Do Classics Matter?

The infelicitous illustration

Ignore the headline “The Classics Rock“, which has been used once too often, and read this interesting article. The author, Yakub Grygiel, explains why it is useful to study the classics, even though the Greek and Roman authors know nothing about modern politics, business, and life. I would have liked to write these words myself:

The ancients were not worried about the movement of the IS and LS curves. But that’s precisely the point. Reading Thucydides’s description of the revolution in Corcyra, Tacitus’s praise of Agricola, or Julius Caesar’s tale of Vercingetorix’s uprising is refreshing because these works do not simplify human affairs to logical models. These books are full of contrasts and contradictions, showing above all that not everything can be understood.

Essentially, Mr Grygiel argues that the classics still matter because they allow us to put our own values into perspective. We can compare them to others and become a bit wiser. It is a common argument, which has been discussed often in the 1960s. I have often said similar things, but I have never been able to phrase it as eloquently as Mr Grygiel does.

The argument, however, is not unproblematic. We can indeed learn a lot from the ancients, but we can achieve the same wisdom a lot easier by visiting a foreign country. One fortnight in Iran or China is cheaper, and will also help you realize that things can be done differently.

There’s another problem with this article, although Mr Grygiel cannot help it. The webmaster who published his article, put a photo next to it that will probably scare away many potential readers: a photo of that Vespasian Exhibition in the Colosseum. I am not making this up: indeed, the exhibition that pretended it was about the Roman senator-general-emperor, but ignored Vespasian’s entire career and was in fact about the decorative arts in the fourth quarter of the first century. Indeed, the exhibition that crossed the line between “an attractive title” and “simply misleading the visitors”. One stupid picture tells a lot more than a thousand wise words: that at least some classicists will do anything to get attention and don’t care about truth. This photo stresses that from some classicists, you can only learn very bad things.

One Response to Do Classics Matter?

  1. Justin says:

    “We can indeed learn a lot from the ancients, but we can achieve the same wisdom a lot easier by visiting a foreign country. One fortnight in Iran or China is cheaper, and will also help you realize that things can be done differently.”

    You can read the classics for free at the library… can’t get much cheaper than that.
    They can still teach us valuable lessons about the expenditure of political capital too, IMO.

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