the future of classics

(in Washington, DC)

Just as maiden, standing on the shore of the ocean, follows with tearful eyes her departed lover with no hope of ever seeing him again, and fancies that in that distant sail she sees the image of her beloved … we too have, as it were, nothing but a shadowy outline left of the object of our wishes, but that very indistinctness awakens only a more earnest longing for what we have lost, and we study the copies of the originals more attentively than we should have done the originals themselves if we had been in full possession of them.

–Johann Joachim Winckelmann, “Greek Art Under the Romans,” ca 1764.

The desire to recover and imitate aspects of Greco-Roman civilization has been one of the great motivating forces–not only in what we (quite arbitrarily) call “the West,” but also in the whole Islamic world and in the Orthodox nations from the Baltic to the Pacific. People have sought to emulate a great range of Greco-Roman models. Charlemagne tried to patch together a semblance of late Romano-Christian law and religion. English gentlemen thought they lived like Pliny the Elder under a new Augustan empire. Wordsworth believed he would “rather be / A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn” (a wild Greek savage) than a modern consumer or trader. Czars imagined themselves Byzantine emperors; New England patriots saw themselves as plain-spun citizens of a new Athens.

My father, Joseph M. Levine, wrote several books about encounters with antiquity. He argued that efforts to recover the classical world generally had practical–political and cultural–motivations. Whether you were a citizen of an Italian Renaissance city-state, finding models in classical oratory, or an English Whig politician, admiring the Roman Republic, you had forward-looking reasons to recommend the study of something called “classics.”

Because of these practical projects, the discipline of classical philology became the first and most ambitious form of professional scholarship. But classical scholars discovered the diversity, fluidity, imperfection, and sheer alienness of ancient civilizations. They showed that classical models could not work for the present or future. Thus, repeatedly and especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, classics made itself irrelevant.

I have some classical training, and still prize it because of the insights I believe it offers into the history of post-classical civilizations. Writers as diverse as Ayatollah Khomenei, James Joyce, and Thomas Jefferson were steeped in classical sources; knowing those sources and the languages in which they were written helps us to understand our predecessors. But we should not long mourn the decline of an enterprise designed for large-scale, practical purposes once it no longer serves those purposes.

Classics today can seem a discipline with an immensely long apprenticeship, a vast array of prior literature to sort through before one can write anything original, a limited set of original sources, ethnocentric biases, a modest audience, and a diminishing market share. Yet my classicist colleague Gregory Crane, editor-in-chief of Project Perseus and a pioneer in the digital humanities, has shown that classics offers excellent opportunities for diverse people to construct new knowledge together. For example, Crane enlists Muslim seminary students in the Middle East to help annotate the classical Arabic texts that are essential for our understanding of Greek sources. Beginning students in the US can collate Greek manuscripts (via images); and travelers can record geographical information.

Crane notes that Greco-Roman civilization “remains a major source for every form of popular medium – fiction and non-fiction, film and prose.” People who enjoy Percy Jackson or HBO’s Rome may want real historical information and context. But

the sources about the ancient Greco-Roman world are particularly challenging to work with – the original sources are in Classical Greek and Latin, and our knowledge about the Greco-Roman world has appeared in every written language from areas spanning from Morocco to Afghanistan. The physical world of Greece and Rome has left impressive remains behind to this day but we must reconstruct our understanding of this physical world from archaeological finds spread across thousands of miles.

Fortunately, we now have “open content collections,” such as Project Perseus; and a “new decentralized culture of intellectual life has taken hold among students of the Greco-Roman world, with student researchers emerging as key participants in colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.” These scholars and students can serve the broad public by providing information and background to complement popular versions of classical civilization.

I think that Project Perseus represents the bright future of classics, not only because of its content, but especially because of the collaborative process that feeds it.