If you’ve not heard of Mary Beard, you’re missing out. She is one of the greatest living Classicists–which will mean a lot to a small number of you. She is also a great writer, a clear and clever thinker, and well worth watching as she debates Boris Johnson about the merits of Greece vs Rome (yes, that Boris Johnson).
And yet, she is also wrong. At least, she is wrong in one point in her collection of reviews Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations. Which doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth your time! It’s not often that a book of already-published book reviews is both interesting and a delight to read, but Beard pulls that combination off in Confronting the Classics. To be fair, I’ve not read most of the books she is reviewing. But even if every review is 100% wrong (and I suspect that is not the case), Beard’s comments and thoughts on the subject matter alone are worth your time. From the life of Collingwood (one of my favorite historian-philosophers) to the death of Caesar to the broken arms of Lakoon, this book is far more engaging a read than a book of book reviews has any right to be.
Still, there is one thing she gets wrong and it comes in the introduction (itself not a review, but rather a talk given at the New York Public Library). Specifically, she says:
“To put this as crisply as I can, the study of Classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. It is not only the dialogue that we have with the culture of the classical world; it is also the dialogue that we have with those who have gone before us who were themselves in dialogue with the classical world… Classics… are a series of ‘Dialogues with the Dead.’ But the dead do not include only those who went to their graves two thousand years ago.” (11)
This is sort-of true. Certainly we only know about the ancient world what has been transmitted to us by others, so in that sense we are always talking with those between us and the Classical world. And a good part of scholarship is comparing scholar X’s idea against scholar Y’s. Still, at the end of the day I don’t really read a book by Mary Beard about the classical world to learn about Mary Beard, I read her books to learn about the classical world. In the same way, I don’t really read John Calvin’s writings to learn about John Calvin, I read them to learn about Scripture and theology and God and all that. Obviously “what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves” is important, but it is not the primary reason we read things about the classical world that were written in that gap. It’s usually not even the secondary reason. To draw on Beard’s own example, it is true that an understanding of Virgil and familiarity with the Aeneid deepens and sharpens one’s appreciation of the Divine Comedy. And yet, one doesn’t read Dante to better understand Virgil. That would only result in a faulty approach to both poets.
Like I said, this is one thing out of a book that is a fascinating read–and this isn’t the forum to work out that sort of academic disagreement anyway. Here, let me just encourage you to pick up this book and enjoy reading a great scholar reflecting on the works of her peers.