Paraphrasing the well-known title of the art historian Salvatore Settis, it would be said that the classic has a splendid future, judging by the novelties that, year after year, continue to be published on ancient Greece and Rome, in which we invariably recognize the origin of our culture. It is an eternal return: from the idea of citizenship to the arts or literary genres, we continue to look at ourselves in classic models as in a family mirror. Their validity is verified every day, even in our current exceptional circumstances: they are almost oracular texts, always relevant for consultation. It is worth stopping to think of the classics as never ending what they have to say, as Calvin wrote in Why read the classics. There Calvino pointed out a series of attempts at definition due to the effect that the classics have on readers, among other things. In our days, one could even propose a very fashionable one: “classic is that book with which one could confine oneself with full guarantees”. Every historical moment, however exceptional it may be, admits a redefinition of the concept of classic.
For this reason, one can always speak of a “current of the classic”, among other variations of an oxymoron that expresses the curious virtue of updating these ancient acquaintances. Our familiarity with them transcends the heritage metaphor of “inheritance” and the “legacy” or metaphysics of their “survival” and “immortality”. It is outlined in a chiasm that has been accompanying us for at least the last hundred years since the founders of the modern European conscience, such as Nietzsche and Freud – while the old Troy, Mycenae or Knossos, those “Greces before Greece” came to light -, they will revisit the classics looking for a “new beginning”: surely then the most vital and amazing transformation of our relationship with the classics will take place, the one that changes us forever, when, beyond simple models of imitation or subversion , they become living matter in such interesting junctions as “classical tradition”, “late antiquity”, “classical actuality” or “archaic modernity”.
In short, around the idea of the “future of the classic”, to return to Settis, it must be said that that of looking for the future in the past is another old reason for sublime literature, which is always oracular. It is known that the two great landmark works of classical culture, the Homeric and the Virgilian, had since ancient times – and in the case of Virgil, until the modern age – fame of being prophetic. Therein lies another value of the classic in times of uncertainty like the current ones: the classics are books that can be consulted to know what is going to happen and how you can wisely live it. There were oracles of bibliomancy that, in a way, preluded his long journey through the history of literature. The idea that the classics are books that enclose their inspired lines in the future is also in The four cycles by Jorge Luis Borges: all relevant history is already contained in a closed number of key works of antiquity with a primordial character that permeates our entire relationship with Greek and Latin literature.
But let’s see some of the news regarding the ancient world and its literatures. Among the latest titles appeared I would like to highlight, first of all, Ten lessons on the classics (Alliance), great book by Piero Boitani. The well-known expert in ancient myths and medieval literature – his is the exceptional Ulysses’ shadow, on the long reception of the myth in, among other authors, Dante– received an interesting commission from the Swiss radio-television in the Italian language: to carry out ten radio programs on the classics that gave him the possibility, as Boitani says, of communicating to an audience general “what I thought of my beloved ancient readings”. Such is the origin of this book, a true gem, which contains in ten chapters that rework these emissions what for him are the ten stellar moments of classical Greek and Roman literature. In a ratio of eight to two, it must be said, the Greeks overwhelmingly win against the Romans: personal preference? The topics chosen are, in order and in summary, the Iliad, the Odyssey, philosophy, the birth of history, tragic justice, the literature of knowledge (from Prometheus to Oedipus Rex), Plato and the death of Socrates, Greek lyric, the invention of Rome (especially Virgil) and the Metamorphosis from Ovid. Although, obviously, it is a personal selection that supposes a commendable work of synthesis, it is only regrettable that a prominent place for comedy has not been found, one of the great genres of the ancient world. In these ten lessons, in short, high disclosure reaches levels of excellence.
A second novelty is Ancient Greeks (Anagram), by Edith Hall, a renowned expert in Greek literature from her chair at King’s College, London. This book, also structured in ten chapters, proposes a journey through the cultural history of antiquity that revolves around what seems to be the ten indisputable contributions of this ancient culture to our present day. They are well-thought-out characteristics and exposed to a wide audience in line with the historical vicissitudes of this town since the longue durée of almost two millennia: it begins in the Mycenaean world, in the luck of the first globalization of the Bronze that testifies to the first political structures that are distinguished from the ancient East, and ends with the arrival of Christianity, an authentic Greek religion by language and thought that will shape indelibly the later world. In between, Hall addresses other “ways in which they modeled the modern world,” such as the era of Homer, the rise of the city-state constellation, gods and myths, the era of colonization – symbolized by the well-known Platonic comparison of the Greeks with “frogs around a pond” -, the dawn of Greek rationality, from Milesian philosophy to the work of Herodotus, the democratic experience of Athens and its reflection in tragedy and philosophy, the peculiar statehood and Spartan society, the rise of Macedonia and the Hellenistic era, with the Greek world expanding beyond its traditional borders into a world of divinized kings and bookish culture, Greece merged with its Roman conquerors from the universal history of Polybius and the cultural development of the so-called Second Sophistica and, in the end, the irruption of Christianity. In short, it is an intelligent and complex proposal that combines history and literature, explaining the contributions of the Greeks through the analysis of the historical process, the evolution of ideas and quotes from emblematic works and authors that changed the world forever. One of the best and most documented summaries of the cultural history of ancient Greece in recent years.
Third, it highlights the original book by Simon Critchley The tragedy, the Greeks and us (Turner). The thinker of the New York New School, specialized in contemporary philosophy, now goes on to claim the importance of the Greek tragedy as a system of thought embedded in an open society and based on the problematization of its basic points. From the question of its origin, linked to the Dionysian religion, Critchley studies the functions of the tragedy, following the great scholars of the Paris School, to focus preferentially on the citizen experience before the moral and existential questions posed by the works to the ancients and that led them to rethink their identities and traditions. With agile and engaging prose, Critchley proposes a journey through the 5th century B.C. and examines the intersections of tragedy with rhetoric, politics, and philosophy that made this genre the center of intellectual and emotional debate in ancient Athens. Perhaps most interesting for today’s reader is the way in which the discourse on antiquity is intertwined with various allusions to modernity that – in a contemporary thinker who has written, among other things, a magnificent book on David Bowie or a study on football – they remind us of the absolute validity of tragic ambivalence. Finally, tragedy continues to be useful for raising our concerns today in fields very similar to those raised by the ancient tragediographers, as a kind of moral and civic education. The relationship between individual and collective, tradition and innovation, law and freedom, women and men, old and young, etc .: everything that problematizes the ancient tragedy continues to challenge our conscience, as it did already in the time of Hegel, Nietzsche or Brecht, to cite well-known cases.
In recent years, the topicality of the classics has been especially reflected in the claim of the ancient philosophical systems to face the problems of our world today, interconnected, globalized and, surely, saturated with information. If not long ago stoicism became fashionable as a system that allowed us to face the unhappiness and irrationality of our societies (in Massimo Pigliucci’s book, How to be a Stoic), now appears as a reply Catherine Wilson’s proposal, How to be an Epicurean (Ariel), which updates the ethics and physics of the perhaps most exciting and controversial school of the Hellenistic era. Wilson, like Pigliucci, is a university professor of philosophy at CUNY and applies his research on ancient thought to the thorniest questions of contemporary times: the methodology of this type of book is to ask how an Epicurean would have approached, according to what we know of this philosophical school of antiquity, current dilemmas, from sociopolitical to bioethical issues. Although the basic concerns and pursuit of happiness continue to revolve around the same issues – conscience, death, relationship with others – Wilson addresses current issues of sexual morality, racism or abortion, the environment, illness or euthanasia from the epicurean perspective, which tends to minimize evil and pain and advocates mastering our fears, perhaps the most current in our context. The final chapter, in a very interesting way, contrasts stoicism and epicureanism as two ways of facing the problems of a cosmopolitan world like today (with a lot in common, by the way, with the Hellenistic world), advocating the proposal of the philosopher of the Garden: an enjoyment of existence – the eu zen– linked to the knowledge of our place in the world, in nature and in human relationships. With its fame obscured in the Christian era, the Epicurus and Lucretius school is presented by Wilson as the smartest way to deal with the increasing complexity of our global world. It is curious to see the old rivalry between the two great Hellenistic schools perpetuated in modernity, more up-to-date than ever: in times of confinement, both groups – stoics and epicureans – seem to embody the two essential attitudes to the challenge of the plague with which it begins the Decameron from Boccaccio. Nothing more pertinent in the current crisis than to allow ourselves to be accompanied by these philosophical proposals.
At the historical level, a splendid monograph on Sparta has recently been published by César Fornis who, after dedicating several important publications to the subject focused on the history of the ancient Greek superpower, which ended up being hegemonic, even briefly, after the defeat of Athens, post now The myth of Sparta (Alliance) an interesting journey through the legendary dimension of the Spartans. Parallel to his political and military brilliance, which caused the astonishment of characters as different as Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristotle, or Plutarch, myths and propaganda of all kinds about the way of life of the Spartans spread very early on: his proverbially excellent legislation , received from Apollo in Delphi by Lycurgus, his taciturn silence, his strict warrior ethic, his poetic and militaristic education at the same time, his family customs and the relative freedom of his women. The halo of legend that surrounded this peculiar Greek state entity since ancient times is part of a long cultural history that exerted a powerful fascination not only among Athenians such as Cimon, Xenophon or Plato, but also to figures of long posterity. The reader will be interested in the route proposed by Fornis, professor at the University of Seville, which touches Montaigne, the Enlightenment, the French revolutionaries, the leaders of the independence of the Thirteen Colonies, and even the ideologists of Nazism. This itinerary through the Spartan myth in the West leaves no one indifferent and shows the diverse evocations and political or philosophical appropriations of the Sparta model in the history of the West, between utopia, enlightenment and totalitarianism.
In mythological and literary studies, finally, we must salute the new, notably expanded edition of a wonderful book by the well-known Hellenist, mythologist and RAE scholar Carlos García Gual on women in the ancient world and their literary imprint. Indeed, more than twenty years after its first edition, today not found, it is published a new updated version of Female boldness (Turner), essay on women in ancient Greek literature that is read very well in these times of Me Too. The book contains a series of studies of eight female profiles (three more than in the previous version) that present the Greek woman in a polyhedral way, in its reflections on myth, literature and history. The literary Leucipa, Melita, Talestris, Ifigenia, Calírroe and Tarsia, on the one hand, and with some historical echo the stories of Ismenodora and Tecla, on the other, offer a varied typology of adventurous, challenging, traveling and independent women who contrast, in Ancient sources, with what we know about the situation of the Greek woman: these strong women, like the mythical princesses Ariadna and Medea, travel, fight, survive and reflect in an overwhelmingly masculine world, providing rich material to rethink the feminine from the perspective of ancient literature. The classical tragedy and the subsequent novel, and also the lives of subsequent saints, coincide in presenting these women as admirable figures – many of them not known to the general public -, which is glossed with habitual mastery by García Gual in a book that has to swell our list of classic updates.
Finally, I would like to briefly mention two very different collective books, which deal with Greece and Rome, and which are proof of the good work of the experts who work at the Spanish university in the field of classical studies. First of all, I was very interested in the book On the margins of Rome: Roman antiquity in contemporary mass culture (UAM), coordinated by Luis Unceta and Carlos Sánchez. Both editors, members of a very active research group on the reception of the classical world in contemporary popular and marginal culture, gather a series of contributions on the impact of Rome today, in a postmodern dialogue with new genres, such as video games , television or cinema “of Romans”, and their survival in fields as far from traditional classical studies as the gangs of heavy metal or the Harry Potter novels. Finally, it is worth quoting an important recently published book, under the coordination of Alberto Bernabé and Sara Macías, on Greek religion (Guillermo Escolar). This magnificent collective volume brings together a series of contributions from experts in various fields of the rich religious experience of the Greeks: from the polytheistic pantheon and civic religion to the interesting world of mysteries, the confluence with philosophy and the confrontation with Christianity , with interesting views of the reception and modern interpretation. A book that will undoubtedly become a reference on the subject.
In short, the insistence on returning to the classics in our novelties of essay gives us a logical and sure answer to the typical question of these days – with which book would we lock ourselves in, which one would we choose to accompany us, as a bedside guide, in a terrible and unexpected crisis – because these seem like opportune times to rethink ancient Greece and Rome: look back, at the crucial episodes of the plague of Athens or Constantinople, to the ancient heroisms, individual and collective, before the historical challenges, to the cultural achievements of the first modern citizenships in history, is a guarantee of meeting again with the news of these old literary travel companions. Now that we are focused on the essentials of culture, what should be preserved from the legacy of literature, it is worth claiming the reading of the great books that forged our universal letters: from Homer to Virgil or Ovid, from Platonic philosophy to Hellenistic schools , from the dawn of historiography to the first novels. These works have never disappointed and never will. Hopefully these weeks of solitude and confinement – but also of solidarity and heroism – have served to recover a humanistic view of the classic, that conjures up the loss of recognition of the Humanities, especially the classical ones, in our societies. In the recollection with the essentials of humanity we realize the value that the classics have and will have among us, that they continue to tell us so many things in times of crisis.
Ten lessons on the classics. Piero Boitani. Alliance.
Ancient Greeks. Edith Hall. Anagram.
Tragedy, the Greeks and us. Simon Critchley. Turner.
How to be an epicurean. Catherine Wilson. Ariel.
The myth of Sparta. César Fornis. Alliance.
Feminine boldness. Carlos García Gual. Turner.
On the fringes of Rome: Roman antiquity in contemporary mass culture. Luis Unceta and Carlos Sánchez (eds.). UAM.
Greek religion. Alberto Macías and Sara Macías (eds.). Guillermo Escolar.
David Hernández de la Fuente He is a writer, translator and professor of Classical Philology at the Complutense University of Madrid. He is the author of Classical mythology (Editorial Alliance) and The awakening of the soul. Dionysus and Ariadne, myth and mystery (Ariel), among other books.