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.
July 27, 2021