On a beautiful day in fall 2004, I walked up a mountain on Terceira Island in the Azores with six students. They were 15-year-olds, all enrolled in public high schools in the Azorean city of Angra do Heroísmo. I was 42. We talked about the Republic of Letters, a voluntary weekend program of readings and conversations that I was designing to prepare high school students for life in a university. At least, that was how I originally conceived of it. I was thinking conventionally: for most parents, academics, and politicians in Portugal, education is about skills, and jobs are the ultimate prize of a good education. As early as tenth grade, students must specialize in a particular field; grades and jobs are paramount.
But soon, I realized that I was wrong about what the Republic of Letters should be—especially as I reflected on a seminar that I had recently attended on Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon. The seminar, conducted by Anthony O’Hear at the Institute for Political Studies at the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon, had a huge impact on me, and I became convinced that my new program should not be about preparing students for university but preparing them for the challenges of living. Souls were more important than grades, skills, and academic degrees. Such a project, I felt, should intimately involve the ancient Greeks and classical notions of a liberal education.
But how to begin? The obstacles seemed formidable. For one thing, with the exception of Herodotus’s Histories and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, which I had read in graduate school, I knew nothing about Greek literature. I was busy raising a family, working as an international-affairs analyst for a cable news TV channel and a radio station in Lisbon, and teaching geopolitics and geostrategy at the Catholic University of Portugal. Unlike the U.S., Portugal had no tradition of liberal education. It was widely believed that Greek classics weren’t suited for high school students—they were too young, the books were too difficult, and besides, kids didn’t read books any more. What relevance could such works have for modern-day teenagers living on an island of about 56,000 people in the middle of the Atlantic?
I jumped in, anyway, and early in 2005, my first class began reading the Oresteia, Aeschylus’s trilogy about the curse on the House of Atreus and Athens’s transition from retributive justice to the rule of law. My instincts were confirmed: the students reacted as I had in Lisbon. They were shocked by the characters of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, unsure about who was right, what should be done, and how (and by whom) justice should be administered. Soon afterward, we encountered the mighty Homer—in Frederico Lourenço’s vivid translation, published by the late André Jorge of Cotovia in 2005—and we never looked back.
The program has been an amazing adventure. I made many mistakes but kept experimenting, determined to learn how an initiative like this could work in Angra do Heroísmo. The students helped me every step of the way. It was their idea to rename the Republic of Letters simply the Republic, a word that better reflects what happens in our weekly two-hour seminars, monthly walks in the hills, three formal dinners, and annual public reading of the Iliad or the Odyssey. Our Republic is divided into four classes—Barbarians (ninth grade), Helots (tenth grade), Argonauts (11th grade), and Hoplites (12th grade)—with reading lists for each year. Students come from all walks of life. The overwhelming majority wind up earning science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees at university. Some will study humanities. A few are artists.
As diverse as they are in background and outlook, though, the students respond to these ancient texts. They may cry with Andromache and Hecuba saying good-bye to little Astyanax in Troy, laugh with Aristophanes, or become furious with Agamemnon and Helen—or be shocked by Achilles, Medea, and the Bacchae, amazed by Nausikaa’s intelligence and Brasidas’s boldness in Thrace, made melancholy by what Thucydides writes about war, disturbed by Alcibiades’ betrayals and unbridled ambition, or engaged with Socrates in a lively conversation in Athens. I have yet to meet one who is indifferent. The ancient Greeks make you think. Sooner or later, they disturb you deeply, compelling you to confront life’s most profound questions.
The program is demanding intellectually and physically. I’m not particularly interested in grades. What matters in our four-year odyssey are the willingness to learn and discuss in seminars, the ability to adapt at the top of a hill on cold, rainy, muddy nights when everyone is exhausted, and the poise to make a speech or recite a poem at a formal dinner. In our Republic, education is about thinking and learning with some of the greatest poems, plays, and books ever written. It is also about who we are, the joy of companionship, the lives we would like to live, and the choices we will make.
Tomé Ribeiro Gomes, a graduate student at the Institute for Political Studies at the Catholic University in Lisbon, has described the Republic as a “vertiginous dive.” Seminar is about reading big books together and talking about them—there are no lectures, no textbooks, no laptops, no tablets, and no mobile phones. In the beginning, it’s not easy for the students, especially socially. How should one speak around the table? Groups are crucial in adolescence. In time, the Republic will become one of the most powerful tribes in the students’ lives. But before bonding and trusting one another, they have to create successful teams, which is always difficult. Suddenly, everything matters: the way you speak, the timing of your observation or comment, the tone of your voice, and body language. How do you disagree with the most beautiful girl in the group when you’re 16? How do you start a conversation about passion and love when the boy you like sits in front of you? “What if I say something ridiculous?” they ask me. “What if I am wrong?” I try to reassure them: “In a program like this, we will fail many times. We will fail together. But that doesn’t mean we will be failures. You should never be afraid of being wrong.” It is always fascinating to see who has the courage to start a conversation, who surprises everyone with a comment that charts a new path or disagrees when the class has seemingly reached a consensus.
We have our formal rules and traditions. Classical music always plays in the background. We celebrate the arrival of each new book on our reading list with a small glass of a good port wine (with parental permission). We drink tea and eat cookies. Each class also creates its own set of informal rules. Each year, the Barbarians choose their own mugs, which they will use for the next four years. Every class chooses its own name. Some, like the class of 2018, “Arete,” do it quickly. Others, like the classes of 2011, “Myrmidons,” and 2014, “Aristeia,” wait for the last-year seminar to settle on a name.
Often overlooked in a liberal education is the importance of geography. Mountains, plains, rivers, roads, bridges, harbors, islands, and the sea widen political space and constrain political and military decision makers. Distance matters, and our Republic is very aware of it, living where we do. We know about the tyranny of distance. We start with the Achaean coalition of warriors that sailed across the Aegean to wage war against Troy. Where did Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles, Odysseus, Nestor, Ajax, Diomedes start from? How many ships did they have? What were the logistics for such a long war, far from home? We also pay attention to Troy’s privileged geopolitical position, its lines of communication toward the Black Sea, and the Aegean and Anatolian and regional alliances. Why didn’t Troy have a navy to protect its interests? Troy paid a steep price for that choice.
Meeting Homer for the first time is a shocking experience for the Barbarians. The Iliad is a huge book. As 14-year-olds, most of the students live digitally; mobile phones are part of their bodies. A few have read a lot, but most have not— especially among the boys. Homer’s poem about the devastating consequences of the wrath of Achilles is the first book many will read from beginning to end. They will never forget it, but before they realize the Iliad’s overwhelming power, they must overcome two obstacles.
The first is language. What do words like “devastation,” “multitudes,” “feasting,” “dishonored,” “supplicated,” and “plundered” mean? When I suggest that they use dictionaries, they’re dumbfounded. “Can’t we Google it?” they ask. They expect instant answers, but I want them to look up words the old-fashioned way. Dictionaries are alien to them. Where exactly is the letter P? As the weeks pass, however, the dictionary becomes an indispensable tool.
The second obstacle is attention. Reading Homer forces one to concentrate. The language is ancient and the poem’s rhythm unfamiliar. Five minutes with the arrogant and incompetent Agamemnon and the fierce Achilles on the beach in Troy is an eternity for students with still-short attention spans. They struggle, but we persist, sometimes line by line. And slowly, they succeed.
The Iliad may be difficult, but, as Bernard Knox observed, “Homer’s characters are in fact among the most individually striking and influential ever created.” A decade of experience in the Republic confirms this. The Barbarians realize in the poem’s first 32 lines that Agamemnon is a violent, unpleasant man. There is a war going on, and he intends to win it at all costs. He makes clear that no one will be spared in Troy, not even pregnant women and their unborn children. The status of women and girls in this archaic world is awful. They are objects. But why is Achilles so murderously angry? Most of the young women believe that he is in love with his beautiful slave-girl Briseis, whom Agamemnon took away from him. For them, that’s the only possible explanation for such a fierce rage. But first impressions can be deceiving. We read more. “How old is he?” asks one of the girls. Perhaps 35, I tell her. They are disappointed. “He is too old. I thought he was much younger.”
Our early conversations are about ideas like power, authority, honor, love, shame, and command.
Our early conversations are about ideas like power, authority, honor, love, shame, and command. The first disagreement comes quickly. On one side are the students who believe that Agamemnon is right. Leadership for them is about power, privilege, and domination. On the other side are those who feel, at least at the beginning of the Iliad, that Achilles is the true leader of the expedition. Men respect him and listen to him. Leadership for this group is about personal honor, example, and sacrifice. “We disagree,” said a perplexed student. “We have different opinions.” To their surprise, the class realized that they had a profound difference over something important, which forced them to think. “I am mentally exhausted,” confessed one of the Barbarians at the end of the first discussion. Many more conversations in seminars, walks, and dinners will follow from their first encounter with Agamemnon and Achilles. The death of Lykaon, for example, in Book XXI is always hotly debated. Does he die honorably at the hands of Achilles? The class of 2011 spent almost 50 minutes discussing the issue and could not agree.
In Books III and VI of the Iliad, we meet Hektor, Paris, Andromache, and Helen. Beauty, passion, love, family, and duty are our topics here. The two princes of Troy couldn’t be more different. Hektor is a remarkable commander, respected by his men and his foes. His brother Paris behaves disgracefully on the battlefield and is a source of embarrassment for the Trojan royal house. He is also a disappointment to the young Barbarians of the Republic. Paris and Helen are incredibly beautiful. They flee Sparta after a passionate affair. Helen leaves her family for him and for Troy, a rich and sophisticated city. Ten years later, though, their marriage is in trouble—Helen married the wrong man, and she knows it. This is a terrible revelation for the Barbarians. At 14 and 15 years old, they tend to believe that physical beauty is everything. But something has gone wrong. Helen now mocks and insults Paris. The boys laugh with embarrassment when Paris says, “Come, then, rather let us go to bed and turn to lovemaking.” Girls are outraged by his shameless attitude and believe that she will wound or even kill him right there. But that’s not what happens: “Speaking, he led the way to the bed,” Homer writes, “and his wife went with him.” The Barbarians look at one another in disbelief. Why would Helen behave this way? The poet knows her heart better than we do. She’s beautiful, but she’s also weak. And Paris knows it.
Hektor and Andromache love each other deeply, but their marriage is doomed. Troy’s military leader has to choose between his duty to the city he vowed to protect in a war that he didn’t start and his beloved wife and son. When he returns to battle “while his beloved wife went homeward,/turning to look back on the way, letting the live tears fall,” the boys are thoughtful and silent. The girls have tears in their eyes. “I just can’t control myself,” one told me. “This is so beautiful. I wanted a happy ending. They deserve it!” “Does Hektor die?” asked another. “A man like this cannot die,” she protests, after reading the last line of the poem.
In year two, the Odyssey offers a different experience. We see Telemachus grow up in Ithaca with his highly intelligent mother, Penelope, surrounded by young and greedy pretenders who plunder the family wealth, until she relents and agrees to marry one of them. Telemachus tries to rise to the occasion but fails. The people pity the son of Odysseus, and so do we. They will not follow him against the pretenders in Ithaca. Athena has some tough love for him—“You should not go on/ clinging to your childhood. You are no longer of an age to do that. . . . So you too, dear friend, since I can see you are big and splendid,/ be bold also, so that in generations to come they will praise you.” Telemachus goes abroad for the first time. He adapts and succeeds in Pylos and Sparta. Nestor tells him that he is just like his father—high praise from an old warrior. Helen, still beautiful and now back with Menelaus, calls Telemachus a man. The young prince is now ready to return to Ithaca and assist Odysseus in his terrible revenge.
By this time, three things have happened to the second-year Helots. They can read a book like the Odyssey without interruptions. Their attention span and ability to interpret scenes and study characters have improved dramatically since their Barbarian days. They use the dictionary effortlessly. Something magical has also happened in the seminar. One day, the students stop talking to me and start a conversation among themselves. Suddenly, we have really become a republic. It happens every year at some point, usually after the young people have become more relaxed in one another’s company. Fear of failure is not so much on their minds. Everyone plays a part—the young women, especially, play a crucial role in group cohesion. We explore the poem together. Every year, I am surprised by their questions.
And then there is crafty Odysseus. “I think a woman waits all her life for a man who is able to say to her what Odysseus tells Calypso,” sighed one female student. “He is so clever.” But who is this man who cries openly but slaughters pitilessly all his wife’s suitors and then orders the execution of the servant women who have betrayed him? By the end of the poem, Odysseus seems to have turned into a murderous Achilles. His marriage with Penelope, however, endures. She tests his true identity and loyalty, and he passes. They will grow old together. He forsakes immortality and a life with Calypso, a beautiful and seductive nymph, on the island of Ogygia, to return to Penelope.
Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is probably the toughest book in our program. Suddenly, the third-year Argonauts feel out of their depths again, struggling in a way they haven’t since they began to read the Iliad. The text can be tough going. “There are so many names and cities,” the students complain. “The sentences are too long.” Slowly, however, they realize that the disgraced Athenian admiral has something in common with the poets on our reading list.
Like Homer, who has a name for everyone who dies in the Iliad, Thucydides cares deeply for the soldiers who did the killing and dying throughout the war. Thucydides knows what battle is really like: his description of the Battle of Mantinea (418 BC) is so vivid that one is tempted to believe that he witnessed it firsthand. Thucydides makes the final collapse of the Athenian expedition under a merciless sun in the river Assinarus in Sicily (413 BC) into stunning literature. Scenes like these stay with one forever. Like Odysseus, Thucydides is a master storyteller. His is a history—a tragedy, actually—about the grand strategy of Athens and Sparta, politics and personal ambition, and leadership. Thucydides’ work is also about the devastating consequences of a long war.
After reading Thucydides, including his famous Melian Dialogue, the Argonauts turn to Euripides’ Trojan Women. “I have never read anything so moving and so sad,” said a young woman reading aloud Andromache’s final words to her son Astyanax. “I think I am going to cry.” We all do on the day that we listen to the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. War is about men, but it is also about the tragic fate of women and their children.
Near the end of the program, the fourth-year Hoplites read The Apology of Socrates. By then, seminar has become a very quiet and thoughtful affair. We have been together for almost four years. When we started, the Barbarians were quiet because they were perplexed with the words, characters, and themes of the Iliad. Theirs is now the silence of a group communicating with Socrates. Often, the only sounds around the table are pages being turned, pencils making annotations, and classical music in the background. Hoplites read the texts carefully and think deeply about what Socrates tells the Athenians in May 399 BC. He will be sentenced to death. In Angra do Heroísmo, the young students are not surprised. They have read Xenophon’s pages in Hellenika about the Battle of Arginusae (406 BC) and the disgraceful trial and execution of the victorious generals—one of them Pericles’ son—in Athens: Athenian direct democracy gone mad. “I want to be an army officer,” one of the Hoplites tells us. “This trial of the generals is really outrageous. What kind of city is Athens? Is this democracy?”
By the end of his second speech, Socrates explains why exile and silence are not options. “[F]or a human being, a life without examination is actually not worth living”—famous words, but what is Socrates saying about how we should live? We have read Euripides’ plays Medea and the Bacchae, where passion, power, and revenge rule over women and men, with disastrous results. As the students have learned, it is impossible (and unwise) to deny such passions—but to surrender to them will destroy us. How do we reconcile them with moderating forces?
We can do this. Let’s go!” said a young man. “I’m just too tired,” replied a girl. “We’re going too fast.” It was almost 3 AM. They had walked all day and hadn’t slept. It was raining hard and the wind was blowing from the south, a sign that a storm was closing in. Halfway through the ascent of Serra de Santa Bárbara, a 3,300-foot hill, the class of 2016 was soaking wet and had a problem: they wanted to reach the top together and establish a new time record, but they were wearing down. As they climbed through the tortuous road, the weather got worse.
And then the class cracked under the pressure. One of the girls refused to go on, exhausted. The other girls gathered around her. The Helots had to stop. They were not happy, and had to make a decision. Some wanted to keep going, others did not. Someone shouted angrily, reminding the group of its ambition to establish a new record. “I can’t take it any more,” replied one of the young women. “Are you listening to me?”
They argued fiercely. They had started with a clear plan to succeed, but hubris had become nemesis. I gave them space. They had to find a new way to achieve their objective on their own. Could they improvise? The minutes ticked by. The skies opened, and the rain became torrential. And then one of the boys talked about how to overcome the problem in front of them, and the rest listened. The class of 2016 didn’t beat the record that night, but they found a solution and reached the top together. On that hill under a storm, the Helots learned how to cooperate and trust one another. “We grew up on that mountain,” concluded a young woman.
In the Republic, we actually spend more time outdoors than around the seminar table. Once a month, we go for a long walk on the roads, tracks, and hills of Terceira Island. Each walk in the program has a name and different tasks and challenges. Sparta’s Walk, on the first weekend of October, starts at about 3 PM on a Saturday and concludes on Sunday at about 1 PM. The Helots’ task, to reach the top of the mountain as a team, involves lots of choices—tactics, pace, formation, who leads the group, and making provisions for food, clothing, lights, water, and so on. To complicate matters, the Hoplites are waiting for the Helots somewhere in the trees and will ambush them once or twice with sugar, flour, eggs, or water; no one sleeps much during Sparta’s Walk.
Demosthenes’ Walk, in November, is shorter but involves four challenges: first, crossing a small creek with water up to one’s waist (it’s not difficult to jump in, but getting out is another story); second, either charging up a steep pasture (Barbarians and Helots) or defending the top of the hill (Hoplites and Argonauts); third, competing in a run up a hill (all classes); and fourth, crawling through a sea of thick mud on multiple occasions. Barbarians have their faces “painted” with mud by the Hoplites. By the time we start crawling, it’s dark and getting cold.
In December, we do Myrmidon’s Walk. We go up a mountain, normally using the banks or the bed of a creek. The weather tends to be awful, visibility is poor, and everyone gets very wet. The Hoplites lead the way and have to make a lot of decisions.
We walk in all kinds of weather and terrain, from September to May. The Hoplites, Argonauts, Helots, and Barbarians learn how to spend nights in the woods in their sleeping bags and walk through an entire night with little rest and no sleep. It rains often, and the terrain is steep and difficult. But we go out and learn important things about nature, its sounds and smells. Above all, we learn about ourselves.
Walks in the Republic have only two rules: first, if I do it, they will do it, too. Second, all classes participate, but each class stays together. What matters is how they find a solution to the obstacles that each walk presents. Teamwork and adaptation are crucial. Classes tend to adopt different solutions to the same challenges. “The most important thing I learned in the Republic was how teams actually work under pressure,” Bruna Ávila (class of 2009), a biomedical engineering graduate, told me last fall. “It is also about my responsibility before the team. . . . The Republic didn’t tell me if I was good at programming or writing. But for the first time, it made me think about who I am and what I could do in a group that has to solve a problem.”
The road from Barbarian to Hoplite is arduous. But our walks aren’t about hierarchies, where the seniors or I have the best solutions. The best image for the Republic in the hills is probably that of the spiral: sometimes it works top-down, but it might work just as well bottom-up. Argonauts from the class of 2018, for example, currently hold the record for the night ascent in Sparta’s Walk. Their shared commitment and lots of grit led them to the top of the pack.
On that hill under a storm, students learned how to trust one another. ‘We grew up on that mountain,’ one said.
The Iliad and the Odyssey were originally composed to be recited in public; writing came later. I wondered: Could we start an annual public reading of Homer’s poems in Angra do Heroísmo? How long would it take us to read the Iliad from the first to the last line? Public readings in the United States of long works like Moby Dick suggested that the poem could be read in 15 to 16 hours—but even determined and experienced adult readers became exhausted. The same fate awaited us in Angra do Heroísmo. The only way to find out was to do it. The first public reading of the Iliad took place in January 2011. We read for 16 hours, to the end. In 2012, we read the Odyssey in 12 hours. Since then, we have alternated each year between the poems. Successive mayors of Angra do Heroísmo have supported the event. The Hoplites, Argonauts, Helots, and Barbarians have learned that a public reading of Homer is an epic adventure.
For most of us, reading in front of friends, parents, and strangers is a nerve-racking experience. There are many ways to read the Iliad and the Odyssey. Emotional intensity and tone of voice vary greatly throughout the day. Some read flawlessly and seem to enjoy themselves thoroughly, while others just want to get through the experience. On occasion, a great reader comes along and something almost mystical happens around us. In these moments, I truly believe that we are all in Troy. The public reading is the only occasion where the Republic gets together to read a single work. Hoplites, Argonauts, Helots, and Barbarians talk with one another, and new interpretations of Homer emerge in the town hall of Angra do Heroísmo and in the cafés in the town center.
A public reading like this is about literature, of course, but it is also about managing a huge collective effort. Watching students organize themselves is one of the most fascinating parts of these long days. As we approach the end of the Iliad or the Odyssey, everyone is drained. Reading becomes difficult and unpredictable. Some lose their battle against sleep. Others might laugh in the most emotional passages. Many choke up when Hektor dies or when Andromache holds his head and laments the fate of their unfortunate son.
In November, February, and May, the Republic holds a formal dinner. The dress code is strict. The young women started this tradition and have worked diligently to keep it. Many of the students wear dresses, high heels, suits, ties, and dress shoes for the first time. Each class decides who will recite a poem at the end of the meal. (The poems, which I assign them, range from Cavafy to Kipling.) The Hoplites also must agree on who will make a written speech to our small assembly. There are always more candidates than dinners available.
Reciting poems is about holding one’s nerve before friends after a good meal, conversation, and laughter. As a few students have shown, reciting is also about diction, rhythm, power, and emotion. The speeches tend to be more personal, about the experience of the Republic. Over the years, Hoplites have reflected on the books that they have read, a particular author or passage, the hundreds of miles they have walked in all kinds of weather, or how the program has influenced their lives. For many, these are their first attempts at public speaking. I sometimes feel like Alkinoös listening to Odysseus in his palace in Scheria: “Here is/ a night that is very long, it is endless. It is not time yet/ to sleep in the palace. But go on telling your wonderful story.”
In our last dinner, in May—the Penelope and Odysseus dinner—each member of the senior class reads a favorite passage. Homer (Iliad and Odyssey), Sophocles (Antigone), Euripides (Medea and Trojan Women), Aristophanes (The Women Celebrating the Festival of the Thesmophoria, The Knights, The Frogs), and Plato (Apology of Socrates) always make the cut on this memorable night.
Fifteen years ago, in Who Killed Homer?, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath wrote: “It has often fallen to the ‘amateurs,’ then, to the David Denbys of the world—who, upon returning to college in his forties to read the Iliad, wrote passionately, of its beauty and its stark, existential challenge—to pass on the flame.” I became one of these amateurs by accident. I am not a classicist. I still can’t read Greek. But chance and curiosity presented me with the opportunity to start a small program of Greek classics in Angra do Heroísmo, and I’m glad that I took it.
One day, with the Argonauts of the class of 2018, I was talking about Odysseus and Calypso in Book V of the Odyssey. “What kind of man forsakes marriage with a nymph as beautiful as her and immortality in a paradise island such as Ogygia to return to his wife across a dangerous sea?” I asked. They were quiet. “Your eyes are shining,” observed a perceptive girl. She was right. I was thinking of how lucky I was to be there with them on a Sunday afternoon, talking about a poem thousands of years old, one that connected us across the ages. They are 16; my eldest son, Tiago, is one of them. I am 54.
I was also thinking about how the Hoplites, Argonauts, Helots, and Barbarians tend to look at our weekly adventure. As Joana Lopes, class of 2012 (“Athenians”) and now a medical student at the New University in Lisbon, put it in an e-mail to me after finishing the Republic: “Do I feel sadness or miss it? No. I feel somewhat anxious, something I find more disturbing. And I feel this way because the Republic gave me something that I realized is hard to find: intellectual freedom. Seminars in the program allowed me to talk and express opinions that in other settings would be considered unreasonable, arrogant, uninteresting, extraterrestrial, and stupid . . . . The Republic was as if someone opened a door and told me: ‘Come Joana. Here we can talk, discuss and debate freely.’ ”
With the benefit of hindsight, Tomé Ribeiro Gomes writes: “I miss the walks with my class [of 2011] a lot. . . . The walks were about a camaraderie that I miss very much. Out there, we get to know people in a very different way. And then there is something else that only now I realize: hours and hours walking, where conversation is real. No one around us is looking at his or her mobile phone. Interaction is face-to-face, not digital, as it usually is now.”
I hope that the books we have read and our endless conversations—especially those that have left us perplexed—will help these teenagers become adults.
Plato didn’t seem to believe in the virtues of a liberal education in a democracy, but I do. One of the purposes of the Republic is to set us free politically. Just as is often the case in the U.S., the young students in Angra do Heroísmo are not much interested in ideology or politics. They take liberal democracy, European integration, Apple, Google, and Amazon for granted. Apps are more important to them than political ideas. But as Thucydides taught us, ideology and politics can’t be ignored, particularly for free people. “I shall be content,” he wrote, “if [my history] is judged useful by those who will want to have a clear understanding of what happened—and, such is the human condition, will happen again at some time in the same or similar pattern.” Thucydides is keenly interested in finding out which political regime works better. How do you avoid civil war at home? How do you build a successful foreign policy? Is Athens, with its direct democracy at home and powerful navy and commercial empire abroad, really better than oligarchic Sparta? These are important questions for us, too. That’s why we read Plutarch’s biography of Lycurgus. Sparta is the first political utopia. Utopias tend to be violent and brief. Seizing power in a revolutionary way is one thing; governing a city and a large territory is another. Sparta, however, lasted centuries. We still talk about it today.
“I think I would like to live in Sparta,” says one young man. “This is a martial society. The group is everything. I think I could fit in a place like this.”
“This is just awful! Are you crazy? I would rather die than live in a place like this!” replies one girl.
History and philosophy matter. There is no statecraft without them. Thucydides and Plato knew this, but we seem to have forgotten it. Nevertheless, I’m betting that in the years ahead, our readings and conversations will help these students defend the virtues of a free society in a world that will go through great changes, just as Athens did in the fifth century BC.
My eyes were shining for another reason. The Republic was a small idea at first. Our final destination has been a surprise. It took me time to realize who really was getting a liberal education. It was not just the Hoplites, the Argonauts, the Helots, and the Barbarians. It was also me.
We say our farewells in a small lagoon in the middle of the island. We’ve reached the end of Herodotus’s Walk, our final hike, on the second weekend of June. This final task of the program—their charge into the water—was the Hoplites’ idea, not mine, and it is the only activity for which I won’t join them. Ours has been a great adventure. I am proud of them, and it is hard to let them go after four years, but I must. They have their lives ahead of them. I’ll fade from their memories as the years pass, and, as anyone who reads widely knows, they will also forget much of what they read in the Republic. Nevertheless, I believe that they will retain the most important things they have learned about themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, the joy of learning, and of reading and talking about immortal books.
As the Hoplites charge together toward the water, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. They—and the ancient Greeks—have changed my life. Our fellowship has been a gift. I hope that one day, the students will find their Ithaca, read Homer with their sons and daughters, and carry the ancient Greeks with them, deep into the twenty-first century. To look forward, one must look back.
Top Photo: Monthly overnight hikes on the roads and hills of Terceira Island help develop teamwork and grit. (COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR (3))