What is the value of the humanities in a time of crisis?
The question weighs in one way or another on a lot of minds these days. But it’s by no means a new one, as the recent publication of On Morals, or Concerning Education by Theodore Metochites (Harvard University Press, 2020) amply demonstrates. Sophia Xenophontos’s translation for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library makes this work, composed just over seven hundred years ago, available to English-speaking readers for the first time at a particularly apposite moment.
Xenophontos’s success in plotting a cogent English course through Metochites’s often dark and dense Greek counts as an achievement of scholarly interpretation even more than can be said of most translations. Examples of the difficulty extend down to the level even of the word—and particularly, of the word for “word.” The Byzantines grouped all intellectual pursuits, from fine literature to panegyric oration to philosophical and even scientific inquiry, under the general heading of logos. As Xenophontos lays out in her introduction, that term has an exceptionally broad range of reference, meaning “word” as a unit of speech and “reason” as a mental faculty as well as almost anything produced in or by either of the two: both the product and the representation of the most distinctively human capabilities. And it is education as logos in this richly layered sense that Metochites extols in On Morals. Valuing education, that is, means valuing what makes us human. To take just a bit of liberty with the terminology, this is a book about the humanities.