“But, just as two men strive over boundary stones,
As they hold their yardsticks in hand in a shared field
and they struggle over a fair share of the limited earth,
So did the fortifications separate them.
But over them still they struck one another
On their oxhide circles and winged shields.”
As some already know, I am a Homerist by practice and training, which means I have spent the better part of the past 20 years, reading, thinking, and writing about the Homeric epics. After all this, I am still regularly surprised by how much I don’t understand and often shocked by the fact that I have spent so many years doing just this, re-reading, being surprised, and then trying to learn something new.
The truth is, there was a time when I had little regard for the Homeric epics. I started reading them because I wanted to understand the ‘literature’ that followed them. About the same time I started reading Homer in the original, which was transformative on its own, I read both epics again in translation. The oceanic gap between the experience of the Greek and the translations rattled my confidence in my own aesthetic judgments (and in the act of translation).
But the difference between Homeric phraseology and Vergil (the Latin author with whom I had the most familiarity at the time) was striking: nearly every line of Homer is a self-contained unit of sense. Rather than being hypotactic (subordinating and delaying meaning), Homeric poetry is paratactic, building by adding. It is useful to know the language and stories of the Iliad before you start reading; but it is not necessary for enjoyment: the epic constructs itself in front of you as it tells its tale.
The simile above is one of the first things that I carried around with me everyday once I started reading Homeric Greek (I eventually made investigating it into a senior thesis). It is such a small, nearly forgettable moment. But its simplicity belies a compact and complex representation of the way Homeric poetry works and why it still matters.
In the middle of the battle over the walls the Greek have constructed against the resurgent Trojan defenders, the warring sides are compared to two men fighting over measuring their share of a common field. Even to this day, this comparison seems so disarmingly true as it reduces the grand themes of the struggles between Trojans and Greek, Agamemnon and Achilles, to that of two men over shared resources. The Iliad, at one level, is all about scarcity: scarcity of goods, of women, of honor, of life-time, and, ultimately, the scarcity of fame.
This simile works through metonymy to represent not just the action on the field of battle at this moment, but the conditions that prompt the greater conflict and those that constrain human life. It leaps through time and space and indicates how this poem differs from simple myths. The normal mortals who love this poem aren’t kings or demigods; we live small, sometimes desperate lives, the conditions of which are improved or exacerbated by how well we work together to make fair shares of our public goods.
The scholiast’s comments above, then, are doubly laughable. If I am reading them right (and the verb καταφρονοῦσιν without an object can be annoying), the commentator is imagining that these men in the simile are struggling over this small bit of land because they are poor and that wealthier men would not bother. Not only is this a tragic misunderstanding of human nature (wait tables or tend bar for only a few weeks and you will discover that the good tippers are not the wealthiest ones), but it is a poor reading of the epic, where the wealthiest and most powerful men alive are more than happy to keep fighting and ensuring that their people die.
The point of the simile is that it provides a meeting point between the actors of the poem and the worlds of the audiences; the line that separates imaginative story in the audience’s minds from the lives they live becomes permeable and the hero meets the mortal in the shared experience. This is how the world becomes a part of the story and how it also shapes the poem.
Right after this, there’s another simile.
“Many were struck across their flesh by pitiless bronze
Whenever they turned and bared their backs
As they struggled, although many were also struck through their shields.
The towers and walls were decorated everywhere with the blood
Of men from both sides, from Trojans and Achaeans.
Yet, they still could not force the Achaians to flee—
No, it held as when an honest weaving woman holds
The balance and draws out the weight and the wool on both sides
to make them equal so she might earn some wretched wage for her children.
So the battle and the war was stretched even on each side
Until Zeus gave the glory over to Hektor
Priam’s son, who first broke through the wall of the Achaeans.”
“The equal balance of those fighting, [Homer] compared to the beam of a loom, again. For nothing is so precisely similar to an even balance. And the one weighing this out is not the mistress of the household—for she does not often trouble this much for so small an equal bit—nor is it one of the household maids—for they would not seek to make so precise a measure since they are fed by the household’s master and do not risk their nourishment if they mess up on the loom weights—but it is a woman for hire who must provide what is needed for living by the effort of her hands.”
This passage has long moved me too because, as with the earlier simile, the great ‘epic’ themes and images of war were reduced to something simple, daily, and completely understandable. Even in the ancient world where many members of the audiences probably had considerably more experience of violence than we do and where most aristocratic audience members would certainly have nothing but contempt for working for a living, many probably heard a crucial echo of their own lives in this surprising comparison.
I also appreciate the way that the scholiasts here home in on how dire this woman’s position is, making the dubious but nonetheless striking claim that the household servants led less precarious lives than the woman of the simile who draws the weight so precisely because her pay—and the lives of her children—depend upon it. In a crucial way, this simile evokes the same sense of scarcity as that of the men on the field—but it adds that an all too familiar anxiety from the precarity that emerges when one lives constantly with the sense of how scarce those things we value are.
Indeed, the scarcity and precarity evoked by this simile and the one that precedes it extends the transitional moment begun with the image of the farmers to create anticipatory tension in the audience. At the epic’s middle, before we move from book 12 to 13 and to the slaughter of the Achaeans at the ships, the balance hangs ever briefly before it breaks. Hektor surges through the Achaean fortification: the balance of action fails just as the balance of the plot will too—the story of Achilles’ withdrawal will now translate into the slaughter he asked Zeus to precipitate leading to the death of Patroklos, Hektor and, ultimately, Achilles too.
These similes stand at the middle of the poem and convey the sense of tension at the passing of this moment and the spinning of the tale itself. The nameless men and the nameless woman stand in contrast to the named heroes who will suffer and die in the following books. But they are also vehicles moving between the lives of the audiences and the heroes’ deeds marking off the small stakes for which all are struggling and the limited life by which we are all constrained.
This statement is no less potent or poignant now than 2500 years ago. It signals the vampiric and internally apocalyptic solipsisms of the powerful and the elite. But it also engages with a universal human denial and naive narcissism that allows us to ignore and exacerbate global warming and to throw other people’s children into cages while we cherish our own. This is the voice that says only the now matters, that this quarter’s profits are more important than sustainability and justice, that today’s ends justify any kinds of means.
Unsurprisingly, it is attributed to the Roman Emperors Tiberius and Nero.
Suda tau 552 [cribbing Dio Cassius]
“And Tiberius uttered that ancient phrase, “when I am dead, the earth can be fucked with fire”, and he used to bless Priam because he died with his country and his palace.”
The saying seems to predate the Roman Emperors, however. Cicero riffs on this sentiment.
Cicero, De Finibus 3.64
“In turn, they believe that the universe is ruled by the will of the gods and that it is like a city or state shared by humans and gods and that everyone of us is a member of this universe. This is the reason that it is natural for us to put shared good before the personal. Truly, just as the laws prefer the safety of the collective over that of individuals, so too a good and wise person, obedient to the laws and not ignorant of his civic duty, pursues the advantage of the collective over that of an individual or himself.
A traitor to a state need not be hated more than one who undermines common advantage or safety on account of his own. This is why the person who faces death for the republic must be praised, because it bestows glory upon us to care more for our country than ourselves. And this is why it seems an inhuman and criminal voice when people say that they don’t care if all of everything burns when they are dead—as it is typically construed with that common Greek verse—and it is also certain true that we must care for those who will live in the future for their own sake.”
Mundum autem censent regi numine deorum eumque esse quasi communem urbem et civitatem hominum et deorum, et unumquemque nostrum eius mundi esse partem; ex quo illud natura consequi ut communem utilitatem nostrae anteponamus. Ut enim leges omnium salutem singulorum saluti anteponunt, sic vir bonus et sapiens et legibus parens et civilis offici non ignarus utilitati omnium plus quam unius alicuius aut suae consulit. Nec magis est vituperandus proditor patriae quam communis utilitatis aut salutis desertor propter suam utilitatem aut salutem. Ex quo fit ut laudandus is sit qui mortem oppetat pro re publica, quod deceat cariorem nobis esse patriam quam nosmet ipsos. Quoniamque illa vox inhumana et scelerata ducitur eorum qui negant se recusare quo minus ipsis mortuis terrarum omnium deflagratio consequatur (quod vulgari quodam versu Graeco pronuntiari solet), certe verum est etiam iis qui aliquando futuri sint esse propter ipsos consulendum.
Here’s a more genteel variation on the sentiment:
‘Après moi le déluge’.
Louis XV of France offers a lapidary (and politer) version of the sentiment.
A note about the translation: I use the English profane “fuck” for mikhthênai here for two reasons. First, mignumi is often used in periphrases or euphemism for sex. Second, I think the speaker is effecting a dismissive and aggressively narcissistic stance towards the world which will exist after his death. Such narcissism and self-absorption is so perverse and twisted and yet so utterly common as to demand obscenity and plunge us all into the painfully profane. Third, as my students, and unfortunately my children, can attest, I am profane in real life. This is in part a class issue (I lack certain refinements) but it is also part character (my slight discomfort at class mobility and playing the professional role is expressed through this minor, adolescent rebelliousness).
But, there’s also the zeitgeist. There have been complaints over the years about profanity coming from this website and twitter account. While I understand that language use can be harmful and seem inapposite, I fear that I am insufficiently sympathetic to complaints about vulgar or profane language. We are living in a perverse and obscene time. Effective language, a man once said, is when the sound is an echo of the sense.
Seneca gets the same sense, but makes it a bit more active in his Medea.
Seneca, Medea 426–428
“…The only rest
Is if I see the whole world uprooted along with my ruin.
Let everything depart with me. It is pleasing to destroy while you die.”
…Sola est quies,
mecum ruina cuncta si video obruta;
mecum omnia abeant. trahere, cum pereas, libet.
Yesterday, I was editing a manuscript and thinking about Odysseus’ so-called “lying tales” in books 13-20 of the Odyssey. In one of them, he talks casually about murdering the son of Idomeneus. A song burst fully formed into my head. I made a poll. Over 3500 people voted.
(And, yes, as twitter let me know, it should be “shot” not killed”). To be honest, I thought the answer was clear and tried to direct it a bit:
Personally, I think it is Odysseus. He is soulless, dead-eyed killer who does something just to see what happens. Achilles has big feelings. And his big feelings lead to murder sprees. But he feels remorse sometimes.
I suspect that the issue here for most voters was really: who’s your favorite hero and who seems violent to you. Everyone knows Achilles is a cross between the Hulk and Superman and he just kills everything. Most people forget that Odysseus leaves a trail of slaughter in his wake too.
Earlier polls I have run seem to indicate that while the Iliad and Odyssey are pretty close in popularity people have a more positive view of Odysseus. I have spent several years working on a book on Odysseus (after working on the Iliad for over a decade). I think these evaluations of the characters are from an overall feeling and not an actual engagement with the texts.
I continued this conversation on and off line with Justin Arft:
Achilles is intense, like super intense, like there is extra and then there is Achilles extra. He gets his feelings hurt and then asks for Zeus to make his own people die. Patroklos dies because Achilles is so damn sensitive. Achilles’ rage is the point of the whole poem. But he is not calculating. He feels. He reacts. He regrets.
But behind all the arguments is a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be a hero in ancient Greece. They are not simple figures. They are not heroic in the modern sense. The word heros: can mean a man in the prime of his youth; or, a member of a race of superpeople before our current race of mortals; or, a person who follows a particular narrative/paradigmatic arc. It is value neutral when it comes to “good” and “evil”.
Despite Achilles’ constant lead, there was a chorus of objection:
This seems so obviously Odysseus that I didn't even understand the point of the question…and then he's losing! This is a guy who lied to his father and said he was dead for literally no reason. This is a guy who threatened his nurse with a cruel death.
Outside of the epics: he frames Palamedes and has him stoned to death; he tricks Achilles into coming to war; he strands Philoktetes for being wounded and then gets him to come back to Troy; he tries to stab Diomedes in the back; he is known for arranging for the killing of Astyanax. He probably killed Hecuba too.
Achilles’ rage is big and easy to conceptualize, easier to blame; Odysseus’ calculation is harder to understand and frame. We want to be like Achilles, I think, because we can blame our faults on emotions. That’s nature, right? We can’t control nature! It is harder to admit where we are like Odysseus because then we need to take responsibility for our faults. People who love Odysseus too often explain away his faults. (Which is why so much of Homeric scholarship refuses to acknowledge that Odysseus is crossing a line in killing the slave women, the suitors, blinding Polyphemos and more).
Not everything was about bashing Odysseus:
Achilles' wrath is to me petulant, vengeful; the disinterested curious turn to violence that that Cash line (remorsefully??) recalls seems to me closer to Odysseus's characteristic empathetic seeing-from-another's-eyes. Only twisted in a as-boys-are-to-flies moment, of course.
The "just to watch him die" bit is much more Odysseus than Achilles. Achilles would kill him for a reason and keep moving. Odysseus is one of my favorite characters, but… well… I can see him killing someone and then watching them go. Or saying he did, anyway.
And some people worked hard to bring greater context to the song and the identification:
Especially considering those two lines in context, in relation to the previous lines, I vote Achilles. “When I was just a baby My Mama told me, ‘son Always be a good boy Don't ever play with guns [or spears]’…”
Thanks for this great summary. I went for Achilles (despite his later, clear remorse, the dragging of Hector’s body has always bothered me) but do truly understand the arguments for Odysseus. The back-and-forth was stimulating and, at least for me, educational.
thanks to everyone who played along and took what was a lark seriously. Apologies to all the wits and wiseacres I didn’t include in this post. The thread on twitter is pretty cool. But, as with everything, Plato did it first and better.
Plato, Hippias Minor
“Homer made Achilles the best man of those who went to Troy, Nestor the wisest, and Odysseus the most shifty.”
In the final book of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Death’s End, when faced with an unstoppable extinction-level event, Cheng Xin and Ai AA go to the distant edge of the solar system to try to preserve some artifacts of human existence from the encroachment of two-dimensional space. When they reach the isolated moon bunker where many of the objects are stored, they come upon miles of inscriptions in the surface rock. Previous plans to preserve human knowledge had included etching human history and knowledge into the stone. Teams of scientists and data specialists could devise no method which ensured as long a future as the multilingual inscriptions in space.
Any system of encoding and preserving knowledge—whether we are talking of raw, binary data or language—relies upon two challenges for legibility in the future. The first is a ‘key’—some type of instruction that might indicate to readers unfamiliar with language or code how to make meaning out of signs. The second challenge is medium—how do the materials which encode the information respond to the passage of time and elements.
Encrypted digital data in every form faces the danger of significant loss under even the best of conditions; changing software and computational paradigms can make accessing extant data even more difficult. The decryption of preserved digital data relies on the end-user being able to access functional hardware and manipulate the same original data protocol. Despite the ability to extend human life centuries through hibernation and the technology to create space ships which traveled at the speed of light, the humans of Cixin’s universe can find no better way to preserve the past than cold, alien stone.
The survival of the past into the future is something of a motif in science fiction, thanks to its longue durée perspective. Just in the past year, I have read of the ‘classicist’ in Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Children of Time series, a figure whose knowledge of the past and ability to use ancient programs makes him central to the survival of the human race. In many cases, such as the works of Isaac Asimov, the Earth we know and the past we cherish is entirely forgotten or mostly unsalvageable. But for every novel that imagines the preservation of knowledge over time—like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem—we have the more stark reality to deal with of strange re-uses of our reconstructed past as in Ada Palmer’s Terra Incognotaseries or generations of lost knowledge over time, as in Walter Miller Jr.’s classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz.
“The prophecy which was given to the Thessalians was ordering them to consider “the hearing of a deaf man; the sight of the blind.”
A widely linked recent article alleges that the human race has around 30 years left, that by 2050 climate change will create a systems collapse that will end human civilization as we currently know it. Similar reports diverge at whether the extinction event that is the Anthropocene will also eradicate the human species or just result in a cruel, apocalyptic contraction. Even if we find the political will to radically change our behavior over the next few years, we are looking at the almost certain probability of widespread government collapses, severe famine and death in the ‘global south’, and widespread conflicts over resources.
For the sake of argument (and acceding to science), let’s say that we should be preparing for one of the worst-case scenarios. While it would be great if all of us consumed less, recycled more, and gave up internal combustion engines, the fact is that late-stage capitalism is an out of control freight train which no single government or group of governments appears to have the will or the resources to slow down. The vast majority of all world carbon pollution is perpetrated not by billions of human beings making bad decisions each day, but by the profit-driven interests of a hundred corporations. We are not going to stop this with anything short of massive collective and revolutionary action.
“What is worst from bygone days provides the best safeguard for the future.”
In the meantime, maybe some of us should be looking past that destructive horizon to what comes next. I don’t do this cynically—there is a part of me that thinks the neo-fascist maniacs who are creating concentration camps and clamoring for border control now are rehearsing for the inevitable migrations caused by climate change and attempting to habituate an American populace to the murder and carnage needed to survive in that apocalyptic contraction scenario. By pursuing an insane set of policies, the very actors who deny climate change is happening are actively bringing it about. Yes, I do suspect there are those who would rather dehumanize and slaughter other human beings rather than make difficult decisions and sacrifice a standard of living now.
(And, truth be told, a disturbing number of Americans seem ok with this).
“if you find good luck in the time that is left
Perhaps it will be solace for the things in the past”
My question is: what are we of learned societies doing to plan for the collapse of the social and political infrastructure that has produced the deepest learning for the broadest number of people in the history of humankind? For those who study the ancient world and the way that earlier societies have dealt with change, we must ask ourselves what is the future of the past and what ability do we still have to shape it.
Asking this question, of course, leads to a series of ancillary concerns which in themselves are likely useful to debate. With only a little scrutiny, it is clear that this coming challenge is unlike anything we have faced before (with the exception, perhaps, of the Late Bronze Age Collapse as some have imagined it). To the contrary of popular imagination, antiquity never fell: instead, it went through a period of transformations, stalled cultural developments, geographical shifts, and technological change under the influence of new religions, mass migrations, social senescence and, perhaps, even climate change.
Indeed, to think about the “future of the past” we need to consider the “past” of the past and its present status. We have spent nearly 700 years ‘reconstructing’ a past that never actually existed. Take, for instance, the textual wealth contained within the Loeb Classical Library: no figure or library ever possessed all of this collective knowledge in one place prior to the 20th century. In fact, I would be hard pressed to imagine that there were more than a handful of individuals in the ancient world who had access to 20% of it.
As Classicists we often can be found lamenting everything we don’t have, the imagined texts we have lost and whose titles alone give some indication of their promise. But we do not often enough stop to consider how remarkable it is that we have as much as we do and how much we have intervened and produced since the Renaissance to create what we now consider Classical knowledge. Contemplating and then gaming out how to preserve the past we have now can help us better understand the processes that occurred over the past 1000 years and the extent to which they have created a tremendously biased if not mostly fictionalized view of the past.
“It is undoubtedly foolish to be unhappy today simply because you may be unhappy in the future.”
est sine dubio stultum, quia quandoque sis futurus miser, esse iam miserum, Seneca EM 3.3
There are, then, important differences between earlier epochal shifts and this. First, the “loss” of antiquity that occurred from the building of the first Museion at Alexandria, through its multiple burnings, civil wars in Rome, sacks of the city, the ‘decline and fall’ of the empire, and the sack of Byzantium by Christian crusaders, was a slow attrition and loss by neglect. If there were more texts and art works available in 200 CE than there were in 1200 CE, it is because (1) of what we are counting as mattering and (2) a generally higher standard of living and access to resources to a non-religious leisure class in the earlier period.
An unvarnished examination of the recovery of Classical knowledge must acknowledge that the Renaissance was not a recuperation of all of antiquity, but a selective curation of its remains. What we face with the next possible civilizational collapse is the loss of the knowledge that has been reconstructed and the tremendous body of work we have produced since then. Where a 15th Century humanist had but a handful of manuscripts of Homer to worry about, we have dozens plus the papyri fragments, plus the commentaries, original and edited scholia introductions, monographs, articles, and edited texts with critical apparatus we have created over centuries.
And that’s just Homer. I am not saying that I am turning full doomsday prepper on you, but I am saying that we should take the threat of civilizational collapse seriously and that it is not just within our remit as academic classicists to make some plans for how the material of the past might survive to benefit future generations and to provide a record of what came before our era, but it is our responsibility to be having these conversations now.
“I think that it is clear to everyone that it is not in our nature to predict the future”
Οἶμαι γὰρ ἅπασιν εἶναι φανερὸν ὅτι τὰ μέλλοντα προγιγνώσκειν οὐ τῆς ἡμετέρας φύσεώς ἐστιν, Isocrates, Against the Sophists 13.2
If we don’t, none of the scenarios look great. In many cases, 12th century CE Byzantine manuscripts and papyri (still buried) have a far better chance of surviving than the rapidly degrading and poorly printed books of the past 50 years. If we are to imagine that someone else might make these plans, we must consider who will do it instead. Should we leave it up to silicon valley disrupters? What works would they choose to preserve? Should individual universities be responsible? Will governments and libraries do the work? Should we hope that religious organizations will do this again? What choices would modern Christian sects make?
(Sidebar: when I was in elementary school we viewed the full series of Tomes & Talismans during library time each week. The central characters were librarians with a bookmobile; the threat were an alien species in a post-apocalyptic earth who were trying to wipe out accumulated human knowledge. They were called “The Wipers”.)
I think that it is probably best for professional organizations across linguistic and geographical territory to start to have this conversation. Most of our current output is currently stored in digital form across myriad platforms, with little concern for data degradation or recuperability. Not only are our blogs, tweets, open access articles, and personal correspondence at risk, but the very texts we have worked so hard to preserve, establish, and edit, are mostly in cheap, glue-bound paper versions. And this does not even begin to touch the challenges presented by material culture in a changing climate. Should we continue to excavate when climate change and geo-political stability threaten anything not under the earth? How does the possibility of future collapse change museum studies?
We need to talk about what will be preserved, how we will preserve it, who makes these decisions, and what aid we can store up for the historians of the future. We need to talk about the overlapping responsibility of universities, professional organizations, and governments to work together to preserve what we have won. And we need to make sure that voices from different backgrounds and experiences are central to this conversation
“Prudently the god covers the outcome of the future in dark night”
prudens futuri temporis exitum
caliginosa nocte premit deus, Horace Ars Poetica 25
Years ago, I used to teach a course called “Classical Myth and Literature”, which I think was originally designed as a bridge between straight up myth courses and more focused literature in translation offerings. I used it as a means to trouble the definitions of both myth and literature. One of the final essay questions asked students to imagine a flight from planet earth under the threat of alien invasion and to explain the choice of preserving either the corpus of 1990s pop songs or early Greek poetry (usually, specifically the Homeric Hymns). It was a fascinating assignment because students had to justify their answers using examples from the corpora. And, let me tell you, the pop songs were preserved nearly as frequently as the Hymns.
We are at a unique albeit horrifying moment in history. Perhaps the younger among us or the less thoroughly institutionalized will find ways to fight or forestall coming events. Those of us who are committed for better or worse to the study of the past even as the present crumbles around us need to start having hard conversations now before it is too late.
“For, it is right, Athenians, to use prior events as a guide about what will happen in the future.”
χρὴ γάρ, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, τεκμηρίοις χρῆσθαι τοῖς πρότερον γενομένοις περὶ τῶν μελλόντων ἔσεσθαι, Andocides, On the Peace with Sparta 2
The people I just listed and the many others who work alongside them face conflict on multiple sides. There is the fight of the field against this racist appropriation; but there is also a fight for the field that I think we are still trying to make sense of. We are constrained both by the disciplines we trained in and the way the history of these disciplines is entwined with structural and institutional racism.
Oh, boy. Do we need another post on this topic? And—this is certainly a fair question—do we need another post on this topic from me? I don’t work specifically on race in the modern world or antiquity. I don’t have any specialized academic training apart from a handful of undergraduate courses and professional training over the years. The fact is, it is really easy for me not to write this.
But, like many of us, I do teach students who see the world differently than I do; and I do train students in disciplines that are steeped in historical problems. Furthermore, I am in the position of trying to lead people who do this with me. I also somehow have helped create a space where some things might be heard. For each of these reasons, I think it is irresponsible not to engage with these issues and not to examine how deeply they go.
“Are you actually saying that describing certain odors as foul is misogynistic? and You are a tenured professor? hahahahhahahhaha!
btw, How is your quickly collapsing civilization at the hands of a swelling muslim horde going? At least when it’s all razed to smouldering embers and muslim men are raping, impregnating or beheading your wives and daughters you can have the satisfaction of saying you weren’t racist or a misogynist.”
Now, this is a typical troll-technique in an attempt to elicit an aggressive response: first, belittle and mock the credentials of the addressee; second, cut to the chase and try to inspire fear by painting a picture of the cultural apocalypse to come. I am pretty good at not taking the bait of the first move, because, hey, sometimes it is surprising that I am a professor and tenured—not only because I will never shake off the old imposter syndrome, but also because I have known plenty of smarter and better people who for some reason did not make it at every level. For the second, well, all I said was the truth: a good part of my family is Muslim. It is pretty hard to fear a murderous, rapacious horde, when you’ve shared their tables, prayed alongside them, and love them.
“He commits a second crime, who is not ashamed of his first”
geminat peccatum, quem delicti non pudet Publilius Syrus, Sent. G11
“Your introduction sounds like you are in favour of the ongoing white genocide – bizarre from someone who would appear to admire white culture and civlization. Or perhaps you are a Jewish Supremacist? Personally I’m with Apion, Posidonius, Apollonius Molon, Manetho, Cicero, Juvenal, Horace etc – letting Jews control the discourse is never a good thing.”
(I am going to sidestep the anti-Semitism here except to say that the comment is clearly made by someone deeply indoctrinated in hate. This is repulsive but unsurprising. Indeed, I have been the target of anti-Semitic comments online on several occasions. I suspect this is because of where I teach. I block Nazis as soon as they announce themselves.)
This was not the last time I was accused of being in favor of white genocide (I have also been called a race traitor). The thing is, well, complicated. First, we can say that white genocide is an insane piece of nonsense sourced locally in South Africa and embraced by certifiable nutballs in Europe, Australia and the United States, as charted out in Harper’s.
“We call those studies ‘liberal’ which are worthy of a free person”
Liberalia igitur studia vocamus, quae sunt homine libero digna, Vergerio de ing. Mor. 23
So, if one were to insist to me that there is a white race—and not a bunch of people with various degrees of comparatively paler skin who come from a variety of different linguistic and religious groups but largely speak dialects of English in the US, UK, and Australia—I would probably be in favor of ending the concept because it exists as a weapon of exclusion. This, in such deranged logic, makes me a race traitor. (Among other things, of course: my family is multiracial).
Now, it may seem like there is only a twisted path from the destructive and demeaning construction of whiteness and our problems with Classics, but let me get back to the point. It has become de rigeur for ‘intellectuals’ with certain affinities who rave about the rise of ‘identity politics’ and post-modernism to lament the collapse of Classical Education and the loss of some kind of shared culture. This concept of a ‘shared culture’ is as chimerical as whiteness. But it is no less damaging.
Indeed, when I wrote a thread in response to Roger Kimball’s paint-by-numbers indictment of the modern academy, our account was unfollowed by someone who felt we were insufficiently championing “our” culture.
My friend, this cultured response is not innocent; it may be ignorant, but it remains an expression of an ethnonationalism that is merely a reflex of white supremacy. (It is also absurd: no one invents a culture. (1) I cannot see how it is ever logical to claim any credit for actions performed by others before you were born. (2) And if you claim the credits, you also owe the debts.) When one person frets over threats to “our” culture, another chants “you will not replace us” with a burning tiki torch.
“For it is not easy to take a false belief from them, not even if someone should refute it completely”
οὐ γάρ ἐστι ῥᾴδιον τούτων ἀφελέσθαι τὴν δόξαν, οὐδ’ ἂν πάνυ τις ἐξελέγχῃ, Dio Chrysostom Orat. 11
There are many kinds of exclusionary approaches. Some are clearly racist (ethnonationalists so proudly wave their black, white and red banners). Others are intellectually decorous, but amount to the same. When Erik exposed the counterfeit claims of modern conservative intellectualism, one respondent chortled (if one can describe a tweet that way) and offered up the example of T.S. Eliot.
When my colleague emailed me, rather than brag about all the smart and insightful people I know who are leading the fight against this racist nonsense, I sputtered, and meandered, talking about how much more there is to do in recognizing that exclusion and, yes, racism, have been central to the disciplines we call Classics not just for a few generations, but for most of the history of the discipline.
Here’s the thing. This is not just about misappropriation. This is about the nature and history of the field itself. Yes, we need to stand against the use of antiquity for hateful and destructive ends; but we also need to work to examine how our discipline has been shaped by these forces. As the kids say, racism is a feature not a bug of Classics as a field. And this gets straight to a conversation I have been having with myself and others since I posted about my myth class earlier in the year: How do you decolonize something that is has developed hand-in-glove with essential exclusionary, colonialist, and racist discourse?
(I am avoiding here the claim that that the material treated by Classical studies is necessarily racist. Much of it is ideological driven and used for racist ends, but I do think we need to be careful to separate material from use.)
“Humanity thinks only about temporary seeds, / Its pledge is nothing more than the shadow of smoke”
Already, I know heads are spinning, but let me just sketch out without supporting evidence the areas of inquiry available to explore how exclusionism has shaped our field and how and when this went from ideology to bigotry and violence. For ease, I will break it into stages:
Pre-Archaic Greece to Hellenistic Period: The material preserved by most forces communicates Aristocratic values with a strong structural misogyny. Ableism is assumed. Much of the early material is, indeed, plurivocal, but the process of selection by later, elitist editors, exacerbates the nature of our evidence. Post-Persian wars the dichotomy of Greek and Barbarian develops. Almost no representation of women and lower classes. Mass enslavement.
Hellenistic period: Less stuff about barbarians! But even more of a skew toward elite culture and the literary remains of a few traditions from Greece proper. Poetry and oral culture did not perish, but it was not preserved to the same extent our already canonized tragedy, lyric, and epic were. Voices of women, lower classes, and non-Greek groups were largely excluded from the record keeping at this time. Flirtation with trans-linguistic cosmopolitanism. Mass Enslavement.
Roman Period: Willful occlusion of pre-Roman and non-Roman cultural groups; adoption of a Hellenistic veneer; Primarily recorded voices are those of male aristocrats. Some use Latin; some use Greek. People can become Roman by speaking Latin and Greek. Growth of empire means even greater occlusion of local and diverse perspectives. Mass enslavement.
Early Christian Period: Burgeoning of anti-Semitism. Perpetuation of much of the Hellenistic canon. Erasure of pagan cultures. Breaking of the Empire into Greek and Roman sides. Roman side preserved Latin Culture; Greek Side preserved Greek culture. Continued ableism. Misogyny. Enslavement.
Medieval Period: Even before crusaders sacked Byzantium, the largely Roman Catholic histories and focus from Rome (and wherever the Papacy moved) discredited, dehumanized, and dislocated the contributions of “easterners” (this, despite the fact that most people who have studied the time period would likely prefer to live in Byzantium to Rome). Christian readings and tending of the canon altered our tradition even more; most intellectual training in Western Europe during this period was theological in focus. As Stephanie Frampton has taught me, the term Classici emerges in the Medieval period to mark off scholars of a certain Class or Rank. This is, in part, about aesthetic judgment; but it is also a continuation of the process of selection and exclusion that began in the Hellenistic Period. Our field’s title, Classical Studies, is therefore implicitly—if not explicitly—exclusionary.
This period also saw the steady narrowing of whose perspective and contribution on Classical Studies is valued: non-Christians (e.g. Muslims, Jews, and even those farther afield) have had their scholarly histories expunged. This continued into the modern era in Europe where Protestants in the North (and England) undervalued and marginalized Catholics.
Rebirth of Philology: From Luther’s theses to the translation of the King James Bible and the religious conflicts prior to the Enlightenment, the seeds of Philology were sewn. Biblical and Classical philology—which first influenced each other in Hellenistic libraries like the one at Alexandria—were odd step-siblings united by basic assumptions about the search for authority and truth and the perfectability of the word of God by man. Anti-Semitism, explicit and not, excluded many voices from these conversations; a majority of the scholars who worked on texts and traditions were upper class; almost all were men; almost all were ‘white’ in the modern, unreflective sense. Mass enslavement in the US and British Empire. Classical ideas and philosophy are used to defend and advocate for colonialism, slavery, and genocide.
German Philhellenism: The rise of European nationalism saw many different types of identities emerge, but one of the more consequential was the German one. Among the intellectual class, there is a deep and confounding correspondence between German national pride and scholarly Philhellenism. Most Classicists acknowledge that our very concept of our field today owes much to 18th Century German Altertumswissenschaft, but few of us as readily acknowledge that one of the central concepts—the uniqueness of the Greeks and their language—was the method by which that very uniqueness could be claimed as a heritage for Germans. The impact of this is clear in German philosophy and in Nazi-adjacent authors like Martin Heidegger.
“Indeed, ignorance is a kind of weakness, but the detestation of knowledge is the sign of a depraved will.”
nescire siquidem infirmitatis est, scientiam vero detestari, pravae voluntatis Hugo St. Victor, Didascalion, Preface 1
There is more to be said about the rise of Classicism in the US and UK following German norms, but I will leave that for others. It is fairly safe to say that the majority of the voices within Classics complaining about the opening up of the field hew to ‘regimens’ and ‘standards’ developed prior to WWII.
The way we train our students, the languages we think are important, the books we think we should read, and the arguments we think are worth making are all shaped in some way by the intellectual and disciplinary prejudices we have acquired over a thousand years. Now, we can take a certain pride in claiming a heritage that is so old, but here again, the credit must be accounted with the debt.
There will be many objections to this periodization, but that is part of the point, it is an invitation to a discussion. But we still live with many of the consequences in our scholarship. For instance, in N. G Wilson’s From Byzantium to Italy—which represents what most Classicists seem to think happened during the Renaissance—the author spends a precious few pages talking about the work of Byzantine scholars. (Although, as has been pointed out to me, Wilson dedicates considerable space to Byzantine scholars in another book. The separation, which was likely not his choice, represents the way most people in Classics think about the transmission of ancient culture.)
The story that is typically told about the Renaissance is usually of how Italian scholars “rediscovered Greece”. This is a patent falsehood. Byzantine scholars from before the 6th century advanced the work of the Hellenistic period to a point not rivalled until after the Enlightenment (even if then). But northern European scholars denigrate and marginalize their contributions to this day (much as in the English speaking world we pretty much ignore the scholarship of modern Greeks.) Such designed ‘oversight’ emerges in every history of Classical Scholarship (Pfeiffer and Sandys are the worst for this). By continuing to tell this story, we reinforce an erroneous notion that centers Rome and Northern Europe as the inheritors of some virtuous past.
“For one who is falling cannot lift others; one who is ignorant cannot teach”
But, really, the entire notion of the “Greek Genius” or the “Greek Miracle” is built on a willful racist denial of the influence of Ancient Near Eastern peoples on Greece (and others) and rooted in an ignorance of the deep cultural and trading networks that connected the Ancient Mediterranean. Diogenes Laertius can claim that Greek philosophy came from Egypt; we ignore him as a naïve mythologos, while we reserve our most forceful mobilization for the Western de-centering work ofBlack Athena. Few people have the expertise to move from Hittites and Hurrians to Gilgamesh and Egyptians. Even when we can get them together, we still have evidence largely of upper classes. There is new work being done on the Bronze Age all over the Mediterranean, but our disciplinary and institutional boundaries have trouble funding and housing the scholars who do it.
And where we draw disciplinary boundaries is only part of the problem. Our field is still demonstrably hostile to women and people of color. Our professorships and placements in top PhD programs still go predominantly to people of the highest classes. Our journals still publish mostly work from white men.
Now, please do not misunderstand me, historians and archaeologists over the past century have used a range of tools to recuperate the voices and experiences of non-elites in Ancient Greece and Rome, but the impact of the evidence they generate is constrained by the conventions and assumptions of the fields they try to change.
The voices of fear and protest that worry over the loss of “our culture” are mostly unaware of what a fantastic confabulation “our culture” is. Instead of worrying about what we risk, we should celebrate what is to be gained from the admission of different voices. In brief, our understanding of the past has been transformed over the past few generations by women’s voices and by those less mutilated by heteronormative culture. Historians from different classes and backgrounds have looked for evidence of past peoples whose lives were never even imagined. Scholars of varied abilities and perspectives on gender and sexuality have helped us understand that the stories we received about the Ancient World were wrong. But there is more work to be done: consider how much of digital classics material is actual accessible? How many of our conferences and conference panels are hostile to women, non-binary scholars, and those of different abilities?
“So, I did not want to write what the unlearned could not understand or what the learned would not care to.”
itaque ea nolui scribere quae nec indocti intellegere possent nec docti legere curaren, Cicero Academica 1.4
A few years back another internet troll told me I was not a real Classicist because a real classicist™ wants to emulate the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Others have called me out for dedicated my life to something I clearly hate. This is, as with most internet trollery, unrefined horseshit. What an impoverished definition of love one must have to think that you can only appreciate something you think is perfect? I have spent the past 20 years of my life reading, learning, and teaching Homer and Ancient Greek out of love and enchantment, but not with blind eye to the cruelty and the pain these things can represent and still effect in the world.
To study the past—to study the humanities—is to engage in inquiry about what it means to be human. To love the human race does not mean we need to deny its imperfections—to me it means that we learn the contours of our weakness as much as our strength so we may help with one and support the other. If I am not a Classicist because I do not emulate the Classical world, perhaps I can be a humanist because I aemulate it in the strictest Latin sense—I strive with it, I struggle to understand it, and I wear myself out trying to improve it.
This is what we need to do in our field. We need to root out and understand what has shaped us and improve upon it for the generations to come.
A Few Updates:
In response to Dr. Ben Cartlidge’s very reasonable response on twitter, I softened the language about N. G. Wilson’s work on Byzantine scholarship. I unfairly used him as a straw man and may have misrepresented his work.
I received a great email from Dr. Lara Fabian who noted that much of what I have written is conditioned by Anglo-American chauvinism and isolationism and, as she rightly points out, is evidence of a type of privilege of English-language scholarship. She has some fascinating and enlightening things to say about the development of Classical Scholarship in Russia and I think I have persuaded her to write some blog posts.
If anyone has responses or work that can help correct/adjust/improve this conversation, please do let me know.
More evidence of my cultural blindspots and fascinating avenues for investigation:
I'm personally working on Turkey & scholarship on Classics (& Near East, Hittites part of national mythology) after 1930s since Turkey is an imperialist other. Classics was meant to connect Turks to "European past" but not to modern Greeks who had just been massacred. @sentantiq
About a month ago Hannah Čulík-Baird wrote a blog post about citation of authority and the quotation of fake or misrepresented quotations (among other themes). Now, perhaps it is in part guilt for this site’s own participation in the quotation-economy that drives my interest, but I have been at times obsessed over the past year with false attributions to Aristotle and with coming up with some kind of a scale for the general fakeness of a quotation. But, as I found out at a workshop at MIT organized by Stephanie Frampton, it is not just the ‘vulgar mob’ that is misappropriating the past—no, we professionals have been actively selecting, shaping, and fabricating it for a long time.
Some ways in which we do this are simple, and understated, as in the editing of a text where we apply inconsistent, unfair, or unclear criteria in choosing one form or variant over another. But some things we do are quite bolder. And this brings me to something I love (and Hannah does too): fragments.
I think that there is a misconception—which I once had—that fragments of lost poems and texts are exactly what they sound like—lines that exist on scraps of manuscript, stone, metal, and papyrus. While this is true for a few, the vast majority of the things we call fragments are actually embedded in other places and we have been excising them from the parent text and recreating them as something else since at least the Renaissance. (Florilegia, essentially quote books, and miscellany texts going back even further are another topic too).
Let’s look at two examples of fragmentary epic poets to make some sense of how we are actively engaged in the creation of the past, Creophylus and Peisander. Creophylus of Samos is dated to the Archaic period and is said by some to be Homer’s friend or even son-in-law. He is said to be the author of an epic “Capture of Oikhalia”. The best testimonia (“witnesses”) for this are a combination of imperial Greek (i.e. “second sophistic”) and later, although a passage from the Hellenistic period is embedded in Strabo (Strabo 14.1.18 including Call. Epigram 6 PF; Proclus Life of Homer 5; Hesychius Miletus, Life of Homer 6, Suda k 2376 [drawn from Hesychius]. Also: schol. ad Plato’s Republic, 600b; Photius, s.v. Creophylus).
There are three fragments attributed to Creophylos. They might all be bogus. The first fragment [ὦ γύναι, <αὐτὴ> ταῦτά γ᾿ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὅρηαι, fr. 1] is from the Epimerismi Homerici dated to the early Byzantine period. This line can be justified as an entry in an hexameter poem. But there is nothing about it that makes it necessarily appropriate for a poem by Creophylus about the sack of Oikhalia by Herakles. It could be “To the woman complaining that there was nothing to eat, I said, / “Woman, you see these things in front of your eyes at least…” Or many, many other possibilities. None of which necessarily have to be about Herakles.
The second “fragment” as it is listed in West 2003 is not fairly a fragment at all but two late testimonies to content. The first part is from Strabo 9.5.17 and the second is Pausanias 4.2.3. Both use a reference to Creophylus to or a poem attributed to him to discuss the location of the mythical Oikhalia.
It is, I think, somewhat distortive to even group these together. In Strabo, we get a reference to the “Author of the Capture of Oikhalia” (ὁ ποιήσας τὴν Οἰχαλίας ἅλωσιν) while in Pausanias Creophylus is credited with a Heraklea which told the story set in Oikhalia. Neither “fragment” presents any clear language from a poem. It is debatable, as well, that these references are to the same poem and poet rather than using a brief reference to the past as evidence for the authority of an assertion. The use of these ‘fragments’ says much more about the people whose opinions are being reported, the methods of the authors doing the reporting, and cultural ideas about authority and antiquity than they can possibly say about a legendary lost poem.
The third fragment is also a summary of content and not a citation of actually lines. It comes from the Scholia to Sophocles’ Trachiniae and presents three different numbers of the sons of Eurytus. This detail has been selected for the purpose of showing the range of options and depth of research. It has been selected in service as well of elucidating another text from a different genre and it too says very little about any poem.
There is a circuity in what we say about figures like Creophylus as well. Compare Joachim Latacz’s entry on Creophylus in Brill’s New Pauly to the entry in the Suda:
Here’s the Suda. From what I can see, our official “modern entry” adds the testimonia from above and some details from the Suda with little critical engagement with either.
“Kreophylos, the son of Astukles, a Chian or a Samian. An epic poet. Some say that he was homer’s son-in-law through his daughter. Others claim that he was only Homer’s friend and that after he welcomed Homer he received from him the poem “The Sack of Oikhalia”
Let’s do this again briefly with with Peisander. According to the Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda (s.v. Peisandros), Peisander of Rhodes wrote about the “deeds of Herakles” in two books in the 7th Century BCE (and Herakles was also prominent in narrative lyric poetry like that of Stesichorus)— but his earliest testimony goes back to the Hellenistic period as well, in an epigram ascribed to Theocritus. But the rest of the testimonia are later: another collection of Strabo, Quintilian, Clement, and more. Almost all of his ‘so-called’ fragments consist of other authors claiming that Peisander gave some version of known tales about Herakles. Here’s a list:
The Nemean Lion: Peisander, fr. 1 (Ps. Eratosthenes, Catast.12)
Sailed Across the Ocean in a Cup: Peisander fr. 5 (Athenaeus, 469c)
Antaeus: Peisander, fr 6 (=Schol ad Pind, Pyth 9.185a) [giant wrestled on way to Hesperides]
Conflict with Centaurs: Peisander, fr. 9 (=Hesychius nu 683)
Sacking of Troy with Telamon: Peisander, fr. 10 (=Athenaus 783c)
Fragment 7 (preserved by the schol. To Aristophanes’ Clouds) has “Athena the grey-eyed goddess made a warm bath for him at Thermopylae along the shore of the sea.” (τῶι δ᾿ ἐν Θερμοπύληισι θεὰ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη / ποίει θερμὰ λοετρὰ παρὰ ῥηγμῖνι θαλάσσης.) In typical late antique style, something about this is repeated at several other places (Cf. Zenob. vulg. 6.49; Diogenian. 5.7; Harpocr. Θ 11.) indicating a proverbial status for the lines or a common source. Other than the contextual information and the tradition that Athena helped Herakles (and other heroes) there is little here that makes a certain part of a poem about Herakles by Peisander.
Fragment 2 is a line with no context from Stobaeus: “There’s no reason to criticize saying even a lie to save a life.” (οὐ νέμεσις καὶ ψεῦδος ὑπὲρ ψυχῆς ἀγορεύειν.). This is another proverbial utterance with nothing particularly Heraklean about it as is fragment 9 (“there’s no thought in Centaurs” νοῦς οὐ παρὰ Κενταύροισι) cited by Hesychius.
So, again, as with Creophylus, Peisander’s ‘fragments’ are for the most part distorted quotations and receptions which are willfully presented as evidence of a lost poem when they are more fairly evidence for the way that ancient authors in the post-Hellenistic period constructed authority or explored variation and multiform myth in their own research and retelling. To be clear: I am not saying that these passages are not worthy of study or that they have nothing to tell us about the past. I am saying that the way we treat them is far from transparent and probably not that useful.
As discrete entries in collections of fragments and encyclopediae about the past, these details seem rather anodyne, but once you really think about them, the patterns they represent should give us some concern about the degree to which we fabricate and stitch together elements of the past to our liking. Once these ‘fragments’ enter scholarly texts—as they do in Davies 1988, Benarbé 1996, and West 2003—they become re-canonized as evidence for lost poems and mythical traditions. The last decade or so has seen an uptick in research and publishing on the fragments of the so-called epic cycle with insufficient acknowledgement for the contribution of this scholarly enterprise—all the way back to the Hellenistic period—in fabricating both the concept and its content.
Such thin evidence is then re-presented as concrete blocks upon which we build intricate arguments. And the level of knowledge, patience and time it takes to evaluate the veracity of these constructions is increasingly available only to a select few. And even those of us who have the time and training to understand that this house of cards is really a sculpture of broken toothpicks and tissue paper are too habituated to the claiming of these textual artifacts as fragments that we are unable or unwilling to call them something else.
For the standard version of the fragments and testimonies see
Benarbé, A. 1996. Poetorum Epicorum Graecorum. Leipzig.
Davies, M. 1988. Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Göttingen
The Chronicle has another article out on the death of the humanities-—this opinion piece is one variation on the genre that blames humanists (mostly tenured professors) for their (our) failure to react and adapt to save the profession (in this case history departments). I am reluctant to critique the piece too much, because the authors are early career scholars and because they are not wrong. The last generation of professors tenured has failed in any ways to rise to the occasion and rally in defense of the humanities.
And I totally agree that what the authors conclude for the AHA is applicable to the other major organizations as well: “The AHA must instead adopt a more active role that challenges the casualization of labor that has degraded academic work. The jobs crisis is not natural; it is a crisis of political economy caused by a series of decisions made by corporate, governmental, and, yes, academic elites over the past 50 years.”
Before I say anything else, let me be unequivocal about this: our professional organizations have either been incapable or unwilling to agitate for needed changes in employment and professional life over the last two generations. We have especially failed the last two decades of PhDs, a majority of whom work in less favorable and endurable conditions than the generation before them (if they are lucky enough to work in the field at all). And, we have failed to acknowledge and understand the economic and demographic challenges ahead of us.
At the same time, we have failed to help our students and future colleagues understand the way things are and might be. Let’s think about the last line quoted above: the corporations and governments. Academic elites? Sure, they—we—are all complicit in the system. But I would hazard a guess that no amount of concerted effort by this class over the last 50 years would make a difference at all.
Professional organizations are not equipped, funded, or designed to combat the base problem: an economic and political system that values utility and profit over humanity. All the professional organizations and all the professionals of the humanities could unite and the economic power we wield would still be less than a Bezos or Koch.
The scarcity of the academic job market and the ostentatious leap in ‘standards’ for employment, retention and tenure over the past generation has turned academic careers into zero sum exercises. The desperation and alienation that attends us at nearly every stage of our careers conditions us to turn on each other, to blame those who are closest and more familiar, instead of taking hard looks at the system itself. We use our considerable training to turn censorious voices against the younger generation or to attack the lazy complicity of the older one. It is as if we are the sown soldiers from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, bewitched to assail one another and to never acknowledge the authors of our pain.
Based on the pabulum the Chronicle typically publishes, it does not surprise me that it would embrace and foster the kind of essay which leads the reader away from the systemic problems and towards the symptoms. It profits from perpetuating strife. The Chronicle’s nearly chronic administrative friendly and supply side reporting—when it is not salaciously reveling in scandals that make humanists look like fools—is indicative that it is reflective not of some professorial ideal or professional standard, but rather of the messy patchwork quilt of corporate and political interests that make up modern academia, combined as well with a 21st century’s news outlet’s desperation to print the news that gets the clicks.
“Why do we train our children in the liberal arts? It is not because these studies can grant someone virtue, but because they prepare the soul for accepting it.”
“Quare ergo liberalibus studiis filios erudimus?” Non quia virtutem dare possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant, Seneca, Moral Epistles 88.20
Here’s the truth, as I see it. Only two things can subvert the trends that are turning higher education into vocational factories for the lower classes and finishing schools for the 1%: huge amounts of money and collective action. Professional organizations lack the first tool by several orders of magnitude; when it comes to the second, as faculty we are so blinded, bruised, and psychologically mutilated by the system that has shaped us, that it is almost inconceivable that we would walk out collectively to protest something happening to colleagues in another discipline at another institution.
Almost every week—if not every day—there are indications of where the power and priorities of higher education now lie. From the recent heist of the humanities and the soul of the University of Tulsa, to Stanford University’s decision to enforce financial austerity on its own press, Harvard out-raising its goals by 50% to yield 9.6 Billion new dollars and then claiming austerity to freeze wages and health benefits for graduate students, evidence for a foundational shift of budgeting models in education is everywhere. Students and faculty are often overwhelmed by budgetary detail, but the essential framework that guides our institution is something that we should care about.
The classic model of a university budget is the “everything in one bucket” model which assumes that the institution will pay for all of its expenses from the same pot of money. This allows “profitable” segments of the university to offset the costs of other units and communicates either financial incompetence or a commitment to supporting the core values of an academic community without worrying about line-item costs. More and more universities, however, are following models that demand each school or academic unit have a balanced budget, or, even worse, meet externally imposed projections of growth. These ‘business models’ when applied incompetently or insidiously almost inevitably destroy the humanities, as is happening with the slow death of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati.
While many Universities apply ‘hybrid’ models that try to balance institutional values against market demands (There are, of course, many models for university finance), the cumulative effect of proposing and then assuming and demanding that an educational institution work like a business will inevitably reduce Universities to massive displays of Coca Cola and Pepsi Products. We all know they are bad for us and, in truth, little different from each other, but we eventually buy them anyway. (But oh, wait, there’s artisanal soda at three times the price!)
Essays like the Chronicle’s that blame the players—even if we may be complicit, blind fools—and not the game actually work in service of the rhetorical regime that supports an oppressive dehumanizing system. The elegant rhetoric and fine argumentation are smoke and mirrors obscuring the fact that we don’t really understand the rules of the game. By blaming the historians and the field, we are claiming agency where we have none and making real action impossible.
Of course, when I tweeted about this last week, there was protest: