I. F. Stone, who for more than 50 years was, in his words, just a newspaperman," is now prowling ancient Athens for "one last scoop," unleashing his chutzpah on Homeric verse and dactylic hexameters.
Isadore Feinstein Stone, this revolutionary in a rumpled tweed jacket, has already earned his laurels as one of the world's great pamphleteers. After a lifetime of defending the First Amendment, "I'm going back to the 5th century before Christ to look for ammunition to fight for freedom of thought," Stone said recently. He has taught himself Greek and spent the last several years burrowing into the classics stacks at the American University library in Washington, D.C.
For 19 volcanic years, Izzy Stone and his wife, Esther, had published I. F. Stone's Weekly, a four-page newsletter that he called the "journalistic equivalent of the old-fashioned Jewish mama-and-papa grocery store." She was the circulation manager; he was the reporter, editor, proofreader, and publisher.
To its 70,000 local subscribers, the periodical was the insider's guide to Washington written by an irreverent outsider, an inspired nudnik yapping at the Pentagon's pants cuffs. Stone's uncompromising journal of fact and opinion had no advertising to dilute its radical message, which was delivered in a comfortably conservative typeface. Whether attacking Joe McCarthy or the Vietnam war, the Weekly's style was learned and sassy; its accuracy was deadly.
In early 1972 Stone closed his journal and set to work on a major book on freedom of expression (he's still working on it). The research led him back to ancient Greek philosophy. Now calling himself a "poor, broken-down journalist in the ill-fitting drag of classical scholar," Stone still reads four newspapers a day, but he also recently polished off "Oedipus Rex" by Sophocles in the original Greek. It took him six weeks, translating six hours a day.
Izzy's style of scholarship may be more tortoise than hare, but he can afford that luxury now: His aim is understanding, not tenure. And anyway, this whippersnapperish septuagenarian, with his personal 1,000-volume Greek and Latin library, takes consolation in the recollection that Thomas Hardy didn't even begin learning Greek until he was 80.
Stone teases himself that he is a "promising young translator," but confesses that the first of the Iliad's 24 books occupied nine full months of bedtime reading. He averaged a translating speed of less than three lines a day, and in the process accumulated 257 pages of notes. Izzy cannot resist a delicious detour, whether it be Dante's "Inferno" in the original tongue or an essay by Hippocrates. He is frequently sidetracked by Sappho, his "queen of the poetic Olympus," and has committed to memory half a dozen of her poems which he will recite for guests at the slightest provocation.
Stone's translations of Sappho, Aeschylus, and Julius Polyaenus of Sardis, have graced the columns of the New York Review of Books, and last year he was invited to Princeton University to deliver the annual William Kelly Prentice Classics Lecture.
"I prepared for five months," he admits, "and was still scared to death when I arrived at McCosh 10 [one of the university's largest lecture halls]. It was packed." He rose to the occassion. Stone recalls with certain pride that he spoke for an hour and a half "without once peeking at my stack of three by five note cards" and received a prolonged ovation.
He recently carried his scholarship to the West Coast as a visiting classics lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He spent a week at this pastoral seaside-campus giving lectures, holding seminars, and having lunch with eager classicists and college newspaper reporters.
Shortly after his arrival, Stone and his wife were the honored guests at a pleasantly rowdy Dionysian festival in the university's Cowell College. Surrounded by students in flowing Trojan Stone is quietly dressed in a checked shirt and dark tie. His tweed jacket hides a pair of geranium red suspenders. Next to him is his wife, in a fur coat and an orange knit hat that verges on fluorescence. Together they glow with charm, grace, and youthfulness.
In the popular 1973 documentary film "I. F. Stone's Weekly," Izzy comes across as a hard-nosed, muckraking, fact-ferreting chipmunk of a newspaperman with a lion's share of fire and outrage. In person, across the dinner table he appears as the gentlest of souls, a man with overhelming compassion and humility. He leans over and whispers: "I feel like Michelangelo, who said on hi deathbed: 'I have only just begun to learn my profession.'" In the journalistic profession it might be bad form to call I. F. Stone a sweet man, but he is. Between bites of shish kebab and Greek salad, he reaches over and takes Esther's hand and tells of their meeting more than 50 years before "on a blind date and a borrowed dollar."
Stone, a romantic who can't resist a good love story in life or literature, has read and written poetry since he was a small boy. (one of his three children, Celia Gilbert, is a published poet living on the East Coast.) "Can you imagine the thrill of my discovering the high-sounding and mighty words of Christopher Marlowe in the 10th grade?" he beams.
Moments later Izzy is warming up and his dinner is getting cold as he recites with innocent enthusiasm a poem of Keats, one of Shelley's a Shakespearean sonnet, a couplet in Greek from Homer, Verlaine in French, a snatch of Dante in Italian. Stone has a working command of half a dozen languages, but his current passion is Greek. With anyone who will give him an audience Stone shares his adventures as a recycled freshman in ancient Greece.
"My route back to ancient AThens wasn't quite as mad or as eccentric as it may seem," Stone says in a raspy, high-pitched voice. As an undergraduate philosophy major at the University of Pennyslvania, Stone immersed himself in the pre-Socratics. In the morning he would read Lucretius in Latin. His afternoons and evenings were spent working 10-hour shifts in the newsroom of the Philadelphia Inquirer. By the time he dropped out of college in his junior year to work full-time as a reporter, Stone already had mastered six years of Latin and a semester of Greek, which he confesses "didn't go beyond Xenophon's 'Anabasis.'"
"When I had to give up the Weekly at the end of 1971 for health reasons, I thought I would do a study in depth of what concerns me most, and that is freedom of thought in human society," Stone says. "I was quite an American constitutional law buff as a journalist, so I began by going back to the two great 17th-century revolutions in England to which we Americans owe so much, and to one of my great heroes, Milton, whose 'Areopagitica' was the first and most eloquent defense of freedom of the press ever written. It is beautiful and immortal and nobody who calls himself a social scientist or journalist or scholar ought to be ignorant of it."
After spending "a wonderful year in the English 17th century," Stone decided to dig deeper into history, and went back tothe REnaissance and Reformation, and then to the Middle Ages and the philosophical ancestors of Voltaire and Luther. "I felt I couldn't understand the medieval period without understanding the ancient world, and I soon found myself back in ancient Athens in the 5th century before Christ where it all began as far as free speech and expression."
But his journey was far from over. "I thought, in my ignorance, which is still very great -- in fact, growing -- that I could do a rather cursory survey utilizing standard sources. I soon found there really are no standard sources. Every point in classical studies is a point of enormous controversy, and most of the scholars spend their time sandbagging each other."
He began reading Plato, Thucydides, and Aristotle, but soon discovered he could not reach accurate political and philosophical inferences from translations because the ancients' "words and ours were rarely congruent." (He explains with that characteristic passion for exactitude: "You know what congruence is? When two triangles are congruent they fit exactly over each other. I hope that is right. I only flunked trigonometry four times in college.")
Stone soon realized there was no way around reading the documents in the original language. "I began to brush up on my Greek with the idea of learning just enough to find the crucial conceptual terms in the original and be able to look it up in the lexicon for myself. Soon I began to memorize conjugations and declensions and began to read in Greek.
"The first thing I read was the Gospel of St. John, which is one of the easy entries into Greek. Just go to the Bible Society, get yourself a bilingual New Testament, and if you've been to Sunday school you know enough about what your're reading to understand it. The Greek of the New Testament and the Hebrew of the Old Testament are simple and majestic and not difficult. After the Gospel of St.John I began to read Homer, and I have been wandering the worlds of classical learning ever since.
Shortly after Stone embarked on his odyssey through antiquity, he sent time at St. Anthony's College at Oxford University and returned to his home in Washington, D.C., with the collegiate itch. He promptly hiked the 2 1/2 miles to the nearest campus, American University, seated himself among the legitimate students in the school's classics library, and began to read. Izzy was never shy. A year after he began his daily jaunts to the library, the university discovered among the stacks this eminent interloper and college dropout. Rather than give him the boot, they made Stone a "distinguished scholar in residence" and offered him a desk in the literature department to continue his research and writing.
"If you take the trouble to study Greek and have the resolution and persistence to overcome many despairs, you will come into a literature of such beauty," Stone encourages anyone contemplating the classisc. "Get yourself a Tutti Verbi [handbook of Greek forms] with all the strange verbal forms, or, if you can't find that, try a handbook of irregular forms. It will save you a lot of misery."
Why go back to Greece?"The 6th, 5th, 4th centuries BC were one of the greatest eruptions of creativity in the spirit of man that the world has ever seen," he responds. "When you go back to the pre-Socratics, to Plato and Aritotle, you will find that there is hardly a single basic idea of modern philosophy that isn't already there in embryo. We merely keep coming back to a handful of basic solutions in a spiral of increasing complexity and sophistication. Essentially all the great ideas, the dialectic of Heraclitus, the Atomists -- the great thinkers who sought for a single material in the universe, the tremendous speculations of the Pythagoreans, came from the Greeks. We can see from the table of elements in chemistry, and in relativity just how profound was this lightning flash of insight."
The term "ancient Greece" is a misnomer, Stone says. "The 5th century BC is yesterday. It's not really ancient times. Egypt was already ancient when Plato was a boy. In the literature of the Greeks we find ourselves. The great conundrums of philosophy, the passions, the love, the agony. This is ourselves. Nothing has changed in the short space of 2,500 years.
This was the first great civilization, and we're all its heirs. You know the legend of Antaeus who wrestled with Hercules and every time he touched the earth he gained renewed strength? Hercules could only subdue him by holding him aloft, away from earth. So it is in the history of mankind: Every time men have gone back to Greek literature and Greek thought, there has been a rebirth of the human spirit at its best.
"There was a little renaissance in the 12th century when Arabic and Jewish scholars brought Aristotle to Western thought. Of course, you had the big Renaissance, and later the impact of classicism on the late 18th century and an influence on the Founding Fathers [of the United States]. You see it in the Federalist Papers. They are us.
"Every man is like a geological cross section of earth in which forgotten epochs leave their mark. What is new in us is just a little bit of grass at the top. . . . We're heirs to the Greeks. In some degree we're Greeks.
"If I were doing a course in American studies I would start by reading Homer, who was their Bible. For them, everything began with Homer. His lyric passages, the humanity, the range of character is positively Shakespearean. Homer is far above the other epic writers, far above Virgil and Dante and Milton, great as they are. To read Homer in the Greek is a revelation!In English it's a big mishmash of war and mythology."
Exactly what sort of American likeness does Stone see in the blind bard's distant mirror?
"In Homer you can see the archetype of our own system of government. You have the great king and many little kings. The great king is commander in chief of the host before Troy. He is the presiding officer but he is not absolute. He has a council of elders -- that's what the Senate is. On crucial decisions there was an assembly, a House of Representatives, a tripartite government.
"Although Agamemnon was the big cheese, Apollo struck the camp with a plague because of his unwillingness to give up a slave girl who was a daughter of the priest of Apollo. The assembly voted that he had to give her up. Great as the king was, he had to obey. That is right at the beginning of the Iliad."
As might be expected of a backtracking scholar like Stone, the study of Greek led him to refurbish his rusty Latin, which has since unlocked enlightening Roman analogs to Classical Greece.
"In Greek philosophy, for example," Stone says, "you can learn a great deal by turning to Cicero, whom I very much dislike. He was really a typical pompous corporation lawyer, a verbose and wordy old phony who spent his life serving the rich and powerful and helping to demean the poor and helpless. He loved to drop the names of the aristocracy in his dialogues. Nevertheless, he was a great writer, though overwritten, as Julius Caesar said. He did, however, study in Athens a couple of centuries after the great days, and it is interesting to see what a very intelligent Roman got out of the teaching of the great philosophers."
The Greek city-state, apotheosis of participatory democracy, contrasts sharply with Rome, "where sovereignty of the people was a fraud," Stone says. "What we learn [from Classical Greece] is that if you treat the great mass of the people as worthy to be talked to and persuaded, to be educated, to be your audience, as they were for the great playwrights, you create better men and women. When you read the Greek plays, try reading them not as plays or as poetry, but as material that reflects an audience and tells what the people who sat out there and applauded were like. This was one of the most sophisticated audiences the world has ever seen. Aristophanes and the other comic poets were cracking sophisticated jokes about philosophy. Euripides was a modern. He was speaking for bastards and slaves and women and barbarians.
"[The Romans proved] if you treat the people as dogs and as subhuman, worthless rabble, they become rabble and degenerate. You have Terence in a famous play in Rome complaining in the prologue how awfully hard it is to hold his audience because they are always running off to see a strip teaser, a snake charmer, a gladiator in the circus or some other vile show. The common man is really a myth of the intellectuals. All you have to do is try to hire a cook or plumber and you'll see that the so-called common man is just as wacky, temperamental, nutty, as writers and artists. There are no common men."
Stone stitches through the fabric of history, a single, passionate, thread -- the imperative need to protect freedom of thought and expression. Bringing to a close his impromptu history lesson he punches home antiquity's moral: "When the Macedonians came into Athens they restricted the franchise. They took it away from the poor who had hitherto voted for a couple of centuries. When they cut off that, they cut off the springs of creativity. That was the end of the great Greek theater. Men who are not free do not have free thoughts.
"So we see throughout history this recurrent drama, this struggle for freedom. It's interesting how fragile it is, how easily it is destroyed and how hard it is to recapture. We too may have to undergo [the struggle] again as we did in the McCarthy period. You have her in California your Birch Society of kooks and paranoids and proto-fascists, and [in Washington] we have our CIA and FBI, enemies which lie in wait everywhere. Freedom of thought has to be fought for in every generation."
Stone's personal commitment to the First Amendment and "freedom of the mind" is absolute and impartial. Although he is Jewish, he firmly supports the free speech rights of both the Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. "I think it's very dangerous to put 'ifs' and 'buts' in the First Amendement."
I. F. Stone was no weekend warrior, no Izzy-come-lately, to the battle for free speech. At age 14, when he was a high school sophomore in Haddonfield, N.J., he started a 5-cent monthly called The Progress. The debut issue leveled its elephant gun at the Yellow Peril campaign of William Randoph Hearst. Young Stone solicited advertisements after school on his bicycle, and the paper was well in the black three issues later, when his father forced him to close it down because he was slipping behind in homework. The next year Izzy was hired as an after-school reporter for the Evening Courier in Camden, N.J., and a year later graduated from high school by the skin of his teeth -- 49th out of a class of 52 seniors.
Though he never held a grudge against an editor, Izzy seemed to work best as his own publisher. After quitting the Courier when the city editor refused to let him cover the Sacco and Vanzetti execution story, Stone served as an editorial writer and Washington correspondent for a string of New York newspapers. When the liberal New York Daily Compass folded in 1952, Stone unsuccessfully tried to get back his old job as Washington editor of The Nation, and subsequently started the Weekly on Jan. 17, 1953. He initially ran it on a shoestring and a mailing list of 5,300 subscribers. His dream was to take "the flotsam of the week's news and [make] it sing. I had a vision of a paper which would be urbane, erudite, and witty, with substance, but as light as a souffle." His recipe worked and his newsletter won a worldwide reputation for its accuracy and documentation, as well as its eloquent radicalism.
Even at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts, Izzy never disguised his left-wing politics. Stone once told New York Times reporter Israel Shenker: "Even when I attacked McCarthy, it didn't require any particular courage. What was McCarthy going to do to me? Expose me? I was exposing myself every week anyway." He is fond of recalling: "I joined the Socialist Party, becoming a member of the New Jersey State Executive Committee before I was old enough to vote."
While still believing "there is a revolution in the heart of every man," Stone now travels under the label "Jeffersonian liberal." Ideologically he favors an unorthodox synthesis of Jefferson and Marx, and lost many of his more dogmatic Marxist friends and readers when he openly attacked the Soviet Union and China in the Weekly as draconian dictatorships led by stale old party bureaucrats. He has long been a supporter of dissidence behind the Iron Curtain , including the Samizdat literature movement in the Soviet Union and rebellious laborers in Eastern Europe.
"People say, 'Well they [Eastern Europeans] don't care about freedom because they've never had it,'" Stone says."It's wonderful for me as a newspaperman and a Jeffersonian to see that when the workers rebelled at the ironworks [in Csepel ] outside Budapest in 1956, they didn't just talk about bread-and-butter issues, they asked for freedom of the press.The same is true of the Baltic uprisings in Poland recently in Gdansk. Solidarity [the free Polish union movement] has called for freedom of the press. You've had the same cry underground in Russian and Czechoslovakia and Eastern German and Rumania. You see the struggle everywhere of men to be free to search for truth in their own way, to create as artists in response to the tyranny of their own compulsions, to purify their vision."
Stone strives for purity of vision but would never be suckered in by the Utopians. He wryly replies: "As a crusading journalist I am deeply oppoed to Utopia because it would be a very dull place and we would be technological victims of unemployment. I don't see how you could run a lively newspaper where everything was perfect and the angels kept on singing the same hymns for all eternity. It would deprive posterity of such fun. . . .
"The job of fashioning ourselves into people fit to be considered human beings is very difficult. We're very primitive, and we have to struggle with ourselves. Each of us is a little Pentagon that should be marshaled against the enemy which is us.This struggle to perfect mankind will go on forever, until the computers take over, which I hope will not happen."
With such a strong commitment to individual freedom, how does one justify obligations to society? "There's a wonderful speech in Thucydides by, I believe , the Syracusan, who answers this question. He said the Athenians served the city with their bodies as if they were not their own. They served the city with their minds as if their minds belong to them," Stone says.
"To be whole, a man has to serve a greater cause. A man is like a horse. A horse has to draw a wagon to really grow to his whole potential. He cannot live for himself alone. He has to serve others and society and his conception of the good and the just. But he has to be free to do it in his own way. To think and to speak. That was the conception of freedom in the Greek polis. You will find it in Herodotus. You will find it in Thucydides."
And you will find in I. F. Stone.