The War on the Classics

Aristotle, painting by the Greek artist Evi Sarantea. Courtesy Sarantea. Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander the Great and the inventor of the science of zoology / biology. 

The new iconoclasm

Our iconoclastic age is smashing images that keep the powerful in full control of their money and privileges, while giving the underclass the illusion of change, that their lives are getting better.

Teaching Greek and Latin in selected colleges and universities is now becoming the venom of the iconoclasts. These include people of non-Western traditions who feel angry for having being exploited in the past and, possibly, are being exploited now.

Legacy of slavery and genocide

There’s little doubt that past slavery left a swath of bad memories and revenge  all over America and other colonial societies. Black Americans are still suffering from the poisons of centuries of slavery. Native Americans are the survivors of genocide.

Barking at the wrong tree

This abhorrent record is no reason for eliminating the teaching of Greek and Latin in colleges and universities. The Classics Department of Princeton University links the “cultures of Greece and Rome” to American politics of “exclusion, including slavery, segregation, white supremacy, Manifest Destiny, and cultural genocide.”

This misleading connection shows the triumph of fashion triggered by recent racist violence. It shows a superficial acquaintance with Hellenic and Roman culture. It’s barking at the wrong tree. Greeks and Romans are not responsible for bad policies in the United States or any other country.

Greek and Roman treasures

The fragile remnants of the Greek and Roman past include statues, jewelry, coins, amphoras, ceramic vases, mosaics, stone and marble inscriptions, and even fragments of the earliest of books. These treasure are locked up in museums. Ruined temples, theaters, stadia and other precious artifacts are in archaeological sites for all to see.

The Greeks left miles of written work: laws and constitutions published on marble and stone or parchment. Poetry, history, dramatic plays, philosophical and scientific and technological works surviving on parchment. These works have been published in the original Greek and translated into several languages.

One can read  a Greek or Roman text, visit an archaeological site or museum and form his / her opinion about the virtues of antiquity and how those virtues have shaped our ideas, politics, and civilization.

The Renaissance

No doubt, throughout the centuries since the willful destruction of Hellenic and Roman culture in the fourth century, some ideas or symbols of the Greeks and Romans have been put to use for the formation of Western civilization. The Renaissance of the fifteenth century takes credit for that metamorphosis.

The benefits of that influence, especially from the Greeks, are unquestionably good: democracy, the Olympics, schools, science, theater, rule of law, jury trials, justice, libraries, beautiful art and architecture.

Modern war against the classics

Some people, however, have been failing to understand the meaning of the Hellenic legacy and, in delusions of grandeur, personal ambition, or crimes, appropriate Greek or Roman names for their actions.

Those agendas might have led them to borrow single Greek philosophical words or ideas, insert them into their own monotheistic theological and monarchical political traditions in order to show affinity or equality with the Greeks. Or, as medieval theologians did, manipulate the Greek tradition in order to destroy it.

Then we come to the twentieth century and tyrants like Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler borrowing symbols of authority from antiquity. Hitler stole the Indian Sanskrit and Greek symbol of swastika, also often found in other ancient European traditions. Mussolini borrowed the Roman imperial sign of power: fasces, which is a bundle of wooden sticks with an axe.

Does the modern misuse and abuse of these two ancient symbols mean that the Indians, Greeks, and Romans were bad? Of course, not.

Drink more Greek and Latin

Thus the present smashing of Greek and Roman languages is a lie and a self-inflicting wound. We say we are not related to these ancient people and their civilization, a fake claim with enormous potential for harm. We are living, after all, in 2021, still a year of the pandemic and climate change armed with the power of thousands of nuclear bombs.

Greek wisdom is the key for unlocking the machine of petroleum and plutocracy stocking the flames of warming the Earth, threatening the planet and civilization.

We need to recognize the iconoclasts for what they are: light-minded and badly educated “classical” scholars and politicians playing games with the underprivileged, promising them illusions of equity and free admission to the Ivy schools, if only we stop the teaching of Greek and Latin.

If anything, we need much more teaching of Greek and Latin, starting that instruction at elementary schools. These two languages open our minds to subtle, difficult, and beautiful knowledge and understanding of our world, our only home.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.