The Classics and modernity (#2)

This is a pair of essays on the theme of the Classics and their continuing influence. It’s in two parts: #1 The Classics and Us (the reverberations of the Classical world on our civilisation) and #2 The Classics and Me (the reverberations of the Classical world on me much more personally). So this is #2…

The Classics and Me
An apologia or credo… from an ignoramus

I have very little Latin and no Greek. My formal Classical training reached fifth form level, over 50 years ago. I have the commonplace affection for the rediscovery of the Classics by the Renaissance and the Reformation, and the 18th century Enlightenment, and the way it seems to thread its way through to the American and maybe even the French constitutions. Like almost everyone I think of the classical Greeks as the inventors of philosophy, scientific method, rhetoric, grammar, and democracy. I have an affection for the Classical Greeks as intelligent, artistic, athletic. I like their foibles. I don’t mind their slavery or their worship of young men. I like enormously the Tom Stoppard view of the English poet and classicist A E Housman, feeling The Invention of Love in the Classics.

I have a garden centre Apollo Belvedere (artfully posed in Picturesque shrubbery, pruned to be scruffily half-revealing), and think its moulded concrete is a perfect compliment to the way this statue is an 18th Century copy of a Roman statue (of maybe a few years or decades BC) rediscovered in the 16th Century but understood to be a re-imagining of a Greek statue (of maybe 500 BC). So I like the way the Romans followed, improved-upon, envied, and organised the Greek model. Like everyone since I marvel at the brutal intelligence with which the Romans found themselves capable of running a big quite stable state and Empire, which the too-argumentative Greeks hardly ever could, and which the British a little unwillingly, and quite self-consciously (especially toward the end), and fairly wisely, followed in their own short-lived Empire. I like the way the Greeks turned out to have had the most Soft Power of anyone until Christ and St Paul and now – perhaps – the Anglosphere, whose ideas matter more than its banks and bombs..

I saw the Classics lurking in almost everything which could be considered thoughtful, advanced and humane about the West as its public and private life developed across 2000 years. Such medieval theology as I read, was drenched in it. I knew that the Tudors were elevated way above the merely parochial and familial by a Classical education (in contrast to their being portrayed as gangsters by many recent on-screen dramatisations of their lives). I thought Erasmus simply the most interesting intellectual I had come across (out of the small field I knew about, I readily admit). My versions of Whig history derived at first from Hendrik Van Loon’s The Liberation of Mankind, popular when I was young, and really an account of the Classical world as it was reborn in the Reformation, with a comfortable stiffening of Protestantism. (I soon became just as keen, as a sort of spiritual tourist, on the older Christian worlds, whether Orthodox or Roman.)

Much less prosaically, I was impressed by Bruno Snell and other writers on the formation of classical thinking about the Self as conceived by the classical Greeks, and lying at the heart of the Western conception of individuality. I have a powerful sense that Christianity built on the Classical sense of the human individual: Christ, the divine with the grit of the human, dying for each of us as a person, the mundane with the spark of the divine, is a development of a Classical conception.

However, I think Classical thinking on happiness and spirituality, and the Christian thinking that follows it, about eschewing personal vanity, worldly ambition, display, and greed is perhaps admirable in principle, and up to a point, but also life-denying. I prefer a view of personal being which is more Levantine, or which has more of the cheerfully dynamic and hedonistic about it. Along those lines, I find The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius more interesting when he embraces the real world and its appetites and less when he affects a Stoic or monastic rectitude.

Partly through reading Cicero’s letters I have come to admire his thought and life, a pleasure reinforced by reading Robert Harris’ cod-biography trilogy. Cicero (as described usefully by my friend Paul Seaman) was a political leader, a constitutionalist, a powerful persuader, and the very model of a political operator keen to defend some version of the Roman Republican rule of law even as power was ebbing away from it and toward dictatorship. He wasn’t big on self-denial, except as an ideal. And he pandered to the new breed of strongmen as a matter of political reality even as he disdained them as a matter of constitutional rectitude or virtue.

Harris’s writing on Cicero talks of Classical Romans with what feels like the right respect for both their liveliness and their seriousness and does so in a style which blows away the dustiness and cobwebbery of the study, schoolroom and the pedant which have repelled generations of pupils force-fed this material.

The same is true of Tom Holland’s work on the period. Holland and Harris are newcomers, but their freshness and vigour have plenty of precursors. Edward Gibbon was an 18th Century pioneer of sparkiness, and something like his insouciance was followed much later by (and I am sure there are plenty of others) L P Wilkinson in the late 1940s as he translated and interpreted Cicero’s letters and Margaret Mann Phillips in the 1960s as she translated and interpreted Erasmus’s Adages. Wilkinson and Phillips find a 20th Century conversational style in their Classical material without dumbing it down.


Paul Seaman
Your two essays are examples of the Classical influence being put to good use in the present.

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Publication date

26 April 2016


Mind & body