The demise of classics means more than the implosion of an inbred academic discipline, more than the disappearance of one more bookosaurus here and there. For chained to this sinking academic bureaucracy called classics are the ideas, the values, the vision of classical Greece and Rome. These are the ideas and values that have shaped and defined Western civilization, a vision of life that has ironically come under increasing attack here in the elite universities of the West just as its mutated form is metastasizing throughout the globe. Very few in America now know much about the origins of the West in ancient Greece -- and our citizens are moving further from the central philosophical and ethical tenets that are so necessary if we are to understand and manage the leisure, affluence and freedom of the West.
This ignorance of Greek wisdom should be of crucial interest to every American -- not because the West is being supplanted by some global multiculturalism (as so many academics proclaim), but quite the opposite: because its institutions and material culture are now overwhelming the world. The Greeks -- and the Greeks alone -- bequeathed us constitutional government, individual rights, freedom of expression, an open economy, civilian control of the military, separation of religious and political authority, private property, free scientific inquiry and open dissent. And for better or worse, these are the things most on this earth now desire.
But it is foolish -- and dangerous -- to embrace these conventions of the West without understanding that the Greeks also insisted that such energy was to be monitored and restrained by a host of cultural protocols that have nearly disappeared: civic responsibility, philanthropy, a world view that is rather absolute, a belief that life is not nice, but tragic and ephemeral (Greek words both), a chauvinism of the middle class and an insistence on self-criticism. The death of the Greeks means an erasure of an entire way of looking at the world, a way diametrically opposite to the new gods that now drive America: therapeutics, moral relativism, blind allegiance to progress and the glorification of material culture.
From Thucydides' account of the senseless murder of poor schoolboys in the backwater town of Mycallessos to Euripides' desperate Pentheus, Medea and Phaedra, we learn from the Greeks that man is, well, man. He's an insecure creature, in his aboriginal state not entirely vile but nonetheless capable of great evil should the custom, tradition and law of his city-state, the polis, ever give way.
For the Greeks, natural impulse unchecked by the constricting bridles and bits of law, tradition and civic order leads not to truth or justice -- much less liberation and self-fulfillment -- but more likely to a holocaust. Heraclitus says that people must fight for their law as though for the city wall. Both keep out the enemy within and without. The city-state was a social organization that curbed desire without stifling initiative, demanding responsibilities in return for granting limited rights. It was not a therapeutic institution or all-encompassing belief system that could free us by reinventing the very temper of man himself -- the aim of fascism, communism and, increasingly, modern democracy alike.
Yet the nature of this life-giving polis -- the relationship between the community and the citizen -- was also the chief topic of scrutiny for Greek artists and intellectuals. What is so often misunderstood about classical literature is that almost all of it was composed as a critique of Greek society and the very values that allowed it to flourish. The most important legacy of classical antiquity is this uniquely Western urge to pick apart everything -- every institution, tradition and individual. Only in this way do ideas change at all. Cynicism, skepticism, parody, invective and satire are all Greek and Latin words -- a rich vocabulary of public and private dissent unequaled in non-Western languages. The macho world created by Homer, the smug polis of Aeschylus, even Virgil's holy Rome -- all are held up for review, and none emerges unscathed.
The Greek legacy of philosophical and scientific inquiry imparts to its adherents the terrible strength to change -- or to destroy -- the existing intellectual and material environment radically, almost instantaneously. The Greeks bequeathed us the tools to alter the physical and spiritual universe, either for good or evil. They also gave us the means to curb our basest instincts in order to provide for the common good.
Strange it is, then, that the Greeks who started it all are so little known in modern America. Now, at the very moment in our history when the Greeks might be helping to remind us who we are, why we got here and where we should go, only a handful of Americans know anything about them.