Sunday, July 18, 2021

Classics Before the Enlightenment

 From Heterodox Academy:

Some historians argue that the term “Western civilization” wasn’t common before the 19th and 20th centuries. As Stanley Kurtz has pointed out, though, just because that particular term wasn’t yet standard doesn’t mean that there was no concept of a Western tradition before the modern period. Still less does it entail that no Western intellectual tradition with a debt to ancient Greece and Rome can be delineated.

The Enlightenment mania that Poser describes was certainly real, but it wasn’t the only craze for all things Greco-Roman in European history. After all, the Renaissance (so-called because it represented a “rebirth” of ancient culture) represented a similar mania, one that was arguably even more significant than its Enlightenment successor.

Was the Renaissance the real starting point of our idealization of the Classics, then? Even this would be too simple. Because even in the absence of “manias” for antiquity, the influence of the ancients on subsequent European culture was pervasive. It’s so pervasive and familiar, in fact, that it’s easy to miss. For most of post-antique European history, Latin was the dominant mode of literate discourse, and Christianity provided the default religious and moral framework. And both Latin and Christianity had their origins in antiquity.

If we bear these facts in mind, engagement with the classics emerges as an almost natural activity that the societies that followed on from the Greek and Romans engaged in more or less as a matter of course, just as Chinese cultures maintained a relationship with their classics.

Indeed, some scholars would even place the beginnings of Western classical scholarship in antiquity itself, in Hellenistic (3rd- and 2nd-century BC) Alexandria, where older Greek texts (especially Homer) were already being studied. That tradition of scholarship continued for centuries in Byzantium, and the way that Renaissance humanists like Politian engaged with classical texts wasn’t too dissimilar. (Read more.)


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