What is Classics?
This is not an easy question to answer. We could start by questioning the singular verb form (is there a Classics?) and the use of the capital C (which confers a certain epistemological dignity). Classics, one could say, is a discipline that seeks to understand the many aspects of western antiquity—literature, art, philosophy, history, archeology, epigraphy, sociology, and more recent areas such as postcolonial studies, gender studies, race studies—both in terms of how they manifested themselves in their original context and in terms of how they have impacted the present. At one point in history, the study of this field was a prerequisite for entry into politics and power. At the other end of the spectrum, in the 21st century, such study has often been derided as either useless or excessively privileged, or both. Why should we potter around drawing stick figures in Sophocles’ dust?
In truth, the study of classics is enlightening and empowering. It uniquely grants us entry into a world that has indelibly shaped the West. If you are of the West, antiquity has shaped you: the ancient world’s arguments about the value of rationality, the existence of the citizen, the primacy of the male, the supremacy (or not) of democracy, are your heritage and your assumptions. If you are not of the West, the classics are a key to the origin of an other that for the time being counts itself better off than the rest of the world, thanks in part to a “renaissance” and an “enlightenment” that both entailed a resuscitation of a seemingly remote antiquity. But how remote is it? For one, the ancient texts of Greece and Rome also offer us an entry-point into some of the most important debates about ethics: as Whitehead said, mistakenly but importantly, all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. He was mistaken because like some older scholars he forgot there was a world outside the west; but his statement was important in that it registered the huge influence of one man upon our conceptual world. The idea of abstract eternal values has shaped and plagued our debates about what is good, with Kant nodding in the background as others (Nietzsche among them) furiously protest.
None of this even starts to cover Thucydides on demagogues, or Greek tragedy on being torn between clashing value systems, or Vergil on the cost of empire, or Augustine linking man’s fallen state to his sexuality. There is no Classics in the singular. We can reject its assumptions of superiority even as we study them, and we can recognize that other cultures also have their classics. All we need to do is accept that there is such richness in these lodes that everyone can come and mine them. As it happens, you can only understand our current world if you engage in a discussion with antiquity. So come, and join our discussion here at the University of Chicago.