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Salon de Madame Geoffrin
June 23, 2021+James Kierstead
+Faith & Religion+Teaching

Classics Before the Enlightenment

It’s Classics, Jim, But Not as We Know It

In a recent New York Times profile of my former grad school classmate, Princeton Classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta — an article that also serves as a handy guide to the culture wars currently raging in the field — journalist Rachel Poser states that “Classics as we know it today is a creation of the 18th and 19th centuries.” Moreover, “How these two old civilizations became central to American intellectual life is a story that begins not in antiquity, and not even in the Renaissance, but in the Enlightenment,” when “a sort of mania” for Greece and Rome took hold of the intellectual classes.

It’s certainly arguable that “Classics as we know it today” as a discipline within modern institutions of higher education goes back no further than the emergence of the modern research university in 19th-century Germany. But there’s a danger of defining our terms too narrowly, in a way that is paralleled in the debate about the origins of the concept of Western civilization.

Some historians argue that the term “Western civilization” wasn’t common before the 19th and 20thcenturies. As Stanley Kurtz has pointed out, though, just because that particular term wasn’t yet standard doesn’t mean that there was no concept of a Western tradition before the modern period. Still less does it entail that no Western intellectual tradition with a debt to ancient Greece and Rome can be delineated.

The Enlightenment mania that Poser describes was certainly real, but it wasn’t the only craze for all things Greco-Roman in European history. After all, the Renaissance (so-called because it represented a “rebirth” of ancient culture) represented a similar mania, one that was arguably even more significant than its Enlightenment successor.

Was the Renaissance the real starting point of our idealization of the Classics, then? Even this would be too simple. Because even in the absence of “manias” for antiquity, the influence of the ancients on subsequent European culture was pervasive. It’s so pervasive and familiar, in fact, that it’s easy to miss. For most of post-antique European history, Latin was the dominant mode of literate discourse, and Christianity provided the default religious and moral framework. And both Latin and Christianity had their origins in antiquity.

If we bear these facts in mind, engagement with the classics emerges as an almost natural activity that the societies that followed on from the Greek and Romans engaged in more or less as a matter of course, just as Chinese cultures maintained a relationship with their classics.

Indeed, some scholars would even place the beginnings of Western classical scholarship in antiquity itself, in Hellenistic (3rd- and 2nd-century BC) Alexandria, where older Greek texts (especially Homer) were already being studied. That tradition of scholarship continued for centuries in Byzantium, and the way that Renaissance humanists like Politian engaged with classical texts wasn’t too dissimilar.


Were there not changes in the way these classics were studied, and even defined, over time? Of course there were. Greek was not much known in some quarters of Western Europe before the Crusades or even the Renaissance. And in the 19th and 20th centuries Hebrew tended to drop out of curricula as Classics emerged as a modern, largely secular discipline more focused on pagan authors than on biblical and patristic texts.

It’s possible to view this as part of a reorienting of the field around a new idea of the West, a reorienting that involved sectioning off the ancient Near Eastern civilizations (the Jews but also the Egyptians, Assyrians, and so on) from Greco-Roman antiquity. The problem is that the Greeks and Romans were always much more central to European culture than the Chaldaeans or the Hittites. Dante and Milton repurposed Homer and Vergil, not Gilgamesh.

The divide between Classics and the study of the ancient Near East can also be exaggerated. Individual classicists have moved Eastward in their interests for a long time, and continue to do so. A lot of impressive work has been done on the Greeks’ debt to cultures further East. And an undergraduate degree in Classics is still, I would wager, one of the most common gateways to postgraduate work on the ancient Near East.

Changes there have certainly been, then. But rather than seeing these changes as a sign that the Western tradition was largely constructed in modern times, it might make more sense to view them simply as shifts in emphasis — or even as the twists and turns of a tradition that has long been evolving, and that still continues to evolve.

Hey Ho, Hey Ho! Will Classics Have to Go?

The direction that Classics now seems to be evolving in, at least at the largest, richest universities in the Anglophone world, is signposted in a recent statement from Princeton Classics declaring the department’s determination to turn away from “the appreciation of Greece and Rome as exemplary cultures” and to articulate a more “inclusive vision.” As examples of topics worthy of modern classicists’ attention, the statement mentions

how ideas and forms of expressions circulated between Greece, Egypt, and the Near East; to what extent the Romans and their North African enemies shared the same cultural models; how ancient people related to the natural and built environment; and how the beginnings of literature compare across the world.

Few would object to scholars who are interested in these topics pursuing them. I personally happen to find comparative ancient history of this sort particularly interesting, even if I haven’t made it my own specialization.

But what about scholars interested in Classics as an intellectual tradition going back to the Greeks and Romans? The Princeton statement does include “how classical texts have been transmitted and received in later cultures” as an example of a respectable topic. But it then immediately goes on:

We specifically consider how the cultures of Greece and Rome have been instrumentalized, and have been complicit, in various forms of exclusion, including slavery, segregation, white supremacy, Manifest Destiny, and cultural genocide.

As several classicists have recently reminded us, the classical tradition was instrumentalized in support of various other causes, too, including liberal democracy. Should scholars not look into those uses of the classical past as well?

But Princeton isn’t the only institution in the field to be sending out messages warning against the notion of a Western tradition. In 2016 the US Society for Classical Studies (SCS) issued a statement that included a condemnation of “a view of the Classical world as the unique inheritance of a falsely-imagined and narrowly-conceived western civilization.”

“Unique” and “narrowly conceived” might seem to offer some hope for scholars who see something in the idea of a Western tradition and hope to work on it without being anathematized by their field’s largest professional organization. But the basic thrust of the statement is clear: Scholars should steer very clear of ideas like “Western Civ.”

It may, of course, occasionally be appropriate for a scholarly association like the SCS to issue statements about the direction of the field. But in an environment where we’re often being told that classicists are “on a slippery slope to” or even “complicit in” white supremacism, statements of this nature risk stigmatizing a good number of classicists at smaller institutions, many of whom continue to work within a framework that, until relatively recently, was quite common in our and other humanities fields.

In this article, I’ve argued that a Western tradition with roots in Greco-Roman antiquity isn’t just an ideological construct of the Enlightenment. Whether or not I’ve succeeded in convincing you on that front, I wanted to close with a more important point.

As Heterodox Academy has long stressed, disagreement is a healthy (perhaps even a necessary) part of any genuine field of inquiry. So is a diversity of perspectives. I’m very happy that scholars are pursuing work in comparative ancient history and other burgeoning subfields. I’m completely content if some departments choose to recast themselves as departments of “Ancient Civilizations” and the like. But I also think there should be room in the field for scholars who want to continue teaching Classics in a more traditional vein.


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