The Arete Award: A Lifetime with the Classics

Michael Putnam’s Remarks on the Permanent Mutability of Great Literature

In Medias Res
May 17 · 7 min read

[Michael C. J. Putnam, professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at Brown University, was awarded the Arete Award at the Paideia Institute’s 2019 gala. He was introduced by Madeline (“Emmy” below) Miller, whose remarks may be found here. The speech Dr. Putnam gave for the occasion is below.]

Good evening, everyone, and thank you, Emmy, for your kind and generous words. I cherish our friendship.

I am deeply honored, and profoundly moved, to receive the Arete Award from the Paideia Institute, an organization that I have admired from its initiation. I will be following in the illustrious footsteps of Roger Bagnall to whom all classicists are in debt. But it is I who should do the praising — of the Cohen family, at this moment Daniel in particular, of co-founders Eric Hewett and Jason Pedicone, of the stimulus of Fr. Reginald Foster, of Paideia’s special staff — all of you who make up this youthful but already honored, internationally distinguished, enterprise. And, not least, I thank everyone here tonight, joined together to celebrate Paideia’s present and to help support its future. I feel surrounded by the affection of family members and friends, of students who have become my kin, and of distinguished colleagues whom I cherish, from many areas of the intellectual life. Thank you all for being here.

I take pride in receiving this award — for the small part that I’ve played in fostering Paideia and the study of Latin that is a major thrust of its mission. I rejoice in the Institute’s own accomplishments which seem to grow by the day. It is a special pleasure to share the company of this wonderful audience and to thank it for its enthusiasm in helping the Institute to flourish, in all its many aspects.

I changed my undergraduate major from mathematics to classics because of a fine educator. I have never regretted the decision nor forgotten what good teaching, with all the care that goes with it, meant to me. My doctorate is in philology, and I have tried, in my scholarship, in the classroom, and beyond, to live up to its mandate as a lover of words. And that is what unites all of us assembled here tonight, however diverse our interests. We are devotees of words and their usage. The close study of language, especially of a language like Latin that is the source of so much of our own vocabulary and is beautiful to absorb by both eye and ear, instructs us in how to think clearly and to write expressively. It educates us in ways to appreciate, and then to interpret, whatever we are reading with precision, empathy and insight. It inculcates in us the search for exactitude of meaning as well as of the importance of arrangement and design.

It is an aphorism of Wallace Stevens that “In the world of words, the imagination is one of the forces of nature.” We are especially fortunate when largeness of imagination and precision of formal structure co-exist in creative tension with a rich outpouring of ideas. Rosanna Warren speaks of how poetry goes about “the wedding of craft to spirit and intellect.” Both aspects are crucial in the mix — inventiveness, yes, but also the control that harnesses and then illustrates the quality of mind and the discipline manifest in all outstanding art, discipline that paradoxically encourages freedom.

I have spent my life most happily studying poetry primarily. I have reveled particularly in the company of Virgil, who has spoken in countless, often quite divergent, ways to generation after generation. We ask ourselves, for instance, how we should read his pastoral poems. Are they light pleasantries, set in a rural environment and speckled with concerns about time and the erotic, or do they in fact illustrate the vulnerability of individual human vitae in the face of political and military power, and pit the fragile life of the mind against the irresistible forces of history? Doesn’t his didactic masterpiece, the Georgics, tell us as much about ourselves as it does about the natural world, its apparent subject? And what of his commanding epic, the Aeneid? Is it a eulogy of the majesty of empire or a study in human nature, where private emotionality ultimately becomes paramount? Or is it perhaps a complex, challenging, amalgamation of the two?

And we think of his equally extraordinary peers, Horace and Ovid. The first, in his role as satirist, is richly germane to us as he holds up a mirror in which we still vividly see our foibles. And as a brilliant lyricist, he has a unique way of turning the particulars of experience into general, ever pertinent, insights about the condition of mankind. Ovid has special resonance now in a world where mutability is ever with us and exile, in its many varieties, a bitter commonplace.

With knowledge of Greek and Latin as a crucial support, I have immersed myself as best I could in the powerful tradition that these geniuses created, one that runs from antiquity to the present as a core of the European literary canon. It is a continuum that has profoundly influenced contemporary poets as distinctive as Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Constantine Cavafy. And the deep contemplation of distinguished Latin prose is also of the highest value and has also affected authors of consequence as diverse as Abraham Lincoln and Thornton Wilder. We think of Cicero at his persuasive best, of Caesar’s clarity, of the sharp succinctness of Sallust or the milky richness of Livy, of the ironies through which Tacitus brilliantly expresses his insightfulness.

From the close study of Latin, whether employed in poetry or prose, as of any supreme tongue, comes our knowledge of style and eloquence, of how to concentrate our thoughts and how to elaborate them, of the crucial power of words themselves and of the authority that comes from their ingenious yet rigorous deployment.

Of course we read texts for the information they provide. But it is a special privilege to be inspired, in whatever way, not only by the vibrant artistry but also by the moral worth of this extraordinary corpus of past writing which still speaks brilliantly to our own lives. Elegance of presentation in its turn also offers models for us to emulate in our work, whatever be our vocation.

From the start, my profession as a scholar taught me one basic lesson: that there are no final answers, nor should we expect them, to the interpretation of superlative literature. Prestigious works of the pen, like chameleons, alter and develop in ways that continue to nurture us even as we and our circumstances evolve over time. They instruct us anew, era after era, by parallels and distinctions, about ourselves. My colleague Arnold Weinstein once spoke of the “ceaseless futurity” of our field of literary criticism, meaning that ways of comprehending all great written work regularly suffer change, and should in fact always change. It is our role as readers and teachers to spur the judicious curiosity that makes appreciation of exemplary authors possible at any given moment.

This process must, of course, begin with the careful assimilation of grammar, syntax and the whole rhetoric of expression. And here’s where the Paideia Institute plays a major role that it is expanding in several important directions. To name but a few: the superb Living Greek and Living Latin programs abroad, the Legion Project and Nexus that connect classicists who are not specifically working in academic environments, the Summer Internship program. Nor should we forget our on-line journal In Medias Res that opens the door to reading about, and imagining, ancient Mediterranean civilization in ways not regularly to be found in traditional scholarly publications.

Furthermore, through the Aequora project, the pedagogical “seas” of enriching exploration, the Paideia Institute provides the opportunity to study Greek and Latin, which is also to say the literatures as well as the early cultures of the Mediterranean basin, to people, especially to young scholars, who otherwise might never have had the possibility of so doing. This chance offers them the occasion to learn and then to practice difficult but glorious languages and through this effort to develop not only their own skills as readers and writers but an understanding of superior intellects at work and of the difficult but rewarding means by which these eminent guides go about moving and enlightening us. They grant all of us in turn the strength of mind, the ethical courage, the civility, to sustain the finest in what comes our way. From the close examination of excellent literature we learn better to comprehend, to evaluate as well as to value, who we are and what it means to be human. I take it for granted that wise readers become astute critics who in turn serve as open-minded but scrupulous members of society.

Nothing pleases me more than to imagine someone standing in the proud position in which I find myself tonight who had been given the unexpected occasion to study Latin through training by means of the Aequora curriculum. Let’s make that hope a reality.

Finally, macte virtute esto — which roughly translated means be blessed and flourish, each of you working for Paideia, because of your courage, persistence and stalwart belief in the merit and significance of your cause and in who you are. We are with you! May you ever maintain the energy, wisdom, imagination and sheer exuberance of the present institution as it continues to grow and strengthen in the years ahead!

Thank you.

Michael C. J. Putnam taught Classics and Comparative Literature at Brown University for decades, where he is professor emeritus. His numerous publications include The Poetry of the Aeneid, Virgil’s Pastoral Art, Virgil’s Aeneid: Interpretation and Influence, and Mafeo Vegio: Short Epics.

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

In Medias Res

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A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.

In Medias Res

A magazine for lovers of the Classics, published by the Paideia Institute.