… some of them just awful, such as those Christmas Day attacks in Nigeria. But I propose to ignore them all in favour of a really nice article in the New York Review of Books. I like Mary Beard’s Do the Classics Have a Future? because am one of those who studied Latin at school and university, and am very glad I did, but also because Mary Beard doesn’t say exactly what you may have expected.
Robert Browning and his son Robert Barrett Browning in Venice, November 1889
… The voices insisting that we should be facing up to the squalor, the slavery, the misogyny, the irrationality of antiquity go back through Moses Finley and the Irish poet and classicist Louis MacNeice to my own illustrious nineteenth-century predecessor in Cambridge, Jane Ellen Harrison. When I should be remembering the glories of Greece, wrote MacNeice memorably in his Autumn Journal,
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys…
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
Of course, not everything written on the current state of the classics is irredeemably gloomy. Some breezy optimists point, for example, to a new interest among the public in the ancient world. Witness the success of movies like Gladiator or Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra or the continuing stream of literary tributes to, or engagements with, the classics (including at least three major fictional or poetic reworkings of Homer in the last twelve months). And against the baleful examples of Goebbels and British imperialism, you can parade a repertoire of more radical heroes of the classical tradition—as varied as Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx (whose Ph.D. thesis was on classical philosophy), and the American Founding Fathers…
You will, I suspect, already have spotted all kinds of different assumptions about what we think “the classics” are underlying the various arguments about their state of health: from something that comes down more or less to the academic study of Latin and Greek to—at the other end of the spectrum—a wider sense of popular interest in the ancient world in all its forms. Part of the reason why people disagree about how “the classics” are doing is that when they talk about “the classics” they aren’t talking about the same thing. I don’t plan to offer a straightforward redefinition. But I am going to pick up some of the themes that emerged in Terence Rattigan’s play to suggest that the classics are embedded in the way we think about ourselves, and our own history, in a more complex way than we usually allow. They are not just from or about the distant past. They are also a cultural language that we have learned to speak, in dialogue with the idea of antiquity. And to state the obvious, in a way, if they are about anybody, the classics are, of course, about us as much as about the Greeks and Romans.
But first the rhetoric of decline, and let me read you another piece of gloom:
On many sides we hear confident assertions…that the work of Greek and Latin is done—that their day is past. If the extinction of these languages as potent instruments of education is a sacrifice inexorably demanded by the advancement of civilisation, regrets are idle, and we must bow to necessity. But we know from history that not the least of the causes of the fall of great supremacies has been the supine-ness and short-sightedness of their defenders. It is therefore the duty of those who believe…that Greek and Latin may continue to confer in the future, as they have done in the past, priceless benefits upon all higher human education, to inquire whether these causes exist, and how they may be at once removed. For if these studies fall, they fall like Lucifer. We can assuredly hope for no second Renaissance.
Now, as you will have guessed from the rhetorical style, that was not written yesterday (although you could have heard much the same points made yesterday). It is, in fact, by the Cambridge Latinist J.P. Postgate, lamenting the decline of Latin and Greek in 1902—a famous lament, published in an influential London magazine (The Fortnightly Review) and powerful enough to lead directly, over one hundred years ago, to the establishment in the UK of the Classical Association, whose aim was to bring like-minded parties together explicitly to save the classics.
The point is that you can find such lamentations or anxieties almost anywhere you look in the history of the classical tradition….