Just a few months ago, we were sheltering inside our home waiting for toxic smoke to clear from the air and the threat of bushfires to pass. Now, we find ourselves sheltering inside our home watching the Covid-19 crisis spread its shadow across the globe. It has been a frenetic and worrying time: pulling the children out of school, setting up home offices, packing up workplace offices, watching the supermarket shelves empty, learning how to teach, work and study remotely.
As I sit down with a cup of tea to take a breath and read the latest tweets, I see the headline “Classics Will Not Save Us” (1). In the author’s own words, she writes about “the (limited) role of the Classics during this time, the instructive incomparability of the coronavirus, and the legacy of the East-West binary”. I read the attached article with interest. Judging by the comments on Twitter, the article has been welcomed. But Yung In Chae’s article raises more questions for me than it answers.
The main question being: what use is Classics in times like these?
I am reminded of a little story from long ago. A famous professor attends an important public meeting and is asked to interpret an omen. The professor is stumped and cannot think of an appropriate interpretation. He goes home, waits for nightfall, goes out into his garden and prepares a noose from which to hang himself. His slave intercepts him and berates him with the following words:
“Master, where is your philosophy? Where is your pride in your education? Where is your teaching about self-control? Have you become so slack-hearted and irresponsible that you rush toward death, ready to forsake all the pleasures of life by hanging yourself? Stop and think about it, master?” (2)
The point is that like the professor in the story, classicists (like everyone else) have found themselves suddenly in a crisis (and one for which our education gave us no explicit preparation). Nonetheless, we have a responsibility not to fall prey to the automatic reactions that this sort of crisis can provoke (and has provoked in many): the crippling despair, the supreme selfishness, the panic buying, the total loss of self-control, the slack-heartedness and unwillingness to take responsibility. We have to, as the slave in the story reminds us, draw upon and live by the precepts of the classical philosophies and teachings and precepts that we have spent so many years studying and writing about. Now is the time to stop and think, to be moderate, to not let fear dominate our rationality and our actions. We must put all of our self-knowledge into play and be the best we can be even as this crisis unfolds. Where our training and critical faculties fail us, we must be honest, and either adopt a policy of good sense or defer to the better judgement of others.
My second point is that we are not just ‘classicists’ – we belong to the wider discipline of the humanities. The Latin word humanitas is the key to unlocking an entire thought-world referring to ‘the qualities, feelings, and inclinations of mankind.'(2) If we are representatives of ‘humanitas’, as our professional titles attest, then we have a responsibility to strive to exemplify the best of humanity even amidst this crisis. How can we incorporate humane and gentle conduct towards others (humanity, philanthropy, gentleness, kindness, politeness) in all our dealings, whether with checkout assistants, work colleagues, call centre workers, schoolteachers, family members or those in profound need? Secondly, how can we demonstrate ‘mental cultivation befitting a person (liberal education, good breeding, elegance of manners or language, refinement)’? We must continue to teach, and model best teaching practice, to share our knowledge with others and keep learning.
I understand that it is incredibly irritating when classicists point out ‘banal equivalencies’ between this Covid-19 crisis and plagues of ancient times. But the comparison need not be banal. Death and plague were real, lived experiences for people in the classical world as much as this virus is a real, lived experience for people today. The peoples of ancient Greece and Rome were so intimately familiar with grief, loss and suffering that they have bequeathed to us some of the most poignant, touching and supremely beautiful testimonies of that grief, not only in their literature but in their art and sculpture.
Marble grave stele of a little girl
I have contemplated this funerary stele many times and it never fails to affect me. This depiction of a lost daughter is so sweet, and tender, and so utterly moving that it seems criminal to deny the experience of grief and loss lived by her parents and the commonalities between that grief and the grief of any parent, of any period in time, anywhere, for any reason.
Lastly, I want to add a word or two about unity (instead of disunity). One of the many extraordinary things about this crisis is the way in which this hideous virus is transcending boundaries. It pays little attention to the differences between East or West, young or old, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, first world or third world. Its primary motivation is simply to spread as far and wide as possible. The only way we will beat this virus is to look past divisions (especially artificial ones) and draw upon our common humanity – love and care for one another, consideration and thoughtfulness, watchfulness and mindfulness.
The last word goes to one of the great Classics – which turns out to be right on point:
“Come, save us all,
save all that is polluted by this death.
We look to you. To help his fellow-men
with all his power is man’s most noble work.”
Sophocles, King Oedipus (5)
Perhaps Classics does have some help to offer after all.
Stay safe and well everyone – best wishes to all.
(1) Yung In Chae, ‘Classics Will not Save us’, E(i)ditorial March 2020: https://eidolon.pub
(2) Ch. 81-86, The Life of Aesop (transl. by L. M Wills in The Quest of the Historical Gospel, Routledge, 1997).
(5) E. F. Watling (transl.), Sophocles: The Theban Plays, Penguin, London, 1953.