Why Should We Save the Classical Tradition?

Rafał Toczko 

Just as I’m beginning to think about the most efficient way of phrasing my ideas about “the Classical tradition”, my son, now a high school student, comes home and tells me that they call the locker room at his school “Hades”, just like the locker room at a completely different high school in my wife’s home town, and at my old school as well. My nine-year-old daughter then lifts her eyes from the latest instalment in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians series of novels, in which Greek and Roman mythology come to life in the modern world in funny and surprising ways. Then I read about how the British government wants to introduce more Latin in state schools. Then I go to Instagram and see a picture of my cousin, who is squinting from the sunlight in a wonderful antique theater in the ancient Sicilian town of Taormina. Meanwhile a colleague has posted photos of himself flexing his muscles in the Roman Colosseum. All this happens while my wife listens to Nick Cave’s “Oh My Lord”, with its famous reference to “the sword of Damocles”. Later, when I leave the house to go buy a gift from a bookshop, I notice a shelf that is groaning with Stoic literature; also, Madeline Miller’s 2018 novel Circe, a clever revisionist take on the myth of Odysseus, is still shelved among the bestsellers.

Whichever door I open, I seem to stumble into “the Classical tradition”. 

Rick Riordan’s short stores drawn from Greek mythology (Disney Hyperion, Glendale, CA, 2014).

In popular usage, the the term “classic” might refer to something like a sporting event or a movie. Every football fan I know remembers the “classic” performance of Jerzy Dudek for Liverpool in the Champions League final in 2005; every rock fan knows that the Dire Straits’ concert in the Alchemy tour in London (22/23 July 1983) was a “classic”; and fans of cars and motorcycles argue about which models of their favorite brand are true “classics”. 

On this basis I recognize therefore that the “classic” is something: (1) unique; (2) widely thought to be of exceptional quality; (3) gladly, willingly revisited in the memory; and (4) of apparently enduring, lasting value.

I avoid introducing the category of ‘objective’ value here, and limit myself only to relative ones. According to J.M. Coetzee’s concept of “classicism” in his lecture “What Is A Classic?”,[1] only what is considered valuable by audiences and critics survives, and therefore it has to be more valuable to them than what does not ultimately survive. If we select some cultural artefact out of countless others and pass it along to the next generation, then any quarrels concerning its objective value can have no practical meaning.

The second term in “Classical tradition” is much simpler: “tradition” is the carrier of anything we call “classic”. Within various human activities we will always find something we can call “classic”, as we see from the examples given above.  

For many, for so long, the quintessential “Classic” Greek sculpture: the Venus de Milo, Hellenistic sculpture attributed to Alexander of Antioch, 150–125 BC (found in Melos, Greece, in 1820, and now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

Here I use “Classical tradition” in a narrower sense. The history of rock music, football or cars is relatively new in relation to the history of political systems, architecture, painting, philosophical ideas or literature. A graduate of a European “Classical” school – a lycée, liceo, gymnasium or British public school – in the 16th or 19th century, even if rudely awakened from sleep, would have been able automatically to recite verses of Homer and Horace from memory; in such a state he would have also been able to describe in detail the beauty of a locally famous ancient statue of Venus, or the topography of the Roman Forum. The reason? In these contexts, the creations and achievements of Greek and Roman culture set the standards for what is thought to be “classic” by virtue of being (1) unique, (2) thought to be exceptional, (3) pleasantly memorable, and (4) of enduring value.

The cultural products of Greco-Roman society were universally considered “classic” in those worlds, but are they still “classic” to us now? It seems self-evident that Greek and Roman mosaics, sculptures and theaters all still meet these criteria: the sheer numbers of tourists who visit the ruins of Delphi, museums of Roman art and the Acropolis clearly demonstrate this. Also, almost all of us live in democratic systems, and/or in states called ‘republics’; in political disputes we continue to use rhetorical tricks and concepts largely invented and described by Aristotle, Hermogenes and Cicero. On the other hand, ancient music, cuisine and fashions (except perhaps for beards) no longer seem important today.

It might prove difficult nowadays to explain how the literary and ideological achievements of Greco-Roman antiquity meet the “classic” criteria of being widely thought exceptional, and willingly revisited in the memory: because, as a character in Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke (1937) asks, when questioning the value of reading the poems of Juliusz Słowacki (1809–49): “How does it delight if it does not delight?”

Witold Gombrowicz (1904–69).

In truth, many of my non-academic friends, and even some of my fellow humanities scholars, question the benefit and pleasure of reading Homer, Demosthenes, Livy and Horace today. But these are a matter of individual personal taste. As far as the public sphere is concerned, there is a more urgent question: why should taxpayers pay the salaries of people who are professionally engaged in Greek and Roman literature, when so much “Classical” literature no longer meet the criteria outlined above of “classic” status? I have only once been asked this question directly, by a businessman, but it continues to hang above my head like the sword of Damocles.

A dear friend once put it this way: in times past, houses were heated by tiled stoves, so fitting stoves became a viable profession; but today there are hardly any professional stove-fitters because sources of heating have changed. This chain of reasoning may seem self-evidently true to many, but to me it is completely wrong, because the fundamental premise is wrong. The achievements of the Greeks and Romans in the field of literature, art and ideas were, and still are, a principal source of our intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual energy, as is evidenced by myriad examples; I mentioned some of them at the beginning of this text. The difference between our time and past centuries lies elsewhere.  

Medusa mosaic, 2nd cent. AD, Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex, UK.

In former ages, the Classical tradition (in a narrower sense) influenced almost every new literary or political work in the Western world: there would be no modern state if Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin or John Adams had not known and value the works of Cicero; there would be no Leonardo da Vinci or Copernicus without Hellenistic science; there would be no national epics without Virgil; there would be no Racine without Euripides and Seneca, no Shakespeare without Ovid or Plutarch, no Jan Kochanowski without Greek epigrams. Further examples are beyond number.

It is worth keeping in mind that no historian of Western culture, literature or art before the First World War who does not know the Classical tradition (and Latin) intimately can honestly succeed at his or her profession. Only in the 19th century does European civilization begin slowly to break from the hegemony of the Classical tradition in these fields; but it is not finally broken before the 20th century. This change is associated primarily with the decentralization and egalitarianization of literary production and political activity, which in turn was possible thanks to technological innovations including the  mechanical printing press, radio, and television; of course this process has accelerated significantly with the spread of the Internet.  

Remains of the Temple of Saturn, rebuilt in the 4th cent. AD on the site of a temple that was perhaps first constructed in the 5th cent. BC (The Forum, Rome, Italy).

Gombrowicz’s criticism quoted above is aimed at the elites who for centuries have maintained, sometimes stupidly and snobbishly, the belief that the literary achievements of the present cannot be put on a par with the works of the past. Today, nobody seriously believes this. The number of different literary and ideological traditions, completely free from references to the Classical tradition, is growing exponentially. Against this background, the relevance of the Classical tradition is, of course, less visible: once it was almost the only source of energy for artists and intellectuals; today it is but one of many. However, it is also completely inaccurate to claim that today the achievements of the Greeks and Romans are worth nothing and do not delight anyone.  

The problem with Gombrowicz’s provocative question, “How does it delight if it does not delight?”, or with the tiled-stove comparison used by my friend, is that they are based on a common mistake: in both instances, we are dealing with a generalization of individual observation. Today, as in the past, many people still believe that works of ancient literature or philosophy are of exceptional quality, and many people are eager to revisit them; this means that these works meet all the criteria of Classicism mentioned above.

J.K. Rowling reads Harry Potter to children in the garden of White House, Washington DC (5 April 2010).

Literary, artistic, intellectual and political engagements with ancient texts continue to proliferate. American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan discover their own traumas in the drama of Sophocles’ Ajax; hip-hop artists still refer to Greek mythology; Spike Lee created Chi-Raq (2015), a new version of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata;  the Canadian director Sophie Deraspe’s 2019 film version of Antigone won numerous international  awards; the Harry Potter series of novels (1997–2007) was deeply influenced by the author’s Classical education; poets have not stopped reading Horace; philosophers continue to work on Plato; even now, politicians refer to Thermopylae (480 BC) as a turning point in history.

As an international community, we have not stopped reading the Classics of Greco-Roman literature, in the original or in translation. Countless thousands of people around the world find their own emotions and conflicts of values reflected in Greek tragedies. Ancient techniques and strategies of rhetoric and Classical logic remain indispensable for shaping and sharpening our reasoning, and expressing our thoughts precisely. Classical texts and authors remain living sources of intellectual, artistic and spiritual energy.  The reflections of Marcus Aurelius can help us no less than the works of popular “life coaches”, and ancient comedies turn out to be no less funny than many modern movies or plays, so long as we read them attentively, and stage them with skill.  Moreover, in an era of growing nationalist tendencies in Europe and America, it is worth noting that the Classical tradition is our common heritage, something that unites us with a shared culture.

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, replica from 1981 of the original from AD c. 175 in the Capitoline Museums (Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome Italy).

The Classical literary and intellectual tradition is still a primary source of energy and material for many of the most active participants in our culture. All the same, there is no point in pretending that works written thousands, or merely hundreds, of years ago will always come alive or prove easy to digest for every person. Just as cricket and baseball are barely acknowledged by people in Eastern Europe (we do not play these sports or even understand their rules), many Classical works are demanding, and cannot be approached without proper introduction and preparation. If you don’t know a thing about Classical rhetoric you might not find much pleasure in reading Cicero or Augustine, just as knowing nothing about the theory of music turns out to be a major obstacle in enjoying the works of the Modernist composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). As a society with a living culture, we need specialists who are intimately acquainted with the languages of these works and the contexts of their creation, and can dust off or illuminate aspects that have become obscure with the passage of time. Classical philologists do this as a job: in fact, this is their vocation.

Bust of Euripides, Roman copy of a 4th-cent. BC Greek original (Museo Pio-Clementino, Rome, Italy).

University students are sometimes surprised to find that Homer, Sophocles or Seneca could prove so engaging, or seem so relevant. Undergraduates reading Medea’s first monologue cannot believe that Euripides (often dismissed as a white man who lived 2,500 years ago) could have put such contemporary sounding words in the mouth of a male actor playing a woman in front of a predominantly male audience. Roman love elegies and epigrams continue to make some faces blush and to inspire others to romance. Perhaps among these students there is a new J.K. Rowling or Hanna Malewska, who will create extraordinary works that begin from these encounters with the Classical tradition. For this to happen, we at the front of the classroom need to become the best guides, interpreters and translators we can be.

We need to train the next generation to be better than us. We should demand that we ourselves are able to demonstrate the life and force of the Classical tradition, to prove its enduring value and urgency, to reveal and strengthen its presence in contemporary culture, and to seek allies effectively who can support our efforts. We owe it, in fact, as a debt of gratitude to the powerful and unfailing source of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic energy that the Greco-Roman world can provide.

Rafał Toczko is a Classicist and a Philosopher, working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń. He studies the rhetoric of polemic in antiquity.


1 Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 (Viking Penguin, New York, 2001).