That old question, ‘Why bother with classics?’ might finally be on the decline. It appears that after decades of neglect, many are bothered. Think of new books like Ferdinand Mount’s Full Circle: how the classical world came back to us or Nathalie Haynes’s The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, Bettany Hughes’ Channel 4 series The Ancient World, films like Agora or Percy Jackson & the Olympians, and Boris Johnson’s head-to-head with Ed Balls over the value of learning Latin. The argument that we need the classics to understand the modern world seems to be gaining ground.
When you know your classics, their relevance to today can appear just so overwhelmingly obvious that it can be very frustrating to try and convince the uninitiated of their continued value. The lament goes up: how can young people expect to understand literature if they are not versed in Homer and Aeschylus? How even, if we go along with Natalie Haynes’ recent radio programme, OedipusEnders, can we understand soap opera? She found herself struck by the similarities of Greek tragedy and the soaps—both turn out to have story lines “full of tragic archetypes.”
Yet there is a trap in this argument: we must beware Greeks bearing gifts of relevance. If we look for relevance everywhere to justify the classics, we risk finding what we look for—our ‘insights’ may be comforting and banal rather than surprising and challenging. This will be one of the key points of debate at this year’s Battle of Ideas session, “What have the ancient Greeks done for us lately?“
Take Moira Buffini’s recent Welcome to Thebes at the National Theatre. Buffini offered a modern-day Antigone, imagining Thebes as an African femocracy, forced to appeal for help to an Athens run by a nakedly presidential Theseus spreading democracy only for economic gain. Such productions may bolster mainstream prejudices about Athenian democracy but are they ground-breaking? Do they bring anything new to Sophocles’ exploration of the tensions between natural and human law, of the relationship between the individual and the state? Do they add to the interpretations of Anouilh or Brecht? When we oh so archly declare that, just like America, Athens was both a democracy and an imperialist power, do we learn anything from that parallel or do we simply collapse all differences between past and present? Do we actually make it impossible to learn from the past?
Deeper reflection might highlight crucial and thought-provoking differences between us and the ancient Greeks. For instance, the UK’s new Equality Act affords prospective employees further protection from discrimination. The Greeks too argued about equality and opposed tyranny. Yet ancient Athenians would be appalled at a legalistic interpretation of equality that denies freedom to employers. They might ask us why we would not choose the best person for the job? Why have we forgotten that equality, isonomia, means political freedom? It’s about a lack of distinction between the rulers and the ruled, never about looking after the ruled! Never about the “protected characteristics” that the Equality Act is so keen on.
The question we need to ask ourselves is do we care what the Greeks might have thought or are we so much wiser that we can dispense with their legacy and just turn them into a grab-bag of relevance? Are we so sophisticated that we can afford to spurn ancient Greek culture as little more than the pretensions of a dead white male culture that was essentially slave-owning, sexist and xenophobic?
Maybe we should not in fact argue for the ongoing relevance of the classics. If, for example, we allow ourselves the temptation of arguing for learning Latin on the basis that it makes it easier to learn French and Italian, then what case remains for ancient Greek? Why not just learn modern Greek? There is altogether too much concern to make things relevant to today, to bring them closer, when in truth we will learn more from their very distance, strangeness and, yes, irrelevance. The point of learning and thinking about the ancient world must be to try and understand it for itself—not to poke at it in search of the bits we agree with, but to open ourselves to the questions that it still poses. Comfortably wrapped up in the received wisdom of our own age, can we be bothered nowadays to take these questions seriously?
If we do, we may find things we have lost. There is still time to become modern Pygmalions and breathe life back into the beauty we have created in the world around us.
Prospect is proud to be partnering the Battle for the Past debates on Sunday 31st October at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival. To celebrate, we have a pair of day tickets to give away which allows you and a partner access to the entire festival on the Sunday. These tickets are worth £100 in total.
To enter, simply send your name and the email address of the person that you would like to take to firstname.lastname@example.org