Humanities Department Welcomes New Fay Sawyier Fellow, Joseph Miller
Fay Sawyier taught philosophy at IIT for many years and held a deep conviction on the importance of philosophy's legacy. In 2004, she made a bequest to the university that supports this belief in various ways, including fellowships for pre-doctoral scholars. Joseph Miller joins the Humanities Department this semester as the latest recipient of the Sawyier Fellowship. He recently shared some thoughts.
What excites you about your dissertation research?
I really enjoy studying the remains of literary antiquity. Working with the fragments of Democritus gives me the chance to read widely in ancient authors that are often overlooked: Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Lactantius, John Stobaeus, and John Tzetzes, to name a few of the most interesting ones that I have been looking at most recently. The more I read these authors, the more aware I become of the variety and diversity present in ancient Greek and Roman cultures over time. I see more than just the classical, Periclean, Athens or early imperial Rome that I was raised to worship as an undergraduate. Cultivating a better appreciation for the depth and breadth of Greco-Roman cultural history allows me to offer a richer and more realistic portrait of the artifacts that interest me, exploring the text of Democritus as something interesting not just in its own right–as the deposit of a particular person located in time and space–but also for its contribution to and/or historical intersection with the ideas and culture of other people, e.g. Pyrrho, Demetrius the Cynic, Epicurus, Lucretius, John Stobaeus, John Tzetzes, Raymond Llull, and Giordano Bruno.
The more I study the past, the more obvious it becomes to me that human memory is not static. If we are not constantly thinking about things, they simply disappear. Over the course of my own brief foray into the humanities, I have seen antiquity disappearing even from the consciousness of the educated public who increasingly have only the vaguest notions of Greece and Rome, dim impressions of Periclean Athens, or the Eternal City whose charred remains Vespasian snatched from Nero. Many people I encounter in the world today feel that we modern folk have outgrown the cultural forms of Greco-Roman antiquity, that no one really needs to pursue minute knowledge of the relics of outdated civilizations whose useful contributions to modern life are already well documented and understood. Funding is going toward efforts outside the traditional disciplines, and departments of Classical Studies are shrinking, or turning into something different. I do not know how all this will play out, ultimately, but I do know that some ill-kept pieces of the old order are worth preserving from the junk heap. My work has the potential to make some old, strange, little-read things interesting and relevant to people who otherwise might not care. I think Democritus offers some ideas about the nature of human reality–past, present, and future–that are worth preserving. My greatest contribution is to think about those ideas seriously and coherently before they disappear entirely from public discourse, as the barely comprehensible ramblings of somebody with a hopelessly outdated understanding of reality. This does not mean that I think everyone should study Democritus or that a good life is impossible without him. Quite the contrary. All it means is that I find in his work a window onto some of the most beautiful and profound ideas available in the human universe, and I would hate to see that window slammed shut prematurely.
On a mountain somewhere there is a small temple dedicated to the memory of certain beautiful ideas about the nature of the world and our place in it. I am tending that temple, not because all should worship there, but because my life would be poorer if it did not exist.
We understand you know a number of languages? What are they? Are you curious about your proficiency in language, enough to have researched or reflected on what makes some people "accumulators" of languages more than other people?
I have always been fascinated by language. I grew up with English and Spanish–speaking, reading, and writing in both–and I feel that I know these languages very well, having spent a lot of time interacting with the cultures where they exist and have meaning. As a young man, I spent two years living in northern Spain, doing volunteer work that included offering free English lessons. It was a wonderful experience. My knowledge of other languages is more limited, since I have not had as much occasion to practice, and what practice I get tends to be more narrowly focused, though I do take whatever opportunities I can to improve my fluency in all ways, e.g. watching foreign films in their original language to work on my ability to understand speech. Because of my profession as a classicist, I have a strong academic background in Latin and ancient Greek, and I have cultivated the ability to read scholarship, and literature, in several modern European languages, e.g. German, French, and most recently Italian. Reading ancient texts and thoughtful modern commentary or literary reception has provided me with some of the greatest pleasures I have experienced, opening my mind to human perspectives that have immeasurably enhanced my ability to understand, express, and practice my own humanity.
In my experience, the desire to appreciate human beauty is not limited. I do not despair of appreciating Tolstoy or Algazel merely because I have not mastered Russian or Arabic yet. Instead I bide my time, practicing the basics of grammar that I have learned for each language and building slowly to the day when I will appreciate them and others the same way I appreciate Shakespeare, Cervantes, Homer, Thucydides, Plato, Democritus, Cicero, Vergil, Dante, and other authors whose work has inspired me with a better vision of myself and of humanity. In my experience studying many languages formally and informally, what matters most is maintaining an open mind. It is not possible to learn everything about a language or a culture in a few years, let alone a few weeks, and yet even a few hours is enough to move the student measurably closer toward being able to accomplish a particular linguistic or cultural task, like carrying on a simple conversation or reading a bit of poetry. I enjoy the simple victories, the small conversations and the poems, and let go of the illusion of mastery. I am still learning English, just as I am still learning Arabic. I have progressed further with English, but I am always improving and never perfect. In my opinion, the way to enjoy learning languages, and keep learning them long after any sane person would have given up, is to savor the small victories, enjoying the people you meet and the experiences you have: reading Russian poetry with an expert in neurolinguistics; attending Friday prayers during Ramadan with a professor of Arabic; arguing about Nietzsche with a good friend, watching some nutty French film because you can; puzzling over Tibetan prayers with a wizened philosopher who is also a professional gardener; analyzing Plato's concept of the good with a mild-mannered professor who is also a power-lifter; reading every extant work of Vergil with the girlfriend who becomes your wife. For me, this is what studying languages has meant so far; who knows what it will mean in future? I am excited to find out.
What language has been the hardest for you to learn?
In my personal experience, Arabic has been the hardest language for me to learn, largely because the other languages I am most familiar with are Indo-European, using grammatical formulae that I am familiar with even if I do not know vocabulary. Arabic forces me to rethink my linguistic categories in ways that most other languages that I have studied don't.
If you could visit anywhere in the world, during any time period, where and when would you choose?
This is one of those questions that I have trouble answering, largely because it seems to me that my entire life is designed to make any answer satisfactory. Still, if you made me pick a time and place, I would be tempted to live somewhere in Switzerland, in this period. While there are many things wrong with modernity, there are also many things right. I like the amount of information freely available to inquiring minds these days, and I find the Swiss political and environmental climate most suited to my own, which values freedom, diversity, neutrality, and responsibility, with a decided appreciation for the small and practical pleasures that life can afford.
If I were free to visit historical times and places without staying, then there are several trips I would like to make. I would like to go back before the invention of agriculture to see how Paleolithic people lived. I would like to speak with Thales, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Zeno, and hear one of the Homeridae perform. I would like to visit Periclean Athens. Of course I would like to speak with Democritus, in Abdera or anywhere else he happened to be in the Levant. I would like to speak to the author of Qoheleth. I would like to stop by Rome and chat with Cicero before Mark Antony removed his head. I would like to visit Boethius in the Ager Calventianus. I would like to speak with Raymond Llull, Marsilio Ficino, Leonardo da Vinci, and Giordano Bruno. I would like to meet with Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson, and Edward Gibbon, whose magnum opus was my introduction to the discipline of Classical Studies: he was an ass, I understand, but also interesting. I would like to meet David Hume. And then there are Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevksy: how could I forget them? Having grown up Mormon, I might also be strongly tempted to go back in time and talk with Joseph Smith, just to see what he was really like in person: was he a saint, a con-man, or something in between? How am I supposed to choose one of these, and so many more options? I would probably have to roll a die or toss a coin, or adopt a posture of Buddhist non-attachment and defer to somebody else's judgment.
What do you like most about teaching?
I love talking with students, seeing them engage with interesting material and make it their own, whatever the position they end up taking. When I give a lecture that people actually like, and I can see them responding it to it critically with arguments that work, I am really happy.
I really hate giving grades. To me it seems that these have a tendency to retard learning as much as to advance it. I wish I were adept enough as a teacher to come up with some other system for motivating people to learn than the one that makes me sort them into categories and call winners and losers. To be fair, I should note that some grades are easier to give than others. I have little trouble giving bad grades for poor performance in language classes, where technical proficiency is easier to quantify, but I feel really bad every time I have to "fail" an interpretive paper whose greatest fault is that I find it inelegant or incomprehensible. Somewhere in the back of my mind lurks the suspicion that many "bad" papers–not all of them by any means–contain really profound insights, useful opportunities for learning that students miss when all they get back from me is a C. I deal with this misgiving by making an effort to give the authors of those papers serious feedback, but too many see the letter and lose heart before my message of hope for improvement sinks in.