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These issues are becoming particularly fraught across the pond. Towards 250,000 pupils in American high schools study Latin each year, although only 10,000 or so take the final examinations annually (SAT and AP Latin). The subject thus has a firm base in its traditional form, but thrives at college level especially through translation. Among increasingly diverse student communities, the immense differences of the ancient world are becoming difficult to stomach.

The world’s most widely read classical blog is the New-York based Eidolon, founded by Donna Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook’s Mark. Its “mission statement” is to make the Classics “political and personal, feminist and fun”. Not only has the site attracted a broad array of talented writers, but it has become the primary vehicle for asking agonised questions about the discipline and its objects of study. Among its most read articles are “The Bad Wives” (on ancient misogyny), “Avenging Lucretia” (on barriers to women in politics), and “Being a Good Classicist under a Bad Emperor” (on the need to protect the Classics from white-supremacist appropriation under a Trump presidency). The tone is urgent, and the battle cry earnest: the Classics are being weaponised to fight against perceived prejudice and injustice. But in the fray the dividing lines are becoming blurred: antiquity is being miscast as an enemy rather than an (admittedly complicated) ally.

Condemning the classical world is not a risk-free enterprise: with a few logical leaps scholarship becomes an exercise in curating the past to the tastes of the present, consigning its undesirable aspects to oblivion. The Classics don’t owe any modern inquirer an easy or comfortable answer. It is no part of scholarship to reshape history to please modernity; academics should research and reconstruct the ancient world as the evidence commands, relaying their findings with wide-eyed enthusiasm to anyone willing to listen.

The Classics should have the self-confidence to sail these stormy seas unshaken. The advantages of the discipline are self-evident, if impossible to quantify. A millennium’s worth of cutting-edge intellectual endeavour, artistic experiment, political vicissitudes and personal follies sheds informative light upon the crises, genuine and supposed, of our frenetic modernity. The “transferrable skills” (forgive me) that come from deep engagement with the Classics — confronting astoundingly different cultures; grappling with frustratingly difficult but resolutely precise languages; building plausible arguments from imperfect evidence; critically appraising controversial ideas — are enormous and unassailable. If someone must know where Greco-Roman texts become relevant, Classicists can answer standing on their heads: read Tacitus on the corrupting influence of power, Aristophanes on fake-news demagogues, Sophocles on the perils of pride, Plato on the reformative powers of education, Juvenal on the societal consequences of mass immigration, Catullus on the instability of love, Seneca on emotional continence, Vitruvius on architectural vice, Lucretius on the alarming consequences of atomic physics, and Lucian on the miserable ubiquity of cod philosophers.
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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.

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