Lucretius – Can he be trusted?

The other day I asked a Classicist friend, Dr Armand D’Angour, what benefits if any Classics had brought to his life. He replied, ‘many,’ and particularly drew attention to Epicureanism. This caught my attention because I had just heard an edition of the Radio 4 programme In our Time, on Epicureanism. Although I have never studied Epicureanism directly, exposure to Lucretius gave me a fairly clear idea of its elements. Armand’s comment also recalled to me a term of commendation I heard Carlotta Dionisotti apply to Lucretius: she described his poem as pabulum (I am reminded of Paul Johnson, in the Spectator, calling Armand’s own book on innovation, The Greeks and the New, ‘nourishing’).

This conversation prompted me to get a copy of Lucretius De Rerum Natura from one of the boxes where the remnants of my library are stored. I took out the Bailey edition, the Monro edition, and the Oxford Classical Text. I was required to read this book as an undergraduate, and I recall reading the Latin text three or four times, and Monro’s commentary once, so it seemed time to look at Bailey.

Incidentally, some modern university teachers may regard the Latin as too difficult for undergraduates, but in fact that is a misleading first impression: if they were to persist a little with Lucretius they would notice that the Latin is not inherently difficult when one gets used to not being thrown by some of Lucretius’ slightly mad or at least odd turns of phrase. Lucretius perhaps struggles to adapt philosophical thoughts to the poverty of the Latin language (to which he refers himself), just as Germans once tried to write science in a German language free of foreign words (a policy they have long since abandoned in favour of writing in English, or at least, of using English words and turns of phrase in their German).

Perusing Bailey, I found a passage which expresses well my scepticism that treaties on ancient philosophy can assist us to live better. It is on p.11 of the first volume of C. BAILEY Titi Lucreti Cari De Rerum Natura Libri Sex (Oxford, 1947). Bailey is discussing the poet’s alleged madness (which is said, in the meagre evidence about his life, to have led to suicide):

The gospel of Epicureanism, of which Lucretius was the preacher, is a gospel of happiness in a life freed from the terrors of religion by a materialist philosophy. But amid Lucretius’ professional happiness from time to time surgit amari aliquid [something of bitterness arose]; ‘the voice’, as Guissani puts it, ‘of his own intimate soul, troubled and tormented by the violence of its feeling, by the violence of its own enthusiasm for the serentiy of the truth’. In this sense it is not difficult to imagine Lucretius suffering from a recurrent depression, which even had its influence on the ‘lucid intervals’ in which his work was done.

When someone invites his readers, (or, like the unfortunate James Arthur Ray, his high-paying students) to a belief and a practice which, it is promised, will make life so much better, and his own life or state of mind or ‘outcomes’ are a poor advertisement, does that matter? If the appeal of Epicureanism, for example, is to stimulate and ‘nourish’ your own exploration, which will lead you to a better life, then it may not matter. Setting aside that the testimonies for Lucretius’ madness and suicide are flimsy, it is easy to answer doubts about trusting the philosopher, like the psychotherapist, who is himself screwed up, with the rebuttal, “but how much more unhappy would he be without his philosophical or therapeutic system for making life more bearable?”. It is a question we can never answer. As soon as one decides, for some more or less inscrutable reason, to invest time, energy, and perhaps money in system promising a better life without any credible evidence base whatsoever, well it is a lottery.

With that in mind, I think I will while away a little more time on Lucretius. There are worse occupations. I am not sure how much time I will spend on Bailey. He displays an impressive industry for which few modern academic Classicists find time. But I will give Bailey too a chance, not least for the penetration of his subject’s apparent self-deception in the phrase ‘professional happiness.’

By way of postscript I will mention I was taught Lucretius by the late Dr. David Vessey, whose attitude was that we could work out linguistic and literary points for ourselves, so he should in teaching us draw our attention to philosophical issues which we risked missing. These were not required for the exam (does any modern teacher have the courage to focus specifically and deliberately on what will not be in the exam? I hope so). When I pointed out to him how distracting from reading Lucretius, reading Bailey could be, he suggested that one should read commentaries as self-standing works, and not at the same time as reading the text itself. So trying out this suggestion is part of my experiment. I am not sure it will work: I fear not that Bailey will distract me from Lucretius, but that Lucretius will distract me from Bailey.

Here is to a happier life of Epicureanism!

Study Latin because it is Alien?

Why study Latin? The answers are obvious, and its alleged ‘alien-ness’ is no doubt part of the mix.

Last week’s issue of the German weekly broadsheet Die Zeit (11 August 2011) included a section on why people remember so little from school. One German professor has criticised this, and traced it in part to the fact that the curriculum is overloaded. Another professor interviewed said things are not so bad: he might not remember his school mathematics, but at least he learned from school that a subject with mathematical methods exists, and he learned to know what he does not know.

This latter expert, Prof Heinz-Elmar Tenorth, having said that German and English are necessary, gave a somewhat surprising defence of learning Latin. On p30 he says this:

ZEIT: You regard French and Latin as luxuries.
Tenorth: Yes, luxuries, which makes education complete. Let us take Latin. We learn it out of tradition. This language has no direct utility. It used to be said that with a knowledge of Latin you can learn other languages better, or be better at logical thought. That has long been shown to be an error.
ZEIT: Why should Latin still be taught, then?
Tenorth: It might sound esoteric, but I view it in the way that Nietzsche defended the study of Greek: when you go to school, you need something really alien [Fremdes], in order to recognize that you are in the world of education [Bidlungswelt]. A world, which has nothing to do with daily life, which has its own laws, rules, tradition and expectations. This transforms the student, Nietzsche said: the inescapable confrontation with the alien, gymnastics for the brain.

I should have thought that for alienness one would be better off with Korean. It sounds as though Latin is the chosen source of ‘otherness’ with which the student is intellecutally confronted only because the tradition happens to be in place. I am myself a strong believer in the value of appreciating liginuistic otherness, which improves one’s grasp of language generally and of one’s own language. I felt I learnt more of linguistic otherness first when I learnt a bit of Hebrew, but the otherness of Semitic would ave been far less clear without a background in Indo-European languages, having learnt enough French at school to pass an exam no doubt far harder than today’s GSCEs (but not enough French to order a beer in Paris), and three words of German. (Since then the study of German in British schools has entered a sharp decline.)

Professor Tenorth is wrong, of course, about Latin lack of practical utility. In spite of my purported translation from a German newspaper, I have never studied German beyond the three words Apfel, Vater, and Haus which the British education system taught me when I was seven, and I tend to identify with a car sticker seen on a car with a Bavarian number plate: ‘Ich kann Alles ausser Hoch.’ However, familiarity with the habits of an inflected language acquired from school Latin are a help in picking up a little of the other languages one encounters, if one travels outside the English-speaking world, and it is because I studied Classics than I have been able to pick up enough of the language from German speakers to make head or tail of a German newspaper.

This is one of the reasons I do look back with gratitude for having been introduce to Latin at school, in spite of my strictures on the Cambridge Latin Course, which was culturally brilliant, but linguistically misconcieved at its birth. It is (as Greek was for the Romans, you may think) at once a source of tradition, and yet enough ‘other’ to hold up a mirror to northern Europe, and to the present. From the wasteland of school, spending years learning as much mathematics and French as a well-taught child might acquire in a few months, Latin was one of the more beneficial uses of my time. Its value may be described in terms of an amalgalm of the traditional defences, the Johnson line, and Professor’s Tenorth’s Fremdheit (my word, not his).

The problem with the overloaded curriculum, as is pointed out in the newspaper section mentioned above, is that every discipline fights to get as much of its own subject into the curriculum. Admittedly by global or even Eurpoean standards the Germans tend to do better than most countries, which is not saying much. The broad curriculum is blamed for the large number of students leaving school without the very basic skills which employers require. The almost exclusive focus on Classics in the English schools in the nineteenth century did ensure a better ‘product’ than today’s schools produce. For all its undoubted faults, it was a golden age, but regrettably elitist.

Educators would have done better in fighting elitism if, instead of levelling down schools by eradicating quality, they had levelled up. Levelling down is the besetting sin of left-wingers, whose politics of smashing class enemies, rather than building value, have tended to dominate educational theory for decades. (Marx was of course right about capitalism, but the favourite imperative verb of the politics of protest is, signficiantly, Smash, used transitively.) It is sad for the left that efforts to offer the quality education which Classics offers has in England been left the Conservative Boris Johnson (see for example this Daily Telegraph column). But I don’t really care where it comes from: whatever one’s politics the promotion of Latin in schools can only benefit the students. Every politican, regardless of tribal leanings, who has heart and awareness, along with his or her necessary ambition and understanding of power, will support it.

Classics Students Blogging


Few academics blog. Even fewer students. Why?

One reason academics do not blog is fear. Fear of offending university authorities. Fear too of getting something wrong. If you make a casual comment face-to-face, and make a silly mistake, it vanishes into the ether. If you make a silly mistake on the Web, it may blemish your reputation for ever. Perhaps this is why Socrates and Aristotle preferred to teach orally.

However, the current generation of students grew up feeling it is OK to hold conversations on the net, so one would expect a few students to blog about their subject. Since starting this blog I received emails from one PhD student in Scotland, whose blog covers ancient world, ancient philosophy and early Christianity. Erlend MacGillivray’s blog is called Didaskelion.

Yesterday I had an email from Victoria Boorman drawing my attention to her blog Diary of an Ancient Geek. I am guessing an undergraduate student. She does not say which college. Recommended for an enthusiastic and fun conversation about studying Classics. Her opening posts invites the reader, ‘Take a look, feel free to send me your thoughts, ideas and suggestions and “aut disce aut discede” (Either learn or leave).’ None of the fear of error and loss reputation, then, which is one of the factors deterring some professional classicists from blogging!

Both those blogs are in my blogroll, on the left hand column of my homepage. I look forward to hearing of other chatty blogs. To be kept informed, rather than just to engage in sharing ideas and experiences, refer to Rogue Classicist, and Ancient World Online, both in my blogroll.

The ‘Support Classics at Royal Holloway’ Blog


Many American academics blog. British academics don’t on the whole. But the threat to Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, has spawned a Support Classics at RHUL blog as part of the campaign to save Classics at RHUL. I see two wholly disparate benefits which this blog, posted by Edith Hall, may bring: first, there are good arguments, to which I make a small contribution here, for keeping the subject alive at RHUL; second, the blog–generated by an unfortunate emergency–may turn out to represent one more small step in encouraging British academics to be more positive, and less resistant, to blogging and other informal conversations held publicly on the Net.

Why Save Classics at Royal Holloway?

Ending Classics at RHUL would be a mistake. The department has a distinguished history, and for reasons which are difficult to analyse precisely, the reality is that universities and colleges with a strong history of excellence in Classics tend to continue and transmit that excellence from generation to generation. That light should not be put out.

Universities must face financial realities. Not commercial realities: universities are not, at least not primarily, businesses. Financial realities, yes. Within that context, the manager motivated by money will ask, ‘What can Classics do for Royal Holloway?’ The manager motivated by academic values will say, ‘I do not ask what Classics can do for the college, but what can the college can do for Classics?’ If the management are so strapped for cash that they simply cannot pay salaries, they may be forgiven for destroying value. But the managerial team motivated by academic values will of course do everything in their power to maintain that excellence whose stewardship has been entrusted to them.

Classics is not in decline. I can remember a time when it was. The current generation of senior university managers formed their assumptions and perceptions of academic life in a generation when Classics was in decline, and it would be understandable if academics from other fields were not aware of how times have changed. They need to be made more aware of the vigorous interest the subject is attracting in the twenty-first century.

British academics have been sceptical about blogging

As said, part of the campaign for the subject is a blog. There are various reasons academics are suspicious, nervous, or dismissive of blogging. I understand those reasons, discussed in this Times Higher Education Supplement article from 2008, entitled By the blog: academics tread carefully. Only last night, a friend who holds a university post in Classics said ‘If you are going to blog, you need to get it right.’ I suggested in reply that there should be room for informal academic conversations, where there is space for error (and for replies correcting errors), to be held not only in private, or in seminars, but also in the broader and more public sphere of the Internet.

Getting the message out on the Net is important

The Royal Holloway blog is clearly not directly about the substance of what Classicists do. It is about an administrative and institutional matter. Nevertheless, as academics see the value of turning to the Net as a forum for advocacy for their work, it is likely some will be increasingly convinced of the value of not only of more or less technical publication in peer-reviewed journals and books, but also of more informal conversations about the substance of their work, on the Net. This will turn out to be a central to advocacy for the public and institutional support for, and interest in, their subject.

I do not mean to suggest that academics should blog about their work on the RHUL Classics campaign blog. In the context, that might be valuable, but it might be distracting and inappropriate. I am in no position to judge. But if this blog contributes to an increasing awareness of the value of Internet conversations, those conversations will come and they can only be fructifying for the academics themselves, and for Internet users (who are numerous) generally.

Social Net as a method of persuasion

Incidentally, I did look for a Save Classics at Royal Holloway Facebook page. Perhaps that would seem frivolous, yet marketers know the value of such networking. Today I heard Stephen Fry’s programme on Radio 4, on Persuasion. An advertising expert said that we know advertising works, even though we often do not really understand why. Persuasion works at a subliminal level. Speaking for myself, I do not see that any route to getting the message out is ‘inappropriate.’ Non-Classicists brought up at a time when Classics was in decline need to be persuaded of the current health of the field by reason, but also by effectively presented reasoning. These days, Internet conversations are key to persuasion. A blog, like a Facebook page, is not just an advertisement, it is social in the sense that it engages in a conversation of sorts. For example, the latest post on the RHUL blog is a comment from Ian Hislop. By contributing, he has engaged in and continued a conversation.

Such conversations have great persuasive power, which marketers understand. One of the blogs on Mary Beard’s blogroll purports to be by a young lady interested in fashion. It is (I believe) written by professional hacks as a marketing tool. 99.9% of its readers assume they are engaging with a real person when they read the blog: Internet marketers are so desperate to promote conversations on the web that they fake them, it is one of their secret weapons. Real conversations held by academics on their subject will be hugely valuable both for the matter they contain (not only didactic matter: bloggers, like geniuses, flourish when they risk mistakes); they will also be valuable for promoting public awareness of the subject. The student of classical Greece also knows the value of conversation: would a twenty-first century Socrates have published in peer-reviewed journals, or would he have held conversations on the Net? The answer is obvious

In conclusion, this post, having strayed into the topic of academic blogging, might seem a little tangential to the RHUL Classics campaign, but my support for it is direct.

University Admissions the South African Way; Flourshing Numbers Choosing Classics.

A very interesting chat with my friend from Durban. He told me that the system is that anyone can register for a degree, but if they deemed to be able to afford it, they must pay up front, which must be a barrier for some. Clearly this is likely to create a student population with very mixed ability. It is also difficult to predict the numbers of students until term has started.

Whilst courses in Latin and Greek are not compulsory, they are offered, and it is pointed out, at least to the students best able to cope with them, that it is not possible to take a doctorate without three years of Classical languages. A reading knowledge of modern language is also expected. He also told me that there is a translation prize for translations into or out of classical languages, from or to any of the official languages (that is, not only English, but African languages too. That sounds like an exciting project.

The encouraging point is that Classics, which in the past struggled to attract students, now has a high applicaion rate. Quite why Classics has become popular with students in an environment where Afro-centric studies are encouraged, and Classics risks being seen ‘officially’ as Eurocentric, is not clear to me.

There is of course plenty of scope for an Afrocentric study of the ancient world, and the ancient Mediterrean. Clearly the focus must be on North Africa, but it is still the African world, and this culture has the virtue (from the point of view of Classicals generally) of encouraging an enriching diverstiy of perspective.

It would most interesting to have reports of trends in application levels for Classics from elsewhere. The figures are published for Oxford and Cambridge. How do other universities compare, and is anyone saying?