What A Classicist Discovers

Classicists are awesome. Those that I know personally and those whom I have read are the smartest and most widely read people I know. They have mastered languages and history and literary criticism and whatever other fields of scholarship and social science that come to interest them. Well known classicists apply these skills far beyond the subject matter of the ancient world. Norman O. Brown became expert in psychoanalytic theory and Gary Wills has written very freshly about both the Gettysburg Address and The Declaration of Independence. Classics remains the hardest of the liberal arts, harder even then philosophy, in that classicists know ancient philosophy, and harder than history and English and the Romance languages, classicists also having to know the related disciplines of politics and art history, and classics is certainly harder than the social sciences, my own field of sociology coming out at or near the bottom of the pecking order. And so I picked up Mary Beard’s book “Confronting the Classics” with high expectations. She is a renowned classicist of this generation and I had very much admired another of her books, “SPQR”, which is a history of Rome, for its clear style and judicious appraisal of its materials and I thought that this book, which is a collection of essay-reviews, would give me an idea of how a classicist fits into her field and of the give and take of scholarly controversy in the field. The book does have her sprighty style and makes use of her vast knowledge of literature up to the present time, but it was disappointing because, to put it bluntly, the issues that she sees as concerning classical scholarship yield very little in the way of results and are resolved mainly by rhetorical flourish. Is the day to day work of classicists really such small beer?

For one, Beard reviews some books about women poets to show how they are rescued from the expectation that they will remain silent. She notes that the fragments of most women poets are too short to allow for interpretation. Sapho is an exception, and Beard quotes approvingly a scholar’s claim that Sapho had found her women’s voice when she appropriated the invocation of the gods that was used to lead off an epic story of war to apply it to her own poem about love, which is a woman’s concern. Now, this just strikes me as glib. First of all, men and women are both concerned about love and, second, the question of a woman’s voice is not about a topic but whether a woman has something different to say about a topic or says it differently. Both Shakespeare and Jane Austen wrote very candidly about love, but it has yet to be revealed to me how what they had to say about it was very different however much they were writing in the idioms of their centuries. They both see love as a connection made to a person who is convinced by the words of another to see the person in a new light, to find delightful the traits once disparaged or even despised. Emma comes to see that Mr. Knightly loves her even as he has, I take it to be the case, been in love with her, without him knowing it, from their first meetings, and Anthony was seduced by the charms of Egypt even as he had been prepared to despise them. You have to do more than Beard does to establish a distinctive woman’s voice, to say more than that a woman has spoken.

Beard passes over another chance to bring in a comparative perspective when she muses about the fact that we don’t know why Romulus killed his brother Remus, his co-founder of Rome. Fratricides often are there in foundation stories and in mythology. Osiris is killed by his brother Seth and, of course, Cain kills Abel. Enough is elaborated in the Biblical story to allows readers of the story to speculate on whether God prefered hunters to gatherers or whether this was an act by which pure evil was injected into the world, as shocking a crime as the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. The story of Romulus and Remus just isn’t embellished enough to raise itself to the level of literature.

Then there is the case of Thucydides. Beard claims that his Greek is exceedingly complex and that we are just beginning to get it right now, some twenty-five hundred years since he composed his histories, which means we have got it misleadingly wrong until now, or so she argues. Then, honest scholar that she is, she provides the nineteenth century translation of a particularly well known adage and a contemporary, more accurate translation. The older translation goes: “The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must”. The newer translation goes: “The powerful exact what they can, and the weak have to comply”. The earlier translation is much more pithy, but the point it makes is not that much different from the later translation. There is certainly not enough difference between the two to think that international relations courses which invoke the earlier one are misleading their students about what Thucydides signifies, which is that morality doesn’t play a role in international relations, only power. That may be wrong, as I dare to say I think it is, Truman’s decision to recognize Israel based on a sense of morality that went against George Marshall’s very Thucydides sense of international politics, but the earlier translation did not disguise what Thucydides had to say. Beard is being overly fastidious about the importance of translation.

Beard falls into another trap set by trying to make something out of nothing. It is the fallacy of imputing to an earlier age the concerns of a later age. So Alexander the Great, she says, is a title Alexander took on only centuries later when he was taken up as a figure who prefigured Roman imperialism. This is not so much a debunking of the idea that we know what Alexander was really like as it is to announce, one more time, the conventional insight (an oxymoron if there ever was one) that historians read the present into the past, which is what happens when people write biographies of Presidents long dead so as to explore what U. S. Grant, for example, thought about race relations and how well that stands up to modern day scrutiny. Not a negligible inquiry, but hardly worth mentioning unless you do not have much else to take away from going through the story of Alexander one more time and can’t leave it alone by saying only that the story of his life is a grand one, well worth savoring.

Sometimes Beard does give herself over to the simple joy of telling a story worth telling. She brings an elan, in her use of a new biography of Cicero, to Cicero’s speech on Verres. She uses her skepticism in part to show that the speech is not what it seems in that it is not at all clear that Verres was guilty of corruption. Rather, what she shows is that artistic plunder is a two way street in that the conquerors get the art works and the defeated get some money for it if things are to be regarded as fair. We can say the same about the Nazi theft of art works owned by Jews, the loss of the artwork the least of the claims the Jews had against the Nazis.

Two qualifications may put Beard’s essays in a better light. Maybe most scholarship is small bore, what a colleague once described to me as “pebble polishing”. You make small claims and those are, as always, “subject to further research”. That certainly is true in my own field, where journal articles produce findings that are largely superficial even if, once in a while, a sociological report is a blockbuster that changes our understanding of a subject matter. That was the case when James Coleman demonstrated back in the late Sixties that facilities and curriculum and teacher salaries did not impact on achievement levels for African American students but that the main determinant was social class and, a little bit, whether classes were integrated. Most of the time sociology is done, and I suppose Classics as well, just to show one can do it for the purposes of tenure and promotion, when the real motivation is the satisfaction of satisfying a scholar’s fascination with the imagery and reasoning usual in their own discipline. People go into fields not to be stars but because they love the field.

Beard admits as much when she says that the biographies she reviews of Roman emperors and their families have to be composed on the basis of the very little reliable information that has come down to us. It seems that these are written for the pleasure of retailing once again some old stories, whether they are true or not. A good example of where much is made of little is in the book she reviews about the life of Caligula, whose author, Aloys Winterling, claims that Imperial politics was carried out in a cultural atmosphere full of doublethink, the aristocrats of the Roman Senate making believe they had power and the emperor also making believe they did. But it is true of all places and all times that politicians are two faced: the powerful speaking as if they acted out of magnanimity and the less powerful using their declarations of independence as a way to acknowledge their deference to authority in that there is nothing much to their bravado but the talk. Think of the United States Senate and its relation to whomever happens to be President. That is also full of kowtowing gestures that mean nothing.

It is also possible that the essay review form is not the place to show the contributions that are made in a field and are rather a place just to give the flavor of the field, the form itself imposing a short hand style that allows the writer to appear merely cute because he or she is alluding to substance rather than developing an argument, and maybe Mary Beard has fallen into that, just as I may have done in the course of this essay. But whatever is the case, the well written essays in this book reveal Beard’s own fascination with the classical world and convey to the reader why some other person might also become similarly enthralled.