Remembering Prometheus: A Defense of the Classical Tradition

By Jessica Glueck

What is the “classical tradition”?

Is it, as Solveig Lucia Gold suggested recently [1] in the New Criterion, a canon of supremely beautiful texts endowed with universal values? Or do the Classics represent, as Ayelet Wegner argued [2] in Eidolon, a long and painful legacy of exclusion?

There is merit in both points of view. No responsible classicist can turn away from the role of our discipline in ideologies of hatred and subjugation. The Nazis traced their “Aryan race” back to the ancient Greeks. Today, white supremacist groups like “Identity Evropa” use ancient Greek statuary as backgrounds for their propaganda posters [3]. Classics owes its very existence as an academic field to a white male elite who often had little interest in engaging with “lesser beings” like Blacks, women, and Jews.

Yet we are still drawn to these texts for a reason. We read them because the speeches of Virgil’s grieving Dido can still move a classroom full of sixteen year olds to tears. Or because Ovid’s racy witticisms can still make us laugh. Or because the fragments of Sappho’s poetry haunt us as we fall in love. Two or even three millennia, when compared to our two hundred thousand year history as a species, is a vanishingly small span of time. Of course the writings of the ancients speak to us. Of course some of their ideals feel universal. We haven’t changed all that much.

And I would like to propose another reason for us to celebrate the Classics. It is that the study of classical antiquity has been a tool of liberation. Frederick Douglass learned the principles of classical rhetoric from his beloved textbook, The Columbian Orator. These principles shaped the speeches in which he argued so forcefully for emancipation [4]. Nineteenth century playwrights adapted the story of Euripides’s Medea to demand the amendment of draconian Victorian divorce laws and advocate an early form of feminism [5]. The novelist George Eliot, the daughter of an illiterate farmer, borrowed images from Homer to illustrate the grandeur of ambitious women’s struggles in a repressive society. Recent works of scholarship such as William Cook and James Tatum’s African American Writers and the Classics (2011) and Henry Stead and Edith Hall’s Greek and Roman Classics in the British Struggle for Social Reform (2015) provide myriad other examples of the ways in which marginalized groups made classical antiquity their own.

This, too, is the classical tradition: this proud history of men and women who, Prometheus-like, wrested the fires of Greco-Roman eloquence from the grip of the dominant culture and used them to light the world.

I believe in this vision of the Classics because, in some small way, I have had the opportunity to be part of it. One rainy Thursday this May, I stood before a crowd of thirty thousand people at Harvard University’s Commencement. I was to give a speech in Latin–a speech I had composed and memorized myself. I was a Jewish woman from a Kansas public high school at an institution which, not too long ago, excluded people of my background. I stood alone on that stage, yet I felt with every word I spoke my debt to those Promethean forbears who showed that people like me could fashion new meaning out of classical antiquity.

So even as we admire the universality of the Classics and deplore the legacy of prejudice surrounding it, I hope that the Classicists of today will take up another long and storied legacy: that of seeking justice and truth by the brightness of this ancient flame.

Works Cited

  1. Gold, Solveig Lucia. “The Colorblind Bard.” The New Criterion. 13 July 2017.
  2. Wegner, Ayelet. ‘”Our” “Classics.”‘ Eidolon. 28 Aug. 2017.
  3. McCoskey, Denise Eileen. “What Would James Baldwin Do? Classics and the dream of white Europe.” Eidolon. 24 Aug. 2017.
  4. Cook, William and James Tatum. “Frederick Douglass and the Columbian Orator.African American Writers and the Classical Tradition. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 49-93. Print.
  5. Hall, Edith and Fiona Macintosh. “Medea and Mid-Victorian Marriage Legislation.” Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre, 1660-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.