Chicago (2022) p/b 123p £16.99 (ISBN 97802818627)

This is a tract for the times, addressing the identity crisis in our subject with a stirring call to philological arms. H. starts with Aesop’s fable of the wolf on the plain as the sun set: seeing his own shadow grow terrifyingly large he deluded himself that he could be the king of beasts and was promptly eaten by a passing lion, a fable which ‘can still serve as a cautionary tale, specifically on the common vice of complacency’ (p.5).

What the ‘vice’ connotes in the world of higher education is the subject of the second chapter, where H. picks up on the English philosopher Simon Blackburn’s definition of academic complacency as one of the ‘seven deadly sins’ of the academy. H. concurs with Blackburn that extreme complacency is ‘the attitude that one’s undoubted distinction in one’s own subject entitles one to pontificate about any other: and conversely that their ignorance of one’s own subject disqualifies everyone else from having a worthwhile opinion on anything at all.’ H. warns us (p. 33) that ‘excessive contentment with customs, conventions and accepted norms bespeaks a conservatism that installs an idealized past to serve as an irrefutable standard against which new initiatives are mercilessly judged or outright discouraged’ and suggests that the current hegemony of STEM subjects matches the Victorian hegemony of Classics, where imperialist civil servants went from public schools to the colonies and maintained an elitist status quo in both.

At the heart of this book is a dichotomy between ‘Classicists’ and ‘Philologists’ in which the former are smug self-satisfied folk who think that their view of ‘the Classics’ is eternal and right, while the latter are the denigrated but worthy sons of toil who ask awkward questions, cut no corners, and pick holes in the cosy world-view of classicists. Classicism, H. says with a nice image, ‘degenerates into complacency whenever it provides itself with a past that has been plastered over for the sake of untroubled convenience’ (p. 42).

Complacency is of course neither new nor confined to the classical curriculum. The ancients themselves were troubled by the same dilemmas: on the one hand, as Syme famously put it, the Romans located their utopias in the past and not in the future, and ‘innovation’ was not always welcome in either Athens or in Rome: look at the usage of words such as novus and καινός and read Armand D’Angour’s The Greeks and the New (2011): on the other hand, look at the philosophers such as Heraclitus and Plato who tell us that the only thing which is unchanging is change itself. What H. says about the study of Latin and Ancient Greek could also apply to many humanities courses, but he is clearly a philologist and puts his money where his mouth is with many pages of word-play seeking to tease out the deep meanings of key terms. This can be more ludic than lucid—the attempt to link the Latin words pulcher, parere, par, polire and planus on p.73 is particularly unconvincing—and also confusing to the unwary: H. wisely distinguishes (for example) between the terms ‘complaisant’ and ‘complacent’ but does not stressing sufficiently that these words may sound similar but have always borne very different meanings.

Chapter 10 (‘The War on Complacency’) sees H. get into his polemical stride, although he runs the risk in his strident and rhetorical language of coming over as just as dogmatic and intolerant as the dogmatic intolerant classicists he critiques—a danger he acknowledges on p. 90. The style weakens his argument, showing an author whose view of complacency is itself complacent and who will simply not tolerate intolerance. The content is also overblown in places: in a chapter entitled ‘The Golden Age’ he depicts the Hesiodic paradise of modern life in language reminiscent of Pericles’ Funeral Speech (Thucydides 2.35-46) at its most gushing—‘populations are no longer in thrall to arbitrary power … Advances in medicine have considerably reduced infant mortality, stemming the tide of epidemics and infectious disease … democracy at least holds out the promise of leveling social distinctions and privileges’ (p. 92). The only problem looming is ‘the troubling sense that predictability and planiformity also entail monotony and boredom’ (p. 96) in this end-of-history world we now inhabit—a world which will be news to millions of people worldwide who are starving, dying from preventable diseases or smarting under autocratic rule.

In our institutions (and especially in our universities), H. rightly sees a need to beware the ‘stagnation’ of conserving what we do just because it is what we have always done, while also bemoaning the pressure to scale back the ‘critical negativity’ of the humanities in favour of ‘scientific positivism’ which sees a degree simply as a passport to industrial productivity. H. reminds us that the field of classics since the 1980s has ‘expanded significantly, becoming ever more inclusive, pluralistic and interdisciplinary’ (p.102). This is to put it mildly, and yet H. at once scales it back with a fresh warning against ‘instituting an intellectual complacency that glosses over historical and cultural variance’ (p.103) and even charges philology (which has so far been his poster boy of the subject) with being trapped in the dead end of academic complacency whenever it ‘claims for itself an unassailable capacity for securing authorial intention and establishing a text’s definitive sense’ (p.104)—a capacity which was dying even before Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the author in 1967. H. quotes without explicit critique the crass generalisation that sees the snowflake students of today as unable to bear ‘the merciless interrogation of every posited value, the deconstruction of every text, the radical relativism that borders on complete nihilism’ (p.105)—a piece of complacent lazy thinking which does no justice to the students or their teachers. The ‘flattening’ effect of digitization is spelled out, but this is (surely) not our enemy as it allows all of us to access the subject more easily than ever before. A modern-day Jude Fawley would not need to hammer on the closed doors of Christminster as he could log on to Google instead.

The message of the book is conveyed in its final pages and expressed throughout in its style: critical philology is needed, ‘not on the basis of authority but rather on the promise expressed by its love for the word, its philia for the logos, an intimate friendship that should balk at any attempt to gain full possession and full control over the object of its longing’ (p. 110). We need philologists to be the awkward squad who can ‘pursue the temporal traces that render languages dynamic and unwieldy, to prevent words from resting pleasantly in place.’

The book is accurately edited and elegantly produced, with a list of works cited and a general index. The endnotes sometimes lack sufficient detail about ancient sources cited, which (in a book praising the virtues of philology) is surprising. He plays fast and loose with texts—that quotation (p. 46) from Euripides Helen does not really do what he claims—and with chronology—he implies (p. 75) that Leucippus and Democritus reacted to Aristotle when in fact they predated him by over a century. Nonetheless this is a challenging, exhilarating and thought-provoking little book which wears its heart on its philological sleeve and pulls no punches either in argument or in style.

John Godwin