Antiquity! (Instrumental Version)

nos et venturo torquemur et praeterito

We are tortured by both the future and the past.


If you studied Classics in college, you probably heard some sales pitch like this:

Classics is an eminently practical discipline, and you should study it because it offers you the critical thinking toolkit necessary to be a productive citizen in the 21st century. Students of Classics often secure successful employment in such diverse fields as computer science, law, media, and medicine.

If you are studying Latin in high school, you probably heard some sales pitch like this:

Latin is the most practical language to take: it improves your English vocabulary, helps you earn a better SAT score, and distinguishes you on college applications. Plus, if you are planning on going into medicine or law…

These sales pitches do what sales pitches always do: dupe the mark who believes them. But more importantly, these sales pitches commodify the study of Classics, and package it as something which has practical instrumental value. Yet, in truth, Classics is lumbering and unwieldy as an instrument, and can be compared to riding a horse to work: great if you’re into that sort of thing, but certainly not the fastest way to achieve some particular practical end. Classics has always been at least a little recondite, and certainly never practical, but these sales pitches tend to turn the field into an empty shell which can be filled with your personal hopes and used to convey you to the next step of the professional ladder. Indeed, I think that the attempt to sell Classical study as an instrument for the achievement of some end other than the understanding of and delight in the ancient world is not only morally dubious in an age of skyrocketing tuition, but also likely contributes to the steady decay which set in long ago.

We are already rapidly hurtling toward an age of wholesale and universal instrumentality, in which all of our ideas, feelings, and actions are directed toward the goal of making us better instruments for the achievement of no particular end other than the maintenance of an increasingly efficient system of production and consumption. We now strive for instrumentalized efficiency in everything we do. How many of our actions are not directed toward filling some quota on a health app, garnering further Twitter followers, or seeking some other form of existential validation in the countless metrics which can now be readily applied to every facet of our lives? The ‘high-score’ was noble teleology in the video arcade, but now even our leisure is a thinly-veiled form of work. This ‘leisure’ is hardly the otium cum dignitate of the Roman elite, who disdainfully eschewed labor to pursue literary, historical, or philosophical studies. We have bought into the notion of commodification so thoroughly that our lives are now nothing more than readily packaged and processed collections of data points ready to be sold and harnessed for the sole purpose of selling us and harnessing us further. In a world filtered by Instagram and Twitter, it is hard to believe in authenticity, and one begins to feel that experience unmediated by and undirected toward further commodification is no longer possible.

Ardent enthusiasts for the development of artificial intelligence range from those who think that it will simply spare us from tedious labour, to those who seem to hope that it renders us, as thinking beings, entirely obsolete. Whatever your stance on it, the rapid development of AI has ushered in a new crisis of nihilism. If we will never be as smart or as untiring as a computer in a world which only values practical utility, why not just invest in some sturdy rope now? A student once asked me what it was like to have devoted my life to Classics, something which is generally regarded as wholly useless. I responded that, if tech culture and AI continue to develop as planned (hoped?), then everyone else will have devoted their lives to pursuits which, in their own way, were also wholly useless.

A plague upon ‘usefulness’ and ‘practicality’! One can readily imagine a computer performing countless tasks better than humans, but could it ever care? I am writing this only because I feel some concern for the world which I inhabit, and similarly I studied Classics because I cared about it. Certainly, I felt some of the allurements of ‘academic rigor’ and ‘distinguishing oneself from the vulgar mob’ and ‘broadly applicable skills’ and whatever other codswallop was offered up at the time, but this mode of enticement only really appeals to those who are sold on the project anyway.

Classics cannot be important because it ‘teaches critical thinking’ – many other subjects do, and computers already excel at analysis.

Classics cannot be important because it will be ‘valued by employers’ –  employers only value that which tends to increase the bottom line. Within a few decades, the term ‘employer’ itself will be outmoded, as companies will no longer be on the lookout for anything with a beating heart.

Classics cannot be important because it ‘exercises a humanizing influence’ or some similar claptrap; I know some Classicists who are roundly horrible people.

Classics is important only because people are capable of caring, in the broadest sense, about the world. Efforts to popularize parts of antiquity, especially in the form of podcasts as well as fresh and exciting new translations of ancient texts, have a broad appeal which is hardly reflected in institutional enrollment in Classics programs. Indeed, I have more students in my high school Latin class (100 out of a total student population of 2,700) than there were Classics majors in my entire university (67 out of a total student population of 25,000). People care about, are interested in, and feel excited by the study of antiquity in ways which cannot and will never be reflected in institutionalized study. Some of my students hate studying Latin, but they will read through massive volumes of Roman history with rapt attention, or discuss the Odyssey in translation with the same enthusiasm that they feel for Star Wars.

As a discipline, we ceded the field when we granted concessions to the language of ‘practicality’ and ‘job readiness’ in the first place. Indeed, I suspect that we have all been duped by a system which wants ‘job-ready’ graduates now only to fill a brief gap between the present moment and a future in which employers may fall back on the more appealing expedient of an entirely non-human labor force. People like Classics because it is interesting. I would ask, rhetorically, whether we feel similarly compelled to justify, in practical terms, our aesthetic and even spiritual pleasure in, say, a mountain vista, but I also know that in America a view is only beautiful if there is no material profit to be had from its destruction.

The large gap between the number of people interested in antiquity and those who study it professionally helps to point the way forward. The future of Classics will depend much less on conferences and far more on podcasts and popular books. Depending on your position in the field, such a suggestion may sound either novel and appalling or hopelessly worn and passé, but it applies more broadly to all of the humanities. Professionalized art, literature, and music have always been hard, but I doubt that becoming more obscure and recondite would help matters.

This is not an anomalous position for the field, either. Classical study was for some time a pursuit for passionate “amateurs”, and between Petrarch and Gibbon one could easily name a host of figures who made meaningful monuments to Classical learning which are far better remembered than any academic monograph. Undoubtedly, the privilege of Classical study in securing a position in the British Civil Service in the 19th century and the explosion of academic institutions in America along with its concomitant development into the rigidly professionalized system of today contributed substantially to the number of people who were employed in some professional capacity as a result of Classical study, but this connection between antiquity and employment has always been the most tenuous of threads.

What space, then, does Classics occupy in our intellectual and cultural sphere? Well, it’s there if you care. Never will more than a tiny fraction of the population want to study Greek and Latin, and we should stop telling potential students that ancient languages are useful for building vocabulary or demonstrating a unique commitment to diverse study or – the worst justification of them all – that the ‘rigor’ of Classical languages is a uniquely challenging type of mental gymnastics which will make you better prepared for other mental activity. The study of ancient languages is only useful in making you better at ancient languages.

The institutional study of Physics has always seemed to me the most closely parallel case to that of Classics. Our educated public loves the study of Physics; most of your friends probably enjoy watching shows with Neil deGrasse Tyson, and likely mourned the death of Stephen Hawking. Yet, for all of this popular enthusiasm, very few people actually get Physics degrees, and despite our very vocal support for ‘STEM’ in this country, some Physics departments face the threat of total closure just as Classics departments do. Why? All of that talent pool for Physics is attracted to the more instrumentalized and readily-monetized department of Engineering. Just as in Classics, only a few who make it to the end of a PhD program end up being able to secure the dream of an academic position in Physics. Generally, our society is not structured to reward study for its own sake.

In conclusion, the future of professionalized Classics looks bleak, but in truth, everything looks bleak on the blighted horizon of our techno-capitalist utopia. I regularly encourage my graduating students to study what means most to them – what they care about – because soon the notion of the ‘unemployable degree’ will be wholly outmoded when all degrees are unemployable. When robots and supercomputers are doing all of our accounting, medicine, and engineering in addition to physical and service labor, our pursuit of the inherently interesting and our experience of meaning for its own sake will likely be all that is left to us.

Selling the study of Classics on the basis of anything other than its inherent ability to fascinate the human mind is a losing strategy. The battlefield of practicality and employment was lost long ago when the first microprocessor was developed. I have no doubt that the instrumentalization and commodification of every aspect of our private and public lives will continue apace, but I hope that from the dystopian wreckage we can at least salvage one salutary relic of an earlier time: maybe we can return to thinking about antiquity not as a mine from which to extract conference papers and monographs, but as a vista which we climb to see for its own sake.

Jacques Louis-David, Belisaire

8 thoughts on “Antiquity! (Instrumental Version)

  1. Also, this: “Classics has always been at least a little recondite, and certainly never practical, but these sales pitches tend to turn the field into an empty shell which can be filled with your personal hopes and used to convey you to the next step of the professional ladder.”

  2. And, this: “We are already rapidly hurtling toward an age of wholesale and universal instrumentality, in which all of our ideas, feelings, and actions are directed toward the goal of making us better instruments for the achievement of no particular end other than the maintenance of an increasingly efficient system of production and consumption.”

    One of the insidious things about the culture wars in academia and the singling out of certain disciplines as useless is that it forces us all to think in the very terms of instrumentalization and commodification the application of which all but guarantees our doom. We fight to prove our relative use against disciplines that largely do the same or different things. The language of commodity which makes us define ourselves in terms of capital reduces academic study to a type of consumption where we are distracted by the efforts of Coke (TM) and Pepsi (TM) to out bedazzle one another for the right to poison us.

    In this ‘game’, we will always eventually lose.

    1. I suspect that we already have lost. Many of these modes of thought are so thoroughly ingrained now (and indeed, play into our innate tendency toward tribalism) that I expect both inter- and intra-disciplinary rivalry to intensify until there is very little left. The suits have had their way, and the business/vocational model of education has whittled the ivory tower into millions of pricey business cards.

      Yet, for all of that, I actually think that humanistic education is more readily-to-hand for anyone who *wants* it than ever before. While *credentialing* in Classics (and the humanities more generally) once again becomes difficult to obtain outside of elite circles and elite institutions, there is an embarrassment of riches available for the humble but earnest autodidact.

  3. I am truly sorry at the pain you express so clearly. There is a bleakness that I’m not sure can be overcome. Idealism can make one commit to causes that are not
    widely appreciated and are met with indifference by most.
    The rejection of one’s dearly held fantasies does hurt, but
    out fellow humans are not going to support that which they do not find useful for themselves. Darwin is everywhere.

  4. “Classics cannot be important because it ‘teaches critical thinking’ – many other subjects do, and computers already excel at analysis.”

    This, a thousand times. The very worst advertisement for any discipline is that it supposedly develops “critical thinking”.

  5. Many often think that classical studies is merely looking back and obsessing over things that have happened and gone (as many believe about history). But history repeats itself, and many things can be learnt by revisiting and learning from mistakes and successes made in the earlier times. Your post shows an admirable acknowledgement of the fact that myths are not just stories to be forgotten after some time, and classical studies is not just a means to an end!

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