On the Myth of Classicism

My first degree was in Classics. I studied it in a small department that was, like many Classics departments, it was under threat by university ‘bean counters’, the finance people who felt that classes of two or three students were a waste of money. Fortunately, we had an eccentric (and gay) professor in charge of the department. He pretended he had an English accent, drank way too much, gave lectures in his academic gown and shorts, and rode a bicycle. We called him ‘Godfrey’. But he was an astute politician and knew how to work the university system to ensure the survival of Classics.

We studied ancient Greek and Latin – their languages, literatures, cultures and histories. But it was Greek that was regarded as the basis, the founding culture, and that Latin was presented as secondary, borrowing from the Greeks. Again and again, we were reminded by our lecturers that Greek, and Latin tagging along, is the basis of Western ones such as English. We also studied Sanskrit. Or rather, Godfrey taught some of us Sanskrit. Late at night, four of us would gather for lectures – a gay mathematics teacher, a foreman at the steel works and an ageing hippie. We would chain smoke, drink the cheap sherry that Godfrey provided, laugh at his antics, and learn some Sanskrit. After all, is not Sanskrit one of the classical languages according to the (dubious) Indo-European hypothesis?

The problem for Classics in this university environment was that the discipline was (and continues) to be under threat. We asked: how can they threaten to close down the study of the basis of Western culture? If we forget our origins, will we not be the poorer? But we never questioned why these classical languages and texts – especially the Greek ones – were assumed to be that basis. That was precisely the problem, for the idea that the roots of the West may be found in ancient Greece is pure myth, albeit a convenient one, that dates back a little over two hundred years.

For the rest of the story, you’ll have to make your way to Suzhou for the Renmin University Summer Institute of Christian Culture …

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5 thoughts on “On the Myth of Classicism

  1. Ahh Godfrey.

    I only had him for one section of a course in Religious Studies – on Ancient Vedic rituals if my memory serves.

    He started lecturing from the minute he walked in and did have a knack for making you feel like he’d been there and actually talking with Plato and Socrates. A great performer.

    On the topic its a great myth – even if Greeks said they were inspired by Egypt – that’s on the wrong side of the mediterranean – but then so is the Palestinian Jesus. And the Aristotle we have survived in back-translations from Arabic (whose numerals we use) Eurocentrism never worried about such things.

    Cheers

    Shane

  2. Why is the Indo-European “hypothesis,” in your mind, “dubious”? To a historical linguist, questioning the existence of Indo-European is a little bit like what questioning the germ theory of disease would be to a microbiologist.

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