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Why study Greek now?

«γράμματα σπουδάσματα του θεού τα πράγματα»

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06 February 2013

Why should I study Greek now? This is a direct and sharp question for a student contemplating his or her studies. Such a blunt question, one that demands an unambiguous answer, is characteristic of our times. It is the same as asking: why should I be loved for longer than one day? Or: why should a journey last for more than one hour? In the case of Greek, I have been asked it thousands of times over the last 25 years, and the conversation usually proceeds as follows.
First, I refuse to answer any ultimatum like this directly and instead ask the student if he/she knows anything - and if so, what - about, for instance, a character called Odysseus. When the potential student answers, I then go into a more reflective engagement with the question, telling him/her: you should study Modern Greek because this is the only way to empower yourself from life and for life. In other words, in life, what you need to be successful is first a forceful character and then a prestigious degree. Your character will allow you to be strong, flexible, smart, creative, and wise, and not your degree on quantum aerodynamics.
If we agree that character is the most important thing for an individual to possess then let's consider the word 'character'. It is, of course, a Greek word (from the verb χαράζω, charazo, 'carve') referring to something cut out of an individual's experiences and permanently engraved into their being. This is the solid base that is needed to build robust and lasting achievements in life and to provide strength when things are going badly. It could be the love of your parents, enduring friendships, unshaken beliefs, the love for your country and - of course - unforgettable journeys into the vast lands of Greek language, history and culture: words, songs, ancestral experiences, epic narratives, and even tragedies, intellectual quests, and great images are there to strengthen your mind and body with passion and patience:
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches. (Kavafy: Ithaca)
Is this too intellectual a response? I am afraid that a real question demands a real answer. Both question and answer becoming real when they have significance over the course of a lifetime, and so cannot be answered except by reference to the timeless concepts of knowledge, experience, and self-fulfilment.
Why should I study Greek now? Because it is for ever.
* Professor Michael Tsianikas is a Professor in Modern Greek at Flinders University, and is the director of the LOGOS Centre and Professor in Modern Greek.

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