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Classics in the Providential Order of the World

Simon Goldhill

University of Cambridge

The study of the study of Classics in the 19th century has become a staple of the burgeoning field of reception studies for obvious reasons. Classics provided the mainstay of elite education [Stray (1998); Goldhill (2002)] and had considerable reach throughout society, not just in the literature and art of both the grander and lower sorts, but also in circuses, music halls, and theatres (Richardson (2013); Hall (forthcoming); Bryant Davis (forthcoming); Flashar (1991) (2001); Prins (1999)]. Classics, in short, provided the furniture of the mind [Goldhill (2011)]. As classicists, the recovery of the 19th-century privilege of classics has provided an important, if sometimes self-serving, understanding of the discipline and its history.

The central claim of this paper is that this important uncovering of classics’ disciplinary history has paid inadequate attention to the field’s repeated and significant engagement with theology. It is familiar that Arnold’s opposition of Hellenism and Hebraism is crucial for 19th-century intellectual self-definition [de Laura (1969); Leonard (2012)] but modern classicists in general are loathe to give theology the attention it requires in the development of our discipline – and such a repression has consequently hugely distorted the field of reception studies [Martindale and Thomas eds (2006); Hardwick and Stray eds (2008)].

In the limited space available, rather than speculate about reasons for such an occlusion, my aim is to demonstrate the costs of such a blindness to our historical understanding of classics as a discipline. It will make this case with three interlocking arguments. (1) It will show how classics and theology overlap in the life and work of scholars even and especially as the increasing professionalization and disciplinarization of classics appear to demand a close regulation and definition of each subject as a bounded field. So Benjamin Jowett for most classicists is celebrated as a translator of Plato and as the man who introduced the Socratic method – the tutorial – into Oxford [Faber (1957); Dowling (1994)]. But this represents only one side of Jowett’s life. He was most famous in his own day as contributor to the scandalous Essays and Reviews, a volume brought before the ecclesiastical courts for heresy. Jowett’s sentence – to us a tepid truism – that the “Bible should be read like any other book”, became an iconic catch phrase of the scandal. Jowett had his salary as a professor withheld for several years because of his shocking theological views. [Bebbington (1989); Larsen (2004); (Larsen (2011)] (2) It will explore how theology and classics share a methodology based on philology and critical history in a thoroughgoing and mutually implicative manner. Here the reception of the work of Wolf on Homer and Niehbuhr on Livy will provide a test-case. How do shared methodologies produce imbricated fields of study? How do the sciences of classics and theology interrelate and develop hand-in-hand? [Zachhuber (2013); Grafton et al (1985)]. (3) It will uncover how the understanding of specific classical topics in the nineteenth-century academy are informed by a theological perspective. Here the paradigm will be the theologically-informed study of Sophocles in particular and Greek tragedy in general. How could a distinguished classical scholar could claim that Sophocles was a paidagogos es Christon, “ a guide to Christ” [Goldhill (2013)]? Understanding the theological preoccupations of critics of tragedy changes how the history of scholarship can understand the purchase of the arguments of the past.

 Finally and most provocatively, however, the paper will question how far the inheritance of nineteenth-century theology has indeed been disentangled from classics, and what impact it tacitly continues to have on the modern discipline and its argumentation. Thus this paper aims to explore how modern classics has conceptualized its place as a discipline within history, and what costs follow from the construction of an image of antiquity and of the discipline without theology.

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Philology's Shadow: Theology and the Classics

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