The Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today
by Eric Adler.
Oxford University Press, 2020.
Hardcover, 272 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Pavlos Papadopoulos

Eric Adler’s Battle of the Classics (2020) and Classics, the Culture Wars, and Beyond (2016) are addressed narrowly to classics professors and somewhat more broadly to humanities professors. Adler appeals to academics’ self-interest in their own job security—and, to the extent that it exists, their desire for knowledge of their own disciplines, the nature and histories of which they are for the most part embarrassingly ignorant—and, again to the extent that it exists, their desire to cultivate in their students’ souls something worthy of the name “higher education.” I am part of Adler’s broader audience; not a classicist, but personally, professionally, and professedly attached to a humanistic part of liberal education, the kind that would like to be able to look to classicists with respect, as partners in an education that I think is vital to individual, political, and civilizational well-being.

It is good to make the best of a bad situation, as I suspect Adler’s curricular proposals would; and perhaps they are the best that can be hoped for in the short term, as a reform of our existing institutions. But it is good, too, to lay the foundations for a better situation—which may or may not require the utter transformation of our current universities.

What distinguishes our present situation? Adler gives a lucid account of the origins of the humanities, the character of classical studies in particular, classics’s central role in early American education, and their interrelated accommodation to and marginalization by the modern German-style research university, all as a backstory to their infelicitous nineteenth-century history of defending themselves with skills-based rationales, their fate during the academic culture wars of the 1980s–90s, and their penchant for repeating the mistake of the past in today’s neoliberal university. Let me complement this with another account, to explain both my admiration for Adler’s curricular proposals and its limits.

In Paradoxes of Education in a Republic (1979), Eva Brann sketched five “stances” toward the Western tradition of great texts, each roughly corresponding to a historical epoch. First is origination, the position of the Greeks, who not only generated the first great texts of our tradition but also stood in a relation of immediacy toward them: classical Athenians never treated older authors, such as Homer, as “no longer worthwhile” on grounds of their antiquity. Second is canonization, the late antique and medieval development of the trivial and quadrivial arts, with a corresponding deemphasis on the “originating authority” of authors. Third, renovation, the Renaissance renewal of letters, summed up by Petrarch’s principle: per litteras provocati, pariunt in seipsis, “incited by texts, they gave birth for themselves.” Fourth, repudiation, the Enlightenment stance toward the tradition, in which the “transmission of knowledge” yields to its “advancement and diffusion.” Finally, inundation, a “swamping of the tradition by rival productions,” while the greatest minds within the Western tradition proclaim its “ending—in consummation or catastrophe.”

Inundation turns the classics into “carefully listed specimen survivals, stowed away in an ark floating upon the face of the waters where they are ‘worked on,’ rather than read, by a skeleton crew. For the public, they acquire at best the unregarded expensive charm of those colonial relics at the bottom of canyons of business buildings that can sometimes be seen in eastern cities.” The apparent exponential change of the contemporary world gives an “illusion of newness” reinforced by our ignorance of the past; contemporary historicism encourages our scholars to treat traditional texts “taxidermically”; “rival productions” call into question the particular importance of the Western tradition; while the prophets of catastrophe, for all their indebtedness to the great texts of the tradition, wind up radicalizing the modern repudiation of the past.

For the purposes of her project, Brann focused on Enlightenment-style repudiation, because of its outsized role in the American Founding and educational transformations ever since. But she noted that “inundation is our own condition and plays an overwhelming role in our education,” while “renovation is the mode most essential to the life of the tradition, and I think, too, that we are so situated as to be capable of no other novelty.” That sounds right to me, for 2021 as much as 1979. The Renaissance is a model for how academics can renew a stagnated tradition: become newly reproductive by intimately reading, not just “working on,” classical texts, allowing ourselves to be “incited” by them. But, crucially, we cannot do so naively; we must also or at the same time confront philosophic modernity’s repudiation of the tradition.

In both his recent books, Adler prefers Renaissance humanism to Altertumswissenschaft as a model for classical studies. Something like Renaissance humanism—a duty to transmit the wisdom of the ancients as a means to the ethical formation of students—prevailed in the classical liberal arts colleges of early America, but for reasons both essential and incidental, American classicists made their peace with the modern research university, transforming themselves into Teutonic “scientists of antiquity.” And something like Renaissance humanism should prevail again, Adler argues: humanists must defend and revive their disciplines by making a substantial case for the humanities, offering interdisciplinary general education courses centered on the great works from multiple cultures, designed to help students “cultivate their higher selves through the examination of literary, religious, philosophical and artistic masterworks, thereby aiding them in living sounder and happier lives.”

Adler’s call for a truly multicultural, multidisciplinary core curriculum is welcome in several respects. It might enable what Brann called the stance of renovation, the rebirth of letters in those who are formed by diverse “masterworks.” But it would do so in a distinctly post-Western manner. Adler is explicit: “we are in desperate need of syncretism,” not simple preservation or development of the much-problematized “Western tradition.” He persuasively suggests that a truly multicultural core would offer great goods to its students’ souls, and it has the considerable benefit of being a plausible twenty-first-century successor to twentieth-century West Civ general education courses. But he mostly sidesteps the question of why the great books of the West are not sufficient to “guide us as we grapple with the best ways to live,” or why a cross-cultural conversation conjured in an ethics course reading biblical, Aristotelian, Confucian, and Hindu texts is the “soundest means by which to investigate life’s meaning,” sounder than the “Great Conversation” that already exists in the great texts of one millennia-old tradition or another.

To choose Adler’s multicultural curriculum, or at least to affirm it without resignation or qualification, is already to have condemned our own tradition as insufficient to the task of forming students and guiding them toward the best way of life—or at least to have adopted an unjustified stance of neutrality toward the various cultures, achieved by abstracting the “masterworks” from their civilizational contexts. Admittedly, this abstraction from context is a tendency of the very Great Books tradition that I largely favor; the secular versions of that tradition, in their approach to the “Great Conversation,” have always struggled to avoid the Scylla of a progressive narrative (all Great Ideas lead to us!) and the Charybdis of dogmatic agnosticism (with so many perspectives, who are we to judge?).

Adler asserts that a multicultural core and the syncretism it might midwife are necessary to turn the world back from “the abyss of tribalism and warmongering.” “The future health of human civilization,” not our civilization, much less culture or politics, but human civilization, “relies upon the rejuvenation”—via a soul-shaping curriculum with multicultural content—“of the humanistic tradition.” Despite these sweeping claims, Adler is tentative and exploratory: we can find out whether there is “a central core of human wisdom […] that can guide us as we grapple with the best ways to live” only by “experiencing masterworks […] from a broad range of cultures.” But he seems too confident that a multicultural syncretism would be enriching to students’ souls and good for the world, without any consideration of the social or political dangers that might come with a new syncretism. I admit I would likely enjoy teaching in such a program, and am curious to know what effect a great infusion of classical Chinese and Indian texts into the West would produce, in our souls and in our letters. I hope that it would all be for the best. But isn’t it plausible to assume that such an infusion would affect our society and political life as well, presumably by making them more like their cultures of origin? Why would that be desirable?

Adler’s multicultural curriculum would avoid the worst of the “curricular neoliberalism” he so rightly criticizes. But it would be better to go further in this direction. Classics in particular and the humanities in general—and, more important still, their students and society—would benefit from a restored order among the disciplines. Catholic institutions do so by recognizing theology as queen of the sciences and metaphysics as first philosophy. Adler’s neo-Renaissance humanism suggests that ethics, of a sort—the discovery of the best way of life—should organize our new core curriculums, as it tended to do in the prescribed curriculum of the early American classical college. But Adler’s ethics is largely severed from the other branches of philosophy.

A more robust version of Adler’s curriculum would take Socratic philosophy—which has an ethical emphasis, but encompasses every branch of philosophy and inquires into every professed mode of knowledge—as the principle of the humanities and even the sciences. Here is a definite way in which humanists could make more substantial claims on behalf of their fields, justifying their contributions not in terms to be evaluated by social scientists or administrators, but by philosophy broadly understood as the quest for wisdom about nature and human nature. It is a call to deeper self-knowledge than the ethical models Adler prescribes for his core, and would address the difficulty Brann alerted us to.

We are formed by the anti-traditional tradition of modernity, and by its various and sundry technological, psychological, political, cultural, and economic offspring. The Socratic quest to know thyself, and the universal quest to live well, today requires putting philosophic questions to contemporary mathematics and science and technology, as well as the philosophies that brought us to our present state. Adler calls for humanistic interdisciplinarity and, in passing, the sciences as part of the core curriculum. I heartily agree—in the best case, with a Socratic (which is to say Western) mode of philosophy as its guiding principle.

This proposal is an even more radical break from the contemporary university—probably too radical to be plausible on any kind of scale any time soon, or within the research university as it currently exists. Adler’s curriculum would be a marked improvement in general education, in no small part because it cuts against the specialization, research, abstraction, and vocationalism that are encouraged by the research university model. It would offer a better diet to students, a greater clarity of purpose to professors, and quite possibly a better education for our society as a whole. It is certainly preferable to the chief conceptions of classics and humanities available today.  

Pavlos Papadopoulos is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Wyoming Catholic College.

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