In Response to: The Color of Classics [6]

I take classics seriously and continue to think about the texts. I’m not sure the author has done the same. Below I present the reality of a classics education, ask if it innately oppresses other views, and address how the texts may have been repurposed. Greece and Rome were very different but remain worth close study.

I spent a lot of time in the classics department, and separately I spent six months studying in Rome and a post-graduate year in Athens. For the past 40 years I re-read Homer, Thucydides, et al., getting through at least one serious text each year. I continue to do what I did as an undergraduate — wrestle with the text and seek to understand both the author’s intent and the context in which it was written. I compare that to other majors and it’s not much different from many academic departments. I don’t see why the daily substance of a classics education deserves any particular opprobrium.

The next question seems to be whether a classics education, in and of itself, oppresses other views. That doesn’t fit my experience. The field allows a student to select from multiple distinct civilizations, and the history of interactions between them gets a lot of attention: Greeks and Romans were in awe of the Egyptians and the Persian empire. Carthage generated as much respect as fear. And it’s darn hard to be a Princeton classics student and somehow miss Byzantium, the Sanskrit texts underlying Hinduism, or medieval Islam. You see the sweep of history and gain a vocabulary for talking about events.

The last question seems to be whether Roman and Greek texts have been used to justify past sins of European powers. Well, of course, and it’s naïve to think we can apply texts without understanding them in context. High school Latin ends with the Aeneid, a great poem and a justification of Roman imperium. The political goals are obvious and discovering them was a great part of being 17. The Bible is commonly used to support someone’s agenda. It is still a worthwhile read, but I don’t endorse wandering in the desert. Celebrate the Iliad without endorsing the treatment of Briseis. Read widely, think deeply and you might end up getting educated.

Finally, I wonder if the author missed a big point. The study of Greece and Rome is of wildly different societies. We don’t model our society on the ancients — we compare and contrast, occasionally pulling out a good idea. (One worthwhile idea is to try to understand before judging. I apologize if I misunderstood the author’s intent. I ask that others tolerate my enthusiasm for the texts, many of which I encountered at Princeton.)