Western civilization, in as far as it still exists, has traditionally identified itself with a heritage that includes the classics and the Bible. As study of the Bible grew beyond a bunch of guys discussing what they thought the text meant, realization dawned that comparison with the classics might not be a bad idea. The main difference between the two was that one was considered revealed by God and the other was mere human invention. Nevertheless, an educated person was expected to be well acquainted with both. In today’s version of “western civ” it’s sort of an embarrassment to admit to being interested in the dusty old classics, and the Bible has reverted to being a bunch of guys discussing what they think it means. In the interim there was some fantastic work done that helped us understand whence we came.
Those of us born in the sixties or later were raised in a culture where the classics were diminishing. Yes, I’d heard of Cicero, Seneca, and even Ovid, but I couldn’t tell you what they wrote. By the time I really took an interest I had the hundreds of volumes of the Loeb Classical Library to tackle—a daunting feat even for an undergrad. Those guys wrote a lot. Compared to the classics the Bible—a pretty big book—is miniscule. As someone who deals with biblical studies all day long (and who has done so for decades) I’ve had to pick up on the classics a bit. Those of us who were more inclined toward the Hebrew end of the spectrum discovered the vast, and still not fully translated, archive of ancient West Asian material. If you wanted to include these ancient classics that influenced our civilization only indirectly, you wouldn’t have time even to tweet.
There are those who accuse classicists of any strip of being backward looking. Those of us so accused are often amazed at how current events so closely resemble things the ancients encountered. Historians, relegated to their shadowy corners, have been the Cassandras of us all, warning that if we don’t learn this stuff we’ll end up repeating it. As often as they prove correct the rest of the “civilization” scratches its head in wonder at how we’ve come to this point. I’ve not read all of the classics. I’ve not even read all of the Ugaritic tablets—more have been discovered since my ill-fated dance with academia. We have much to learn from ourselves. About ourselves. If only we could spend our time in the classic pastime of reading.
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