Dr. Schliemann or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Classics – Dartmouth Review

Posted: March 8, 2020 at 10:45 am


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On February 11th, Professor Curtis Dozier (Class of 00) spoke to a packed room about The Big One: The Fall of Rome and Contemporary Hate Groups. As the director of the Pharos Project out of Vassar College, Dozier seeks to combat the appropriation of the classical tradition by hate groups online through documenting appropriations, correcting the errors, omissions, and distortions that underpin these groupss interpretations, and to articulate a politically progressive approach to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity. While the stated purpose of his presentation was to discuss the appropriation of the fall of the Western Roman Empire by these groups, the discussion quickly took a broader focus.

Professor Doziers work with the Pharos Project falls into the domain of classical reception: the study of how antiquity and its relics have been portrayed, interpreted, and represented since. To introduce us to his work, he began with the case of The Colleges own Hovey Murals. Previously located in the basement of the Class of 53 Commons, the murals depict Eleazer Wheelock setting out into the wilderness to teach the Abenaki. Dozier asserts that implicit in these murals is the presentation of classical education as a civilizing influence: from the recurring presence of a Latin textbook Gradus ad Parnassum, to the Latin inscriptions, to the explicit reference to the Department of Classics on the panel of the first image. While the Hovey Murals are products of the early 20th century, Dozier sees the ideas represented as not just an artifact but emblematic of how white supremacists groups talk about a classical education todaya tool to preserve their warped understanding of Western Civilization.

At its most basic, this appropriation of the classical tradition is an appeal to authority. While they will often falsify the historical record, when they do use legitimate sources, they attempt to draw parallels from antiquity to inform our present behavior; our forefathers did this, and thus so should we. The fall of Rome occupies a special place in their thought as the Roman Empire is paradoxically something great and worthy of emulation, yet, something we need to account for the collapse of. Dozier asserts that this has led to the appropriation of scholarship to support whatever political agenda these groups wish to advance: Rome falls because of the barbarians at the gates; Rome falls because of the sexual liberation of women. Such claims pose a particular challenge to academics as, while these hate groups present simplified narratives with absolute certainty, to do so in response would be intellectually dishonest to the complexity of the scholarship. However, Dozier asserts that all of this debate only matters so long as we continue to view the fall of Rome as something that mattersone of the few assumptions that both those published in peer-reviewed journals and Reddit seem to agree. Why do we need it to matter? Why do the classics matter at all?

Dozier finds his answer in the re-appropriation of the classical tradition to advance his politically progressive agenda. Due to antiquities central place in academia, there is apossibly undeservedcache of authority in the classical tradition. Those who reference Greece and Rome sound intelligent. Thus contemporary scholars have an obligation to positively politicize the classical tradition such that it advances progressive narratives and creates new methodologies that place the consideration and advancement of the historically marginalized as central.

An example of this ideology in practice is Vassar College renaming its Department of Classics, the Department of Greek and Roman Studies. He asserts that no other disciplines name includes an implicit endorsement of the subject contained. We use the term classic to denote that which is essential to study, and thus the name classics implies antiquity is worthy of our study. Here is where Doziers argument begins to fall apart; etymological evidence shows that we should flip this causal chain. We use the term classic to denote something of value as the culture of antiquity was so universally considered vital that we borrowed its name. Classic comes from the Latin classicus, an adjective describing that which pertains to the patrician class. The use of the term to refer to those standard texts of exemplary quality emerges during the 6th century AD to refer to the products and pursuits of this patrician class. The classical predates the word classic.

I further object to Doziers deviation from the accepted methodology in his work rebutting the hate groups. While he asserts that the classics have always been secretly politicized in favor of a conservative agenda, and, he only wishes to do the same openly in a left-leaning manner, he is arguing for a false dichotomy. It may be true that the accepted scholarship contains biased actors and positions, but methodologically we should strive for apolitical accuracy. In deviating from the accepted methodology to arrive at a desired end, that which we create is equally erroneous as hate groups using the classics to further hateful ends. Regardless of the moral message, its still a case of motivated reasoning.

Similarly, Dozier presents the narratives constructed by these groups as problematic, but not why they are flawed beyond failing to compart with a progressive viewpoint. One example that was brought up during the talk is the case of Doziers attempt to debunk an interpretation of Juvenal the Satirist as sexists. When Dozier reached out to the experts in his field on Roman satire, to his surprise, they confirmed that the interpretation of the hate groups is historically accurate. This example demonstrates an intellectual dishonesty both in committing the logical fallacy of discrediting an argument because of the associated speaker and in his motivation to simply oppose these groups, not accurately document the history.

While these critiques are responses to Doziers answer to the question of the value of classics, if we dismiss his answer as fallacious, there is still the question of why do the classics matter? Why does the study of history matter at all beyond just existing as an appeal to tradition? Nietzsche provides an answer to this question in his essay On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life (1874); history is useful in so far as it serves life. The beasts of nature live unhistorically, acting in each moment before immediately forgetting. Man lives historically; his actions bound by the ever-increasing burden of the past, which weights against his ability to act. This burden finds its extreme in the superhistorical man, who knows so much that he is rendered entirely impotent. To put this point more colloquially: the man who knows everything fears everything. A person must know just enough to keep them safe, but not too much as to be paralyzed by fear. While we desire the bliss of an unhistorical existence, we, too, want the products of historicism. The obligation of the intellect is to mediate between these extremes. We must both be able to learn from the past but not be made useless by our knowledge of it. Thus, if knowledge breeds inaction, we must distinguish not only what we save but what we discardsacrificed as it has become unproductive to our ends.

Nietzsche continues that there are three types of history that each inspires different actions and dangers. Monumental History is that which preserves and motivates greatness yet can breed resentment if that greatness becomes mythical and unachievable. Antiquarian History is that which seeks to protect the tradition of our civilization yet can become fetishistic if too removed from its content and dangerous if in lieu we substitute in our own. Critical History is that which condemns the past for its failures yet can become so broad as to make one believes nothing matters lest it all be problematic. Much like how the quest of man is to mediate between the extremes of the unhistorical and superhistorical, so too must you navigate between the poles of history itself. Nietzsche saw his period as defined by the overabundance of knowledge that exclusively exists for its own sake. Those who generated this knowledge never asked why or reflected upon its value. Put succinctly, Nietzsche studied the classics because to do so served his life. It motivated greater action.

The hate groups Dozier discusses represent the extreme form of Antiquarian History, attempting to apply the past to the present without any regard for its context. As Nietzsche explains to these groups, it seems presumptuous or even criminal to replace such an antiquity with something new and to set up in opposition to such a numerous cluster of revered and admired things the single fact of what is coming into being and what is present. Hate groups have become so thoroughly invested in this unchanging conception of the past as to render all action which incites change impossible. As even the most celebrated scholars have an incomplete knowledge of the context of antiquity, those without this formal education dangerously substitute their own. Worse, they attempt to do this with falsification generated through unsound methodologies. This inability to make the present look like the past is what breeds their defining featureresentment.

Dozier himself, however, represents the extreme form of critical history. In so thoroughly condemning both antiquity and the tradition of studying it for its failures, he has concluded that it is of no inherent value. Thus, he can use it most cynically to advance his agenda. In the words of Nietzsche through this excess an age attains the dangerous mood of irony about itself and, from that, an even more dangerous mood of cynicism. He made this view clear to the audience when asked by Professor Michael Lurie of the Classics Department why it would not be philosophically consistent for him to resign his position. Tragically, Dozier concurred.

While there are valid conversations about the accessibility of Ivory Towers, the excess of critical history has led Oxford to consider removing Homer and Virgil as required reading in attempt to make classics more accessible. This is not unique to Oxfordseemingly the last refuge of classical educationbut the culmination of a process that has gone for the past century. Dartmouth does not require I read Homer for Classics or Shakespeare for English. However, in attempting to concede to the critical historian and in making things too available, we sacrifice the very value they contain.

I didnt come to Dartmouth to be a Classics major. I came here to learn; I came here to engage in the liberal arts; I came here to engage in an intellectual community. I thought I wanted to be a Government major but those people I most enjoyed talking with, who seemed the most shaped and inspired by what they studied, were the Classicists. Everything I found valuable about the classics does not relate at all to the criticisms Dozier madehe missed the point of classical education and history entirely.

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Dr. Schliemann or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Classics - Dartmouth Review

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March 8th, 2020 at 10:45 am

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