BMCR 2022.11.08

Complacency: classics and its displacement in higher education

, Complacency: classics and its displacement in higher education. Critical antiquities. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2022. Pp. 144. ISBN 9780226818634 $95.00.



With a fast-paced text in thirteen pithy chapters, brief endnotes, and an index nominum, John T. Hamilton’s Complacency will inspire classicists to reconsider their attitude towards their work and the place of their field in academia.

Hamilton cleverly sets up his book’s defense of philology with the Greek text from Perry’s Aesopica and his own translation of the fable of a boastful wolf who is so self-satisfied and delusional about the length of his shadow at sunset that he does not realize until it is too late that the lion nearby can eat him.[1] At the end, the wolf’s “mental adjustment, this metanoia, does not occur soon enough for salvation” (p. 3), according to Hamilton. One might add that in naming his “conceit,” as Hamilton translates οἴησις, the wolf is becoming a faux-philosopher in extremis.[2] Comparing the wolf to “the condemned man strapped to the grotesque machine in Franz Kafka’s penal colony” (p. 3), Hamilton quickly establishes his skill with comparative literary analysis for the reader.

The wolf’s “conceit” then gains a new name: “Today, the fable can serve as a cautionary tale, specifically on the common vice of complacency” (p. 5). Hamilton explains that this “applies to those who are unreasonably confident when there is no real cause, when the measure of one’s self-worth is incongruous with the measure of one’s true value” (p. 5); complacent people “refuse to change course when change is necessary” (pp. 5–6), presumably in the face of “displacement in higher education,” the subtitle of this book. Hamilton’s phrase “true value” invites the reader to ask: What is the true value of a classicist or classics? Unlike other books about higher education, Hamilton does not analyze recent classical language enrollment numbers,[3] academic budgets, or the shrinking number of classics tenure-track positions in this first chapter or the penultimate on “Institutions,” since this is a book where words matter deeply and numbers exist only for pagination and citations.

In his second chapter, “Sin in the Academy,” Hamilton reveals that the inspiration for this book was moral philosopher Simon Blackburn’s short contribution on complacency to a 2009 article on “The Seven Deadly Sins of the Academy.” Hamilton focuses on Blackburn’s observation (given here in full), “But, of course, any subject that has alpha-male status will breed complacency. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was Classics, with its certainty that without years of Latin and Greek nobody could govern the colonies, but that with those years, anybody could.”[4] Hamilton skewers this sense of privilege and extends it to the “complacent scholar” who, like the wandering wolf in the fable’s first line, “may feel like a planetary god, capable of transiting from one disciplinary constellation to another, without hindrances, without worries, utterly secure” (p. 20).[5] It is hard, however, for the reader to imagine a scholar without worries in any academic field, especially since the pandemic began. Blackburn sees the same complacency in the STEM disciplines ascendant today, inspiring Hamilton’s analysis of “the moral fault as it appears beyond university culture” (p. 21). Towards the end of his book, Hamilton recognizes that the STEM fields are “designed to combat academic complacency and thereby ensure the advancement of the new and the more”; following Blackburn, he states that their positivism dooms them to complacency, too (p. 100). The reader wonders whether an attitude of complacency is a luxury acquired through tenure, an issue Hamilton will touch upon towards the book’s end. Hamilton does not address the plight of the increasing number of contingent classics faculty who feel undervalued or even abused rather than complacent.

The third chapter, “Colonial Planning,” is premised on “the flatness that informs conceptions of pleasing, the place in complacency” (p. 21). Hamilton takes the reader to India with classics graduate George Otto Trevelyan, quoting him as he compares “an Hindoo rite in the middle of the nineteenth century, and those wild revels that stream along many a Grecian bas-relief” (p. 23), and commenting, “Within this sovereign perspective, historical time and distance collapse into a single graspable moment. Difference is flattened into the same. Like the Roman wolf in Syria, the Cantabrigian scholar in India may be charged with the complacency of neglecting any evidence that might contradict his self-image or the legitimacy of colonial rule” (p. 24). Hamilton compares Trevelyan unfavorably to a contemporary classicist, Edwin A. Abbott, “who in entertaining recent mathematical theories…stirred himself out of complacency” (p. 26). Ironically, STEM turns out to have had intellectual value for this nineteenth-century philologist, who composed a satire against complacency called Flatland. Hamilton will weave this theme of flatness playfully throughout the book, but for a serious purpose.

In the fourth chapter, “Propositional Surfaces,” Hamilton explores Blackburn’s ethical theories, concluding, “If some of today’s natural scientists, like yesteryear’s classicists, succumb to academic complacency by presuming to stand on firm, flattened ground, quasi-realists maintain an implacable disposition by limiting their engagement with flatness to a propositional surface that works more like a long plank over a deep ravine: adequate as an interim device for grappling with moral knowledge yet without concealing the fact that every solution is but an ephemeral one, always subject to change” (p. 32). Hamilton keeps the reader engaged by italicizing words that participate in an etymological dance, and his love of words shines on every page of this elegant book.

The next chapter, “Classical Platforms,” investigates “classicism,” which assumes that “the array of prior achievements recorded in literary and artistic history serves as a stable platform for productive work in the present” (p. 39). Here Hamilton deploys a variety of literary examples, with special attention to French neoclassicism, in order to reflect upon how proponents of classicism present the lessons and aesthetics of classical literature and art “as ahistorical, suprahistorical, as eternally essential to humanity, as connected to the present plane with deathless verities” (p. 41).

Classicism found its counterpoint in the later nineteenth-century development of philology.[6] Two chapters, “Philology as Ancilla Facultatum” and “Philological Investigations,” lie at the heart of the book, exploring the benefits of philology for combatting complacent classicism. For Hamilton, philology in its anticlassicism “refrained from locking any word in a fixed and stable definition” (p. 52). Hamilton examines the word ‘complacency’ in the next chapter, “Philological Investigations,” and in the following, “Pleasingly Flat,” he traces the etymology of placere and planus via delightful passages. “Platea” then travels the urban flatlands with poets from Pindar to Horace, who realizes that a person cannot think in level places. In fact, “complacency leaves us on a plateau with nowhere else to go” (p. 83).

“The War on Complacency” broadens the discussion of this vice to arenas beyond academia, including modern politics. Then, “The Golden Age,” now witnessed in modernity’s “flatness,” calls upon the reader to resist and to adopt an “anticlassical” attitude, which the reader learns again in the last chapter is cultivated through philology.

Hardly a fusty relic of the nineteenth century, philology is the hero of this book, combatting the positivism that institutions currently valorize. One should note that philology involves scholars establishing texts through palaeography and text criticism, which Hamilton does not explore, yet Perry had to master them to create his Aesopica.[7] Besides philology and literary analysis and reception, Hamilton barely mentions other items in the classicist’s toolkit, such as epigraphy, papyrology, and numismatics; these also involve words and are the result of archaeology, which shares a symbiotic—and sometimes fraught—relationship with the study of classical literature. Back at the beginning, when one sees that this “fable could potentially serve as a troubling critique” (p. 15) of empire, Hamilton does wonder if it is “alluding to the Romans’ mythological kinship with the wolf” and the Lupus Capitolina (p. 15), Ovid’s Lycaon turning into a wolf, and/or the Lykaia festival of archaic Greece (p. 16). A deeper examination of the different types of ancient evidence philologists use to establish “historical and cultural contexts” (p. 15) would have helped the argument.

In this book, Hamilton is strongly contrasting the colonial, classicizing outlook still found in the field with the philological approach that problematizes texts based on historical contingencies. Classics has had a global impact to this day due to European colonizers’ spread of the classical languages, texts, and ideas, and classicists know that there is much more work to be done analyzing global classical reception and response, especially since coloniality continues to plague societies subjected to European colonization.[8]

The last chapter of Complacency examines the place of the “Humanities” in our technological age, including digital humanities. Hamilton presents philology as “an urgent corrective” to the flatness of our screens that has created a banal conformity reflecting a “bourgeois mentality,” but has not necessarily produced equity (pp. 109–110). Hamilton advocates for the great benefit of struggling with words and developing “a capacity to dive below the gleaming surface and to plumb the depths” (p. 110). One might add that having an inspiring Sibyl or Vergil to lead the way is what makes philology such a wonderful pursuit. The last sentence of this book invites the reader to ponder the final, transcendent value of philology. Classicists will enjoy reading this beautifully written book and discussing it with colleagues during this academic year.



[1] Hamilton quotes Fable 260 from Ben Edwin Perry, ed., Aesopica, 2nd ed., Arno Press, 1980, p. 422. This is a fitting choice, since Moses Hadas hailed Perry’s first edition (Urbana, 1952) a “monument of philological scholarship” in his “Short Notice,” Jewish Quarterly Review 43.3 (1953), p. 301.

[2] See, for instance, Epictetus 3.14.8–9 on οἴησις.

[3] For the years 2013 to 2016, the Modern Language Association reports declining numbers in Latin and Ancient Greek (p. 19): MLA “Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Summer 2016 and Fall 2016: Final Report”.

[4] S. Blackburn on “complacency” in M. Reisz, “The Seven Deadly Sins of the Academy,” Times Higher Education, 9/17/2009; one should also note that classicist Simon Goldhill wrote on “pedantry.” The list could be updated with other academic sins, e.g., sexism, racism, and ableism.

[5] Hamilton discusses “homo curans” in his Security: Politics, Humanity, and the Philology of Care, Princeton, 2013, which also begins with a fable.

[6] Hamilton treats philology at length in his Philology of the Flesh, University of Chicago, 2018.

[7] T. Rosenmeyer, “Review of Aesopica. Volume 1, Greek and Latin Texts by Ben E. Perry,” Phoenix 7.4 (1953) pp. 148–151, provides an analysis of Perry’s use of the manuscripts. Certain details in Hamilton’s first chapter require attention: Hamilton states that the fable of the wolf and lion “has been attributed to Babrius” (p. 3), without stating by which scholars, though his source, Perry’s Aesopica, presents Fable 260 in a separate section titled “Aliae Fabulae e Variis Aesopi Codicibus Desumptae,” and Perry notes (p. 422): “Cod. Mb (Cf. Crus. Bab., p. 236),” referring to Crusius’s 1897 Teubner of Babrius; Crusius places this fable under “Fabularum Dactylicarum et Iambicarum Reliquiae” (p. 213), after the fables of Babrius. Also, in the first line of Hamilton’s Greek text of the fable (p. 2), the participle needs another acute accent on the last syllable before < ποτ’>.

[8] See J. Bromberg, Global Classics, Routledge, 2021; on coloniality, see most recently R. Segato, The Critique of Coloniality: Eight Essays (Decolonizing the Classics), translated by Ramsey McGlazer, Routledge, 2022.