BMCR 2014.07.50

The Classical Tradition: Art, Literature, Thought

, , , The Classical Tradition: Art, Literature, Thought. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014. 520. ISBN 9781405155496. $139.95.


The principal thesis of this book is that “the classical tradition is both so integrally and diffusely relevant to Western culture that much cultural development that seems unrelated to it is either implicated in it, even if (like Christianity) ultimately independent of it, or else arises, insignificant part, out of it, even in reaction to it” (p. 248). The authors acknowledge that “readers may be wondering: is there any part of Western experience that does not, in our view, somehow belong to the classical tradition? … We seem to feel justified in detecting relevance almost everywhere. Well, so we do” (p. 241). And they claim that “every section is intended to contribute to a critical reappraisal of the [classical] tradition as a whole” (p. 8).

It’s a big project. If the classical tradition is relevant to everything in Western culture, or nearly so, then a history of that tradition ends up being a history of Western art, literature, and thought generally — and this in only 432 pages of text (plus plates, bibliography, and index). Thus the book is dense book, but rewarding, bringing together Petrarch and Winckelmann (sect. 29), Machiavelli and Wagner (sect. 31), the Pléïade and the post-modernists (e.g. in sect. 25). As the authors point out in the prologue, though, it’s not an introduction to the study of the classical tradition, nor is it a survey or catalogue. Rather, it is “a rereading, however partial, of Western culture itself in the perspective of the classical” (p. ix). Nor is it a collection of essays, in the style of a “companion to” or “encyclopedia of” the classical tradition.1 It is a sufficiently unusual project that the prologue spends almost as much time saying what the book is not as explaining what it is.

Certainly the classical tradition is important to Western culture, and we might argue that part of the business of classical scholarship is to study Western culture (of any period) using classical antiquity as a lens, or a foil. But this book goes further, arguing that even though “some components of Western experience were never part of the classical tradition in the first place” (p. 243, referring specifically to Judaeo-Christianity and to the Germanic languages), nonetheless that tradition is fundamental, even (though this is never stated quite so bluntly), the most fundamental component of Western culture. This may go a bit far. On the other hand, taking the classical tradition as a starting point for a broad explication of Western culture is appealing. Moreover, the authors also propose to take Western culture as a whole as a starting point for the study of the classics (cf. p. 222-223), a relatively novel idea. The book is provocative, and specialists in various sub-fields from art history to political theory may have their own responses to it; as a philologically-inclined generalist, I find the argument basically convincing.

What the authors mean by “the classical tradition” is “reflexes of, uses of, reconstitutions of, or responses to the ancient world from the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire to our own day” (p. 4), where “the ancient world” is limited to ancient Greece and Rome (not, say, Egypt or India), and the reflexes, uses, and so on take place in the Italian, French, German, and Anglophone cultural traditions (p. x). 2 They distinguish the study of the classical tradition from the study of the reception of Greece and Rome in these later traditions: the concepts overlap, but are not the same. Reception can include reception within antiquity, for example Ovid’s response to the Aeneid. And the classical tradition includes engagements that are not really reception: the example the authors suggest is Milton’s responses to Vergil (p. 5). But for these authors the most important distinction is that “whereas ‘classical’ and ‘tradition’ tend to prompt consideration of value, ‘reception’ does not” (p. 5); they see reception study as “generally preferring cultural-historical engagement … to critical engagement” (p. 5).

The idea of “use, reconstitution, or response” to the Greco-Roman world is straightforward enough. “Reflex,” on the other hand, is new here. The authors borrow the term from historical linguistics: as French mère and Spanish madre are reflexes of Latin mater, so various cultural practices in later Western culture may be reflexes of Greek or Roman practices. In particular, the Romance languages themselves are reflexes of Latin (and Modern Greek of Ancient Greek), though they are in no sense “receptions” of the earlier languages (p. 4-5). This broad concept goes a long way toward justifying the strong claim that the classical tradition pervades Western culture. Some of the reflexes the authors identify are drama of all sorts, from commedia dell’ arte to opera (p. 123-127); architectural forms, notably the dome (sect. 20); and the political notions of “democracy” and “republic” (sect. 26). That is, these are treated as survivals, or more or less direct descendants, of ancient practices.

The book is divided into five parts (plus an epilogue), each divided into sections. The first part, “Overview,” covers the history of the classical tradition in education, art, literature, language, and popular culture. It is organized by themes rather than chronologically. The first couple of sections give an overview, and then we have sections on “Authority and Authorities” (sect. 5), “Love Guides” (sect. 9), “Popular Culture and Its Problematics” (sect. 12), and so on. As the authors put it, “Our aim, in part I of this book, is to get the overall shape of the tradition into view” (p. 13).

The remaining, rather shorter, parts take up four possible ways of conceiving or analyzing the classical tradition. Part II, “Archetypes,” discusses three striking reflexes: the dome (sect. 20), the hero (sect. 21), and literary genre (sect. 22). The first two sections are relatively unproblematic. The discussion of the technological and social history of concrete in section 20 (p. 257-259) is surprisingly interesting; apparently by the time of Palladius, concrete “is already falling out of favour for major projects” (p. 258), and although Renaissance architects had surely read what Pliny and Vitruvius say about it, they seem to reject building with layers of concrete poured into molds as inelegant, even “slapdash” (p. 259). The roll-call of heroes from Homer to Hollywood in section 21, covering familiar ground well, concludes that despite all the changes in society, culture, and taste, “the heroic imperatives retain their force” (p. 275).

The third section of this part (section 22, “Word-Genres”) is more challenging. Naturally, the idea of literary genres is not necessarily classical, but the particular genres we have, or at least their names, and our idea of what makes a text literature, come from antiquity, though at various times writers have been closer to or farther from what they perceived as “classical” genre norms. The authors observe that up to about the 18th century “it is almost always assumed that, across the range of literature, prose or verse, the ancient categories are permanent realities” (p. 278), that the literary forms we inherit from the Greeks and Romans are the only ways to think about literature. But thereafter, even if some of the names remain (like “epigram” or “comedy,” p. 283), the rules change. What “comedy” means to us is not what it meant to Aristophanes or Plautus, and we have a whole host of genres that Aristotle or Horace would never have conceived of. The authors observe that in classical Greece and Rome, a genre is defined by its form and its context, but our “modern quasi-generic classifications are generally based on content, with no formal or contextual basis” (p. 283 n. 43). On the other hand, they recognize not only content classifications (they mention “prison literature” as an example, p. 283) but also new forms, such as blogs. Indeed, the discussion seems to treat “blog” as a new genre, but surely a blog is just a series of essays (a long-established genre). That blog entries are posted to the web rather than published in a magazine or collected as a diary seems to be secondary. In any case, the classical “archetype” in the authors’ analysis of literature is “the association of poetry and narrative fiction as the effective heartland of literature” and the distinction between literary and non-literary prose (p. 281). That is, they claim that the idea that the most important, highest, most “literary” genres are verse, or tell stories (ideally both), is a classical reflex, as is the idea that some prose is literary and some is not. Yet if, as the authors put it, “our ‘literature’ is indeed the modern instantiation of an ancient archetype” (p. 281), the resemblance seems to be more in the ways of talking about literature than in ways of doing it. We have dropped some genres (speeches in court or in the Senate no longer count as literary, and epic poems are rarely written nowadays) and changed the rules or forms of others (our plays are in prose, not verse), but we still use the classical terms, even though they arouse different expectations (p. 283).

Part III, “The Imaginary,” considers three large ways of conceiving of the world: myth (sect. 24), cities, and Rome in particular (sect. 25), and forms of government (sect. 26). This part ends with a section on “The Order of Things” (sect. 27): what is a human being, and how does such a creature fit into the wider world? The authors mean “the imaginary” in its culture-theoretical sense, the way a culture thinks about the world, or the images people in the culture have of their own existence (p. 290, quoting from Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries). Myth is one way of imagining the world, here defined as “a traditionally based story of gods or heroes, or equivalent” (p. 292). These stories are “a favourite source of material” and “a common point of reference” (p. 293) in literature, the visual arts, opera, and popular culture. Artists in all media may respond to a particular version of a myth (for example, a specific Greek play or an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses), but they may simply use the story itself, in one of its versions, or even a motif or detail from the myth, without engaging any single predecessor. That is, “writers (as also artists) acknowledge the identity and integrity of a myth in the very act of rewriting it” (p. 298). The authors suggest “that premodern art and literature tend to assimilate myth, whereas compositions from — at least — the last hundred years or so tend to displace and detach” (p. 303), yet in all periods artists respond to “the distinctive nature of Greek myth, in the developed form it acquires in Greek poetry and art,” namely that it “unites the inscrutable and the realistic, the metaphysical and the experiential” (p. 303); this characterization seems to apply best to Greek tragedy, and the example the authors give is Euripides’ Hippolytus, which “unites the arbitrary power of cosmic forces with the specifics of a young man’s psycho-social condition and his stepmother’s all-too-personal dilemma” (p. 303). That union is Euripides’ work, and another writer, then or now, might make the “cosmic forces” less prominent, less inscrutable, or make the young man less aggressively virginal. The authors briefly discuss Sarah Kane’s 1996 play Phaedra’s Love and Racine’s Phèdre, p. 301-302, as examples of “displacing and detaching” the myth from Euripides’ version.

Section 25, “The City: Rome,” surveys the history of responses to Rome, from Cicero and Ovid, neither a native Roman, both lamenting their exile, to Mussolini’s proposed urban renewal. And section 26, “Forms of Government,” sketches a history of political theory. The authors note that “Greek political thought focuses on the use and abuse of power,” while Roman theory is more concerned with “communal values and contractual law” (p. 323). The examples, vocabulary, and conceptual categories of both Greek and Roman political thinking are the direct ancestors of our own political theory. The final section in this part, “The Order of Things,” considers humanity and humanism in philosophy and the arts: how people have posed and answered the question “what is a human being?” By “humanism” here the authors refer to “various world-views in which humanity occupies a privileged position” (p. 332), in particular the classical tradition itself (“investment in classical views of humanity as secular alternatives to those enshrined in the Bible,” p. 333) and the idea that people can and should be improved through education. They acknowledge that humanism is, and has always been, “a contested ideal” (p. 338), and that the traditional, classical understanding of what it is to be human can be challenged; they offer no answer to “what is a human being?” beyond suggesting that, for us as members of Western culture, the answer will come from the classical tradition.

Part IV, “Making a Difference,” presents three pairs of responses to antiquity. First are two “great creative-critical figures” (p. 343) who shaped their eras: Petrarch and the Renaissance, and Winckelmann and 18th-century German Hellenism (sect. 29). Next are two texts, more influential in the modern world than they were in antiquity: Vitruvius’s De Architectura and [Longinus]’s On the Sublime (sect. 30). Finally come two men who used classical antiquity to propose plans of action: Machiavelli in political theory and Wagner in music (sect. 31). None of these seems like an obvious pairing, and the authors generally do a good job bringing out the essential similarities and illuminating differences. For Petrarch and Winckelmann, for example, the key similarity is “the extraordinary engagements with the classical past that these two great originators lived for and by” (p. 357). Both De Architectura and On the Sublime were more influential in the Renaissance than in antiquity, and though neither has been taken as a rule book in a long time, “the categories and perspectives they have engendered” (p. 374) are still fundamental. Lastly, Machiavelli and Wagner made use of antiquity without directly imitating ancient models. The analysis of each man’s career is good but here the juxtaposition seems forced. The authors say this pairing “shows up two contrasting ways in which the classical past can help to shape aspirations and imperatives to action, in an imperfect world” (p. 381), but Wagner’s respect for Aeschylus hardly seems like the most fundamental driving force in his career. The composer’s essay Die Kunst und die Revolution of 1849 “acclaims Aeschylean drama in its festival setting” (p. 384), treating tragedy of the early and middle 5th century as the highest expression of its society, until the “revolution” of the Periclean age introduced decline and decadence. The authors observe that “it is easy to criticise Wagner’s view of Greece” (p. 387), and go on to do so cogently, concluding that, “details apart, the Greeks form no part of Wagner’s edifice” (p. 389). Both Wagner and Machiavelli “believe that we can (even must) learn from antiquity,” and “the two present a provoking comparison and contrast” (p. 390), we are told, but their uses of antiquity are so different that there seems to be little we can learn from putting them together.

Part V, “Contrasts and Comparisons,” looks at three different fields, painting, political thought, and poetry. The goal is to bring out “an implicit contrast between the three fields, the responses to antiquity (direct or indirect) characteristic of each, and the different kinds of issues that arise in each” (p. 393). First, section 33 on painting looks at how Titian, David, and de Chirico handled the female nude, which the authors call “a symbol of the classical tradition in art” (p. 396), going back at least to Praxiteles. Next, Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper, and Leo Strauss represent political thought (sect. 34), and the section looks at their responses to totalitarianism and, in particular, to Nazi Germany, as well as their readings of Plato. This section draws no clear conclusions; it juxtaposes the three modern theorists without really comparing them. Finally, in section 35 we have three poets and their differing poetic languages: Milton, Tennyson, Eliot. Milton’s place in the classical tradition is called “straightforward and coherent” (p. 426), while the other two poets “raise hard questions about the possibilities of classicizing in an increasingly recalcitrant age” (p. 425). These three sections are closer to reception studies than most of the rest of the book (as the authors indicate, p. 393), though still informed by the book’s larger goal of assessing and evaluating the tradition and its uses.

For me, the heart of the book is near the end of part I: “Science and Sensibility” (sect. 16, p. 199-223), which considers classical scholarship as a scientific discipline, or rather several disciplines, of which they have most to say about archaeology and philology (narrowly construed). The section first sketches the history of archaeology from the Renaissance, framed as a story of increasing professionalism and also of growing national sponsorship, driven at least in part by ideology. Then attention turns to philology, with its “claim to centrality within the classical tradition itself” (p. 203); although philology includes linguistics (especially historical), metrics, and literary study, the authors here talk almost entirely about textual criticism. They even recognize a temptation “to identify a rigid opposition — between historical research and orientation in the present, between scholarship and significance, between historicism and humanism, between dry-as-dust philologists devoted to the production of knowledge for its own sake and artists, educators and cultural critics who keep the tradition alive within society at large” (p. 219). Of course it isn’t so simple, as the authors acknowledge in the very next paragraph: application of “the meticulous and methodical habits fostered by philology” (p. 220, describing the alternative to that rigid opposition) doesn’t turn classical scholarship into useless, dry work, nor does it turn it into precise, clear mathematics. We need both science (precise scholarship) and sensibility (attention to meaning). The authors suggest that study of the classical tradition may be a prerequisite to reshaping classical studies as a discipline, which could allow classicists “to influence the wider world in turn, and not least by the reminder that they are the custodians of value in a special sense” (p. 223) — an optimistic proposal for the field.


1. Contrast A Companion to the Classical Tradition, ed. Craig Kallendorf (Blackwell, 2007), or The Classical Tradition,, ed. Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, Salvatore Settis (Harvard, 2010, reviewed at 2013.01.44).

2. The authors acknowledge that they are omitting both Byzantium and Spain, to focus on the “undoubted heartland” of the classical tradition (p. 7).