Why study classics? For Wolf and Von Humboldt, the men who organized the study of Antiquity, the answer was obvious: by learning Greek, we learned to think like a Greek, and became as original, creative, and brilliant. However, this assumed the existence of a link between language and thought, which was already challenged by Schleiermacher, and rightly so.
Later historians argued that there are long continuities: western civilization started in Greece, where ideas came into being that still influence our culture. The rise of the social sciences has made this theory problematic, although it is often repeated in popular culture (e.g., in the comics 300). Others try to see the relevance of Antiquity by comparing it to the present, but this too is problematic (example). Still others have used the past to create a national identity, but invariably, those national identities turn out to be identical to the identity of the modern student, and ignore the complexities of identity formation, both ancient and modern.
The truth is that Antiquity is not terribly important. Theories like the ones above are only repeated to make political claims (e.g., Anthony Pagden, who connects Marathon to the War on Terror) or to make sure that the department of classics continues to receive money.
This means that the past itself suffers, because it is supposed to serve modern needs. History then becomes a procrustean bed. By concentrating on Greece, ancient historians abandoned the Near East, cutting off a part; by comparing the ancients to us, we are overstretching the evidence; by looking at the past as a national past, we ignore its complexities, cutting it short again.
Does this mean that the study of Antiquity is unimportant too? On the contrary! Ancient historians have often been in the advance guard of scholarship.
- The way Politian dealt with texts, inspired Erasmus of Rotterdam, and caused the Reformation.
- When Scaliger started to study ancient chronology, he discovered that the Bible is not to be taken literally, and caused the secularisation of our world view. Without Scaliger, no Enlightenment.
- The discovery of the relations between languages has shaped the way we define nationality.
- The Lachmann method was the model of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
- Frazer’s hypotheses about human sacrifice influenced decision-making in the years prior to the First World War.
- The simplistic exegesis of Tacitus’ Germania gave rise to the Aryan myth.
- Archaeologists have given us a Prehistory, and offered evidence for the hypothesis that human history is defined by progress.
Antiquity itself may not be terribly important, but the study of the past certainly is. Unfortunately, that what makes scholars real specialists – the epistemological foundation of their discipline, in other words – is hardly ever discussed. If the study of Antiquity is to survive, we need better books, in which our specialism is better explained. We also need to explain ourselves to a larger audience.