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Dan-el Padilla Peralta: Why "Why Classics?"

Prof. Walter Scheidel and Dr. Dan-el Padilla Peralta at commencement in June 2014.

Why Classics?

Dan-el Padilla Peralta (PhD 2014)

Let’s expand the question: why should you study Classics? (And the follow-up: why study Classics at Stanford?) There’s a standard response, which I’ll supply in short order; but in what follows I’ll also provide an answer from the personal perspective of a first-generation Dominican-American immigrant to the United States—a long-time New York City resident who yielded to the charms of California. This second answer won’t pretend to make any claims to generalization or universality. Its aim is rather to muck things up a little by asking you to reflect on (what has brought you to read) this piece. Why “Why Classics?”

I begin with the Muse of classical legacy. The societies of ancient Greece and Rome oversaw the rise and development of literary, artistic, philosophical, political, legal, and scientific projects that have shaped—and remain vitally important to—contemporary life. We consume literary genres that go back, in many instances, to the Greeks. Our modern visual and monumental arts were shaped by encounters with the artistic productions of Greek and Roman antiquity; the ongoing international disputes over these productions (notably the Elgin Marbles) bear witness to the meanings with which ancient art continues to be imbued. Many of the philosophical and religious questions we agonize over received their earliest documented exposition in the Greco-Roman world. The political arrangements we have devised, and the political-scientific principles undergirding them, have pedigrees that go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The legal structures we inhabit are deeply indebted to classical antiquity for their fundamental terminology and conceptual apparatus. And the sciences whose discoveries set in motion the radical transformations of the modern era began to emerge as fields of intellectual endeavor in ancient Greece and Rome: in pure and applied mathematics, in astronomy and geometry, in human and animal biology and ethology (to name only a few fields), Greek and Roman thinkers set the terms of discussion for centuries.

Much of our contemporary (Western) dispensation is bound up with the Greco-Roman past: that’s the standard line. But why should you study any aspect of this past? One answer, quite popular as a general defense of the humanistic enterprise, is that study of the classical past—usually understood to mean “study of the texts of the classical past”—will enhance you as a person by conferring some cognitive benefit(s) above and beyond those obtained from narrowly focused vocational and/or utilitarian learning. Now, I want to believe that this is true. Even on the assumption that it is, however, we haven’t gotten much closer to a specific justification of Classics.

The justification I’ll try to make is a bit idiosyncratic—but this idiosyncracy happens to be implicated in a tradition and legacy of its own. To set the stage, an anecdote. Not long ago I was preparing to teach a class on the first three books of Plato’s Republic. Even though time was tight, my focus was waning, and eventually I took a break from preparation to listen to a favorite sports and music podcast. The podcast’s hosts that day were busy debating the best hip-hop groups “of all time.” As a big hip-hop fan with strong feelings about these group rankings, I couldn’t wait to hear what the hosts had to say. Their first pronouncement was music to my ears: advancing to the final, championship round of the podcast’s NCAA Tournament-style bracket of groups was the Staten Island-based Wu-Tang Clan. By way of an introduction to Wu-Tang’s work, the podcast’s hosts played Inspectah Deck’s verse in the song “Triumph” (1997): “… Socrates’ philosophies / and hypotheses can’t define how I be droppin’ these / mockeries…” The lines immediately made me smile in reminiscence: growing up in late 1990s New York, I’d heard Wu-Tang blasted from speakers and boomboxes, so Inspectah Deck’s lyrics conjured up many sentimentally tinged memories of youth. But the smile also arose from intellectual excitement, from a sense of revelation and delight.

I was bowled over by the realization that the classicizing-cum-canonizing project of this podcast was making its case partly by sampling Wu-Tang on Socrates. And not just some passing reference to Socrates, but Inspectah Deck summoning the legacy of the Greek past as embodied in the figure of Socrates—such an embodiment, of course, representing a specific way of packaging the Greek past—only then to seek to surpass and outdo it. And what an ingenious way, I thought, of troping rap as both serious and not-serious by positioning it on the same plane as Socratic thought (ponderous, grave, the stuff of argument and dialectic) all while dismissing the ability of Socratic thought itself to circumscribe Inspectah Deck’s mockeries. The play with Socrates’ “philosophies and hypotheses” could also be related to the Wu-Tang Clan’s self-fashioning as fans and appropriators of Chinese martial arts: was Socrates being evoked as an icon of the West, a “West” to be trumped by the Clan’s “Eastern” wisdom? One more tidbit: surely the claim that Socrates’ philosophy couldn’t explain Inspectah Deck’s lyricism would carry an extra charge for any listener familiar with the project of Plato’s Socrates in Books 2 and 3 (and 10) of the Republic—to establish criteria for the poetry that would be permitted in the ideal city envisioned by Socrates and his interlocutors. Tangled webs, indeed.

Now, my recourse to this mode of interpretation is no accident. I chose to explicate this near-contemporary hip-hop verse as an episode in the reception of the classical tradition; that choice was in turn made possible through the good fortune of an education that has trained me to look out for, pursue, and engage with these episodes. The pursuit quickens the pulse, and the engagement yields Eureka moments that make me smile. And so my “Why” for “Why Classics?” has much to do with the exquisite thrill of discovery: the pleasures of finding old bodies changed into new forms, to paraphrase Ovid. Look at the Fugees’ rapping about the sword of Damocles in “Zealots,” or Jay-Z’s direct allusion to Plato’s Euthyphro in “No Church in the Wild”: more opportunities for pleasure as ancient Greek and Roman past(s) bubble up fresh in the hip-hop present. Or stalk that present like zombies, startling those whose eyes can see them.  

But in a way we are still not far removed from that generic account of the classical legacy I sketched earlier. The Classics is mainstream enough for mainstream hip-hop; so what? Well, there’s the curiosity that something so apparently, indisputably mainstream could nonetheless be the locus of a form of intense cultural anxiety: I mean here the very public mourning over the fate of the humanities. Figures for humanistic enrollments at the college level are cited and fussed over; polemicist tracts call out classicists for their own contribution to the humanities’ seeming demise (Heath and Hanson, Who Killed Homer?); leading humanists take the podium to insist on the continuing relevance of humanistic education to modern democracy (Nussbaum, Not for Profit). On these matters I find myself mostly in agreement with Daniel Tompkins and Michael Broder’s lively recent contribution to the Society of Classical Studies blog: sometimes this talk about the killing of the Classics or of the liberal arts reflects the operations of a discourse concerned (in the first instance) with turning the clock back to a time when “theory” and “gender” and “race” were not part of the scholarly conversation. But there’s another observation to be made that bears more directly on the question raised by this essay: that the arguments about demise and death actually point to a degree of robustness. The Classics lives on in no small part because it provokes and sustains anxieties over its fate.

This is not an original point: it has been put forward by several students of the classical tradition, perhaps most evocatively by Salvatore Settis in his description of the “spiral of cyclical returns.” Throughout history, Settis remarks, “the ‘classical’ is reclassified into new roles and recurring roles” (Future of the Classical, p. 97). So, on the one hand, we get the “classical” recast in popular artistic and musical genres: witness the Sphinx-Harpy hybrid on Kanye West’s album cover art. But we also get this fretting and worrying over the fate of the “classical,” and this too is part of the spiral. The fear that the answer to “Why Classics?” won’t be self-evident is woven into the very fabric of the discipline.

My “Why” for “Why Classics?” has often taken the form of justifying to friends and family why I, a Dominican-American immigrant raised in Harlem, study and want to keep on studying “dead white guys.” Yes, I say, there are plenty of dead white guys involved, but there’s much more going on. In the narrowest sense, the discipline consists of ancient Greek and Roman history, culture, and literature; but the moment you zoom in on these topics you begin to notice how blurry and unstable they are. The discipline exists to question those topics, and in the process of doing so to repeatedly question itself. What I have loved most about the study of Classics is how, first, you are exposed to an idea of the ancient Greek and Roman world, as refracted through languages, texts, material culture—and then the rug is pulled out from under you and you realize that this idea you drank in with your lyric poetry readings, your history textbooks, your chronologies of ancient ceramics is the subject of vigorous contestation. The realization can be disorienting. It can also be exhilarating.

If you study Classics, what will your “Why” be?