Articles by Lee 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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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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These days, anyone riding with the Society for Classical Studies, the major North American professional association for professional classical scholars, could be in danger of whiplash. Consider two of the Society’s public pronouncements, one from 2015 and another from 2019. The Society’s President’s Award honors people or organizations “outside the classics profession” who make “significant contributions to advancing public appreciation and awareness of Classical antiquity.” In 2015, the Society presented the President’s award to the co-founders of the Paideia Institute, a non-profit that runs study, travel, and school programs stressing the active use of Latin and Greek. The Society lauded Paideia for its “passionate engagement with the Classics” and for “significantly advancing public appreciation and awareness of classical antiquity.” Now speed up to October 13, 2019. On that date the Board of Directors of the SCS wrote to the directors of Paideia expressing “deep concern in response to recent public statements regarding the Paideia Institute” and suspending all financial support for Paideia’s activities. Similar statements have come from the American Classical League and the Classical Association of the Atlantic States. So what is the problem with Paideia? How did it go from being one of the most honored, respected organizations in classics to being a pariah?

From the outside, where I am, it looks as though Paideia has a human resources problem of a kind that often faces organizations that grow rapidly and in the process outgrow their charismatic founders. (I’m looking at you, Elon Musk.) Some employees and associates of Paideia have felt underappreciated, underpaid, and excluded. Most telling are the testimonies (like this one) from long-time volunteers or employees fairly high up on the administrative ladder who allude to a changed administrative climate, heavy-handed management, and the inevitable “racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, elitism,” and the like. It looks to me as though Paideia’s foundational culture needs to stretch to accommodate people who are not like the founders, and it needs to develop the kind of professional, impersonal administrative structures that push ideological differences to the margins of the workplace. In Richard Rorty’s terms, Paideia needs to stop being a club and become a bazaar. If we lived in a better natured, less polarized world, the professional associations in classics would offer to help Paideia with this process. But those are not our times, and so Paideia has been stricken from the roll of the righteous.

All these issues are important, but there may be one more worth thinking about. From the inside of the SCS and the profession it represents, it may be possible to glimpse another kind of institutional dynamic at work underneath the problem of the moment. Consider how odd it is that the President’s Award, which is meant for someone outside the profession, went to Paideia, an organization that offers courses in Latin and ancient Greek, that is led by people with PhDs in classics, and whose mission statement lists providing “opportunities for rigorous and intensive study of Latin and Greek from all historical periods” as first of its goals. To the average non-academic, all this must look pretty much like classics. What keeps an organization like that on the outside?

The answer, I think, is not that what Paideia does isn’t classics, but that from the SCS point of view, Paideia is doing classics in the wrong way. This becomes clear in “Beauty and Privilege: Latin, Paideia, and Papyri,” an essay by Joel Christensen, who teaches classics at Brandeis. He’s tenured, published, a fellow of the Center for Hellenic Studies, and so on, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to take his view as representative of how things look from inside professional classics. It helps, too, that his essay tries hard to be fair-minded and humane and for the most part succeeds, especially in its last two paragraphs.

Christensen faults Paideia for doing what he calls “Trad(itional) Classics with a religious fervor.” He defines this approach by five characteristics:

      • Belief in a timeless, decontextualized classical past
      • An emphasis on truth and beauty as the important legacy of Greece and Rome
      • A willful ignorance of the “mess that makes today so confusing”—that is, of gender, race, disability, class, and so on
      • A validation of Western Civilization as worthwhile and important
      • Concentration on a limited, self-validating canon of texts

I don’t have any direct experience with Paideia, and so I can’t say whether this represents an accurate description of what those in charge of it actually believe. When I look through the descriptions of their programs on their website, though, I don’t find anything about Truth and Beauty, eternal values, or Western Civilization. There’s a lot of language that looks like it would be at home in a college catalog (“In two seminar-style meetings every day, participants read and discuss Latin literature and Roman history and culture,” and the like). Many of the courses center on the usual suspects (Catullus, Ovid), but at least one promises readings that are anything but canonical, “drawn from the entire history of the Latin language,” including medieval and Renaissance texts.

If you do want to find language about timeless legacies and Western civilization, you don’t have to go far from the SCS to do so. Its sister association, the Archaeological Institute of America, has a long-standing link with the SCS and meets with the Society every year. The AIA will take you on tours that explore the “glorious legacy of ancient Rome” or explore the “very cradle of Western civilization and the classical world.” Similar language can be found in many universities’ travel programs for graduates; in September, 2019, for example, Bryn Mawr invited alumnae to “experience the ancient city unmatched in its contributions to the foundation of the Western World—Athens, the birthplace of democracy.”

In its public statements and, I suspect, in the hearts of many professional classicists, classics finds itself forced to maintain a kind of exoteric/esoteric dichotomy. Practitioners of classics have to argue two propositions that don’t sit easily with one another. Esoteric, professional classics endorses a view that, as Christensen puts it, “at least since the rise of European colonialism, race-based enslavement, and the genocidal conquest of the Americas, what we call Classics has been instrumental in providing historical, philosophical, rhetorical, and political frameworks for justifying various supremacies and ethnonationalisms.” (This is not an innovation of wokeness—it was the view that I absorbed when I was an undergraduate at Columbia half a century ago.) But if Greek and Latin and the civilization and tradition that they encode aren’t any more worthwhile than any other ancient civilization, if Pericles and Augustus are just human beings a long time ago screwing things up as usual, and in a way that engendered a problematic legacy of evil thoughts, then there isn’t really any reason for more than a very few people to waste time on them. So exoteric classics needs to maintain that Greek and Roman civilization is worth studying. Something—if not “the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome,” then some approximation of that sentiment—needs to make classics preferable to other subjects that one might spend one’s life thinking about. It needs to be important enough to claim a person, or a career, or at least to attract people to cruises, tours, and courses.

In that dichotomy, I think, one can find the real reason that Paideia had to be chastised and excluded from professional classical studies. The problem is not only with HR policies in need of reform, corporate culture that may be racist or homophobic or otherwise evil, or traditional classics. The problem is in the second part of Christensen’s description of Paideia’s program as “Trad Classics with a religious fervor.” Imagine those people! They actually believe that what they are teaching has value—that, like Rilke’s archaic torso of Apollo, it can urge you to change your life. That’s unprofessional thinking, and so the professionals need to keep it on the outside, where it belongs.

~Lee T. Pearcy

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I’m old enough to remember when everyone smoked—when college classrooms had ashtrays, airline meals came with a little package of two cigarettes and a book of matches, and athletes at Madison Square Garden (the old one) competed below a blue haze of smoke in the rafters. I can also remember how smoking was a social signifier. Taking out a pack of cigarettes signaled a pause in conversation and perhaps a move to another level of intimacy. The little rituals—tapping a cigarette on the pack, flicking open a Zippo or Dunhill, offering your companion a cigarette (and maybe lighting it)—all said what kind of people were there, and what they thought of each other. Even the kind of cigarette mattered; when I was an undergraduate, a whiff of the distinctive, burning-dung smell of Gauloise meant that a left-wing intellectual was in the room, the sight of the black paper and gold tips of Balkan Sobranies declared (to me at least) pretentious aestheticism, and the flat red pack of Dunhills meant that someone had money to burn.

I’m also old enough to remember when smoking become uncool, and how long it took. It it was more than ten years after the Surgeon General’s Report of 1964 that Minnesota passed the first, tentative ban on smoking in public places, and it took another decade for such bans to become general.  When I began teaching at Episcopal Academy in 1985, the faculty lounge was still a smoke-filled room, and the Student-Faculty Senate passed a special dispensation every year so that students could smoke at the prom; it wasn’t long, though, before smoking was banned altogether, on campus and at any campus function. But the most effective thing was the force of social disapproval. Somehow smoking became Not Done–a sign of weakness and lack of proper regard for one’s own health and that of others.  It became OK to ask someone not to smoke in your presence, even if there was no formal ban on it, and to expect them to accede to your demand. Now nicotine is an expensive, slightly addictive drug of the lower classes.  The last time I looked, cigarettes in my neck of the woods cost nearly $10.00 a pack, and a pack a day will set you back enough to make a sizable dent in the $26,572 that, according to the Pew Research Center, marks the upper limit of the lower income bracket in Pennsylvania.

And so I come to Twitter (and its progenitor Facebook and cousin Instagram). They look a bit like smoking did fifty years ago. Everyone does it. Their little rituals—checking our phones, flicking open the case, tapping hearts, typing messages, and sending selfies—occupy our hands and fill our leisure. They proclaim class and affiliation, and in the academic world, some people take them seriously enough to suggest that an assistant professor’s tweets should be part of a tenure dossier.  But signs are beginning to appear that just as we paid for the pleasure of smoking with our health, so we pay for the delight of tweeting with our sanity, and that social media are at least as addictive as smoking. I wonder whether we’ll see some shift in elite opinion, followed by bans here and there (in schools, perhaps), followed by more and more people giving up on Facebook and its kin, until, sometime around 2070, Twitter becomes yet another way to keep the poor occupied.

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