…take, for example, the common statement “The ancient Athenians invented democracy.” Put like that, it is simply not true. As far as we know, no ancient Greek ever said so; and anyway democracy isn’t something that is “invented” like a piston engine. Our word “democracy” derives from the Greek, that is correct. Beyond that, the fact is that we have chosen to invest the fifth-century Athenians with the status of “inventors of democracy”; we have projected our desire for an origin onto them. (And it’s a projection that would have amazed our predecessors two hundred years ago—for most of whom fifth-century-BC Athenian politics was the archetype of a disastrous form of mob rule.)
The second point is the inextricable embeddedness of the classical tradition within Western culture. I don’t mean that the classics are synonymous with Western culture; there are of course many other multicultural strands and traditions that demand our attention, define who we are, and without which the contemporary world would be immeasurably poorer. But the fact is that Dante read Virgil’s Aeneid, not the epic of Gilgamesh. What I have stressed so far is our engagement with our predecessors through their engagement with the classics. The slightly different spin on that would be to say that it would be impossible now to understand Dante without Virgil, John Stuart Mill without Plato, Donna Tartt without Euripides, Rattigan without Aeschylus. I’m not sure if this amounts to a prediction about the future; but I would say that if we were to amputate the classics from the modern world, it would mean more than closing down some university departments and consigning Latin grammar to the scrap heap. It would mean bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture—and a dark future of misunderstanding. I doubt we’ll go that way.
“If you find yourself reading Chaucer for more than four hours seek immediate help from the Modern Language Association.”—Legal disclaimer to a hypothetical Super Bowl ad for the Norton Anthologies (via wwnorton)
“My heart started racing, not the bad kind of racing, like, I’m going to die. But the good kind of heart-racing, like, Hello, can I help you with something, because if not, please step aside because I’m about to kick the shit out of life.”—Maria Semple, from her forthcoming book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette
“I don’t want to speak French today. I just want to touch your face.”—Yesterday’s quote of the day from a Tommy Zoppa who did not want to field phone calls from angry French speakers, and instead, just wanted to touch my face.