Sunday, June 30, 2019

Tyler Cowen Interviews Emily Wilson

Interesting interview with British classicist Emily Wilson, whose translation of the Odyssey has gotten a lot of praise. I was moved to write about it by this description of her work space as she translates:
I have a very big desk from IKEA, and I have a huge orange cat, who’s mostly on it. I also have a couple of Greek dictionaries, usually a couple of commentaries, the Greek text, a notebook, a laptop. So, I usually do some writing of a draft by hand in the notebook first, and then I type it up on the laptop. Then I revise it, and I consult the various texts that are spread around me on my big desk at various points.
But there is more. Here is Wilson on Socrates:
I deeply admire him, with some serious reservations. The reason I’m constantly turned back to thinking about him — partly because as an academic and also as a writer, I’m constantly thinking about, “What does it actually mean to try to educate people?”

I’m interested in the Socrates who claims that he isn’t teaching anybody anything, and yet he’s living this life of being engaged in conversations which are clearly designed to either draw things out of people or else put things into them insidiously. So I’m interested in whether all educators are somehow in that double bind of “Am I actually helping you find something out, or am I imposing my own vision on you?”

I’m interested, also, in the figure of the dying Socrates as an image. In a way, this is related to the Seneca questions, as an image of integrity. What does it mean to live with so much integrity that you can be absolutely yourself at every moment, even when you’ve just poisoned yourself?
And then this on the future of Classics:
I don’t know. I think it’s going to have to look different because you’re right that enrollments are declining. There’s also a lot of questioning from within, by classicists, about the elitist legacy of classics, about the ways that it’s been tied up with the people who end up being classicists — especially in Britain, but this is true in the States, too — are those who’ve gone to the fancy private schools and have learned Latin since they were five years old.

Then, it’s sort of tied up with being of a particular class means that you can speak Latin or you can read Latin. If we can’t give a better reason to learn Latin or Greek, or to read the ancient texts, than this is going to be entry to a particular social class within our own society — which it no longer is — then, of course, that’s not going to be a good reason for people in the future.
I think this is absolutely right. Since about 1800 classical studies have survived mainly as a way of defining the upper class. Upper class people went to schools where they studied Latin and Greek. Upper class people got the joke when British General Sir Charles Napier reported his conquest of Sindh with the one-word Latin message, peccavi – I have sinned. Even rebels against the elite, like George Orwell, communicated their rebellion in texts laced with Latin words and references to their experience in elite schools.

If, like most modern liberals, all modern libertarians, and (apparently) Emily Wilson, you are  uncomfortable with the very existence of an elite class that passes its status to its children, what are classical studies for? There is a big group in America, led by libertarian tech moguls, that says classical studies is just the worst example of how everything taught in school is bunk.

I can fashion a defense of humanistic studies, but when I analyze myself critically I think it boils down to "that is the way I like thinking about the world and I most enjoy talking to other people who share it." I do think humanistic study is a great way to learn things like writing, speaking, critical reading, and so on, but it is not the only way and I am not at all sure it is the best way. I have difficulty supporting a system that forces millions of uninterested young people to immerse themselves in it.

About classics in particular I think the appeal comes partly from its small canon. You can read, as an undergraduate, pretty much all of the central texts of the ancient historical canon: the Iliad, the Odyssey, Sappho, Pindar, Herodotus, Sophocles, Thucydides, some Plato, some Cicero, Caesar, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Livy, Tacitus, Marcus Aurelius. A lot more could be added but what I listed would take you a long way. It is a very rich body of work but not a daunting one. I have read (in translation) everything on the list, and I am a medievalist by training who makes his living mostly studying the modern period. So in the nineteenth century you could ask military, political, legal, and educational leaders be familiar with all of this, or at least be able to pretend to. I know I get a lot from belonging to the group that knows about these things.

But anyway I am not at all sure that classical studies has a future separate from its role in defining class, and I worry that if we really break the power of old elites it will disappear.

1 comment:

David said...

I would point at that, by and large, libertarians and especially libertarian tech moguls are hostile to a traditional, humanistically-educated elite, not because they are egalitarian, but because they wish to replace it with an aggressive, entrepreneurial elite of Randian superpeople. One advantage of humanistic training is that it does produce, in at least a portion of its recipients, norms of restraint and at least some degree of social conscience. The Randian form by design has neither. My point has of course been made many times, e. g., by Douthat in his "in defense of aristocracy" columns earlier this year.

The Randians seem to be in the ascendant, in part because a strain of American culture admires raw power wielded without conscience, but hates and fears the polished paternalism of an FDR.