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What the classics mean to me (and what they don’t mean for the West)

A Loeb Classical Library shelf at P. Tombolini and Co bookstore in Rome

“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice, he is the worst.” — Aristotle

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” — Alexander the Great

“It is closing time in the gardens of the West.” — Cyril Connolly (editor, Horizon magazine)

It is dangerous, startling though that may seem, to talk about western civilisation these days. It is very easy to find — online and in real life — people who feel an urge to “defend” this abstract concept, who believe it to be under siege, who can quote an author out of context to bolster their views on why we should restrict immigrants, reject multiculturalism, reject conspiratorial ideas like equal rights, discard civility accusing it of being “political correctness”, and resisting any re-examination of our notion of what “success” means from an economic standpoint. Yet it doesn’t take long to realise that most of the loudest people on the subject do not know a great deal about, say, Ruskin or Proust, Donizetti, Yeats, Woolf, Frank Lloyd Wright or Zaha Hadid, Kant, Chaucer, Alice Walker, Walt Whitman, Dostoyevsky, Rousseau, Swift, Turner, Millais, Mondrian, or for that matter Sophocles or Ovid. Who are these people?, I find myself asking. And if their idea of western civilisation is a Quarter Pounder with cheese, Kesha, and the novels of James Patterson, does it need protecting? Indeed, is it under threat at all?

Perhaps that is an aggressive way to start a post about love, but it is love. I can say unabashedly that I become weak at the knees when I think about the classics. Late in highschool, I discovered the Loeb Classical Library (pictured above): 538 bound volumes of everything important from the Greeks and Romans — and quite a bit that is unimportant! Green covers for Greek, red covers for the Romans, with the original text on the left page, and translated text opposite. Commencing print in 1912, the series began with the usual exasperations of the time: omit some naughty parts (or translate them into a third language so as to be less scandalous); change the gender if people were being too overtly homosexual; and sometimes just be a bit stuffy in your translator’s voice. But continuing into the 21st century, the Loeb collection (acquired now by Harvard University) has a dedication to updating and providing the best possible texts. The downside for readers is that these are not critical volumes, that is they just provide the text and perhaps a few explanatory notes. In this era of the internet, I suppose people can do their own investigations if need be. But the mere existence of this series suggests me to Western civilisation is doing just fine — and I wonder how many “defenders” have ever purchased one?

With each passing year — some spent poring over old texts, some where my modern life supersedes my classical interests — I find myself more impacted by nostalgia. (That’s not an authentic Greek word, by the way, but it takes its component parts from Greek: to mean an ache for homecoming.) I suspect many of my generation feel this, whether it’s for ’90s television, the disconnected feeling before Facebook existed, chintzy birthday cakes, or something a bit more distant: mothballs, trips to the country, palm court music… whatever our madeleine dipped in tea may be. When I open up an ancient work, especially something biographical or mundanely non-fictional, I feel the pang in my heart of disconnection, a realisation that while I may feel close to this culture, I will never truly comprehend them. And that yearning propels me on. I think especially of the Greek Anthology“, a collection of hundreds of short poems compiled in the 10th century from a number of earlier sources. These poems run the gamut: occasional poetry written for a funeral or ceremony, inscriptions designed for sepulchres, and pieces that reflect back on a story or a myth which would have been clear to contemporary readers. The ancients are so far removed from us, but almost uniquely among cultures they have left behind a vast literary and archaeological trove that allows us to approach their society forensically and — the dream of all classicists — to imagine ourselves living among them.

So why would I be concerned, right? I acknowledge that the ancients underpin our culture, so why should I be worried about those who have appointed themselves modern crusaders?

Cold Pastoral by Leonidas (trans: Dudley Fitts)
Homeward at evening through the drifted snow
The cows plod back to shelter from the hill
But ah, the long strange sleep
Of the cow-herd Therimachos lying beneath the oak,
Struck still, still, by the fire that falls from heaven!
John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, 1821, oil on canvas

“We are all Greeks.. our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their roots in Greece” — Percy Shelley

As I write this in the year 2018, my alma mater, the Australian National University has been embroiled in a somewhat manufactured controversy. A conservative think tank, the Ramsay Centre, sought a university which would accept a sizeable bequest to create a degree in “Western civilisation”. Several Australian institutions refused outright due to concerns by left-wing students at what they see as an attempt to perpetuate a particular view of the west at the expense of 21st century multiculturalism and liberalism. They argue that we already live in a world where laws on media ownership, corporate powers, and the advertising dollar have encroached strongly on many of the traditional areas of thought, that this bequest amounted to an attempt to infiltrate the world of academe with extremist ideologies. Some also argued that so much of the humanities at university are implicitly about western culture that it seems needlessly dogmatic to have a separate degree to this end. The ANU took a more nuanced approach, considering the option and the ways in which the west can be studied interestingly and cohesively as a degree, but ultimately rejected the proposal when the Ramsay Centre refused the university autonomy. Among other things, they wanted to be able to audit lecturers and their class content, with the power to be able to pull funding or demand changes. Given the initial funding offer was only for eight years, this was troubling from the point of long-term thinking, but also censoring lecturers is simply verboten for any modern western university, let alone one ranked in the top few in Australia and the top 100 in the world. Australia’s archly conservative former Prime Minister (and Ramsay board member), Tony Abbott, openly stated that the Centre is “not merely about Western Civilisation but in favour of it.” The ANU remains open-minded to the idea if that autonomy is allowed, seeing the possibility of creating a broader “liberal arts” degree akin to what some universities in the USA teach.

At the same time, as quoted in the first article linked in the above paragraph, Mr. Abbott opined that this degree could be the beginning of “an invigorating long march through our institutions” of right-wing thought. The truth about these opinions is that they are not concerns about western culture being taught. As an alumnus of the ANU, I can confidently state that the teaching of Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson, of Orson Welles, Brecht, Seurat and Montaigne still exist strongly within the curriculum. That the active study of the Occident, from Homer and the Bible to the Renaissance and postmodernism, remains soundly placed at the core of learning. The concern of Mr. Abbott and his ilk is about the way things are taught — or, should I say, the alleged way. A fear that writers and thinkers may be questioned, second-guessed, placed in context, or studied comparatively alongside the rest of the world. Why do people fear that the understanding of history and culture taught to my parents’ generation, which so often sidelined, fetishised, or outright omitted the complexities of the cultures of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Americas (and, in my father’s case, mentioned Indigenous Australians not once), may deserve to be re-examined, as every generation has done since the beginning of civilised thought?

If anything, I feel protective of these works from those who wish to preserve western civilisation. From those who somehow think that civilisation did not emerge from a melting pot. Who would not consider the cultural and ethnic complexity of the past but would rather engage with works only on a hagiographic level. And why do these people who defend the humanities often lack a desire to engage with them? I don’t get the sense that they want to boost the number of university professors or further understand the question of Socrates’ existence. An optimist might say that they are using their privileged position to help sustain a culture they believe uniquely valuable, which is facing the inevitable oncoming tide of cultural drift and change. A cynic might suggest that they are using the ancients for their own causes, and perhaps we should hold their arguments up to higher scrutiny. For it’s not just a love of one culture that drives these people, but a viewpoint that all other cultures are passing fancies, if not outright malevolent forces.

“The time of life does not exist when it is impossible to discover in it a masterly poem one had never seen before” — Robin Skelton, on the Greek Anthology

Why did past generations study the classics? During much of western modenity, as in antiquity, studying the humanities prepared people of breeding for gentlemanly pursuits: religion, the law, politics, or the aesthetic knowledge of the non-working classes. Bertie Wooster, in P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels, is forever mangling his quotations, but these easily tossed-off references are perfect shibboleths of class. Over the last century, as the demands of equality and modernism have arisen with fervour, classicists face a dichotomy. In one corner, we have shifted to a society where any “extraneous” knowledge is considered elitist. Jonathan Miller, the great theatre director, despises being called a “Renaissance man” on account of being both a doctor and a director; to him the very phrase is “vulgar”, for he sees in it a modern disapproval of the idea of knowing more than you need to know, what he calls a lack of “creative curiosity”. On a good day, admitting one has read the works of Zola might elicit amazement or mild applause. On a regular day, it’s a sign that you are not normal, not relatable. Entire subspecies of politicians have arisen who have proudly proclaimed their ignorance on anything not to be found on daytime television (I think of Sarah Palin, the 2008 US Vice-Presidential candidate, smirking to the audience during a debate as she categorised herself as just a normal person without any of that fancy knowledge — exactly what Americans wanted in a world leader, as it belatedly turned out). He was a bit of a swot, but the 19th century classicist Thomas Gaisford felt that “Greek literature not only elevates above the vulgar herd but leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument”. The problem is that swathes of humans do not wish to be elevated “above the vulgar herd”. Achieve too much in school, you’ll be bullied. Achieve too much as an adult, and you’ll be made to feel uncomfortable at Sunday lunch for using a word with more than three syllables. When knowledge becomes the villain, society goes backwards, and it is up to the learned to save us.

The other side of this dichotomy, of course, is that the critics are not entirely wrong. Higher education was for a long time a bastion of privilege, and was used to keep that privilege where it belonged. As authors and filmmakers have noted, it is amusing to think of the English, still dressed for Oxfordshire climes, sitting in schoolrooms in 19th century India or Australia, being drilled in Virgil and Horace. William Shakespeare, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, give us the humorous scene of a schoolboy (named William) being reluctantly put through his Latin grammar, so we know this mainstream malaise is nothing new. The ancient equivalent of our word “canon”, in the sense of authors to read, was hoi enkrithentes, or “the admitted”. (I’m reminded of a scene in a recent episode of the TV series Westworld, at a wealthy party, where a self-made man interrupts a member of the idle rich to correct a misquotation of Plutarch. The nobly born man responds snidely that you can always tell those who were born poor; they actually bothered to read the books.)

All the same, the schoolroom image becomes less funny when one thinks of the millions who were tossed aside to make way for the privilege. The Einsteins, to paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould, dying in cotton fields and sweatshops for the crime of having been born with the wrong skin colour or nationality. (Shades of Homer, who is placed in limbo in Dante’s Divina Commedia, not because Homer did anything wrong but because — as a pagan who had the gall to exist before the birth of Christ — he will never be able to go Heaven.) We the people have worked to strip away that privilege over the last century, compelled on by two world wars where rich and poor died alike on barbarous battlefields and previously restricted women took up jobs to keep the country going — when peace was restored, it was hard for all but the deliberately difficult to deny that some of the pre-war segregations made little sense. (Of course, the current British monarch Queen Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of the very first, Alfred the Great, who ruled in the 9th century, so some systems have a way of resisting change.)

Chinese koi

How then do we justify continued study and reverence of ancient, sometimes obscure texts (study often backed by government funding)? In the Middle Ages, no-one spoke ancient Greek. Homer was still revered in the west, but one couldn’t read him. The canon — the “admitted” — remained fairly closed, given the expense, commitment, and often government approval that was necessary for an author’s work to be hand-copied into new editions before the printing press. So many authors have had part or all of their works obliterated by time for this very reason. We live in a world where many social changes are made based on “access to all”. In modern offices, we are taught to use simpler language in reports and communications so as not to discriminate against the poorly educated or people with limited English. A recalcitrant part of me struggles with this simplification, even though I completely agree with its aims, for I want to encourage everyone (who can) to be better than themselves.How do we implement the narrative of “easier for those who need it to be” without making the narrative “easier for everyone”? And yet I find my feelings of constant bettering of ourselves at odds with another narrative: the understandable 21st century viewpoint that we are all perfectly acceptable as we are, thankyou very much, and trying to lift people up with culture is just another way of policing difference. And it is difficult to be “lifted up”, truly. To understand the classics, one needs not just a university degree, but the study of dead languages (break out your cheque book), the comfort of leisure time required to consume all of the texts (single parents and the perpetually downtrodden need not apply), and increasingly broader access to historical and literary studies (live near a big city or go back to the supermarket counter). As works become older, they are inevitably harder to comprehend amongst the multicoloured tapestry that is culture. But spend some time in the real world and we can appreciate why the average person might grumble at modern orchestral music or argue that their five-year-old could recreate a work by Basquiat.

There is another question: whether the ancients deserve to be studied. Although the Greeks and the Romans varied in how they enforced the patriarchy, both cultures gave women a subservient role. In Greek writing, wives are often nameless in texts even when they are the subject of conversation. Even in literature and theatre, where we find fascinating women both mortal and deified, they are very often mentally ill, vicious, murderous, or their story is written in direct relation to the broader story of a great man, from Dido to Nausicaa. There are shades of the Golden Age of black-and-white film here, in which women are given many of the best parts but are actual agents of the narrative far less than one might think. (A.D. Hope’s response to this, Advice to Young Ladies, is worth reading.) The ancients were also proudly slaveholders, and slavery existed at the heart of their culture; it is their industrial revolution, the sine qua non of their meteoric rise. Even writers such as Juvenal and Pliny, who express horror at the poor treatment of slaves, never write so much as a sentence that could be considered abolitionist. When, in the course of Roman history, the slaves revolt, the newly freed people buy their own slaves. The revolt is not about a morality of freedom, it is simply about moving oneself up the ladder. And while the Romans were a multicultural society, the Athenians were racially homogeneous — “barbarism” originally meant anyone who couldn’t speak Greek. The ancients are a queer people to us already, but it’s even harder when we find beliefs we can’t respect.

As I discussed in my post on Ovid and his narrative use of rape, I don’t believe that we should hold past cultures to our modern standards. However I’m sceptical of the conservative argument that any resistance to outdated moral codes is a “progressive fantasy of inclusion”. Surely there’s a decent utilitarian or libertarian argument that, if mainstream entertainment earns its money back, then we should focus on that? That art considered obscure, archaic, offensive or irrelevant by the majority is not really “western culture” at all, but “history” to be consigned to dusty tomes? I humbly submit that those who would seek to protect are really speaking to their base, that they are actually focused on preserving certain ways of life they regard as sacred, and that they hold up the greats not because they have a respect for Pythagoras and Plautus, but as a veil in which to shroud their true beliefs.

John William Waterhouse, A Naiad, or Hylas with a Nymph, 1893, oil on canvas
The Tomb of Anakreon by Julianus Aegyptius (trans: Dudley Fitts)
I have sung this often,
even in the grave will I shout it:
Drink: for you must put on this mantle of dust.

So, why should we continue? Or, more importantly, why should the average member of the “vulgar herd” care? I’m sure others have written answers more sage than I can, but some suggestions below:

#1) They improve us. 19th century poet Matthew Arnold believed that the purpose of life lay in “acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit”. We are — most of us — immensely comforted by cheese on toast, but if we’re to watch a cooking program we’d rather watch the creation of an elaborate croquembouche. Why shouldn’t we be the best version of ourselves, if only in our more uplifting moments? There are some logical reasons for why Thucydides isn’t flying off the bookshelves, of course. Two parent families find themselves working twice as hard to achieve a lifestyle formerly attained with one parent working. No-one has servants anymore, and so not only do we all clean and cook but we are encouraged by society and reality programs to clean and cook to a professional level lest we face the judgment of others. The sheer bulk of accessible content, much of which we might once have considered “guilty pleasures”, is now absorbed as the cultural norm, paradoxically making it harder to find things outside of our immediate scope. (Have fond memories of wandering the shelves of a video store or library to find something you’d never have otherwise known about? Try looking up a pre-1980s movie on Netflix, or deciphering between 10 poorly tagged records of Madama Butterfly on Spotify. Companies have no incentive to provide the obscure when the mainstream will do.) And, even if one does engage with Catullus, who to discuss it with? Friends will stare blankly, and while the internet may seem like the obvious answer, experience has taught me that too often the know-it-alls run the asylum, creating their own barriers to entry for newcomers. Yet I believe that the struggle is worthwhile. If we wish to solve the innumerable problems facing our world, we need to be able to think deeply, to express ourselves, and to expand our minds beyond our immediate culture. Much as the learning of another language forces our mind to acknowledge other ways of thinking, so engagement with the classics improves us immeasurably. We connect sculpture and theatre to history and politics, philosophy, and the sciences. We are forced to ask questions, to doubt the veracity, to compare sources, indeed to engage with works in a way that builds our minds, rather than rewarding them with a chemical rush at each commercial break.

The Warren Cup

#2) They please us. Although I rush to point out the differences in our cultures, the ancients also connect with us, perhaps more than they did with previous generations. Writers like Andrew Davies, who adapted the gorgeous BBC Pride & Prejudice and Little Dorrit among others, seeks to find the immediate in the literature he works with. Although we may not grasp the nuances of a 200-year-old culture, we can understand the feelings the author was trying to elicit, especially when they relate to love, betrayal, and sex. Even after 2,000 years, this can sometimes remain. The ancients loved pleasure, and while there are many negatives to the fact that much of what survives was written by the monied classes, their delight is not one of them. See the Warren Cup, in which tender but overtly sexual exchanges take place between men, sometimes while others look on. There is an immense, often luxurious, pleasure in the writings of the Greeks and Romans, of the ancient Chinese and Egyptians. It is a different kind of pleasure to that most common in the 21st century. Immediacy has taken hold: a 3-minute song, a webseries, a television series so designed for binge-watching that it completely omits opening credits. David Attenborough laments that 13-episode documentaries featuring educational scientific content have been subsumed by capitalism and the “consumer is right”-ism of modern culture, leading to 1- and 2-episode pieces which recycle the same footage twelve times before each commercial break (I’m looking at you, History Channel!). The idea of a 3-hour opera is verboten, let alone spending one’s evening trawling through a text from the 1st century. The brilliant Mary Beard has long argued that we should only be studying the classics if they still have something to say to us. Exploring a work in a bubble is of limited interest. Luckily, as her career has proven, these works still speak a great deal.

[Studies of literature] “sustain youth and entertain old age; they enhance prosperity and offer refuge and solace in adversity. They delight us when we are at home… and are with us at night, when we are travelling, and on holiday in the country.”
— Cicero, Pro Archia

#3) They explain us. Cicero said that “All literature, all philosophical treatises, all the voices of antiquity are full of examples of imitation, which would all lie unseen in darkness without the light of literature”. I’ve commented previously on the “golden thread” that runs through our culture. Homer is in conversation with Virgil, Ovid, and Aeschylus; Boccaccio and Shakespeare pick up the thread; and the discussion resonates down the years to us, through film, opera, theatre, poetry, art, architecture, literature… often in unexpected ways. It’s not just in the specific works (endless permutations of Romeo & Juliet or Sherlock Holmes) but in the tropes, the conceits, the very ideas at the heart of the stories. We’ve now reached the point where 20th century films and television shows are constantly remade, and yet much of the time the audience isn’t even aware. (“Is this a remake?” is that question I hear strangers asking each other in the street, and friends have to restrain me from racing after them to explain the background.) Any culture is defined by the stories it tells. If we interrogate our own stories, we will better understand why they survive, how they survive, and what each generation’s approach can tell us about them, much as a historian can extrapolate much information about a particular era from the way people have played Hamlet over the years. We’ll discuss this again later in my 400 Books series, when we reach James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a quintessential and challenging 19th century text that posited a link between cultural beliefs across the world, and explicitly linked the popular western traditions such as the Christian stories into this chain.

I firmly believe that any society is only as strong as its ability to question itself. The first states to turn against slavery, to enact women’s rights, to modernise their prison and education systems, were not fools. They were not, to use a horrid alt-right phrase, “cucks”. Those polities allowed themselves to be questioned — often, it must be said, at great cost to the questioner — and emerged better for it. To impose, as the Ramsay Centre would, any kind of requirement to preach about works is anathema to progress and achievement. We will find ourselves in those who have come before, and they will help us find answers to what comes next.

#4) We find our own internal meaning. This is the toughest point to argue, but unsurprisingly the most important. As a student of the humanities at university, I faced the expected questions from ultra-focused law or economics students. Why earn oneself a university debt to explore pleasure? Why waste time studying something that doesn’t have an immediately obvious career trajectory attached? If you can’t quantify the material gains of doing something, why do it? This argument is unsettling because, sure, for many people immediate material gains are necessary. I can’t condemn people for being practical in a world that is often cutthroat, where even the middle classes face a very real possibility of material loss if they speak up at work, develop a health problem, or fail to read the fine print. Our society so often favours the powerful that individuals cannot be disdained for wanting to become powerful. If we’re told to focus on getting the best possible job and avoid the “frivolous”, who is to question that logic? There’s an argument there for another time about revolutionising how we view our culture. But among the educated, we can also play a role. We can want more from life. We can divorce ourselves — or at least, live separately but amicably — from this unhealthy competitiveness, from ambition, from living in thrall to materialism. We are all reliant on our external meaning, derived from our reputation, our actions, our place in the world. But the best lives have internal meaning too.

The Wine-Cup by Meleagros (trans: Dudley Fitts)
This cup has touched
Zenophila’s teasing mouth, sweet snare of love.
Oh happiness, if she
Would press her lips to my lips, and in one
Deep draught drink down my soul!

I am not alleging that we can make the classics “popular” again, if indeed they ever have been since the age of Shakespeare. Perhaps in our post-Industrial Revolution, post-WWII, STEM-based world, it is unrealistic to hope that the broader humanities will be restored to a place of love and adoration. My mind vacillates between wanting to prescribe set texts for everyone, elevating people whether they like it or not, and letting other strands of entertainment and art take those who want them. I will always be torn between my innate desire to educate and enlighten, my sheer love of these works and desire to share them, and my understanding that every culture has, truthfully, preferred modern delights. Even when the Middle English looked back to the ancients to create their own history, even when the Renaissance poets elevated classicism, they were doing so for the few. Popular stories, plays, music hall songs, have always been the real entertainment.

Hieroglyphs from the tomb of Seti I, photographed by Jon Bodsworth

But what I can’t accept is the slimy argument for the “sanctity” of these texts as protection against an obscure cultural threat. I must conclude that the “defenders of western culture” have no interest in culture, only in the west. Until they can be honest, I don’t think rational debate is possible. And so we find ourselves in the unenviable position of protecting western culture from those who claim to be protecting it, of defending its great humanity against those who would use it to make us all less humane.