The Classics: Required Reading for the Modern Man

A few thousand years isn’t that long.

Gary Neill for The Chronicle Review

It is common knowledge that the study of humanities has been on a steady decline since the turn of the century. So why read the Classics? To be reminded that we are not special. We are children of the Grecians and Romans; our stories and archetypes are theirs, the architecture of our politics. While we have evolved in technological and industrial aspects, while we have become slightly more inclusive and equal, we are essentially no more cultured or civilized than we were before thousands of years of evolution and revolution — in part, perhaps less so.

In his music, Iggy Pop performs in a manner both raw and primitive, but rich with stylism and intent. He writes in the same language: honest, impassioned, uncompromising. In Caesar Lives, his proud confessional of love for the Classics, Iggy writes, “I feel a great comfort and relief knowing that there were others who lived and died and thought and fought so long ago; I feel less tyrannized by the present day.” I believe that classical literature found Iggy Pop in a tumultuous moment in his life. Ten years after his classical revelation and two years before the publication of Caesar Lives, the singer released a cover of “Louie Louie” on his album American Caesar. The song commented on how the post-Cold War political climate affected him and the American psyche at large; Iggy sings, “I’m as bent as Dostoevsky, I think about the meaning of my life again… I’m trying to do right” While this line pertains directly to the events of modern day, I imagine the song performed in an ancient amphitheater by wistful men in tunics, prosing the uncertainty of their lives in Rome’s infancy after the fall of Troy. After all, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire showed the artist the essential conception of American democracy in the eyes of newborn Rome, thus allowing him to see the two as corollaries.

However, despite our contestable progress as a species, we read to also realize that we are, perhaps, much less evolved than our Grecian ancestors. In Walden, Thoreau writes, “Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race.” While most of the ideas proposed in this piece are, in my novice opinion, inherently classist and so obvious they are better left unsaid, Walden’s chapter “Reading” still makes for an interesting interpretation. As some of classical literature’s linguistic beauty and full subtlety of significance has been literally lost in translation, in a more analytical sense, so have the original ideals of classic democracy become obsolete and perverted. For example, while Athens had its flaws and inequalities, I consider it to be more of a meritocracy than the United States in 2019. In his speech “Against Meidias,” Demosthenes, a statesman and orator of Ancient Athens, argues that the rich have the right to keep the wealth that they have earned in order to guard the collective wealth of the city: “[The rich] have great wealth (polla agatha) which no one keeps them from enjoying; therefore they must not keep us [the demos] from enjoying the security (adeia) which is our most common possession — the laws.” Today, the economically elite have a stronghold on our government and use their money to manipulate our most common possession. In Ancient Greece, a poor man could secure a legal hearing against a rich man without paying the opulent surety required for public action; today, wealthy corporations with the ability to hire experienced lawyers perform legal jiu jitsu on disadvantaged citizens represented by public defenders. In 2014, Princeton University found that a proposed policy change with low support from wealthy Americans is adopted 18% of the time, whereas a change with high support is adopted about 45% of the time. College bribery scandals, the lack of accountability for the banks responsible for the 2008 economic crisis, Jeffrey Epstein’s sweetheart deal, the list goes on. While these are just some examples, they beautifully articulate our ‘democracy’s’ regression into a rapacious plutocracy more prone to corruption and elitism than ever.

We read the Classics to remember that we have much to learn from our ancestors, much to reabsorb into our modern routines. For example, we have lost a great deal of sparking fervor since Prometheus first stole us fire. As Boris Johnson proclaimed, in the first line of one of the greatest works in the Western canon “we find the… first act of insubordination that is to become the hallmark of Greek genius” (Johnson, 1). Heresy, defined as holding a belief contrary to that of the social doctrine, is derived from the Greek word haireomai, to choose. When did we lose our desire to choose? When did we stop seeing our input, our defiance, our insubordination, as necessity? We have become complacent, doped up on super-sized meals and antidepressants, watching the illusion of democracy play out on a staticky television screen before us. The word ‘politic’ comes from the Greek politēs, citizen, yet it seems today’s political focus is on anything but. Thus it seems to be more important now than ever to read the Classics, to fight with the rage of Achilles against the normative.

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