classical reception

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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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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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Over Christmas break I read Postclassicisms (Chicago 2020) by the Postclassicisms Collective, a group of nine classicists who describe themselves as “Anglophone, philological, Hellenist,” and as sharing “a centrifugal relationship to the field of classics.” (They are Alistair Blanchard, Simon Goldhill, Gonstanze Güthenke, Brooke Holmes, Miriam Leonard, Glenn Most, James Porter, Phiroze Vasunia, and Tim Whitmarsh.) Postclassicisms strikes me as an important book for people who care about the current state of classical studies, and so I invited Bryn Mawr graduate students to join me as I reread it this semester. We meet once a week to discuss a chapter, and last Friday we took up the chapter on “Responsibility.”

That chapter asks what responsibility those of us who call ourselves classicists bear toward the Greco-Roman past, and it settles on two answers. First, we have a kind of curatorial responsibility. We have to take care of the remains of that past—its languages, texts, and material remains—and to hand them on in, if possible, better shape than we found them.

Second, Postclassicisms suggests that we have a responsibility to “care for” the past. This caring for, in the authors’ view, entails presentation and interpretation for a public, in the way that museum curators now label and contextualize objects in their care so as to guide the experience of museum visitors. Classics now expands to become “an open field populated by a wide range of epistemic subjects in whom different skills, competencies, habits and interests intersect to create ways of seeing the past that are at once specifically located and necessarily partial and malleable and constructive of shared worlds” (p. 42). Standing in this open field are “political theorists, philosophers, scholars of eighteenth-century France, historians of comparative religion, theater critics, and others.” Reception, that is, becomes the essence of classical studies.

I wonder. The Chinese Crested Tern nests in just a few places on the coast of the South China Sea. There are just a hundred or so of these beautiful seabirds left, and their continued existence is subject to several threats: typhoons, egg poachers, and, interestingly enough, the terns’ own ability to interbreed with the far more numerous Greater Crested Tern and sometimes produce fertile offspring. It is possible that the Chinese Crested Tern will be so successful in spreading its DNA that it will cease to exist as a distinct species. Could the same thing happen to classical philology as it successfully interbreeds with other academic disciplines?

By Oregon State University – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

~Lee T. Pearcy

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As academic specialties go, “classical reception,” or the ways in which people have “received”—enjoyed, used, learned from—the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, seems harmless enough, and even respectable. It is, after all, the umbrella under which Classicizing Philadelphia, the project that launched this blog, shelters. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering how classical reception relates to another phenomenon that doesn’t have a good reputation at all: cultural appropriation. “Cultural appropriation” happens when someone—usually someone perceived as in some way privileged or elite—enjoys, uses, or exploits something characteristic of another culture. The term seems to have originated with academic sociologists and been weaponized by indigenous peoples with histories of colonization. Lately it’s been applied to practices as diverse as yoga, wearing sombreros, and a poem written in Black English by a white poet.

From one point of view, classical reception and cultural appropriation look a lot alike: one culture takes over something from another one and uses it.  So what’s the difference, and why isn’t classical reception a bad thing?  One difference is obvious: cultural appropriation is thoughtless. It doesn’t give any consideration to what the appropriated object or practice means or does in the culture from which it has been appropriated, and it does not try to give the object new meaning within the appropriating culture.  The classic example is acquisition of Native American artifacts and skeletal remains by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century museums.  In a museum case or on a warehouse shelf these objects become, as the title of a recent book has it, plundered skulls and stolen spirits.  (By this standard, Anders Carson-Wee’s thoughtful poem in The Nation doesn’t qualify as cultural appropriation, while thinking it’s funny to wear a sombrero at your fraternity’s Halloween party does.)  The best-known examples of classical reception, on the other hand, depend on thinking about the matter being received and either trying to recover its meaning or giving it a new one.  Marsilio Ficino and his friends in fifteenth-century Florence thought deeply about Plato’s Academy before they imagined that they were re-creating it, and a century earlier Dante made Vergil mean something new.

But the distinction between thoughtful reception and thoughtless appropriation will take us only so far; for one thing, some examples of classical reception are pretty lacking in thought, like this lipstick ad from the bizarre uses of antiquity in advertising that Edith Hall has been collecting in her Twitter feed lately.

Maybe this ad is thoughtless enough to qualify as cultural appropriation, or maybe the distinction between thoughtless appropriation and thoughtful reception doesn’t take us far enough. I want to suggest that another factor is in play when we draw a line between appropriation and reception: the presence or absence of a perceived cultural hierarchy.

Cultural appropriation depends on a perceived inequality. The culture doing the receiving is not only clueless about the cultural significance of the received material but also in a position to be clueless—the position of acknowledged cultural or political or social superiority.  The culture whose products are being appropriated, on the other hand, is acutely aware of the unequal status of the two cultures.  Only people who are aware of their lower position in a hierarchy of cultural status can complain of cultural appropriation or feel the pain it causes.  Having the Elgin Marbles in London does no harm to ancient Greece, but the modern Greeks can feel aggrieved because they believe that bullying Britain took their treasures when they were weak and oppressed by the Ottoman Empire. They are caught in a trap: every complaint about cultural appropriation affirms and reinforces their perception of inferior status. (Arguments about whether what Elgin did was lawful or not are another matter.)

Reception, in contrast, depends on an understanding that the culture being received will not be diminished or harmed by the other culture’s use of it.  And implicit in that understanding is an assumption, which doesn’t have to be explicit or even conscious, that the culture being received is in some way equal, or even superior, to the one doing the receiving.  It’s like potlatch, or Homeric gift-giving: giving only augments the prestige of the giver, and receiving a gift acknowledges the giver’s status. No one has yet (to my knowledge) accused Julia Child of cultural appropriation, first because cooking French recipes does no harm to the glories of la cuisine française, and second because no Frenchman believes that French culture is inferior to or of lesser status than American culture. It may be otherwise with burritos or collard greens.  Ancient Greece and Rome can be objects of reception not only because they are safely in the past and can’t object, but because of the perception that their material, literary, and political cultures are worth receiving and beyond harm. Every act of reception, even a lipstick ad, confirms their status.

–Lee T. Pearcy

9/2/2018:  And now Kwame Anthony Appiah has said it better, as usual, in this WSJ piece.

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Two articles in the on-line journal Eidolon this month take on the so-called “Alt-Right” and its misuse of Greco-Roman civilization to justify the doctrine of white supremacy. Both of them get an important point wrong.

In “We Condone It by Our Silence: Confronting Classics’ Complicity in White Supremacy,” Rebecca Futo Kennedy argues that “As long as Classics justifies itself by claiming to be the foundation of Western Civilization, . . . it will continue to find itself uncomfortably at the contested center of the continuing culture wars.” She goes on to urge classicists—by which she seems to mean professors of classics—to abandon the “myth” of the “Greek Miracle,” the “supposedly unique flowering of arts, philosophy, and science between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE in Greece and western Anatolia.” She calls for increased critical engagement with the ugly realities of Greek civilization: slavery, misogyny, patriarchy, and exploitation.

Johanna Hanink, in her rather more interesting “It’s Time to Embrace Critical Classical Reception,” likewise takes classicists to task for desperately “insisting on the genius, exceptionalism, and ‘miracles’ of ancient Greece and Rome.” Her alternative is “critical classical reception,” founded on three pillars: an openly “activist” agenda, use of the “personal voice,” and acknowledging that “Greek and Roman antiquity have played a major role in constructing and authorizing racism, colonialism, nationalism, patriarchy, Western-centrism, body normativity, and other entrenched, violent societal structures.”

No one—or at least no one I know, or hope to know—will disagree with Kennedy and Hanink that some White supremacists and their politer enablers misunderstand the classical world. If David Duke, or for that matter either of the Steves, King or Bannon, could be transported back into fifth-century Athens or first-century Rome, they would find themselves in a world without much that they could recognize as white, European, or civilized. Western civilization—if it exists at all—is a problematic concept, and its relationship to Greece and Rome is not straightforward or a simple matter of foundation or creation.

On the other hand (and one of the things that we have learned from the Greeks called “Sophists” is that there is always another hand), Kennedy and Hanink underestimate the force of the classical world in the present. Greece is not important because of the origins of democracy or drama, or because of Pericles and the Parthenon, or even because it gave rise to all the -isms that some classicists love to hate. It is important because without what happened in Ionia during the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, and in Athens a bit later, we would not know how to think. Kennedy and Hanink would not know how to write the kind of essay that they have contributed to Eidolon.

This is a bold claim, and I don’t have space to defend it here. I’d like to suggest, though, two things: first, that intellectual and cultural developments in western Anatolia in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, and in Athens a bit later, marked the beginnings of what we now call science and philosophy; and second, that no miracle was involved.

When I look at the surviving fragments of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, all active in sixth-century Miletus, I see a new kind of explanation emerging. These early thinkers—it begs a question to call them either “philosophers” or “scientists”—offer explanations of physis, roughly “the way things grow,” and in so doing they create a new kind of thought. Their explanations build on one another, and together they create three assumptions:

  • Explanation of physis will depend on abstract qualities: for Thales, “the moist”; for Anaximander, “the limitless”; for Anaximenes, “air.”
  • Explanations of physis will be continuous; that is, whatever explains phenomena in the parts of the world that we experience will also explain phenomena inaccessible to our experience, like celestial bodies or events. There will be no need to appeal to supernatural forces or beings.
  • Explanations of physis will be progressive; that is, any explanation can be replaced by a better explanation—one that offers a more plausible or convincing account of phenomena. Persuasive argument and disagreement are essential to explanation.

There is no need to invoke miracles to explain this new way of thinking. It’s about what one would expect from a place and time with access to a radically new information technology—alphabetic literacy; with a new economic tool that encouraged abstraction of value from physical objects—coinage; with a need to think about how to create societies from scratch—colonization; and with easy access to older, richer cultures in Egypt and the Near East.

There is more to it, of course. All three Ionians depend on mythological frames of reference and draw on Near Eastern and Egyptian cosmology and astronomy. Other cultures, notably China, developed important ways of explaining how things are. But the Ionians’ abstract, continuous, progressive way of thinking opens the door that leads to modern science, to philosophy, to academic argument, and to Kennedy and Hanink’s articles. When Kennedy and Hanink assume, without needing to give it much thought, that they can state a position and give reasons for it, that someone may respond to it or disagree, and that the stated positions will be judged by the quality of the arguments on both sides, they are following the track first trod by Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. And by no one else.

–Lee T. Pearcy

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