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What Makes the Classics Worth Studying

Rachel Poser’s recent New York Times profile of Princeton classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta comes across as both glib and ominous. Referring to Padilla’s mission, the headline of the piece reads: “He Wants to Save Classics from Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” The Herculean task Padilla has in mind is convincing other classicists to reject the privileged position given to Greece and Rome within the field. Why? Because he believes that classics as a discipline has played and continues to play an outsize role in the construction of whiteness and, thus, the perpetuation of systemic racism.

The immediate impulse of those who, like myself, are committed to helping others appreciate the beauty and profundity of the classical world is to mount a vigorous defense of Western civilization. Though such a response is commendable, it is incommensurate with the task at hand. But how does one defend Western civilization, that 2,500-year-old institution of interlocking ideas, concepts, and procedures? The mere fact that we, the citizens of the United States of America, are heirs to the immense intellectual and cultural treasures of ancient Greece and Rome creates a prima facie case that these two ancient civilizations deserve their privileged position in the West. From the codified curricula of the trivium and quadrivium to the rigors of philosophy and philosophical expression to Beethoven, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis to the rule of law, democracy, the city, abolitionism, and property rights, the legacy of the classical world never ceases to amaze.

The testaments of those who have been seduced by the field’s siren song speak volumes about the power of that legacy, and might be the best way to counter Padilla’s arguments. Ironically, Padilla himself has spoken positively about his initial encounter with classical ideas. He recalls in the Times profile that as a young, poor, bookish immigrant from the Dominican Republic, in a filthy shelter in New York’s Chinatown he serendipitously found a book entitled How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome. As he began to dig deeper into the field, Poser writes, he was “overwhelmed by the emotive power of classical texts” and “captivated by the sting of Greek philosophy, the heat and action of epic.” Absent from these recollections of his entry into the field is any trace of racial animus or bitterness. The ancient Greeks and Romans initially appealed to him not because he was a poor, black immigrant, but because he was an intellectually curious human being.

Read more at National Review

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