CLASSICS: WHY IT MATTERS

Neville Morley

Polity (2018) p/b 143pp £9.99. (ISBN 9781509517930)

This book does not do quite what the cover implies. Much of it is an attack on classics, as it has mostly been done in the past, and to some extent as it is done still. M. does put forward arguments in favour of classics—familiar arguments, and familiar because they are good. But this part of the book is dutiful; any reader will feel that it comes alive when it goes on the assault. 

‘What’s Wrong with Classics’ is the first and longest of its four chapters. M., ‘a world-leading thinker’, has two main lines of complaint. The first is that classics, at least in the past, has bolstered and encouraged elitism, snobbery, classism, racism, imperialism, and so on. The second is that it has been harmfully dominated by a concentration on mastering Latin and Greek. Yet the thrust is somewhat unclear. Seemingly strong statements are heavily qualified; the tone is assertive, yet cautious. The book reads as though it set out to be a radical tract and ended up more like marginal grumbling.

There is an element of truth in the first element of M.’s attack, but he exaggerates. In general he overestimates the effects of intellection. When I read that classics, in the nineteenth century alone, ‘justified the subjugation, exploitation and murder of millions’, I was reminded of Monty Python’s housewives on juvenile delinquency: ‘I blame it on that Cartesian dualism.’ Human beings have never needed books to justify oppressing their fellows. Southern intellectuals may have been gratified by comparing their peculiar institution to Greek and Roman slavery, but that was decoration after the fact. And if the Ku Klux Klan are planting burning crosses on the lawn, it’s not because they have been hitting the Aristotle.

The complaint that classical study has focused too much on language is not in itself new. At the start of the nineteenth century Sydney Smith argued that the study of linguistic niceties had become a way of keeping young men away from more serious and challenging debate on history and philosophy. In the mid-century F. W. Farrar complained about the amount of time given to verse composition. But these men assumed the necessity of a thorough grounding in the languages themselves; M. differs in thinking that they don’t matter very much at all, now that there are good translations around. It seems that his own knowledge of classical language is limited. He is honourably frank about this, adding that he has ‘some command of Greek and Latin, sufficient for the purposes of my research’. I don’t know the circumstances in which he came to classics, but it is surely admirable that he should have wanted to persist with the subject against handicap. If he had said, ‘Look at what I have been able to do despite disadvantage’, I should have applauded him. Instead, he gives thanks that he is not as other men are.

He is scornful of colleagues: ‘It’s undeniably true that many classicists should get out more and remember that Rome wasn’t just Rome or even Italy …’. Have you met one of these ‘many classicists’? I haven’t. Perhaps I should get out less. M. does little admiring, but he is keen on Nietzsche, perhaps not altogether a good sign. Wilamowitz is dismissed in a sentence as conservative and over-confident. Most classicists would think themselves unworthy to untie Wilamowitz’s boots, but the übermensch of the West Country can put him in his place. By contrast praise goes to ‘the Belgian ancient historian David Engels’ for using the fall of the Roman republic ‘to demonstrate that Europe may be on the verge of civil war, to be succeeded in twenty to thirty years’ time by the rise of a new popularly acclaimed dictator’. Such is the better, brighter classics to which we are to look forward. The condescension towards Wilamowitz draws attention to a strange absence in this book—the lack of thought about what the best scholars have actually done. M. has no interest in the achievements of, say, Fraenkel or M. L. West; but consider some modern scholars whose work even he must admit is relevant to his own concerns: for example, Dodds, Syme, Momigliano, Dover, Lloyd, Brown. Could any of them have done what they did without a full knowledge of the classical languages? (Spoiler alert: the answer is no.) 

M. is a proud philistine. He remarks that ‘my ability to appreciate Latin poetry … is, to say the least, negligible’—this without regret. He has a couple of pages about ways of studying Greek tragedy: language, style and metre; mythological sources; performance; politics and gender roles; reception. Missing here is any notion that the plays might be studied as literature—as poetry and drama—let alone that they might enrich the spirit. He talks about ‘literature specialists’, an odd phrase. Jowett thought that the study of ancient Greece should essentially be the study of its great minds. I don’t think that this is all it can or should be, but a study of classics that lacks this aspect is etiolated. M. rightly says that one of the strengths of classics is that it is by nature interdisciplinary, but strangely he does not see that his own outlook is at odds with this. A historian can’t have serious engagement with literary, philological or philosophical study without serious engagement with the language.

There are essentially three issues here: teaching classics to school-age pupils, teaching classics to undergraduates, and scholarship. On schools, M. says, ‘Projects to expand the study of classical subjects in school, wonderful as they are from the perspective of anyone committed to the subject, will only perpetuate the problem if they focus on the teaching of languages alone rather than on the whole range of classical studies.’ This is at best grudging, with a whiff of ‘I’d really rather you didn’t’. Now I don’t know any classics teacher, whether it’s Minimus to seven year olds or a graduate class in textual criticism, who thinks that teaching the languages is all that classics should be, and it may be that M. is merely attacking a straw man. If he is making a more substantial point, what is it, and what does he want to happen instead? Has he examined the inspiring and imaginative ways in which classical language is being brought to schoolchildren who would not otherwise have the chance? Instead, what he offers is whingeing, but no solution.

On university study he says, ‘As long as “Proper Classics” is defined in terms of the ancient languages, so that teachers and researchers are expected to have a high-level command of at least one and preferably both, regardless of whether that’s actually necessary for their research, the discipline operates a means of exclusion that works against all its other aims. Some schools are more likely than others to teach classical languages to a high level … The creation of “Classical Studies” programmes at university for students who haven’t had the opportunity to study the languages at school doesn’t help if such programmes are simply regarded as a weak substitute for the Real Thing.’ But would anybody maintain that one can study, say, Russian history or Chinese literature beyond a moderate level without being able to read the materials in the original? Can anybody suppose that reading Virgil or Aeschylus in translation is equal to reading their own words, written in languages much unlike English?

There is a genuine problem here, not limited to classics. For most modern languages, university students are a mixture of those who have studied the language at school, and those who have not had the chance (and there may be bilingual students too, with a vast advantage built in). The gap in attainment may be as large or larger in mathematics and physics. Indeed, even with those subjects not studied in school, like law or philosophy, those who have had years at a leading independent school or a comprehensive at the best end of town have a long head start over those whose early life has been difficult or unlucky. What does M. want to do? He is enthusiastic in finding fault, but vague about the answer. 

Presumably, he does not want to discourage those equipped to study Greek and Latin authors in the original from doing so, and I hope he does not want to discourage them from continually seeking to enlarge their knowledge. This is a tough issue, but with creativity and some compromise there are ways forward. Good courses have been constructed in classical archaeology and ancient history (though these too are better with a language component, and inevitably they lack the interdisciplinary range of classics straight up). Summer schools, foundation years, and courses which include options for intensive language learning are all positive responses. Best of all, again, is to give many more schoolchildren the chance of learning Latin—not a way of perpetuating the problem but of tackling it.

As for scholarship: you can live with arthritis. There’s always bowls and croquet, and perhaps you can even beat the whippersnappers once in a while, but the football pitch and the cinder track are forever barred to you. And even at the bowling-green, it would help if the joints creaked less. So too with classics: there are no doubt some kinds of study in which you can get by with a smattering of language (archaeology and art history, for instance)—M. is right thus far—but where he goes wrong is in failing to understand the limits. He believes that ‘at least for those working on historical topics, archaeology may be as important as language for a researcher’. In a few cases, perhaps. But although archaeology and the study of material culture have done great things, the fact remains that the great majority of our knowledge of the ancients still comes from their words. Anyone who disbelieves this is uninformed.

When it comes to scholarship, without a good knowledge of the languages the study of literature is out entirely. So is philology. Plato and Aristotle are out. Late antiquity, where most of the material is untranslated, is out, as are some specialities, like the history of medicine, let alone the very idea of establishing a text in the first place. Cultural and intellectual history are out. Political and economic history draw on the vast treasury of inscriptional evidence, mostly untranslated. 

What about the kind of history that M. himself likes? He stresses the stimulus that women’s studies have given to classical scholarship. Suppose we are investigating the place of women in ancient Greece. Lack of evidence elsewhere forces us to concentrate on Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries. Forensic speeches are especially valuable, philosophical texts and vase paintings are also helpful. But we shall also need to learn from imaginative literature, especially from the women of Greek tragedy. Creusa’s great speech on aidôs and its place in female experience in Euripides’ Hippolytus—how can we explore this difficult but immensely important passage without a full understanding of Greek? Or Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra? Some people think that the Oresteia is misogynistic. I think that is badly wrong, and I hope to show that in part through analysing the distinctive beauty and imagination of her language. She is more poetic than any of the other characters, and that expresses Aeschylus’ sense of female possibility. You may think differently, but you will need the language to engage in the argument.

Or take Greek homosexuality. Kenneth Dover transformed this subject, in large part through a detailed analysis of the language of a speech by Aeschines. James Davidson has since argued that Dover misinterpreted the meaning of some crucial words. I think that Davidson is right, but the point is, you must have the language to hold the debate or come to a judgement. The detail of the words is crucial, for understanding both what the Greeks thought right and wrong, and, more earthily, who did what to whom. Again, is there homoeroticism in the Iliad? Davidson thinks so, putting weight on the use of the particle te in book 22. This time I disagree, and think that he has got the force of the particle wrong. But again, the point is that we are equipped to argue the matter out.

M.’s disdain for other classicists extends to the claim that ‘there’s a case that classicists may not necessarily be the best people to study classical reception.’ There is ample evidence that this is not true, even of the nineteenth century, probably the most popular period now for reception study. It is manifestly untrue for several centuries before that, and the fact that M. is unaware of this shows the consequences of small knowledge. He seems to envisage a future in which most classical scholars will get by with a modest amount of Greek and Latin, while a few language experts (but how trained, one wonders) will remain to whom the others can turn for technical support. He thinks this will represent progress, believing that with more people like him classical scholarship will go from strength to strength. I think it is more likely to produce work that may be lively perhaps, but slight, easily satisfied and short of self-criticism. The proof of the pudding is in the eating: I can think of dazzling achievements in classical scholarship during my lifetime, but I do not find them celebrated in this book. By contrast, turn to the ragbag of trivialities (mostly) in M.’s chapter 3.

What is needed for successful scholarship, beyond intellectual ability? I would say restlessness, a thirst for understanding, a preference for getting it right over being clever, the urge to dig deeper, to go always a little further. ‘I’m all right, Jack’ and ‘I know enough of that already, thank you’ are disastrous mottos for the scholar. The consequence is a kind of spiritual cramp. M. is keen on Thucydides, he tells us, and especially on his influence. You can probably manage well enough with Thucydides in translation (as you cannot with Tacitus, where the historical idea is crucially dependent on the style in which it is expressed), but if you really care about him, wouldn’t you want to wrestle with the extraordinary difficulty of his speeches, even while asking yourself if it really needed to be this hard? I found myself wondering how deeply M. cares about the ancient world in itself. He is interested in saying things about it, a different matter. His book offers a strange mixture of defeatism and complacency. He asserts that classics matters, but with friends like these …

Richard Jenkyns

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