Ancient philosophy offers what might be a surprising defense of living life publicly (i.e. through social media)
Plutarch, “On Whether Living Unknown is a Wise Precept”
1128a “But isn’t this very thing somehow evil—“living unknown” is like tomb-robbing, no? But living is a shameful thing, so that we should all be ignorant about it? I would say instead don’t even live badly in secret, but be known, be advised, and change! If you have virtue, don’t be useless; if you have weakness, don’t go without help.”
Philodemos, On Piety (ed. Gompertz), 92, 24; p. 43
“Epimenides also says that the Sirens were born from Okeanos and Gê. He adds that Proteus once prophesied to them that if anyone was not enchanted by them, then it would be their death. When Odysseus sailed past them, they threw themselves from a cliff and died.”
“The Sirens were some Greek women with beautiful voices in ancient Greek myth who sat on some island and so delighted passers-by with their euphony that they stayed there until death. From the chest up they had the shape of sparrows but their lower halves were woman.
The mythographers claim that they were small birds with female faces who deceived passers-by, beguiling the ears of those who heard them with pornographic songs. And the song of pleasure has no end that is good, only death.
But the true story is this: there are certain places in the sea, narrowed between hills, which release a high song when the water is compressed into them. When people who sail by hear them they entrust their souls to the water’s swell and they die along with their ships.
The creatures who are called Sirens and Donkey-centaurs in Isaiah are some kind of demons who are foretold for abandoned cities which fall under divine wrath. The Syrians say they are swans. For after swans bathe, they fly from the water and sing a sweet melody in the air. This is why Job says, “I have become the Sirens’ brother, the companion of ostriches. This means that I sing my sufferings just like the ostriches.”
He calls the Sirens strouthoi, but he means what we call ostriches [strouthokamêmlos: “sparrow-camel”]. This is a bird which has the feet and neck of a donkey. There is a saying in the Epigrams “that chatter is sweeter than the Sirens’”. The Sirens were named Thelksiepeia, Peisinoê, and Ligeia. The Island they inhabited was called Anthemousa.”
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
“[the followers of Aristippos] used to say that mistakes should be pardoned: for people do not err willingly, but under the force of some kind of passion. And we should not hate: it is better to teach someone to change.”
The following late antique text, recently discovered in a restaurant basement, is surmised to be a lost part of Macrobius’ Saturnalia, possibly from discussion, in book 5, of Virgil’s borrowings from Greek authors (e.g., one notes similarities to the etiological mode of Aeneid 7.112-19, where the fulfillment of a prophecy is simultaneously the origin of pizza). It is presented here in the form in which it has been preserved–namely, a loose debate among several scholars, many of them pseudonymous and not a few of them ridiculous, in the tradition of lampoons of intellectual life including Plato’s Symposium andAristophanes’ Clouds. The accompanying image offers a reconstruction of a painting described by one of the speakers in an ekphrasis.
μíμωσα (mimōsa), call it a reduplicated 1st-person singular aorist active indicative, "I did brunch," implying
μώω (mōō), "I do brunch" μώσω (mōsō), "I will brunch" μíμωκα (mimōka), "I have brunched" μíμωμαι (mimōmai), "I brunched by myself" μιμóθην (mimothēn), "I got brunched" pic.twitter.com/ELfrp1UOBJ
An interjection from a noted linguistic charlatan:
“Ah, I always thought it was the nominative singular present active feminine participle of μιμάω (“I drink in the morning”), accented like this: μιμῶσα But, with your explanation, I get to use it on myself.”
Μιμάω: “I brunch”
μιμήσω: “I will brunch”
ἐμίμησα: “I brunched”
μεμίμηκα: “I have brunched”
μεμίμημαι: “I have been brunched”
ἐμιμήθην: “I was brunched”; but contrast with middle ἐμιμησάμην: “I made brunch available for others”
Also, we should have an annual Sunday-morning SCS brunch called something like "Making the miMos(a)t of it"
If @sentantiq and I are right, then here is a decisive argument against Plato's exclusion of mimesis from the ideal republic, especially between the hours of 11am and 2:30pm or so on weekends https://t.co/6OmkQ0vuiG
I was chatting with Sarah E. Bond online the other day and casually mentioned that I wished were could ostracize someone from Twitter who was playing the part of a braying ass (she suggested a time-out). Sarah suggested this was eminently tweetable material. And I tweet I did. But, I went a bit further. This is not quite as severe as my phallometric rating suggestion, but it started a conversation of sorts….(and continues a bit of musing about ancient governing institutions which might be useful today).
So, twitter is always looking for ways to attract more users, to increase activity among all other users, and to achieve that raison d’être of all social media, making #noise (cue airhorn). pic.twitter.com/6wHgztf2VC
“The procedure of Ostracism. In his third book, Philokhoros explains the ostracism process when he writes this: “ Ostracism is like this: the people vote in advance of the eighth Prytany whether it seems best to make an ostrakon vote or not. When it seemed right, then the Agora was defended with planks and ten entrances were left through which the people would come and cast their ostraka [votes] entering in their tribal groups and keeping the inscriptions facing the ground. The nine archons were in charge with the boulê. Once the ostraca were counted, whoever had the most—provided the total was not under six thousand—had to handle his business and make arrangements over private affairs before in ten days and then to leave the city for ten years (later it was five). The exile had use of his own property, but was not permitted to cross the boundary within Geraistos, the promontory of Euboea.
The only person who was ostracized of regular people for his wickedness and not for pursuing a tyranny, was Hyperbolos. After him, the custom was ended, and it began when Kleisthenes established it as a practice when he expelled the tyrants so that he could exile their friends too.”
#twitostracism (5/13) In Athens, #ostracism was used to prevent too much power from falling into the hands of a single tyrant. It was allegedly introduced in 508 during the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes. The ostracized had to leave for 10 years, but got to keep his property
#twitostracism (7/13) Twitter does not have assemblies. It is an endless, mindnumbing, stomach churning digital assembly. Twitter does have buttons. Twitter also claims some kind of a democratizing ethic. We should add an ostraca button to all profiles
#twitostracism (9/13) Let’s say if 60,000 strangers (who do not follow you) vote to ostracize you, you take a ten-day break from twitter. If 2/3 of your followers vote to ostracize you, then you take a ten-day break. If 1/3 of the people you follow vote, you take a ten-day break
But to play along, what makes one a citizen of twitter? Could we define 'citizenship' (eligibility to vote in an ostracism) in a meaningful way that might reduce bot/troll abuse of this new proposed function?
Unfortunately, groups of users are already doing something like this. They use other sites to coordinate mass reporting of opponents. If enough bad actors report TOS violations in a short period, that account gets suspended and has to appeal.
Twitter gave me a 12-hour time-out a year or so ago because of a tweet that I addressed to our President that had profanity in it. I don't know precisely what their algorithm is, but whatever I wrote in that tweet triggered it.
I'd think the γραφὴ παρανόμων might be a more viable basis for cooling off the nastiness- it would be terribly easy for the Nazis to hijack a process that differentiated among users only on self-determined criteria.
“Nor did unhappy Dido fail to drag out the night
With all kinds of talk as she was drinking deep of love.”
nec non et vario noctem sermone trahebat
infelix Dido longumque bibebat amorem,
A few days ago Christian Lehmann (@buffyantiqua and a teacher at Bard High School Early College, Cleveland) told the story of Aeneas and Dido from Vergil’s Aeneid through GIFs from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is not only genius which the world needs to witness for its own sake, but it also combines a few things I love: Homeric reception/myth and Buffy. (I tried to write about this once and partially failed.)
I loved this so much that I wanted to share it with those who don’t use Twitter and Christian was kind enough to give his consent (see his work on “The 100 and Classical (Under)Worlds” too). This is a lively and fascinating retelling–it forces reconsiderations, I think, of both the Aeneid and BVTS. Also, Buffy and Spike > Buffy and Riley.
[below is my contribution: I learned this passage in high school where it was obligatory to understand that Dido was not dutiful enough and gave into passion, whereas Aeneas was oh so very pius.]
Vergil, Aeneid 4. 165-172
To the same cave came Dido and the Trojan captain
Earth first then nuptial Dido gave their sign
The lightning bolts were shining out and the Sky was a witness
to their bridal rites as the Nymphs sounded out on the mount’s highest peak
That day was the first cause of death; the first cause of evils.
For no longer was Dido cautioned by appearances or rumor
And no more was she harboring a secret love.
She calls it a marriage: with this name she cloaks her fault.
speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem
deveniunt. prima et Tellus et pronuba Iuno
dant signum; fulsere ignes et conscius Aether
conubiis, summoque ulularunt vertice Nymphae.
ille dies primus leti primusque malorum
causa fuit. neque enim specie famave movetur
nec iam furtivum Dido meditatur amorem;
coniugium vocat; hoc praetexit nomine culpam.