Are the classics particularly relevant to our post-9/11 world? A database built to explore and to study the use of the classics in political commentary since 9/11, seems to confirm that idea. Our database documents hundreds of instances in which authors, in an effort to make sense of contemporary crises, invoke the classics or compare our current situation to classical narratives (history, texts, mythological figures, etc.).
The data collected shows the universality of this practice, both in terms of geographical range (the analogies are well documented across the world) and sources (parallels appear in the press, popular magazines, scholarly work, best-selling books in current affairs and international policy, the blogosphere, radio, television, etc.). Authors recur to a variety of narratives; to cite just some of the classical motifs commonly used between 2001 and 2010: some analysts evoked Greek hybris, or Thucydides’ account of the Sicilian disaster, to analyze American endeavors in the Middle East; others compared the U.S. to ancient Rome to comment on American imperialism; parallels to Xenophon’s Anabasis proliferated within the military when examining exit strategies from Iraq; Herodotus and the Histories revealed themselves useful to study today’s East-West struggle and our current "clash of civilizations."
Furthermore, interpretative analysis reveals that references to the classics basically fall into six major categories, depending on their function (aesthetic, authoritative, cautionary, descriptive, didactic, and ideological). Our interpretative analysis includes examination of context, of phrasing and semantics, and of the aims authors seemed to have in mind when drawing analogies to or citing the classics. For instance, the analogy of today’s hegemonic U.S. to imperial Rome provides us with an example of the variety of functions the classics fulfill in contemporary policy commentary.
All in all, this typology allows us to look at the purpose and centrality of the classics in Western political discourse and in contemporary intellectual life. Our research seems to prove that the classics are not only “universal” but also “modern”–that is, they provide public and political commentators with an effective tool to build contemporary narratives about post-9/11 affairs. The classics are used as cautionary, exemplary tales, and as predictors of the future; they illustrate universal themes; and they are also extremely useful because of their “reciprocity”—meaning that their relevance relies as much on what they tell us about the past as on what they tell us about today.
In a final working hypothesis, we suggest that contemporary authors recur to the classics in a way somewhat close to how ancient Greeks themselves used Myth as History, to use Paul Cartledge’s categorization (2002, 23). Classical narratives today appear dispossessed of their literary or historical texture, and they are in fact used as myths—not in the popular sense of myth as contrary to fact, but as stories providing symbolic and well-know patterns for behavior and events. Thus the ancient past is used in today’s political commentary as a source of paradigms: just as M.I. Finley noted more than twenty years ago, commenting on the use of myth in Greek historiography, today “The past can yield nothing more than paradigmatic support for the conclusions one has drawn from the present; the past, in other words, may still be treated in the timeless fashion of myth”(1987, 31).
Cartledge, Paul. 2002. The Greeks. A Portrait of Self and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Finley, Moses I. 1987. The Use and Abuse of History. New York: Penguin Books.