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Athens and Jerusalem: The Case for Knowing the Classics

Athens and Jerusalem: The Case for Knowing the Classics

In our secular, liberal age, the Bible and the classics often get a bad rap. The Bible represents everything modernity is not—free inquiry, divested of hoary beliefs—while the classics are often snidely dismissed as the hubristic fantasies of aging, if not already dead white males.

Okay, that’s a gross oversimplification. You needn’t look further than the latest issue of The New Yorker—which has a lengthy essay by the critic Adam Kirsch about a slate of new books on Rome—to know that liberal readers still have an interest in antiquity. But what struck me recently is the case that two prominent liberal writers—Marilynne Robinson and Mary Beard—recently made for modern readers to know their cultural heritage, Athens and Jerusalem especially.

Two weeks ago the Sunday New York Times book review featured a cover essay by the novelist Marilynne Robinson, with none-too-subtle title “What Literature Owes the Bible.” It shouldn’t be surprising coming from Robinson, whose novels, like the Pulitzer-winning “Gilead,” are drenched in biblical allusions.

But her argument isn’t that so many great writers, from Dostoyevsky to Faulkner, simply alluded to Biblical stories. It’s that to fully understand their works we must have a much deeper knowledge of the Bible itself, Old and New Testament alike. Novels like “The Idiot” and “The Sound and The Fury” more than lazily reference biblical tales, and if you’re an astute biblical student, you’ll see that these novels are serious intellectual dialogues with the ideas expressed in the Bible itself.

Of course, I’d point out that the conclusion should not be that Talmud scholars or Christian Bible study groups are naturally predisposed to more fully grasping the Western literary tradition. After all, I’d bet my money that religious Jews have about as much interest in studying Christian scripture as evangelicals are in parsing the nuances of Talmud—both of which are necessary to for the rest of Western lit. (Whether they have a serious interest in Western literature is another issue entirely.) But it’s certainly true that even the most self-serious literature student reads with a huge handicap if he breezily skips over the Bible.

Mary Beard, one of the world’s leading classicists and a professor at Cambridge, makes a similar case in The New York Review of Books this week. She points out that the occasional media hysteria over the “Death of the Classics” is nothing new; in fact, she argues, virtually every age has produced its share of lamentations about how no one reads Herodotus anymore. (She even points out that the Renaissance humanists, remembered as the regenerators of interest in ancient Greece and Rome, didn’t see themselves so much as discoverers of antiquity as they did defenders of works on the verge of extinction.)

Yet, like Robinson, she’s not only pointing out that classical references continue to besot pop culture (anyone seen “Lysistrata Jones” on Broadway yet?). She’s saying that so much of the last 500 years of literature, from Dante to John Banville, seriously engages with the ancient Greco-Roman texts that, to simply nod in self-congratulations that we notice a reference to Caligula here, Hannibal there, is to do ourselves a serious disservice.

To be fair, Beard doesn’t expect us all to start learning Latin. Nor does she expect us to have read all of Plato and Socrates and Euripides, even in translation. But we can at least pick up a dog-eared copy of “Electra” now and again, perhaps with a critical guide by our side. Who knows?, we may even find we like it better than the innumerable more recent works that have humbly paid reference to it.

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