Saturday 10 March 2012

Simon Goldhill, Love, Sex and Tragedy

simon goldhill love, sex and tragedy

I wonder how many accidental visits will I get because of this title - it's quite catchy as far as titles go.  But neither love, nor sex, not even tragedy have prompted me to pick this particular book.  It was the subtitle:  How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives

Let me tell you a little secret:  I have a university degree in classical philology.  It's been years since I had anything serious to do with the classics, yet I still have a soft spot for all things BC.  I often complain that classic education is not valued in today's world and...  so does Professor Goldhill.  He makes a tasty promise in the introduction to his book: 

"He [Cicero] is asserting that history makes such a difference that, if you do not work to understand it, you cannot lead a full life, an adult life, in society.  History changes who you are, makes you who you are.  If you do not know that history, then you cannot really be self-aware.  That is a bold claim; and this book aims to show that it is true".

The book surely is interesting.  It takes on various aspects of culture and society - politics, sexuality, entertainment - describes their classical origins and compares them to our modern reality.  Stories are well told, supported by scientific data and digestable even for a laymen - and I believe this is the main benefit of the book, this makes it worth reading.

As to the self-declared aim of the author...  I do wish he convinced me.  I wish he could make it clear to everyone that classics is important and should be given more priority in our education systems or life in general (if only because it would make me slightly more employable).  Unfortunately he didn't achieve his goal, not in my opinion.  I agree that past events shape our present:  all past events, all cultures, histories and societies leave some traces which we can find in ourselves if we try hard enough.  Why should we prefere Greek or Roman culture above any other?  It is our culture, Goldhill says.  But it is ours precisely because we made it ours, by classical learning and yearning, by endless referencing to the past.  I don't mind, I just wish to note that this study of the ancient world to which we are encouraged in the book is exactly the reason why it is still so visible in our society.  The more effort we invest classics, the larger our classic heritage will be.  Yet are we really such helpless children without understanding or valuing this heritage?

I don't think so. 
Although the fact that I have been trained in just such understanding might make my judgement slightly flawed.

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