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Classics and the Precipice of Time

Simon Goldhill

Reinhart Koselleck has influentially analyzed how the French Revolution marks a crucial juncture in what he calls the Verzeitlichung – the “temporalization” – of history, a process which he sees as finding full form in the historical self-consciousness of the nineteenth century. For Koselleck, the nineteenth century ushers in a new sense of what it is to live “in an era” – to be aware of one’s placement in time conceived as a particular linear development. Koselleck’s insight has been developed by a range of scholars who have explored both the Victorian perception of progress and the specific ways in which being “of an era” became a central trope of Victorian self-consciousness. Yet the nineteenth century was also the great period of the institutionalization of Altertumswissenschaft across Europe and America. How, then, does an awareness of the classical tradition and the privileging of ancient Greece and Rome within the Bildung of the Humboldtian tradition, relate to this notion of timeliness?

This paper will argue that the post-classical becomes a key way of understanding a relation to the deep past. Much as geology through the work of Lyell and others became the privileged discipline through which a new sense of the “abyss of time” and man’s place in the physical world was articulated, so classical history and classical scholarship became a discipline central to exploring both a new sense of the loss of the past and a new idealism of the future. This paper will explore how “untimeliness” becomes the necessary shadow of the claims of being “of an era”, and how antiquity becomes the source and prime trope of this alienation.

There are two short sections to the paper. It will trace first two trajectories of the later nineteenth century through cultural icons such as Froude, Hardy, Layard, historian, novelist, archaeologist, in order to establish a template for untimeliness: on the one hand, it will explore how science and industry, embodied in the Great Exhibition, produced a sense of a “precipice of time” which defined progress and loss as corollaries of each other; on the other, it will show how loss of faith became a dominant model for such (self-)experience. With such a model of the self-awareness of (un)timeliness, the paper will go on to explore how an image of antiquity became the battleground both for this sense of progress and for this sense of loss of faith, particularly through a debate about early Christianity, in scholarship, fiction and art. It will argue that Koselleck’s sense of Verzeitlichung in the nineteenth century depends on a conflicted doubleness of asserting both a genealogical connection with the classical and a rupture from it. Working through this doubleness, it will be argued, is a crucial element in making classics so important to nineteenth-century intellectual culture and self-understanding – and thus will show why the untimeliness of the post-classical is integral to the development of classics as a discipline.

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Untimeliness and Classical Knowing

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