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Giving up the ghost – is Classics really dead?

There is no denying it. I do spend a lot of my degree learning a language that is literally dead. Time and time again, concerned parents, bemused relatives, well-meaning friends, and even complete strangers have all asked the same question: Why? Truly, what is the future of a degree so stuck in the past? For many, Classics – also known as Literae Humaniores – seems incapable of giving us anything new with the exception of yet more Tory politicians. The study of ancient civilisation, history, and literature is often misunderstood as having no real purpose, beyond being the pastime of the privileged. I beg to differ wholeheartedly. Before I am accused of bias, allow me to explain how Classics is incredibly relevant, both to modernity and – perhaps more crucially – to the masses.

Classics forms the basis of pretty much everything. Politics, science, maths, religion, philosophy, architecture, history, literature, art, music, language – you name it and I pretty much can guarantee that the ancients did it first. Is a world without these even worth living in? Ask yourselves this question. A long time ago, the Epicureans, the Stoics and the other schools of philosophy asked themselves the same thing. Mark Twain once famously stated that “There is no such thing as a new idea”. Instead, what we have are old ideas put into a mental kaleidoscope to create fresh combinations out of the “same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” The ancients gave us democracy; law courts; paper; central heating; theatre; sewage systems; atomic theory; even time as we know it (cheers, Julius Caesar). We do not live in a vacuum – everywhere we look we are confronted with fragments of someone else’s original thought and though these concepts have been developed and refined from the point of their conception, the fact that they inherently do not belong to us is something that demands acknowledgement. The modern neglect of Classics is an act of copyright infringement. The ancients deserve the same respect we are obliged to give modern thinkers, scientists and creators and perhaps even more respect as the things we consider to be important expressions of being human simply would not exist without them.

Of course, all this is just sentimentality. Does anyone really care that Immortals by Fall Out Boy is actually a sample of Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega or that Picasso often painted over the work of other nameless artists when he couldn’t afford fresh canvases or that the quintessential ‘British’ fish and chips were actually brought in by Jewish settlers in the 17th century? Apparently, the “now” is what matters, not all the layers of history hidden beneath it. I beg to disagree. In truth, all these origin stories are relevant, deeply interesting and necessary for us to properly understand the final product. Vega has songwriter credits for Immortals, the radiography images of the underpainting allow art historians “to look inside Picasso’s head and get a sense of how he was making decisions as he was painting the canvas” and as for the fish and chips, we are given yet another reason to question if British culture is even real. Every aspect of our modern world – material and abstract alike – is rooted in the deep past. Without first acknowledging these origins, we cannot begin to understand what is going on around us.

As a Classics and English student, I am keenly aware that my exposure to the ancient world is a significant privilege – literature is constantly metamorphosing and the ability to trace ideas, forms, and genres across cultures and time is not only valuable but imperative. A reader of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ cannot hope to unlock even a fraction of what the text holds without a conscious appreciation for the general epic genre and the seminal classical works of Homer, Virgil and Ovid (to name a few). Just as Leonardo Dicaprio’s Jay Gatsby is no more than a formless shadow without F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, the book loses so much of its nuance without the knowledge that the American writer borrowed heavily from Petronius’ Satyricon and his portrayal of rich, repulsive Trimalchio and his extravagantly ridiculous dinner parties. In fact, ‘Trimalchio’ and ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’ were among Fitzgerald’s working titles for the novel, in order to underline the importance of the classical parallel. These examples are a bit pretentious admittedly. Some might say that ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’ arguably have very little relevance anymore. So let’s use something with far more cultural capital – the Hunger Games Trilogy.

Suzanne Collins’ YA series took the world by storm when it first hit the bookstores in 2008. “To live or not to live?” – no.  Move over Shakespeare, the only question on anyone’s lips was  “Team Gale or Team Peeta?”. Aside from the exciting love triangle and the chilling depictions of violence, however, the world of the Hunger Games is stuffed chock-full of classical allusions. And they’re not just gratuitous ornaments used to lend the writing an air of sophistication and grandeur. They add a real depth to the message at the crux of the series – Collins’ incisive criticism of imperialism and its inherently predatory power structures. Collins’ Panem is modelled on the Roman Empire: the Capitol is Rome and the districts are the municipal states under its control. The Capitol, like Rome, simultaneously leeches on its people and keeps them in docile submission with an effective combination of entertainment and punishment. In other words, it’s a parasite that relies heavily on its host for survival, while also destroying it. Even the name of the dystopian civilisation – Panem – is looking back to the past. “Panem et circenses” (bread and circuses) is a quote from the satirist Juvenal expressing his pain at how the Roman populace has become passive and submissive when they are provided with the basic necessities of food and mindless entertainment. The sentiment holds truth for both Collins’ not-so-fictional world and our modern reality. Colonisation operates on exactly the same principles as Roman imperialism and the sociopolitical dynamics of the Capitol. A parallel could even be extrapolated to urban deprivation and imbalance in modern-day Britain. Looking at it from this perspective, London has insidious similarities to the Capitol and Rome. We repeat ourselves because human nature remains unchanged – an awareness of classical precedence helps us better understand the functions of our world and perhaps even to drive us to make change happen.  

Classics is incredibly important in politics today, besides churning out a worrying number of Tory Brexiteers. All the structures that form the backbone of modern democracy have ancient origins. If we take America as an example, it is well-furnished with relics of ancient governance. A key facet of ancient Greek political thought was the need for separation of powers. Plato’s Republic discusses the importance of mixed government – he deemed a perfect blend of oligarchy and democracy necessary for the stability of a state. Aristotle took these ideas and formulates a three-pronged government with a legislative (make laws), judicial (interpret laws) and executive (enforce laws) branch. Polybius transferred the concept to Roman republicanism and eventually, it trickled down into the American Constitution via the Founding Fathers who used ancient principles to found a new nation. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and co. were all extensively educated on classical matters, in fact, historian Bernard Bailyn states tha “knowledge of classical authors was universal among colonists with any degree of education”. As Aristotle recommended, the power structures in America are three-tiered: the Congress is legislative, the Supreme Court is judicial and the President is executive. This division of responsibility is how we are able to maintain democracy and prevent a slide into despotism. It is evident that when the Founding Fathers envisioned a future for their country after British imperialism, they looked to the past for a functioning model for a fairer and more sustainable way of governance. Since the American political model is pretty much the same as it was when it was brought in, the classical precedents could almost be used as a manual – the mistakes that meant the end of those civilisations can be avoided and corrected before they pose a threat to us.

The act of building on and improving classical precepts is also paramount in the world of science and mathematics. Ancient mathematicians contributed to number theory, mathematical astronomy, mathematical physics, and even broached ideas close to integral calculus. We are all somewhat familiar – some more than others! – with Pythagoras’ Theorem and Pythagorean triples. The fact that we still use his proof is testament to the importance of the classical world to the way we understand our world today. However, the ancients have also inspired fresh ideas. They triggered new developments that otherwise simply would not have been possible. It is of immense importance to trace these evolving ideas from their origin so we can properly understand how they came about. Parts of Pythagoras’ ideas were explored in depth by the 3rd-century Alexandrian mathematician Diophantus who wrote a text called the Arithmetica, now only partially preserved. One of the mathematical problems within the Arithmetica – dubbed the ‘sum-of-squares’ problem – asks how a given square number is split into two other squares. This was mostly left alone all the way until 1637 when in the margin of his copy of the Arithmetica, Pierre de Fermat scribbled that he had discovered a “truly marvellous proof” showing that It was impossible “to separate a cube into two cubes, or a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any power higher than the second, into two like powers” but that the “margin is too narrow to contain” it. This cryptic note – mere marginalia – came to be known as ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’ and for centuries mathematics devoted themselves to finding this lost proof with little success. Finally, in 1993, English mathematician Andrew Wiles presented his proof in public for the first time after working on it in near secrecy for 6 years. His proof built on the work of predecessors Gerhard Frey, Jean-Pierre Serre and Ken Ribet and though a flaw was found during peer review, he published a second paper that circumvented the problem in 1995. The thrilling saga, starting with Diophantus and ending with Wiles, spans nearly 2000 years. Without the classical inception, we might not have ever come to the modern end product nor ever hope to understand it without an awareness of where it came from. This is only one example in sea of similar developments. 

Human culture is not a static and stable phenomenon. By nature, it is ever-shifting and giving birth to new ideas that still rely on the old. Old things – paintings, poetry, music, etc – are just waiting to be deconstructed and looked at again from a modern point of view – be it feminist, postcolonial, queer or a combination of all these things. Classics is no exception. In recent years, there has been an incredible demand for a specific literary niche: retellings. Madeline Miller’s ‘Song of Achilles’, ‘Circe’ and ‘Galatea’; Natalie Haynes’ ‘A Thousand Ships’, ‘Pandora’s Jar’ and ‘Stone Blind’; Pat Barker’s ‘Silence of the Girls’ and ‘Women of Troy’’; Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’ – all these have one thing in common. They all take a classical story and rewrite it afresh from a sidelined perspective. Most of these examples are written with a feminist lens and a voice is given to the formerly voiceless women who populate the margins of both the stories they feature in and the societies they live in. Our fascination for these rebellious reimaginings is at least in part derived from the fact that they go against the grain of a monolithic cultural canon.

As human beings, we always want to push the envelope a little further and Classics is the perfect springboard for our artistic and ideological nonconformity. Classics offers the foundations for us to build on but the power of hindsight allows us to pick and choose what to keep and what to discard. Without it, there is nothing to be inspired by. There is nothing to fight against. There is nothing at all. Classics is so embedded in every facet of human existence that it literally cannot die. 

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