“How Was the [Expensive Classics Event]?”: Income Inequality and the Classics

This is a companion to the earlier essay, “This is Not My Beautiful House: Classics, Class, and Identity”, which elicited a variety of personal responses from classicists and students about the myriad problems in the discipline. My contribution here, specifically, is to further articulate and contextualize my response to Amy Pistone’s asking “what can individuals maybe do to help?”

 

The title of this article is at the heart of my response to the question on what can be done to help to address the class-based challenges of studying the Classics. “How was the ________?”, whether the blank space is filled in with conference, study abroad term, workshop, or something else, is a question of access. Encoded in this question is the fact that one person had this access while another didn’t. It is an innocuous question, with an innocuous reply, that contextually is a perfect representation of Classics’ self-perpetuating economic inequalities. And these inequalities were regular features of my studies.

My formal involvement with Classics began when I was twenty-one years old, though in high school I had developed an interest in Greek and Roman history and was even able to take year of Latin before the program was cut. In my first years of college, I focused on social science courses in psychology, sociology, and political science, with an interest in labor relations. But after donating three years to these subjects, I didn’t feel the same love for learning them that I did when I was reading about the Peloponnesian Wars or Roman politics in my free time.

So, I switched to Classics, starting Latin coursework right away and Greek later (along with French in anticipation of graduate work). Now in my early thirties, I am still involved with the field as an adjunct instructor teaching Greek and Roman Civilization (while missing teaching Latin), and I also work outside of academia to pay the bills. At times I feel like I belong, but at other times I feel like a stranger in a strange land. This was the case from the beginning.

During both my undergraduate and graduate pursuits in Classics, I found myself uttering some variant of this “how was the ______?” quote almost every time I’d gone a week without seeing a classmate—or so it felt. On the same day that I was excited to use a coupon for $1 off the price of a pizza on my way home from an eight-hour shift at a liquor store, a classmate was, for example, touring the Alamo after the SCS Conference. Another classmate brought back some fantastic replica pottery and coins from an 8-week study abroad event in Greece a month or so earlier; I remember thinking at the time that the cost to bring the vases back on a plane was probably more than my disposable income for the month.

Asking about someone else’s experiences at a conference, study-abroad program, or workshop was at the same time painful and embarrassing. I received an (often thorough, vivid) account of a classmate’s engagement with the field in a way that I could only rarely—if ever—experience, and simultaneously I gave responses which made it abundantly clear that I couldn’t participate. Despite this, I was still genuinely interested in others’ more extensive involvement with Classics, through some combination of intellectual interest, living vicariously through my classmates, and being polite.

In upper-level undergrad and graduate courses, I just hoped the familiar classmates wouldn’t return with a question about my own travels. They almost always did, and I became better at changing the subject after a quick “no.”

These types of conversations—dialogues of coded income inequality—were not unusual to me even outside of academia, though. During my childhood in two small towns in the Midwest, my family toed the poverty line, between lower middle class and “lowest” (how’s that for an official socio-economic designation?). From elementary school onward, I listened to stories of Disneyworld during summer vacation and spring break trips to the beach. Later I would become a “first-generation” college student; I use quotation marks because my father attended college, but was not a part of my life past my infancy.

P. Mich 8.471 – Letters of Claudius Terentianus*

“My mother sold our linens for an as so I could go to Alexandria.”

mater m[e]a no[bi]s assem vendedi[t] lentiamina / [u]t veniam alexandrie

*My interests are in non-elite (“vulgar”) Latin; sorry, Cicero, Virgil, et al. Whenever possible I opt to use the words of people outside of Rome’s literary elite.

 

At any rate, by the time I arrived at a state university—after some time at a community college—I was quite accustomed to hearing about things I couldn’t do or have. Thankfully, my mother didn’t have to sell her linens so that I could leave town when the time came, unlike Claudius Terentianus’ mom. We have student loans for that now.

It wasn’t until graduate school and afterward that inequality in Classics, which had previously been confined in my cognitive space to my inability to contribute to travel-related conversations, became a more substantive obstacle. To be clear, it did not come from the faculty, classmates, or department at my state school, all of whom were wonderfully accommodating and committed to widening access to the historically isolated field.

Pompei_-_House_of_Julia_Felix_-_MAN

The inequalities became increasingly problematic during the first year of my M.A. program, as I began to focus more seriously on a career profile and CV that would get me beyond the first rounds of application purges. Diving into research on proper Classics CVs, newly hired faculty credentials, and all of the other things that repel students from graduate schools and higher education, it quickly hit me like a speeding chariot that I would not have even the opportunity for success in this discipline unless I could afford to sacrifice thousands of dollars (in addition to regular expenses), and extensive time away from a family that at many times needed me nearby.

Continue reading

“This is Not My Beautiful House…”: Classics, Class and Identity

“This is Not My Beautiful House…”: Classics, Class and Identity

How did I get here?

When Telemachus invites Athena-in-disguise to sit in his hall at the beginning of the Odyssey and he has already complained to her about the suitors, he asks, “Who are you and from where among men? Where is your city and your parents?” (τίς πόθεν εἰς ἀνδρῶν; πόθι τοι πόλις ἠδὲ τοκῆες; 1.170). This line is repeated on several occasions during the Odyssey and forms of it echo throughout Greek literature. It even shows up in Roman literature as a bit of a proverb: Seneca has Herakles use this line to hail the dead Claudius when he arrives on Olympus (Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 5). My friend Justin Arft is working on the poetics of this line, exploring how it engages with larger poetic traditions and functions as an authoritative marker for speech. It elicits a particular type of story and signals a special kind of world view.

For me, this line has always also functioned metonymically for social hierarchy. It is an indexing question to establish the addressee’s cultural position. The initial “who” of “who are you” turns out to be a mere introduction, signaling an insufficient framework. The subsequent questions flesh out acceptable parameters for defining this particular “who”: a generic person, a tis, requires a geographical origin (invoking tribal connections as much as spatial associations), a civic entity (the city here is certainly a type of state), and a family. And, given the importance of genealogy in myth and the flexibility of place and state, I think we have a rhetorical structure of increasing importance: space, state, and family. The last question, in epic at least, is about fame and noble birth.

During the past few years, I have been thinking about this question when I find myself out and about in the world, asking and being asked who I am. How we elicit information about people tells us something about how we organize the world in our minds. And how we answer these questions tells us something else about how we view ourselves and our comfort with this view. Social context alters the meaning of deceptively simple words. For instance, when people ask addressees of color where they are from, it often is a coded or subconscious attempt to establish an ‘ethnic identity’ or some hierarchy of citizenship. Who are you and where are you from is always potentially a probe to evaluate political status and social cache.

The functional question that communicates our modern values and social structures is that ubiquitous “What do you do?” This innocuous conversation starter (or staller) is a metonym for our capitalist values: we are defined by what we contribute to society, by what we produce, by how we may be commodified. Of course, we can put this another way: in a ‘post-aristocratic’ world, we are allowed to define ourselves by how we spend our time—what we decide to dedicate our lives to communicates our values. (This second take assumes that we have the power and resources to make these choices in such a way that there is a meaningful correlation between our activity in the world and our values; and, secondly, that vocation and avocation may necessarily overlap.)

Even though the Odyssey is a narrative of disguises and forestalled recognitions, it is one in which the question “who are you, where are you from” also points to established and accepted social boundaries (even if they are eventually transgressed or subverted). When we ask “what do you do”, it seeks to instantiate social relationships. I have spent so much time thinking about this because my life’s work is in a field where the boundary between life and work is blurred to the point of there being almost no distinction. And, although we live in a period where the answer to “what do you do” is more fluid than in the previous generation, the line between the workaday doing and the non-work living is less clear. (And, to be fair, for the working poor and a great number of people throughout the world, the whole notion of such a boundary to begin with is one of incredible privilege.)

My problem is not really with the impact of this fading boundary on me: one of the reasons I avoided pursuing other careers early on is I believed, correctly or not, that my current pursuit would not force some of the same stark choices as others—despite much evidence to the contrary, I still believe that my career as one where we are supposed to think about what life is for (even if we are not often encouraged to do so). My problem is with talking about what I do outside the academy, with naming it, with answering that question, what do you do?

*                                   *                                   *

Odyssey 19.203

“He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth.”

ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα·

Who are you and What do you do? I don’t come from a family of academics. I grew up in a lower middle class, rural area where most high school graduates did not go to college (and where high school graduates were only recently the majority). To say that I have class anxiety about being a Professor, much less a professor of Classics and one of Ancient Greek, is quite the understatement. I rarely use a title outside of work—my self-naming is so muted that when my son grabbed the mail one day and saw something addressed to “Dr. Christensen” he said “you’re a doctor?” To this I responded, “well, kind of.” In his consternation, he looked at the envelope, looked back at his mother—who is a dentist—and said, “wait, boys can be doctors?”

Where are you from? This is a question for people who are out of place, whose dislocation is clear enough as to be recognized before even hearing a name. How did I get here? Leaving home, getting a BA in the humanities, moving to New York and getting a PhD has separated me physically and ethically from all the people I grew up with and it has in many ways alienated me from my family. Anyone who has gone to graduate school knows that the process is intense and transformative intellectually; the part we don’t talk about enough is that it also constitutes a social metamorphosis: you are not only what you do, you are the people you engage with. ‘Who are your people’ and ‘where is your home’ are a critical part of Telemachus’ question—both communicate values and allegiances. Getting a PhD in the Classics complicates answers to both of those questions. The PhD changes the appearance and performance of social class; the rarefied air of that title “the Classics” makes us strangers even among our professorial peers.

The depth of my class and social anxiety is particularly felt in the way I change my answer to the question “what do you do”. When I go to birthday parties for my kids, while talking to other parents I almost always answer, “I am a teacher” and, more often than not, I consciously steer the conversation somewhere else. Part of the reason I do this is I don’t always handle the follow up question well.

True story: I was in a Starbucks in Milton, MA and I saw Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block. At my sister’s urging over text messages (she has seen NKOTB multiple times as an adult), I went and asked for a picture and had a fine conversation going until he asked what I do. I said, “I teach at Brandeis.” To the inevitable “what do you teach?” and the true answer (“Classics. Um, mostly Ancient Greek”) the response was a typical, awkward silence.

knight 2

Continue reading

Leave Your Homework to Sunday Night? Philo has Some Words for You

Philo, The Preliminary studies 29.166–7

There are those who, when they encounter the frights and horrors of the wilderness with complete endurance and strength complete the contest of life, after preserving it unsullied and unconquered, holding fast against the compulsions of nature like poverty, so that they subdue hunger, thirst, cold, and heat and everything which enslaves other people through the great abundance of their strength.

The cause of this is not simple toil but toil with a certain sweetening. For he says “the water is sweetened” and the work that is sweet and attractive is also called “love of labor” (philoponia). For in work the desire and longing and and love of finer things is sweet. Let no one turn away from this kind of suffering, nor let anyone believe that when the table of the feast and happiness is called “bread of suffering” it is for its harm rather than profit. For the soul which is chastened is fed by the instructions of education.”

οἱ δὲ τὰ φοβερὰ καὶ δεινὰ τῆς ἐρήμης πάνυ τλητικῶς καὶ ἐρρωμένως ἀναδεχόμενοι τὸν ἀγῶνα τοῦ βίου διήθλησαν ἀδιάφθορον καὶ ἀήττητον φυλάξαντες καὶ τῶν τῆς φύσεως ἀναγκαίων κατεξαναστάντες, ὡς πεῖναν, δίψος, [ῥῖγος,] κρύος, θάλπος, ὅσα τοὺς ἄλλους εἴωθε δουλοῦσθαι, κατὰ πολλὴν ἰσχύος περιουσίαν ὑπάγεσθαι. αἴτιον δὲ ἐγένετο οὐ ψιλὸς ὁ πόνος, ἀλλὰ σὺν τῷ γλυκανθῆναι· λέγει γάρ· “ἐγλυκάνθη τὸ ὕδωρ,” γλυκὺς δὲ καὶ ἡδὺς πόνος ἑτέρῳ ὀνόματι φιλοπονία καλεῖται. τὸ γὰρ ἐν πόνῳ γλυκὺ ἔρως ἐστὶ καὶ πόθος καὶ ζῆλος καὶ φιλία τοῦ καλοῦ. μηδεὶς οὖν τὴν τοιαύτην κάκωσιν ἀποστρεφέσθω, μηδ᾿ “ ἄρτον κακώσεως” νομισάτω ποτὲ λέγεσθαι τὴν ἑορτῆς καὶ εὐφροσύνης τράπεζαν ἐπὶ βλάβῃ μᾶλλον ἢ ὠφελείᾳ· τρέφεται γὰρ τοῖς παιδείας δόγμασιν ἡ νουθετουμένη ψυχή.

PhiloThevet.jpg

Enter a caption

Politicians and Philosophers! On the Education of Perikles

Plutarch on Perikles

“Perikles was a student of Zeno the Eleatic too, the one who concerned himself with nature in the manner of Parmenides. and who practiced a type of refutational logic which would trap his interlocutor.  He was, as Timon of Phlias quipped, “a man whose tongue worked both ways, with irresistible fury, Zeno, a universal prosecutor”.

But the one who spent the most time with Pericles and who chiefly endowed him with a stature and outlook more impressive than any demagogue’s and who totally raised up and praised the worth of his character was Anaxagoras of Klazomene. He was a man people of that time called the Mind because either they were amazed by his understanding which appeared so great and nuanced regarding nature or because he was the first who didn’t make chance or necessity the ruling force of the universe but instead Mind in its pure and simple form…”

διήκουσε δὲ Περικλῆς καὶ Ζήνωνος τοῦ Ἐλεάτου πραγματευομένου περὶ φύσιν, ὡς Παρμενίδης, ἐλεγκτικὴν δέ τινα καὶ δι᾿ ἀντιλογίας κατακλείουσαν εἰς ἀπορίαν ἐξασκήσαντος ἕξιν, ὥσπερ καὶ Τίμων ὁ Φλιάσιος εἴρηκε διὰ τούτων·

Ἀμφοτερογλώσσου τε μέγα σθένος οὐκ ἀλαπαδνὸν /Ζήνωνος, πάντων ἐπιλήπτορος.

Ὁ δὲ πλεῖστα Περικλεῖ συγγενόμενος καὶ μάλιστα περιθεὶς ὄγκον αὐτῷ καὶ φρόνημα δημαγωγίας ἐμβριθέστερον, ὅλως τε μετεωρίσας καὶ συνεξάρας τὸ ἀξίωμα τοῦ ἤθους, Ἀναξαγόρας ἦν ὁ Κλαζομένιος, ὃν οἱ τότ᾿ ἄνθρωποι Νοῦν προσηγόρευον, εἴτε τὴν σύνεσιν αὐτοῦ μεγάλην εἰς φυσιολογίαν καὶ περιττὴν διαφανεῖσαν θαυμάσαντες, εἴθ᾿ ὅτι τοῖς ὅλοις πρῶτος οὐ τύχην οὐδ᾿ ἀνάγκην διακοσμήσεως ἀρχήν, ἀλλὰ νοῦν ἐπέστησε καθαρὸν καὶ ἄκρατον…

Image result for perikles

Caesarean Section: Thoughts on Reception and Teaching

Let me get into character – doing my best Ray Liotta – to tell you that as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a scholar. Though Henry Hill may have achieved his  mafioso dreams, I did not have the courage to pursue mine, and so in 2008 I had a lowly B.A. in Classics, a head full of preposterously impractical ideas, and an urgent need to secure gainful employment. You will not be surprised, then, to read that I found myself seated on the opposite side of the headmaster’s desk at a small private school, one of the chief resorts for unemployed Classics majors who would like to remain in some small way connected to the field. My interview with the headmaster went spectacularly well until she asked whether I was the sort of Latinist who read anything simply because it was written in Latin. Without hesitation, I responded that I avoided some large chunks of the surviving corpus, most especially Caesar, whom I would not even read in English.

Perhaps it is idle folly to wish for a different past, and perhaps I would have hated that job, which you may be sure was not offered to me. Indeed, my heroic Catonian stand against the Caesarean tyranny of the Latin prose canon could scarcely have earned me any points on the hiring ledger. Yet, for the longest time, I struggled with appreciating Caesar, whose writing literally put me to sleep on countless occasions.

A year or two later, a friend who did manage to secure a Latin teaching post told me that he was ‘savoring Caesar’s delicious prose.’ This was enough to make a man spew. But simultaneously, the judgment of generations of critics, culminating in the aesthetic pronouncements of a trusted friend, can at least be granted some consideration, and I began to wonder whether I was missing something. Of course, I did not follow up on this thought, and forgot about Caesar until I myself became a highschool teacher and was forced to teach him just as the students are forced to read him.

If we take Suetonius’ word for it, Cicero and other contemporaries admired Caesar’s prose style:

“Certainly, Cicero, in numbering the orators to Brutus, denied that he saw anyone to whom Caesar should yield, and he said that had an elegant, shining, and even magnificent and in some way noble mode of speaking. And he once wrote to Cornelius Nepos about Caesar: ‘What? What orator, among those who have done nothing but public speaking, would you place above Caesar? Who was sharper or more well-endowed in his phrases? Who was more ornate or more elegant in his words?”

Certe Cicero ad Brutum oratores enumerans negat se videre, cui debeat Caesar cedere, aitque eum elegantem, splendidam quoque atque etiam magnificam et generosam quodam modo rationem dicendi tenere; et ad Cornelium Nepotem de eodem ita scripsit: ‘quid? oratorem quem huic antepones eorum, qui nihil aliud egerunt? quis sententiis aut acutior aut crebrior? quis verbis aut ornatior aut elegantior?’

[Suetonius, Caesar 55]

Cicero seems to have supposed that Caesar would have been by far the greatest Latin writer had he not applied himself to other matters: capax scribendi nisi imperasset or something of the sort. Caesar seems to have been known for his wit as well, and Macrobius cites him for his popular stylistic advice:

“I would avoid an uncommon and unusual word as a sailor avoids the rocks.”

tamquam scopulum, sic fugiam infrequens atque insolens verbum

In this way, Caesar seems to resemble Samuel Johnson. Boswell’s Life of Johnson is replete with wit, pointed phrasing, and wonderful critical remarks which are much harder to find in Johnson’s own essays. When contrasted with his famous one liners and other assorted remarks, Johnson’s essays feel turgid and flat. Surely, some of this may be attributed to the shifting standards of prose fashion, but it is hard not to get the sense that the Johnsoniana are far better testaments to his genius than his considered prose. We have some scraps of Caesareana, but it is in some cases difficult to determine just how seriously to take this. A few of the best pieces are from Suetonius, as for example the quip about Sulla not knowing his ABC’s.

The high school teacher must take the man who butchered a nation and wrote a lucid prose account of it and make him appeal to teenagers. Naturally enough, they go in for the stories about his adultery and sensational murder, but all of this is external to the text itself. The opposite seems to be the case with Cicero. Students seem to love him until reading biographical details and Ciceroniana; they have much the same reaction as Petrarch, who was so saddened to discover from Cicero’s letters that he was just as petty as the rest of us. Similarly, they find that Caesar is just as boring as their teacher!

Yet, the cruel irony of all of this is that I myself have begun to enjoy reading Caesar, perhaps most of all because he is not the sort of author that I usually understand, sympathize with, or appreciate. As I begin my fourth year teaching AP Latin, I find that Caesar has at least substantially improved my knowledge of geography and ancient warfare. I recall having a similar experience when I first read the Odyssey in Greek and realized that I had no knowledge of nautical terminology. (I should note here that I have learned the English words, but have no idea what the English means. This is a state of ignorance with which I can feel reasonably content.)

My students know about my own history of Caesarean reception, if only because I would have them remember that we despise much of what we read when we are young, but this is simply a step in the development of a more refined judgment which, paradoxically, may embrace more as it advances. Never would I have re-crossed the Rubicon if not under compulsion. Few of my students keep up with their Latin immediately after graduation, and I would still hope that if they took Latin back up in middle age they would pick something a bit more lively than the world’s second most famous J.C. Yet, if they return at all, if they remember to keep revisiting those dusty and long-dismissed old codices, they may find that the cobwebs give way to a certain luster, and they may realize that the Elder Pliny was right when he said that no book was so bad that it didn’t have at least one good passage.

Image result for julius caesar

“We hated your book!”

Only Blockheads Would Ban Poetry

Leonardo Bruni, de Studiis et Litteris (§26)

“I would readily ask of one of those who persecute the poets, ‘For what reason do you think that the poets should not be read?’ Though they plainly have nothing which they could impute to them, they will nevertheless say that it is because love and debauchery can be found in their poetry. Yet, I would dare to affirm that in no authors could such examples of modesty and good things more generally be found than in the poets. Consider the most faithful chastity of Penelope for Ulysses, and the unbelievable virtue which Aclestis showed for Admetus, and the admirable constancy which each showed toward their husbands in their absences and calamities. Many of these sorts of things can be read in the poets – the greatest documents of wifely discipline.

If occasionally the poets describe loves like that of Apollo for Daphne, or the affair of Vulcan and Venus, who is so obtuse that he would not understand that these are fictions which represent one thing metaphorically for another? Further, there are very few things which you condemn, but there are very many which are of the highest quality and at any rate certainly worth reading, as I have above shown in my discussion of Homer and Vergil. It is unjust in the extreme to forget those things which deserve true praise while remembering those which offer up a handle for reproach.

A severe critic says to me, ‘Don’t let those things get mixed up! I would sooner abandon the good from fear of evil than I would run into evil from hope for the good. Therefore, I will not read the poets, nor will I permit others to do so.’ But hey, Plato and Aristotle themselves read poetry!”

bruni1

The Difference of A Year: Some Links to Classicists Fighting the Good Fight Online

As Classicists we like to focus on the long view of history and to see ourselves in the deeper and stronger currents of time. But if we are honest, we know that we are equally, if not more, shaped by the eddies of our own day and its current events.

The increase in publicly pronounced and tolerated–if not also valorized–racism over the past few years has been shocking to many, although perhaps not to our friends and family who have faced bigotry their entire lives. The most recent year especially has seen a casualization of the rhetoric and political action of the far right in a way I once thought impossible.

Media outlets feed on the extreme voices because they don’t know how to report the news in the modern world. They have a vested financial interest in observing if not perpetuating the controversy. As a result, voices that spew ignorance and hate get more notice than they merit and they can do more harm in causing trauma to those who are marginalized already and, as part of their design, attracting the ignorant, insane or hopeless to their ideas.

When we started this blog, I never imagined I would spend so much time arguing with Nazis online or writing about politics. Last year, following events in Charlottesville, we did both: defending writing about Classics and politics, dismissing charges of political correctness as a tone policing act of the status quo, defending the humanities against conservative attacks, and, recently, arguing that the voices that reject literary theory are also those who align with conservative viewpoints.

Part of this has come from responding to current events, but it has also been inspired by hate speech directed our way. Last year, a week after the Charlottesville event, we received a comment accusing us of supporting “white genocide” or being a “Jewish supremacist”. The antisemitic harassment online has been fairly consistent since; as has a struggle over what it means to be a Classicist.

If we have responded haphazardly and sometimes reactively, we have also been inspired by dozens of other who are doing braver and more rigorous work to question the boundaries of our discipline, the voices within it, and its historical meanings. So, today, if you are feeling shocked or sick at media coverage, take a break and look at the critical work being done by the Classics Community online.

The work of these students, scholars and friends has been inspiring, edifying, and comforting over the past year.

 

Sarah Teets’ fine piece in Eidolon, Classical Slavery and Jeffersonian Racism

Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s talk on White Supremacy and Classics Scholarship or “On nationalisms Classical Antiquity, and Our Inhumanity” or On Genetics and Ancient Greeks, or on “Blood & Soil”

Pretty much everything Pharos and Curtis Dozier has done over the past year

John Bracey’s exploration of “Why Students of Color Don’t take Latin

Dan-El Padilla Peralta’s “The Colorblind Bard” discussion

Denise Eileen McCoskey’s post on Racist Use of DNA in work on Classical Antiquity

Brandeis Student Helen Wong’s reflections on being a student of color studying classics

Yung In Chae’s “White People Explain Classics to Us

Sarah Bond’s analysis of the Modern Romance with Sparta

The fine work of Sportula to raise microgrants for students pursuing Classical Studies

The work of Classics and Social Justice

Daniel Walden’s “Dismantling the West”

Podcasts from The Endless Knot and Scott Lepisto’s Itinera, which tells the stories of a diverse range of classicists

The public advocacy of Matthew Sears against hatred and ignorance

Mathura Umachandran’s analysis of Fragility in Classics (and, today is as good a day as any to read Robin DiAngelo’s article that defines and explains white fragility).

A little  outside of Classics, but still important, many posts from Everyday Orientalism

Image result for GIF punching nazi

Image result for indiana jones punching nazi GIF

 

Needing Commentary

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, On Thucydides 51:

“Against those who think that it is reserved for the well-educated alone to make sense of and understand the words of Thucydides, I am able to say this, that they take the part of the work which is necessary and beneficial to all (indeed, nothing could be more necessary or beneficial) away from common life by thus making it the province of a few men, as happens in oligarchic and tyrannical states. One could easily count the number of people who are able to understand all of Thucydides, and even these people need to rely on a commentary from time to time.”

Πρὸς μὲν οὖν τοὺς οἰομένους μόνων εἶναι τῶν εὐπαιδεύτων ἀναγνῶναί τε καὶ συνεἷναι τὴν Θουκυδίδου διάλεκτον ταῦτα λέγειν ἔχω, ὅτι τὸ τοῦ πράγματος ἀναγκαῖόν τε καὶ χρήσιμον ἅπασιν (οὐδὲν γὰρ <ἂν> ἀναγκαιότερον γένοιτο οὐδὲ πολυωφελέστερον) ἀναιροῦσιν ἐκ τοῦ κοινοῦ βίου, ὀλίγων παντάπασιν ἀνθρώπων οὕτω ποιοῦντες, ὥςπερ ἐν ταῖς ὀλιγαρχουμέναις ἢ τυραννουμέναις πόλεσιν· εὐαρίθμητοι γάρ τινές εἰσιν οἷοι πάντα τὰ Θουκυδίδου συμβαλεῖν, καὶ οὐδ’ οὗτοι χωρὶς ἐξηγήσεως γραμματικῆς ἔνια.

Frederic Harrison, Rede Lecture (1900):

“The peculiar, indispensable service of Byzantine literature was the  preservation of the language, philology, and archaeology of Greece. It is  impossible to see how our knowledge of ancient literature or civilisation could have been recovered if Constantinople had not nursed through the early Middle Ages the vast accumulations of Greek learning in the schools of Alexandria, Athens, and Asia Minor ; if Photius, Suidas, Eustathius, Tzetzes, and the Scholiasts had not poured out their lexicons, anecdotes, and commentaries ; if the Corpus Scriptorum historiae Byzantinae had never been compiled; if indefatigable copyists had not toiled in multiplying the texts of ancient Greece. Pedantic, dull, blundering as they are too often, they are indispensable. We pick precious truths and knowledge out of their garrulities and stupidities, for they preserve what otherwise would have been lost for ever. It is no paradox that their very merit to us is that they were never either original or brilliant. Their genius, indeed, would have been our loss. Dunces and pedants as they were, they servilely repeated the words of the immortals. Had they not done so, the immortals would have died long ago .”

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship, Vol. 1

“Towards the close of the long letter prefixed to the Moralia, he confesses his contempt for the art of speech, and admits that he is not over-careful in the avoidance of barbarisms or inaccurate uses of prepositions, deeming it ‘ utterly unworthy to keep the language of the Divine Oracles in subjection to the rules of Donatus’; and this principle he applies to his own commentary, as well as to the sacred text. His attitude towards the secular study of Latin literature is well illustrated in the letter to Desiderius, bishop of Vienne. He is almost ashamed to mention the rumour that has reached him, to the effect that the bishop was in the habit of instructing certain persons in grammatical learning. ‘ The praises of Christ cannot be pronounced by the same lips as the praises of Jove’. He hopes to hear that the bishop is not really interested in such trifling subjects. Elsewhere, however, the study of Grammar and the knowledge of the liberal arts are emphatically commended on the ground of the aid they afford in the understanding of the Scriptures; but the genuineness of the work, in which this opinion is expressed is doubtful. Later writers record the tradition that Gregory did his best to suppress the works of Cicero, the charm of whose style diverted young men from the study of the Scriptures’, and that he burnt all the books of Livy which he could find, because they were full of idolatrous superstitions. It was even stated that he set the Palatine Library on fire, lest it should interfere with the study of the Bible, but the sole authority for this is John of Salisbury’ (d. 1 180), and the statement is unworthy of credit. “

For the history of Philology this cultural interplay is especially important–the Ancient Near East and Greece have been influencing each other as long as the concepts of these places has existed. And even if Diogenes Laertius wants to deny it, Greek exceptionalism, if it is really a thing, developed because of its connection and communication with Mesopotamia, Egypt and more.

Classics and Theory: A Monday Rant

This is a slightly adapted and expanded edition of my #classicsandtheoryrant from twitter

One of the things I love about social media is that it has allowed me to connect with people who love the Classics and know a lot about it all over the world. Some of these people have ‘credentials’ and experiences similar to mine, but many do not. Across the board, I try to ignore these conventional markers of intellectual authority on twitter etc. and just listen to what people say. And, really, I have learned a lot.

But one thing that has been increasingly frustrating  over the past year is a small but insistent chorus of voices who insist that Classics is being ruined by “post-modern theory”. Generally, these voices come from outside the traditional academy or from more conventional corners within them. But most often they represent ‘threatened constituents’ of the modern world–by which I mean people who also object to ‘diversity’, ‘political correctness’ and a whole bunch of buzzwords and phrases that are popular media shorthand for a world that is not dominated by traditional, male, Eurocentric perspectives. (And, you know, white supremacists. This does not mean that all anti-theory people are white supremacists, so, dude, chill.)

This is in part frustrating because I thought we were past this. I know this is naïve and I know that Classics is way behind other disciplines in the aggregate when it comes to using critical theory, but we have long had a small and influential group of people pushing our field to respond to the modern world and engage with new ideas.

But it is also infuriating because it attests to an essential fragility (also, read this if the term is upsetting). Is our confidence in the way we have received the past so shaky that it can brook no challenge? Often, the knee-jerk or even committed aversion to theory is really a desire to exclude others. I almost respect those supremacists more because they at least admit it. (But let me be clear, I really, really don’t like ethnonationalists and white supremacists.)

Engagement with theory is critical because it acknowledges that as interpreters we are subjects who are shaped by our experiences and the narratives and discourse through which culture shapes us based on our gender, sexual identity, race, (dis)abilities, age, etc. Our bodies are not instruments we drive through the world, they are part of us and mediate our experience of everything. The world treats us differently based on the bodies we inhabit. These two facts shape the way we respond to everything.

Acknowledging the primacy of subjectivity is only one part of modern theory which is dismissed. I won’t even bother listing all of the theoretical approaches that have helped us understand the ancient world better. It is a type of retrograde derangement not to use new tools to look at old things. Imagine if people were railing against the use of spectral imaging in archaeology or the application of new chemical testing or any one of a range of technologies that have developed over the past generation. We would all be incredulous.

Many of the same people, however, who champion what aDNA testing might tell us about ancient peoples, also deny the validity of applying new tests to ancient literature and culture which have been developed in respectable fields like anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, English, sociology, and others. The reason for this is clear: the process tells different stories about the past than many of us were raised with. This is uncomfortable.

If art does not make us uncomfortable or question the past at all, then it is merely entertainment. Scholarship that merely repeats or reinforces what we already know is essentially masturbatory.

The argument over who gets to interpret the past and how is political. “Post-modern” is a catch-all phrase for many different approaches which are dismissed by conservative traditionalists. This argument raged through the field in the 1980s as Eric Adler documents well.  There was another major flare up with the Who Killed Homer? nonsense. I think we might have missed a renewal of these complaints in the late 2000s because of the severe economic downturn.

But this debate is all about power: The power to interpret and possess meaning; The power to have meaning in the world; The power to be a full and equal subject in a flawed society. Such striving has been going on since some literary theorists had the gall to imagine that texts were more than pristine aesthetic objects with timeless secrets for the properly initiated to unlock.

I have a few simple points to make in closing. The first is that scholarship is not a zero-sum game. Applying new theoretical frames does not wipe out the old ones or render them useless. If we apply the analogy of biodiversity to ideas, then the more voices and ideas we can explore within a productive system, the more variety and understanding we can get out of it. This is destined to be chaotic and painful, but it is creative and exciting.

New ideas build upon older ones. Some gain purchase for more than a few years become part of the tradition. Some ideas are as Glaukos says like leaves on the tree which grow for a brief time and then wither and die. Others somehow become evergreen, in the moment we cannot know. We can argue for what we believe and push back against other ideas—but we need to acknowledge that sometimes our need to push back against other ideas is driven by a desire to exclude people not the ideas.

A second point which is by no means original is that you can love something and see that it might be bad for something or need to change. E.g. chocolate cake is delicious, but it can kill you. Cigarettes are delightful, but they will give you cancer. Anything made by humans is imperfect because we are not perfect. Saying the Homeric epics are misogynistic or using Marxist theory to show how they (re-)produce structural oppression does not erase their beauty or their impact. Instead, it shows that their beauty may also have a harmful impact. It helps us understand how they work and how we work as human communities.

And if you cannot love something flawed, you simply cannot love. Let go of the Platonic nonsense of perfection in the mind of a distant god. Real, human love embraces the ways in which we are flawed and celebrates that despite the horror, baseness, and temporariness which is our inheritance, we are still capable of beauty.

A third point is also not original: all methods of interpretation are ideological and have a theory. If the theory is not explicit, that does not mean it is not there. It means it is naïve and unquestioned. Philology is a means not an end. We classicists are trained in philology so we don’t make basic mistakes and we can distinguish good arguments from bad ones. But we are at a point in the production of knowledge that no one can learn everything which is required to understand the ancient world. We need to work together. We need polymathy and polyphony.

The practice of classics as developed in Europe around the enlightenment is ideologically connected to a particular time, a set of bodies and languages, and a cultural apparatus distinct from ancient Greece and Rome. The ‘Classics’ created by the Renaissance and Enlightenment is not coterminous with the beliefs, practices, and texts of actual Greece and Rome. In a way, to emulate a 19th century German classicist in everything is little different from strapping on some leather armor and LARPing at a Renaissance Faire. Both are fun and can require a lot of expertise. But both are still play-acting.

It is not ‘authentic’ or ‘correct’ to treat ancient texts in this way any more or less than it was authentic and correct for Plotinus and Porphyry to say the Odyssey is an elaborate allegory for the mind.

All reading is reception. All interpretation is ideological. Being explicit about our ideological receptions helps us communicate better with each other and through the generations.

When we allow new perspectives and viewpoints, we enrich our reception of the past. Some of this enrichment might turn out be misleading or start out as bewildering; indeed, it might be only temporarily insightful. But striving to make new sense of the old, to try to surpass those who have already labored, is better than sucking on the marrow of corpses and wallowing in mute ash.

Миниатюры.: philologist

f. 305v. The Fouquet Missal. Bourges, c.1470-1475

Seneca Moral Epistle 108

But some error comes thanks to our teachers who instruct us how to argue but not how to live; some error too comes from students, who bring themselves to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology.”

Sed aliquid praecipientium vitio peccatur, qui nos docent disputare, non vivere, aliquid discentium, qui propositum adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est.

The Humanities: Aristotle in the Sheets, but Xenophon on the Streets

Another essay on the Crisis of the Humanities*

“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

Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote a thing riffing on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s rather weak think piece proposing asking whether or not certain majors should and could be saved. In the midst of dismissing the proposals that would combine some conventional majors with newer skills, Bruni writes. “And I worry that there’s a false promise being made.” False promise? The commentary that follows fails both to put the history of the university and the liberal arts into any kind of context and to consider what cultural forces there are that have created this crisis in the first place.

I had three or four acquaintances email me this article during the day Sunday. I started tweeting about it and began from the “false promise”. Here’s an expansion on those comments.

The problem at the center of Bruni’s argument is the false premise that education is for work. Or, deeper, that work and employment are the way we should value human lives.

At its core, the liberal arts are the subjects deemed by ancient authors like Seneca to be “worthy of a free person”. For ancient Romans and Greeks, this meant grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy (and sometimes other subjects as well). During the middle ages, these subjects were split into groups of three and four: the quadrivium (artes reales: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) followed the trivium (artes sermocinales: grammar, logic and rhetoric). And the development of these systems go back farther to Plato and Pre-socratic philosophers. (To be fair, Plato was only interested in certain kinds of people having the full education.)

These seven subjects were seen as the necessary preparation for work in philosophy or theology. And they were also considered separate from the practical arts (which include medicine and architecture). These frameworks of learning were not about employment–the studia humanitatis was about creating a flourishing mind, about creating a path or framework for wisdom (or what we today might consider enlightenment.)

“Chance, and occasionally choice, assigns a country to a person; but each person must attain the good arts and virtue for himself; and these things ought to be chosen far ahead of all others which can be attained by human effort. For riches, glory, and pleasures are fleeting, and perish; but the practice and reward of virtue remains sound and eternal.”

casus, nonnumquam electio, dat homini patriam; bonas autem artes atque ipsam virtutem sibi ipsi unusquisque comparat, quae quidem prae omnibus quae possunt ab hominibus studio quaeri exoptanda est. Nam opes, gloria, voluptates, fluxae res sunt et caducae; habitus autem fructusque virtutum perstat integer atque aeternus manet. Pier Paolo Vergerio’s De ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis

Who gets to have a liberal arts education? Who is free? Through most of history this enlightenment has been available to a precious small number of people–the rich, the male, the aristocratic, and in the West, the race group in power. During the 20th century and following industrialization, another promise emerged: our increased productivity as a nation would allow many others to pursue an education to put them on this path.

One of the great rhetorical tricks of the 20th century politics is the lie that campuses–and those evil professors–corrupted generations of students with their liberal ideas. This is and was hogwash. While most professors are center-left and there are a few genuine radicals in our midst, most of us are from comfortable backgrounds and are too institutionalized by the time we get in the classroom to pose any serious threat.

The radicalization came from students from different classes and different parts of the country coming together and having a break from the drudgery of a life of work to talk to others, to learn from them, to study the past and the present and to have time to think about what life is for.

The multiple crises in education are in part manufactured to keep subsequent generations from this opportunity. As my friend Joe Goodkin mentioned in twitter, this ‘crisis’ and conversation as articulated by Bruni is at the outset problematic because it is a crisis that has been manufactured in certain states and institutions by legislation and divestment from public education. Wisconsin and Illinois, where some of his examples come from, have seen some of the worst excesses of ideological intervention in higher education.

In much the same way, parents today put overwhelming pressure on their students to study something which ‘has bread.’

Emi ergo nunc puero aliquot libra rubricata, quia volo illum ad domusionem aliquid de iure gustare. Habet haec res panem. Petronius Sat. 46

But the fact is that schools are seeing lower enrollments this year and some of the bedrock programs in the humanities—English and History—have seen steadily dropping enrollments over the past decade. I won’t claim that this is not because students aren’t interested in these subjects—I cannot read minds—but I do suspect that constant attacks on the humanities by politicians and employers accompanied by a rise in the net cost of education (increasing tuition plus flat-lining incomes) are to blame.

And, money still makes the world go around: we do not pay teachers of the humanities well at any level, but we have been eliminating their positions at terrible rates. Student interest in these subjects is curbed by parental anxiety about their cost. Educations are investments that expect future returns in clear and projectable financial rubrics.

“Almost eighty years ago, in their joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the AAUP and AAC&U emphasized that “institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good” and that “the common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” The free search for truth and its free exposition in the liberal arts are essential components of a functioning democracy. ” Joint AACU-AAUP Statement on the Value of Liberal Educiation

But the humanities did not cause this crisis. Theory did not kill the humanities. Full stop. When we make arguments like Bruni’s, however, we are preparing to wave the white flag. In all this hand-wringing over the cost of college, skills for employers, etc, little is said about the pernicious devaluing of human existence through the commodification of all existence. Erik has already written an great essay on the instrumental use of antiquity.

I do not want to leave the impression that the rising cost of college is acceptable. There is something funny that happens when educators try to talk about the cost of education. Because we are paid by the very institutions that charge too much, we are complicit in an overpriced system and this makes us hypocrites unqualified to speak on the topic. We did not create this system. We are not enriched by this system. The vast majority of people who teach college classes struggle to pay their bills. And the system is run with different ends in mind: corporate branding, millions spent on athletic programs that fail to bring in money, rising administrative salaries, a push to publish over teaching–the problems are manifold and interconnected but, I dare say, money and status connects them all.

“Those who have spoken Latin and have used it correctly do not give the word humanitas the meaning which it commonly acquires, one equivalent to Greek philanthropia, indicating a certain kindly disposition and well-wishing toward all men indiscriminately. No, in correct use, humanitas means what the Greeks call paideia, what we have called education and training in the noble arts—these are the arts through which, when men learn them, they become most humanized.”

Qui verba Latina fecerunt quique his probe usi sunt, “humanitatem” non id esse voluerunt, quod volgus existimat quodque a Graecis philanthropia dicitur et significat dexteritatem quandam benivolentiamque erga omnis homines promiscam, sed “humanitatem” appellaverunt id propemodum, quod Graeci paideian vocant, nos eruditionem institutionemque in bonas artis dicimus. Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.17

The problem is that education has been conceptually transferred from a public good back to a luxury item. The divestment in education has paralleled the collapsing of our commitment to social welfare. And, I suspect, this is a legacy of a backlash against civil rights and greater diversity and inclusion: think only of the rise of the anti-tax, anti-welfare centrists in the 1980s. The result of this will be an incremental return to the notion and the reality that the higher order intellectual pursuits are only for certain people.

The influence of race on our public divestment should not be ignored, but what I want to focus on here is the dehumanization of everyone that has occurred at the same time. Here is where Bruni’s argument and those like it miss the mark most severely. The entire conversation reduces the value of human beings to their salary potential. Our worth can only be communicated in respect to how we can serve corporations. And I don’t want you to think I mean a symbolic dehumanization. Our educational system is helping to support the creation of a new aristocracy. We are in the process of offering most new students a mere technical education for modern wage-servitude. Art and literature? These are for the leisure class.

“When he saw a massive parade of gold and silver carried about, Socrates said: “How much there is I do not desire!”

Socrates, in pompa cum magnavis auri argentique ferretur: Quam multa non desidero! inquit.  Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, 5.91

So here is where we need to open our eyes to the dilution of content and form that occurs when we talk about humanities as job training. At a fundamental level, the corporatist attack on the humanities is an attempt to eliminate the very disciplines that have the best potential to question the basic assumptions of late-stage capitalism. History, philosophy, English, Classics—these disciplines are those that widen our spirits and open our minds to other ways of being, to other lives worth living.

When we as humanists argue that studying the humanities is great for job training we have already lost because this is a lie (and I am not the first classicist to say so). The humanities are great for helping us think deeply about what it means to be alive, to be a person, to exist in a continuum of human beings.

The fashions of the hour may start a movement, not in the best direction, which may go on until the path is difficult to retrace. The humanities, if they cannot prevent such a movement, can do something to temper and counteract it ; because they appeal to permanent things, to the instinct for beauty in human nature, and to the emotions ; and in any one who is at all susceptible to their influence they develop a literary conscience. R. C. Jebb, Humanism in Education

The lie is even more dangerous because it sets people up for severe disappointment. Real, sustained study in the humanities will probably not make you a happy computer programming drone or a satisfied serf of the nation of Amazon or a willing bannerman of our tech-lords of sacred commerce. Let’s stop with the BS and be bold: we need the humanities to save us from a future in which we are little more than temporary parts for a meaningless consumption machine.

“A lack of education is the mother of all suffering”

᾿Απαιδευσία πάντων τῶν παθῶν μήτηρ, Stobaeus, Attributed to Pythagoras (2.23.96)

The fight for the humanities in public education needs to be carried on at every level. If we only get training for jobs we will always be too harried and ignorant to fight for collective rights, to question widening inequality, and to live lives of meaning beyond consumption and production of consumables. I dare say that we already see the effect of over a generation of divestment in public good in recent elections and in the impoverished nature of our public discourse.

So, let’s thank Mr. Bruni for getting me riled up, but why not use that pulpit to challenge readers to think? Why not take a risk and speak some truth? “Aristotle’s death” is weak clickbait for a crisis of our culture’s soul. We can–and must–do better.

“For have we not seen how great nor how many things there are, but our sight lays open a path of investigation and lays the bedrock of truth so that our inquiry may move from well-known things to hidden and discover something older than the world itself…”

Nec enim omnia nec tanta visimus quanta sunt, sed acies nostra aperit sibi investigandi viam et fundamenta vero iacit, ut inquisitio transeat ex apertis in obscura et aliquid ipso mundo inveniat antiquius…Seneca, De Otio 5

*Note: The title for this essay is meaningless clickbait. In essence, Aristotle is more theoretical and abstract, while Xenophon is more pragmatic. Both figures are genre-making polymaths from the city of Athens. But one is definitely considered sexier than the other. I chose this title in imitation of Bruni’s “Aristotle’s…Death” title. His piece says nothing about Aristotle and only lazily uses the author’s name as a metonym for humanistic education.

 

%d bloggers like this: