It all depends on how you define its past, and what you think of our present….
“To which the retort is: maybe it is precisely because professors of the classics have refused to engage with modern theory and persisted in viewing the ancient world through rose-tinted spectacles (as if it was a culture to be admired) that the subject is in imminent danger of turning into an antiquarian backwater.”
—Mary Beard, “Do the Classics Have a Future?” New York Review of Books, January 12, 2012, [my italics]
The above quote is from a consideration of the state of the classics in culture and education today. The author is in fact attempting a defense or, perhaps better, an optimistic projection, of the classics’—that is, knowledge of Latin and Greek—role in our culture, and she ends with a rather elitist argument for the classics as the province of a small cadre of scholars, and a celebration of their capacity to induce wonder. One wonders, then, why that pleasure should be reserved for a small few (which would not include me, since I was unfortunate enough to attend Catholic school immediately after the Second Vatican Council in a diocese all too eager to embrace the Council’s baby with the bathwater approach to Latin), but I am much more troubled by the parenthetical statement in the quote that opens this posting: as if it was a culture not to be admired?! If we do not find things to admire in the past, why bother studying it? Sure, the Romans could be awful, but they could also be just, rational, creative, adventurous, and ambitious. They gave us law and architecture as we know it, multi-culturalism, and a civilizing habit that underpins European cities from London to Paris. Collectively they could be ruthless, individually they could be the epitomes of tolerance, reason, and fairness. If the “great man” theory of history has lost its luster, it is no wonder we judge the past on its collective actions, and generally the worst of them.
But since I should be blogging about the arts, lets turn to the classical today. Perhaps never in the last thirty years has it been in such crisis—there is currently no great voice of support for it, there is overwhelming cultural momentum against it, and even many of its supposed supporters have lost their sense of what defines it. I would argue it has something to do with the fact that we have not connected the dots between the greatest achievements of our past—the Old Master tradition, if you like, in the arts, or the Renaissance tradition in architecture—and our modern aspirations (do we even have any?). At the end of one year and on the cusp of a new, I will leave this as a question, and offer the floor to other voices from the recent and remote past for consideration (NB: they can not all be reconciled). Beatum Annum Novum.
If you know your history,
Then you would know where you coming from,...
—Bob Marley, Buffalo Soldier
Sooner or later we learn to throw the past away
History will teach us nothing
—Sting, History Will Teach Us Nothing
History can not teach us, but we can learn from it.
—Joseph Rykwert, The Dancing Column
Evening comes, I return home and enter into my study; and up there I change out of that daily attire, full of mud and grime, and I put on refined, dignified clothing; and thus changed I allow myself to enter into the ancient courts of men of old where, affectionately received by them, I partake of that food that is mine alone and for which I was born; where I am not embarrassed to speak with them, and inquire of them the reasons for their actions; and they, by virtue of their humanity, respond to me; and I don’t feel for four hours of time any boredom: forgetting every anxiety, not fearing poverty, not worrying about death; I am completely transformed through them.
—Niccolò Macchiavelli, letter to Francesco Vettori, 10 December 1513 [my translation]
[I treat] history as a mirror, with the help of which I can adorn my own life by imitating the virtues of the men whose actions I have described. It is though I could talk with the subjects of my Lives and enjoy their company every day, welcome him as my guest,... and select from his career those events which are the most important and the most enduring to record. As Sophocles has written, “What greater joy could you attain than this?” and what could do more to raise the standards by which we live?
—Plutarch, Life of Timoleon