Classics for the Fascists

Some of our detractors disparage us for employing classical texts as a mode of understanding our own time or even using contemporary thought to reason about the ancient world. This charge is as fatuous as it is frequent, and rests on a sure foundation of ignorance regarding the reception of texts and, in the pre-literate age, oral exempla from history.

Nestor is the earliest figure guilty of the “sin” of moral reasoning about the past. Amidst his counsels, Nestor not infrequently cites mythical (to him historical) figures and simultaneously uses his own understanding to reason about them while employing the exempla themselves to bolster his arguments about what course of action his contemporaries should take in the present, and even to censure the conduct of his contemporaries. Early Alexandrian scholars such as Aristarchus reasoned about the text of Homer by bringing what we can recognize as their own cultural prejudices to bear on the project of textual scholarship. It is thus that Aristarchus reasons that δαῖτα was an inappropriate substitution for πᾶσι in the opening lines of the Iliad, in large part because he reasoned that δαῖτα was a word inapplicable to animals and uncivilized people. Yet, that prejudice and the interpretive horizon within which Aristarchus worked were already informed and limited by his formative engagement with the ancient text.

We cannot separate our engagement with classical texts from two influences: the tradition of classical reception which has made them a foundational part of our culture imbibed before we are capable of objectively reasoning about them, and the cultural-moral framework which we are unable to escape as the inhabitants of the modern world. Though I feel the persuasive pull of “immersing oneself” in the classics and attempting to reposition my hermeneutic framework solidly within antiquity, I realize that this is both ultimately undesirable and moreover impossible, considering that the very notion of “classical antiquity” is an abstraction which cordons off an arbitrarily demarcated time frame and is equally arbitrarily delimited to geographical regions whose literature and thought have shaped our own through the stealthy influence of reception. Even the most ardent classical partisan must surely recognize that our lionization of Greek and Latin literature is a historical accident. (One of my professors once noted that we could with a slight change in the course of history have been ardent devotees of ancient Persian literature.)

One may simultaneously engage in “objective” and scientific scholarship while still maintaining an active, even partisan mode of engagement with classical texts. Those who carp on about doubting our scholarship seem to have confused a blog, which is little more than a commonplace book or journal open to public viewing, with some more sober, measured, and professional publication. The blog is a record of our reading, in which we share noteworthy passages and selections, and occasionally comment upon them. In vulgar parlance, this is called spitballing, and is an entirely different mode of engagement from drafting articles or books for scholarly publication. Even when this turns into pamphleteering or polemic, it is still very much in the well-worn rut of classical reception dating back to antiquity itself.

As a relatively modern example, consider what that arch-Tory Samuel Johnson once said about the barbarity of Greek and Roman culture:

“Sir Adam introduced the ancient Greeks and Romans. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, the mass of both of them were barbarians. The mass of every people must be barbarous where there is no printing, and consequently knowledge is not generally diffused. Knowledge is diffused among our people by the news-papers.’ Sir Adam mentioned the orators, poets, and artists of Greece. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I am talking of the mass of the people. We see even what the boasted Athenians were. The little effect which Demosthenes’s orations had upon them, shews that they were barbarians.’” [Boswell, Life of Johnson]

Is this the seed of Johnsonian ‘grievance studies’?

Though he may be unfashionable today, few can doubt that Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was the product of expansive scholarship. Yet Gibbon never shies away from the opportunity to import remarks ranging from moral censure to catty criticism into the work, and famously wrote:

“Antoninus diffused order and tranquility over the greatest part of the earth. His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. [emphasis added]

In the foundational days of the American republic, all of the founders put their grammar school classics to good use in reasoning about morality, modes of government, and the dangers of tyranny. They freely engaged in pamphleteering which employed classical exempla either as moral paragons or as dangers to be avoided, but their engagement was rarely dispassionate. Jefferson, for example, found both Plato’s mysticism and his moral philosophy repugnant:

“It is fortunate for us that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women and children, pell mell together, like beasts of the field or forest. Yet `Plato is a great Philosopher,’ said La Fontaine. But says Fontenelle `do you find his ideas very clear’? `Oh no! he is of an obscurity impenetrable.’ `Do you not find him full of contradictions?’ `Certainly,’ replied La Fontaine, `he is but a Sophist.’ Yet immediately after, he exclaims again, `Oh Plato was a great Philosopher.’ Socrates had reason indeed to complain of the misrepresentations of Plato; for in truth his dialogues are libels on Socrates.” [Letter to John Adams July 5, 1814]

Thomas Paine is equally ready to censure the legacy of antiquity, and follows a tradition as old as Plato in his condemnation of Homer:

“I am not contending for the morality of Homer; on the contrary, I think it a book of false glory, tending to inspire immoral and mischievous notions of honor; and with respect to Aesop, though the moral is in general just, the fable is often cruel; and the cruelty of the fable does more injury to the heart, especially in a child, than the moral does good to the judgment.” [The Age of Reason]

Benjamin Rush went all-in on the campaign against the morality of the ancient world:

“The study of some of the Latin and Greek classics is unfavourable to morals and religion. Indelicate amours, and shocking vices both of gods and men, fill many parts of them. Hence an early and dangerous acquaintance with vice; and hence, from an association of ideas, a diminshed respect for the unity and perfections of the true God. Those classics which are free from this censure, contain little else but the histories of murders, perpetrated by kings, and related in such a manner as to excite pleasure and admiration.” [Essays: Moral, Literary, and Political]

I cite these examples in particular because I doubt that these writers, who are avatars of the ‘old dead white man’ will readily be dismissed by intellectual conservatives as fools or the architects of what they like to disparage as ‘grievance studies’. But clearly, these men were not afraid to use their knowledge of the ancient world in conjunction with the developments in moral reasoning which had been achieved by their time in order to reason about and critically interrogate the classical past which formed the very basis of their education and thought. When Joel published the set of quotations on The Child-Killing Lamia, he did little more than mention the fact that the Greek conception of the Lamia was misogynistic. This is not an assault on classical literature, nor was it a revolutionary call to action against those long-dead Greeks. It was an observation, a comment, a note. Do we not find critical notes of this sort strewn all about the scholia for many of our texts?

Further, the claim that some Greek authors were misogynists is also hardly an importation from the modern world onto antiquity. Athenaeus alludes in a jocular way to a tradition that Euripides was criticized as a misogynist even in antiquity:

“When someone said to Sophocles that Euripides was a misogynist, Sophocles said, ‘He may be a misogynist in his tragedies, but he is a philogynist in the bed.”

‘εἰπόντος Σοφοκλεῖ τινος ὅτι μισογύνης ἐστὶν Εὐριπίδης, ἔν γε ταῖς τραγῳδίαις, ἔφη ὁ Σοφοκλῆς· ἐπεὶ ἔν γε τῇ κλίνῃ φιλογύνης.’ [Deipnosophistae 13.6]

In sum, a reasonable modern and even moral engagement with antiquity does not preclude the possibility of objective scholarship, nor is it a wedge or Trojan horse for turning classics into a form of ‘grievance studies’. The study of antiquity is not the study of a cold, lifeless, and wholly inert substance. It is a study of people, including their morals, their characters, and their politics, and is bound therefore to reason about morality, character, and politics. Any claim that all engagement with the classical past must be wholly amoral in order to remain objective and scientific is little more than fatuity in support of fascism.

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4 responses

  1. As usual, all of this is delightful. I do like particularly, however, your beginning attempt here to classify what blogging is to scholarship. Like you, I still do not know exactly how to frame or define what it is we do on this website. There is definitely a spectrum along which the posts sit: some are more polished and researched while others are clearly more tentative. The entire exchange that inspired this post, however, was not on that spectrum…

    also, nice use of all the 18th century reception stuff…

  2. One point that particularly interests me is hidden in the remark that “Euripides was criticized as a misogynist even in antiquity.” The reasons ancient writers gave for regarding Euripides as a misogynist are precisely the reasons critics today give for regarding him as a proto-feminist. Female characters in his plays enjoy sex, refuse to obey their husbands, speak out forcefully on behalf of their own interests, etc. To ancient Athenian men, these were nightmare images of what a woman might become.
    Anyway, very interesting essay overall. Thanks very much!

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