What does the word “classical” mean in our modern world?

In previous posts, I’ve stated that this blog is loosely modeled on the tradition of the classical prose miscellany. In this context, the word “classical” refers to ancient Greek and Latin cultures. I’ve been interested in classical Greek and Latin literature and history since I was in college. A great deal of later literature that I’ve studied has been influenced by Greek and Latin texts. While the posts on this blog may be on a wide variety of topics, I expect that the influence of classical literature and history will come up repeatedly as a recurring theme.

My focus on Greek and Latin “classical” culture has been shaped by my own background and education. At the same time, though, I recognize that the word “classical” — while it originally derives from Latin — need not refer only to works written in Greek and Latin. If we take a broader view of world history, we can recognize that there are many ancient and classical traditions across the globe. In addition to classical Greek and classical Latin, one may also speak of classical Hebrew, classical Sanskrit, classical Chinese, and classical Arabic, to name only a few examples. Some might argue that recognizing non-western or non-European “classical” traditions is a symptom of creeping political correctness or revisionist history. To me, though, such an argument is short-sighted. The fact is that even what we consider to be “modern western culture” has been influenced by non-western traditions. If I write today’s date as “February 4,” the word “February” derives from Latin, but the numeral “4” descends from an Arabic numeral that was itself derived from an earlier Hindu script. The Romans themselves apparently wrote the number “4” as “IIII” or “IV.” Today, although we in the modern western world use letters based on Roman letters, our written numbers are based on a Hindu-Arabic numeral system. Acknowledging this situation is simply to recognize historical facts.

Gregory Crane, a classics professor at Tufts University, makes a comparable point in a recent post on the blog of the Perseus Project. (For readers who are not familiar with this online resource, the Perseus Project is a historical library or archive of digital texts. Many works in its collection are written in Greek or Latin, but it also includes other works in languages such as Arabic, Old English, or Old Norse.) Noting that Tufts University is currently seeking to hire a professor “who studies the contact between the Greco-Roman and Islamic traditions[,]” Crane uses this circumstance as an opportunity to reflect on what the word “classics” means in a modern context. He observes that academic Classics departments have sometimes had difficulty recognizing the value of classical traditions beyond the Greek and Roman ones that western academics tend to be most familiar with. Crane then distinguishes three possible ways of dealing with this issue: 1) abandon the term “classics” completely and instead focus on “Greek and Latin Studies”; 2) focus on philology and historical languages; 3) encourage a broader understanding of the word “classical,” one that can include other traditions alongside Greek and Latin. Crane himself seems implicitly to endorse the third option.

One reason why Crane thinks that people who study “classics” need to recognize the legitimacy of other classical traditions is because of the historical influence of Islamic and Arabic cultures on the later continuity of the western classical tradition. As he suggests, medieval western Europeans learned about the philosophy of Aristotle, the mathematics of Euclid, and the medical writings of Galen largely through Arabic texts that were preserved in Islamic traditions and then translated into Latin. In this way, medieval Islamic traditions had an important influence on the medieval and modern preservation of certain parts of the classical Greek tradition.

I must confess that there is one part of Crane’s post that I would quibble with. He writes that “if it were not for work done in Baghdad from 800-1000 CE and the transmission of knowledge into Latin c. 1200, there would not have been a Renaissance[.]” From my perspective as a student of Renaissance history, this seems to be something of an exaggeration, based on the widely-held assumption that Greek philosophy and science were the only truly important aspects of the rebirth of learning that took place during the Renaissance. It is quite true that most western Europeans in the Middle Ages learned more about Greek philosophy, mathematics, medicine, and science from Arabic texts and intermediaries than they did from Greek texts. It is also true that this Arabic influence persisted, in some ways, into the Renaissance and the modern world; this influence helps to explain why it is that we use Arabic numerals instead of Roman ones.

But to say that the Renaissance would never have happened without Islamic influence is to press the case too far, in my opinion. Renaissance humanist scholars learned about the Greek tradition not only from medieval Latin translations of Arabic texts, but also from Greek texts that were preserved for centuries by Byzantine scribes and scholars. Indeed, in many cases, western humanists preferred to use Greek texts instead of texts derived from the medieval Arabic-Latin tradition. In addition, the Renaissance was about more than just the rebirth of Greek traditions of philosophy and science; it also witnessed a revival of Latin traditions of literature and rhetoric, some of which were not very much influenced by Islamic or Arabic traditions. The quattrocento revival of Ciceronian style, for instance, had little to do with Arabic texts (as far as I am aware). Instead, it was dependent on Latin texts of Cicero’s works preserved by medieval European scribes. The Renaissance was a historical phenomenon that combined a number of different influences from a variety of sources. Medieval Islamic learning was one of those sources, but it was far from the only one.

Still, despite this quibble, I find myself in agreement with Crane’s larger point: Recognizing a multiplicity of classical traditions is important, both for understanding how those classical traditions have influenced each other, and for maintaining a historical perspective on current conflicts between cultural traditions in the modern world. While Crane may be putting his case rather strongly when he writes that “Islamification, in a sense, already happened a thousand years ago[,]” his point is still worth considering despite its rhetorical exaggeration. When so-called “anti-Islamification” protesters march in Germany, or when some Americans take offense at the Arabic word “haboob” being used in western media to describe certain weather phenomena, it’s important to remember that Islamic traditions have been influencing our “classical” western traditions for many centuries. This doesn’t require that all of us who are non-Muslims will suddenly become “Islamified,” whatever that means. It does suggest, however, that trying to get rid of all Islamic or Arab influence is futile — as futile as thinking that we could suddenly go back to Roman numerals after centuries of using Arabic-derived numerals. Recognizing the influence of other cultures on Greek and Latin classical traditions goes hand in hand with recognizing that there are other classical traditions besides the ones we may know best.

I also agree with Crane that the very notion of a “classical” tradition bestows a certain amount of privilege on that tradition. It’s useful to keep in mind that there are many other cultures that, for various reasons, don’t get to be revered in this way. (Crane’s post mentions Native Americans, for example. Native American traditions aren’t usually thought of as “classical,” but they have exerted considerable influence on various aspects of American culture and language nonetheless.)

So the concept of a “classical” tradition is, and should be, a flexible one — anchored in historical usage, but also able to be extended into other domains as well. That’s the way I plan to continue using it on this blog.


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