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Clifford Ando, Department Chair of Classics at the University of Chicago

Clifford Ando

February 15th, 2020

Clifford Ando Department Chair of Classics at the University of Chicago

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: We seem once again to be in a moment—or perhaps we have always been in a moment—when the traditional fields of humanistic study are in "crisis," whether from declining enrollments, or a failure to meet the demands of instrumental utility with which the world wants to assess fields of study. And of course Classics is suffering its own special crisis, for precisely the qualities of prestige and ancientry for which it was long celebrated. It really is dead white European males all the way down. Do you have any response to these challenges?

CA: These are not simple problems, and the challenges are very real. In 2018, the American Historical Association published a chart, prepared by Benjamin Schmidt using data compiled by the Department of Education, which displayed the change between 2011-2017 in the number of majors across some 48 areas of study. Virtually every area of the humanities and interpretive social sciences had seen a steep decline. Likewise, the profession of Classics is currently wracked by debates over its politics. For some, this involves questions about the stuff we study; for others, the issue is the demographics of the profession; for still others, the questions are historical, and have to do with the implication of the field in institutional and political operations that were racist or colonialist and often both.

To my mind, the "defense" of the humanities involves nothing less than the defense of the university itself. By this I mean two things above all. First, universities exist to create, critique, preserve and transmit knowledge. Research universities in particular have a duty to encompass, as best they can, the totality of human experience and the contexts of their existence—to gather that knowledge, and pass it along in conditions that allow for its preservation and study. This is expensive; it is complex; and it is a very recent understanding of what universities are for. (You might compare the mission of a neighborhood library, which seeks to hold the books that today's users wish to read, to that of a research library, which seeks to hold all those items that somebody, someday, might need.) The mission cannot be justified by an instrumental rationality. Its purpose is nobler than that. It rests on a view that human society is enriched—that people acquire heightened ethical awareness—through exposure to the most capacious archaeologies of the past and present that they can achieve.

The second thing that I intend by "the defense of the university" is the defense of the idea of the university in general, and of education in particular, from the logic of possessive individualism. By this I mean the sorts of justifications that have been offered throughout the Anglophone world, commencing in the ages of Reagan and Thatcher, for abandoning the ideal of education as a public good and worthy, therefore, of public support, to one that sees education as serving individuals exclusively in themselves. Ideologies of education of this kind point to the greater lifetime incomes achieved, on average, by holders of university degrees when compared to those who finish only secondary school. Of course, statistics such as these have also been deployed in arguments in favor of expanding access to post-secondary education. My objection is not with access! But proponents of these ideologies sought, successfully, to shift the cost of supporting universities away from state appropriations and, instead, to fund them via tuition levied on the students. Under these conditions, students face immense pressure to conceive their education in narrowly instrumentalist terms: they are spending hugely to acquire it, and they need it to pay for itself, as it were.

Some have sought to defend the humanities by adopting versions of this instrumentalist logic: "employers" want humanists, it is said, for their critical faculties and adaptability. My own view, obviously, is that the form or terrain of this argument should be declined.

About Classics, or ancient history—my own subfield—I can speak in a more targeted way. One reason that Classics is vulnerable to critique is that it functions in many ways as if it were an area study: Near Eastern studies; South or East Asian Studies; and so forth. Except that Classics was formed very precisely so as not to be Mediterranean studies. Not only do we deliberately exclude from vision the many other languages spoken and written in the political and ecological spaces that Greek and Latin speakers inhabited and colonized, and for which significant remains survive—Celtic, Oscan, Punic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Palmyrene, Nabatean, Demotic, Coptic, and so forth. The field also long excluded cultural forms whose primary evidence was in Greek and Latin but which were felt to be somehow unclassical. On what possible logic did the field long exclude Jewish and Christian literatures in Greek (and Latin) from its domain?

In so speaking, I do not intend to say that contemporary area-study departments do better than Classics departments in embracing the totality of the populations that might fall within their field of view. Nor do I intend to say that they do worse! I lack the knowledge to speak to that issue, and it is in any event not my topic. My point is only that the underlying ideology of area-studies departments can surely motivate such an aspiration. Classics, by contrast, can only remain Classics by declining such an ideology, and many currents in politics over the last half-century have certainly urged that classicists should at least be able to explain their choice in this regard.

In thinking through these issues, we should beware the easy assumption that in embracing the other cultures of the Mediterranean, Classics as a field would be recuperating subaltern voices. The ancient Mediterranean was a landscape of empires. Punic may have been the language of non-elites in the hinterlands and small towns of Augustine's North Africa, but it was their language by virtue of an earlier phase of conquest and colonization in which Punic was the language of the hegemon.

It is a curious fact about the Mediterranean in the Roman era that it generated another literary culture that portrayed its world, insofar as possible, as inhabited only by participants in itself; and the study of its artifacts gave rise to another modern discipline that has tended to accept rather than interrogate this deeply puzzling and unlikely view. I refer, of course, to Rabbinic Judaism. The literary study of Greek, Latin and Hebrew texts has rationales that may stand unchallenged. But the contexts and political economies that generated those past cultures were Mediterranean, and some of the best work in classical history has long acknowledged this. Perhaps Classics will—should?—find a way to square that circle?

Let me close with a purely personal response. To my mind, the Roman Empire was a remarkable political and cultural formation, embracing an extraordinary congeries of peoples, in every conceivable ecology, speaking a huge range of languages with a remarkable diversity of cultural forms. The challenges to historical understanding of the information we can now access about the ancient world are impossibly exciting.

DG: What can we learn from the Roman Empire and how does its study contribute to our understanding of modern political forces, along with the impact it makes on other disciplines?

CA: This is a wonderful question, but also a fraught one. Let me seek to offer a historically-situated reply, before I close with a caution about this tradition.

For European intellectuals from the eleventh century to the dawn of the First World War, Rome presented a haunting image of power, prestige and, above all, unity, against which the fragmentation and rivalries of contemporary Europe had to be measured. This sense of despair, that each generation had failed to recreate the internal peace that Rome had achieved and enforced, only became more acute over time, in particular in response to the wars of religion. They were only too aware that Rome had embraced a territory even larger than Europe, containing an extraordinary diversity of peoples. It led to what is often read as a literature of nostalgia in the French and Scottish Enlightenments, from such figures as Montesquieu, Robertson and Gibbon. For them, viewing the Roman Empire through a lens of its remarkable ruins—the ghostly homogeneity of monumental architectural forms that dotted the Mediterranean—Rome held out the ideal of a supervisory power that both itself tolerated, and required toleration from, the diverse and discordant peoples whom it ruled. It is this vision that gives us Gibbon's "polite and powerful empire."

My own view is that this literature, along with many who preceded them—Flavio Biondo, Leonardo Bruni, Niccolò Machiavelli, Pedro Mexía, Adam Ferguson—has often been misread, and certainly underestimated. By this I intend the following. More so than most modern literature, these authors recognized the acts of violence that had been necessary to found the empire. Their consistent esteem for the Roman achievement was always tempered by a sense that Rome had also been the first and greatest of states in wreaking imperial violence within Europe. One therefore finds in all these writers an undertow of melancholy, that Rome also stood for what Sallust and, following him, Augustine called the lust for domination. Rome was ineluctably a past that one was going to have to overcome to achieve a proper European present. One aspiration of mine is to write a history of this historical tradition, the one that sought to write histories of Rome precisely in order to consign it to the past.

The Enlightenment esteem for ancient empire as a kind of macroregional or transregional political form that somehow manages to keep the peace was given new life early in this century by the American adventure in Iraq. American neoconservatives responded to the sectarian violence that they had unleashed, and to the failure of their own state-building projects, by invoking the grandeur and longevity of the Roman and Ottoman empires. Surely, they said, these had been the appropriate forms to rule the Near East? Neither empire had sought to erase the identities or vitality of the separate cultures over which they ruled, nor had they allowed those peoples to attack each other. They were not liberal, and yet they had practiced a form of toleration that conduced cultural self-determination on a vast scale.

The deplorable politics of that era to one side, they were not wrong. Many are the empires that have survived through what I have termed the cultivation and management of difference, nor am I alone in so analyzing the operations of premodern imperial forms. Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper have written incisively on this theme. What is more, there is undoubtedly much to be achieved by comparing such empires to modern political forms that similarly seek to aggregate but also sustain constituent politics. The federation is the most obvious case in point, and some in Europe have written trenchantly on analogies between empire and federation as forms. (I myself contributed two essays to this literature.)

Of course, in so approaching Rome, many analysts and historians risk the error that the Roman tradition between Sallust and Gibbon avoided. That is to say, in proffering Rome as an exemplar of tolerant suzerainty, these scholars ignore the violent history of the acquisition of empire that necessarily preceded it. This is in fact a consistent problem in the field, as Emma Dench at Harvard (among others) has recently written: a long tradition divides those who study the Roman Empire as an experiment in government, from those who study of the Roman republic, which was engaged in conquest. There are many ways to write violence out of history, including classical history, and the division of the history of Rome into histories of the republic and empire is one of them. My own first book was a kind of neo-Marxist project, concerned with explaining how subjects of the empire were induced to endorse its particular distribution of wealth and power. I still have sympathy with the politics and intellectual aspirations of that project. Nevertheless, like many works focused on ideology, it gave short shrift to violence. Where the ancient world is concerned, you might say that it focused on those whom history records as having participated in what "they" deemed politics. Some of my more recent works acknowledges this as a failing, and seeks to redress it.

DG: You referred earlier to the study of Greek, Latin and Hebrew texts. This calls to mind the origin of the academic study of these literatures in what we now term philology, namely, the learned study of the history of texts, focused particularly on the recuperation of the history of specific languages, and the precise reconstruction of texts as they were written (and understood) in the contexts that produced them. How does a discipline that constituted itself on such roots become modern?

CA: You're absolutely right to speak in these terms. The study of the classical past in the age of the modern university can be told in at least two ways. On the one hand, Classics can appear hopelessly backward, at least in its methods. The textual remains of Greek and Latin antiquity can only be accessed for scholarship through those arts of the historical study of language called philology. At the same, the discipline of Classics has been, since the latter part of the twentieth century, the site of bravura engagement with modern theory. Indeed, it has been foundational to modern studies of gender and sexuality, to the history of structuralism, and many others. How can this be?

I can offer two responses, which probably have the status only of guesses. For one thing, the prestige, but also the beauty, of classical literature continues to draw to itself some exceptional minds, of ever-increasing diversity in intellectual formation. The excellence of the work that this community produces compounds the wonders of the material itself.

For another, the long history of classical philology, like the long practice of classical archeology, means that ancient Greece and Rome are among the best-attested of all premodern societies. Not so long ago, I attended a conference on the ancient history of the region we now term Afghanistan. Listening to papers on the reconstruction of king-lists and the preparation of die-studies of regional coinages, I was filled with admiration for the exceptional dedication that this work requires ... but also with the sense that this field was where Classics had been in the early Renaissance.

You can see where this is going. It seems to me that the tools of philology, which have been developed for classical languages to a remarkable degree of sophistication, have equipped the field for participation in any number of areas of scholarship: one thinks of contemporary projects that trace the history of particular metaphors or figures, or the basic methods of the Cambridge school in the history of political thought, or of Whorfian histories of cognition. Philology is one of many practices that are at once traditional to Classics but which might also equip it to be a very modern discipline.

DG: Let's return to history. You spoke earlier about modern interest in ancient empire as a political form. But the most obvious legacy to the modern world of a Roman science of government, if you will, is its system of law. Indeed, many countries that were never part of the Roman Empire have voluntarily taken up the civil law, despite its association with empire, in contrast with Athenian law, despite the association of Athens with democracy. That said, the ongoing study of Roman law is scarcely necessary to one's living under a modern system of civil law. Can you speak to the attractions of Roman law as a field of study?

CA: The question is an excellent one, not least as we appear to be in a golden age in the study of ancient law in general, and of Roman law in particular. But I wish to start by endorsing the point from which you commence. It really is true that a vast array of polities, including many never ruled by Rome, now use legal systems fundamentally shaped by the civil law. Indeed, as has often been observed, no country uses the common law but ones that adopted it under conditions of colonialism. The civil law, by contrast, has been voluntarily adopted by many.

But that is not its attraction for me! Let me name three factors, though I confess these might speak only to those already interested in Rome and empire.

First, law was a prestige discourse at Rome. How this came about is an historical question of great interest. But the fact of the matter is, the Romans for their own reasons so esteemed the languages and institutions of the law that they came to describe all manner of other social institutions and cultural practices in terms of the law: the regulations of a cult were codified in its lex, its statute; the rules of various Roman priestly colleges were described as their ius, their law, so that Rome had pontifical law, augural law, and so forth. It is commonplace to imagine that "religion" (and religious law) somehow precedes secular society and secular law. In the Roman case, we have vastly better and earlier evidence for the codification and operation of secular public and private law, and the transmission of learned commentary on secular law, than we do for priestly law. In my view, we should accept the conclusion to which this pattern in the evidence points: the whole idea of priestly law, as well as its content, was invented at Rome on analogy with secular law, and not the other way around.

Second, the law came to be an essential vehicle in how the Romans sought to govern themselves, and in how they sought to stabilize the meanings of their politics retrospectively. By this I intend the following. The success of the project of empire wrought profound changes at Rome—the scale of society, and the scale of wealth, so deformed the conventions of politics that several times, the society nearly tore itself apart. The elite of the middle republic ultimately saved itself by reconstructing politics as a contest of public law, pitting sources of law and law-applying institutions against one another. They juridified politics, and the republic labored under these rules until they, too, collapsed. But when the Romans later emerged from a century of civil war, and were confronted with the abrogation of their own democracy as the price of empire, they sought to tell the story of the imperial monarchy as one of public law (and not of revolution, or a coup d'état, or what you will). This narrative gave dignity to their past and present by transforming it, as best one might, into a contest of ideas; it made the republican past continuous with the monarchic present. And it gave tools, weak though they were, with which the elite might contest the accretion of power to the imperial court. It is this usage of Roman law to regulate public power that perhaps explains its remarkable taking-up by new states in the early modern and modern period.

Finally, Rome was a city-state by the Tiber, and it was also an empire. The language of the law—by which I mean, the very special Latin that the lawyers wrote—was their means, and our best evidence, for the extraordinary intellectual work that governing that empire summoned forth. I made reference a moment ago to the remarkable linguistic, cultural and ecological diversity of the space the Roman Empire embraced. As I put it once upon a time, to be governed, that world had to be described and regulated. The question was how to do this, in a fashion that gave appropriate and effective recognition to the particularity of the empire's myriad cultural systems without reproducing within the empire's systems of law and administration the chaotic diversity of the world it oversaw. To my mind, Roman law so regarded is an object of extraordinary fascination.


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