Do Classics have a Future?
Voici un extrait d'une conférence de Mary Beard, dont la publication fut reprise par le New York Review of Books en janvier dernier.
The study of the classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. It is not only the dialogue that we have with the culture of the classical world; it is also the dialogue that we have with those who have gone before us who were themselves in dialogue with the classical world (whether Dante, Raphael, William Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon, Pablo Picasso, Eugene O’Neill, or Terence Rattigan). The classics (as writers of the second century AD had already spotted) are a series of “Dialogues with the Dead.” But the dead do not include only those who went to their graves two thousand years ago. This is an idea nicely captured in another article in The Fortnightly Review, this time a skit that appeared in 1888, a sketch set in the underworld, in which a trio of notable classical scholars (the long-dead Bentley and Porson, plus their recently deceased Danish colleague Madvig) have a free and frank discussion with Euripides and Shakespeare. This little satire also reminds us that the only actual speakers in this dialogue are us; it is we who ventriloquize, who animate what the ancients have to say: in fact, here the classical scholars complain what a terrible time they are having in Hades, because they are constantly being told off by the ancient shades who complain that the classicists have got them wrong.
Two quite simple things follow from this. The first is that we should be much more alert than we often are to the claims we make about the classical world—or, at least, we should be more strategically aware of whose claims they are. 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.
Pour lire l'article au complet, c'est ici.