Shadi Bartsch on the Classics and China (Ep. 120)

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Mercatus Center
Apr 21 · 40 min read

A self-professed nerd, the young Shadi Bartsch could be found awake late at night, reading Latin under the covers of her bed by flashlight. Now a professor of Classics at the University of Chicago, Dr. Bartsch is one of the best-known classicists in America and recently published her own translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. Widely regarded for her writing on Seneca, Lucan, and Persius, her next book focuses on Chinese interpretations of classic literature and their influence on political thought in China.

Shadi joined Tyler to discuss reading the classics as someone who is half-Persian, the difference between Homer and Virgil’s underworlds, the reasons so many women are redefining Virgil’s Aeneid, the best way to learn Latin, why you must be in a room with a native speaker to learn Mandarin, the question of Seneca’s hypocrisy, what it means to “wave the wand of Hermes”, why Lucan begins his epic The Civil War with “fake news”, the line from Henry Purcell’s aria that moves her to tears, her biggest takeaway from being the daughter of an accomplished UN economist, the ancient text she’s most hopeful that new technology will help us discover, the appeal of Strauss to some contemporary Chinese intellectuals, the reasons some consider the history of Athens a better allegory for America than that of Rome, the Thucydides Trap, the magical “presentness” of ancient history she’s found in Italy and Jerusalem, her forthcoming book Plato Goes to China, and more.

Listen to the full conversation

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Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today my guest is Shadi Bartsch, who is a professor of classics at the University of Chicago. She has written very well-known books on Seneca, on Lucan, on Persius. Her latest work is a wonderful translation of Virgil’s The Aeneid, and she has another book coming out on political thought about the classics in China. Shadi, welcome.

SHADI BARTSCH: Thank you so much, Tyler. I’m excited to be here.

On literary representations of history

COWEN: Now, when I read Virgil, I see so many visual representations of history. There’s the temple of Juno, there’s Pallas’s belt, the ivory gates of the underworld, the Daedalus relief, the shields. In The Aeneid, how do visual representations differ from literary representations of history?

BARTSCH: That’s an excellent question. Before I try to answer it, I’ll just quickly say that the usual pronunciation is A-nee-id rather than Ā-a-nid.

One of the interesting things about all the visual representations of history that are described in the poem is that they all have viewers, and the viewers consistently misunderstand what’s going on in the picture that they see. There is a tension between the forward-driving, apparently pro-empire vision of The Aeneid — although my own perspective is that it’s not what it has been taken to be — there’s a tension between that and the confoundment of its protagonists as they look at the history in front of them. I’ll give you a few examples.

When Aeneas lands in Carthage, which is an area hostile to the Trojans, he sees on the walls of Juno’s temple a big frieze of the Trojan War, and he sees the Trojans getting whacked as they did during the Trojan War. Instead of saying, “Oh my God, here we are getting defeated. This is terrible. What kind of a person would put this on their temple?” He turns to his companion, and he says, “Look, they love us. We’re here already. I think we found safety.” Whereas, the correct response would be to say, “I think we have a little problem here.”

Another example is when Aeneas himself picks up the ginormous shield that has been made for him by his stepfather, Vulcan, that contains the whole history of Rome, past and present and future. Virgil tells us that he looks at it and picks it up, but he has no idea what it means.

In other parts of the poem, where we’re shown historical events — for example, in the conversation Aeneas has in the underworld with his father — we’re given a very particular view of Roman history, one that, for example, leaves out such important events as the fratricide that started the city of Rome. Romulus killed Remus when Remus tried to jump over his city boundaries and mock them.

Either folks don’t understand, or they’re seeing something that’s very altered from historical reality. This all goes back, I think, to show us that poetry itself, as a form of art, is not to be taken as reflecting history or trying to say something true about the political situation of the day.

COWEN: Is the ultimate vision of the work one of a forward-moving history or that we’re doomed to a kind of cyclical repetition?

BARTSCH: Definitely a forward-moving history. What Virgil does under Augustus is, instead of write an epic about Augustus — which would be seen as political pandering — he goes back, and he writes an epic based in the distant past about Augustus’s putative ancestor, Aeneas. He shows Aeneas leaving Troy and having many adventures and finally landing in Italy, killing a lot of native Italians and setting up the city that eventually will be Rome.

People have taken this to be a pro-imperial forward movement of a group coming in from the inside and taking control of somebody else’s land. However, this forward-looking movement is radically undermined by the poet himself, who does things like, instead of showing us one version of history or one Aeneas, shows us the many different stories about Aeneas that existed before Virgil wrote his version.

Virgil’s version became canonical, but if you know anything about his picking and choosing, you know that he’s consciously marking his own path through different traditions and showing that his own work is one out of many possibilities for the depiction of Rome’s growth.

It’s not really ideological. It’s more saying, “Hey, the story the victors tell is always made out of a selection of options. Even though I’m selecting some of these options — calling Aeneas a good guy when he used to be a bad guy, for example — I’m also showing you the negative options so that you can see for yourselves how history is constructed, the ideological methods through which a positive history of an event is constructed.”

COWEN: Was T.S. Eliot correct that this poem was the first one sympathetic to the Christian mind, as he put it, or is that just nonsense?

BARTSCH: That, I’m afraid, is more or less nonsense. T.S. Eliot was writing his two essays about The Aeneid and the Christian world after the end of World War II, when there was a real sense that the civilized world — which he equated with Christianity and obviously did not equate with the Nazis or the Japanese — the civilized world had triumphed, and that its values could be traced back to The Aeneid even though that was the pre-Christian text.

Those values could be traced to that poem for two reasons. One, because on the surface, Aeneas is called a pious hero. He gives up his own personal desires to follow the destiny that the gods have mandated for him. He’s selfless, in a sense, and this resonated with some ideas about Christianity.

The second reason is that Virgil also wrote a poem called The Fourth Eclogue, in which he speaks very mysteriously about a child that will be born, who will start a golden age and will change the world from a world of war to a world of peace. All the early Christians leapt on this and said that Virgil had had a premonition of Christianity and that this was the Christ child.

COWEN: Coming from a half Iranian background, how do you feel that leads you to read the classics differently?

BARTSCH: That’s also a great question. I’m half Iranian and half Swedish. One of my first languages was, in fact, Farsi. Then I became fascinated with the classics. I ended up doing an undergraduate classics major. The faculty all said, “Oh, go to grad school.” I went to grad school. At that point, you’re stuck. You have to become a classics professor. It was very weird because I knew a little bit about the Greeks from the Persian perspective, and now I was reading about the Persians from the Greek perspective, and they’re both treating each other as barbarians.

“The barbarians are fighting us. They want to destroy our empire, which represents civilization at its peak.” It’s the same thing you hear on both sides. I think that made me very aware of the fact that most political parties, most ideologies, most governments use very similar rhetoric to represent utterly different situations. That’s because there’s basically an agreed-on rhetoric of what it’s good to claim you stand for.

Everybody wants to stand for progress, goodness, fairness — or if not fairness, at least correct hierarchies, doing good for the people, etcetera. Nobody stands up and says, “Hey, I’m so and so. I’m a tyrant. I kill small children for fun, and I toss them in the Tiber River.”

The sameness of those claims following very different governments became, to me, something of fascination, and it’s also something you can see in Thucydides, where, in book 3, section 82, he talks a lot about how language changes in war and how certain terms are used that sound good, but really cover up unpleasant realities. It’s a very old theme.

COWEN: In book 6, why is Virgil’s underworld so much busier and more bustling than Homer’s? You have a literal parade, right?

BARTSCH: We have a parade.

COWEN: It feels so empty and lonely in The Odyssey.

BARTSCH: Well, Homer’s underworld is a place where the heroes who have died in the Trojan War are flittering about, wishing they were still alive, and it’s definitely a gloomy, lonely situation. Virgil’s underworld — at least the part of it that is Elysium, where Aeneas’s father is currently living — is a place where souls are put into bodies and then sent back up to the real world to be figures in history.

Aeneas’s father says things like, “Oh, look, it’s Pompey. He’s going to go up, and he’s going to be a great general. Oh, look, it’s Scipio Africanus. He will defeat so and so. Oh, my goodness, here’s Marcellus.” Yes, it’s very crowded. It’s supposedly a view of all the great heroes who will come after Aeneas. But, as with everything in Virgil, there are problems in the text that completely undermine what is going on.

Just one example: in this highly ideological, forward-looking passage in the underworld, Anchises tells his son Aeneas that the Romans will be descended from Aeneas’s son Silvius, his second son. In book 1, when Jupiter is making predictions about the future of Rome — and Jupiter is, after all, a big god — he says the Romans will be descended not from Silvius, but from Aeneas’s first son, Julus.

Okay, who cares? The Romans are coming. They’re from Julus, or they’re from Silvius. Actually, it’s a huge deal in Virgil’s own day because Julius Caesar and his adopted son Augustus traced their heritage back to Aeneas, and behind him, to Venus through Julus. Julus, Julius. That similarity of names is part of the evidence on which their claim to go back to Venus lies.

However, if all the Romans come from Silvius, there’s nothing that goes Julius Caesar, Silvius, Aeneas because it has to be Julus for Julius. In fact, the epic presents two completely competing but equally authoritative claims for whether or not Julius Caesar does go back to Aeneas and Venus.

COWEN: Was Anchises correct to predict that the Romans would not be so very good at art?

BARTSCH: [laughs] You do ask good questions. Yes and no. He was correct in that the Romans never wanted to characterize themselves as being good at art. That was a fancy Greek thing, like literature, like astronomy — all those Greek arts. The Romans were going to be good at war and at settling down customs in new countries, and of course, at building aqueducts and things like that.

However, Virgil’s own poem is a counterevidence for that, in that, as an object of art itself, it has been taken up and treated as a masterpiece for thousands of years. Also, in that Virgil shows us sometimes in the poem that ignoring art or not knowing much about art can be detrimental. For example, rhetoric is an art, and the Trojans swallow everything that the Greek liars tell them because they’re not well versed in these arts, so for their own sake, they have to become better.

COWEN: Is Virgil, in fact, the greatest political philosopher of ancient Rome?

BARTSCH: I will pause for a second over that one. You’re leaving out the Greeks, which helps me answer the question. I have a feeling I’m going to get a lot of flak on this, but I would say yes, because, like Aristotle, he understands that sometimes poetry is truer than truth, and also because he manages both to represent a political ideology and to show how a political ideology is created at the same time, thereby undermining what he’s shown us how to do. I think that is very interesting.

He also lets us see how — possibly at Augustus’s insistence — the figure of Aeneas, the hero, is changed from somebody who did not have a good reputation — in fact, in some of the earlier stories, he was a traitor who betrayed Troy to the Greeks — he shows us how this figure is transformed in his own poem to a heroic figure.

It’s just as if we were to say, “Gosh, let’s think of Mussolini, the fascist Mussolini with a dubious history suddenly becomes in power.” At that point, all the stories being told about Mussolini are stories of victory and goodness and the triumph of the second coming of Rome and so forth. Then once he’s gone, that all becomes critical again. The discourse is always dependent on who’s got the microphone at the moment, as it were.

COWEN: You may not agree with this, but many readers I speak with tend to think that Homer is somehow deeper, more mystical, or just more fun to read than Virgil. What accounts for that perception and how might you challenge it?

BARTSCH: I think they think that because both of Homer’s epics are not, per se, about politics or governments. They don’t offer etiologies of a state. They don’t talk about history. They are stories in the true sense. They are about heroes in the true sense, not about some guy who’s pushed around the world by the gods, constantly getting into trouble, crying, wishing he didn’t have to go found Rome, etcetera.

Achilles — figure larger than life. His pride is everything to him. He stops fighting in the Trojan War because he’s been insulted. The drama is, what compels him to go back into battle after that insult?

Odysseus — a fairy tale of a man wandering from island to island, meeting ever stranger creatures, but eventually making it back home. It’s a great yarn. You don’t have to learn history to read these. You get involved in the psychology of the characters, their tragedies and their triumphs.

Nobody is really interested in getting involved in the psychology of the state and its triumphs. On the one hand, you’ve got a poem that’s an etiology for a particular government. On the other hand, you have two amazing stories. I can see how reading The Aeneid would be considered duller for some.

COWEN: At least superficially, it feels like quite a masculine work, but if you look at the recent reinterpreters, there’s your new translation, which I thought was wonderful; Sarah Ruden’s, which is quite good. Margaret Drabble covers Virgil. A.S. Byatt. Ursula Le Guin writes the tale of Lavinia. Why is it women who are redefining the apparently masculine Virgil?

BARTSCH: That’s not very hard to answer. In all these epics, what you see is the silencing of women’s voices. You don’t see it surreptitiously, as in women don’t appear, so you don’t think about them. You see it explicitly. Lavinia, whom Ursula Le Guin gives a voice to, doesn’t get to say a single word in The Aeneid. All she gets to do is blush once. This is the woman who is going to be the mother of the Roman people.

Dido gets plenty to say, but Aeneas contradicts all of it. Dido is Aeneas’s lover, and he tells her she’s making a big fuss over nothing and leaves. However, if you read the poem carefully, what Aeneas says to Dido — the masculine voice reproving the feminine voice — is actually incorrect.

One example: he tries to sneak away from Carthage without her knowing. She finds out. She says to him, “Why did you try to sneak away from Carthage without my knowing?” He says to her, “Are you accusing me of being a snake? I’ve never lied to you. Never. I wouldn’t, ever.” The reader says, “You just did, dude, you just did.”

There are other instances like that. Historically speaking, the male translators of these epics haven’t had a particularly sensitive ear for moments like that. Instead, it’s always Dido being hysterical, Dido being mad because her boyfriend left her, Dido being a woman and a North African — a woman from Phoenicia. Those faithless Phoenicians. There’s an expression in Rome, called “Pūnica fidēs.” It means Punic faithlessness, essentially. For all these reasons, it’s easy to read Dido as a stereotype of the mad Eastern woman or Cleopatra reborn or what have you.

That’s not how Virgil treats her. Even among the gods, Juno, the goddess of marriage, says Dido and Aeneas are married — even if Venus says “No, they’re not.” When Aeneas says to Dido, “Hey, I never married you. It was just sex.” Dido says, “What? No, we were married,” which is a conversation that has taken place through all of history, probably. They’re both right.

An important thing for me was to bring out the truth-telling and the authenticity of these women’s voices. Even when a woman actually does go crazy, like Amata, the mother of Lavinia, Virgil shows us the evil forces that come down and penetrate her and make her mad — the Furies, like snakes slithering through her body. In the end, what you see are women being silenced by the gods, by the narrator, by men, but they’re still there, and it’s almost like they’re waiting to have their voice given back.

COWEN: Will newly composed, very long poems ever become culturally central again?

BARTSCH: No.

COWEN: Why not? Harry Potter books are very long, right? They’re often quite boring. People read them avidly.

BARTSCH: They read them avidly because they don’t think they’re boring. I don’t read Harry Potter books because I think they’re great for the imaginations of maybe a younger generation than myself.

Reading poetry is an acquired taste. The way education is heading these days, that kind of patience and that kind of sympathy for texts written in other registers — texts that need translations, texts that seem to talk about archaic values or values that are out of date — I don’t see much patience for those coming back in the future unless things change radically.

COWEN: If you had to learn Latin from scratch, which method would you use?

BARTSCH: The method I used.

COWEN: Which is what?

BARTSCH: Which is, I bought a teach-yourself-Latin textbook, and I taught myself Latin. [laughs] Finally, when I started taking a class, it turned out that it went much more slowly than I was going with a textbook, so it was a bit of a disappointment.

COWEN: But say you were doing it now, I mean. Would you get online and have Zoom calls with monks or not?

[laughter]

BARTSCH: I would not because there’s not much value for most Latinists in spoken Latin or spoken ancient Greek because that’s not how they’re taught. There are a few people who teach them as spoken languages. I think they’re still spoken on some occasions in the Vatican. But who would I speak Latin to? There’s nobody around. We’re only taught it as a written, unspoken language, which is why it’s so effective to do it with a textbook, and you don’t need an app on your iPhone to do it.

I did take eight years of Mandarin, and there, I would say, do not try to learn Mandarin using a textbook. You absolutely must be in a classroom with a native Chinese speaker, or what comes out of your mouth will not be Mandarin. It will be something that nobody will understand. Or worst-case scenario, it’ll actually mean something but the wrong thing, and that happened to me many times.

Before I started classes, and I was just teaching myself by reading, one of the expressions I thought I had learned was “excuse me.” When I said it in China, people would jump and look at me suspiciously. It turned out, I found out later, that I wasn’t saying, “excuse me.” I was saying, “Please smell me.” That’s the kind of mistake that’s possible.

COWEN: From reading the Romans, what might we learn about the psychology of power that we don’t already know?

BARTSCH: The psychology of power. Well, I think the way the Romans brought their religion into the psychology of power was fascinating and perhaps a bit alien to us. Roman religion — religiō — actually represented a kind of binding contract between the gods and the mortals. It was very much a quid-pro-quo relationship. “I’ll give you X. You’ll give me Y. I will sacrifice 10 cows for you, and take the auspices, and consult with you while I’m doing this about whether or not we should invade Spain.”

The idea is, if the sacrifices are done correctly, and the auspices are good, what we’re doing in invading Spain is a just war because the gods have allowed it to happen, and they’ve nodded at it. So, every time before the Romans went to war, they would make sure that they were told by the gods that it was a just war, so that they could proceed with impunity.

If the omens they got after the sacrifices — when they opened the animals up — were bad omens, instead of saying, “Oops, we better not invade Spain after all,” they would simply do the procedure again until they got the answer they wanted. I think that’s a pretty interesting way of tying religion to your political bandwagon.

There’s also a famous story about a Roman general at a sea battle, who had sacred chicken on his boat. He threw grain to the sacred chicken, and how the chicken ate the grain was supposed to be either a good omen or a bad omen as to the upcoming naval battle, but the chickens refused to eat anything. He lost his temper and he shouted, “If you won’t eat, then maybe you’ll drink.” He threw them all overboard, and he lost the naval battle, of course.

COWEN: When reading Seneca, how is it that brings out something of the performative and perhaps also hypocritical elements in stoicism? And are those essential to stoicism? Or is it just that Seneca ultimately was a deviant from his own philosophy?

BARTSCH: This is such a complicated issue. There’re some reasons people think Seneca was a deviant from his own philosophy. He was extremely rich, one of the richest men in Rome. He practiced in usury and made tons of money off the British at the time, or the island of Britain, I should say. He was a tutor and then an advisor to the Emperor Nero until Nero advised him to kill himself in [AD] 65, supposedly for participating in a plot against Nero, which he probably didn’t.

Yet he wrote all these works touting the value of not caring about money, not caring about politics, not caring about influence, not caring about your reputation, and so forth. What I like about Seneca is all these things he writes, he never says, “I’ve accomplished them.” He says, “It would be great if we could accomplish this, and I’m trying.” But he never says, “I’ve succeeded.”

People don’t like him because he failed. If you look at another figure, another great moralizing figure — if you look at Jesus Christ, for example — he lives the life he preaches. Seneca does not live the life he preaches, but some of the things he says are very interesting and valuable nonetheless. For example, the idea that too much emotional investment in things that aren’t worthwhile are simply damaging to you.

I have a great example for how to think in a stoic way that isn’t a deep example, but it’s helpful to show how stoicism can help. I’m not going to talk about the deaths of family or really serious stuff like that. Let’s say you’re driving down the road, obeying all the traffic rules and signals. All of a sudden, a car comes out of nowhere, and it’s going 100 miles an hour, and it almost takes your door off before it screeches into the distance.

You’re angry. You’re upset this person almost killed you. You’re shouting. You’re saying, “What kind of a maniac did that?” Then, Seneca says, “If you feel like this, tell yourself a different story.” He says wave the wand of Hermes — actually, it’s Epictetus’s phrase — but wave the wand of Hermes over what just happened. In other words, recast it.

What you do is, you say to yourself, “In that car, there was a very sick child, and his frantic father was trying to get him to the ER as fast as possible, weeping, half out of his mind.” Then you don’t feel as angry anymore. You don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s a possibility.

The other thing I want to say about Seneca and stoicism is that in his letters and essays, yes, he argues for the benefits of stoicism. Don’t invest too much in your loved ones. Learn to separate yourself from worldly concerns. If you go bankrupt, don’t be unhappy, et cetera, et cetera.

In his dramas, it’s a completely different story. He repeatedly, for example, in Thyestes, shows people who seem to be trying to be stoic, but they all fail for one reason or another. Thyestes is exiled from power. His brother Atreus holds the kingdom. Thyestes is living in the countryside with his children, supposedly eating grubs and sticks and acorns. He keeps saying, “Isn’t this wonderful? I love this simple life. Poison is only drunk out of golden cups. Nobody puts poison in earthenware.” That kind of thing.

Then his brother invites him to come back and share power, and Thyestes isn’t that interested. He’s learned to be a good stoic, but his kids are like, “Daddy, Daddy, we don’t want to eat acorns anymore. We want to go back and have a good life.” So, he gives in out of love for his children. He fails in stoicism.

He goes back and takes up the throne again with Atreus. And on that very same evening, he looks around, can’t find his kids, asks his brother over dinner where his kids are. His brother starts cackling, and he says, “They’re very close to you.” Thyestes says, “What do you mean?” Atreus says, “Ha ha, they’re in you. I just fed you your kids.”

Now, that is a pretty grim story, and the other ones are equally grim. People die horribly. Nobody gets to live the good stoic life in the dramas. Was Seneca torn between his vision of a peaceful and painless life? Or did some part of him know that, ultimately, no human being is strong enough to actually be a stoic?

On contemporary themes in historic literature

COWEN: Why does reading Lucan’s The Civil War make more sense in 2021 than it might have 30 years ago? To me, it seems remarkably contemporary — more than Virgil. People are crazy. They’re at each other’s throats, but not really for any good reason.

BARTSCH: Lucan seems contemporary. Lucan is very much after and in response to Virgil. He reads Virgil as saying the possibility of the good state, the good empire is a real thing. What Lucan says is, “No, that is never possible. There will always be men grubbing for power and killing each other, and civil war is, frankly, a condition of life, a condition of history. Right now, I’m writing under Nero, who is not a good emperor. I’m writing about the events that led to Nero coming to power, and I hate them. They’re terrible. People lie to each other. Brothers killed brothers. Friends slashed each other in the face, all for political reasons. People use language, again, incorrectly to distort what they meant, and then — here’s the rub — because I’m writing under Nero and because Nero is one of the bad emperors, I can’t complain about writing under Nero. I have to praise him. Otherwise, I’ll get in trouble.”

So you get this beautiful juxtaposition of a poet starting out his poem with almost over-the-top praise. “Oh, Nero, you’re going to heaven, and you’re going to be a star in the constellations. There’s never been anybody so wise as you. Civil war was worth it if you were the outcome.”

Then the rest of the poem is this blistering indictment of the present, which is the present under Nero. By indicting the present but praising Nero, he effectively shows us that his praise is false, but that false praise is what everybody has to engage in in a world where there’s no freedom. Maybe that is what seems topical to you. Or maybe it’s just about fake news, and you see Lucan is writing fake news in the beginning of his epic.

COWEN: I think the lack of obvious self-interested motivation for the polarization is what strikes me as so contemporary about Lucan. It’s not primarily about rent-seeking. There’s simply some logic of escalation that never stops. Now, maybe at the end of the poem, there’s a return to sanity in some ways, but there’s still this total immersion in violence, and the dynamics of that, the nonrationality or arationality — it struck me if I had read Lucan in 1991, I would have been quite puzzled, like this is something of antique interest. But I read it today — I’m not so pessimistic about the Western world, but it seems to hit much closer to home.

BARTSCH: Why is that? Sorry, you’re supposed to be asking me questions, but why does it seem to strike closer to home to you now?

COWEN: There seems to be a logic in contemporary politics where people take opposite sides of an issue because other people have taken a side. They don’t necessarily care anymore what it’s about. This may have moderated in the last few months, but there was a sense, if Trump tweeted some view about Turkey, some people would agree, and other people would take the other side, whether or not they had agreement about Turkey.

BARTSCH: Absolutely. The polarization of political views — that is completely in Lucan. Everything is binary. Both sides are at each other’s throats. The problem is, neither side is good. They’re just both opinionated. Yes, he constantly shows us horrible, meaningless scenes of butchery, which will never lead to anything meaningful. I think in that sense, yes, it’s an interesting comparison to what happens today.

Another interesting thing that he does is that, even though everything has been boiled down into them versus us — or actually them versus them because there’s nobody good in the epic except for Cato, who ends up dying — even as he takes on so serious a subject, he refuses to partake of its seriousness in a way. What I mean by that is that his battle scenes are ridiculous. They’re not realistic.

Here’s an example. You’re fighting for Julius Caesar, and you’re on a boat, and you’re trying to get onto a boat that belongs to Pompey, so you grab it with one arm as it comes by, but the people in Pompey’s boat chop off your arm. Then you grab it with your other arm, and then they chop that arm off. Then you’ve got no arms. So, what do you do? Well, Lucan says, you just lob yourself onto the boat armlessly and hope that you can make a difference that way. There’s arms and legs flying everywhere.

In Virgil or Homer, somebody stabs you, you groan, blood comes out, you die. In Lucan, you just bop around like a puppet losing limbs and legs. That’s very strange.

COWEN: How do Lucan’s book 6 underworld scenes revise those of Virgil’s book 6 underworld scenes? That’s surely not a coincidence.

BARTSCH: Not a coincidence, but he makes it grotesque. Instead of Aeneas going down to consult his father, you have Pompey’s son going down to the underworld to consult a witch, Erichtho, and she asks one of the dead to speak, but before the dead will speak, she has to feed it blood, and then what it says is completely unintelligible, and then it keels over again and dies again.

It’s a scene of, what’s the word? It’s a scene of the grotesque. It’s a grotesque reading of the underworld that refuses to put truth, value, prophecy, or anything in there except for decaying bodies.

COWEN: Now, if we try to map out Roman political thought in our mind, you have a view of Virgil, how Lucan relates to Virgil. But Ovid had the Metamorphoses. How does that complete the picture? Put those pieces together for us.

BARTSCH: [laughs] This is really difficult homework I’m getting this morning. Put the pieces together. Okay. Virgil, who very carefully writes an epic that seems to be supportive of power but actually isn’t. Lucan, who writes an epic that’s more obviously not in support of power and who ends up, along with Seneca, having to kill himself, ordered to by Nero. Either Nero didn’t like the epic so much, or he wasn’t happy that Lucan was conspiring against him, as the story goes.

Ovid — between Virgil and Lucan, Ovid just wants to have fun. He’s not talking about politics, unlike the other two. He’s talking about love, but I don’t mean romantic, gooey love. He’s talking about Roman love. He talks about, in the Metamorphoses, gods raping women or changing them into trees or cows or what have you. He is very irreverent, which is one of the reasons he gets exiled by Augustus and never gets to come back.

There is one thing he does that might be relevant in this particular conversation, which is that he takes up in books 13 and 14 of the Metamorphoses and also in Heroides 7 — which is a poem shaped like a letter written by Dido to Aeneas — he takes up Virgil’s treatment of the Dido-Aeneas legend and of Aeneas himself, and he pushes back against it.

He refers to the tradition in which Aeneas is actually a traitor of Rome, and he suggests that Dido was right to be angry at Aeneas, and that she wasn’t crazy. She was, in fact, a very nice woman, feeling terrible things were done.

He’s already pushing back against Augustan propaganda in various ways. Then all his books about how to seduce women or people having sex or whatever — all of that goes against the new ethical standards that Augustus was trying to establish with his marriage legislation. Ovid does not toe the line, and he doesn’t talk about politics. He talks about sex. He talks about violence. He overturns Virgilian piety, and out he goes, off to Tomis on the Black Sea, never to be seen again.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: Okay. Are you ready for the easy questions?

BARTSCH: Yes.

COWEN: We call these overrated versus underrated. Here’s the first one. The food of Fiji — overrated or underrated?

BARTSCH: Well, I don’t like lobster and shellfish, so I would have to say overrated.

COWEN: Do you like coconut milk?

BARTSCH: It’s fattening.

COWEN: Etruscan civilization — overrated or underrated?

BARTSCH: Underrated. We don’t know enough about it. It seems to be fascinating. The Romans probably got their skills of augury — telling the future by looking into animals or observing the flight of birds — from the Etruscans, and a lot more, but there’s so little left of the Etruscans.

COWEN: Henry Purcell, the English composer — overrated or underrated?

BARTSCH: I will say underrated only because I obsessively listen to Dido’s lament from Dido and Aeneas, and every time I get to the line, “Remember me, but ah, forget my fate,” I burst into tears, which I’m about to do now. So, yes, that’s a very moving aria for me.

COWEN: I’m not sure of the pronunciation here, but Aconcagua.

BARTSCH: Aconcagua.

COWEN: It’s near Mendoza, Argentina, right?

BARTSCH: Mendozan wine is excellent. My Aconcagua story is that after I climbed Kilimanjaro, I was thinking of doing the Seven Summits when I was a little younger, and Aconcagua is the second mountain after Kilimanjaro that you can climb if you’re doing the Seven Summits.

It’s a lot harder than Kilimanjaro. It’s 23,000 feet, no oxygen. Sometimes it gets technical. The wind is coming in off the Pacific at 50 miles an hour, and it’s freezing, and it’s very, very hard to do. When I was younger, I was all gung ho to do it, and I trained for a year to prepare.

Then a friend of ours had a child whose kidney suddenly went out of whack, and the child had a very complicated blood type and some antibodies and so forth. I was, of course, the only match, as it turned out, after they tested a hundred people. So I didn’t go to Aconcagua, I ended up not giving the kidney because the poor young man developed another antibody the day before surgery, and so, they booted me out of the hospital because I was no longer a match.

Somehow, after that, I never went back to planning to climb Aconcagua except about six months ago when I decided I could do it. I wrote to Alpine Ascents, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Shadi Bartsch. I climbed Kilimanjaro 10 years ago, and now I’m ready to do Aconcagua.”

They wrote back, and they said, “Lady, [laughs] you are nowhere near ready to climb Aconcagua. Instead of signing your death warrant with Alpine Ascents, why don’t you go climb some smaller things? Bye.” That was my Aconcagua experience recently.

COWEN: What is the best ABBA song?

BARTSCH: Oh, gosh. I love ABBA. “Waterloo” just because you can dance around your room and shout “Waterloo.”

COWEN: How has it influenced your thought being the daughter of a UN economist?

BARTSCH: Not just a UN economist. A UN economist who traveled to a new country every two years, whose specific specialty was in third-world labor economics, and who never made much money because of where and how he worked, but who did a lot of good for the countries he visited: Iran, Indonesia, the Fiji islands, large parts of Melanesia. I was proud of him for doing that.

It was really hard moving every two years and always being the outsider. It was a little bit hard, also, going back and forth from Geneva, which is the UN’s headquarters, to places like Suva in Fiji or Jakarta in Indonesia, where it was like going to a different world.

You can imagine a pretty little town in Switzerland, where they sell watches in all the stores, and everybody eats chocolate, and it’s heavenly, and you go skiing. Then you could imagine an entirely different world, much more crowded. People’s standard of living is much lower. You are exposed to poverty, of course, on a level you are not in Europe. It’s a real wake-up call about what the majority of the world looks like. I think that was my main takeaway — just, gosh, the world is not Switzerland.

COWEN: Does it make the ancient world seem less strange to you or more familiar?

BARTSCH: No, because the parts of the ancient world I study, which is basically what we have of the ancient world, unless you’re an archeologist, or unless you specialize in trying to find non-elite information, which again is mostly archaeological — all of that is written by the most educated men of their generation, of their time.

They’re not worrying about poverty that much. They’re not worrying about the food supply. They’re not worrying about how their slaves are doing. They’re not worried about where their next meal is coming from. They’re not worried about disease, etcetera. So no, not at all, in fact, I would say.

On manuscripts from the ancient world

COWEN: Do you think we will still discover significant new manuscripts from the ancient world?

BARTSCH: Yes, I think we will because not only are we continuing to dig and to explore in many places where we know that manuscripts continued to exist but have not been found, but also the technologies for reading these papyri has gotten so amazing. Now, you can take a burnt, rolled-up papyrus that you cannot unroll without it just breaking — even though it’s pitch black and fragile, you can actually read it layer by layer, which is amazing. I’m very excited.

I know you’re going to ask me next, what texts do I hope we will recover?

COWEN: Of course, which is the one? Caesar’s autobiography? Lost volumes from Livy or Tacitus?

BARTSCH: Augustus’s autobiography would be a very interesting text that’s lost. Augustus’s autobiography — he defends himself for a lot of things. His later Res Gestae — that’s more of a political document. He doesn’t bother defending himself because all he tells us is the good stuff. But in the autobiography, apparently, he was admitting some of the things he did. Before he became Augustus, he was apparently a very brutal general, killed a lot of senators.

I’d also like to have Ennius, one of the earliest Roman poets. Apart from that, maybe a few tragedies from the Greeks.

COWEN: What has survived — how representative do you think it is?

BARTSCH: That’s a good question. I’d say we have a good chunk of what was most popular, as decided by the ancients themselves, for example, the Alexandrian critiques of the 3rd century BC, and then the works that were effectively made canonical by being taught in the schools.

Hard to say how much we’ve lost. I really, actually, don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that question. I would hazard a guess, and I’d say maybe we have a fifth of it, but that’s just a completely crazy guess.

COWEN: Why aren’t there novels from ancient Rome that people still care about reading today?

BARTSCH: There are, and they do.

COWEN: But who reads them? People read Virgil, Homer, Cicero to some extent, but novels?

BARTSCH: You’ve never read Petronius’s Satyricon? That’s hilarious.

COWEN: I’ve read it. Does that count as a novel? To me, it’s a kind of novella and short stories spilling over onto each other.

BARTSCH: They called it a novel, and ditto for Apuleius’s Golden Ass, in which a guy gets turned into a donkey and goes wandering around greater Greece, getting into all sorts of trouble until he’s finally turned back into a human. It’s hilarious. It’s a great novel. I really recommend it.

Then there are the Greek novels, and for some reason those are all romances. They’re always a story about a young man and a young woman who get separated by fate and eventually get back together. That’s kind of a classic novella situation.

COWEN: You have another book coming out soon called Plato Goes to China. When is that due out?

BARTSCH: Yes, isn’t that a silly title?

COWEN: No, it’s a great title.

BARTSCH: That’s due out in, I think, autumn of next year or autumn of this year, sorry. No, wait — spring of next year. There. I got it — spring of next year.

COWEN: Why are so many Chinese intellectuals Straussian?

BARTSCH: Aha. Not so many. It’s a very specific group of Chinese intellectuals, and they self-identify as such, and then they have followers, most of whom they’ve taught themselves. They identify as Straussian because Strauss is extremely useful to them for several reasons. One is that they like Strauss’s emphasis on the value of classical texts because they think what it means, to some degree, is that both ancient Chinese texts and ancient Western texts are to be treated as valuable.

Then, the next step they make is, these ancient texts are more valuable than modern texts, and they argue Strauss would’ve said that himself. Then, they like the fact that if they read as Straussians, they can essentially read for the hidden message, which nobody can find except for them. So they can say what they want to say about ancient texts, and if other people don’t agree, they can say, “Well, you don’t know how to read as a Straussian.”

Effectively, they have the power to read Western classical antiquity as they would like. This particular group reads it very much as in support of the kind of discipline, order, hierarchy, and some other values that the Chinese state apparatus definitely is in favor of.

COWEN: Do they read Rome as a tale of the decline of America today?

BARTSCH: The Straussians? Not particularly, but there are Chinese intellectuals who actually are more interested. They do this, but they focus on Thucydides more than they focus on Rome. They focus on Thucydides’s writings about classical Athens because Thucydides said what happened to Athens was, at first it was a great democracy. Then demagogues started getting into power, and the demagogues told the people what they wanted to hear as opposed to what they needed to hear. After Pericles’s death, they just catered to the Athenian democracy, with the result that bad decisions were made because they were selfish decisions, and eventually, the Athenian democracy collapsed.

For example, about 10 years ago, there was an op-ed piece in the New York Times by a Chinese businessman who is also fluent in English and very well established in the US. He’s part of the Aspen Institute and so forth. His name is Eric Li, and he actually borrowed from Thucydides to say, just as Thucydides predicted or saw the fall of Athens through demagoguery, so too the United States is going to collapse through demagoguery.

The United States democracy is, in fact, very, very young. In fact, it really only dates back to the Voting Act of 1964 if you want to be inclusive. The full democracy is 50 years old, and the Chinese Dynasty has been around for 2,000 years, and these guys think that they’re going to be eternal? Ha-ha, that is not going to happen. He says he’s just waiting for American democracy to go over a cliff.

On Chinese intellectuals

COWEN: The Chinese intellectuals you study — what do they think of what we call the Thucydides Trap? That conflict between America and China, at least in some views, is inevitable.

BARTSCH: They’ve talked about it. They see themselves as the aggressed against in that. Oddly, they see themselves as — let’s see, I better not confuse this — I think they think of themselves as Athens, and they see the US as Sparta. Sparta is getting anxious because Athens is getting stronger. What does Sparta want to do? Sparta wants to squash Athens. They think that the West is very much invested in making sure that China does not become a global power on a par with the West, which I think is inevitable. Of course, that’s going to happen.

COWEN: What is it from antiquity that you think the Chinese value more highly than we do as, say, Americans or Westerners?

BARTSCH: Their own tradition. Right now, we’re in the middle of a reevaluation of our Greco-Roman tradition. When I say “our,” of course, I’m speaking for a narrow group of European or white Americans whose tradition this literally is, and people who’ve grown up in these cultures for whom it has been their tradition.

But we find that many of the values of our tradition don’t mesh very well with what we value today politically, liberally, in terms of struggling against racism or sexism. At least that’s how a lot of people feel about the value of our Greco-Roman antiquity.

The Chinese, at this point in time, have no problem with Confucian values. They like their own tradition. There was a brief break with it after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912. Of course, there was a break with it after Mao Zedong came to power in 1949. But most of the other times, they have been very proud to cite and to abide by the Confucian Daoist traditions.

There was even, for a while, talk of a Confucian economic miracle where people argued that, unlike Weber’s Protestant ethic, it was in fact the Confucian ethic that made a quick rise in economic prosperity possible for China, Singapore, Vietnam, et cetera.

COWEN: You’re studying how the Chinese intelligentsia interprets Western classics. What insights have you gleaned about their understanding of our liberalism by studying how they read the classics?

BARTSCH: Excellent question. We could start out by saying, “How do they think about democracy and our democracy?” One of the moves they like is to say, “American democracy came out of Athenian democracy,” which is really a generalizing, incorrect statement. Then, they say, “But look at Athenian democracy. What a terrible thing. They had slaves, They didn’t allow women or foreigners to be citizens. They were very xenophobic and a closed society.” So that’s one argument: American democracy is bad because it comes from Athenian democracy, which is bad.

Another tack is to say, “America is not the only democracy. We are a democracy too. In fact, we are the largest democracy in the world.” The reason they say that is because on the lower tier of voting in towns and villages, it is a democracy. Those leaders are voted democratically, and then it becomes more and more of a meritocracy as you go up the system. So that’s the claim they make. Or they will say, “Everybody had a city-state in antiquity. It wasn’t just the Athenians, so they have nothing to boast about.”

Or — this is my favorite — there is a Chinese scholar whose name is He Xin, who argues that there was no Greco-Roman antiquity, that in the Renaissance, the Westerners were so embarrassed about the fact that China had this glorious dynastic past. It was the Middle Kingdom. It had all sorts of innovations in technology and civilization that the West didn’t have at that time, so the West decided to invent classical antiquity so they’d have something to boast about to China.

All those texts by Plato and Virgil and Ovid that we’ve been talking about — somebody wrote them in the Middle Ages and then stuck a date on them — 12 BC, 400 AD — which is one very interesting way of dealing with the Western tradition.

Other ways in which they talk about the West is, recently, the intellectuals have been on a war against the concept of rationality as something that’s particularly Western in some of its manifestations, which sounds like a very odd thing to claim. How can rationality be Western? Obviously, rationality is not, per se, Western.

But what they do is, they focus on the emphasis placed on rational thought in Plato and Aristotle, both of whom claim that you’re not fully human unless you’re rational, and that’s why we’re better than the animals, because we can reason. Then, they look back at their own Confucian tradition, which focuses on things like ren, which means humaneness to other people. You have to show ren — that’s one of the things a good person does.

They say, “Well, on one side, people emphasizing rationality. On the other side, people thinking about ren and being a good citizen and being a good son and father. Which of these things will make the better society?” They argue that Western rationality has become far too instrumental, by which they mean science for science’s own sake. We don’t ask, “Hey, is this technology going to be good for us or the planet?” We’re just like, “This technology is faster, better. Let’s do it.”

Whereas they claim that in China, the kind of rationality that they were more interested in is value rationality, where you use rational means, but in order to get to a value that is an ethical thing in and of itself. You might say we’ll use this form of technology to stop malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, and that’s two thumbs up. But we’re not going to use this kind of technology — this is all theory because, of course, everybody uses all these kinds of technology — but we won’t use this technology that simply produces more effective gases for warfare.

That is the rhetoric. I’m certainly not making any claims about what’s actually going on, either in China or in the US around instrumental rationality or value rationality. But this is another thing that they’re now using against the West, that we’re missing some kind of moral compass.

COWEN: Right now, there are no top Chinese economists in China who are recognized as top economists by the rest of the world. How far off is the year where you think a significant portion of top classics scholars will be Chinese working in China? Is that right around the corner, or is that decades away?

BARTSCH: It’s already happening. There are a lot of good Chinese classicists who work and teach in China. They are separate from this group I’m talking about. There’s a group of intellectuals who are more public-facing. They even publish in Chinese newspapers, like the Peking Daily News, about things like Plato or Aristotle. They are mostly interested in having a conversation with the government and with the people of China, and with saying things that will show both that they are educated and that they’re able to read Western texts in a way that makes sense for the Chinese beliefs around the world.

Then, there are a group of dedicated classicists who are mostly classics professors in universities, and there’s a little bit of overlap between these groups. The second group is a number of serious classics professors who read the language as well, who are publishing articles that are read in the US. I think this field will continue to grow as curiosity about the past of the West grows.

I don’t know if the divide between the “let’s read classics to bolster our sense of Chinese identity” versus the “let’s read classics to understand classics” groups — I don’t know if that divide is going to grow, disappear, or stay the way it is now.

COWEN: Now, we close with a few questions about you. You were a kind of classics prodigy. Your undergraduate thesis was published as a well-reviewed academic book. How did you manage that?

BARTSCH: One word — I am a nerd.

COWEN: But there’re plenty of nerds. What is it you did early on to put you in that position?

BARTSCH: I don’t know. I could hypothesize I got a lot of my sense of identity, even when I was young, by reading and writing. I was not a popular kid or an athletic kid. My favorite thing was to hole up in my room and read. My parents would do these spot checks at 3:00 am, where they burst into my room, and they’d find me under the covers with a flashlight.

COWEN: Reading Latin, apparently.

BARTSCH: Reading Latin, no doubt. There’s that. There’s all the travel, which made me interested in different cultures and different perspectives. Then there was, really, a maniacal work ethic, which, thank goodness, has calmed down a little bit as I get older. What else? I like writing, I just love writing. I love thinking and writing. I had a lot of fun doing the China book.

COWEN: Who or what was your model for being a classics scholar? How did you see or encounter such a model or mentor at such a young age?

BARTSCH: Who is my model?

COWEN: Not now, then.

BARTSCH: I didn’t really have one. I know that sounds weird. Today, we’re all about mentoring and models. I myself mentor, and I’m glad to be doing it. In those days — mind you, this is quite a while ago; I got my undergraduate degree in ’87 and my PhD in ’92 — there was much less talk of mentoring, especially at places like Princeton and Harvard.

I was anti-mentored, in fact, because my undergraduate mentor would mentor me by calling me into her office, sticking her cigarette into her cup of coffee, and walking away. I would wait for her to come back, and sometimes she would come back, and sometimes she wouldn’t. She’s a brilliant woman, but she’s a . . . What’s the word I’m looking for? A quirky mentor.

My PhD adviser, when I had finished my PhD — which also got published, of course — wrote to me two days before I was due to defend it and said, “I hate your PhD. It’s all rubbish.” I had to go get another PhD person. That wasn’t exactly mentoring either. I don’t know — no mentor, but you know what? I mentor other people now, and it’s almost as good as having been mentored. It still makes you feel warm and fuzzy.

COWEN: Which is the physical site of antiquity that you have traveled to that made the biggest impression on you when you saw it?

BARTSCH: Oh, gosh, that’s so hard. Of course, I’ve been to Rome, and the experience of seeing ruins juxtaposed to ice cream shops is amazing. They live in the ruins of Rome, the Romans do. That is amazing. Then traveling up through Umbria and seeing some of the old Roman roads that are still being used. I guess the presentness of the ancient world in contemporary Italy is, for me, magical. Absolutely magical.

Other places that have that kind of patina for me are Jerusalem. This beautiful city of sand-colored stone, which itself dates back to parts of the Old Testament related to Jerusalem. I find that like time traveling.

COWEN: Now, your translation of Virgil is out — that’s great. I loved it. Plato Goes to China is in the works. Last question. What will you do next?

BARTSCH: I don’t know. It’s got to be something, though. I’m going to write to my agent Wendy Strothman and tell her to tell me what to do. Because I want to do something that’s not just for academics.

COWEN: But you’ve already done things that are not just for academics, right? We have many listeners. Most of them are not academics.

BARTSCH: Oh, yes. Plato Goes to China is definitely going to be a best seller. [laughs] This book is definitely going to be a best seller — Plato Goes to China. Although that’s not the cover on it, you’ll be glad to know. No, I’m joking around.

COWEN: Most of your readers of the Virgil or of Plato Goes to China — they’re already not academics.

BARTSCH: I guess that might be true, but maybe I’ll write my next book around a question that really matters to us today, more so than whether or not the Chinese are interested in reading our ancient texts.

COWEN: Anyway, Shadi Bartsch, thank you very much. It’s been a great pleasure.

BARTSCH: Thank you, Tyler. Those were fantastic questions, and I’ve had so much fun talking to you.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages…

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

Mercatus Center

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The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

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