Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

We Need the Classics

The NY Times had a longform piece this last week about Princeton Classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta and the movement of which he is a part to re-form what the discipline of Classics is about, or whether it exists at all.  I've felt the strong desire to say something about it, through I've struggled a bit with what, because my main reaction to it was that it is terribly sad.

As framing, the article uses an incident at a Society for Classical Studies conference two years ago which I recall reading about at the time, at which a dispute broke out during a panel on "The Future of Classics".  The Times's description is pretty surface level.  You can get a more full version of it reading this piece by the woman the Times frames as the villain of the encounter.  After describing the panel, she describes her comments as follows:

I only wanted to make four very brief points, but I felt compelled to state at the beginning that we could not abandon the ancient languages because then we would have nothing left of our field—of all the egregiously shocking things I had just heard, that seemed to be the one that most cried out to be challenged. I then attempted to say the following:

1) It is important to stand up for Classics as a discipline, and promote it as the political, literary, historical, philosophical, rhetorical, and artistic foundation of Western Civilization, and the basis of European history, tradition, culture, and religion. It gave us the concepts of liberty, equality, and democracy, which we should teach and promote. We should not apologize for our field;

2) It is important to go back to teaching undergraduates about the great classical authors—Cicero, the Athenian dramatists, Homer, Demosthenes, the Greek and Roman historians, Plato, and Aristotle—in English translation in introductory courses;

3) One way of promoting Classics is to offer more survey courses that cover many subject areas (epic, tragedy, comedy, rhetoric, philosophy, history, political theory, and art history), or to concentrate on one area such as in Freshmen seminars, or through western civilization classes;

4) It should help with securing funding from administrators to argue that such survey courses are highly cost-effective: a student could learn a tremendous amount even if such a survey were the only Classics course taken. On the other hand, a seminar that concentrated on the close reading of a few texts would prove beneficial for all students.

Unfortunately, I was interrupted in the middle of my first point by Sarah Bond, who forcefully insisted: “We are not Western Civilization!”

 After additional back and forth which gets heated, Padilla responds:

“Here’s what I have to say about the vision of classics that you outlined,” he said. “I want nothing to do with it. I hope the field dies that you’ve outlined, and that it dies as swiftly as possible.”

The Times article then goes back to trace Padilla's career: from his childhood in an illegal immigration family from the Dominican Republican where in a homeless shelter library he found a book entitled “How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome” and was so fascinated by it that he took the book and never returned it to the library, to the point in 1994 when a photographer documenting another shelter in which Padilla's family was living saw the nine year old boy reading a biography of Napoleon and started talking to him and eventually helped him get a scholarship to an elite New York prep school called Collegiate.  There he started taking Greek and Latin.

At Collegiate, Padilla began taking Latin and Greek and found himself overwhelmed by the emotive power of classical texts; he was captivated by the sting of Greek philosophy, the heat and action of epic. Padilla told none of his new friends that he was undocumented. “There were some conversations I simply wasn’t ready to have,” he has said in an interview. When his classmates joked about immigrants, Padilla sometimes thought of a poem he had read by the Greek lyricist Archilochus, about a soldier who throws his shield in a bush and flees the battlefield. “At least I got myself safely out,” the soldier says. “Why should I care for that shield? Let it go. Some other time I’ll find another no worse.” Don’t expose yourself, he thought. There would be other battles.

 After Collegiate Padilla got a scholarship to Princeton where he studied Classics, to Oxford for his masters, and to Stanford for his PhD.  He now teaches Classics at Princeton.  But he's apparently taken an increasingly politicized approach to the field, which he sees as being tied up with notions of white superiority and unrealistic visions of history.

Padilla found himself frustrated by the manner in which scholars were trying to combat Trumpian rhetoric. In November 2015, he wrote an essay for Eidolon, an online classics journal, clarifying that in Rome, as in the United States, paeans to multiculturalism coexisted with hatred of foreigners. Defending a client in court, Cicero argued that “denying foreigners access to our city is patently inhumane,” but ancient authors also recount the expulsions of whole “suspect” populations, including a roundup of Jews in 139 B.C., who were not considered “suitable enough to live alongside Romans.” Padilla argues that exposing untruths about antiquity, while important, is not enough: Explaining that an almighty, lily-white Roman Empire never existed will not stop white nationalists from pining for its return. The job of classicists is not to “point out the howlers,” he said on a 2017 panel. “To simply take the position of the teacher, the qualified classicist who knows things and can point to these mistakes, is not sufficient.” Dismantling structures of power that have been shored up by the classical tradition will require more than fact-checking; it will require writing an entirely new story about antiquity, and about who we are today.

To find that story, Padilla is advocating reforms that would “explode the canon” and “overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts,” including doing away with the label “classics” altogether.


Privately, even some sympathetic classicists worry that Padilla’s approach will only hasten the field’s decline. “I’ve spoken to undergrad majors who say that they feel ashamed to tell their friends they’re studying classics,” Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, told me. “I think it’s sad.” He noted that the classical tradition has often been put to radical and disruptive uses. Civil rights movements and marginalized groups across the world have drawn inspiration from ancient texts in their fights for equality, from African-Americans to Irish Republicans to Haitian revolutionaries, who viewed their leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, as a Black Spartacus. The heroines of Greek tragedy — untamed, righteous, destructive women like Euripides’ Medea — became symbols of patriarchal resistance for feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, and the descriptions of same-sex love in the poetry of Sappho and in the Platonic dialogues gave hope and solace to gay writers like Oscar Wilde.

“I very much admire Dan-el’s work, and like him, I deplore the lack of diversity in the classical profession,” Mary Beard told me via email. But “to ‘condemn’ classical culture would be as simplistic as to offer it unconditional admiration.”

 At this points the Times tries to give a summary of what it describes as the "fantastical, unhinged quality" of Enlightenment admiration for the Classics, though what the NY Times seems to miss is that Greek and Roman works were in fact read throughout Middle Ages and Renaissance, though the attitude towards them changed.  Reading and caring about Greek and Roman philosophy, law, tragedy, and epic was hardly something new and strange which was suddenly invented to bolster ideas of white superiority in the 18th century.  These works had retained a hold in European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cultures since the time they were current.  

The article contrasts one of Padilla's older colleagues with Padilla's own changing views of his discipline and his own history of learning.

For many, inside the academy and out, the answer to that question is yes. Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, believes that society would “lose a great deal” if classics was abandoned. Feeney is 65, and after he retires this year, he says, his first desire is to sit down with Homer again. “In some moods, I feel that this is just a moment of despair, and people are trying to find significance even if it only comes from self-accusation,” he told me. “I’m not sure that there is a discipline that is exempt from the fact that it is part of the history of this country. How distinctly wicked is classics? I don’t know that it is.” 


Padilla has said that he “cringes” when he remembers his youthful desire to be transformed by the classical tradition. Today he describes his discovery of the textbook at the Chinatown shelter as a sinister encounter, as though the book had been lying in wait for him. He compares the experience to a scene in one of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, when Mr. Auld, Douglass’s owner in Baltimore, chastises his wife for helping Douglass learn to read: “ ‘Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.’” In that moment, Douglass says he understood that literacy was what separated white men from Black — “a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things.” “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing,” Douglass writes. “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.” Learning the secret only deepened his sense of exclusion.

Padilla, like Douglass, now sees the moment of absorption into the classical, literary tradition as simultaneous with his apprehension of racial difference; he can no longer find pride or comfort in having used it to bring himself out of poverty. He permits himself no such relief. “Claiming dignity within this system of structural oppression,” Padilla has said, “requires full buy-in into its logic of valuation.” He refuses to “praise the architects of that trauma as having done right by you at the end.”

 I was not a particularly distinguished classics undergraduate.  I'd taken Latin in high school, and at college I tested into 300 level Latin when I entered as a History major, so I signed up to take a class (I forget what it was even billed as) which turned out to focus on Lucretius's philosophical poem De Rerum Natura.  It's fairly difficult Latin, and a poem about philosophical materialism and Epicurus's theory of atoms is perhaps not the most engaging.  But somehow I loved it.  Struggling through Latin poetry and the sometimes very alien thought that produced it gave a powerful sense of reaching through a dark mirror to encounter the thinking and world of a person who lived a century before Christ.  

I switched my major from History to Classics and started taking Greek my sophomore year.  With it's different alphabet and harsher sounds, and classical period several centuries before the Roman flowering of the first centuries BC and AD, Greek even more fed that feeling of reaching far across the centuries to try to encounter someone alien and sometimes profound and beautiful.  

One of my key regrets is that of the Greek reading courses I was able to take my senior year, I didn't get the chance to read Homer or Hesiod.  As I've raised children, built a career, written novels and this blog, one thing I have not done is kept my ancient languages up at all.  Over the years they've slipped gradually away, though I remember some words and a lot of grammatical structures.  (I was always weaker in vocabulary than grammar.)  

But some day, I keep telling myself, I'll set aside the time to knock the dust off my Greek and finally read Homer in Greek -- an epic that even to the classical era Greeks (300-500 BC) was ancient and alien in some ways.  

This, to me, is why Classics and indeed all deep studies of history and culture are valuable.  They put us in contact with other people in different places and times.  They let us see those things in humanity which are the same even in very different conditions, and they let us see the things which we take for granted and yet can be so very different.  

At root, these studies are the study of humanity.  Of human experiences and ideas and beliefs and feelings.  We too are humans, all too much in danger of being stranded in our own time and seeing everything through that time's lens.  We need the study of Classics, and of other places and eras too.  There is, I think, something truly special about the Greek and Roman classical periods.  There are certain times and places in the world's history where there has been an unusual flowering of human thought and culture.  And rather than seeing that particular flowering in ancient Greece and Rome as something which is the particular patrimony of "white" people (a category which surely would have seemed strange to the Greeks and Romans themselves) I think it's important to see it which is accessible to all humanity.  Goodness knows, my ancestors in no way came from Greece or Italy.  Nor do I have any Russian ancestors to justify my appreciation for Tolstoy.  And while I have some mongrel English ancestry mixed in with the Irish side of the family, I get the impression (though it's hard to know, as the family tree vanishes into obscurity pretty quickly) they were not the Jane Austen reading types.  

These great works are not the owned inheritance of specific races or cultures, but rather the shared patrimony of all those who are willing to take and read.


Dr. Laura Marie Grimes said...

Thanks! This is a fascinating topic for me as a classical and intersectional scholar who has taught college and seminary theology and humanities, elementary STEAM and SEL, and a diverse and rigorous Great Books middle and high school homeschool program.

I agree that canceling traditional classics, as the gentleman you discuss seems to be advocating p, is foolish,

But I also get frustrated by cancellation panic, with false accusations of purging and trendiness, as in Meghan Cox Gurdon’s recent problematic editorial in the Wall Street Journal, She accused hard working, underpaid, life risking secondary teachers who made a prudential judgement to remove the long and complex Odyssey, often taught by uninformed summaries and tiny selections, from the required curriculum a mob of book banners plotting to prevent children’s access to classic books. (Which she curiously summed up as Homer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dr. Seuss. Silly patristic/medieval feminist scholar —I would instead deem the Big Three ito be Homer, Bible, and Bard!!)

She proves herself someone with no love of reading nor understanding of basic English p, treating professional educators with the same entitled disrespect as I assume she treats waiitstaff, and above all someone who takes zero responsibility for her children’s learning.

Because banning is a hateful and ignorant lie when the Odyssey remains in the school library, can be chosen for a research paper as desired, checked out from the public library, purchased st a bookstore —and above all read by her with her children!

The overwhelming majority of scholars who add race and gender analysis are also trained and skilled in traditional approaches— deeply passionate and thorough translators and analysts of texts deemed classics. We seek to critically appreciate and bring the tradition forward, as has each generation of interpreters for centuries,

Analyzing and discussing what makes a classic, which deserve to keep that status, which deserve to be added (which, yes, may mean making room by deprioritizing some mediocre/time bound works).

Hence adding Hildegard to Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison to American Lit surveys, etc.

And, as gifted Black and female and etc scholars previously and unjustly barred from significant graduate education and research and teaching, adding the wisdom and life experience of a broader portion of the human community to the scholarly conversation and accurate textual analysis.

Hence, as I did with my daughter, teaching the full text of the Odyssey in Emily Wilson’s phenomenal translation and analysis, accompanied by Margaret Atwood’s brilliant Penelopiad. Which latter, along with a plausible crestive take on the story from Penelope’s POV, focuses on the horrific and inexcusably ignored and mistranslatied (till Wilson) culmination of Odysseus and Telemachus’ suitor bloodbath: hanging ten beautiful “slutty” maids for the crime of being raped by the suitors. Which provided some huge and crucial conversations with my daughter —and son—about their upcoming college exoeriences and responsibilities—and hence could reasonably be postponed to that educational level when taught in large groups!

Darwin said...

RevDr Laura Marie Grimes,

Thanks for commenting!

I definitely agree that it's a mistake to "teach" Homer if that mostly involves using summaries and short selections.

I've had my high schoolers (three daughters so far, but our eldest boy will hit it next) read the Caroline Alexander translation of the Iliad followed by the Stanley Lombardo translation of the Odyssey. I think I may have picked up those newer copies (my old ones are the Lattimore translation, which I like as one which seems to reflect the text pretty well, but is not the most reader friendly English) before Emily Wilson's came out.

I'm a little perplexed about your comment that up until Wilson the hanging of the maids had been ignored and mistranslated. I definitely recalled it from Lattimore when I read his translation in high school and college.