Hooked on Classics

How to think like the ancients.


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The entry for ‘Television’ laconically states that, “In its first decades television did not share cinema’s appetite for the classical world.” This comes from a new publication by Harvard Press called The Classical Tradition. The situation for television changed in 1967 as “the future of the ancient world [was] resolved in an episode of Star Trek when the crew of a 23rd-century spaceship destroys the last surviving Olympian god on a distant planet.” Wonderfully laconic, once again. The entry for ‘Sparta’, by the way, the place from which we get the term ‘laconic’, begins with the sentences, “Sparta, for better or worse, is a brand, not just a name. Whenever we casually drop into our everyday conversation the two little epithets spartan and laconic, we are, unwittingly, paying silent tribute to our Spartan cultural ancestors—or rather to the Spartan ‘tradition’.”

  • The Classical Tradition edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis. 1,088 pages. Belknap Press. $49.95.

The Classical Tradition is billed as neither an encyclopedia nor a dictionary, but a guide. It is edited by a couple of classicists (Anthony Grafton and Glenn W. Most), and one art historian (Salvatore Settis). Its stated goal is to take the reader through the thickets of classical reference in Western culture from the classical era to the present. We do not learn our classics as we used to, argue the editors. But the modern world is still rife with classical references. Thus, the need for such a guide.

The argument made sense to enough people that a large-format book of around one thousand pages with lots of pretty pictures was sent to the printer. I suspect, though cannot prove, that even the individuals who wrote it up in a book proposal know the premise is poppycock. You do not need a guide to the classical tradition unless you are already interested in the classical tradition. Make no mistake, The Classical Tradition is exceedingly delightful, from the final sentence of the entry on Astrology (“who knows what its future will bring?”) to the thoughtful and startlingly complex discussion of slavery, which begins, “The study of slavery from classical antiquity to the present is the last bastion of Whig history. The general public takes for granted that every time slavery gives way to another form of labor, progress has been made.” Everyone, it occurs to me, will want to rush out and pick up a copy of this cheeky and learned tome. The problem, of course, is that only a semi-cloistered anachronism like me would think such a thing.

The Classical Tradition is thus very much for the initiated, cleverly posing as another tool for the project of universal, liberal education. “We would hope to serve,” write the editors of the volume, “as guides for the interested and perplexed.” But even this comment is only really interesting (and amusing) for someone with a little familiarity with the medieval philosopher and theologian Maimonides. Maimonides wrote his Guide for the Perplexed in the late 12th century as an attempt to sort out the seeming contradictions between natural philosophy and religious doctrine. It was an attempt, in short, to help smart people find their way back to the simple and naïve language and storytelling of the bible. The gist of Maimonides’ book is that the stories of the Torah are not as dumb as they seem at first glance. Deep truths are to be unearthed, and much intellectual excitement is to be had by all. You just have to learn to read the religious texts in the right way.

This is roughly the point that The Classical Tradition is making. Our stupid world, suggest the editors, is actually a place of giant fun when you get to the business of approaching it as a vast system of references. In this, The Classical Tradition is not a guide for the general public at all, though it must, of course, make that claim. The secret purpose of this guide is to bring academics and other hardhearted intellectuals back into the world. Come out of your cupboards and basements, pale scribes and scholars, for the world is rich with meaning (as a beautiful photograph of the Mobil Pegasus at a gas station in New York from 1979 attests). The Classical Tradition publishes that photograph of the Mobil station across the page from a photo of the Pergamon altar at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum just to drive the point into the recalcitrant classicist’s mind. The classical world hasn’t gone away, the editors are saying. It has simply embedded itself within contemporary life in strange and complicated ways. You have to know how to look for it. More importantly, perhaps, you have to teach yourself to think like the ancients did even in the seemingly anti-classical contemporary world. The Classical Tradition is a guide because it is a manual on how to have that attitude. It is a handbook for how to survive when you have an anachronistic mind.

I take the entry on ‘Wonders’ to be the closest the book gets to a methodological statement on how the classically minded can gain access to the contemporary world on their own terms. At the beginning of the entry, “wonders” are defined as “unusual phenomena that evoke wonder, an emotion related to surprise, pleasure, and awe.” It is then explained that this genre is often referred to as paradoxography because, “the authors of such works usually referred to their subject matter as thaumasia, thaumata (‘wonders’), or paradoxa (‘contrary to the expectation or opinion’).” Paradoxography really came into its own during the Third Century BCE, but it thrived in one form or another for the next two millennia. The period of the late Renaissance/early Enlightenment was, for instance, a golden era of paradoxography. Indeed, the fascination with “wonders” lent itself directly to the open inquisitiveness of early modern scientific practices. “The Danish medical professor Olaus Worm, for example, determined that lemmings had standard mammalian reproductive organs, which meant that they were not generated by falling from the sky.” One man’s close attention to rodent penises could mean greater knowledge about the natural world for all.

Alas, the days of wonder could not last. We are informed, almost mournfully, that “by the middle of the 18th century the wonders of ancient paradoxography were no longer a major focus of scientific inquiry (except perhaps to debunk them), and the rhetoric of wonder that had surrounded them for two millennia had disappeared in favor of a sensibility that privileged natural uniformity and regularity.” That sentence makes me want to cry.

All, however, is not lost. We learn at the end of the entry on wonders that the paradoxographical tradition yet lives. It can be found in the collection of medical oddities known as the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The classical attitude of wonder is also alive and well in institutions like Ripley’s Believe it or Not! And, perhaps most surprisingly of all, in the Weekly World News. For those unaware of the folio of delights known as the Weekly World News, it is a supermarket tabloid famous, among other things, for the ongoing story of “Bat Boy” a mutant child about whom WWN headlines have screamed such things as “Bat Child Found in Cave,” the distinctly more worrisome “Bat Boy Sighted in NYC Subway,” and the downright alarming “Bat Boy Leads Cops on 3 State Chase.”

The entry on Wonders culminates in the following call to arms.

In many respects these 21st-century manifestations of the paradoxographical tradition are more faithful to its classical roots than were the attempts of medieval theologians and early modern natural philosophers to find higher meanings in phenomena that were originally prized almost entirely for their power to delight and amaze.

This is a provocative claim, and one that runs as a subtle theme throughout all the entries of The Classical Tradition. It is the proposition that we have something real to learn from the classical world. This knowledge is not contained so much in facts or in the ability to trace out the origins of concepts and ideas we’ve borrowed from the Greeks and Romans. It is, instead, the willingness to apprehend the world with a distinctly classical appreciation for its power to delight and amaze. There is something anti-modern in this. Let’s just come right out and admit it. All the knowledge, all the scientific advancement of the last three centuries is put in its place by this classical mindset. Human civilization hasn’t progressed or regressed or done much of anything at all but churn out more madness, produce more wonders both gruesome and inspiring. In the face of an infinite universe, all of our so-called advancements will always be, in the end, absurd. There is beauty in the absurdity, no doubt, but a lot of ugliness as well, a persistent strain of evil that cannot be expunged. More often than not, we innovate simply to find new ways to enslave ourselves. At least, that’s what we’ve done so far. The reader of The Classical Tradition has the capacity to understand this situation, even, maybe, to thrive in it. An esoteric tool for the scholar on the face of it, The Classical Tradition turns out to be a guide for living here, now, in the 21st century as we find it.
5 November 2010