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…