Classics and Freedom in the Younger Europe

Mateusz Stróżyński

When I’ve been observing in the last couple of years – and rather attentively – how Classics as a discipline is being viewed and depicted within the English-speaking world, I’ve become increasingly aware of an interesting paradox. I’ve been hearing a rather loud J’accuse directed against Classics as a discipline – that it is tainted (not only in its present form, but historically as well) with colonialism: the rich, powerful, and privileged dominate the way Classics has been and is studied and practised to the detriment of the poor, weak, and marginalized. Then I realized that those who voice those concerns (and, of course, I’ve never met any sane person who would claim that the rich, powerful, and privileged should dominate Classics) may well be caught in exactly the same colonial frame of mind which they perceive with outrage as a beam in another’s eye and which they try to purge with such remarkable zeal.

Why? Because I hear the talk being about “Classics”, when in fact the whole discussion seems to be about Classics only in several English-speaking countries. And the countries in question are rather rich, powerful, and privileged in comparison to the rest of the globe. What I termed a “colonial mental framework” seems to be an assumption that there is not, and there has not been, Classics outside the United States, the United Kingdom, and the more prosperous parts of its former empire. But there is. Classics as a discipline has been studied and practised outside the English-speaking world and its peculiar political, economic, and religious contexts.

Winston Churchill, photograph by Yousuf Karsh, 1941 (1874–1965).

Larry Wolff in his book Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford UP, 1994) demonstrates that the very concept of Eastern Europe as severed from the Western Europe is very recent. He begins his book by referring to the famous speech of Winston Churchill, delivered on the 5 March 1946 in Westminster College (Fulton, Missouri), in which the British Prime Minister said: “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” According to Wolff, there was nothing new in this symbolic image, because the division between the West and the East in Europe, although it became militarized and politicized after World War II (1939–45), has existed in the minds of European intellectuals since the second half of the 18th century. It was deeply rooted in the Enlightenment ideology, especially that of the French philosophes, and it was about civilization and culture rather than politics.

In earlier centuries, the main division was that between the South, especially Italy, which was perceived as the centre of civilization, culture, literature, art, and philosophy, and the North which was identified with barbarism. Italians have seen themselves as the direct heirs to the Roman Empire and the whole Classical culture that was transmitted by Christianity into the Middle Ages. They experienced the military expeditions of the French king, Charles VIII de Valois, in 1494 and, equally, of the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, Charles V of the house of Habsburg, in 1527, as barbaric invasions comparable to those which put an end to the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. In fact, the “sack of Rome” on the 6 May 1527 by the troops of Charles V was symbolically linked to an earlier sack of Rome by the Visigoths under their king Alaric in AD 410, which was commonly experienced by the Ancient Romans as the end of the world.

Sack of Rome in 1527, Johannes Lingelbach, mid-17th cent. (priv. coll.).

It is difficult for us to imagine that France, Germany, and Austria could be perceived as culturally undeveloped. For us this is exactly where ‘the West’ of Europe lies. Yet it is a serious simplification to limit the geographical range of ‘the West’ to only a few European countries in order to legitimize their political power. The crisis of 2008 showed that Spain, Italy, and Greece are “the South” no longer in the sense of their cultural superiority, but in the sense of being the less industrialized and poorer parts of Europe, which could be lectured by the more prosperous nations of “the North” about their internal economic policies during the economic crisis. However, while the division between the rich North and the poor South has replaced the early modern distinction between the barbaric North and the sophisticated South, our collective mind is still ruled by another division, which appeared in the 18th century, that between the civilized West and the savage East, as Larry Wolff argues in his book. He points out that it was closely linked to the invention of the very concept of “civilization” or “culture”, since those words began to be used widely in the 18th century. The French intellectuals imagined Europe as divided between the culturally developed and civilized West (the centre of which was, of course, Paris) and the uneducated, culturally illiterate, and barbaric East.

What is fascinating is that the East was thought to exist at the very heart of Europe. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, when he was about to go from Vienna to Prague, felt that he had to invent a new name for himself (“Punkitititi”), his wife (“Schabla Pumfa”), and his friends (e.g. “Notschibikitschibi”), all of which were supposed to sound “Eastern”. Diplomats travelling from Russia to France or Germany were describing the crossing the borderline of civilized realms between Poland-Lithuania and the Kingdom of Prussia. In their minds, people living in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, or Czechia were almost a different race of people. Their dress was different, their manners primitive, their culture ridiculous, their language unintelligible. Their fate, politically speaking, was doomed.

Poland-Lithuania or the Republic of Two Nations in the 16th–18th cent. (map by Augustinas Žemaitis).

The largest state in what now has become the Eastern Europe, apart from the Russian Empire, was Poland-Lithuania or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which officially named itself from the 16th century onwards “the Republic of Two Nations”, meaning by that Poles and Lithuanians. In fact, not only those two, but several other nations lived in that Republic: Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews, and Tatars. Its constitution was a peculiar kind of republicanism with the elective monarchy based on a democracy in which the demos consisted of nobility. Peasants and burghers had been gradually excluded from political life in the early modern times.

Poland-Lithuania was especially proud of its liberties, its equality, and, especially, its religious tolerance. Since the late Middle Ages, Jews enjoyed relative well-being, especially in comparison to the organized persecutions which came with the advent of the cultural sophistication of the Renaissance and the progress of modernity, say in Spain. With the coming of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Poland-Lithuania described itself proudly as a “country without stakes”. And while in what we now call the West the oppressive power of the state was growing in the 16th and the 17th century, even a poor Polish nobleman could have always comforted himself by a Polish adage: “a nobleman at his home is equal to a great lord.”

Catherine II, Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder, 1780s (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria); Voltaire, Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1737 (Musée Antoine Lécuyer, Saint-Quentin, France).

This self-conception or narrative identity is to a certain extent – like all self-conceptions, both individual and collective alike – a kind of a myth. However, even the obviously good political institutions of Poland-Lithuania began to degenerate in the late 17th and 18th centuries, along with the weakening of its military power and the rise of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which led to its transformation into the Russian Empire. After the Second Northern War (1700–21) Poland-Lithuania became a state politically dependent on the Russian Empire. It is quite telling that the Empress Catherine II (who was so dear to the hearts of Diderot and Voltaire, because of her purported love of freedom and justice) justified her interventions into the internal affairs of Poland-Lithuania not only by claiming that she wants to protect oppressed minorities, but also that there is too much freedom in Poland, and too much freedom is, for some, anarchy.

As a result, between 1772 and 1795 Poland-Lithuania, which was the only independent Slavic state in the Eastern Europe, except for Russia, was destroyed in what is called the three partitions. They were executed by three great regional powers: the Kingdom of Prussia, the Habsburg Empire, and the Russian Empire. Legally speaking, the partitions opened a new chapter in the history of international law and even the philosophy of law. The three powers divided between themselves a theoretically independent state, and justified it legally and rationally – as may have well been expected in the glorious Age of Reason. Their claim was that Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, and other nations of Poland-Lithuania are libertarian savages and mere children – people so uncivilized and uneducated that they are simply not able to govern themselves.

Frederick II of Prussia, another patron of the Enlightenment, said somewhere that Poles are like the Iroquois of Europe, desperately needing Germans to bring them some civilization. In that light, the partitions were advertised to the other European countries as an act of human kindness. The word esclave in Medieval French, from which the English slave derives, comes from the way the Slavs described themselves in their own language. The name “Slavs” comes either from slovo (the word) or slava (glory), but since those Eastern European peoples were often sold as slaves to Western European countries, their proud self-description began to mean the most detestable thing in human history. From the point of view of Frederick of Prussia and others like him, the Slavs (like all slaves according to Aristotle), by nature deserved to be slaves.

Partitions of Poland-Lithuania (1772–95).

The division between Western and the Eastern Europe still exists in our minds, even if it is sometimes, geographically speaking, patently ridiculous. When, for instance, we feel that the three-hour drive from Vienna to Prague is moving from the civilized West to the less civilized East, whereas in fact we are moving to the North-West of the Austrian capital. We can’t help but feel, with Mozart, that we still have, perhaps, to put on turbans or kimonos to blend in. Even today I often hear people from Western Europe saying that the weather in Poland is very cold. In fact, we rarely see snow and even the polar bears knock rarely at our windows during the legendary long, dark, and freezing nights of the Polish winter.

The division between West and East may well change in the coming centuries, but it is still an integral part of the way we experience ourselves in Europe and the way others experience us. A Voltairian conviction that Western countries have all the right to lecture the Eastern ones on the meaning of democracy, rule of law, equality, freedom, and progress is still vivid in the European mind. Some would call this attitude “colonial”. For the purpose of this essay, I’d like to propose a different term, coined by a Polish medievalist, Jerzy Kłoczowski, in his book The Younger Europe. East-Central Europe in the Circle of the Christian Civilisation of the Middle Ages (published, in Polish, in 1998).

In calling Eastern Europe the Younger Europe we accept the existing cultural and economic boundaries, but, at the same time, it seems less of a value-judgment than the traditional, Enlightenment West-East division. Kłoczowski himself defined the Younger Europe as primarily those areas which were linked to the three medieval kingdoms which accepted Latin Christianity around the year 1000: Czechia, Poland, and Hungary. However, it seems justified, to some extent, to include in the Younger Europe also the Scandinavian countries or the Slavic nations which were in the orbit of Byzantine influence in the Middle Ages.[1]

Adam Mickiewicz (17981855), daguerreotype of 1842.

Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855) was the greatest Polish poet, born in 1798 in what is now Belarus. He says in his national epic poem, Pan Tadeusz: “For I was born enslaved, chained in my crib” (XI, 77, my translation).[2] The linguistic fate of Slavs/slaves returns in this poignant image, as Mickiewicz contemplates the spring of 1812, when Napoleon’s Great Army was giving hope to Poles that their enslavement to Russia could end soon. In 1798 Poland did not exist as an independent state anymore. And Mickiewicz hadn’t lived to see Poland regaining its independence in 1918. He was born enslaved and died enslaved.

In 1815 he enrolled at the Vilnius University, which at this time was one of the largest in Europe in terms of student population. Mickiewicz began to study Classics, which was at this time a developing discipline, largely due to the German scholars of that time. The professor who influenced him the most in Vilnius was Gottfried Ernst Groddeck (born in 1762 in Gdańsk, which was a part of Poland-Lithuania, German being his maternal tongue). Under his supervision Mickiewicz wrote his master’s thesis De criticae usu atque praestantia, which was devoted to Latin and Greek textual criticism. We don’t have his thesis preserved in its entirety, but the fragments we do possess concern, incidentally, the Christian Greek authors such as Origen, Gregory of Nazianzen, Basil of Caesarea, and the Latin author Jerome of Stridon.  

Soon after his graduation from Vilnius University, in 1823, Mickiewicz was teaching in a high school in Kowno (nowadays: Kaunas in Lithuania). On 23 October that year he was arrested by the Russian authorities, along with his university friends, and kept in custody for several months. That was on the charge of their conspiracy against the Russian Tsar. Later, Mickiewicz recorded some of those early experiences of oppression and persecution in his great Romantic drama Forefathers’ Eve (part three). One of the scenes of this drama revolves around a meeting held at the residence of the Russian senator, Nikolai Novosiltsev, who was responsible for the political repressions of Polish students in the 1820s and was generally hated by the Poles, as a (drunken and sexually degenerate) hallmark of tyranny.

Portrait of Nikolay Nikolayevich Novosiltsev, Stepan Shchukin, c.1808 (Russian State Museum, St Petersburg).

The Senator discusses with his courtiers a recent investigation and torture of a student:

Did he confess?
Not quite. He merely states
Through gritted teeth, he won’t betray his mates.
But we’ve scraped something from these odds and ends:
For example, that these students are his friends.
C’est juste: how stubborn!
It’s just as I’ve said:
All of our youth are addled in the head,
From what they read. O – ancient history!
That this drives them all mad, who doesn’t see?
SENATOR (gaily):
Vous n’aimez pas l’histoire — ha, ha, un satirique
Aurait dit, that you’re afraid devenir historique.
I’m not against all history, my dear sirs:
Let them read of kings, and great ministers…
C’est juste.
DOCTOR (gladdened):
That’s my opinion! Tell the truth,
But truths such as will not corrupt the youth.
Why babble on so, of republicans,
Those Spartans, Romans, and Athenians!

(Scene VIII, 85–100, tr. Charles S. Kraszewski)[3]

This is an interesting passage, because it contains and represents in a nutshell the function and significance of Classics in the oppressed countries of the Younger Europe. It is utterly ignorant and condescending to claim that Classics as a discipline is in general systemically oppressive, since in the Central-Eastern Europe it was primarily associated with an opposition and rebellion against tyranny. In this light, the caricature of our discipline as the embodiment of privilege, power, prestige, and oppression, may well serve some individuals who want to gain more power, fame, and privilege themselves, while claiming they are fighting for equality, but all of this has rather little to do with reality. Of course, if the uncivilized Eastern Europe deserves to be included in their concept of reality.

What the Doctor says in the quoted passage about ancient history points out that Classics was seen as suspicious and subversive by the Russian empire precisely, because it embodied liberty and justice for its students. Mickiewicz’s position was not an isolated voice at this time, but rather a wider European phenomenon.

The Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David, 1784 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

The Founding Fathers of America were interested in the constitution of the Roman Republic and tried deliberately to model the American constitution on that, in order to establish moderation between the extremes of tyranny and egalitarian democracy. In one of his early, humorous poems (entitled Kartofla, “Potato”) Mickiewicz praises the United States as the new Capitol which has crushed tyrants. He is proud that Polish volunteers, such as Pułaski and Kościuszko, were supporting that cause. On the other hand, the French Revolutionaries at the same time were using Roman Republican imagery to cast themselves as tyrannicides and bringers of freedom and rationality. You can see this in Jacques-Louis David’s paintings as well as in many other elements of Revolutionary propaganda.

Similar phenomena can be also observed in English Romanticism. Percy Shelley in his play Hellas (written in 1822) responds to the Greek War of Independence of 1821. In the “Preface” he compares it to the Persian wars of the 5th century BC. For Shelley, Xerxes, the supreme tyrant, stands for Oriental despotism and barbarism, while the Greeks represent freedom, which is essentially linked to the heritage of Western civilization. He says:  

We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece. But for Greece-Rome, the instructor, the conqueror, or the metropolis of our ancestors, would have spread no illumination with her arms, and we might still have been savages and idolaters; or, what is worse, might have arrived at such a stagnant and miserable state of social institution as China and Japan possess.

What is interesting is that Shelley sees Russia also as belonging to the sphere of Eastern tyranny: “Russia desires to possess, not to liberate Greece; and is contented to see the Turks, its natural enemies, and the Greeks, its intended slaves, enfeeble each other until one or both fall into its net.”

Mickiewicz comes to share in this traditional European vision of Classics as the fons et origo of the Western love of freedom and hatred of tyranny, when he becomes an undergraduate student of Classics. In 1819 he was working on a tragedy about Demosthenes, another symbolic figure in the Western imaginary, who mounts a desperate defense of democracy against tyranny using solely the power of beautiful and moving words – the art of rhetoric. In his (never published) Demosthenes, Mickiewicz compares the situation of Poland in 1819 to that of Athens after the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), in which Philip II, the king of Macedonia, triumphed over the independent Greek city-states.

The death of Demosthenes, Felix Boisselier, 1805 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

For Mickiewicz, Philip, the main adversary of Demosthenes, becomes not only the universal figure of the tyrant, but, more specifically, the allegory of the Russian emperor Alexander I Romanov.[4] In his youth, Alexander was very liberal and deeply fascinated by the Enlightenment and revolutionary ideas. At the time, he was also a close friend of a Polish duke Adam Czartoryski, whom he later, on coming to power, appointed his minister.

As young men they were dreaming of escaping Europe and travelling together to America, to that fatherland of freedom, equality, and justice. No wonder that, initially, some Poles were rather optimistic about Alexander being the Russian emperor. After the fall of Napoleon in 1814, Alexander carved out a tiny part of central Poland-Lithuania, named it the Kingdom of Poland, and endowed it with one of the most liberal constitutions in Europe. However, the constitution was never actually followed. In the years following the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), Alexander was becoming less and less liberal as he was becoming more and more interested in a peculiar mixture of religious and nationalist mysticism.

The Russian regime was becoming increasingly oppressive, illiberal, and obscurantist. For a time, Czartoryski (who was responsible for education in Lithuania and in what is now the part of Ukraine) tried to promote Classical education in schools, placing an emphasis on Roman authors and ancient history. Alexander’s friendship, however, had its limits, just as did his love for liberalism, so Poland could not entirely escape the general deterioration of the whole of the Russian system of education. While Western Europeans have always tried to cheer themselves with the hope for some pro-Western, liberal ruler in the Kremlin, for those who live closer to the golden domes of Moscow, the story of Alexander Romanov’s coming of age is rather chilling.

Classics in the Younger Europe seems to have been particularly tied to the traditional, Western claim that reading the Ancient Greek and Roman authors helps to educate children and young people into becoming virtuous citizens – those who love their country and are willing to give their lives for it, if and when the necessity comes, as well as who hate tyrants and oppressors, and are eager to rebel against and even kill them, if and when their freedom is being taken away. In the 18th century, already before the French Revolution, one could hear across Europe the Latin slogan In tyrannos! (“against tyrants”), inspired by Classical education and reading Greek and Latin literature.

The tyrant-slayers Harmodius and Aristogeiton (2nd cent. AD Roman copy of the Athenian originals of 477/6 BC; now in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

After the two world wars – or, maybe, after one long war of 1914 to 1945, with an armistice in between, a bit like in the case of the Peloponnesian War 431–404 BC? – the intellectual elites of the West began to claim that traditional patriotism and nationalism, nourished by Classical education, was the cause of war and genocide. For some reason, in the minds of many Westerners the love for one’s own country, as well as the willingness to die for it and to kill enemies in order to defend it, stood very close to gas chambers. Almost as if, unless we tread very carefully, Horace’s Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and noble to die for the fatherland”, Odes 3.2.13) can suddenly turn into Arbeit macht frei over the entrance to Auschwitz. In the last decades of the purported “end of history”, any attempt to cultivate in young people patriotic attitudes, such as the willingness to make sacrifices for or show respect towards their nation, its traditions, and the heroism of its ancestors, seemed suspicious to many.

In recent months, the war in Ukraine gives us a chance to think this through again. As things stand, it seems that it was the unexpected heroism of Ukrainians that stopped the expansion of Russia’s influence across Central-Eastern Europe. And this heroism has little to do with what is usually called today “European values”, but it has much more to do with what has been the European values for centuries. As Shelley put it: “We are the Greeks.” When Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of United States Army Europe, compares the Ukrainians fighting a desperate fight in Mariupol to Ancient Spartans, this recently repressed Classical imagery suddenly turns out to be quite alive, almost as if we remembered again a language we were told not to speak for years. Another example is the conversation between Ann Applebaum, Timothy Snyder and Yuval Noah Harari (a week after the beginning of the war), where Harari says that the fierce condemnation of nationalism by the Western elites in the previous decades were poorly nuanced, since there is bad nationalism (hatred of other nations) and good nationalism (love of one’s homeland).

For Mickiewicz, just as for others undergraduates of his time, both in Western and Eastern Europe, this was still obvious and this Classical tradition was embodied in such symbolic figures as the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus of the 7th century, who in his poems praised love of the fatherland and the willingness to defend it with our lives. Mickiewicz in his undergraduate days was actually called by his friends “Tyrtaeus”, a mark of the very highest praise. In the first book of his national epic Pan Tadeusz, published in 1834, Mickiewicz describes a series of paintings hanging in the residence of the main character. Among them there is an interesting portrait of Tadeusz Rejtan (1742–80), a Polish noble who tried to prevent the first partition of Poland by throwing himself on the ground in the very door which the signatories had to cross in order to legalize the partition.

Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland, Jan Matejko, 1866 (Royal Castle, Warsaw, Poland).

On the fictional portrait described by Mickiewicz in his poem, Rejtan is depicted as mourning the loss of freedom in his traditional Polish dress, holding a knife pointed at his breast. At the desk in front of him there are two books, Plato’s dialogue Phaedo and the Life of Cato the Younger by Plutarch (Pan Tadeusz, I, 61–2). As Tadeusz Sinko argued in his seminal book Antyk u Mickiewicza (“Classics in Mickiewicz,” 1957), this image derives probably from a poem by a French author, Jacques Delille, entitled Dithyrambe sur l’immortalité de l’ame (“Dithyramb on the immortality of soul”). Delille was in his time well-known and valued as the translator of Vergil’s Georgics and Aeneid. He was appointed a member of the Académie Française and was a professor of Latin literature, in addition to being a poet and translator. He escaped Revolutionary France in 1794 and spent some time as an exile in Switzerland, Germany, and England). He published his Dithyramb in the year he came back from England to France in 1802. There he speaks of true poetry, whose goal is to educate young people in respecting the law and loving their country:[5]

If at any time flattery
Disgraced your songs,
It is much more often that your sublime sounds
Made the readers respect law, made them respect the fatherland.
The war-loving Bard was running from row to row,
Warming up young soldiers to combat.
Tyrtaeus was setting Mars ablaze with even more consuming flames
And the thunderous verses of Alcaeus
Were menacing tyrants.[6]

Tyrtaeus and Alcaeus are invoked as symbols of Classical poetry: one represents love of the fatherland and the willingness to fight for it, while the other represents the love of freedom and hatred of tyrants. This is what Classics meant for Delille in the West and for Mickiewicz in the East of Europe. The French poet continues:

Oh, how I hate tyrants! How many times, since my childhood,
I was sending my curses after their chariots!
My superb weakness insults their potency:
I sing about Cato in the face of Caesar.
And why be afraid of the rage
Of the unjust oppressor?
Are we not comforted by the prospect of another fatherland
In the future life?
Thus when all yields to the empire of this world,
Beyond it the great soul of Cato
Stands immobile, listening to the thundering storm,
Meditating on the depth of Eternity,
Holding a knife in one hand and Plato in another.

Death of Cato the Younger, Jean-Paul Laurens, 1863 (Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France).

Mickiewicz in his Pan Tadeusz is blending Rejtan with Cato. In Delille it is Cato who holds the knife in one hand and Plato in another. Since his Dithyramb is about the immortality of the soul, Mickiewicz assumes that it is the Phaedo, a dialogue devoted to immortality, that Delille’s Cato holds in his hand. Rejtan is said to hold a knife pointed at his breast, while on the desk in front of him there is the Phaedo and Plutarch’s Life of Cato. What we may easily miss or fail to understand is that the immortality of the soul is an important aspect of this traditional imagery that is used by Delille and Mickiewicz. The willingness to sacrifice life does not lead to despair, because death is not the end. There is another world, above and behind this world of violence, death, suffering, and tyranny, and Mickiewicz was deeply aware of its existence. The knowledge that we are not just animals crawling on the surface of this tiny globe gives courage to rebel against the tyrants whose power extends only throughout this lower, physical world and who can kill the body, but not the soul:

By them [knife and Plato] he defies weapons, tyrants, and envy,
Remaining the sole judge of his destiny:
According to his wishes, the knife promises death
And Plato the eternal life.

Let everyone fall to his knees before the oppressor of Tiber!
Cato’s great soul is liberated in its heavenly refuge.
It says to the tyrant: “I am free”,
And it says to death: “I am immortal”.[7]

Many Classics students in the West are told today that their discipline has in general been on the side of the oppression, not on the side of freedom, equality, and justice. Moreover, they are told, astonishingly enough, that this is still the case. Let them hear another story, one told by Mickiewicz, Delille, Shelley, and countless other witnesses. The story in which “we are all the Greeks” – in the sense that because of our shared ancient, Classical heritage, we are all privileged (regardless of our race, gender, nationality, or whatever else) to participate in the great fight for freedom and against tyranny. When you learn Greek, it is to read Plato’s Phaedo and Plutarch’s Life of Cato. When you learn Latin, it is to read about Cato and other inspiring figures. Those are not just books. Those are powerful weapons, much more powerful than the knife that Cato and Rejtan are given by Delille and Mickiewicz. If you are armed with the liberatory tools that Classics has handed over to you, you are privileged to say:

I say to the tyrant: “I am free,”
And I say to death: “I am immortal.”

Mateusz Stróżyński is a Classicist, philosopher, psychologist, and psychotherapist, working as Associate Professor in the Institute of Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. He is interested in ancient philosophy, especially the Platonic tradition. 


1 This is how the term is understood in the recently launched new series of Brill “Research Perspectives in the Early Modern Cultures of the Younger Europe”, which was announced during the international conference on the Younger Europe, organized by the Institute of Classical Philology of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań in April 2022.
2 “Urodzony w niewoli, okuty w powiciu.”
Nic nie wyznał?
 Prawie nic, zęby tylko zaciął;
Krzyczy, że nie chce skarżyć niewinnych przyjaciół.
Ale z tych kilku słówek odkrywa się wiele:
Widać, że ci uczniowie jego przyjaciele.
C’est juste. Jaki upór!
Właśnie powiedziałem
Jaśnie Panu, że młodzież zarażają szałem,
Ucząc ich głupstw: na przykład, starożytne dzieje!
Któż nie widzi, że młodzież od tego szaleje.
SENATOR (wesoło):
Vous n’aimez pas l’histoire? Ha, ha, un satirique
Aurait dit, że boisz się devenir historique.
I owszem, uczyć dziejów: niech się młodzież dowie,
Co robili królowie, wielcy ministrowie…
C’est juste.
DOKTOR (ucieszony):
 Właśnie mówię, widzi Pan Dobrodziéj,
Że jest sposób wykładać dzieje i dla młodzi:
Lecz poco zawsze prawić o republikanach,
Zawsze o Ateńczykach, Spartanach, Rzymianach?
4 By the way, the story of this figure’s political and spiritual “evolution” can be highly instructive, when it comes to understanding Russia – if, that is, one wishes to be instructed (which, unfortunately, seems rarely to be the case).
5 The original can be found here. Prose translations included here are mine.
6 Si quelquefois la flatterie
A déshonoré vos chansons,
Plus souvent vos sublimes sons
Font respecter les lois, font chérir la patrie.
Le Barde belliqueux courait de rangs en rangs
Echauffer la jeunesse au combats élancée ;
Tyrtée embrasait Mars de feux plus dévorants,
Et les vers foudroyant d’Alcée
Menacent encor les tyrans.
Que je hais les tyrans! Combien, des mon enfance,
Mes imprécations ont poursuivi leur char !
Ma faiblesse superbe insulte a leur puissance :
J’aurais chante Caton a l’aspect de César.
Et pourquoi craindre la furie
D’un injuste dominateur ?
N’est-il pas une autre patrie
Dans l’avenir consolateur ?
Ainsi quand tout fléchit dans l’empire du monde,
Hors la grande âme de Caton,
Immobile il entend la tempête qui gronde,
Et tient, en méditant l’Éternité profonde
Un poignard d’une main, et de l’autre Platon.
7 Par eux, bravant les fer, les tyrans et l’envie,
Il reste seul arbitre de son sort:
A ses vœux, l’un promet la mort,
Et l’autre une éternelle vie.

Que tout tombe aux genoux de l’oppresseur du Tibre !
Sa grande âme affranchie a son refuge au ciel.
Il dit au tyran: je suis libre;
Au trépas: je suis immortel.