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Towards a New Comparativism in Classics

Maurizio Bettini and William Short

This paper examines the relationship between classics and anthropology as relates to cross-cultural comparison, and suggests a way to transcend the skepticism that classicists have often directed towards comparative approaches. Indeed, despite an ancient pedigree, scholarly comparison of the classical cultures to other ancient cultures (much less to modern ones) has remained relatively circumscribed. Christian Gottlob Heyne (1729-1812), who advocated using the customs of what he called “savage” (Wilden) cultures to explain those of Greek culture, has been all but forgotten (cf. Fornaro 2004a; 2004b). Meanwhile, the “analogical” method practiced in the early twentieth century by J. G. Frazer, W. Warde Fowler, W. F. Jackson Knight, and H. J. Rose – in which Roman material was compared to that of Arab, Indian, and Australian cultures, among others – was roundly condemned by classical philologists, not only because the sorts of conclusions it permitted these scholars to reach seemed haphazard and superficial, but also because its adherence to a strongly evolutionary, Tylorian theory of culture appeared untenable. Perhaps most problematically, early anthropology’s aim of identifying universal characteristics of Man – ἄνθρωπος – meant that comparison was largely a process of collecting seemingly similar material under predetermined, fixed interpretations (as in the contributions collected by Marett 1908). This probably explains the lack of any real comparative method in even the most culture-oriented classical scholarship in recent decades: J.-P. Vernant and Florence Dupont, for instance, noticeably eschew the “comparative sociology” identified by Radcliffe-Brown as the essence of anthropology, let alone large-scale intercultural comparisons along the lines of Lévi-Strauss’ Mythologiques.

However, it is possible to conceive a comparative method that actively constructs the meaning of Greek or Roman “artifacts” through comparison of what is different between cultures (Bettini 2009; cf. Detienne 2007; 2008). We propose a “new comparativism” based specifically on the study of differences in patterns of metaphorical thought and language, recognizing – with Franz Boas, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Paul Radin, and James Fernandez, to name only a few – that a culture’s metaphors are probably the form of symbolic expression most revealing of its organization. Through its metaphors, in fact, a language often discloses the mental models that provide structure and coherence to the culture to which it belongs, especially when these metaphors are organized into systems (what have variously been called “root” or “key” or “master” metaphors). By demonstrating how different languages and cultures, ancient and modern, capture the “same” concepts through sometimes very different images, a metaphor-based comparativism therefore promises to elucidate the sorts of “macrosignifieds” that go toward constituting a society’s distinctive ways of having a world. Examples from our own research illustrate this approach. First, whereas some cultures understand translation as an act of “bringing” a text from one language into another (cf. Romance derivatives of trans + ducere, and, in English, trans + latum), or through even less familiar images (in the Nigerian language Igbo, for instance, translation is construed as first “decomposing” (tapia) and then “reconstructing” (kowa) a narrative; Sanskrit chāyā and vivartana portray translation as a kind of “shadow” or “illusion”), the Romans used the metaphor of “turning (into)” (vertere), relying upon a widespread cultural paradigm of “radical transformation”. Second, Latin’s metaphors of courage and cowardice, delivered by opposing images of “energetic motion” (e.g., alacer, strenuus, vs. ignavus), “vertical orientation” (erigere vs. demittere animum), “structural integrity” (redintegrare vs. frangere animum), and “visual prominence” (praestans, excellens vs. cussiliris), may depend on universal aspects of human experience, but comparison with English and Chinese reveals that the ways in which Roman culture capitalizes metaphorically on this experience are culturally specific. In this sense, the project Norman DeWitt envisioned already in 1918, when he claimed that the Latin language and Latin literature might be utilized as a direct source for the investigation of Roman society’s “habits of thinking” and “ways of looking at things”, may actually be achievable.

Session/Panel Title

The Classics and Early Anthropology

Session/Paper Number

68.4

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