Thornton reviews the book Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations, by Mary Beard. New York: Liverwright, 2013, 320 pp., $28.95 hardbound.
by Bruce S. Thornton // NAS
This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Academic Questions (Volume 27, Number 3).
Once the heart of liberal education, the study of Greek and Latin languages and literatures has unfortunately been reduced to a prestige discipline found mainly in elite universities rich enough to afford the luxury of a classics program. The once universal high school experience of memorizing Latin declensions and reading some Caesar is nearly extinct compared to sixty years ago. These days most people get their knowledge of antiquity from lurid cable television series like Spartacus, or historically dubious movies like Gladiator and the more recent Pompeii. The foundational ideas, ideals, literature, art, and philosophy of the West are increasingly becoming historical curiosities that like Egyptian mummies or Viking long ships are artifacts, detached from the society and the minds of citizens who continue to live off a cultural capital the nature and origins of which they know nothing.
Those expecting an argument in favor of reviving the study of the classics from Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations, Mary Beard’s new collection of book reviews, will find misleading the dust jacket claim that the book shows why the classical tradition “still matters.” In this collection, Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University and a regular on British television, is more concerned with the intramural professional disagreements and conflicting interpretations of ancient literature and culture unlikely to be of interest to a larger audience. Very few, if any, of these essays cover the ancient “monuments of unageing intellect,” or the classical “things of beauty” that have delighted and instructed the West for 2700 years. Thus these reviews will “matter” mostly to the few hundred thousand academics and other cultural elites who subscribe to the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement—the publications in which these reviews first appeared, and which have little influence on those outside the parochial Lilliputs of academe.