what do i study?

I am often asked what I study, sometimes by friends, sometimes by coworkers, occasionally by customers. It’s the sort of thing people ask students as small-talk. What are you studying?

Classics.

Riiight. Um . . . classic literature? Like Dickens? Or classical music? Like Mozart? Or all the classics of everything, from art to philosophy to literature and music? I also get: Blank stare. Followed by: Oh. Pause. What’s that?

Latin and (ancient) Greek. As well as the history, art, and culture of the period.

This answer gets variously: “oh,” “cool,” “really?” “you can study that?”

From those who know what Classics is: “That’s a really interesting field. Of course, everyone says that but then none of us study it. People say the same thing about philosophy, which is what I studied in undergrad.” Or: “Amo, amas, amat. I remember Latin from high school,” which comes with either, “I loved it!” or “why does anyone study Latin? I hated it.” (The latter came from the former head of the department of Classics and Religious Studies at U of O.)

I do love my field. I think that Classics/Graeco-Roman studies is an important field. It helps us learn how to think. It shows the building blocks of the entirety of Western civilisation. And contrary to what some naysayers may naysay, the western world has a lot going for it — a rich literary tradition, a lot of great philosophers, art, opera, symphonies, rock music, epic poetry, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London — all of which, whether they know it or like it or not, are endebted to the ancient world. Even our law has the imprint of a Roman emperor on it — Justinian, due to his Justinianic codex. And Christianity, while certainly Jewish, was born in a Roman-occupied country and spread throughout the Roman world, with the Greek language as its mode of travel.
But I don’t really study it simply because it’s important. Christianity is more important, so on those grounds I really ought to become a theologian (theologos).

I study Classics not simply because the philosophy, poetry, law, history, art, theology, etc, to be found there is vital to an understanding of our civilisation; I study the Classics because I happen to like epic poetry.

Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,

murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,

hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,

great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,

feasts for the dogs and birds,

and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

Iliad Book I.1-6, Homer (trans. by Robert Fagles)

I study the Classics for men like Alexander and Caesar and Constantine. The Roman dichotomy fascinates me — a culture that produces Seneca, Virgil, and the Prima Porta Augustus alongside gladiators, conquest, and countless crucifixions. I bend my brain attempting certain passages of Plato — and enjoy being annoyed by Socrates in others. I stared at the Parthenon while I was in Athens. I just sat there and stared.

When I read the history of the Greeks and Romans, I read the history of humanity. Some argue against the narrowness of my choice of field — that we should study Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Celts alongside Greece and Rome. Or that the term “classics” is flawed, because if I were Chinese, I would mean an entirely different body of knowledge.

Hogwash.

First, classic will always be a culturally-defined word. I am not Chinese. I do not live in China, either. It is perfectly acceptable to say within my own cultural context that when I study “classics”, I study the classics of my own culture. Second, we have to draw the line somewhere. I believe that a reading of Gilgamesh (something I’ve done) as well as other Near Eastern cultures of the ancient world will help us understand the Greeks and Romans better. But it is the Greeks and Romans of whom I and the western tradition are the heirs. I am not Persian. If I were, I would read more about Cyrus the Great — but as a Classicist, if I want to know about Classical Greece, some knowledge of Persia is necessary, due to the relationships between Greece and the Persian Empire. If I am to understand Alexander, I must understand Persia to a degree. It would be nice to study every great civilisation that ever existed — Assyrians, Egyptians, Hittites, Babylonians, ancient China, ancient Persia, Africa, the Celts, the Vikings, the Incas — but I have only one brain and only so much time.

So I study the Classics. I study ancient western literature in Latin and Greek. I study Graeco-Roman history. I gape and gawk at Greek and Roman art. I ponder Greek (and Roman) philosophy. I pore over the centuries of the Church’s birth. I learn the myths. I see the things that are deep in our souls. I see our trivialities as well (both are to be found in The Golden Ass by Apuleius). I see people striving for great things. I see different types of “great”. I discover the rational. I dare not shy away from the irrational. I see people defending honour. I see people producing beauty. I see people wrangling over minute turns of phrase. In short, I see civilisation, I see myself, I see the world, I see the human race.

This study of the Classics is nothing less (to use a “sexist”, outdated phrase) than the study of man itself. That is what I study.

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