OUP (2023) p/b 256pp £14.99 (ISBN 9780197680810)

Eric Adler, professor and chair of the Department Classics at the University of Maryland, traces the roots of his proposed ‘battle’ back to the Romans of the 1st century BC and (with a nod to the Greeks on the way) to Cicero in particular, whose evocation of studia humanitatis in the Pro Archia effectively invented our notion of the humanities, which Cicero also associated with the liberal arts (bonae artes). A. argues that this amounted to ‘a broad educational regimen that would inculcate particular intellectual moral virtues in its devotees’.

But Roman education had a practical purpose—training its youthful, mainly aristocratic, male pupils in the art of public persuasion, to prepare them for a successful life in law and politics. Intensive work on the correct enunciation and usage of the Greek and Latin languages and on rhetorical argument, derived from handbooks and classical literature, introduced them to a wide range of ‘authorities’ whom they could scavenge for exempla that would help them to win cases. This was training for business, not humanism.

The point is that in pro Archia Cicero was not proclaiming any sort of educational programme. He was simply describing in glowing terms the debt he personally owed to the Greek poet Archias for his emphasis on the importance of literature, with its incentives for noble action and helping people in their hour of need, in order to persuade the jury of the poet’s merits. Archias’ chosen career as poet took him down that path. Other Romans learned other skills necessary for their careers after they had left school. Vitruvius, rather obviously, demanded that all architects master e.g. mathematics, draftsmanship, law and much else.

More important was the ‘battle’ in the Renaissance, whose influential thinkers such as Petrarch and Bruni placed the highest priority on the humane value of classical literature in the original languages—history, philosophy, poetry, grammar and rhetoric which they called studia humanitatis and haec nostra studia. Again, they did not turn it into a formal educational programme, but the result was that Ciceronian Latin was reinforced as the language of European education. But since they did not see similar value in the sciences and mathematics, as A. points out, a split between science and a classical education developed.

In fact humanism as we understand it was invented in 1808 by the German Friedrich Niethammer (‘humanismus’). At the heart of the concept was that the study of Greek and Roman literature was central to helping humans to fulfil their potential as individuals, an idea which had combined with the work of Enlightenment thinkers to develop the argument that everyone had certain inherent rights, definable in law, and associated duties and obligations, simply by virtue of their humanity. It was then that the word began to appear in English, since when other ‘humanisms’—scientific and meliorist (improving human welfare), for example—have emerged.

A. gets down to the real business of the book in the 18th century when American schools and colleges (i.e. early universities), aware that the Industrial Revolution would usher in an unprecedented revolution and expansion in jobs and opportunities, first began to object to the dominance of Latin and Greek over their curriculum. But on top of the arguments for and against languages, other factors came into play. Most institutions had compelled students to take certain ‘improving’ courses, many of them Latin or Greek. These were gradually dropped as students demanded to be able to take what most interested them. Then research and the discovery of new knowledge—especially relevant to the sciences—became the priority, drawing classicists away from their role as custodians of ancient learning. Further, the humanities began to justify themselves by taking on a more modern look and feel: the study of English literature, philosophy, art history and modern languages, rationalised as the key to understanding ‘Western Civilisation’.

A. goes on at length about the fierce, and not very enlightening, debates that went on between classical friends and foes on these issues. The main interest lies in the arguments marshalled by both sides to support their case. The mental discipline demanded by the study of the ancient languages was the first of the justifications. But what academic discipline did not demand mental discipline? Then there was the argument from skills: learning Latin and Greek gave one especially rich insights into the nature of the English language. But why should not modern languages do exactly the same thing? Some argued that Greek and Latin were central to the modern world because their vocabulary provided the roots of the language of science, or that those who knew some Greek and Latin became better scientists as a result; others emphasised the importance of access to the New Testament in its original Greek. Martha Nussbaum claimed that the Socratic method was ‘one of the hallmarks of progressive education’. Some argued for a ‘critical humanities’, studied through the lens of race, class, gender, colour and so on; others that ‘the process of canon formation’ was the most intellectually stimulating exercise.

But as A. forcefully points out, these justifications made the judges of educational value those who appeared to know nothing about the subject-matter of classics or were actively hostile to it, and certainly had no interest in or saw no place for the substance of classical literature at all. As one critic said, ‘Ask a professor what she thinks of the work of Stephen Greenblatt, a leading critic of Shakespeare, and you’ll hear it for about an hour. Ask her what her views are on Shakespeare’s genius and she’s likely to begin questioning the term along with the whole “discourse of evaluation”’. In language that the controversialist Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) would have approved, what classicists should be doing, A. argues, is making the case in ways which cannot be challenged, that is, in terms of the unique value of the subject in itself which consists of the contents of its superb literature that grapples with so many basic problems of human existence. That is well said (though one should surely add to that its historical and archaeological riches as well).

After that, A.’s conclusion is rather less than ringing: that since a world obsessed with difference and diversity desperately needs to find a way of recovering some sense of a shared identity and humanity (fair enough), classics should play a part in a humanities curriculum which ‘sheds light on life’s animating concerns from a variety of different cultures and perspectives’ from all over the world. He suggests that it might consist of considerations of e.g. mortality, ethics, love, family, friendship, the human imagination, the problem of living together and the pitfalls of power—inevitably, all in translation.

A. is passionate about classics and the classical languages. This book is a useful and informative contribution to a debate which will be of interest to all classicists.

Peter Jones