You are here:   Civilisation >  Critique > How the Ancients can help the Moderns

What is driving this abiding interest? As strange as it sounds, the Classics may be profiting from a societal wariness, or weariness, of identity politics. For classical literature radiates a universal humanity, whose truths and troubles cannot be cordoned off for a particular group: there’s no community or characteristic — born or acquired — that can lay claim to these cultures ahead of any other. No group exists with the right to assert their privileged access or to debar others from the pleasures of profound immersion. Despite recurrent claims from political grandees around the Mediterranean basin, the complexity of cultures that thrived in the Greco-Roman world do not live on in any one nation state. Their vestiges lurk everywhere and nowhere, colouring all aspects of Western civilisation but transcending any specific identity. True, no European nation would be quite as it is without the Classics, whose spirit underpins the principles of Western democracy, political criticism, artistic taste and literary form. But that rich tradition has long since become impossibly implicated in the threads of lofty Christian morality, intertwined with an earthy pagan pragmatism.

That citizens of western society are living and breathing embodiments of such cultural appropriation — willy-nilly — should be a source of collective pride, not feet-shuffling embarrassment. Perhaps, then, for curious and ambitious undergraduates, the unpoliced resources afforded by the Classics offer a thrilling liberation from some of the intractable impasses of 21st-century cultural politics.

Contemporary promoters and defenders of the Classics should not be seen as a privileged and partisan party. They are simply those who have become interested, and thereby invested, in that astoundingly broad and diverse world. There should be little surprise at the recent growth in the study of the Classics in China and Japan: the subject is there for anyone’s taking, and can fascinate and inspire in myriad ways. But the question of to what degree the world, rather than a particular subset of global cultures, should formally engage with the Classics is complex. Since the intellectual energy and artistic prowess of classical antiquity transcend any particular national, ethnic or geographical category, it is natural to hope that the subject will garner interest from any community exposed to it. But if it fails to do so, is that per se a problem? Or is disparity of engagement with one particular set of cultures to be expected and accepted cross-culturally? If it does indeed reflect a problem, is such a situation to be resolved by projecting classical antiquity with greater zeal into such communities? If so, that is more easily said than done. It is a sad fact of 21st-century politics that one person’s globally-minded educational zeal is another critic’s “cultural imperialism”. Do Classicists have a responsibility to engender engagement with classical antiquity from those communities which have participated less in the past, culturally or educationally? Or is there a conflicting responsibility to respect the independence of such communities to prioritise certain cultures over others? These questions inevitably tie into debates about the diversity of academic staff in the subject throughout the world: when one talks about ensuring that Classical academia is “representative”, it is unclear who or what requires representation.
View Full Article
Daniel Bamford.
January 12th, 2019
3:01 PM
David Butterfield suggests that ‘the unpoliced resources afforded by the Classics offer a thrilling liberation from some of the intractable impasses of 21st-century cultural politics’ (‘How the Ancients can help the Moderns’, December 2018 / January 2019). This immediately reminded me of a footnote to Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944): ‘I believe it was the author of Leviathan who first suggested that the teaching of the Classics should be suppressed, because it instilled a dangerous spirit of liberty!’ (ch. 13, p. 141, n. 2). Thomas Hobbes did not actually propose the outright suppression of the Classics, but insisted that the reading of Classical politics and history should be subject to ‘the correctives of discreet Masters’. This was because the Classics provide justifications and precedents for the overthrow of monarchs and their replacement with forms of ‘Popular Government’ (Leviathan (1651), Part II, ch. 29, p. 170.f). Apparently, there is no shortage of contemporary ‘discreet Masters’ committed to applying the necessary ‘correctives’ in order to force the study of the Classics to conform to the ‘supposedly “progressive” ideas’ that now demand our universal and unquestioning endorsement. Dr. Butterfield mentions attempts to reconstruct a more socially diverse ancient world in order to satisfy identity politics and a shift of focus to the reception of Classical culture in modern times in order to satisfy the demand for contemporary relevance. Such politically correct Classics now find their personification in Donna ‘Eidolon’ Zuckerberg, whose big brother Mark is also ‘Big Brother’ to all FaceBook users. While Zuckerberg tinkers with his algorithms, British universities are now expected to assess the quality of ‘teaching excellence’ through the quantifications of ‘core metrics’. As Dr. Butterfield remarks, ‘the humanities […] weren’t built for this’. Indeed, the Classics must be reconstructed, precisely because they ‘provide eloquent evidence that the human condition is less mutable than modern ideologues may suppose’. It will be easy enough to suppress notions of human liberty, since the Classics have also provided ample resources for totalitarian determinists, as Karl Popper demonstrated in The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Any humane defence of the Classics must therefore call on support from elsewhere. With this in mind, it is important to remember that the Classics were first categorised as ‘humanities’ in order to distinguish them from the study of ‘divinities’ and Dr. Butterfield acknowledges that the Classical tradition ‘has long since become impossibly implicated in the threads of lofty Christian morality’. It is this context of Christian ‘cultural appropriation’ that ensured both the survival of the Classical tradition and the sanctification of individual human liberty. Yet, by the same token, the Classics also influenced Christianity, so that the dehumanising determinism of the neo-Platonists, Manicheans and Gnostics found voice in Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther and Jean Calvin. Having long harboured inherently anti-Christian ideologies, the Christian influence on the study of the Classics is now much weakened, openly despised and deliberately discarded. The fate of the humanities thus depends on the fate of the divinities: if our human existence as sentiment individuals is no longer validated by a sentient personal creator, then the ultimate consequence is what C. S. Lewis called The Abolition of Man (1943). Having cited three books published in the 1940s, I should conclude by recalling the context in which Hayek thought of Hobbes’s attitude towards the Classics: ‘… perhaps no country provides a better illustration of the effects on a nation of a general and thorough shift of the greater part of its education system from the “humanities” to the “realities” than Germany between 1840 and 1940.’ Sincerely, Daniel Bamford, Derbyshire.

ian coville
December 9th, 2018
4:12 AM
yes and "what is a classic book?" at says 'classic' really just means appropriate.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.