Random finds (2019, week 2) — On Apple’s loss, the ‘Purpose Paradigm,’ and intellectual humility
I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my fluid and boundless curiosity. I am also creating #TheInfiniteDaily; an ∞ of little pieces of wisdom, art, music, books and other things that have made me stop and think.
If you want to know more about my work and how I help leaders and their teams find their way through complexity, ambiguity, paradox & doubt, go to Leadership Confidant — A new and more focused way of thriving on my ‘multitudes’ or visit my new ‘uncluttered’ website.
This week: Even for Apple, innovation is a hard thing to do over and over again; the ‘purpose industry’; the importance of knowing you might be wrong; living an Amazon-free life; happiness narratives are making us miserable; Elena Ferrante and why we fall in love with a text; the Comma Queen on Homeric epithets; and, finally, Nietzsche on the strangeness of the Greek colour vocabulary.
“… the one thing that time is ever sure to bring about is the loss: gain or compensation is almost always conceivable but never certain.” — T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture
Just a few months ago, Apple became the first company to reach a trillion-dollar valuation. Today, it is worth about $675 billion, having shed almost a third of its value since its summer high.
This isn’t “the beginning of the end for Apple,” says Jesus Diaz in A timeline of Apple’s six-month fall. But it is “a wake up call–things are not looking shiny at the moment and the company needs to correct course and fix a lot of things in the new year.” One of his fixes is to “make one great iPhone” since the latest iPhone XS has failed to innovate at all. “Having a single amazing iPhone will not only make it easier for consumers to buy, but also turn the product into an event that makes people line up again for days,” Diaz writes.
Indeed, since its first launch in 2007, the iPhone has generated an excitement which seemed unstoppable. “The reason people lined up outside Apple stores [in 2007] was not because they cared about getting more done on the go, but because they wanted to be a part of the shiny new chrome-case digital culture it represented. We’re used to this idea today, but it really was radical back in 2007,” Call Newport, whose book Digital Minimalism will be published next month, writes in Are Smartphones Necessary Anymore?
Since then, smartphones have become ordinary and necessary accoutrements of everyday life, Ian Bogost says in Embracing Apple’s Boring Future. “People still love them, but they are also exhausted by them. By their grip on time and attention, but also on their wallets. Who needs a new iPhone every year or two? Increasingly nobody does.”
According to Bogost, this is not only a victory for Apple, which has made the smartphone the single, most important change in 21st-century life, but also a huge problem for a company expected to amass ever-greater profits from their sales. “But perhaps the solution to that problem isn’t to sell more iPhones, or even to replace those sales with something new. Maybe it’s time Apple made smartphone life better, rather than just unceasing.”
“Every year, some people need a new car,” Bogost writes. “But taken together, car sales in America have remained steady since 1970, declining a bit in the 2000s and experiencing a bigger dip after the Great Recession. That’s because cars won. They became a part of American daily life, for better and worse. That could change if cities suddenly invest in transit and walkability, or if new services like ride-on scooters and autonomous cars change personal transit. But until then, a car is just a car. You use it to get around. You buy a new one (or a new, used one) when your old one breaks down or no longer suits your needs.”
That fact that cars are often a necessity, doesn’t make its “manufacturers high-growth companies with record-breaking profits year after year, like Apple and Google and Facebook.” At best, they are ‘blue-chip companies’ with reliable track records for success and whose financial performance tracks a generally reliable market. Insurance companies, banks, airlines, automakers, and, now, perhaps, smartphone manufacturers. Phones are like cars now, as the Wall Street Journal writer Christopher Mims put it last year: “there is absolutely no reason to upgrade unless your old one no longer does what you need.”
“Critics have warned that Apple needed new innovations to account for the inevitable plateau in its smartphone business. But that need makes a couple big assumptions. First, that companies like Apple should sustain high growth rather than transitioning from novelty to stability. Second, that a company like Apple is even capable of multiple hits as big as the iPhone,” Bogost writes.
“As Microsoft and Amazon indicate, long-term success often looks far more boring than triumphs driven by innovation. Making an office suite work online, as Microsoft did, or selling the infrastructure that Amazon’s ecommerce business runs on, as AWS does, are hardly exciting prospects for investors or consumers. But they offer enough value to produce reliable, stable growth.
One of the saving graces of blue-chip companies that sell toothpaste and cars and, now, smartphones, is that they provide something else, too: stability over time. Apple’s a part of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, a stock-market index that was built to track blue chips, those companies that are supposed to do well in good times or bad, over the long haul. Google and Facebook are not components of the Dow, but Apple and Microsoft (and Intel, IBM, and Cisco) are. As trade war looms and the stocks enter what looks like the end of the longest bull market in history, maybe the American economy — and the soul of its people — don’t really need another gizmo like the iPhone, around which their lives might be redesigned anew. Maybe they just need the lives they have, contorted though they’ve been by the smartphone, to enjoy responsible, long-term support and maintenance. The iPhone is here to stay. Imagine if Apple could make that state of affairs feel like a comfort, rather than a burden.”
But according to Kara Swisher in Is This the End of the Age of Apple?, we need the next wave of innovation, and we need it now.
“The last big innovation explosion — the proliferation of the smartphone — is clearly ending. Now all of tech is seeking the next major platform and area of growth. Will it be virtual and augmented reality, or perhaps self-driving cars? Artificial intelligence, robotics, cryptocurrency or digital health? We are stumbling in the dark,” she writes.
“This is a big issue not only for Apple but also for all of tech. There is not a major trend that you can grab onto right now that will carry everyone forward. The last cool set of companies — Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest and, yes, Tinder — were created many years ago, and I cannot think of another group that is even close to as promising.”
Adding, “How innovation happens is a much more delicate thing than people imagine, a dance involving money, opportunity, timing, execution and, most important, one great idea behind it all. Where is that next spark that will light us all up?”
Steve Jobs presided over a historic run of innovation at Apple — from the iMac to the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad. In his seven years as chief executive, Tim Cook has announced the Apple Watch and AirPods, which have done well but have been far from iPhone-like industry changers. This shows that, even for a company like Apple with its historic track record, innovation is hard to do over and over again.
Maybe, as Ian Bogost suggests, the assumption “that a company like Apple is even capable of multiple hits as big as the iPhone,” is just plain wrong. If this is true, and I think it is, what would it mean for all our ideas about corporate innovation? Do too many companies try to invent the next ‘industry changer’ while it would be much better for them to improve what they already have or do? Boring as this may sound…
The ‘Purpose Paradigm’
“We need to call time on purpose washing. Tomorrow’s companies seek to shape cultures and place purpose at the centre of their strategies, using it to drive broader societal value creation. They defy conventional business practices by being farsighted and willing to sacrifice short-term gains for the longer term benefits, which values and reputation bring. By doing so they thrive on being believed, not just noticed for saying the right things.” — Kenneth Mikkelsen, Purpose Parasites
Multinational corporations are luring millennial workers with empty promises and self-serving slogans, writes Maria Hengeveld in Big Business Has a New Scam: The ‘Purpose Paradigm.’
“Business Fights Poverty (BFP) is the world’s largest business-led network of companies, non-governmental organizations and aid organizations working together to ‘embed purpose in business,’ as the company puts it. With a team of over a dozen ‘challenge managers’ and ‘thought leadership directors,’ the business of London-based BFP is to amplify a doctrine that some CEOs have been pushing for a while now: that a new and more humane kind of capitalism is underway, in which big business is driven as much by ‘purpose’ as by profits and delivers as many ‘social returns’ as it does financial ones,” Hengeveld writes.
“Under this ‘purpose paradigm,’ doing what’s right for society is perfectly compatible with what’s right, commercially, for the corporate bottom line. With so many governments failing to protect their people from poverty, exploitation, and climate catastrophe, the logic goes, market solutions — led by ethical, trailblazing CEOs with the support and trust of pragmatic nonprofit partners — are humanity’s best hope to alleviate poverty, inequality and toxic political climates.”
Holly Branson, the daughter of Richard Branson, is an outspoken promotor of the ‘purpose paradigm.’ “Embedding purpose into business is emerging as a powerful paradigm,” she explained. “When you put purpose at the heart of everything you do you will attract the best talent… It’s the ultimate win-win.”
In her recent book, Weconomy, You Can Find Meaning, Make a Living and Change the World, Branson argues that “social purpose is the biggest thing to happen to business since [the invention of] the assembly line.” According to her, the driving force behind this turn to purpose are millennials. The typical millennial worker wants “to work for a company that has purpose baked into its culture.”
“A raft of surveys, articles, and polls suggest that the millennial generation, which came of age during the financial crisis, is skeptical of big business and market solutions.” Hengeveld writes. These polls, surveys and articles “are the foundation of the corporate-purpose zeitgeist, which seeks to win the trust of the millennial and channel her radical energies along market friendly lines.
Contrary to its purported aim, the point of purpose isn’t to drive change. It’s to make sure any change stays within the tightly bound comfort zone of the world’s most powerful executives.”
“No executive embodies the promise of purpose-driven’ capitalism as well as another Unilever manager: Paul Polman.” Known for household brands such as Dove, Knorr and Lipton Tea, Unilever, headquartered in both Rotterdam and London, doesn’t sell “the hottest commodities, but Polman knows how to spin them,” writes Hengeveld.
Polman also understands that, “unless the private sector ‘lifts its purpose’ to Unilever’s level, the ‘millennial challenge’ might jeopardize the industry’s ability to attract the best and brightest people. […] Solving this ‘challenge,’ from his perspective, means that Unilever-like capitalism, while an outlier today, must soon turn into the norm,” Hengeveld writes.
“In reality, a Unilever-like capitalism is fundamentally ill-equipped to bequeath the economy with the conscience that young people are demanding. Polman’s own actions in 2018 show us why.”
The Financial Times may have dubbed Polmans “a flag bearer of corporate sustainability,” in his own country, the Netherlands, he’s been dogged by cold showers; starting at the end of 2017, when the Dutch government announced the scrapping of the Dividend Withholding Tax, a tax paid by shareholders in Dutch companies over the dividends they receive.
“None of the ruling parties had mentioned the tax scrap — which would cost the Dutch treasury an estimated 2 billion euros every year — in their election manifestos, so the measure came as a huge surprise to the electorate. But not to Paul Polman, who viewed the tax scrap as a sign of progress and, as it would turn out later, had fiercely lobbied the government in The Hague to make it happen. […] In defending the tax scrap, [the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte] framed the measure as being in the national interest, necessary to attract and retain multinationals. Leaving the tax intact, he argued, would be irresponsible, as it would risk losing multinational businesses to the UK, where shareholders don’t pay tax over their dividends. Save for a handful of business leaders, most people found Rutte’s case unconvincing.”
Bas Jacobs, a professor of public economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam, told Hengeveld, “There is no evidence that this costly measure would benefit the Dutch economy. It is mainly a gift to foreign governments and some foreign shareholders.” Adding it could furthermore contribute “to widening the gap between capital and labor, between rich and poor.”
“During these months, Polman’s role as the leading lobbying force behind the measure had come to the fore. Internal memos from the Ministries of Finance and Economic Affairs, obtained through Freedom of Information requests by academics and journalists, revealed that Polman had all but promised the government to reward the tax scrap by moving its London headquarters to Rotterdam.” Eventually, Unilever’s British shareholders rejected Polman’s plan to move Unilever’s London-headquarters to Rotterdam, leaving him unable to fulfil his part of the tax deal.
“When pressed in an interview late November, Polman admitted that he had pushed for the move to Rotterdam because ‘we [at Unilever] do what’s good for the company.’ His comment proves what the purpose paradigm so zealously denies: that CEOs — never mind their individual character — can and will exacerbate inequality and fuel toxic politics when it benefits their bottom line,” Hengeveld writes.
The idea that doing good is good for business had already blown up in front of Polman’s eyes during a debate with the author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas.
“In the debate, Giridharadas […] challenged Polman on his optimistic claims about the potential of business and market forces to drive progressive change. Thirty-four minutes in, he took out his phone and told Polman he’d offer him the ‘opportunity to make history’ and back up his purpose talk with action.
What he showed Polman was an advertisement for a skin-whitening cream by Hindustan Unilever, targeted at girls and women, primarily in India, with an unmistakable message of white superiority. Telling the story of a young Indian woman whose life, career and family relations went from miserable to successful after she started using Fair & Lovely, the ad directly clashes with the aims of Unilever’s Dove product line, which claims to boost the self-esteem of millions of women through advertising and self-esteem workshops.
“When pressed by Giridharadas to condemn the ad and take the product off the market, Polman refused, arguing that it ‘wouldn’t solve the problem,’ since other companies would simply take over their market share. Whether he realized it or not, Polman proved the point that he was trying to contest: that, even if Polman at a personal level may have wanted to dump the product that very same day, the laws of competition made it impossible for the CEO to ‘make history,’” Hengeveld notes.
“When even the most ‘ethical’ CEO feels compelled to capitalize on and actively entrench white supremacy when the market presents him that opportunity, it’s a sign that the Purpose Paradigm really only knows one winner.
Instead of admitting that his ‘win-win’ claim is a corporate fantasy, Polman called Giridharadas’s tactic counterproductive. Dismissing the Fair & Lovely paradox as a ‘micro issue,’ he urged the journalist to ‘focus on the bigger picture’ and ‘think of global systemic solutions and collaborations that focus on how companies compete at a global level and move it ‘to a higher level of operating.’ That, Polman said, is what drives him and why he lives ‘in a solution space’ rather than point fingers.”
It is the same kind of rhetoric Polman used in the interview with the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad in November 2018, when he replied to one of the journalist’s questions, “You are not asking the right question! Why don’t you ask whether we have improved the lives of 600 million people through better health and wellbeing? Whether we have created jobs for five million small farmers? How much of our production is sustainable?”
It is what Anand Giridharadas calls in an interview with Krista Tippett, the ‘Aspen Consensus’ (after The Aspen Institute think-tank): “You can tell the rich and powerful in our age to do more good, but you can never tell them to do less harm. You can tell them to give more, but you can’t tell them to take less. You can tell them to share the spoils of extreme capitalism, but you can’t tell them to renovate capitalism.”
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, the Financial Times’s US business editor, takes a different stand. In a ‘Weekend long read,’ entitled Beyond the bottom line: should business put purpose before profit?, he defends the ‘purpose-first movement.’
“In sum,” he argues, “the purpose-first movement is still far from ubiquitous and lacking in reliable data, but is the pursuit of something beyond profit worse than [Milton Friedman’s] singular focus on shareholder returns? Encouraging companies to have a clear mission, consider their communities and steer their innovative impulses to good ends may not add up to systemic change, but it is surely better than the alternative.
Critics such as Giridharadas would rather society concentrate on restoring politics as the forum through which we address its challenges. But for as long as politicians are viewed with more suspicion than chief executives and investors, the purposeful capitalists may be our best hope.
Consumers, employees and campaigners are already learning how effective they can be in pushing companies to balance other stakeholders’ concerns with their returns to shareholders. Companies, in turn, have discovered that doing so can improve their reputations, persuade investors that they have a sustainable strategy and, ultimately, benefit their bottom line.
As companies’ self-interest converges with the interests of other stakeholders, those who would improve the world have a chance to get some of the world’s most powerful instruments for change onside. They should grasp the opportunity business’s moral money moment has given them.”
Like Giridharadas, “… part of me wants to live in a world where there is no Fair & Lovely Foundation because there is no Fair & Lovely.” We don’t need companies to do good; we need them to do less harm. To me, this seems a far better purpose.
Intellectual humility, which, according to social and personality psychologist Mark Leary, is “the recognition that the things you believe in might in fact be wrong,” shouldn’t be confused with overall humility or bashfulness. “It’s not about being a pushover; it’s not about lacking confidence, or self-esteem. The intellectually humble don’t cave every time their thoughts are challenged,” Brian Resnick writes in Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong.
“Instead, it’s a method of thinking. It’s about entertaining the possibility that you may be wrong and being open to learning from the experience of others. Intellectual humility is about being actively curious about your blind spots. One illustration is in the ideal of the scientific method, where a scientist actively works against her own hypothesis, attempting to rule out any other alternative explanations for a phenomenon before settling on a conclusion. It’s about asking: What am I missing here?,” Resnick writes.
“This idea is older than social psychology. Philosophers from the earliest days have grappled with the limits of human knowledge. […] Social psychologists have learned that humility is associated with other valuable character traits: People who score higher on intellectual humility questionnaires are more open to hearing opposing views. They more readily seek out information that conflicts with their worldview. They pay more attention to evidence and have a stronger self-awareness when they answer a question incorrectly. […] Most important of all, the intellectually humble are more likely to admit it when they are wrong. When we admit we’re wrong, we can grow closer to the truth.”
Resnick believes we need more intellectual humility for two reasons. “One is that our culture promotes and rewards overconfidence and arrogance (think Trump and Theranos, or the advice your career counselor gave you when going into job interviews). At the same time, when we are wrong — out of ignorance or error — and realize it, our culture doesn’t make it easy to admit it. Humbling moments too easily can turn into moments of humiliation.”
So how can we promote intellectual humility for both of these conditions?
“In asking that question of researchers and scholars,” Resnick writes, “I have learned to appreciate how hard a challenge it is to foster intellectual humility. First off, I think it’s helpful to remember how flawed the human brain can be and how prone we all are to intellectual blind spots. When you learn about how the brain actually works, how it actually perceives the world, it’s hard not to be a bit horrified, and a bit humbled. We often can’t see — or even sense — what we don’t know. It helps to realize that it’s normal and human to be wrong.”
But even if you are motivated to be more intellectually humble, our culture doesn’t always reward it. “Even among scientists — people who ought to question everything — intellectual humility is hard. In some cases, researchers have refused to concede their original conclusions despite the unveiling of new evidence. (One famous psychologist under fire recently told me angrily, ‘I will stand by that conclusion for the rest of my life, no matter what anyone says.’),” Resnick notes. But according to him, there are two solutions we can learn from.
“One is that humility needs to be built into the standard practices of the science. And that happens through transparency. It’s becoming more commonplace for scientists to preregister — i.e., commit to — a study design before even embarking on an experiment. That way, it’s harder for them to deviate from the plan and cherry-pick results. It also makes sure all data is open and accessible to anyone who wants to conduct a reanalysis. […]
And two, there needs to be more celebration of failure, and a culture that accepts it. That includes building safe places for people to admit they were wrong, like the Loss of Confidence Project.
But it’s clear this cultural change won’t come easily. ‘In the end,’ says [Julia Rohrer, a personality psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, who is trying to get her peers to publicly, willingly admit it when they are wrong], after getting a lot of positive feedback on the project, ‘we ended up with just a handful of statements.’”
““If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Book 6:21)
“To be intellectually humble doesn’t mean giving up on the ideas we love and believe in. It just means we need to be thoughtful in choosing our convictions, be open to adjusting them, seek out their flaws, and never stop being curious about why we believe what we believe. Again, that’s not easy.
You might be thinking: ‘All the social science cited here about how intellectual humility is correlated with open-minded thinking — what if that’s all bunk?’ To that, I’d say the research isn’t perfect. Those studies are based on self-reports, where it can be hard to trust that people really do know themselves or that they’re being totally honest. And we know that social science findings are often upended.
But I’m going to take it as a point of conviction that intellectual humility is a virtue. I’ll draw that line for myself. It’s my conviction. Could I be wrong? Maybe. Just try to convince me otherwise,” Resnick concludes.
And also this …
“Amazon’s vast empire is now almost impossible to avoid, but if you’re a conscientious consumer, we’re here to help you try,” writes Cale Guthrie Weissman in Your complete guide to living an Amazon-free life in 2019.
“Of course, it’s true that an Amazon boycott very likely won’t accomplish much. The company is so vast–and has become so engrained in our culture–that it’s nigh impossible for a critical enough mass to make a real dent. Still, decoupling your relationship with Amazon any way possible helps you, at the very least, become a more conscious consumer. Amazon’s business imperative is to make everything frictionless and easy–it wants there to be no choice but the cheap Amazon products right in front of you with the click of a button; it wants all consumption to be powered by its own engines.
Think about Amazon Go, the company’s cashier-less stores that are slowly expanding to cities around the United States. Here is a very blatant example of Jeff Bezos’s aspirations. He wants consumers to go into a store, see an item they like, and then pick it up and leave without even thinking of it like a purchase. He also wants to erase the need for human labor like cashiers. By creating even a mental distance from this dystopia, you are fighting the future the company is slowly building.”
“Currently, there are legal movements to define and limit Amazon’s conquest. One scholar named Lina Khan wrote a paper about the company’s antitrust leanings, and how current legal frameworks aren’t adequate to address the threat posed by Amazon’s size and dominance. She’s now advising various politicians and organizations about how to prevent Amazon from becoming over-encompassing. Meanwhile, the company has an uphill regulatory battle in Europe, which already implements much stricter antitrust laws.
Put together, there is a growing movement to quell Amazon’s recalcitrant growth. It may seem like an un-winnable battle, but if Amazon’s size concerns you, the only way to go forward in the coming year is to be both informed and intentional. And those are two words that go against Amazon’s business strategy.”
The money, job, marriage myth: are you happy yet? is an extract from Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life by Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, who believes that the happiness narratives are making us miserable. By freeing ourselves from the myth of the perfect life, we might each find a life worth living.
“When it comes to the success narrative, the first box to tick is to be employed. But beyond having a job — any job — one of the most widely used measures of success is having a good job, and doing well in your career. In Happiness By Design, I told this story: A few weeks ago, I went out for dinner with one of my best friends, whom I have known for a long time. She works for a prestigious media company and basically spent the whole evening describing how miserable she was at work; she variously moaned about her boss, her colleagues, and her commute. At the end of dinner, and without a hint of irony, she said: ‘Of course, I love working at MediaLand.’”
“This story highlights the very common inner conflict between the social narrative of success, which values status and recognition in a job, and personal experiences of happiness in the job. My friend was experiencing pain and pointlessness at work, but the narrative she told about her job was totally unrelated. A job that makes us miserable is not a good job, but we can convince ourselves it is if it has high status. MediaLand is somewhere my friend had always wanted to work, her parents were proud of her, and her friends were a little bit jealous. So the narrative she created for herself comes from the broader social narrative of status.
The narrative surrounding status suggests that being a lawyer is a ‘better’ job than being a florist. The latter is lacking in economic status and the former has plenty. But the MediaLand story also reminds us of another way in which one job might be ‘better’ than another: namely, how happy it makes them day to day. And it is here that florists seem to have better jobs than lawyers, with 87% of florists agreeing that they are happy compared to 64% of lawyers. (This data comes from a 2012 City and Guilds survey that interviewed 2,200 employees from a wide range of professions; there was a 2013 follow-up for millennials that found pretty much the same thing.)”
“We fall in love with a text partly for the way it unwittingly informs us,” writes Elena Ferrante in her Weekend column in the Guardian.
“There’s a very old function of literature that over time has lost currency, probably because of its dangerous proximity to the political and ethical spheres. I mean the idea that one of the purposes of a text is to instruct. Over the past 50 years, we have wisely convinced ourselves that the pleasure and enjoyment of a text are at one with its style. Very true: a text is made up of words, and the more beautifully chosen and put together the words are, the more seductive the text, and the more disruptive to the body of the reader. But the words, delighting us, shape our visions of the world; they penetrate our bodies, flow in and alter it, educating our gaze, feelings, even our position on different issues. Besides giving pleasure, style, in accordance with a long tradition, moves and teaches us.
We fall in love with a text partly for the way it unwittingly informs us; that is, for the wealth of vivid, true experiences that pass from the writer directly into the life of the reader. It’s not just the meticulous choice of vocabulary, the metaphors, the memorable similes. What counts is how the writer inserts herself into the literary tradition — not only with her ability to orchestrate words, but with her ideas and the very personal store of urgent things she has to tell. An individual talent acts like a fishing net that captures daily experiences, holds them together imaginatively, and connects them to fundamental questions about the human condition.”
“So style really is all, but in the sense that the more powerful it is, the more material it holds for comprehensive life lessons. Note, however, that I’m not alluding to novels that use literature to deal with vital contemporary subjects: world hunger, the threat of new fascisms, terrorism, religious conflicts, racism, sexuality, digitisation and its effects, and so on. I have nothing against such books; in fact, I’m eager to read them. Gripping stories can be full of science or sociology that shines a light on the various catastrophes that threaten the planet; ideologies are disseminated, theses sustained, political battles joined.
But when I talk about instruction I don’t mean that kind of book. I’m not thinking of a didactic, moralising literature. I’m just trying to say that every work of value is also a transmission of firsthand knowledge — knowledge that is unexpected and, especially, hard to reduce to a form that is not literary. I mean learning that is pleasurable, learning that changes us inwardly — dramatically, even — under the impact of words that are true and charged with feeling.”
Translated by Ann Goldstein and, as always, wonderfully illustrated by Andrea Ucini.
“One of the things I most love about Homer lives on as a source of endless controversy among classicists: his use of epithets,” writes Mary Norris, also known as the ‘Comma Queen’, in Greek to Me.
“In modern Greek, epítheto means ‘adjective,’ but Homeric epithets are loaded, often thrillingly ambiguous, and can act as a catalyst for drama. Achilles is ‘swift-footed,’ and the constant reminder of his supremacy on the field increases the terror of the scene in which he chases shining-helmed Hector around the citadel of Troy. Polýtropos, the epithet most often associated with Odysseus, contains the words for ‘many’ and ‘turn’ and has been translated in countless ways, everything from ‘ingenious and resourceful’ to ‘wily and manipulative.’ The epithet both inspires and eludes translators and gives Odysseus a mercurial character, which colors his adventures and suggests that the man of many turnings was something of a sneak.
The epithet ‘wine-dark sea’ Ω has often confused readers — did Homer mean red, white, or rosé? And why would any of these describe the color of the sea? The words have led some scholars and scientists to speculate that the ancient Greeks simply didn’t see blue. The standard epithet for Athena is another mystery. Homer describes her repeatedly as glaukópis (γλαυκω̑πις). That ‘op’ is familiar from ‘optic’ — of the eye — and glaukós carries a range of meanings, one of them traditionally ‘gray.’ The writer Caroline Alexander, who translated the Iliad, initially used ‘gray-eyed’ as the epithet for Athena, concurring with Richmond Lattimore’s canonical 1951 translation. But, after further study, she changed her translation to ‘gleaming-eyed.’ Searching Liddell and Scott, Alexander told me, she came across an instance in which Homer used a related verb to describe a lion’s eyes; eyes can shine, but they cannot gray (only hair does that). Alexander thinks of Athena’s eyes, evocatively, as ‘gleaming like wet stones.’ In an entry in The Homer Encyclopedia, my former teacher Laura Slatkin suggests ‘silveryeyed.’ Robert Fagles, late of Princeton, goes with ‘bright-eyed goddess,’ which suggests enthusiasm. Christopher Logue, a master of anachronisms whose translations of the Iliad are collected in War Music, experimented with ‘the prussic glare,’ which sounds alchemical, and ‘ash-eyed,’ which has a matte quality. Emily Wilson, in her recent translation of the Odyssey ∆, seems to have ransacked the thesaurus for Athena: she gives her ‘twinkling eyes,’ ‘glowing eyes,’ ‘shining eyes,’ ‘glinting eyes,’ ‘sparkling eyes.’ The goddess is ’cleareyed,’ ‘owl-eyed,’ ‘bright-eyed,’ ‘sharpsighted.’ Her eyes are ‘aglow,’ ‘steely.’ At one point, Wilson even has her wink.”
“What strikes me most is that Athena looks mortals in the eye. She levels with them through her gaze. As Virginia Woolf suggests in her remarks on Aeschylus, knowing Greek sometimes takes a leap of intuition. On my first trip, crisscrossing the Aegean, I was nursing an ouzo in a small glass, and staring into the water, when I suddenly understood the meaning of Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea.’ Homer wasn’t saying that the sea was the color of wine. He was saying that the sea had the depths found in a cup of wine: that it was mysterious, hypnotic, dangerous. It drew you in, and you could lose yourself in it.”
Ω See ‘Porphureos’ and our perception of colour in Random finds (2018, week 11) and The sea was never blue by Maria Michela Sassi, a professor of ancient philosophy at Pisa University, Italy.
∆ See And also this… in Random finds (2019, week 1).
“The Ancient Greek experience of colour does not seem to match our own. In a well-known aphorism, Friedrich Nietzsche captures the strangeness of the Greek colour vocabulary:
‘How differently the Greeks must have viewed their natural world, since their eyes were blind to blue and green, and they would see instead of the former a deeper brown, and yellow instead of the latter (and for instance they also would use the same word for the colour of dark hair, that of the corn-flower, and that of the southern sea; and again, they would employ exactly the same word for the colour of the greenest plants and of the human skin, of honey and of the yellow resins: so that their greatest painters reproduced the world they lived in only in black, white, red, and yellow).’” — Maria Michela Sassi, The sea was never blue