Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“The highest wisdom is a decent and honest life”

“The highest wisdom is a decent and honest life”
16 March, 2017 - 10:30
Sketch by Viktor BOGORAD

Andrii Sodomora is a translator, writer, researcher, professor at the Classical Philology Department of Lviv National Ivan Franko University. It is in his voice that Seneca and Horace, Virgil and Sophocles, Ovid and Aeschylus speak to us from the pages of translations from the Ancient Greek and Latin languages. He is called the most outstanding translator of ancient Greek and Latin oeuvres in modern-day Ukraine (he had been doing this for about half a century now!). Sodomora, a bearer of humanitarian knowledge in the broadest sense of the word – has spoken to The Day about the past and the present day and, on the whole, about the eternal: wisdom of our predecessors, the lessons of classical antiquity, educational process, and a dialog across the centuries.


How can the wisdom of our predecessors be brought closer to present-day people?

“Above all, we must understand that our predecessors, even the remotest ones, are in fact our contemporaries, for what is a millennium from the angle of eternity? For, if we abstract away from things of minor importance, they were concerned about the same problems and reflected on the same eternal subjects: life and death, poverty and wealth, war and peace, good and evil, happiness and unhappiness, work and leisure, justice and injustice… I think we should not only study, but also lose our hearts to ancient authors, for they are we, we recognize ourselves in them, and we can see the future more clearly with them. ‘I work not for you but for future generations,’ Seneca used to say to his contemporaries. It is not they – ‘old and bearded’ (the ‘image’ of the antique), – it is we who grow old but, for some reason, do not get wiser with age. Classical antiquity is not only living, but also is young: they were closer to Nature and Word at the time than we are now. It is from them that the eras of Renaissance and Enlightenment drew energy. We, too, ought to draw energy from them in our feverish era disturbed by torrents of information.

“Today, when we intensely communicate via the internet, it is important to remember that wisdom is not an aggregate of knowledge (in this case the present-day Google would be the No. 1 sage). Wisdom is a way of life, an attitude. It is freedom and all the virtues. Summing up the reflections of ancient Greeks and Romans, church hierarchs have also emphasized this more than once. Suffice it to recall their maxims, such as ‘A wise man will not be broken by fear, spoiled by wielding power, elevated by successes, or oppressed by failures’ and ‘The highest wisdom is a decent and honest life.’ And how topical the following words of Petrarch sound: ‘To speak wisely is one thing, but to live wisely is a different one; one thing is when you are considered wise, and another thing is when you are really this kind of person,’ or ‘The ultimate stupidity is when a man considers himself wise.’ It is almost what Socrates said: ‘I know that I know nothing,’ which is opposite to arrogant ‘omniscience.’ Mingling with young people, I can see that they are fed up with ‘wise’ eloquence. The proof of this is, among other things, the popularity of Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius and Dialogs, which is a sincere, simple (‘for a commoner’s mind’), and in no way moralistic conversation with the reader. As a matter of fact, both in Ukraine and in ancient Greece and Rome, one always strove for an interesting and lively dialog about the eternal – it is so much needed in our internet era!”


What role do universities play in this?

“Obviously, the school is the thing to begin with. The pupil will either take interest in or turn away forever from classical antiquity. And what can make him or her interested is simple human wisdom, the living examples from history, parallels with the present day, rather than remembering dates, retelling the ‘content’ of works, or mindlessly learning by rote aphorisms, myths, etc. It is not so much important for the pupil to know Odysseus’ all adventures one by one as to understand the lessons he had taught us, the people of today (see Mykola Zerov’s sonnet The Lotophagi). In brief, the pupil should see an interesting path he could follow in all his or her lifetime in spite of the chosen profession. It is this kind of learning that curriculums should be oriented to. And the university ought to promote philologically gifted children, each time opening broader horizons to them. Of course, in this case emphasis should be put on teaching classical languages in the context of history, philosophy, and, what is more, poetics (for we know what the antique authors wrote, but it is no less important how they wrote), and all this should be organically tied up with the present day, which, after all, the very word ‘university’ (‘universus’ – characteristic of all or the whole) suggests.”

Is it enough for professors just to deliver lectures and for students to hear them?

“Of course not. The professor should not just read out lectures (it is the student’s job to read, and he or she should do so as often as possible). The role of today’s teacher is to speak to and argue with students, express his viewpoints unobtrusively, defend the chosen attitude with examples from real life, not with empty words, share interesting ideas, findings, and even sentiments – humor and emotions, to a certain extent, of course, are an integral part of this communication. It is an antique tradition. It is no accident that ‘school’ is ‘ludus’ in Latin, i.e. game, amusement, while in Greek it is ‘schole,’ i.e. leisure. We can see today some attempts to revitalize education – turn it from bleak into radiant. Suffice it to recall the experience of Finnish school or the opinion of the well known educationalist Ken Robinson. Incidentally, the Ukrainian translation of his book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution that’s Transforming Education recently came out in the Lviv-based Litopys publishing house. Let us try to get back to the education of ancient Greeks and Romans whose views John Amos Comenius described so well in Didactica Magna. ‘To follow nature as a guide’ is the standpoint of the Stoic school of philosophers and the author of Didactica Magna. By contrast, quite regretfully, we are coming against nature, which the Stoics considered a synonym for God, not only in education, but also in all the rest. Professor Solomon Lurie, a well-known Hellenist, linguist, and historian, used to gather students at his home, where he conducted study-group ‘colloquies’ (the term of Erasmus of Rotterdam). I was lucky to be a member of this study group.”


What do you think is the destiny of a humanitarian person in the 21st century of innovations and technologies?

“Taking into account the current attitude to the humanities not only in Ukraine, this destiny is sad – suffice it to recall Ray Bradbury’s visions. Some of my fellow students in the 1950s would carry an… inkpot to the university, and today’s innovations were then a matter of fantasy. But the rapid development of technologies is accompanied by an equally rapid departure from word – the word which the antique- and Renaissance-era man heard rather than saw (for people read out loud at the time). The same partly applies to the 1950s, when scientific and technological progress was only gaining momentum. We are witnessing the devaluation of word and, hence, love, as Oxana Pachlovska wrote in the preface to a selection of poems – No, non diro’ ch’e amore – by Corrado Calabro, an Italian poet and author of original studies of the problems of contemporary culture. The book, translated by Pachlovska and published by Litopys in 2009, was launched in the author’s presence in Kyiv. I was lucky to attend the presentation. I can remember some phrases, for example, ‘Calabro’s poetry is a struggle with the devaluation of love and word, the two universal elements of human existence. But whoever struggles must have at least some percentage of optimism.’ I can also hear the author’s voice: ‘We are immersed in the flows of words, while technological discoveries multiply, clone, and mix them, stratifying the void. One of the manifestations of chaos in today’s world is intolerable pathological verbosity – both oral and written. But, given this superfluity of words, the need for poetry and a poetic structure derives, paradoxically enough, from the devastation of its content.’ Therefore, a humanitarian person, a person in general (he or she is supposed to be human, i.e. humane and humanitarian), must fight for their destiny – otherwise, in spite of the fast pace of technological achievements, they will go nowhere. The word is inherent in man not in order to be a word, but man possesses the word in order to be a man. Let us try to wonder together with Ancient Greek playwright Menander: ‘How beautiful a human being is if he is human!’ Today, unfortunately, there are endless opportunities to wonder at the opposite: how terrible it is when a human turns into a monster!”


What is classical antiquity for you – an opportunity to communicate with contemporaries or an “ivory tower”?

“As far back as 1983 the Kyiv-based Molod publishing house put out my first prose book The Living Antiquity which comprised poetic stories about the outstanding writers of Ancient Greece and Rome. Since then, the Sribne Slovo publishers in Lviv have republished the book three times. And a year before, the Dnipro publishers (Kyiv) had put out my complete translation of Horace’s works. This is the way I began communicating with reader – by means of a series of translated and original works. Incidentally, my first translation of Dyskolos (‘The Grouch’), a newly-found play by the abovementioned comedy writer Menander, saw the light of day 55 years ago. I recently translated this work again: I want to compare the two translations and show clearly the path I’ve been following to reach the antique author and, hence, the present-day reader. I don’t communicate by means of books only – what adds optimism is the fact that I have a lot of friends among the contemporary young people who go to antique sources, to serious literature in general. I can remember that, once the Horace translation had come out, I received a letter from an unknown reader from the now war-torn area of Ukraine, and my memory still keeps even the first phrase: ‘There are a Horace and The Electron in Chemical Processes on my table.’ What also inspires a hope is that ‘lyricists and physicists’ no longer argue today – they unite instead.”

What lessons can the contemporary Ukrainian society and 21st-century politicians learn from ancient Greek and Roman authors?

“Seneca noted in his Dialogs: ‘Our society is not perfect enough to let its majority be trusted.’ So the first lesson or, rather, advice is: let us make sure that society has as few people as possible who thirst for ‘bread and circuses,’ that the lofty words ‘community’ and ‘nation’ prevail over ‘crowd’ and ‘populace’ inherited from the totalitarian era – let us recall the titanic efforts of Ivan Franko and his followers to lead the people forward, without entertaining them with cheap stuff but acquainting them with the elevated examples of world culture that rouse national pride, historical memory, and self-respect. We should learn from them, antiques, the ability ‘to emerge for a better life’ out of our clamorous and consumerists humdrums – to content ourselves with the sufficient, when it is about corporeal needs, and crave for the increasingly rich spiritual food. They, antiques, used to say with a bitter irony: ‘The robbers of private property go about in chains and those of public property – in gold.’ The latter don’t like, of course, the main call of ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as of our Skovoroda, to live in harmony with nature and to content oneself with sufficiently modest things. Yet, except for the case of high classics, antique authors appealed not so much to society as to the individual who even in the Hellenistic period was in fact isolated from active political life. They called on people not to depersonalize and remain their own selves under any circumstances, whereas so many up-to-date technologies in today’s urbanized and almost globalized world are in fact causing not only an individual but a nation to depersonalize! But the most important message of the antique is that we must live, not just exist. Our Bard also emphasized this: ‘Let us live, live with our hearts,’ catching every moment to become human, improving what in fact makes man a man – his opinion and spiritual sources, ‘a fraction of heavenly breath,’ and let us add now, also cherishing his national identity. If you want to know the way an Emperor Trajan-era Roman intellectual spent his day of leisure, read a letter of Pliny the Younger – I published the Ukrainian translation of his most interesting letters in the journal Dzvin past year. As for Roman politicians, particularly Stoic school adepts, they would be reminding us today: ‘Confirm your words with deeds.’ Incidentally, in 458 BC the Roman Senate summoned Quinctius Cincinnatus, who lived in a village and was a model of probity and courage, literally from the plow to the dictator’s helm. In a short time, having fulfilled his assignment, he saved Rome, which was in dire straits, and, without enriching himself even with a penny, although he wielded all the power, he continued to pull a plow in his modest field (grain grower was considered the noblest job).”


You once noted that present-day humankind had set up an artificial barrier between itself and antiquity. Is it possible to remove this barrier today? How can this be done?

“People are inclined to erect barriers or even walls which have later to be taken apart brick by brick or demolished, about which Jean Vanier wrote in his well-known work Toute Personne Est une Histoire Sacree (see the review of this book, translated into Ukrainian by Hanna Kosiv, in the past year’s Dzvin). One of such non-manmade walls (which are especially difficult to torn down) is between us and the antique world. It did not emerge all of a sudden and will not fall all of a sudden. The totalitarian system has always seen danger in the freedom-loving ideas of ancient Hellenes and the uncompromising Stoicism of Romans. Let us hear, for example, Aeschylus: ‘He who has overcome fear will speak freely’ or Horace: ‘Mingle a little folly with your wisdom.’ Let us recall the destiny of neo-classics, above all, Zerov, our dissidents who used to overcome fear and mingle a little folly with their wisdom. But the wall was also put up by the educational system, the teachers of Ancient Greek and Roman literature. The following jocular epitaph is about them: ‘Here lies a hapless student tortured to death by Greek and Latin.’ They usually emphasized what distinguished, rather than united, us, the people of today and of yesterday at the level of thoughts, feelings, and moods. Among the many thoughts (aphorisms) that still managed to break through this wall is this one, by Seneca: ‘There is nothing that hard work, purposeful and decisive persistence cannot achieve.’ Its echo in the original version of the Ukraine anthem’s text by Pavlo Chubynsky – ‘and the hard and sincere work will produce a result’ – is also worth repeating today. Virgil’s Aeneid taught us how to build a state and his philosophical poem On Things Agricultural (the Georgics) how to cultivate its land. It does not need to be explained how we managed to do both things.”

Do you think a modern-day individual would manage to maintain an intercultural dialog across the centuries with an antique person?

“Antiquity is a wise smiling woman who extends her hand to us through a time span (let’s recall our song: ‘Across one little river, across another…’) and wants to hear us. She is smiling sadly today, speaking to us in the words of prophetic Cassandra from a tragedy by Euripides: ‘Let the wise stay clear of war, but if it has begun, let him give his life for his homeland.’ She speaks about the most important thing, without which life loses its sense, in the words of Sappho: ‘The time will come when we will die, but we will leave memory to people.’ Antiquity is waiting for a dialog. We only need to take a step – not in the real but in the spiritual space. We must feel a living soul. And the wider the time span is, the more pleasant and moving the meeting will be and the more interesting conversation we will have.”

And what about a dialog among us, the contemporaries? How can a fruitful and constructive dialog between, for example, the Ukrainians on the two banks of the Dnipro be launched? Or between those on the opposite sides of the current barricades?

“My memory brings back again the words from our song: ‘The talk is wrong, the words are wrong…’ We don’t like to talk now about the eternal – for this reason, there is no dialog with antiquity. But even the way we, the people of today, are communicating can hardly be called a dialog, and there will be no real progress without one. Very often, we can’t hear one another because we have forgotten not only how to speak, but also how to listen, whereas ancient Greeks and Romans developed the art of not only speaking, but also of wise silence. And whenever we speak, we never specify, as Descartes advised, the meaning of words. Hence are endless misunderstandings: for example, a war is a war, not an acronym; democracy is power of the people, not of the populace; civilization, at least in the antique interpretation, is a gradual transition from primeval savagery to humanness, where the main factor is the word, the attitude of man to the word, and the awareness of the latter’s noble man-shaping function. As for a dialog on the opposite banks of the Dnipro, it is a long educational and informational process. We should restore the lost (partly through our own fault) big ‘sensation of a single family’ based on the same native language. In the extreme situations ‘on the opposite sides of the current barricades,’ the insight may come up instantly (these miracles do occur).”

How is Ukraine’s postcolonial mentality to be “cured”?

“Seneca considered all people, including himself, sick. Health comes with wisdom (philosophy is a healer). The first step to the recovery is to be aware of one’s illness. Our disease, derived from Ukraine’s colonial condition, is chronic and hard to cure. The antique people would say this piece of advice: ‘Know thyself,’ i.e. our history, ancient culture, writing (suffice it to recall the Latin-language stratum!). We must understand that, on the way to true independence, we must first of all shake off dependence on the former parent country and overcome the disease (corruption and the inferiority complex are its hardest and most deep-rooted symptoms). ‘Escaping, without due understanding, from some drawbacks, we fall into still bigger ones,’ Horace used to say. We run to extremes: as far the language is concerned, we throw away handfuls of old Ukrainian words from our tongue, shun the high style and give our own things into somebody else’s hands. A patient needs a state of appeasement, not of a hectic bustle. We need a well-thought-out systemic struggle for health. We also need to heed and believe our Bard who said: ‘Battle on – and win your battle!’ Win not only the enemy, but also ourselves, which (as the antiques proved) is twice as difficult.”

By Dmytro PLAKHTA, Lviv