BMCR 2021.02.45

The Politics of the Classical Tradition

, The battle of the classics: how a nineteenth-century debate can save the humanities today. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. x, 256. ISBN 9780197518786 $35.00.
, , Literature squared: self-reflexivity in Late Antique literature. Studi e Testi Tardoantichi. Profane and Christian Culture in Late Antiquity 18. Turnhout: Brepols, 2020. Pp. 314. ISBN 9782503586526 €75,00.

The Politics of the Classical Tradition

 At a time when the decolonization of the classical curriculum is being loudly demanded in the USA and, less loudly but no less intently, in Britain, what we understand by the classical tradition could not be more pressingly under question. Both books under review here engage in this debate, though neither, for different reasons, makes a contribution that will change the debate significantly. Let me try to explain why.

Tradition, to paraphrase Heidegger, is a rhetoric designed to present the past as self-evident—an ideological projection that determines not only which past is to be authorized, but also how the present finds its own genealogy in the past. Tradition is not a given, but always needs to be constructed, asserted, maintained—performed. It is a way of authoritatively locating oneself in the present by determining that such an authority, such a sense of placement, comes from a historically privileged continuity: a line, an ancestry, a promise. Tradition becomes a matter of debate only when fitting in has become an issue. Tradition not only presents the past as self-evident but brings with it a set of normative claims about value, status and belonging. Tradition is how cultural ideology writes its history.

The demand to decolonize the classics insists that the tradition that enshrines the texts of the classical canon must be overturned. One argument is that these texts are complicit with the masters of imperialism, colonialization, sexism, racism, especially in the nineteenth century when classics took shape as a discipline and dominated the curriculum of elite education. Thomas Babington Macaulay can stand as an icon: he travelled out to rule India as part of the British Empire, where he would write his now infamous Minute on Indian Education, condemning the literary culture of the subcontinent, and on the ship out he read Virgil and Livy to prepare himself for the task ahead. Back in Oxford, Benjamin Jowett tutored the future rulers of empire through his classes in classics. There can be no doubt that the institutionalization of classics runs hand in hand with a European imperial project, and, for the British, paradigmatically, the classical antiquity of Greece and Rome was used to bolster the privilege of white, Anglo-Saxon dominance. “The world is a world for the Saxon race”, as Martin Farquhar Tupper, Queen Victoria’s favourite poet, wrote, in ringing celebration of the naturalness of Empire. How the world just is

But this is only part of the story. Karl Marx, who completed his PhD in classics, insisted that the French Revolution, with its principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, was “enacted in Roman dress”. The American revolutionaries too saw themselves as following principles they had learnt from the classics. It was, insisted conservative critics, too dangerous to allow the young to read Thucydides, lest democratic revolt take hold. Plutarch, as Bernard Shaw summed up happily from his left-wing perspective, was a “handbook for revolutionaries”. When Shelley claimed “We are all Greeks”, it was a clarion call to political revolution. Classical antiquity provided an idealised view of the past that grounded, justified, inspired hopes for change to a better world. Consequently, how Greek history itself should be understood—whether through the liberal George Grote’s celebration of democracy or through Mitford’s hatred of it—became a major political as much as an educational issue of the nineteenth century. Classics inspired political revolution.

Such contentiousness brought classics into conflict with religion, too. Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was bowdlerized (literally, by Thomas Bowdler) because chapters 15 and 16 offered such a cynical and damaging view of the evidence for miracles in the Gospels that his history was seen as a scoffing attack on Christianity. Classical scholarship—reading Homer in a modern, that is, nineteenth-century theoretically-informed way—“ushered in scepticism in the Old Testament”, or so the great churchman, Edward Pusey, declared with deep anxiety. When William Gladstone, the prime minister of Britain, wrote a long pamphlet trying to show rather that the Hebrew Bible and Homer could be reconciled as evidences of God’s providence in the world, it sold over 120, 000 copies. Many shared Pusey’s anxiety, and wanted the counter-case.

Classics was the inspiration for aesthetic revolution also, and not just with the philhellenic poets such as Shelley. Richard Wagner, the most contentious and influential of nineteenth-century grandees of spectacular performance, when he wrote his programmatic treatise Art and Revolution, took his grounding and idealistic hope from ancient Greece. Wagner pronounced he would rather be a Greek in the theatre of Dionysus for a single day than live for ever. His “music of the future” was a revolution based on an ideal vision of an ancient Greek past, which Nietzsche shared. For many others, Greece offered a hope of sexual revolution—whether through Freud’s Oedipus or Wilde’s “philosophizing”. The image of a city where males could desire males without moral opprobrium, or where Sappho was an honoured artist, was a dream that has continued to fire the ongoing fight for gay rights into the twenty-first century.

Yet this, too, is only part of the story. As Sophocles knew long ago, fierce commitment brings its own blindness. And revolution comes hand in hand with disappointment. The musical and political revolutionary Wagner was also a foul and aggressively active anti-Semite. Bernard Shaw, notwithstanding his very public socialist values, supported the racist theories of Houston Stuart Chamberlain—a hugely influential theorist whose dying hands Hitler travelled to kiss. Byron’s revolutionary philhellenism came with rapacious sexual compulsions enacted with the unpleasant entitlement of his class. It should produce a salutary caution to see how the heroic class-warrior (say) may be also sexist, the feminist inadequately aware of race. (In the face of such history, you would have to be very self-righteous, and, frankly, pretty un-self-aware, to think your own political commitments are so transparently and comprehensively beyond reproach that no future will find you lacking in some significant respect). It is, however, telling that although racism in its modern form was being actively formulated and contested in the nineteenth century, its engagement by classicists, however revolutionary they might be in other respects, was almost entirely from a perspective that supported a genealogy that justified the supremacy of the culture, authority, and power of the dominant white, Christian, European, male elite.

So while it is demonstrably false that the study of classical literature and culture has been or is inherently or necessarilyassociated solely with political, social or cultural conservatism, the institutions and practices of the discipline, as with society as a whole, must do a lot more work to change if they are not now to be open to such accusations. Classics opens the door to an other place, a place often idealised, which creates a space for the imagination of a better world: this can be a conservative rejection of the modern world, it can be a revolutionary charge to change the modern world. The tension between the two trajectories together drives the rich history of the discipline. Recognising this long and continuing politics is a necessary part of the responsibility of academia—to the past, the present and the future. It is because the tradition of our discipline is so conflicted and complex that it can be made to tell many partial stories: that is how cultural ideology tells history. The responsibility to narrate this history—and to narrate it as well as possible—remains pressing, as a necessary agenda of self-understanding, as part of the necessary development of the discipline. Recognizing the continuity of the blindness of the past into the present also requires responsible action in response.

Like Christianity—less often discussed as such by classicists but more often than classics the driving force of invading and colonizing the territory of others—the discipline of classics certainly was intertwined with imperialism and racism and sexism especially in the nineteenth century. Like the church (Catholic or Protestant) and all branches of academic study, for so long institutionally integrated with the churches, classics has a long history of claims of universalism, which are undermined by institutional and systematic exclusion of women, people of colour, non-European communities. For every story of a life transformed through education and aspiration, there is a story of complicity, marginalization, and the socio-political consequences of such exclusion. While Catholics, Jews and women—in that order—have gradually been allowed into what remain dominantly Protestant universities, the actual process of moving from “toleration”—the legal ban on exclusion—to lack of discrimination is an even slower movement, full of disavowals and disappointments and denigrations. For other historically disadvantaged communities, it is even slower still, shamefully so. The institutions of classics have not transcended the unacceptable expectations of what remains a racist society.

A properly nuanced history of classics as a discipline, therefore, makes tradition anything but self-evident. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Christopher Stray, or Phiroze Vasunia tell the history of our discipline quite differently… Tradition is a constant story of fighting over what past is to count and how, what narrative to tell (though all such narratives are about self-placement, self-justification). What you read matters to who you are or want to become—we are all heirs of the Humboldtian ideal, which made the Bildung of its students a rationale of the university—their formation as civilized, cultured subjects. Yet how one reads also makes all the difference—as every feminist, faced by the texts of patriarchy, knows. We read between identification and resistance, attachment and distance, criticism and affirmation, recognitions of difference and recognitions of sameness. And nowhere more so than when we read texts of Greek and Latin antiquity which by definition are another world to all of us. The question is how to negotiate this otherness of the past—a question inevitably tied up with the long history of what we call the classical tradition, with all the politics involved. When Nietzsche declares he is becoming more Greek day by day in his body—as if!—it is easy to see how fantasy drives the desire for the classical—to belong, to see oneself in or as the heir of antiquity. Yet how can we not recognize that modern philosophy remains integrally and fundamentally in debt to its Platonic foundations? To do philosophy is to speak Greek (as Derrida put it). On the one hand, then, we can see the continuing power of the past over contemporary intellectual formation: the past matters to who we are, who we have become; on the other, we have to interrogate how an imaginary of the past—to see oneself in it and find a genealogy for oneself—is filled with projection and fantasy. A statue of George Washington in a toga embodies that projected, fantasized desire. The complexities of the dynamic between these two recognitions are all too often forgotten in the passions of contemporary politics and the undoubted need for change.

The two books under review engage with the contested history of the classical tradition in quite different but telling ways. Eric Adler enters the debate over the curriculum with a flag-waving claim to save the humanities. To make his case, he returns to the nineteenth century where, he argues, previous debates over the value of classics can provide contemporary educationalists with strategies that are likely to have more instrumental success in defending the humanities against administrative cuts. The essays collected by Jesús Hernández Lobato and Óscar Prieto Domínguez look rather at the internal formation of the tradition at a crucial juncture of change. Their volume focuses on the literature of late antiquity when the empire and its writing was becoming Christian, and therefore rewriting what the classical tradition was and could mean. The focus of the book on “self-reflexivity” offers a salient portal to this contest over literature’s sense of its own past.

Adler argues that a defence of classics, and by extension the humanities in general, if it depends on “skills”, is destined to fail to persuade the masters of the money in the university system, committed as they are to a materialism based on economic rationality. To make this case, he offers a brief history of the development of the humanities, and a more detailed exposition of a nineteenth-century debate over the principles of education in America, the so-called Battle of the Classics. Against skills, Adler sets “content”: “profound works of art, literature, philosophy and religion”, he writes, “provide the best means of shaping students’ souls”. Taking Irving Babbitt as his somewhat surprising guru, he sums this up as “the wisdom of all the ages: a core of common human experience gleaned from cultural masterworks”. He knows that it is hard to decide which are the “more profound” texts, and places this responsibility on academics in humanities: it is, he states, our job to say why our texts matter. This will change how classrooms work. We will criticize and eschew “vocationalism” in education—“strict vocationalism” is a “danger to society”—in favour of an “educational law of measure” that will recognize education’s need to form the moral lives of students by making them face “the animating questions” of life.

Adler’s is a deeply frustrating case. He is right that if the defence of the humanities depends solely on the statement that we teach critical thinking, it is destined to be unpersuasive in the places of judgment where it needs to be persuasive. He is also right that the material and utilitarian claims that education must be vocational are ill-informed and ideologically-driven—and have consequences for society beyond its impact on educational finances. He is also right, as I have been arguing, that a battle over classics has a long history from which we should learn. (It is extraordinary, however, that he makes no reference to the earlier Querelles in 17th and 18th century Europe, or to the extensive work on European battles over classics in the nineteenth century. His universalist rhetoric is very parochial.) I happen to think that he is also right that some texts have over time prompted longer and more complex and instrumental engagement with readers than others, and while there are a host of social and political forces involved in such histories, it is worth thinking hard about why the Odyssey, say, has had such an impact. I also think that as academics we should always remember we teach people, and that the responsibility that comes with this profession, demands political, ethical and social engagement from us: this goes hand in hand with rejecting vocationalism as a defining principle.

There is, however, so much that is simply annoying about the book. The tone of genial humanism proceeds as if the last fifty years had not raised serious questions about whether “common human experience” is an adequate way of understanding literature’s impact and audience. “What we share”—beyond birth, death and tax—is always open to question. The souls of students are placed in focus, but not their politics or what this would portend: for Adler, “grappling with animating questions” does not explicitly involve issues of power, race, gender, even in the classroom. This criticism is not just a knee-jerk reaction to his Arnoldian sense of culture. There is a real opportunity missed here to talk seriously about instrumentality and education in the humanities. After all, the two most significant and instrumental social changes in Adler’s and my lifetime have probably been the rise of feminism and gay rights (still unfinished businesses both). On the one hand, it would be impossible to trace the success of both movements without acknowledging the impact of education in the humanities (and social sciences)—both through universities and through the world of arts—film, literature, television. On the other hand, it would be naïve to suppose a direct and simple instrumentality. Not only are there are other crucial factors—activism, legal shifts and so forth—but also it would be hard to determine simple patterns of cause and effect: this book made this happen. That is, we need to recognize—and proudly—that humanities, broadly conceived, helps change society, but also that how humanities changes society needs a particular and intricate model of instrumentality. Humanities embraces both the study and the practice of such an instrumentality—how the imagination of a better world is formed and forms. The humanities explore the world through society, history, culture, and the languages we speak together. It is impossible to understand the world adequately or make it better without such perspectives. Humanity, now as ever, needs the humanities.

Literature Squared: Self-Reflexivity in Late Antique Literature also has a deeply significant topic—and is also deeply frustrating. When we discuss the classical tradition, it would be hard to overemphasize the role of Christianity. Christianity preserved most of the texts we can now read from antiquity: it constructed the tradition for us. The Reformation changed the conceptualization of classics in Western culture and its impact is still only gradually being fully appreciated within the discipline. (Think for a moment how classics and theology together have conspired so that the single most influential piece of Hellenistic literature is not studied in any Hellenistic literature course in any university classics department. I am talking about the Septuagint, of course.) Late Antiquity shows us the work of this tradition being contested and constructed. How an empire is taken over from within—and the role of the literary imagination on such a process—offers an extraordinary model to extend current thinking on literature and power, imperialism and its writing.

Literature Squared has some excellent contributions of detailed scholarship that contribute to our understanding of this process. Aaron Pelttari on Severus of Malaga’s In Euangelia, Marco Onorato on Sidonius Apollinaris, Steven Smith on John of Gaza and Agathias, Brian Sowers on Ausonius, and Margot Neger on poems in prose letters, have important and insightful arguments that look outwards towards the broader general questions. Yet the book also makes almost every mistake that collections of essays are prone to do. There is no cross-referencing between chapters, to the extent that Clare Coombe and Étienne Wolff both discuss the same poem of Luxorius, but translate it differently and reach different conclusions without apparently knowing of each other’s adjacent chapters (and it’s not as though there are that many readings of Luxorius out there). The lack of cross-referencing is matched by a lack of shared questions or an agenda from the editors with or against which the authors can write. There is no apparent reason for the choice of ancient texts studied beyond what the authors offered the editors: so there are the two chapters on Luxorius, but nothing on Nonnus, the most influential poet of the fifth-century and the most fascinating in terms of self-reflexivity. Greek in general is indeed only minimally covered. The salience of any chapter to the central subject of the book—self-reference—is barely adumbrated and all too often “self-reflexivity” is treated without any self-reflexive theoretical reflection. The quality of the material is very varied—Helen Kaufmann is very thin on the complex issue of “unity in Late Latin poetry”, although “unity” as a concept has been the subject of so much theoretical analysis; Lucia Tissi manages to talk about enigmatic poetics in the fourth to the sixth centuries without any reference to apophatic theology (let alone the extensive bibliography on obscurity in other literature). One editor—Hernández Lobato, usually a very stimulating writer—repeats much of his own already published material; the other, Prieto Domínguez, concludes that he has “no definitive conclusions” to his argument (so why should we read him?), which fails to engage anyway with relevant work on hagiography, including that of Patricia Cox Miller or Virginia Burrus (though he could have noted it from Steven Smith’s chapter). As a special edition of a journal, the volume would have allowed individual chapters to have the impact that their reception would determine. As a book, it punches way below the weight of its advertised topic.

Classics could be leading the discussion in humanities today. These two books open fundamental questions for understanding how tradition is constructed, what is at stake in belonging, in changing tradition, in educating into tradition or against a tradition. These are central questions for any current debate about the curriculum and the continuing institutional barriers and exclusions within the academy. Unfortunately, both books also demonstrate why these central questions are not being adequately led precisely from within classics. In case it is not clear enough, this review has designedly and polemically put together two books that might not appear as self-evident partners for review, precisely to make a case about why such discussions of tradition—what counts for us as classicists—are crucial to the discipline, but also have the potential to make a significant and transformative contribution to the debate around the humanities in general. It is worth doing, reflectively, aggressively, instrumentally: there is a lot at stake.

Authors and chapter titles for Hernández Lobato and Prieto Domínguez

Aaron Pelttari “The Literary Horizons of the Poem In Euangelia”.
Marco Onorato “Pinguia alabastra: Metaliterature and Intertextuality in Sidonius Apollinaris’ Carmen 9”.
Jesús Hernández Lobato “A Poet in Seventh Heaven: a New Reading of the Numerical Construction of Ausonius’ Mosella
Margot Neger “Lascivire vetat mascula dictio: Metaliterary Reflections on Poems in Late Antique Prose Letters”.
Óscar Prieto Domínguez “Literary Reflections in Hagiographical Proems”.
Steven Smith “The Chaste Bee and the Promiscuous Bee: Poetic Self-Reflexivity in John of Gaza’s Ekphrasis and the Cycle of Agathias.
Giovanni Catapano “Il volo di Medea e la voce della Ragione. Metaletteratura e autoriflessività nel Soliloquia di Agostino”.
Helen Kaufmann “Unity in Late Latin Literature”.
Clare Coombe “”A Dancing Dwarf: Luxorius, Epic and Epigram”.
Étienne Wolff “Le discours des poètes de l’Anthologie latine d’époque vandal sur leur production épigrammatique”.
Maria Jennifer Falcone “A Poet and his fault: Metaliterary Hints in Dracontius’ Satisfactio”.
Brian Sowers “Caught in Ausonius’ Net: Self-Reflection and Poetic Consolation in Late Antiquity”.
Lucia Maddalena Tissi “The ‘Poetics of Enigma’ as a Cultural Manifesto in Late Antique Proems (Fourth-Sixth Century AD): Some Case Studies”.