9/11 and 11/9


On September 11, 2001, after the second plane hit the towers, my school’s Director of Computer Operations walked down the hall and into my office. He has two degrees in classics, and so as we watched events unfold on my computer screen, we talked about Augustine’s City of God. Augustine wrote this immense treatise sometime after A.D. 410 because he wanted to understand what the sack of Rome by barbarians meant. Like Al Qaeda’s assault on New York, Alaric’s raid on Rome didn’t immediately destroy city or empire: the Visigoths broke things, took some stuff, and left after a few days. But when Augustine looked at the event through the lens of early Christianity, he saw that Rome, the city of man, was finished. It was time to think about the world in a different way.

On November 9, 2016, when it became clear that we had elected Donald Trump as the forty-fifth President of the United States, I picked up Aristotle’s Politics. Once again I wanted to know not what an ancient author had said on any particular topic—Aristotle’s opinions on some things, like slavery, fall somewhere between repugnant and obsolete—but how to think about and beyond Trump’s election. Aristotle discusses different kinds of government—monarchy, aristocracy, democracy—and the ways in which they change and decline. One thing he makes clear is that thinking about government means thinking about citizenship, and that thinking about citizenship means having an understanding of goodness: both what it is to be good at something, like being a citizen or a senator or a president, and what it means to be a good person.

Aristotle’s idea made me look at the election of 2016 in a different way. Maybe what we had seen was not a failure of politics—a matter of clueless media, FBI meddling, or midnight messages on Twitter, of getting out the vote or suppressing it—but a failure of goodness, and of education for goodness. Perhaps we, no matter who we voted for, hadn’t been very good at being citizens: at understanding each other, at looking beyond our own interests or identity, and at thinking critically and acting morally. Perhaps our educational system had failed to encourage us to do these things. Whether we voted for Clinton or Trump, we got the President that we deserve, because the candidates’ flaws and failings, their self-absorption and appeals to identity politics, are ours.

In 2001 my colleague and I weren’t much interested in Augustine’s specific ideas or his Christian analysis. We wanted to know how to think about an event like 9/11. In 2016, Aristotle’s Politics helped me think about another turning point. Americans in all periods of our history and on all sides of the political divide, from Jefferson and Adams to Noam Chomsky, who once called Aristotle “that dangerous radical,” have done the same for a long time. Perhaps a place to start in reviving what Cornel West has called “democratic soulcraft” is with continuing that long conversation that we Americans have had with Greece and Rome.

–Lee T. Pearcy



On September 1, Classicizing Philadelphia welcomed a new director, Professor Bret Mulligan of Haverford College.  Bret describes himself as “an accidental classicist,” but if so, it was a happy accident.  His research concentrates on Late Antiquity, which is itself a culture of reception, and he has an ongoing interest in American classical reception and in digital humanities.  I am delighted to be able to hand Classicizing Philadelphia over to him.  He is the right person to take this project to the next level.

Classicizing Philadelphia began in December, 2009, when I took part in a Sawyer Seminar at Northwestern University and met the conference’s organizer, Prof. Kathryn Bosher.  Kate and her husband, the urbanist Dale Winling, had conceived the idea for a digital humanities project, Classicizing ChicagoClassicizing Philadelphia began officially with a conversation in Kate’s apartment in the next year, when she and Dale were on research leaves in Philadelphia.  It seems fitting to mark the end of my directorship by remembering Kate.  She died far too young, in 2013, just a year after she visited Bryn Mawr to meet with the Classicizing Philadelphia planning team.  I have thought of her often as I have worked on this project.

There is so much yet to do to document, study, and continue Philadelphia’s long conversation with Greece and Rome.  Just today (September 3) the Philadelphia Museum opens a new exhibit on the classicizing furniture designed by Benjamin Latrobe for the Philadelphia merchant William Wain and his wife, Mary.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron, writes about Philadelphia’s classically inspired Art Deco post office buildings.  And controversy continues over the proposed demolition of more of Philadelphia’s architectural heritage on Jewelers’ Row.  Bret Mulligan assumes the leadership of Classicizing Philadelphia at an exciting moment in our city’s long dialogue with classical antiquity.  I wish him and the project every success.

Lee T. Pearcy

The painting almost makes you want to look away, and you can see some visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art doing just that; others stare, giggle, or frown.  A cascade of naked children pours down a mountain stream.  At first you think they might be playing, but then you notice that none of them seems to be making eye contact, and that their staring eyes, most of which are blue, seem to be looking into some other world.  That is Léon Frédéric’s “The Source of Life.”  I’m not the only one to have found it a little disturbing.

Léon Frédéric, "The Source of Life"

Léon Frédéric, “The Source of Life”

Frédéric (1856–1940) was a Belgian Symbolist painter who studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and in Italy, where he learned to admire Renaissance painting.  It’s not unreasonable to suspect that somewhere behind this odd painting lies a classical model—but what on earth could it be?  Where could that carpet of creepy children come from?


Titian, “Offering to Venus”

One possibility is that at some point Frédéric encountered Titian’s “Offering to Venus.”  In that painting, executed about 1518, Titian (ca. 1490–1576) showed Cupids or Erotes (the word just means “Loves”) reveling in front of their divine mother or patroness, the goddess Venus.  There is the same receding procession of children, although these, being divine, have wings.  The cupids play, but there is the same lack of eye contact.  The naked children recede into the background, just as in Frédéric’s painting.  In the foreground of Titian’s painting, one cupid turns away, left arm raised, as another, to his right, moves away.  In the foreground of Frédéric’s painting, two children echo that movement.

There are, to be sure, some missing bits.  Fréderéic’s painting lacks the dominating figure of Venus and her two worshipers, who enter Titian’s painting from stage left.  But the resemblance is still there all the same.  Frédéric may have imitated the Renaissance painter.  But can we trace the image back even farther?  is there a classical precedent?

Frederic source detailTitian certainly drew on the Imagines attributed to Lucius Flavius Philostratus (ca. 170–250).  (The work may be by his son-in-law, also called Philostratus, but that possibility needn’t trouble us here.)  The Imagines is an exercise in what ancient rhetoricians called ecphrasis, vivid description of a work of art.  Imagines 1.6 describes a painting of Cupids or Erotes playing and gathering apples.  A translation is here.1024px-Ofrenda_a_Venus detail









Most art historians would accept, I think, the link between Titian and Philostratus, but the link between Frédéric and Titian is harder to argue, at least for me.  Probably because of my history-centered training in classical philology, I’d feel better if I could point to some evidence that Frédéric could have seen or known Titian’s painting, which is now at the Prado in Madrid.  Many students of classical reception, though, do not feel the need of that kind of external evidence.  For them, asking for proof of reception is the narrowest kind of historical positivism and turns the study of classical reception into an old-fashioned search for influences.  When “may have known” is as close as we can get, it’s close enough, especially when the resemblances between a later work and its classical forebear are strong enough to be persuasive.  Are they in this case?


Students at Yale want John C. Calhoun’s name removed from one of their residential colleges, and at Princeton protesters demand that Woodrow Wilson’s name be taken off many of the university’s memorials.  Even Bryn Mawr has not been immune to this latest wave of intolerance for our forebears, although students here must have had to search a bit before they discovered that M. Carey Thomas was no better than anyone else in her time and demanded that her name be removed from the college’s Thomas Great Hall.  (In any case, this being Bryn Mawr, the students promptly apologized and submitted a revised and more reasonable set of demands.) In a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Education, James Livingston makes a good case against the kind of moralistic presentism that underlies these demands to repress the past.

Comments on the Chronicle post, however, rightly point out that Livingston elides an important distinction.  There’s a difference between studying the past and memorializing the past—between trying to understand John C. Calhoun’s support for slavery and states’ rights and putting up a statue of John C. Calhoun.  In the absence of any other context, a statue or other memorial constitutes an implied endorsement of the person commemorated.

The Romans understood this distinction very well.  Their history is full of examples of damnatio memoriae, the practice of erasing portraits, cutting names out of inscriptions, melting down statues, and retooling coins.  The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has a good example: a marble block with an inscription to Domitian on one side and a carved relief on the other.  After Domitian’s death the Roman senate decreed damnatio memoriae, the inscription was chiseled off, and the block was reused as part of a monument to the emperor Trajan.  The emperor Caracalla reigned as co-emperor with his younger brother Geta from A.D. 209 until 211, when he murdered Geta and ordered his portraits erased and his name obliterated from inscriptions.

Both these examples illustrate two important characteristics of damnatio memoriae.  First, Only the powerful can perpretate it.  The senate could condemn Domitian’s memory because they had the power to do so (and because the new dynasty didn’t object); Caracalla could blot out visual reminders of his brother because . . . well, because he was the emperor.  Second, it is seldom successful.  Damnatio memoriae doesn’t correct the record of history.  It exacts posthumous vengeance or covers up guilt.   We can read about Domitian and Geta because Romans like Tacitus or Cassius Dio commemorated them in their histories.  More recent examples, from Stalin’s elimination of the purged Lavrentiy Beria from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia to Penn State’s removal of convicted pederast Jerry Sandusky from a campus mural, suggest the same two-fold dynamic: powerful interests insist on the removal of a disgraced person’s name and image in an attempt to blot him from memory.  Removal makes the person memorable.

What, then, of those students at Yale and Princeton?  Can what they are doing be called classical damnatio memoriae as well as moralistic presentism?  The students themselves are not powerful, but by the very fact of being at places like Princeton or Yale they belong to a privileged class, and their demands express an influential strand of ideology in universities.  And they are unlikely to succeed in removing all evidence of the forebears they hope to condemn.  If they gain their demands, though, they will certainly make themselves and their allies feel better, until the long swing of history arcs back, and they appear as much part of their time and place as Caracalla, Calhoun, or M. Carey Thomas.

Last night’s attacks in Paris left the West once again searching for explanations and context.  European and American leaders appealed to universal values. French president François Hollande described the attack as “against France, against the values that we defend everywhere in the world, against what we are: A free country that means something to the whole planet.”  President Obama followed suit: “This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

As the leaders of the West spoke, it became clear that by universal values they meant political values.  Hollande spoke of “a free country.”  Obama praised “the French people’s commitment to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.” Lliberté, égalité and fraternité, he added, “are not only values that the French people care so deeply about, but they are values that we share.” Once again Western, liberal democracy was cast as a universal value. German president Joachim Gauck made it clear: “Europe’s values and Europe’s freedom have been attacked by powerful enemies throughout history. Nevertheless, our Europe is a fortress of democracy and human rights. Even the brutal attacks of Islamist terrorists won’t change this.”

But are these political, democratic values human universals?  Islamic leaders who also condemned the attacks appealed not to political values but to moral ideas grounded in religion. The foreign minister of Qatar called the Paris attacks “against all human and moral values.” The Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s chief religious body, reminded the world that “Terrorists are not sanctioned by Islam and these acts are contrary to values of mercy it brought to the world.”

The universal political values cited by Western presidents are in fact Greek, as Kurt Raaflaub points out in an essay soon to appear in Classical World.* Voting, the secret ballot, the rule of law, the principle of representation, even the very basic idea of citizenship, Raaflaub demonstrates, can all be traced to cultural and political developments in Greece during the sixth and fifth centuries BC.

This local origin at the beginnings of Western culture does not make liberal democracy and its associated values less worth defending, but we need to be clear about ther origins in our long conversation with Greece and Rome. Understanding where our values come from will make it easier to find common ground with men of good will who do not share the political values bequeathed to Europe and America by ancient Greece but instead base their condemnation on moral concepts like mercy and love.

*In volume 109.1, to appear at the end of November. Full disclosure: I edit Classical World.



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