There’s something paradoxical about debating the decline of the classics…


Gladiator, Universal Pictures, 2000

From The New York Review of Books:

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…
…the noise
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.

As for Latin itself, a range of different stories is told in the post-Crocker-Harris world. Where the teaching of the language hasn’t been abolished altogether, you are now likely to read of how Latin, freed of the old-fashioned grammar grind, can make a huge impact on intellectual and linguistic development: whether that’s based on the studies from schools in the Bronx that claim to show that learning Latin increases children’s IQ scores or on those common assertions that knowing Latin is a tremendous help if you want to learn French, Italian, Spanish, or any other Indo-European language you care to name.

But there’s a problem here. Some of the optimists’ objections do hit home. The classical past has never been co-opted by only one political tendency: the classics have probably legitimated as many revolutions as they’ve legitimated conservative dictatorships (and Aeschylus has over the years been performed both as Nazi propaganda and to support liberation movements in sub-Saharan Africa). Some of the counterclaims, though, are plain misleading. The success of Gladiator was absolutely nothing new; think of Ben-Hur, Spartacus, The Sign of the Cross, and any number of versions of The Last Days of Pompeii right back almost to the very beginning of cinema. Nor is the success of popular classical biography; countless people of my generation were introduced to antiquity through the biographies by Michael Grant, now largely forgotten.

And I’m afraid that many of the arguments now used to justify the learning of Latin are perilous too. Latin certainly teaches you about language and how language works, and the fact that it is “dead” can be quite liberating: I’m forever grateful that you don’t have to learn how to ask for a pizza in it, or the directions to the cathedral. But honestly, if you want to learn French, you’d frankly be better off doing that, not starting with some other language first. There is really only one good reason for learning Latin, and that is that you want to read what is written in it.

That’s not quite what I mean, though. My bigger question is: What drives us so insistently to examine the “state” of the classics, and to buy books that lament their decline? Reading through opinion after opinion it can sometimes feel that you are entering a strange form of hospital drama, a sort of academic ER, with an apparently sick patient (the classics) surrounded by different doctors who can’t quite agree on either the diagnosis or prognosis. Is the patient merely malingering and really fighting fit? Is a gradual improvement likely, but perhaps never back to the peak of good health? Or is the illness terminal and palliative care or covert euthanasia the only options? But why are we so interested in what’s going to happen to the classics, and why discuss it in this way, and fill so many pages with the competing answers? There’s something a bit paradoxical about the “decline of the classics debate” and the mini publishing industry that appears to depend on large number of key supporters of the classics buying books that chart their demise. I mean, if you don’t give a toss about Latin and Greek and the classical tradition, you don’t choose to read a book on why no one’s interested in them anymore.

“Do the Classics Have a Future?”, Mary Beard, The New York Review of Books