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The Classical Lens

To study another language is to study another people. To study their literature, music, art, science, engineering, daily practices and customs, their religion or ethical practices, their geography and ethnography, and, of course, their history, is to understand their society. Twinned with the study of their language, a rich bridge between the learner and that country or people is formed.

‘Why study Classics?’, people ask me. Well, in Classics you study, or can study, all of the above. The obvious objection is that the peoples you are studying all lived, well, quite a long time ago.

However, as you navigate through the ancient world, learning the languages, and then using these languages to study the different peoples, learn about the different achievements, discover their prejudices, you will begin to realise that we are studying ourselves. Yes, we have (hopefully, she says) dispensed with many racial, sexual, gender, and class prejudices that existed back then. However, they have not completely gone away. Classics offers important subject matter and therefore means of critical reflection upon our own society and the problems still existing within it.

I have written extensively on this elsewhere. I want to end this short musing with what I call the self-congratulatory curse, namely the assumptions that: we are 'better’, we are 'modern’, we are 'advanced’. I am not sure I even know what all that means. If we take advanced in terms of better health care and medicine, more advanced technology, more hygienic ways of living, perhaps there is some truth in this. Or is there? Better health and hygiene is not true for every country in the world, just as it was not back then. More sophisticated technology is not a good per se. It can be useful and has wonderfully opened up the world and our ability to connect. However, dependence upon can also erode social relations closer to home. As for modern, Roman concrete is an awful lot stronger and enduring than our modern offering. Science? We may understand a great deal more, aided by more sophisticated tools of enquiry, but the powerful enquiry into and curiosity about the world around us, yielded the embryo theories of what we proudly dub 'modern’ over two millennia ago.

Rather than dismissing ancient studies as 'old’, we should rather be taking it as a tool to reflect upon and reassess our own world, and just be a little less hubristic about our so-called 'progress’.

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