A Defense of Classical Literature
By Darrell Sutton
Past centuries saw the creation of various literary treasures whose worth cannot be gauged by modern standards because what has been handed down possesses unique qualities. Forms of spelling, stylistic idiosyncrasies and provenance all contribute to a text’s general reception. Accordingly, titular divisions developed and became important to writers and readers. Those distinctions are still important for historians today. It is for this reason we encounter such contrived divisions like Golden Age Latin, Silver Age Latin etc. Prehistorians whose expertise concerns pre-written material have been unable to provide exact dates for any number of events because the resources available for determining their place in time can provide only unconfirmable dates that fall within the specific limits prescribed by them.
Literary sources offer some things that are concrete and supply literate persons with more realia than one’s imagination can supply. Ancient books are access points into antiquity, which are unique gateways established for learning about heroic men and women, exotic customs, and esoteric characters whose habits may have been either prudish, licentious, or somewhere in between. So the benefits of acquiring a rudimentary knowledge of historical texts and their translations are many. There is an undeniable truth: orally transmitted tales from times of yore were invaluable to collectors of legends in any age. Religious convictions pervaded ancient societies. They were absurd to some; obscure to others. The thesis that ‘Rome had no myths’ was itself a myth. But it was one popularized by the noted scholar, Kurt Latte (1891-1964), who in writing about a peculiarity of the Italian conception of God, stated ‘für diese unspekulativen phantasielosen menschen… keine mythilbildende phantasie schlingt ihre ranken um die götter’/for these unspeculative people lacking imagination no mythical fantasy coils its tendrils around the gods [Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 24 (1926), 244-58]. Studies in the histories of religion, and the unearthing of thousands of inscriptions, have proved him and several of his peers to have been in error. Therefore, scholars of classical texts, although sometimes misjudging the extant facts and data, find that philological reinterpretation of those same literary sources, in time, will bring readers nearer to the truth.
Classical Literature is a descriptive catchphrase used to refer to any set of writings that are valued for their content and arrangement but used by teachers to form a disposition in their readers or auditors for behaving intelligently in life. Nowadays this “literature” certainly includes cuneiform tablets, hieroglyph, and inscriptions that stretch from the Mediterranean basin unto Asian peninsulas. Past generations of writers found objective and subjective purposes in these discoveries. G.F. Grotefend (1775-1853) labored toward the decipherment of cuneiform. Contributions to Orientalia increased quickly. The Journal Asiatique (est.1822) brought to readers learned articles and supplied texts in their original languages. In 1844, the Syro-Egyptian Society was formed in London; and in 1845 the German Oriental Society was instituted in Darmstadt. Travelers’ notes and adventures revealed to scholars that there were riches to uncover, record and evaluate. Contemporary minds were bettered, and in some instances, worsened by their overindulgences in mss recovered from antiquity. The effects are hardly neutral, nor are they unwanted.
Ghosundi inscriptions, among others, prove the existence of a devotion to Hindu deities by 100BC. The Rigveda is a sacred book to Hindus, conservatively dated to 2100BC, even if scholars who take a more cautious approach, dating them widely from 1500BC to 1000BC. Moreover, interested parties would want to know that Sanskrit inscriptions of Buddhism were extant 200BC. In Brahmi script, the pillar of Ashoka gives evidence of an emperor’s royal visit some 250BC. In the interpretation of inscriptions in the ancient near east, progress was slower than desired. Old battles between the Sumerists and anti-Sumerists faded in the distance once Sumerian came to be recognized as an established dialect among cuneiformists. Those wedge-carved tablets, discovered more than a century ago, provided secure foundations for further research. Nonetheless, no one knows if the ancient texts of Babylonia predate the ancient hieroglyphs of the earliest Egyptian kingdoms. And pyramid funeral texts, which are dated between 2600-2400BC, are not without select readers today, but they are fewer than the readers of the hymns of the Vedas (1500-1250BC).
In a narrower sense, however, ‘classical texts’ in many universities still refer to the writings of ancient Greece and Rome, upon which the culture and polity of the west were founded. In modern quarrels, the claim is falsely but loudly made that there is a white-is-right privilege stamped upon Greek and Roman writings, that those texts fostered racism and preferences for white culture. Rather than contend for the opposing view to which some really may hold, a few scholars have yielded ground and changed their opinions publicly to suit the exigencies of controversy. The ‘racist’ claim is a fantastic theory, and even though in several subsects of academia the claim is being made, it is spurious and shows an inattentiveness to historical details; but is based upon conclusions made by persons whose control of Greek and Latin is not enhanced by any acquaintance with the many languages spoken within and around ancient Greece and Rome. In recent years, one Cambridge scholar, an expert in Lucretian texts, has come under concentrated fire from various pupils because of his defense of the value of ‘classics’ (cf. David Butterfield, What would it Mean to ‘Decolonise’ the Classics?, July 18 2020 in The Spectator). The response was swift and disquieting. At present, cancel-culturalists desire absolute power and influence. It is doubtful, however, that mature minded individuals who appreciate ancient literature, and real and rigid scholarship, will be alienated from important texts by youthful sentiment.
In contrast, members of Muslim communities do not decry the lack of diversity in the religious foundations of their culture. Besides, later generations obviously had no control over what former generations did. Moreover, Asian cultures are individually distinct, having produced proverbs and philosophies derived from their Asian forbearers. Such a characteristic does not mean they were or are racist. Nor does it imply that their heritage should be attacked from within by Mongolian men and Tibetan women who believe that the Indians of India should have accounted for more of the Asian literary productions. Similar historical cases can be made. There are ample reasons why one should reject the intolerant outbursts of cancel-culturalists and continue to explore the insights and acumen of persons whose genius has inspired and benefited generations.
First of all, if one wants to understand the foundations and formative principles of Western Civilization, whether you admire them or not, reviewing those ideologies is justifiable. Also it would be helpful to come to an appreciation of the development of that civilization’s laws and the further spread of that culture. Learning customs and beliefs that differ in various ways from one’s own is an education in itself. Some experts in ‘Reception Studies’ seem incapable of highlighting the value of these ‘other’ texts for readers. Scholars in this discipline really have corroded the bases of their own work by claiming extreme partisanship on the part of ancient writers, and then becoming, themselves, professionals who make a living by analyzing and popularizing those authors’ biases or by promoting their own inventive bigotries. There is an old adage that applies here: ‘it is much better to be an artist than an art critic.’ The former gives the latter a reason to exist. Critics by nature can only write treatises of criticism rather than compose literary works of art. And scholars who deplore philological analyses have a tendency to fall back on literary criticism to justify their erudite academic adventures. These undertakings are smoke and mirror antics, shielding novices from the philological weaknesses of anti-historians who are powerless to perform critical work on literary texts and monuments.
Plato and Seneca the younger will be read long after the best literary critics’ articles have been read and quickly forgotten. Millennia from now Plato’s Republic will remain a refuge, to whose pages thousands will have recourse when seeking to understand the best and worst of the attributes of humankind. That assertion is a personal judgement and a truth that has stood the tests of time. At this juncture, I recall a statement made by an esteemed classical philologist, Friedlander (1882-1968), in a faculty research lecture at UCLA in 1949:
‘On New Year’s morning, before I left to attend the Tournament of Roses, Pasadena, I put a volume of Homer into my pocket. While I stood waiting for the procession, I glanced at the last pages of the Iliad, viewed the burial of Hector, and heard the praise of the Trojan hero in Greek verses. Then I said to myself: This has been great poetry for three thousand years.’ See M. Braun, W. M. Calder III on Paul Friedländer: Some Remarks on Research in Classics, The Classical Journal 92.1 (1996).
Likewise, what man or woman having small or large Latin, and possessing common sense, would not want to ponder Seneca’s Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium? Students’ curiosities should know no bounds. Still, they are bound to be drawn to writings with which they share an affinity. Greek drama in the polis was popular among Athenians, but it was a tool used for developing decent citizenry. The tragedies very well may be local sagas retold through reworked histrionic productions. How the gods interacted with mankind is never boring when told to children or adults. Aristotle in Arabic will appeal to medievalists and Arabists whose specialization requires a knowledge of him, but Aristotle, in Greek, will remain the go-to author for students of ancient philosophy who desire to know what Aristotle actually said. Outside the Greek tradition, there is hardly another ancient sage whose influence has been so broad. Arguments to the contrary have been made, but the numbers do not lie. Universities that appreciate the beauties of English idiom did well when they began to train students in classes on ‘the-classics-in-translation’. Nonetheless, to understand some etymological features that now permeate the English language requires a training of a different sort: studies of classical texts in Greek and Latin.
Translations are useful, but their educational uses are limiting. Readers are compelled to look for dependable renderings without the equipment to judge whether the translations are reliable. It is an ongoing dilemma. There is a smaller western readership for some of the more esoteric documents that are studied by the few men and women who work on North-west Semitic texts which are derived from the ancient near east. Possibly the number will grow. The precision now exhibited in ANE journals is brilliant. If one day plausible connections between cuneiform concepts and Greek or Latin ideas can be demonstrated firmly, it will be all for the good. In the last 40 years near eastern specialists have opened long forgotten worlds that once were closed to armchair scholars. Attempts to conduct Bible-land digs brought funding for scientific excavations from a variety of sources. Therefore reports of activities required that popular articles and specialized reports be published.
The study of classical texts is a long winding road. Depending on who is relating the data, the thirteen leather-bound codices, named the Nag Hammadi Library of Coptic texts, form a unique corpus. There are no remotely comparative materials. Exaggerations were great when initially published. The hype soon foundered. And like the Dead Sea Scrolls, though cited often, no reliable conclusions can be drawn concerning who made use of the documents. Source critics give dates for the thirteen tractates ranging from the 2nd to 6th century AD. Each of them merits study because of their antiquity and content. The Gospels (e.g., of Thomas, or of Philip) show an assortment of uncanonical sayings of Jesus; true and spurious readings do appear in those mss; but the Gnostic truths paraded before readers are derived from Hellenistic philosophies, Roman cults, and peculiarly Jewish and Christian Apocrypha. Seeing allusions in every place, specialists are hard pressed to discover anything unique in these literary representations of older classical texts. But revisionary analyses of them swells at a rapid rate.
Is it possible to delve into ancient texts, asking questions no one else asked or is asking, and not be driven by personal agendas? Some would say ‘no’; most would say ‘yes’. In his acceptance speech for the Balzan Prize in Classical Antiquity, M.L. West (1937-2015) wrote,
“There is a view, fashionable in some quarters, that all interpretation of the past is necessarily subjective, that history is whatever you care to make of it, and that the very idea that there is such a thing as objective historical truth is a naïve positivist error. If that were the case, scholarship would be little more than an intellectual game; and there are indeed those who seem to treat it as such. But such extreme relativism is nonsense.”
West’s declarations above are dogmatic. It is not difficult for one to sympathize with his view, but it is a view that needs refining. In Indo-European Myth and Poetry (2007) his thesis was on full display. Already he had depicted the origins of ancient Greek myth convincingly in his book The East Face of Helicon (1997). Several reviewers seemed to agree; although everyone does not believe the evidence is as clear-cut as it is described. Therefore, many of the recent claims made by “interdisciplinarians” are overwrought and overblown. The fact that Greek Middle and New Comedies are innovative and have no antecedents in ancient near eastern texts is proof enough that aspects of the alleged Greek debt to eastern influence is excessive. The last twenty-five years have not clarified what so many persons believed to be clearly visible in particular passages and sentences.
As for future studies, the posing of odd questions inevitably will produce odder answers. Philologians will busy themselves with texts whose exposition is a necessity for the field, burying themselves in the manuscripts and editions they seek to elucidate; but neo-classicists also will give fresh impulse to the investigations of ancient texts; but it will be characterized by intense emotional qualities that will go on inciting ecstatic predictions of doom for classical departments that do not amend their ways in accordance with their demands. Their censures, nonetheless, however sincere, will compel classical scholars who enjoy the reading of classical literature to face down these divisive arguments. Classical literature can maintain its own cause, but classical scholars must strive to do the same while opposing neo-classicists who invent things that are factually and textually untrue. Are these things really so? Is this predicament a good or bad thing? Let the reader judge. However, I am certain that the merits of Greco-Roman writings will outlast their attackers. After all, ‘The Dead White Males [and Females] of Greece and Rome’ have proven through the ages they are not defenseless. Indeed they have bested many foes.