Seeing Ourselves in the Past

In a piece for the Guardian this week decrying the decline of Latin and Greek in schools, Jo Quinn wrote: “the true value of studying the classical Mediterranean lies not in its connections with our own culture and experiences, but in how very strange and foreign it can be.”

The idea that she’s rightly pillorying in the article is that the ancient world is particularly relevant to us because it is somehow parallel to our own. As she points out, this becomes more and more problematic, as we are increasingly aware that the ancient world is full of people, attitudes and objects that we find mystifying or repulsive.

The other reason it’s problematic is that it is less clear than it once was who “we” are and why Greece and Rome should have a privileged place in our self-image.  Jo Quinn stresses this, noting that Greece and Rome’s central place in the heritage of even Britain’s native cultures is “dubious.”

Shifting the emphasis from similarity to difference solves the first problem, but not the second. Instead of treating the past as a reflection of ourselves it treats it as a fun house mirror; Greece and Rome are still given a privileged place in defining us. And why should they be? If Homer is alien and foreign, then so is the Beowulf poet; why should British schoolchildren be learning to define themselves solely against the former?

If we are going to stake the ancient world’s relevance to the present on its value as a comparison, we’re not ultimately going to learn a vast amount, since we will only have two data points: then and now. An understanding of democracy, for example, cannot be extracted from a positive and negative comparison of ancient Athens and modern Britain alone. Athens definitely offers insights, like the selection of officers by lottery, angst about the power of rhetoric, and the restrictive definition of citizenship, but these insights need to stand alongside early modern Europe’s debates about the expansion of the franchise, India’s experience as a democracy of a billion, Communist regimes’ justifications for presenting themselves as democracies, Bhutan’s decision to make the family rather than the citizen the base unit of their democracy, and so on. Alongside these, Ancient Athens is at a significant disadvantage as comparative material, because it cannot be observed or questioned. If the value of the ancient world is solely as a point of comparison, then it has value, but no right to be privileged over any other comparandum.

Furthermore, a model of relevance based solely on comparison also has a significant downside. It creates a gap between present and past, treating them as two discrete data points, when we ought to be talking about links. This gap, I think, is the fundamental cause of classics’ difficulty in establishing relevance. It is artificial. The ancient world is central to explaining much of post-classical history and society – from literary and artistic allusions, to the design of the American constitution, to the colonialist mind-set. As essential as Latin and Greek are to understanding ancient sources, they’re equally central to understanding the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Enlightenment. As a discipline and as a school subject, classics and classical studies are bad at demonstrating this link – even when we try, the account tends to get very hazy in the middle. We ought to teach it more, even if (especially if) this means partnering up with Medievalists, Byzantinists, and modern historians and even if (especially if) this means putting the ancient world in perspective as only one root of the Western world.

Moreover, the importance of the ancient world is something the West shares with Russia, the Middle East, Iran, even (to some degree) India.  An understanding of the ways in which these cultures and the West draw on the ancient world might offer a way to break down the persistent and invidious idea that these cultures are fundamentally separate from the West (contra Toynbee, Samuel P. Huntington). That might be overly idealistic, but at the very least the ancient world offers part of the picture of how their cultures and institutions have come to be the way they are.

If classics, Greek and Latin are important, it’s not and shouldn’t be for what they throw into relief about “us” – they have some insights on that (positive and negative!), but no more than any other culture or period. Rather, they should be being used to contribute to the conversation about how and why the world, the cultures, institutions and phenomena in it are the way they are – a far more useful application than navel-gazing.


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