Imagine that you know nothing about the ancient world, and that all you have to go on as you try to reconstruct it is this collection:

    • Three lines of the Odyssey (1.32–34)
    • One line of Ennius (Annales 3.137 Vahlen)
    • A fragment of Praxilla, a lyric poet from the fifth century BC, quoted by Zenobius in the second century AD
    • A clay rooftile on which two women left their footprints and eleven inscribed words, five in Oscan and six in Latin, including their names
    • A child’s toy
    • Half a line of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (15.165)
    • A misquotation of a mistranslation of Aeschylus
    • A sentence about studying classics written by a professor in the 21st century AD
    • Fourteen lines from The Epic of Gilgamesh

If this was all you had, could you reimagine the ancient world, or the academic discipline that studies it? All the ancient texts are in translation except for eleven words in two ancient languages scratched into a rooftile. The longest continuous text is translated from an epic poem written in Akkadian sometime in the second millennium BC. All the translations are from poetry, and all of them deal in one way or another with mortality. Two of the ancient texts come from works that survive only in fragments—they’re fragments of fragments.

Part of the oddness of this list can be explained by its origin. It comes from a post on the Society for Classical Studies’ blog, and the items are answers to a question posed to nine professional classical scholars by another member of the guild, the brilliant Latinist Nandini Pandey. Pandey was prompted by Richard Feynman’s question to his undergraduate introductory physics course:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence was passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

Feynman chose a concise statement of the atomic hypothesis; from that, he argued, followed everything that modern physicists do. (Like most of us, Feynman assumed the inevitability of his kind—but wouldn’t we be just as likely to end up with a world full of Epicurean philosophers?) Pandey wondered what a similar sentence for classical studies would look like. “What would we choose to pass on to posterity from a field that’s already built on scraps of the past? And what would the texts and objects we chose to preserve say about us and our mindset during this pandemic?”

Here I’m reminded of one of my own teachers. If he had a choice, he said, between the Parthenon and H. W. Smyth’s Greek Grammar as the sole surviving evidence for Greek civilization, he would dynamite the Parthenon. (I might now substitute the new Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek, which is beginning to replace Smyth on my shelf of go-to books.) That choice is as cranky and eccentric as the man who made it, but behind it lies a coherent vision of classics as classical philology and of what is fundamental to it.

Seen against my old professor’s choice, the list is striking for several things: its lack of deference to the classical canon and classical languages, its privileging of poetry, its emphasis on fragments, and its constant reference to our present situation. We get Homer, Aeschylus (sort of), and Ovid; one of the respondents smuggled a line of Horace into her framing message, and another did the same with a line of Lucretius—but that’s not much. We don’t get the great prose genres: no philosophy or history; no Plato or Aristotle, no Thucydides or Herodotus, no Cicero or Livy. Except for the few words of Latin and Oscan on the Pietrabbondante rooftile, all the texts are translated into English. Pandey’s description of academic classics as “build on scraps of the past” may have disposed the respondents to come up with scraps of their own, but I suspect they might have done so even without the hint. Several items on the list also dwell on being death-bound humans in a world we don’t control. This COVID-tide certainly encourages thoughts of mortality and human limitation, and that, along with Pandey’s mention of the pandemic in her prompt, may be enough to account for this focus.

Classics isn’t physics, and I doubt that any single sentence or object could be foundational in the way the atomic hypothesis is or be expanded into everything that the field now encompasses.  Pandey doesn’t derive any single cataclysmic sentence from the professors’ responses, and it’s hard to do so (especially given that one respondent answered not with ancient text or object, but with an expository sentence about studying classics, and another seems to have done no more than submit a link to his candidate statement on the SCS election page). It’s better to see this list as a kind of core drilled down into the academic discipline of classics, and to look at the choices as reflections of the interests and understandings of the scholars who made them sometime in AD 2020. Reflected in it I see changes that have come over the field since the middle of the twentieth century, and in my next post, I will look at those changes and why they happened.

It must be interesting to be a member of the Princeton classics department these days. Many years ago, I was briefly a junior member of a bitterly divided department, and so I can imagine echoing halls, slamming doors, quick scuttling into offices, whispered conversations, and the Cut Direct. It makes one long for the days of dueling. (Oh, wait—everyone’s working from home these days. But you get the idea.)

For those not up to date on academic politics, let me summarize. On July 4, a group of Princeton faculty and others connected with the university sent this open letter about structural racism at Princeton, with the usual list of accompanying demands, to the president, provost, and other administrators at the university. A few days later, on July 8, a Princeton classics professor, Joshua Katz, published this dissenting op-ed in Quillette. The predictable third act of the drama is now unfolding; Professor Katz’s letter, in particular some language in it, has been denounced by the president of Princeton, the administration of its classics department, and no doubt by many others. (I gave up Twitter for Lent and haven’t resumed the habit, but I think it’s a safe guess.) There will probably be a fourth act, and even a fifth, and so readers should not regard this post as anything but a view from the lobby at intermission.

I have no connection with Princeton, although it’s a fine place to visit, and I’m not interested in rehearsing the issues raised so far in this controversy. But I think it’s worth asking what else might be at stake besides structural racism, possible remedies for it, and intemperate language.

First, there’s what John Henry Newman called “the idea of a university”—what a university is for. One view maintains that universities are, or should be, places of teaching, learning, and research. At the university level, both of these involve inquiry, and a long-standing tradition that goes by the name of “academic freedom” requires that this inquiry be as free as possible, unrestrained by religious dogma or political ideology. For Professor Katz, the deal-breaker in the open letter was a demand for “a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” That sounded to him, and sounds to me, like a mechanism to enforce orthodoxy and discourage dissenting views and questions. Even when I taught at religious institutions, as I did for three-quarters of my teaching career, no committee looked at my research and publications to make sure that I didn’t deviate from the Nicene Creed. No committee like that has a place in my ideal of higher education.

But especially in America since World War II, universities are no longer cloistered thinkeries set apart from the larger society in which they exist. Another view demands that they contribute to social and political aims: to preparing students for the workforce, to promoting research that serves the national interest—or, in the case of the Princeton open letter, to advancing social justice. It would probably unnerve the professors who drafted the open letter to think that they are on the same page as Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker, who wanted to change the official mission of the University of Wisconsin by removing “the search for truth” and adding “to meet the state’s workforce needs”—but on this issue, at least, they are.

Second, there’s the ever-racing engine of academic politics and its oil and gas: power and money. The open letter includes demands for course relief and summer salary for faculty of color, a new distribution requirement that will support the Department of African American Studies, a new research center that will provide “educational, funding, curricular, and co-curricular opportunities”; “target of opportunity” cluster hires; a new chaired professorship in Indigenous Studies; a substantial increase in the size of departments like Gender and Sexuality Studies, American Studies, African American Studies, and Anthropology; and other goodies. That adds up either to a lot of new money sloshing around in the humanities and social sciences or to a substantial reallocation of existing resources toward them. Even if you’re not a member of one of the favored departments or races, there will be crumbs to pick up.

Expanding the issues at stake in this way, I know, risks diverting attention from the real and urgent issue of racism and its remedies. And pointing out that what we have here is simply a dispute between two factions of the academic elite trivializes the real passions on both sides, devalues the hours of committee work that must have gone into the drafting of that open letter, and diverts attention from the legitimate concerns that Professor Katz raised about it. I don’t want to do any of those things, but I do want to suggest that racism is only one among many interconnected problems, that human motives are seldom pure or disinterested, and that being aware of the connections and motives may lead to a clearer view and better solutions.

~Lee T. Pearcy

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July Fourth.  I wish I could echo the Declaration’s affirmation that all men are created equal without tangling myself in knots, but the times make it impossible to do so. We are in a moment when the statement that all lives matter has become problematic because it can be taken as a rejection of the proposition that Black Lives Matter (so they do, I hasten to add) and when any statement about humanity in general erases the specific lived experiences of . . . well, of a whole list of people of various kinds.

So I want to consider, in the heat and light of this moment, what the Declaration accomplished when it began its second paragraph with a positive statement of what it called self-evident truths. The bulk of the document, after all, is both very specific and very negative: a long list of grievances against, and condemnations of, George III. But the important, enduring part is universalzing, positive, and firmly grounded in a tradition of political philosophy that begins in ancient Greece; in fact, the Declaration is part of the conversation that the Classicizing Philadelphia project sought to document. It begins with what amounts to a succinct statement of universal human ontology and then derives a theory of government from it. All men are created equal, with certain rights; to preserve those rights, they create governments which derive their authority from the people who created them. There’s enough there to keep philosophers and political scientists busy for years; there is also, or has been, enough there to inspire ordinary Americans with a belief that their country ought to rise from a foundation of virtue. When we forgot that for a while, there was enough there for Lincoln to use as he helped us remember.

We Americans find ourselves, on this July Fourth, consumed by specific grievances and condemnation of each other. Our Declaration in 2020 seems to begin partway down the text, with a “long train of abuses and usurpations.” But I don’t think we can go for long without grounding ourselves in an idea of goodness. It’s not enough to be against evil, to be anti-racist or aspire to “own the libs.” We need to ask what virtue our opposition requires or creates in us. What is the positive affirmation behind anti-racism? When we look, I suspect that we will find something very like the Declaration’s announcement, in its second paragraph, that all lives matter, and that there are particular reasons and consequences of their doing so.

~Lee T. Pearcy


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“You have the right to remain silent . . .”  So begins the Miranda warning, a text recited by arresting officers to make sure that an arrested person’s rights to avoid self-incrimination and to legal counsel are preserved.  By now we all know that George Floyd’s silence is absolute, not because he preserved his right to it, but because his greater rights to the pursuit of happiness, to liberty, and to life itself were taken from him by police violence. And today my Instagram feed, which is populated mostly by artists, museums and galleries, and people connected somehow with the arts, was filled with black squares hashtagged “blackouttuesday.”

It is against that background that I want to think about the idea, which now turns up everywhere, that silence, and especially white silence, amounts to violence against black people. Does a person, especially a white person, have a right to remain silent in the face of George Floyd’s death and the deaths of so many other black people at the hands of police? And if he or she does, are there good reasons for doing so?

We do not have a right to remain silent in all circumstances. We have, for example, a duty to warn a person in danger if that person is unaware of it, and if doing so would not cause greater harm. If I see the rattlesnake and my hiking companion doesn’t, I have an obligation to warn him before he steps on it, to help him if he does, and to warn other hikers about the danger. But in general, and under ordinary circumstances, we have a right to choose to say nothing.

That right is tangled up, I think, with another obligation and another right: our social obligation to say what we mean and our right to be free from coercion in ordinary life. If society is to function at all, we need to be confident that most of what people say, most of the time, is what they mean to say. We need to know that a shopkeeper who puts a price on an item intends to sell it for that price, or that a journalist reports what he saw as he understands it. Speech should not be coerced. We should not hold a gun to the shopkeeper’s head and make him agree to a 50% reduction in price, and the journalist should not take a bribe to falsify facts. A confession given under duress, as the Miranda warning suggests, has no validity. So if we are not to lose our right to be free of coercion and the confidence in others that ties society together, silence, like speech, needs to be protected and always an option.

Neither obligation to be sincere nor right to be free of coercion, though, quite matches the argument behind the “silence = violence” meme. That argument seems to be that by remaining silent, a person, especially a white person, becomes complicit in the institutional and personal racism that drives events like George Floyd’s murder. That is, the relevant example is the rattlesnake on the trail. Our fellow citizens of color are endangered by racism, as surely as an unwary hiker by a poisonous snake. We have an obligation to oppose that racism and to speak up in solidarity with our fellow citizens.

The problem, for me at least, comes when the second part of that obligation is understood as a move from individual obligation—supporting our fellow citizens who have been injured by the rattlesnake of racism and passing the alarm—to collective, condensed, uniform expressions. Unison speech is always messy, imprecise, and defective. Slogans aren’t arguments, although they may be more effective drivers of action, both good and bad. Cheers at football games, chants at political rallies, and hashtags on social media make it hard to be confident that most of the people uttering them mean what they say, and to know exactly how they understand the phrase if they do mean it. Cheers, chants, and hashtags, also, can easily become coercive. Just ask the guy who wore his Cowboys jersey to an Eagles game, or the painter who posted black paintings by Richard Serra instead of the required black square on Instagram.

All this is by way of offering a partial explanation of why I haven’t posted a black square on my Instagram account today. I can’t be confident that the image expresses what I intend to say, and I can’t be sure that I won’t be contributing to coercing speech from someone else. And the rattlesnake has moved down the trail.


~Lee T. Pearcy


Update June 3, 2020

I see from this morning’s New York Times that there are other, more urgent reasons for shying away from the black square and #blackouttuesday. As usual, no good deed goes unpunished. Our crooked human timber can do no good without also doing harm in some proportion.


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I’m getting tired of muttering “Happy Birthday” to myself—twice, even!—as I wash my hands several times a day, and so I’ve started using the poems I know by heart and memorizing new ones.  One of the students in the discussion group considering Postcalssicisms (see previous post) had mentioned Arther Hugh Clough (1819–1861), whom I knew only as the author of “Say Not, the Struggle Nought Availeth,” and all I knew of that was the first line.  Now, though, I have it memorized, and here it is. Each stanza takes about 10 seconds:


Say not the struggle nought availeth,

The labour and the wounds are vain,

The enemy faints not, nor faileth,

And as things have been they remain.


If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;

It may be, in yon smoke concealed,

Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,

And, but for you, possess the field.


For while the tired waves, vainly breaking

Seem here no painful inch to gain,

Far back through creeks and inlets making,

Comes silent, flooding in, the main.


And not by eastern windows only,

When daylight comes, comes in the light,

In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,

But westward, look, the land is bright.



Now the thing about memorizing poetry, as opposed to simply reading it, is that memorizing forces you to say a poem over and over, and repetition forces attention to how the thing is made.  I had trouble at first remembering the fourth line, because I wanted it to have the anapestic rhythm of ordinary speech: and-as-THINGS have-BEEN, they-reMain. But Clough is using iambic tetrameter, with the first and third lines of each stanza having an extra syllable. So it has to be, and-AS things-HAVE been-THEY reMAIN. Notice also how Clough positions his imaginary addressee and directs his (or her) gaze: “yon smoke,”seem here,” “far back,” “in front,” “but westward.” The poem is built on a series of pairings (“the labour and the wounds,” “faints not, nor faileth,”), contrasts (If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars”), and oppositions (“here/far back,” “eastern/westward”). I also don’t think I’m being fanciful when I see the influence of Horace in the four-line stanzas, classically rhetorical figures like chiasmus (“when daylight comes, comes in the light”), and moralizing tone. I haven’t yet seen Stephen Harrison’s Victorian Horace: Classics and Class (2017), but I intend to at least glance at the third chapter, on Arnold, Tennyson, Clough, and Fitzgerald.

Horace’s four-line, ten-second stanzas are, in fact, pretty good for handwashing, and I can recommed Odes 2.3, Aequam memento. It’s sometimes hard to see good in this struggle with Covid-19, but if it forces us to pay attention, to look hard at what’s familiar and nearby, and to get things by heart, our time of isolation and social distancing won’t be entirely wasted.


~Lee Pearcy



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