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Do the Classics Have a Future?

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Barclay/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Robert Browning and his son Robert Barrett Browning in Venice, November 1889

I am not sure that this helps us very much in predicting the future of the classics, but my guess is that in 2111 people will still be engaging with the classics, edgily and creatively, that they will still be lamenting their decline—and probably looking back to us as a Golden Age of classical studies.

But the question still remains: What do we mean by “the classics”? I am conscious that I have been almost as inconsistent as those I have criticized. Sometimes I have been talking about Latin and Greek, sometimes about a subject studied by people who self-describe as classicists, sometimes about a much more general cultural property (the stuff of movies, novels, and poetry). Now definitions are often false friends. The smartest and most appealing tend to exclude too much; the most judicious and broadest are so judicious as to be unhelpfully dull. (One recent attempt to define the classics runs: “the study of the culture, in the widest sense, of any population using Greek and Latin, from the beginning to (say) the Islamic invasions of the seventh century AD.” True, but…)

I’m not going to construct an alternative. But I do want to reflect on what the coordinates of a definition might be—on a template that might be more helpful in thinking about what “the classics” are, and how their future might lie. At its simplest, I think that we have to go beyond the superficially plausible idea (embedded in the definition I’ve just quoted) that the classics are—or are about—the literature, art, culture, history, philosophy, and language of the ancient world. Of course they are partly that. The sense of loss and longing that I described is for the culture of the distant past, the fragments of papyrus from the trash cans of Oxyrhynchus. But not solely. As the nostalgic rhetoric makes absolutely clear, the sense of loss and longing is also for our predecessors whose connections to the ancient world we often believe to have been so much closer than our own.

To put this as crisply as I can, the study of the classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. It is not only the dialogue that we have with the culture of the classical world; it is also the dialogue that we have with those who have gone before us who were themselves in dialogue with the classical world (whether Dante, Raphael, William Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon, Pablo Picasso, Eugene O’Neill, or Terence Rattigan). The classics (as writers of the second century AD had already spotted) are a series of “Dialogues with the Dead.” But the dead do not include only those who went to their graves two thousand years ago. This is an idea nicely captured in another article in The Fortnightly Review, this time a skit that appeared in 1888, a sketch set in the underworld, in which a trio of notable classical scholars (the long-dead Bentley and Porson, plus their recently deceased Danish colleague Madvig) have a free and frank discussion with Euripides and Shakespeare. This little satire also reminds us that the only actual speakers in this dialogue are us; it is we who ventriloquize, who animate what the ancients have to say: in fact, here the classical scholars complain what a terrible time they are having in Hades, because they are constantly being told off by the ancient shades who complain that the classicists have got them wrong.

Two quite simple things follow from this. The first is that we should be much more alert than we often are to the claims we make about the classical world—or, at least, we should be more strategically aware of whose claims they are. Take, for example, the common statement “The ancient Athenians invented democracy.” Put like that, it is simply not true. As far as we know, no ancient Greek ever said so; and anyway democracy isn’t something that is “invented” like a piston engine. Our word “democracy” derives from the Greek, that is correct. Beyond that, the fact is that we have chosen to invest the fifth-century Athenians with the status of “inventors of democracy”; we have projected our desire for an origin onto them. (And it’s a projection that would have amazed our predecessors two hundred years ago—for most of whom fifth-century-BC Athenian politics was the archetype of a disastrous form of mob rule.)

The second point is the inextricable embeddedness of the classical tradition within Western culture. I don’t mean that the classics are synonymous with Western culture; there are of course many other multicultural strands and traditions that demand our attention, define who we are, and without which the contemporary world would be immeasurably poorer. But the fact is that Dante read Virgil’s Aeneid, not the epic of Gilgamesh. What I have stressed so far is our engagement with our predecessors through their engagement with the classics. The slightly different spin on that would be to say that it would be impossible now to understand Dante without Virgil, John Stuart Mill without Plato, Donna Tartt without Euripides, Rattigan without Aeschylus. I’m not sure if this amounts to a prediction about the future; but I would say that if we were to amputate the classics from the modern world, it would mean more than closing down some university departments and consigning Latin grammar to the scrap heap. It would mean bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture—and a dark future of misunderstanding. I doubt we’ll go that way.

I would like to finish with two final points, one a slightly austere observation about knowledge and expertise; the other something rather more celebratory.

First, knowledge: I have referred several times to the way that we ourselves have to ventriloquize the ancient Greeks and Roman, and to animate their writings and the material traces they have left; the dialogue that we have with them is not an equal one; we’re in the driver’s seat. But if it’s going to be a useful and constructive dialogue, not an incoherent and ultimately pointless Babel, it needs to be founded on expertise in the ancient world and in ancient languages. Now I don’t mean by that that everyone should learn Latin and Greek (any more than I mean that no one can get anything out of Dante unless they personally have read Virgil). Luckily, cultural understanding is a collaborative, social operation.

The important cultural point is that some people should have read Virgil and Dante. To put it another way, the overall strength of the classics is not to be measured by exactly how many young people know Latin and Greek from high school or university. It is better measured by asking how many believe that there should be people in the world who do know Latin and Greek, how many people think that there is an expertise in that worth taking seriously—and ultimately paying for.

My one concern, I suppose, is that while there is still a huge and widespread enthusiasm for the classics, expertise in the sense I have just mentioned is more fragile. Christopher Logue knew no Greek when he embarked on the Iliad; but he knew a man who did know it, very well—Donald Carne-Ross, who went on to become professor of the classics at Boston University. Compare that collaboration to the way, even in significant publications in academic disciplines bordering on the classics (in art history, for example, or English), you repeatedly find misprinted, garbled, wrongly translated Latin and Greek. I don’t mind the authors not knowing the languages; that’s fine. But I do mind that they don’t bother to call on someone else’s expertise to help them get it right. Most ironically of all, perhaps, in my own recent copy of Rattigan’s Browning Version, the bits of Greek that are central to the play are so misprinted that they make little sense. The Crock would be turning in his grave. Or to put it my way, you can’t have a dialogue with nonsense.

But I don’t want to end with that curmudgeonly thought. As I looked over what I had written, I thought that there was one thing about the classics that had got left out in this lecture: a due sense of wonderment. Professional classicists are not good in this respect. You’ll most often hear them complaining about all the things we don’t know about the ancient world, bemoaning that we have lost so many books of Livy, or that Tacitus doesn’t tell us about the Roman poor. But that is to miss the point. What is truly amazing is what we have, not what we don’t have from the ancient world. If you didn’t already know, and someone were to say that material written by people who lived two millennia ago or more still survived in such quantities that most people wouldn’t be able to get through it in a lifetime—you wouldn’t believe them. It’s astonishing. But it’s the case; and it offers the possibility of a most wondrous shared voyage of exploration.

At this point in my reflections I picked up Browning’s translation of the Agamemnon and looked more carefully at how he introduced it. “May I be permitted,” he writes, “to chat a little, by way of recreation, at the end of a somewhat toilsome and perhaps fruitless adventure?”

Toilsome? Probably. Fruitless? I don’t think so, despite the very old-fashioned ring of Browning’s language. Adventure? Yes certainly—and adventures in the classics are something we can all share.

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