Articles by Lee Pearcy

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A few words in a book I’m reading set me to thinking. In The Solitary Sphere in the Age of Virgil (2021), Aaron Kachuck writes, “To reintroduce the solitary sphere to antiquity, therefore, is one way of ‘decolonizing antiquity’” (p. 22). The context is a discussion of ways of reading in the Greco-Roman world, and how our assumptions about them reflect a distinctly modern, post-Enlightenment, and European idea of the ancient world. Kachuck wants us to pay attention to what the ancient world tells us about itself—to center their voices, not ours. It’s a good idea with at least one surprising implication.

Nowadays, “decolonizing” some academic field usually means helping those in it to recognize that their view of “the other” is grounded in whiteness, Eurocentrism, racism, the patriarchy, and other bad cooties that cling to us as we trudge through this vale of woe, to repent of these sins, and to set out to do better by “centering the voices” of the formerly subaltern, colonized folks. Classics has been a prime candidate for this reformation because of its entanglement with European and American colonization and imperialism. (Way back in the 1960s, one of my teachers used to say, only half in jest, that the best answer to the question, “What is classics good for?” was “Governing India.”)

Calls to “decolonize classics” often include two elements: changing the name of the field, and deemphasizing or eliminating entirely the study of Greek and Latin. (See for example this article from the now-defunct but still influential online journal Eidolon.) Princeton’s recent decision that its undergraduate classics majors don’t have to know either language, which has its defenders and critics, seems to have come at least in part from the same impulse.

Kachuck’s aside, though, suggests a more radical approach to decolonizing classics. First, though, we have to find the country that needs decolonization. That turns out to be less easy than one might think. Most people, I suspect, would agree with Wikipedia’s tautological definition: “Classics or classical studies is the study of classical antiquity,” which in the western world is defined as ancient Greece and Rome. The more one looks at this thing called “classics,” though, the more it looks like art or pornography. Everyone knows it when they see it, but no one can say exactly what it is, or where its boundaries are. Ancient Greek cities, with agoras, theaters, and gymnasia, can be found in Europe, Africa, and Asia and from Sicily to Afghanistan; ancient Romans, speaking Latin and quoting Vergil, ranged from Britain to Libya and Iran. We lump these two cultures together, but on examination they, and their two languages that inhabit a single academic department, prove to be very different. Only by pruning and shaping this jungle of culture can we get to the idea of “classics” that animates curriculum in schools and universities: a culture, European and western (it was not entirely either), that established the foundations of science and philosophy and left an legacy of imperishable art and literature that can form and educate a human being. But that ideal, cherry-picked “classics” is a creation of the people who use it. We have made it in our own images—and if we have, can we then study it as though it was something separate from us, about which we can have objective knowledge? Classics, like God, often seems in danger of becoming a necessary illusion.

On the first page of his History of Classical Scholarship, Wilamowitz tries to get around this problem by turning his focus from the subject to its object, which he defines as “Greco-Roman civilization in its essence and in every facet of its existence.”[i] That definition begs at least two questions: does “Greco-Roman civilization” exist (and why is it “Greco-Roman”); and does a civilization have an essence? Wilamowitz then pivots back to the subject, the person doing classics, and suggests that classical studies has an aim that transcends a mere desire to know what was going in Athens, say, in 403 BC: “In this as in every department of knowledge—or to put it in the Greek way, in all philosophy—a feeling of wonder in the presence of something we do not understand is the starting-point, the goal was pure, beatific contemplation of something we have come to understand in all its truth and beauty.” Searching for the essence of Greco-Roman civilization, then, ends with the searcher standing before an almost Platonic ideal of truth and beauty.

In this case, I have quoted Wilamowitz not because he was the greatest practitioner of classical scholarship in the first half of the twentieth century, but because his attempt to juggle two ideas is representative of people who try to work out what classics is. The tension between object and subject, between classics as a thing we do and as a thing that does something to us, is fundamental to the modern discipline.[ii] It sometimes looks like an opposition between a scientific, historical, or positivist approach on one side, and humanism or liberal arts on the other. It sometimes looks, as it did to F. A. Wolf, August Boeckh, and the other founders of modern classical scholarship (and as it did to Nietzsche), like a tension between Bildung, formation of character, and Altertumswissenschaft, the scientific study of antiquity. And sometimes, as it did for me during the years that I taught at the Episcopal Academy, it looks like a question that all teachers sooner or later confront: am I teaching a subject, or am I teaching students?

At the foundation of this subject, however, stand two cornerstones: Greek and Latin. Without exact knowledge of these languages, any connection between object and subject, between the scientific study of antiquity and the education of those who study it, becomes impossible. Just as language connects us as human beings to one another, so language makes the only connection that we can have to the human beings who created Greece and Rome, and it is the only tool that we have to see them, as best we can, in their own image, not in ours, and to center their voices—that is, to decolonize them. If we classicists want to decolonize our field, we might begin by renewing our commitment to life-long study of classical languages and to learning them as well as we can.[iii]

~Lee T. Pearcy
April 9, 2022

[i] U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, History of Classical Scholarship, tr. Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 1.

[ii] Fundamental as well to the humanities in general, as argued by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2021).

[iii] This is not to say that the two languages are not subject to the same idealizing and systematizing impulse that created the entire discipline. Greek is not very like Latin and resembles it only because traditional grammars impose a resemblance, and Latin itself is “classical” because the Romans created an idealized form of it.

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This link to an article on Bari Weiss’s Substack channel showed up on my “Arts and Letters Daily” feed from the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning, and on the off chance that it isn’t already on the breakfast table of everyone at Bryn Mawr, I offer it here:

The article seems to say that Bryn Mawr’s COVID mitigation policies led its author to withdraw from the College and transfer to Hillsdale College in Michigan. (My impression is that those policies may have contributed to her decision but were not the only reason for it.)  For my part, I have no quarrel with those policies or their implementation, but my position at Bryn Mawr is hardly representative—I come to campus once or twice a week and spend most of my time in the libraries or my office.  I do, though, want to call attention to three points in the article that, in my experience, tend to be underemphasized in Bryn Mawr’s internal conversations.

One is the importance of social class in shaping the author’s experience at Bryn Mawr.  I don’t know whether the author is correct in her impression that most of her classmates had second homes or frequented fitness classes in the Hamptons with Michelle Obama, but the impression itself is telling.

The second is a throw-away sentence at the end of the paragraph describing her first year at Bryn Mawr: “I had been nervous about not being able to keep up academically, but the calculus class I took that first year was easier than the one at ASU.”  That’s Arizona State University, where she went immediately after high school.  Again, this is one data point, and we all know not to pay much attention to that one negative review on Yelp or Amazon; even so, it feeds into my impression that paying more in tuition these days doesn’t mean that you actually learn more.

The third is this sentence: “I didn’t sit around with my friends all night arguing about big questions like I thought I would. It was assumed that we all agreed on the answers.”  If true, this is the most damning particular of all.  I hope that everyone at Bryn Mawr doesn’t agree on answers to big questions, or even to little ones—but if they do, I’m glad that Jane Kitchen has found a real college at last.

~Lee T. Pearcy
February 12, 2022

One of my granddaughters arrived at our summer house early this month burdened with several volumes of assigned summer reading. By far the weightiest of these was her textbook for Advanced Placement World History, a two-inch thick tome that weighed, I thought, four or five pounds. It is called Ways of the World: A Global History with Sources, written or produced by two college teachers, Robert W. Strayer and Eric W. Nelson. Curious to know what my granddaughter would learn about the Greek and Roman world, I opened it to Part Two, which treats empires, cultural traditions, and social hierarchies from 600 BCE to 600 CE. My eye fell on these words from the study questions appended to one chapter: “How does Herodotus, as a Roman scholar . . .” As soon as I could, I borrowed the book and set out to read the sections on Greece and Rome. Would my granddaughter come away from her first AP course thinking that Herodotus was Roman, or that Vergil wrote the Iliad?

I needn’t have worried. For one thing, since 2020 AP World History has been officially called “AP World History: Modern,” and the syllabus takes its departure from 1200 CE. And apart from that one howler about Herodotus and a few other very minor, often debatable points, Ways of the World does not mislead students on the facts about the Greek and Roman world. How could it? There are very few facts in the book; it is all generalizations, themes, movements, and concepts. Cultures come and go, empires rise and fall, and stuff happens. There is no sense that any culture or event matters more than any other. It all whirls together in the blender of time past, and the resulting smoothie seems unlikely to nourish or inspire any tenth grader or be remembered for very long.

It’s not the textbook’s fault. Its authors had their task defined for them by the AP World History syllabus, which seems determined to avoid any suggestion that some cultures and regions matter more than others. As the course description puts it, “The AP World History: Modern course requires that students learn world history from a global perspective. Balanced coverage of the regions within the course ensures that a single region is not situated at the center of the historical narrative.” Dutifully following instructions, Strayer and Nelson give aboriginal Australia and fifth-century Athens equal billing, and China is neither more nor less significant than Meso-America.

But it that how world history should work? Hegel, who pretty much invented the modern idea of Weltgeschichte, seems not to have thought so, and the practice of historians suggests that doing history is, from its beginnings, a matter of giving a shape to the past—a shape, that is, beyond the banal facts that things move toward the way they are now. A global view and a commitment to valuing all human cultures, also, don’t preclude giving shape to a narrative. Herodotus’s narrative of the wars between Greece and Persia centers on the Greek world, but it includes Egypt, Babylon, Scythia, and most of the world as he knew it. Persians and other non-Greeks may be the enemy, but like Homer’s Trojans, they are fully human and sometimes admirable. Herodotus wants his narrative to have a shape and a goal: “so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other” (Hdt. 1.1, tr. Godley).  His narrative has a center.

History, it seems to me—and I think Herodotus and Hegel would agree—is a matter of orienting ourselves to our past, and of doing with humankind’s past what we do with our own lives if we live long enough: picking out the important times, places, and events, trying to understand what they tell us about our here and now, and creating a narrative that helps us make sense of the world. It is not, to quote the AP World History course description again, a matter only of “concepts like humans and the environment, cultural developments and interactions, governance, economic systems, social interactions and organization, and technology and innovation.” General concepts are useful things because they allow us to organize information and ideas, but the information and ideas come first. Otherwise we end up with something like the bland concoction presented in my granddaughter’s hefty textbook.

~Lee T. Pearcy
August 22, 2021

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For about sixty years now, I’ve been devoting some part of my life to something called “classics,” the study and teaching of ancient Greek and Latin and the culture that they encode. That’s long enough for me to look back on four revolutionary changes in how that field is taught and learned, and in who teaches and learns it. Classics, or classical studies, or whatever you want to call it, is now experiencing what may turn out to be the death throes of an Enlightment-spawned, Western-civilization-tainted, white supremacist, ideological construct—or just another tempest in a post-modernist academic teapot. It seems like a good time to sketch those four revolutions.

First came the recognition that courses in translation—“classical civ” courses—were legitimate. This revolution took place in the years between the Second World War and the time when I began to study Latin—so long ago that I barely remember the interlinear copy of Caesar that was smuggled into Little Rock Central High School and treated like a gin bottle hidden in a locker, and so long ago that it now seems not revolutionary at all. Introducing courses in translation may have saved classics during the post-war expansion of American universities, or it may have been the moment when we philologists sold our ancestral farm for a handful of tenure-track jobs. And this revolution may not be over, depending on what comes of Princeton’s recent decision to cease requiring any Latin or Greek at all for a classics major.

The feminist revolution in classics began about the time that I was in graduate school in the early 1970s. I am not at all ambivalent about this revolution: it was a good thing, not only because it created opportunities for women to study and teach classics at institutions of all kinds, but also, and perhaps more important, because it opened up new fields of study within classics and shed important light on old ones.

I first noticed the third revolution when I was teaching at the University of Texas in the early 1980s and heard names like Levi-Strauss, Girard, Foucault, and Barthes. So-called “theory” swept the humanities before it about that time, and classics went along for the ride. Literary theory, post-modernism, deconstruction, and critique aren’t the same thing, but they share a family resemblance. A generation of readers learned to look beyond the text, behind the text, and in the general neighborhood of the text for internal tensions and contradictions, complicity with structures of power, and signs that the virtues claimed for classical texts were, if not vices, then delusions. All this was great fun, and I enjoyed the game myself.

The fourth revolution in classics is now upon us, and I don’t have a good name for it. But when “theory” escaped from the university laboratories in which it had been engineered and entered the political and social eco-system, it interacted with pre-existing conditions—economic inequality, racial animosities and resentments, and the growth of a meritocratic, increasingly hereditary elite class—to produce a social and economic, and especially a racial, reckoning with past and present injustices. Classics is perhaps not the best place to be when those around you value few things more than diversity, equity, and inclusion and exalt the importance of group identities. It’s not just that our field has often been used to promote elitism, meritocracy, and Eurocentric colonialism. Baked into it from its origins are the European Enlightenment’s rationalism, respect for the individual, and confidence in impersonal, wissenschaftlich procedures. Many classicists are doing their best to create a new shape for the field, one that will be inclusive, post-humanist, and diverse—perhaps even not exclusively Greek or Roman. (It’s worth noting that the discipline’s founder, F. A. Wolf, and its primal theoretician, August Boeckh, both recognized the historical contingency of our focus on those two civilizations.) I sometimes see in the classicists of this fourth revolution, though, a kind of desperation—fear of being left behind by history, and the kind of intolerance and contempt for opposing stances that usually comes from anxiety that they might be right. Occasionally there is a kind of dead emptiness, a sense that the great texts no longer speak as they seem to have spoken to those who came before us. A little while back one of my professional colleagues, who teaches at a university in the South, tweeted this: “Maybe I’m a weird classicist or even a failed one because I have never felt worshipful of or enchanted by ancient texts. I do not find solace in them when sadness or despair have sought to overwhelm me. I don’t find joy or pleasure in the simple reading of them . . .” I found this very sad; it must be hard to go to work every day and teach something that brings no joy or enchantment.

Like most sketchy and schematic presentations of historical change, mine is generalized and overly simple. The revolutions blend with and reinforce one another. Three of them had the explicit aim of opening up classics to people who might not have been included, and the theoretical revolution reinforced both the feminist and social justice revolutions. But only one, the translation revolution, began inside the field of classics. Feminism, theory, and social justice began in other fields and other places; classics followed behind, choking on their dust and hoping to catch up.


~Lee Pearcy
July 27, 2021

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Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest far by most
Are when some fool
Says what he’ll do
“in a forthcoming post.”

This isn’t the promised post on four revolutions in classical studies. Other revolutions keep overtaking it; instead, I want to post a brief note about a speech that Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado gave yesterday in the aftermath of the MAGA mob’s assault on the Capitol.  You can find the full text here, but this is the paragraph that caught my attention:

And I was thinking about that history today as we saw the mob riot in Washington, D.C., thinking about what the Founders were thinking about when they wrote our Constitution, which was, what happened to the Roman Republic when armed gangs — doing the work for politicians — prevented Rome from casting their ballots for consuls, for praetors, for senators. These were the offices in Rome, and these armed gangs ran through the streets of Rome, keeping elections from being started, keeping elections from ever being called. And in the end, because of that, the Roman Republic fell and a dictator took its place. And that was the end of the Roman Republic or any republic for that matter until this beautiful Constitution was written, in the United States of America.

Senator Bennet seems to be remembering events of the mid-50s BC. Rome had not only the two magistrates that Senator Bennet cites, consuls and praetors (senators weren’t elected as such at Rome—the Roman senate was simply the body of ex-magistrates), but others as well, called tribunes, who could veto any official action. The elections of 54 and 53 were hotly contested, and the tribunes used their veto so often that the years 53 and 52 both began with no officially certified magistrates to take office. Things got worse later in 52. Two of the tribunes, Milo and Clodius, had armed gangs of private bodyguards and used them to intimidate opponents. The gangs collided on the Appian Way, and Clodius was killed. His bodyguard led a mob that burned down the senate house and looted the Forum. As a result, the senate passed what was called the Ultimate Decree, Senatus Consultum Ultimum, imposing martial law, and Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey the Great) became sole consul—in effect, dictator. Three years later, Rome was embroiled in civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar.

We’re not there yet, thank God, and the parallel is far from exact. Senator Bennet, though, has given us a good example of America’s classicizing tendency to use Rome as a touchstone and example for understanding our Republic. Classicists deplore these analogies, and we should, but they are part of our political DNA. I’ve been passing time by casting the end of the Roman Republic with characters from Washington. Ted Cruz as Domitius Ahenobarbus, anyone? Or Rand Paul as Cato the Younger? It’s comforting to note that I can’t find anyone to play Caesar, or even Pompey or Cicero.  Suggestions are welcome.


~Lee T. Pearcy
January 7, 2021


Update: And in this blog post Mary Beard reaches the same conclusion.

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