual values of Hellenism “writ large”.
to become a world-class professor of Modern Greek at the University of Chicago. When I applied to graduate school in 1961/2, Householder advised me to accept an o er of admission that I was lucky to receive from Harvard University, where I studied historical linguistics and wrote a Ph.D. thesis on Greek dialects. I was also lucky to start my teaching career at Harvard, where the primary courses assigned to me were (1) history of the Greek language and (2) history of the Latin language. Eventually, as a jun- ior faculty member in Harvard Classics, I branched out and specialised in the history of Homeric Greek, and, for that purpose, I immersed myself in the study of oral poetics as pioneered by Albert Lord, and, before him, by Milman Parry. After I was appointed as a senior professor at Harvard in 1975, I became a member of two departments: Classics and Com- parative Literature. My appointment in the Comparative Literature department was considered to be a continued commitment by Harvard to the intellectual legacy of Lord, who taught oral poetics in that department.
The Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS, Harvard University) was founded in 1960 and saw various expansions throughout the decades since, “the most recent being the mission of rediscovering the humanism of the Hellenic civilisation.” Could you elaborate on this further?
The wording that you mention goes back to a formulation that was originally articulated by the philanthropist Paul Mellon, who was the driving force behind the founding of the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington. I would disagree, however, with the idea that this wording is the most recent formulation. Rather, the formulation goes back to the very beginnings of the CHS. I am honoured to be a continuator of the ideals inherent in the original wording.
The Harvard Summer Programme in Greece is divided between ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games, Nafplion, the first capital city of modern Greece, and Thessaloniki, a multicultural centre for centuries located in northern Greece. What other reasons, aside from the obvious ones mentioned, were these three historic locations chosen out of hundreds of others with equal historic signi cance?
Together with all my colleagues at the CHS, I strongly endorse the idea that “first impressions” are vital for encounters with Hellenic πολιτισμός. These three places, I believe, are “jewels in the crown” for the legacy of this πολιτισμός.
Could you explain about the inter-disciplinary approach to the research on Hellenic culture which the CHS supports?
Together with the CHS team, I strongly support the interweaving of “Classical philology” with anthropology and linguistics. I also of course support the older interweavings with historical studies, including such special pursuits as represented by epigraphy, papyrology, and palaeography.
I strongly endorse the idea that “ first impressions”
are vital for encounters with Hellenic πολιτισμός. These three places (Olympia, Nafplion and Thessaloniki), I believe, are “jewels in the crown”
for the legacy of this πολιτισμός
Would you say that the enduring and ever-growing interest in Hellenic studies as illustrated by the enormous response to your class “The Ancient Greek Hero” is symptomatic of the state of our world today?
I sense that there is a burning hunger out there for the spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual values of Hellenism “writ large.”
Which ancient Greek poet would have most wished to spend time with?
I am guessing that Sophocles might have been perhaps the most tolerant of aliens like me.