Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Classics: fire in the ashes

Recent decades have seen a gradual fading of the notion of the special superiority of ancient Greece.  In modern times it is arguable that the first truly influential champion of this idea was the archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann.  While his History of the Art of Antiquity of 1768  gives some perfunctory attention to Egypt, it is essentially an account of the glories of ancient Greece in the aesthetic realm.  The significance of the Romans was secondary, as transmitters of this primary heritage.

The expression “Greek Miracle” has a somewhat later origin, as it was coined by Ernest Renan as a result of a visit to Athens in 1865, which he recounted a few years later.  Trained as a Semitic philologist Renan came to believe in something he called the “Jewish miracle,” culminating in his Life of Jesus of 1863. Visiting Athens as part of a Middle Eastern tour he was “blown away” by the sight of the Acropolis.  He then formulated his idea of the “Greek miracle”  paralleling the Jewish one.  In this way Renan recognized two primordial sources of our civiilization: Jerusalem and Athens.

Over time at the instance of others this insight hardened into the sense that ancient Greece was sui generis, a great leap into the kingdom of logic and reason, setting it off from its more primitive precursors in the ancient Near East and pharaonic Egypt. According to Henri Frankfort, "ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians lived in a wholly mythopoeic world". Each natural force, each concept, was a personal being from their viewpoint: "In Egypt and Mesopotamia the divine was comprehended as immanent - the gods were in nature." This immanence and multiplicity of the divine is a direct result of mythopoeic thought: hence, the first step in the loss of mythopoeic thought was the fading of this view of the divine. "It was the Greeks, inventors of philosophy as we know it, who first emancipated themselves from mythopoeic thought.  Today we live in a world that was defined by them.”

Edith Hamilton offered a similar view  Her widely-read account The Greek Way of 1930 (five additional chapters were added in 1942) made classical studies, previously the province of the elite, a popular realm.  Regrettably, some passages make for dismal reading.  She views all of the East  - not just Egypt and the ancient Near East, but also India and China - as hopelessly enveloped in tyranny and economic misery.  In this monolithic view vast terrains of human achievement are regarded as incapable of change - unless, I suppose, they can somehow adopt the model of ancient Greece. This stereotype of the unchanging East is a staple of Orientalist scholarship, rightly critiqued by Edward Said.  Moreover, her account of Greek art is limited to the familiar chestnuts of the fifth century, leaving out the impressive discoveries of archaic art beginning in the Acropolis excavations in the 1880s.  The Pre-Socratic thinkers are a similar omission.

Eventually, this stark dichotomy between the glories of ancient Greece and its less advanced precursors faded.  Several developments fostered this fading. First, there was the comparison of civilizations found in the systems of Spengler and Toynbee.  To be sure, one could maintain that ancient Greece was still superior to all of its cousins, but it was harder to do so. 

The solution in my view is to return to an expanded version of Renan’s original pluralism.  Indeed, the rise of Greece was significant.  But no more so, in all likelihood, than the rise of ancient China and India - not to mention the societies of the New World.

While many believe, or seemed to believe that ancient Greece was self-generating, owing no debt to the venerable civilizations to the east and south, it has long been clear, for example, that the Greek alphabet derived from the alphabet of the Phoenicians, a Semitic-speaking people dwelling on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

In his controversial series called Black Athena (1987ff.) Martin Bernal usefully laid out the options.  Bernal challenged Eurocentric attitudes by calling into question two of the longest-established explanations for the origins of classical civilization. The Aryan Model, still common today, maintains that Greek culture ensued from the conquest from the north by Indo-European speakers, or "Aryans," over the native "pre-Hellenes." The Ancient Model, which enjoyed some favor in Classical Greece itself, held that the native population of Greece had initially been civilized by Egyptian and Phoenician colonists and that additional Near Eastern culture had been introduced to Greece by Greeks studying in Egypt and Southwest Asia. Moving beyond these prevailing models, Bernal proposes a Revised Ancient Model, which suggests that classical civilization in fact had deep roots in Afroasiatic cultures.

Significant in fact is the the more general challenge posed by indebtedness to the older neighboring civilizations.  Bernal’s Black Athena proved controversial in that it focused too exclusively on Egypt. 

Yet the ancient Near East was a more serious candidate, as shown by Martin West in The East Face of Helicon.  In fact over the last sixty years scholars have increasingly acknowledged links connecting early Greek poetry with the literatures of the ancient Near East. Martin West's major monograph surpassed previous studies in comprehensiveness, demonstrating these links with massive and detailed documentation and showing they are much more fundamental and pervasive than has hitherto been recognized. His survey embraces Hesiod, the Homeric epics, the lyric poets, and Aeschylus, and concludes with an illuminating discussion of possible avenues of transmission between the orient and Greece.

Over the last two decades the notion that the Greeks were exceptional has been questioned ever more widely. It has been emphasized that they were just one of many ethnic and linguistic groups centered in the eastern end of the ancient Mediterranean world. Long before the Greeks appeared in the historical record, several complicated civilizations had existed – the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, the Hattians and Hittites. Other peoples provided the Greeks with crucial technological advances; they learned the phonetic alphabet from the Phoenicians, and how to mint coins from the Lydians. They may have learned how to compose elaborate cult hymns from the mysterious Luwians of Syria and central Anatolia. During the period in which the Greeks invented rational philosophy and science, after 600 BCE, their horizons were dramatically opened up by the expansion of the Persian empire.. Many of these thrilling advances have revealed how much the Greeks shared with, and absorbed from, their predecessors and neighbors. Painstaking comparative studies have been published, making these debts clear.

In her monograph When the Gods Were Born, Caterina López Ruiz maintains we should no longer think of the Near East-Greek nexus as simply one of donor-recipient in which the older cultures of Western Asia exported ideas and motifs, which were then reframed by the Greeks. Instead, she believes that one should speak of a larger koine, in which these elements freely circulate. This model would imply that there are components which started in Greece and moved eastwards (in addition to the more familiar reverse process). Thus far the components of this kind that have been detected are few, at least prior to the Hellenistic period. But one may expect to find more of them.

Secondly, López Ruiz emphasizes the pivotal role of the Ugarit (Ras Shamra) and the Phoenicians--the northwest Semitic area in what is now western Syria and Lebanon--as a a kind of laboratory or entrepot in which the culture mixing took place. Hitherto the greatest emphasis has been on the Hittites and Hurrians (in Asia Minor) as transmitters. That northern route was still important, though, and since the Hittites and Hurrians were Indo-European, it serves to remind us that the broader issue is not a simple contrast between Indo-European Greeks and Semitic Mesopotamians. In the transmission of myth, language was probably not as important as usually assumed. We must also expect that a good many bilingual individuals were involved.

All this information complicates the picture.  But do we really wish to throw the baby out with the bath?  Can it be that the Greek accomplishment, while not wholly novel, was in fact hugely significant?  As such it can be studied as a participant in a kind of congress of ancient root civilizations, including Egypt and the Near East, India, and China. 

At all events classical studies have not been idle in the last few years.  Here are some recent developments,

1) French contributions.  French classicists have been active and influential in the closing decades of the twentieth century.  A number of leading figures, including Marcel Detienne, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, have been influenced by the structuralism of the anthropologist Claude Lévy-Strauss.  This model facilitates integration of bipolar factors, such as above vs. below, sexual excess vs. sexual restraint, and so forth  - sometimes entailing the neglect of long-term factors, such as precursors in Mycenaean Greece and the ancient Near East.

 A number of monographs have been translated into English. A representative example is Marcel Detienne’s Gardens of Adonis. The author challenges Sir James Frazer's thesis that the vegetation god Adonis -- whose premature death was mourned by women and whose resurrection marked a joyous occasion--represented the annual cycle of growth and decay in agriculture. Using the analytic tools of structuralism, Detienne maintained that the festivals of Adonis depict a seductive but impotent and fruitless deity--whose physical ineptitude led to his death in a boar hunt, after which his body was found in a lettuce patch. Contrasting the festivals of Adonis with the solemn ones dedicated to Demeter, the goddess of grain, he presents the former as a parody and negation of the institution of marriage.

Detienne considers the short-lived gardens that Athenian women planted in mockery for Adonis's festival, and explores the function of such vegetal matter as spices, mint, myrrh, cereal, and wet plants in religion and in a wide selection of myths. His inquiry touches on attitudes toward sexual activities ranging from "perverse" acts to marital relations.

Honesty requires the admission that the International resonance of these scholars has been fading for some time. Trained in the French lycée system, the leading figures seem to be talking among themselves.

2) Feminism and Gender Studies. The appearance of second-wave feminism in the 1960s affected all the humanities,  sometimes fostering renewed attention to old problems, in other cases casting doubt on the very subject. In this connection some were inclined to abjure the classical culture of Greece and Rome altogether as hopelessly patriarchal - the realm of the dreaded DWEMs (dead white European males). Yet there were a number of trained classicists women who were also feminists, finding value in linking the two commitments.

During the 1990s some advocated merging women’s studies into a larger whole termed Gender Studies, adding to the study of women also the study of men, and embracing such issues as the relation between gender and biological sex, as well as the flourishing investigations of same-sex behavior and its representations. 

Initially some feminists were drawn to the trend to revived the old theories of matriarchy introduced by J. J. Bachofen In the nineteenth century.  Gradually this preoccupation faded away because of the paucity of evidence.

In the realm of professional classical studies an early landmark was Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. This 1975 monograph by Hunter College professor Sarah Pomeroy ranks as a turning point in the study of women in ancient history, as it deals with a wide variety of roles for which we have evidence from early times to the death of Constantine.

In the ensuing decades women scholars turned to literary and dramatic literature, which was found to be less relentlessly patriarchal than former assumed. Greek tragedy, with such figures as Alcestis, Antigone, Iphigenia, Medea, and Phaedra, proved particularly fruitful ground.

There have also been significant studies of same-sex behavior and its representation.  While generally recognizing the role of the binary male-and-female, scholars in this realm have also emphasized liminal figures, such as the hermaphrodite and the eunuch.  There were also serial gender-switchers, such as Tiresias.

3) Reception studies. The end of the twentieth century saw the emergence of a major new effort in classical studies.  Considered promising by some, the capacity of Reception Studies to revitalize the field remains problematic.  It has nonetheless generated a considerable volume of scholarship, assuring tenure for at least a few academics.  It bears sustained attention.

The precursors of this approach were a group of German literary theorists of the School of Konstanz, headed by Hans Robert Jauss (1921-1997) and Wolfgang Iser (1926-2007).  Jauss’s English-language book, Towards an Aesthetic of Reception (1982) made the approach known outside of Germany.

These scholars upheld the concept of reader-response criticism.  In a nutshell, the idea is this.  Up to now literary studies have focused on three major concerns: source-spotting; links with the biography of the creator; and the formal qualities of the work.  Left out is what may be the most crucial aspect at all: the way the attentive reader constitutes the work in the actual task of reading it, which is primarily a silent, individual endeavor.  This is the act of Reception.

The drawback of this method as originally formulated is that it may lead to critical anarchy.  How can one know which readerly approach is best if everything is in the care of the individual consumer, with all of his or her quirks and penchants?  As the Latin proverb has it, Quot homines, tot sententiae.  Thus there is a swirl of competing interpretations, as each act of reading makes way for a new one. Subjectivity is king. 

The specter of subjectivity fostered a reformulation of the issue, recognizing that the effort of decoding the work is not simply a matter of individual caprice, as it were, for such judgments respond to overarching factors that are collective in nature.  These factors include the subculture of academics (who continue to occupy the commanding heights), gender, social class, ideology, and fashion.

For their part, Jauss and Iser had stressed the role of the individual interpreter.  As the idea spread, though, it was realized that it is unwise to ignore the collective aspects, for we read not just as individuals but, willy-nilly, as participants in a group endeavor

An early formulation of this issue is due to an American professor of English, Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in This Class, 1980).  Fish stressed the role of interpretive communities.  Embracing the relativistic implications of the reader-response theory, Fish maintained that a text does not have meaning apart from an overarching set of cultural assumptions.  This context includes authorial intent, though it is not limited to it.  He claimed that we as individuals interpret texts because each of us is part of an interpretive community that supplies us with a particular way of reading a text.  This is so, he held, even though we may not be fully aware of the nature of this collective endeavor and the way it shapes our perceptions,

There is also a diachronic aspect, because over the course of time different emphases are dominant.  

Let us briefly consider a particularly rich example, the work of the great Latin poet Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro; 70 BCE-19 CE).  His first two lyric collections, the Eclogues and the Georgics, are themselves examples of reception, owing much to the examples of the Hellenistic Greek bucolic poetry found in Theocritus and Bion.  His major work, the Aeneid, is indebted to Homer.  

Fortunately, Vergil’s request that the Aeneid be destroyed on his death was not honored, and it quickly took its place as the national epic of Rome.  In late antiquity his somewhat mysterious Fourth Eclogue, featuring a charismatic child as a kind of savior figure, was welcomed by Christians as a prophecy of their faith.  Tertullian hailed the Latin poet as anima naturaliter Christiana.

There were also occult aspects.  In late antiquity, for example, Vergil’s works functioned in a kind of divination exercise, the Sortes Virgilianae, whereby one would open the text of his works at random, seeking guidance from the passage so revealed.  During the Middle Ages Vergil took on the legendary guise of a magician.  Yet the supreme medieval exemplar of the cult of Vergil is his role as Dante’s guide in the Divine Comedy.

In various ways the Aeneid served as a model for Renaissance vernacular epics, such as Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532) and Camoes’ The Lusiads (1572).  

The persistence of Latin as the common vehicle of intellectual communication in Europe assured Vergil a continuing readership.  Yet in eighteenth-century Germany Vergil was somewhat downgraded because of the preference for ancient Greek works, especially Homer.  Still, Italians continued to cherish the Latin poet who was viewed as a national treasure.  In France, the composer Hector Berlioz utilized the Aeneid for the libretto of his grand opera, “Les Troyens,” composed between 1856 and 1858.

With the decline of Latin, Vergil is nowadays mainly read in modern languages, with some inevitable loss of the aesthetic qualities that depend on the special character of the Latin language.

In principle the reception approach can be applied to any past or present cultural manifestation that is regarded as worthy of study.  The following is the expansive view of the Reception Studies Working Group at the University of California, Davis.  “Reception studies confront us with the changing intellectual and cultural roles of sacred and profane canons of art and literature in the broadest sense. Indeed tracking receptions requires an examination of the cultural setting of the reception in which the new work appears; the authority of learned environments and educational systems in general; the relationship of culture and politics where canons and their reception are created, translated, promulgated, and preserved.  [The task is to] examine how the various appropriations of earlier texts and cultural forms have responded to them as prompts, have imitated or echoed them, have inspired new cultural, scientific and artistic developments, selectively read or edited them, undermined them, or otherwise used them, all of which constitute their reception history.”

However this may be, in the present context the issues stem from classical reception - the reception of Homer, Pindar, the Pre-Socratics, Thucydides, Epicurus, Cicero, Ovid, Tacitus and many other authors and historical figures.  The approach also serves to address classical achievements in the visual arts, where the Parthenon in Athens, the Pantheon in Rome, the sculptural group known as the Laocoon - not to speak of many other works - have had complex reception histories.

Reception Studies seeks to delineate this pluralism.  It has something in common with the older idea of “our classical heritage,” sometimes phrased as the Legacy of Ancient Greece and Rome, though it regards such this concept as too passive and too dependent on the flattering notion that classical works are unchanging, inviolate paradigms of splendor.  Then there is the idea of our debt to ancient Greece and Rome.  All these metaphors - heritage, legacy, and debt are ultimately rooted in economics.

Two languages that have been major vehicles of classical scholarship yield more vital metaphors.  In German one speaks of the Nachleben of the classics, sometimes rendered as survival, but the original term is more strongly vitalistic: the classics live on - they have an afterlife.  But do they live on just as they are, or is there some quality of the supernatural?  That is, are they revenants, kindly ghosts accompanying us on our journey?  

Continuity is also implicit in the Italian term fortuna, though this expression also connotes precariousness, for the turns of the Wheel of Fortune can be capricious.  Ultimately, this term may be rooted in the Greek tyche, though this implies good fortune.

For its part, the Latin language gives us the moniker of traditio, or handing down. This time-honored concept is not entirely satisfactory, for in assigning the consumer a passive role as a mere recipient it denies agency at the point of delivery.

In his perceptive book on Sophocles entitled Oedipus at Thebes (1957), the Hellenist Bernard Knox has encapsulated the older view that the Reception approach challenges.  “What does [the Oedipus Tyrannus”] mean to us now? And the answer suggested is: the same thing it meant to them, there, then. For in this case the attempt to understand the play as a particular phenomenon reveals its universal nature, the rigidly historical method finds itself uncovering the timeless.”  Knox displays a confidence few would endorse nowadays, as we recognize that all efforts to recover the mentality and, if you will, the message of works conceived long ago in a society very different from our own are fraught with uncertainty.  Moreover, Knox’s own views were colored by his own experiences.  As a US Army soldier he fought in Italy in World War II.  The success of that effort encouraged some in the belief that in the radiant postwar era we were entering a new, juster world order.  And the classics would take their place among the pillars of that order.

Reception studies proceed from very different premises.  This approach holds that can have no confidence that we can recover - and then endorse - the true meaning of any work that has come down to us from the past.  

Yet it may be that Reception bears the traits of is own era, the approach that can be broadly termed postmodernism.  In this view everything is fluid and transitional. There is no stable reality to be recovered from the past, only changing perceptions thereof.  A more balanced view combines the recognition of the value of the source works with a delineation of the transformations that have enriched - though also sometimes distorted - our understanding of the source works.  

At all events, even in this era of a crisis in publishing, some academic presses have enthusiastically embraced the reception approach.  Oxford University Press, the leader in this endeavor, now offers more than seventy titles in its Classical Presences series.

Some caveats are appropriate.  Do reception studies truly offer salvation - or even solace - for classical studies?  This hopeful conclusion is questionable, because in place of the older confidence in the intrinsic value of the classics, the new approach relegates them to the modest status of triggers in a process that ends up overshadowing them.  In this way the classics assume a minor role in a narrative that in its many twists and turns inevitably overshadows the originals.  Moreover, in focusing - as it sometimes does - on adaptations in film and television, in the comics and electronic games, the approach runs the risk of pandering to popular taste, with scanty positive yield.  


Lin Foxhall, Studying Gender in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge, 2013.

Johanna Hanink, The Classical Debt, Cambridge, Mass., 2017.

Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray, eds., A Companion to Classical Receptions, Malden, Mass., 2011.

Brooke Holmes, Gender: Antiquity and Its Legacy, Oxford, 2012.

Nicole Loraux et al., eds., Antiquities (Postwar French Thought, III), New York, 2001.

Daniel Orrells, Sex: Antiquity and Its Legacy, Oxford, 2013.

Michael Squire, The Art of the Body: Antiquity and Its Legacy, Oxford, 2011.

John J. Winkler and Froma Zeitlin, eds. Nothing to Do with Dionysus?  Athenian Drama and Its Social Context, Princeton, 1990.


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