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How Classicists Undermine the Case for Classics

It is often a depressing experience to hear a favorite actor or artist speak about public affairs.  The creativity that delights and enlightens turns to foolishness and ignorance and not even of an original kind.  But it is even more depressing when a writer who is also a scholar talks nonsense that, if pursued, would further endanger her embattled discipline. Sadly, Emily Wilson, a brilliant translator of the Odyssey and professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania, is the latest example of how one person can combine artistic excellence and analytic obtuseness.

Let me begin by praising her recent translation.  Hers is the Odyssey for our age.  Fast-paced yet lyrical, it is as quick a page turner as a superb detective novel, but packed with many more memorable lines. Here, for instance, is the beautiful way, also noted in the Guardian’s fine review,  in which she renders Homer’s description of Calypso’s lair:

The scent of citrus and of brittle pine
Suffused the island. Inside, she was singing
And weaving with a shuttle made of gold.
Her voice was beautiful. Around the cave
A luscious forest flourished: alder, poplar,
And scented cypress.

In such passages Wilson truly captures Homer’s blue serene. But she can also speak out loudly and boldly the brutal and shocking scenes in which Odysseus takes revenge on his wife’s suitors. And at least in the view of this former classics major, her translation does not sacrifice accuracy to style.

But sadly in a recent interview with Tyler Cowen Wilson shows herself clueless in how to preserve the heritage of classics at our universities against the decline in enrollments they are experiencing.  She first complains that classics students tend to come from prep schools and privilege and then states:

I think we should stop selling classics as, “These are the societies that formed modern America, or that formed the Western canon” — which is a really bogus kind of argument — and instead start saying, “We should learn about ancient societies because they’re different from modern societies.”

Unless many public high schools turn to teaching classical languages—an event only a little more likely than a public reappearance of Athena—classics departments will depend on “privileged” students. For most undergraduates, it is almost impossible to master one classical language, let alone two, in college without substantial prior preparation.

But more importantly giving up on the proposition that the classical world is the cradle of Western Civilization will accelerate declines in enrollment and make classics less worth saving.

That we are inheritors of Athens and Rome as well as Jerusalem is an essential truth. Roman law, for instance, cemented European societies for two millennia. And as a translator of the Odyssey should recognize, Roman law provided a crucial advance on the lawlessness of the societies portrayed in the poem, where revenge is no substitute for justice.

And slighting the Western heritage from the classical world abandons a key selling point for classics. There are a lot of cultures very different from America. China was and is a civilization perhaps more distant from us than Rome.  And learning its language and culture is likely to be more instrumentally useful for most students in world where that nation is rising to challenge the United States in commerce and power.

Giving up on the classical world’s essential connection to the best of the West is yet another form of self-defeating political correctness for the humanities.

Reader Discussion

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on April 05, 2019 at 15:54:43 pm

Is it possible she is simply trying to preserve study of the classics by re-branding them to appeal to modern sensibilities? I agree fully with McGinnis' appreciation of the classics, but like Apollo in the Star Trek episode, they will simply disappear altogether if ignored by successive generations who have been trained to summarily dismiss (despise, actually) anything claiming to represent "Western civilization."

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QET
on April 05, 2019 at 16:41:09 pm

My son is planning on double-majoring in Classics and History as preparation for law school and a career as a trial lawyer and politician. He's currently a junior in our local public high school. No fancy prep school or privileged upbringing and I certainly did not steer him in this direction, but he was apparently influenced by my Greek and Hebrew hobbies.

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Robert
on April 05, 2019 at 17:04:57 pm

Suffusing scholarly opinion with art references makes arrogance against an opposing scholar seem doubly offensive. Slinging lame evaluations like nonsense, sadly, brilliant translator with analytic stupidity, clueless, essential truth as surrogate for the-objective-truth, and political correctness seems both un-civic and uncivil.

It seems to me Emily Wilson, in “We should learn about ancient societies because they’re different from modern societies” expresses a point that the modern student should heed. For example, neither translator nor scholar will help the student imagine that Plato in “Symposium” had Agathon express that fellow citizens who appreciate life neither initiate nor tolerate harm to or from humans or Gods. I don’t think Western civilization has yet grasped this proposition, derived from a translation of Plato but otherwise not from a scholar or university.

Wilson was not hurt by McGinnis’s unfortunate essay.

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PHILLIP BEAVER
on April 05, 2019 at 18:35:09 pm

Slinging lame evaluations like nonsense, sadly, brilliant translator with analytic stupidity, clueless, essential truth as surrogate for the-objective-truth, and political correctness seems both un-civic and uncivil.

Uh...what?

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z9z99
on April 05, 2019 at 23:39:56 pm

As an undergraduate classicist I am offended by the idea that my discipline is not worth saving if it is not for the purpose of creating an origin narrative about the western world. This is borderline untasteful, and to call a Wilson "clueless" is shallow. As others have said above, she's making a very real point that the world was very different than the world today-- but it's also not, which is why we need to understand it as we understand other cultures, and even as we would understand space or neuroscience. This article is just fishing to make the material more political than it has already been wielded.

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Lovely
on April 06, 2019 at 00:28:50 am

Denying that Western culture was founded on ideas expressed by Greek and Roman thinkers sterilizes the study of the classics and is patently false. To simply say that "we should study them because they're different," robs students of the vital connection they may glean if given the chance to instead look for shared experiences of the human condition when reading Cicero, Sappho, Thucydides, Caesar, Horace, Homer, Seneca, or Propertius. That these authors are different from modern American experience is a given; the questions that come to students' minds are what value does this have to me, what might I learn from this person's ideas, and how can these ideas be instructive for my life, despite our differences. Part of the reason some of these authors' ideas have been made part of the Canon is that they have been so frequently referenced, revisited, and expounded upon by subsequent thinkers throughout history. Newton said he could only be so far-seeing because he stood on the shoulders of giants who came before him; a growing proportion of today's academics seem only to want their students to stand tall because they slew the giants beneath them.

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Latinist
on April 06, 2019 at 05:29:38 am

McGinnis was not hurt by Beaver’s unfortunate comment.

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KenG453
on April 06, 2019 at 09:18:56 am

My compliments to Mr. Beaver for outdoing Henry James’s often convoluted and at times impenetrable writing style.

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Walt
on April 06, 2019 at 10:51:59 am

Perfect. Thank you.

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Latecomer
on April 06, 2019 at 10:55:17 am

This is essentialist.

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Lovely
on April 06, 2019 at 11:26:50 am

OK, Beaver, your parole has been revoked.
Back to Coventry with you!

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gabe
on April 06, 2019 at 13:36:47 pm

It is not essentialist to say that individuals throughout history have expressed valuable ideas.

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Latinist
on April 07, 2019 at 21:19:08 pm

As noted by some of the above comments, Prof. Wilson was probably trying to defend her discipline by distancing it from the concept of Western Civilization, which has come under virulent attack (or has been dismissed as fictional construct) in academia for some time and is now almost without defenders there. What is noteworthy is Prof. McGinnis's apparent lack of awareness of this widely reported trend.

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djf
on April 08, 2019 at 02:51:13 am

I am wildly disappointed in how negatively people seem to be responding to you. I think you're right, honestly.

I'm also glad to hear that Wilson at least wasn't hurt by the article (how do you know this? are you a colleague of hers?) - of course I've never met her or heard of her before this, but I can't help but wonder: how could anyone think it respectable to write a public article declaiming her alone, just to prove a point? The only reason she was brought into the article was so the author could say "here is one single person who is wrong and here's why her view is silly," something I don't think serves to make the argument any stronger and just shows that the author is inconsiderate and somewhat contemptible.

Without knowing either Wilson or the author, all it does is make me like the author less and feel bad for Wilson. I'm that sure isn't what the author meant to achieve, so what is?

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H2O
on April 09, 2019 at 09:50:29 am

As a professor of and practicing researcher in Classical Studies, I am very familiar with, but still alarmed by, the sentiments Mr. McGinnis expresses here. The field of Classical Studies is acutely aware of both (a) our connections (for better or worse) to so-called "Western Civilization;" and (b) the decreasing enrollments that affect not only Classics but all Liberal Arts. If proof is needed one may look at the program for the most recent AIA/SCS annual meeting and the subsequent reflection on what occurred there (https://www.archaeological.org/meetingnews). Given that Dr. Wilson is a member of one of the best graduate programs in Classics, as well as a widely read author by the general public, I would submit that she likely has a better understanding of the state of her field than Mr. McGinnis.

If nothing else, focusing on Classics as the inheritor of "Western Civilization" drastically limits the importance of the Classical World to those interested only in Western societies, past and present. A better, more honest and more productive approach, is to recognize the relevance of the Ancient Greek and Romans to all of humanity. When at the end of Euripides' Medea Jason screams that "none of this would have happened if I had married a good Greek girl," Euripides is not acting as a finishing school for Greek girls: rather by antithesis he is calling attention to the universality of the suffering and hurt that Medea has experienced, regardless of her supposed foreign origins. Euripides' play does not just speak to those interested in how Plato influenced Alexander Hamilton (although it can), but to anyone who has experienced cruelty and loss from one they loved. This is the vision of Classics that I teach my students, and at the basest level of concern, I am proud to say that in my program, enrollments are up.

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EWT
on April 09, 2019 at 10:39:52 am

I appreciate your comments.

The very idea of creating an expression against which truth may be examined is disturbing to many self-styled scholars and "authorities." It is a consequence of my 2006 speech, "Faith in the truth," and a brilliant man's question, "Phil what truth are you preaching? Absolute truth? Ultimate truth? God's truth? Phil's truth?" I answered, "The truth based on evidence any human can discover, comprehend, and use for benefit." About a decade later, I connected the-objective and objective-truth and thanked Harold Weingarten for a thoughtful question.

I write to express and collaborate on the-objective-truth and am confident that the message is more important that Phil Beaver. What amazes me is that AI labeled "gabe," which seems clueless.

I do not know Wilson and doubt there's enough of my remaining life to enjoy her work as I wish to. However, as I mentioned earlier, Plato, writing about Agathon's speech in "Symposium" presented an idea I have developed during my recent two decades: Citizens who appreciate life neither initiate nor tolerate harm to or from men and gods. I doubt another human would imagine that thought from Plato's writing or scholars' interpretations.

When I perceive someone is attempting to harm a fellow citizen, I share my perception with the perpetrator, leaving it to him or her to assess my opinion. I thought McGinnis was behaving like an adolescent. He reminded me of James Comey, and perhaps my opinion of Comey nanny-state-behavior applies. I think Comey honestly has never considered integrity. I could be wrong on both accounts.

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Phillip Beaver
on April 10, 2019 at 23:28:12 pm

EWT: I appreciate learning "at the end of Euripides’ Medea Jason screams that 'none of this would have happened if I had married a good Greek girl.'”

I scanned http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/EuripidesMedeaLuschnig.pdf and see that the real issue is infidelity, which was a bad 2,500 years ago as it is today.

Euripides portrayed men as citing the grace of God to justify their willfulness and some women would not fall for it when another woman stepped in to take her husband. I think there is a case for studing 2,500 year-old stories so as to choose fidelity without personal loss and misery.

Euripides expressed yet other angles about falling in love and making marriage vows. When infidelity came, the agreeved party did not accept "civilization." Her action was far fetched and illustrated the woe the unfaithful beg.

The human being is so aware and so capable of learning from the literature that to consider him or her in the class with the animals seems like proprietary protection of excuses for development of banal appetites.

It seems past time for scholars to take a new path: Each person has human individual power, individual energy, and indiviual authority (HIPEA) to develop integrity. Integrity is the practice of comprehending the-objective-truth, behaving so as to benefit, and publically sharing the understanding so as to learn of possible improvements.

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PHILLIP BEAVER
on August 11, 2019 at 13:29:24 pm

I see no reason why Classics cannot be upheld as both an opportunity to study the progenitors of Western Civilization as well as cultures that are different from ours,. Each reason may appeal to a different set of students, which could increase the number of students currently studying the topic. Wilson's approach would ultimately throw the baby out with what she sees as bathwater.

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Christa Barnhizer
on August 12, 2019 at 09:55:44 am

Ms. Barnhizer, I think you misconstrue Wilson's plea. She wants classics sold as journals of mistaken "truths" of the past so that living people (a continuum) may observe mistakes without experiencing them.

Quoting McGinnis' quote of Wilson, "I think we should stop selling classics as, “These are the societies that formed modern America, or that formed the Western canon” — which is a really bogus kind of argument — and instead start saying, “We should learn about ancient societies because they’re different from modern societies.”

In support of Wilson's "bogus kind of argument," we may observe that "the societies that formed modern America" is an overt claim to identity politics.

That the "Western thought" proponent objects to the stonewalling he or she currently receives is perhaps a new, covert experience.

What's happened in the last 25 years is that the older phrase "political correctness" yielded to "identity politics." I was reared in the identity politics of "the Christian thing to do," and realized only on studying Joshua Mitchell's "What is Identity Politics?", in the current issue of National Affairs, that not only Christianity but monotheism is identity politics that spawns many violent factions---the Abrahamic top three factional religions to cite a few of the thousands.

By accepting that "Western Civilization" is 17th-19th century British dominated political correctness, reform to an achievable better future may accelerate.

The preamble to the U.S. Constitution has been proposing reform from colonial-British tradition to responsible human liberty under civic, civil, and legal authority in the USA for 231 neglectful years. This unfortunate human loss has occurred because of the determination to impose errors of the past on the continuum of living citizens.

Beware the political correctness and identity politics of preserving colonial tradition and attend to the journals of past errors.

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Phillip Beaver

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.