Why study the Classics? Part 2: Occidentalism

The study of the Classics is often defended as a study of he basis of western culture. The foundations of modern liberal democracy are sought in ancient Greece. The origins of western philosophy are found in Plato and Aristotle. The growth and development of Christianity is detected in the late Roman empire. Classical art is idealized as a zenith of European art.

It is true that the intellectual and cultural force of the “classical period” continues to be extremely influential. Allusion to classical literature permeates the “modern” canon, while ancient Greek philosophy held a strong influence over many thinkers whose writing is prescient today: Marx, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and so on. Intellectual lineage and reception studies are important factors in gaining a holistic understanding of a cultural artefact or text. However, defending the study of Classics through an idealized vision of the Classical world as a torch-bearer for “western civilization” runs into a number of issues.

1. It assumes a simplified, historically illiterate vision of cultural boundaries in the ancient world

The “classical world” did not stop in Europe. The Hellenistic world spread as far as modern day Afghanistan, with the best known inscriptions found in Kandahar. Ptolemaic Egyptian culture was extremely influential at Rome, with a number of emperors, including Augustus, constructing obelisks. Although we can detect cultural oppositions in the ancient world, the concept of a broadly constructed “east” and “west” is a product of much later European imperialism. To view the classical world through this lens imposes problematic narratives on the nature of cultural interaction in the ancient world. Moreover, it leads to a narrow vision of the ancient world with a myopic focus on Greece and Rome, ignoring the importance of, for example, the Seleucid Empire, Egypt, Judea, Carthage and so on.

2. It elides the cultural influence of Greece and Rome beyond the constructed “west”

Allusion to classical literature is found well beyond the “European” canon and can be detected in post-colonial literature. Philosophical engagement with Greek philosophy, in, for example, Japan, has been present since the 19th century.  Mahayana Buddhism is believed by some to have developed out of the Indo-Greek kingdoms which persisted in the Indian subcontinent until the 1st century AD.

3. It imbues classical studies with a chauvinistic political intention

In the modern political climate, fetishization of Classics in this manner is dangerous. It runs the risk of exulting “western” culture as innately superior, creating ahistorical national narratives, and justifying imperialistic foreign policies. While there may be a temptation to appropriate this kind of rhetoric to ensure continued funding and support, progress in the field demands that this kind of jingoism be abandoned.


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