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.