Things Ancient

My first degree was in Classics – Latin and Greek – at Trinity College, Dublin. ‘What use is that?’ you may quite reasonably ask. And I’ll come back to that.

Meanwhile I keep an eye on what happens in this area. I picked up a piece in The Atlantic which reported that Princeton University will no longer require students in Classics to actually study the ancient languages. It’s a decision made in the cause of access and openness. The Atlantic reports the Princeton website as saying, ‘the department wants to “create opportunities for the advancement of students and (future) colleagues from historically underrepresented backgrounds within the discipline.” This will mean “ensuring that a broad range of perspectives and experiences inform our study of the ancient Greek and Roman past.” Let’s not pretend, given the context of modern American academic culture, that the terms here refer simply to diversity writ large. Underrepresentedbroad range of perspectives and experiences—these are buzzwords saying, essentially, “for Black people and Latinos too.”

The.prize for long labours in this area goes to the scholars who have just completed the 23 year task of writing a new dictionary of Ancient Greek – the Cambridge Greek Lexicon.

No mention of Classical studies can avoid acknowledging Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s affection for the Classics and his desire to pepper his speeches with quotes. He is known for his affection for the great Athenian statesman of 2400 years ago – Pericles. Strangely, Pericles too was derailed by plague.

In a weak moment, I read Boris’ extraordinarily self-serving book about Churchill. Uncharacteristically he talks at some length about how, when Churchill wishes to speak to the bloodstream of the English-speaking peoples, he reaches for punchy words with Anglo-Saxon roots rather than the more flowery and complex Greco-Roman roots – ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few …’

And what did I gain from studying Classics? Well clergy have to be wordsmiths – attempting to put words around the joys and sorrows of life and building frameworks of meaning around the great mysteries. The study of Classics teaches you above all about how language works – how to shape a sentence for emphasis, about how to write with economy. It taught me skills which I have used every day and still use,

The problem with reconciliation

President Biden is turning out to be a remarkable President. But he has a major problem. His instinct during his long career has been to ‘reach across the aisle’ – meaning that he is always seeking bi-partisan support for his programmes.

But he is gradually having to recognise that he will not get the co-operation he hopes for from the Republican Party. While there are some ‘below the line’ signs of co-operation, the party is still in thrall to Trump and his ‘big lie’ that he won the election. Biden may have to recognise that he must press ahead without that co-operation hoping that the broad base of public support which he programmes have been attracting will see him through the mid-term elections. The alternative is to wait and maybe end up facing the elections with nothing much on the record.

I learned something like this in the long struggle to promote reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It is natural and correct to assume that reconciliation in Ireland will be between Protest and Catholic, Orange and Green. But the reality has often been that the two main blocs have been almost totally preoccupied with their own internal politics – fighting about the leadership of each separate community. Since the demise of Arlene Foster as Leader of the DUP, Unionism has fragmented into four or five groups all struggling for the leadership of that community. They have little appetite for a deep engagement across the political, cultural and religious divide. But that of course isn’t the whole story. The centre ground is growing and there is hope of political movement,

But President Biden finds himself facing a Republic party which is partly bought into Trump’s narrative of the election – partly preoccupied with voting reforms designed to strengthen their position. – partly trying to work out whether Trump will run again in 2024. To give up on the hope of bi-partisanship goes against the grain.

But that is what he may have to do.