Beauty and Privilege: Latin, Paideia, and Papyri

“How many there are who degrade the Latin language!”
Quam multi sunt, qui verba Latina depravant! -Piccolomini
“The very act of speaking Latin is to be held in high esteem”
Nam ipsum latine loqui…est illud quidem in magna laude ponendum -Cicero
So, I say, Latin speech is common and known to all, but literary speech is not so.”
Latinus, inquam, sermo et vulgaris erat et omnibus cognitus, litteralis vero non ita prorsus -Francesco Filelfo

Today the Boston Review has published an essay of mine on a translation of Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin! My review is, admittedly, less positive than some others will be (with almost none of the cheerleading another review lavishes upon it) and, truly, more negative than a Classicist’s should be. As a general rule, I prefer not to write hack jobs or take-downs, especially when the author’s sincerity and belief in goodness is so palpable. And I certainly believe that there was a time in my life when I might even have exulted in this book, both because of the pleasures afforded by its own prose and also thanks to the familiar passages it brings together. But, given the world we live in and what we have learned over the past generation, I can’t accept that this book is the way to promote the study of the past. To put it more starkly: this approach is part of the problem.

Image result for long live latin by nicola gardini

I cover my qualms with the book in the review in some detail, but the thing I want to focus on here is that Gardini’s ultimate argument is that Latin is worth studying because of the aesthetic pleasure it affords. This aesthetic pleasure arises from an essential circularity: the literature we love provides us with pleasure because it presents the pleasure of the elements we love. Our sense of what is good is created by the canon we have selected to shape us.

Gardini’s picture of the past and of the kinds of Latin worth preserving and contemplating is that of the Western Canon and his argument centers around appreciating the worth of the Western tradition, a beyond problematic category which many have dismantled (see Kwame Anthony Appiah in general and Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s recent blog posts for the history and impact on Classical Studies). The construction of the Western Canon and associated claims of Western Civilization are a kind of aristocratic nostalgia. It is a value-proposition, an identity to be espoused which does not admit additions or revisions easily. Replicating the contents of the past as we have in conventional Classical Studies programs has amounted to the reading of the same authors over and over again with the insistence that we read these things because they are good. And they are good because we read them.

“Good people flock to the tables of the good on their own.”

αὐτόματοι δ’ ἀγαθοὶ ἀγαθῶν ἐπὶ δαῖτας ἵενται. -Hesiod

Loving latin

Classicists who accept this view are often part of the same groups who have ignored or expressed hostility to what they call postmodernism. Indeed, a generation ago the question you had to be able to ask in interviews for jobs as Classicists was “what do you think about theory?” This is not a struggle peculiar to Classics but it is one which is particularly fraught because one history of our intersecting disciplines is not changing, not innovating, and fiercely defending the past as we have built it. And, although the resulting venn diagram of those who complain about postmodernism and those who espouse conservative, retrograde, or nationalist rhetoric is not a perfect circle, it does intersect and overlap.

The fact is that we must now recognize that at least since the rise of European colonialism, race-based enslavement, and the genocidal conquest of the Americas, what we call Classics has been instrumental in providing historical, philosophical, rhetorical, and political frameworks for justifying various supremacies and ethnonationalisms. When we lament that the Classics are being appropriated by white supremacists and Nazis, we are a little late to the party. The use of the past to justify hate and exploitation is a historical feature of Classics and not a bug.

The reason I am going through this all again, is that my reaction to Gardini’s book needs to be contextualized within the perturbations of our field. A month ago I gave a talk at Rutgers University and two subjects kept coming up in conversations afterwards: the real time erosion of faith in the Paideia Institute (thanks in part to the Sportula’s statement preceded by a thoughtful statement by former/current Paideia associates) and the confusing revelations of the Museum of the Bible’s Papyri collection and Dr. Dirk Obbink’s involvement in it. There are many things going on in and around these two stories, but I struggled for a while to figure out where I think they both meet.

“It seems to me to have been remarked wittily enough that it is one thing to speak Latin, and another altogether to speak grammatically.”

Quare mihi non invenuste dici videtur aliud esse Latine, aliud grammatice loqui. Quintilian 

And where they meet is in that same place where Gardini searches for Latin. What all of these approaches to the past have in common is that they reach for a “timeless”, decontextualized, and ahistorical past, that includes largely only “nice” and “beautiful” things, where truth and beauty as they define it is the lasting bequest of Greece and Rome to our times, and where there is nothing of the mess that makes today so confusing: no gender, no race, no sexuality (except that which they like), no disability, no Class, and nothing which might distract from their contemplation of human perfection.

The Paideia Institute is run by disaffected, mostly male, Classicists of an elitist bent whose view of the world resonates with Gardini because, shit, everything would be better if we could just move to the woods and read Horace. If this seems harshly dismissive, consider that work of the PI is strongly centered around Western Civ perspectives, that they believe that the study of the past can be apolitical, that they neither publish their by-laws nor make their funding transparent, that their origin story has as its center the nearly cultic hagiography of a single Latin expert, and that, if they had been given the tenure-track jobs our more complicated world has denied them, their organization would probably not exist. 

(For the Medieval Mindset of treating scholarship as apolitical, see Amanda Power’s recent piece in THE).

“What good is it to be noble / For those who are charmless in words and counsel?”

τί πλέον, γένος εὐγενὲς εἶναι / οἷς οὔτ᾿ ἐν μύθοις ἕπεται χάρις οὔτ᾿ ἐνὶ βουλῇ; -Phocylides

The Paideia Institute is Trad-Classics with a religious fervor. Let me be clear, I think they have a right to exist and pursue their view of the world; but we should all acknowledge what their work represents—a retrenchment and doubling down, a recommitment to a world that never was in order to seek refuge from the world that is.

To claim that Dirk Obbink’s confusing and likely felonious actions are of a kind with Gardini’s Love Live Latin and the troubles of the Paideia Institute may seem so much of a stretch as to be slanderous. But here’s my pitch. I have spent months thinking about what may have motivated him. I have had dozens of conversations about it and have heard plausible theories: from the altruistic (he did it to save a financially collapsing EES) to the sly (he duped naïve evangelists to get his hands on the New Sappho). And what I keep returning to is: would I have done the same thing?

See, like many of the Paideia Institute (I suspect), there was some religion in my upbringing and one of my first thoughts in these cases is the passing “there but for the grace of god go I…” So, when I read about Paideia’s missteps (and subsequent denials) or contemplate how Obbink broke bad, I think of that game we Classicists sometimes play: what would you trade of extant Classical literature for what we lost. This game assumes that these poems and speeches and books are things, aesthetic objects we can trade like horses or barter without any concern for where they come from or how they got there.

(And this story may be far from over, EES has recently admitted that over 120 recorded fragments are currently missing.)

As several articles in Eidolon drive home, modern papyri are things, with histories, trails, and an impact on the world around them. But as aesthetic objects that move us (and to which we move) they have a materiality and power beyond modern geopolitical borders and law-courts. They are the aesthetic objects of desire which Gardini loves and which we hold up as objects of study which in turn lead us to objectify the past. Such endless simplicity of aesthetic reification conditions us to treat what we encounter in the world around us as objects, as aesthetic experiences to be evaluated according to (seeming) Platonic forms.

Obbink already had lots of papyri but he wanted to get his hands on papyri of a certain type because they would increase and confirm the value of what we already have. And don’t get me wrong: our view of Greek poetry has been changed in the past generation by the publication of Archilochus’ Cologne Epode, the historical elegies of the New Simonides, the Telephos myth of the New Archilochus, and the pleasant beauty of Sappho’s Brothers poem. But, both now and in the aggregate over the centuries, how much of the past has been lost or misunderstood because of our ironic longing for more ‘new’ of the old? 

Beyond a lust for fame, a desire to contribute to the history of literature, and need to transcend his mortal bounds, I believe Obbink stole papyri to get his hands on a New Sappho because this is, at its core, a metonym for what we do and have done as Classicists. We endow some things with value and neglect others. We ‘innocently’ perpetuate a system and worship a canon without critically examining what the effect of this process is and has been on the world. And when people use theories and techniques outside of Classics to show how Classics works (and doesn’t), we too often reject them out of hand.

Some of the common ground between the refusal of the Paideia Institute to accept criticism (and the tonedeaf cowardice of its anonymous defenders) and Obbink’s actions is class and race privilege, people who are accustomed to doing what they want because consequences are for other people. The ideological stance of Classics as an aristocratic discipline reinforces privilege and provides us with an intellectualized framework for objectifying people and festishizing culture and human experiences into ranked categories. Classici are, after all, people of a certain rank.

If we center our discipline around a system of untested values and universal aesthetics, we not only fail to live examined lives and fall into the trap of emphasizing seeming over being, but we also willfully and violently ignore the scope of human knowledge and experience which is excluded from this closed system. I am not denying the beauty of the past or claiming we should stop studying it, but instead insisting that we stop drop the pretense or accept that some of us need to do something new.

διὰ τοῦτο … δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείω μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν

“For this reason, we have two ears, but one mouth: so that we can hear more and say less.” -Zeno

To end with a bit less bile: I don’t think most of us who see the world in the way I just outlined started out seeing it this way. Indeed, I was trained as a pretty basic classicist from high school on. What has made the difference is learning from outside the discipline, listening to people who have been marginalized by traditional approaches, and considering new things without dismissing them out of hand. 

Modern rhetoric and social media seem to harden us into stances we may not have taken otherwise or assumptions about others which only echo reality. The Trad-Classicists need to listen: I think it is a basic litmus test of a decent person that, if someone tells you they are hurting and that you are involved, you should just stop talking, listen, and really hear what they are saying. Those of us on the other side? Some, like myself, are too impatient, we want people to change too fast, and we don’t give them enough time. 



25 Nov 2019

There have been a few complaints about some of the more polemical comments regarding the Paideia Institute. I apologize for any offense to individuals: I had the organization and its reputation in mind. It is my responsibility to make amends to any individuals on a person by person basis. Please reach out if you would like to talk to me

26 Nov 2019

Lee T. Pearcy has written an essay on Classicizing Philadelphia discussing some of the ideas in the essay, but somewhat disagreeing with the move away from treating the past ideally. One of the things his response clarifies for me is that we need to distinguish between discussions of what classics is as opposed to what we could make it.