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.