Sunday, November 17, 2013

A review of Mary Beard's new book

Jutta sends along this review of Mary Beard's new book, Confronting the Classics. It sounds like a fun read - the sort of thing that would provoke undead minds to find out more about those whose cultural value has, for the past 70 years or so been marked more in the breach than the observance.

A Minoan fresco from Knossos, Greece, known as the 'Ladies in Blue,' which dates from 1500 B.C. but was extensively restored in the early 1900s. The Bridgeman Art Gallery

If her intent - and Beard is a highly regarded classicist at Cambridge -  is to stimulate interest, hoping that a virus of curiosity might prod schools and media mavens to give the Classics a tad more centrality, or at least visibility, then of course more power to her. She does seem to be aiming beyond the heads of those already enchanted by, or receiving a salary for expertise related to, the "ancient" Greeks and Romans -- no mean feat, and a generous thing for a scholar to do.

What might not be quite so strongly emphasized in Beard's book -- I can't tell from the review, but will be curious to discover -- is an argument we don't hear so much any more: That the Classics are always current, always central to our languages, our words, syntax, rhetorical susceptibilities, logical powers, scientific interests. The classics are the wellspring of our underlying vernacular: we can not say "logic" without invoking, as from Olympus, the richly shared semantic burden of the λόγος of Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle. The fact that some folks might have neither read nor even heard of these Greek authors carries no weight -- when one says "logic," one summons a symposium living on in the λόγος -- a lively 2500-year conversation going on within the philology of that word to this day.

The classics won't be irrelevant or otherwise superfluous so long as we insist on attempting to apply reason to our world. It would be like trying to walk without feet - or better, without the gravity that keeps us grounded as well as able to stand, move, and look around us. As much as we might consider Socrates rather out of date, at some moment, in the αγορά of daily interaction, the smile of his awe at our all-knowing modernity could cease to flatter. In that moment, we might learn to see ourselves with a bit more classical candor, and share a bit of his good humor.


ane pixestos said...

Thank you for this mention which I shall interpret as a note of encouragement, to keep trying to realise the glimpse into the classics first most powerfully afforded me by Hadot and Gadamer then later by Ruskin and the scientist J.C. Maxwell.

Tom Matrullo said...

Naturally it's the last of the names that intrigues. I know almost nothing of Maxwell, even less regarding his relation to ancient Greek and Roman authors. Now I'm curious.

ane pixestos said...

He was educated in the classics first, being a Victorian. But he seems to have lived the good life - that's my opinion; he put the ideas into practice. I keep meaning to write a post about him, perhaps I will get to it this week.

Tom Matrullo said...

Glad to see you did get to him - a remarkable appreciation.