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The new face of Classics: Donna Zuckerberg’s “Eidolon” is the most widely-read classical blog in the world (DONNA ZUCKERBERG  CC BY-SA 4.0)

If the university sector is indeed to operate as a marketplace, the subject of Classics is awkward to brand for the modern, ultra-woke youth. First, the discipline’s origins are explicitly elitist: the “Classics” were those literary works the Romans deemed worthy of the highest class, bracketed as better than the rest, and worthy of respect for generations to come. Even if we sidestep this age-old self-assurance, the subject remains fundamentally devoted to studying the words of people dead, and white, and male, in order to access societies entirely run by the self-same cadre of indisputably privileged men.

The awkwardness deepens when ancient attitudes come under consideration: few Greek or Roman writers can hide from the modern reader their unquestioning sexism, racism and cultural elitism. Few questioned the institution of slavery, and none the patriarchy. Were any present-day society to realise such beliefs, it would be globally shunned amidst a storm of corporate boycotts and UN sanctions, its leaders hauled somehow before the European Court of Human Rights.

Still the problems pile on. After the fall of Rome, the cultural legacy of the classical world was painstakingly passed down as the preserve of a highly-educated and well-heeled (male) elite, buoyed throughout by the undisputed power of the Church. As the vehicle of this august tradition, the Latin language was, for some 2,000 years, the great conduit of knowledge and power, serving as the European lingua franca for politics, religion, science, medicine, philosophy, and cultured expression. Largely by accident, it acquired the air of high-brow exclusivity, under which heavily-laden baggage it still struggles. While modern companies still believe that they garner credit by adopting absurd pseudo-Latinate names (Regus, Quora, Novartis, Verizon), the broader public remains deeply suspicious of this toga-clad tongue, and at times turns to outright hostility: this September, for instance, the protest group “Class War” could harangue a politician on his doorstop as a “Latin Eton-orientated toff” whose classical allusions were “fucking educated Eton bollocks”.

Given all this, it’s fair to wonder whether Classics is still fit for purpose in the 21st century. Other humanities subjects in Western universities — in particular,  history and vernacular literatures — have felt compelled to act when pressured about similar problems. This is the age of “decolonising” established curricula, of (so the argument goes) liberating them from the oppressive confines of their colonial past. In practice, this has meant widening the canon of texts studied to include those produced by figures from less- represented groups (in terms of gender, class and ethnicity). Tensions over ethnic and national categories have intensified steadily for decades; anxieties about gender imbalances have deepened more recently. Oxford historians, for instance, are currently exploring the curious hypothesis that the gender gap in undergraduate attainment may be narrowed or closed by providing more topics on “gender”, and aiming for a “gender balance in suggested authors”.
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Daniel Bamford.
January 12th, 2019
3:01 PM
David Butterfield suggests that ‘the unpoliced resources afforded by the Classics offer a thrilling liberation from some of the intractable impasses of 21st-century cultural politics’ (‘How the Ancients can help the Moderns’, December 2018 / January 2019). This immediately reminded me of a footnote to Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944): ‘I believe it was the author of Leviathan who first suggested that the teaching of the Classics should be suppressed, because it instilled a dangerous spirit of liberty!’ (ch. 13, p. 141, n. 2). Thomas Hobbes did not actually propose the outright suppression of the Classics, but insisted that the reading of Classical politics and history should be subject to ‘the correctives of discreet Masters’. This was because the Classics provide justifications and precedents for the overthrow of monarchs and their replacement with forms of ‘Popular Government’ (Leviathan (1651), Part II, ch. 29, p. 170.f). Apparently, there is no shortage of contemporary ‘discreet Masters’ committed to applying the necessary ‘correctives’ in order to force the study of the Classics to conform to the ‘supposedly “progressive” ideas’ that now demand our universal and unquestioning endorsement. Dr. Butterfield mentions attempts to reconstruct a more socially diverse ancient world in order to satisfy identity politics and a shift of focus to the reception of Classical culture in modern times in order to satisfy the demand for contemporary relevance. Such politically correct Classics now find their personification in Donna ‘Eidolon’ Zuckerberg, whose big brother Mark is also ‘Big Brother’ to all FaceBook users. While Zuckerberg tinkers with his algorithms, British universities are now expected to assess the quality of ‘teaching excellence’ through the quantifications of ‘core metrics’. As Dr. Butterfield remarks, ‘the humanities […] weren’t built for this’. Indeed, the Classics must be reconstructed, precisely because they ‘provide eloquent evidence that the human condition is less mutable than modern ideologues may suppose’. It will be easy enough to suppress notions of human liberty, since the Classics have also provided ample resources for totalitarian determinists, as Karl Popper demonstrated in The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Any humane defence of the Classics must therefore call on support from elsewhere. With this in mind, it is important to remember that the Classics were first categorised as ‘humanities’ in order to distinguish them from the study of ‘divinities’ and Dr. Butterfield acknowledges that the Classical tradition ‘has long since become impossibly implicated in the threads of lofty Christian morality’. It is this context of Christian ‘cultural appropriation’ that ensured both the survival of the Classical tradition and the sanctification of individual human liberty. Yet, by the same token, the Classics also influenced Christianity, so that the dehumanising determinism of the neo-Platonists, Manicheans and Gnostics found voice in Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther and Jean Calvin. Having long harboured inherently anti-Christian ideologies, the Christian influence on the study of the Classics is now much weakened, openly despised and deliberately discarded. The fate of the humanities thus depends on the fate of the divinities: if our human existence as sentiment individuals is no longer validated by a sentient personal creator, then the ultimate consequence is what C. S. Lewis called The Abolition of Man (1943). Having cited three books published in the 1940s, I should conclude by recalling the context in which Hayek thought of Hobbes’s attitude towards the Classics: ‘… perhaps no country provides a better illustration of the effects on a nation of a general and thorough shift of the greater part of its education system from the “humanities” to the “realities” than Germany between 1840 and 1940.’ Sincerely, Daniel Bamford, Derbyshire.

ian coville
December 9th, 2018
4:12 AM
yes and "what is a classic book?" at says 'classic' really just means appropriate.

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