Friday, June 22, 2018

Ancient History Deserves More Respect

In the following essay, I have used the terms "historian" and "Classicist" as if they were somewhat interchangeable. This may distress some historians and Classicists, to whom the distinctions between their disciplines are extremely important. To them, I apologize. Those distinctions are quite simply not as important to me.

Along with countless smaller shocks, three major ones have brought me to the conclusion that the study of ancient history is in a dire state of neglect:

First, a few years ago, I became aware of the New Atheists. One of the first things I learned about them was that their most prominent and well-respected member -- indeed, their widely-acknowledged leader -- is Richard Dawkins. I had read read two books about biology by Dawkins, The Selfish Gene and The Ancestor's Tale. I had heard about his more recent book The God Delusion but hadn't read it. However, I assumed, on the basis of the other two books, that it must be brilliant, and that any atheist movement with him at its head must be out there actively making a lot of good sense.

An atheist since childhood myself, I eagerly joined New Atheist communities online, but soon became very impatient with people repeating, ad nauseum, ridiculous memes such as calling the authors of the Bible "Bronze Age goat herders," or: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." I wondered when I was finally going to get to some well-educated New Atheists, when some of them besides me was going to try to correct some of the more dopey memes.

Then came the first of those above-mentioned three major jolts: I learned that those two memes and a lot of other oft-repeated New Atheist slogans were direct quotes of, or paraphrases from, Dawkins himself. I heard or read about Dawkins saying shockingly racist things in the guise of an enlightened critique of Islam. Dawkins, who'd called the Old Testament God "jealous and proud of it," but reserved most of his most poisonous comments for Islam, has never read the Koran, and never will, and is proud of that.

Despite the good advice of Alcoholics Anonymous, that when we assume we make an ass of you and me, I had assumed, on the basis of The Selfish Gene and The Ancestor's Tale, that Dawkins was incapable of writing a bad book or saying a horrid thing, although, in order to make this assumption, I had had to ignore a jarring clue right there on the first page of the first chapter of The Selfish Gene, "Why are People?" where Dawkins approvingly quotes GG Simpson to the effect that all attempts to describe human nature made before 1859 are worthless and should be ignored.

As a matter of fact, all sorts of eminently-sensible things written before 1859 point out the hazards of people telling you to ignore entire eras while simultaneously telling you non-stop about those very eras, about which they are proudly ignorant.


The second major shock came from Stephen Greenblatt's inept book The Swerve, which claims that Poggio was solely responsible for saving the text of Lucretious from oblivion, that Lucretius was solely responsible for rescuing Epicurian philosophy from oblivion, and that Epicurian philosophy, via Lucretius, via Poggio, ushered in the Renaissance and the modern world, three ridiculous assertions. After having heard so much praise of the book that I finally decided I had to read it for myself and see if it was as bad as it descriptions of it sounded, I found that it was actually worse. The shock was not that such a bad book was written, nor that it was a bestseller. There are books far worse on the bestseller lists all the time. The shock was that this book had won so many awards and gotten such high praise from so many people I who, I would have thought, were well-educated.

Or should I say: these people are well-educated, of course they are, and the shock was in perceiving how small a role a knowledge of history could play in a good education.

And most recently, the third shock came when I learned that the story of Christian having willfully destroyed the great library at Alexandria had been passed along, and perhaps greatly popularized, by Carl Sagan on his TV series Cosmos.

Thanks to people like Dawkins and Sagan, the general public is now in touch, to some degree, with cutting-edge science. That is an immense and lauable achievement. But very often, cutting-edge scientists, working at the West's greatest universities, are not in touch with the bullet-points of the current study of history. (I don't know whether historical illiteracy is as widespread in the science departments of the great non-Western universities, and I won't pretend as if I know. Dawkins does enough of that sort of pretending for himself and me both.)

I believe that history is every bit as important as science. I can't prove this as directly as a scientist explaining climate change and what can be done about it, but perhaps I can persuade the reader to give it some thought. (Some readers won't need much convincing: for instance, if they're familiar with one of the non-English languages which call history a science.)

Science deals with how things work, and history with what happened. If we don't know what happened, we're in no position to know how things work, or to know much of anything at all. If we're satisfied with any old account of Greek philosophy, or ancient libraries, or the Renaissance, or with a version which matches our political agenda or the axes we wish to grind, then, in effect, we're content not to know what happened. There are specialists working full-time on uncovering these subjects, uncovering them figuratively and also literally in the case of the ancient libraries, and if we don't consult them and see what they've made of the texts and other artifacts of the times they study, before we ourselves make pronouncements on related subjects, then we're acting very much in the spirit of Richard Dawkins and GG Simpson and Stephen Greenblatt and Henry "History is bunk" Ford.

(That seemed much more impressive in my head before I actually wrote it down. But perhaps it's a start.)

What can historians themselves do in order to introduce more of their work into the public consciousness? There's one thing I can think of, which the historians might very much not want to do: they might become a little less polite. How have most Classicists reacted to Stephen Greenblatt's book The Swerve? With one of the most fearful weapons in their arsenal: they mention Greenblatt's name more seldom. If one has become familiar with the community of Classicists and their mores, this shunning is chilling indeed. To the general public, however, it's almost entirely as good as imperceptible, and there's almost no way of learning that Greenblatt's assertions do not conform to the findings of current research. The few who've ventured further outside of the ivory tower in Greenblatt's case, to plainly state the distance between The Swerve and current scholarship, are solitary needles in the haystack of rapturous reviews of The Swerve by laypeople. And then there are those Classicists who've written reviews of The Swerve which are negative, but so polite that to many laypeople they may seem positive.

(We could make a game of this, and see which readers can guess which very famous Classicist I have, in a searing rebuke, deliberately avoided mentioning in this essay. But how would we discuss this? Not publicly, surely not.)

There are non-specialists selling millions of books, scientists reaching television audiences of tens of millions, who sometimes get things entirely wrong when it comes to ancient history or ancient texts. If historians and Classicists want to do anything about this, they might not have to become rude, but they will certainly have to speak up much more emphatically. The historians and Classicists who work on the same campuses as scientists who are wont to spread public misconception on historical topics could, perhaps, be so bold as to speak to those scientists about such things. Perhaps even face-to-face and out loud.

They could ask to be heard. They deserve to be heard.

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