Rebuilding the Classics: The field has attacked its own foundations, but serious scholars can work to rebuild it.
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the author’s speech at the Stanford Conference on Academic Freedom, November 4, 2022.
Did Socrates deserve to die? Until recently, civilization seemed to have agreed on this: the trial of Socrates was a negligence of justice. No, he didn’t deserve to die.
The current group of professional classicists seems to disagree. In June, Nadya Williams, a professor of ancient history at the University of West Georgia, published a paper. article I compared my husband, Joshua Katz, a former professor of Princeton classics at Inside Higher Ed, to Socrates, and it wasn’t a compliment. Williams writes that Socrates was a groomer, not a horsefly. He claimed he was punished for his speech, but was actually punished for his “unethical behavior”. Just as the Athenians correctly judged the character of Socrates, the Americans should judge the character of our public intellectuals. While Williams refrains from recommending that Katz be condemned to smoking hemlock, his message is clear: Socrates deserved to die, and Katz deserved to be repealed.
I will not dwell on my husband’s story. But the “classics on Twitter” celebrated the article and shared it approvingly, the Society for Classical Studies, the main professional body of classicists in North America. If you’ve been under the illusion that reading great books will make you a good person—or even more liberal—a glance at classic Twitter will quickly save you from your folly: an army of pseudo-scholars spends their days cringing. A handful of powerful figures on the field presiding over a constant stream of bullying, nicknames, and petty arguments.
But the problem is, too many modern classicists don’t do that Check out great books. They work themselves—or rather, whatever the contemporary identity categories that give them the most influence in this political environment. Take into account program For the 2022 annual meeting of the Society of Classical Studies: endless panels on gender such as “Sex and Violence in Latin Poetry”, “Sex and Power”, “Sex, Power and Body in Late Antiquity”, “Epigraphy and Gender” in the Greco-Roman World ” “Exploring Ancient Definitions of Femininity Beyond Binary”, Roundtable on Trans in Classics and “Queer Representations and Purchases of Amazon”; and likewise, “The Liberation of the Black World: What Can Indigenous and Black Agricultural Movements Teach Us About Solon?”
I have long thought that the joy of studying the humanities in general and the classics in particular is to study cultures that are both familiar and far removed from contemporary cultures and peoples. Modern culture must seep into the study of the classics: how can we not view classical civilization through a contemporary lens? But the aim should at least be to see beyond this lens, to interpret the texts as objectively as possible through the painstaking and humble work of philology.
Today this goal of objectivity is stigmatized as racism. To quote recent professors Dan-el Padilla Peralta and Sasha-Mae Eccleston problem between American Journal of PhilologyThe ‘hypothetical rigidity of philology’ functions, among other things, ‘a mode or metonymy of exclusionary elitism across the field’.
once padilla declaration He said he wanted the traditional classics field to die “as quickly as possible”. And indeed, the ongoing attacks on philology are destroying the very foundations of the discipline. Classicists study many things: literature, philosophy, history, linguistics, art, and archaeology. Each sub-discipline requires a different methodology. Historians may be in history majors and philosophers may be in philosophy majors, but something holds the subdisciplines together: knowledge of Greek and Latin. Without it, no guiding principle of the field of the classics, no reason for existence.
But in 2021, the Princeton classics department removed the language requirement for undergraduates. Students can now graduate classics from the country’s top universities without taking a single course in Greek or Latin. A student who claimed to understand Japanese culture without speaking a word of Japanese would rightly be distorted by his arrogance. But such arrogance has now become the name of the game in the Princeton classics section. What the texts actually say is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if Thucydides is talking about race, as one newly hired argues in a job interview; we should still read the race in Thucydides.
Of course, Princeton’s classics program still requires a language: theory, not Greek or Latin. Students learn to speak like Brooke Holmes, a famous professor. to dispute, for example, “the ever more blurred boundary between human and nonhuman actors in various new materialisms, and the causal traffic between human and nonhuman communities and networks.” As an undergraduate, I was fascinated by this kind of language. Now, I take this as superficial and sophisticated.
None of this is unique to the classics, but the field makes a good case study because its downfall happened so quickly. I often think of the year 2015, when I spent my summer at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. There was great political unrest that year – the Grexit vote in Greece, Obergefell He made a decision in America – and I was surprised that my professors and fellow students seemed disinterested in current affairs. I wanted to talk politics; Our conversation focused on the Bronze Age oxhide trade in the Aegean Sea.
Be careful what you wish for. A year later, a new figure emerged in the field: Donna Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, who holds a PhD. She is on classics from Princeton and launched an online classics magazine called Eidolon. Published a in piece Dubbed “How to Become a Good Classicist Under an Evil Emperor”, it’s a “call to arms” for classicists to come out of the ivory tower and fight the supporters of Donald Trump, who have declared themselves the heirs of Western civilization. Most of them left the tower, apparently never to return.
CA classicist that rewards Socratic humility and liberal truth-seeking, returning to a discipline based on love and respect for ancient sources? Three reasons stand out for optimism.
The first is that the activists are exhausted from their “emotional labor”. In 2020, Donna Zuckerberg closed Eidolon, which has become an openly intersecting feminist publication, with the following: explanation: “How can I spend my energy reading Greek and Latin when an epidemic is killing hundreds of thousands of Americans? . . . How can I write coherent sentences when I think about the growing danger of an autocratic coup by the Trump administration? . . . How can time be spent on anything other than self-care, activism, and water purification? Padilla, meanwhile, suggested New York Times that he would turn to politics after destroying the discipline of the classics.
Another is the work of growing platform scholars such as Roosevelt Montás and Anika Prather, who continue to celebrate the study of great books as liberating, not oppressive, for racial minorities.
A third reason to be optimistic: Despite all the efforts of academics, ordinary people continue to be attracted to the classics. When Eidolon ended, I was part of a group of dissident classicists who started a new online magazine. Antigone, with hundreds of articles that “dust up the ancient Greeks and Romans and bring them into new conversations with modern readers of all ages.” By all metrics, the site has been a huge success.
When Socrates was murdered, his student Plato envisioned new ways of restructuring society through new forms of philosophical expression and the Academy, a new forum for learning and speaking. Now our own academy is facing execution by those whom Socrates warned us about: zealous, thoughtless sophists. Serious scholars should take a page from Plato’s book and start building it.
Socrates (469 – 399 BC), Greek philosopher, was forced to commit suicide by drinking hemlock in a prison surrounded by grieving friends and followers in 399 BC. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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