“Nearly all the wisdom which we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.”
~ Calvin, the Institutes 1.1.1
This may seem an odd place to start a discursive piece reflecting on the place of the classics, but here Calvin divides all knowledge into two parts : the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. Putting aside the question of the knowledge of the rest of creation that is not human, that which is not theology is the humanities. And the humanities are, I would argue, the study of what it is to be human. For those who do not share a belief in God, what else is there to study but what there is to be human? And for those who do, we are inescapably bound by our human condition, whether we reflect upon it or not.
It is because we are interested in the human, that we engage the classics. We read classics because human nature, arguably, does not change. Times and places do, but what is it to be human? We share far more with those of Rome and Greece, than the degree by which we differ from them. We are engaged in a movement from the particular to the common, and back again. So classics is a conversation across centuries. It is a multifaceted conversation. I read Vergil because I am interested in understanding Vergil, and because I am interested in what Vergil says about who we are as humans, yet at the same time I am listening for the differences, the vast gulf of culture and chaos between then and now, between them and me. I am listening for what is the same and what is different, and exploring the spaces in between. At the same time, the very fact that I read Vergil raises other questions – who is not in this conversation? who has been excluded from this conversation? who could I invite to this conversation? and are there times when Vergil should not be invited to the conversation?
We read classics, too, because we are storied creatures. We inhabit narratives. We are the product of time and causality, both real and fictious. Our world, whether we like it or not, is shaped by the histories of antiquity, and we do better to understand this world by understanding the worlds that went before. That, however, is also true of other histories, which also deserve our collective attention. The histories, cultures, and literatures of certain Mediterranean peoples are not intrinsically or inherently more worthy of our attention than others. The history of Europe, its colonialism, imperialism, and thus inordinately large influence on the rest of the world, has been a reason for a historical weight given to its cultures, etc.. That creates almost a paradox. On the one hand, to understand our own world, we are to some degree obliged to engage those histories; on the other, the way those histories are intertwined with the historical injustices that create our present moment, and have silenced other peoples and peoples’, warrants that we turn our attention to minoritised voices.
We also are creatures that tell stories, and the way we tell those stories, what we include and what we exclude, is as important, often more important, than the contents of those stories themselves. That the classics have positioned themselves as the basis of western civilisation is both a given and a contested. Indeed, we ought to wrestle with how and why it is a ‘given’, as well as how it ought to be contested. If we want to understand why the so-called western world has privileged the classics, esp. in a canonical sense, and how this shapes our present, things like contemporary and historical white supremacism, we need to understand how the classics has evolved to situate and tell that story, even at the same time that we can critique that narrative. The stories of European imperialism, colonialism, the emergence of the very concept of Western Civilisation, the construction of whiteness and race, the role of classics as a discipline in evolving an idea of classics that grafts the present onto the past as a legitimising tool of power and oppression – all these are stories that require our critical engagement and analysis, at the same time that we critically read the stories that are their content, and the stories currently being told about them. Stories shape who we are, but they can be reshaped.
We read classics because we are humans are interpreters. We talk, and the only way forward is to talk more. In this sense all discourse is recourse, it builds and responds to what has been said before. Reading outside the canonical construct of the ‘canon’ does not necessarily mean rejecting the canon, but it can mean and should mean de-canonising the canon. Is Homer worth reading? Yes, but perhaps not for the reasons Homer was read before. And not because other things aren’t worth reading. By choosing to read other things, and not choosing to make it compulsory to read Homer, or assuming that everyone has or does, we broaden our conversation. That conversation goes on, because we are talking creatures, and the only alternative is silence. We engage in a conversation that involves the living and the dead, to understand ourselves and each other, and the more parties we bring to that conversation, the greater our learning.
We read classics because in studying the past, we retell the past, and in telling the past, we speak the now and shape the future. How we tell the past reveals who we think we are, and what we think we’ll do.
To return to the start – I think we do humanities precisely because we are human and so we are subject to certain conditions – the finitude of our human existence, the longings of the heart, the capacities of our flesh, the finite certitude of death. And within those bounds we long to understand ourselves and each other, and the primary means of doing so is speech. We learn languages to communicate. Latin, and Greek, due to certain social and historical factors, their intertwined histories as languages of empire not least, open a door to millenia of texts across six continents, from a vast number of speakers. That is a particular reason to learn them and put them to use, but it is not an exclusive one. I do not think Latin or Greek is privileged in that sense, indeed I think there is incredible value in learning other languages and engaging other histories, cultures, literatures, and oral traditions, because we are the poorer when we don’t engage those voices.
At the same time, the very finitude of human existence means we, as individuals shall never learn all languages, engage all cultures, hear all voices, or read all texts. The choice of a particular individual to read particular texts is grounded in finitude. Which means that part of the value of humanities is not the objects, but the nature, of the study itself. Not in the trite and utilitarian sense of “develops cognitive skills, builds close analysis, logic” etc trotted out to convince students of the neo-liberalist pay-off of being better cogs in a capitalism machine. Rather, sustained, critical communication, whether interpretation or expression, makes us better dialogue partners, and thinkers, if the content of our communication drives us back to the central questions of what it means to be human.
Classics as a discipline was born from an inherently privileged context: the notion of the liberal arts, the cultivation of humanitas as what pertains to noble, landed, freeborn, Roman male enslavers. We are not them, nor should we idealise them. And yet, the discipline itself taught us the tools of its own destruction – to closely read texts and ask questions, disturbing and critical questions. It is that questioning that leads us into new spaces, new ways of approaching texts, so that the texts of the past may be asked new questions, even as we ask age-old questions by listening to, and at times privileging, new voices, or neglected and marginalised old ones.
This is why I read classics.