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Do the Classics Have a Future?

Dante and Virgil in the ninth circle of hell, being held by the giant Antaeus; engraving by Gustave Doré

Others claim that the classics have failed within the politics of the modern academy. If you were to follow Victor Davis Hanson and his colleagues, you would in fact lay the blame for the general demise of the subject firmly at the door of careerist Ivy League academics who (in the pursuit of large salaries and long sabbaticals) have wandered down some self-regarding postmodern cul-de-sac, when ordinary students and the “folks out there” really want to hear about Homer and the other great paragons of Greece and Rome. To which the retort is: maybe it is precisely because professors of the classics have refused to engage with modern theory and persisted in viewing the ancient world through rose-tinted spectacles (as if it was a culture to be admired) that the subject is in imminent danger of turning into an antiquarian backwater.

The voices insisting that we should be facing up to the squalor, the slavery, the misogyny, the irrationality of antiquity go back through Moses Finley and the Irish poet and classicist Louis MacNeice to my own illustrious nineteenth-century predecessor in Cambridge, Jane Ellen Harrison. When I should be remembering the glories of Greece, wrote MacNeice memorably in his Autumn Journal,

I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys…
…the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.

Of course, not everything written on the current state of the classics is irredeemably gloomy. Some breezy optimists point, for example, to a new interest among the public in the ancient world. Witness the success of movies like Gladiator or Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra or the continuing stream of literary tributes to, or engagements with, the classics (including at least three major fictional or poetic reworkings of Homer in the last twelve months). And against the baleful examples of Goebbels and British imperialism, you can parade a repertoire of more radical heroes of the classical tradition—as varied as Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx (whose Ph.D. thesis was on classical philosophy), and the American Founding Fathers.

As for Latin itself, a range of different stories is told in the post-Crocker-Harris world. Where the teaching of the language hasn’t been abolished altogether, you are now likely to read of how Latin, freed of the old-fashioned grammar grind, can make a huge impact on intellectual and linguistic development: whether that’s based on the studies from schools in the Bronx that claim to show that learning Latin increases children’s IQ scores or on those common assertions that knowing Latin is a tremendous help if you want to learn French, Italian, Spanish, or any other Indo-European language you care to name.

But there’s a problem here. Some of the optimists’ objections do hit home. The classical past has never been co-opted by only one political tendency: the classics have probably legitimated as many revolutions as they’ve legitimated conservative dictatorships (and Aeschylus has over the years been performed both as Nazi propaganda and to support liberation movements in sub-Saharan Africa). Some of the counterclaims, though, are plain misleading. The success of Gladiator was absolutely nothing new; think of Ben-Hur, Spartacus, The Sign of the Cross, and any number of versions of The Last Days of Pompeii right back almost to the very beginning of cinema. Nor is the success of popular classical biography; countless people of my generation were introduced to antiquity through the biographies by Michael Grant, now largely forgotten.

And I’m afraid that many of the arguments now used to justify the learning of Latin are perilous too. Latin certainly teaches you about language and how language works, and the fact that it is “dead” can be quite liberating: I’m forever grateful that you don’t have to learn how to ask for a pizza in it, or the directions to the cathedral. But honestly, if you want to learn French, you’d frankly be better off doing that, not starting with some other language first. There is really only one good reason for learning Latin, and that is that you want to read what is written in it.

That’s not quite what I mean, though. My bigger question is: What drives us so insistently to examine the “state” of the classics, and to buy books that lament their decline? Reading through opinion after opinion it can sometimes feel that you are entering a strange form of hospital drama, a sort of academic ER, with an apparently sick patient (the classics) surrounded by different doctors who can’t quite agree on either the diagnosis or prognosis. Is the patient merely malingering and really fighting fit? Is a gradual improvement likely, but perhaps never back to the peak of good health? Or is the illness terminal and palliative care or covert euthanasia the only options? But why are we so interested in what’s going to happen to the classics, and why discuss it in this way, and fill so many pages with the competing answers? There’s something a bit paradoxical about the “decline of the classics debate” and the mini publishing industry that appears to depend on large number of key supporters of the classics buying books that chart their demise. I mean, if you don’t give a toss about Latin and Greek and the classical tradition, you don’t choose to read a book on why no one’s interested in them anymore.

You will, I suspect, already have spotted all kinds of different assumptions about what we think “the classics” are underlying the various arguments about their state of health: from something that comes down more or less to the academic study of Latin and Greek to—at the other end of the spectrum—a wider sense of popular interest in the ancient world in all its forms. Part of the reason why people disagree about how “the classics” are doing is that when they talk about “the classics” they aren’t talking about the same thing. I don’t plan to offer a straightforward redefinition. But I am going to pick up some of the themes that emerged in Terence Rattigan’s play to suggest that the classics are embedded in the way we think about ourselves, and our own history, in a more complex way than we usually allow. They are not just from or about the distant past. They are also a cultural language that we have learned to speak, in dialogue with the idea of antiquity. And to state the obvious, in a way, if they are about anybody, the classics are, of course, about us as much as about the Greeks and Romans.

But first the rhetoric of decline, and let me read you another piece of gloom:

On many sides we hear confident assertions…that the work of Greek and Latin is done—that their day is past. If the extinction of these languages as potent instruments of education is a sacrifice inexorably demanded by the advancement of civilisation, regrets are idle, and we must bow to necessity. But we know from history that not the least of the causes of the fall of great supremacies has been the supine-ness and short-sightedness of their defenders. It is therefore the duty of those who believe…that Greek and Latin may continue to confer in the future, as they have done in the past, priceless benefits upon all higher human education, to inquire whether these causes exist, and how they may be at once removed. For if these studies fall, they fall like Lucifer. We can assuredly hope for no second Renaissance.

Now, as you will have guessed from the rhetorical style, that was not written yesterday (although you could have heard much the same points made yesterday). It is, in fact, by the Cambridge Latinist J.P. Postgate, lamenting the decline of Latin and Greek in 1902—a famous lament, published in an influential London magazine (The Fortnightly Review) and powerful enough to lead directly, over one hundred years ago, to the establishment in the UK of the Classical Association, whose aim was to bring like-minded parties together explicitly to save the classics.

The point is that you can find such lamentations or anxieties almost anywhere you look in the history of the classical tradition. As is well known, Thomas Jefferson, in 1782, justified the prominence of the classics in his own educational curriculum partly because of what was happening in Europe: “The learning Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe. I know not what their manners and occupations may call for: but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their example in this instance.”

All this seems almost preposterous to us; for, in our terms, these are voices from the Golden Age of classical study and understanding, the age that we have lost. But they are an important reminder of one of the most important aspects of the symbolic register of the classics: that sense of imminent loss, the terrifying fragility of our connections with distant antiquity (always in danger of rupture), the fear of the barbarians at the gates and that we are simply not up to the preservation of what we value. That is to say, tracts on the decline of the classics are not commentaries upon it, they are debates within it: they are in part the expressions of the loss and longing and the nostalgia that have always tinged classical studies. As so often, creative writers capture this sense rather more acutely than professional classicists. The sense of fading, absence, past glories, and the end of an era is a very clear message of The Browning Version.

But another side of the fragility is a major theme of Tony Harrison’s extraordinary play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, first performed in 1988—featuring (in one part of a complex plot that mixes ancient and modern) a pair of British classicists who are excavating in the rubbish dumps of the town of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt for the scraps of papyrus, with all the “new” bits of classical literature that they may contain, or the precious glimpses they might give of the mundane and messy real life of the ancient world. But as Harrison insists, all you ever get are the fragments from the wastepaper baskets—and the frustration and disappointments of the process send one of the excavators mad.

The truth is that the classics are by definition in decline; even in what we now call the “Renaissance,” the humanists were not celebrating the “rebirth” of the classics; rather like Harrison’s “trackers,” they were for the most part engaged in a desperate last-ditch attempt to save the fleeting and fragile traces of the classics from oblivion. There has been no generation since at least the second century AD that has imagined that it was fostering the classical tradition better than its predecessors. But there is of course an up-side here. The sense of imminent loss, the perennial fear that we might just be on the verge of losing the classics entirely, is one very important thing that gives them—whether in professional study or creative reengagement—the energy and edginess that I think they still have.

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