The Reading Room
Play—in the Classics?
When we think of the classics, we usually think of long, sober epic works of literature that address very serious themes—war, individual and societal turmoil, vengeance, treachery, and tragedy.
The Odyssey is about a Greek hero’s trials and tribulations as he wanders through the Mediterranean, and about his efforts to reach his home once again after an absence of many years—where he must then take vengeance against a group of men who have been despoiling his property and who have been making his wife Penelope feel rather uncomfortable. The Iliad centers on an episode in the middle of the Trojan War that concerns ancient warriors’ bruised egos and broken trust, as well as their unbreakable bonds of friendship and their recognition (even if belated) of the importance of treating their slain foes’ bodies with dignity. The Aeneid, like The Odyssey, is about the wanderings and sufferings of another hero of antiquity—this time a Trojan hero, not a Greek one—and the battles he must fight to establish himself in his promised land.
The subject matter of these great epics could not be weightier. At stake in each of them is the future of these ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. And yet in each of them there are interludes of game-playing. These interludes aren’t exactly short, either. The narration of these games takes up substantial numbers of lines and pages in these poems. Why do Homer and Virgil devote so much attention to something seemingly so light as game-playing in the midst of telling stories as heavy as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid? Are they merely attempting to give their readers (or, in Homer’s case, his listeners) some kind of diversion, or relief, in the middle of otherwise long and serious stories? Or is there another force at play—another value that they are trying to relay to us through their careful and detailed narrations of these games?
A new book by a scholar of education may provide some answers to these questions. In A Moral Case for Play in K-12 Schools: The Urgency of Advancing Moral Ecologies of Play, Dr. Judd Kruger Levingston demonstrates that play is not merely a diversion from the main tasks of our lives; it is essential to our ability to grow into fully realized human beings. Because “play is not synonymous with leisure or not work,” Levingston argues, we should therefore not view play as optional. Not only is it a necessary part of our lives; it also involves processes that are far more sophisticated that we may have otherwise realized. “Play takes thought,” Levingston explains, having studied extensive research reports of play conducted in multiple U.S. schools. “It involves social interactions, eye contact, and materials that can be touched by multiple people who are cooperating and who can laugh, chit-chat, design, compete, and scheme together.” It is precisely these kinds of complex in-person interactions—the kinds of exchanges that build and reinforce social skills, empathy, and interpersonal understanding—that “virtual” learning and smartphone addiction threaten to undermine. We need to advance the cause of actual, in-person play, argues Levingston—especially for kids during their most formative years—because without it we will depriving ourselves and our children from the skills that we must have in order to thrive as adults.
Once we understand how critically important play is in our lives, we can better understand why play has such a central role in The Iliad and The Odyssey. The ancient Greeks possessed an understanding of human nature that rivals (and, in some cases, still supersedes) our current knowledge of ourselves. Many of the discoveries that we have made in human psychology over the past two hundred years were already made by the ancient Greeks well over two thousand years ago. It is no coincidence that Greek schools of thought like Epicureanism, and especially Stoicism, continue to resonate so much with us today. Millennia before positive psychology and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the Greeks knew what we needed to have in order to be the kinds of flourishing, happy people who are capable of realizing our potential. One of these indispensable elements is play. Homer’s inclusion of episodes of play in his epics in the midst of very serious undertakings underscores how important the ancient Greeks understood to be—something we would do well to take to heart in a world that under-prioritizes this all-important human activity. As Dr. Levingston declares, “it is right to play and good to play. The world is a healthier, safer, more moral place when people play.”
Daniel Ross Goodman is a Washington Examiner contributing writer and a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Divinity School. His latest book, Soloveitchik’s Children: Irving Greenberg, David Hartman, Jonathan Sacks, and the Future of Jewish Theology in America, was published this summer by the University of Alabama Press.