What I liked about Simon Goldhill’s Love, Sex & Tragedy was that he (mostly) avoids sounding like a curmudgeonly stick-in-the-mud who can’t handle the loss of the classical curriculum in education and the knowledge of Western civilization’s origins. He laments it not because he wants to hear people quoting Homer from memory (in the original Greek) or see glowing comparisons of politicians to Cincinnatus but because he sees little evidence that what’s replaced it is tackling the same issues in as deep a manner. He doesn’t see any counterparts today to Homer, Herodotus and Thucydides, or to Sophocles and Euripides, among others. And this dumbing down of our public discourse infects all aspects of culture – politics, entertainment, social relationships, literature, the arts, etc.
Why study the classics?
I’m going to be lazy and simply quote the author from the last pages of the book, where he concludes:
For thinking hard about the past reveals the buried life of the present, its potential for change, for being different. Looking back critically at where we come from is a revelatory education about the present.
The simplest point that emerges from looking back at how the myths of Greece and Rome have functioned in the history of European culture is this: the past matters. It matters because in psychological, social, intellectual, artistic and political terms the past is formative of the present. It is the person’s or culture’s deep grounding. It matters how the past is understood or told. Stories change lives. They make foundations, they build hopes and they can kill. A self-aware appreciation of the past requires reflecting on the myths and the histories, the story-telling and the critical analysis, which makes sense of the past – and thus the present....
Understanding the past also requires that we understand how previous generations thought of the past, were stimulated and inspired by it, rebelled against it, denied it. Classical antiquity has constantly been reinvented as the privileged model of the past, and it has been thus a force for comprehending – and changing – the present....
If we do not recognize how classical antiquity furnished the imagination, stimulated and structured thought and acted as a banner of artistic and political revolution, our view of our own cultural tradition will be necessarily distorted. (pp. 319-20)
Aside from the general conclusion above, I found several of the specifics the author focuses on interesting. One in particular stood out because of personal interests, and I’ll mention it here so you can get an idea of the issues Goldhill deals with. He spends a great deal of time (two chapters – 26 pages) discussing the Oedipus myth (as transmitted by Sophocles; there were other versions) and how it became and remains a profound analysis of the human condition, helped by Freud making it the basis for his psychology.
Oedipus is the archetypal hero figure trying to discover where he comes from: “Oedipus’ search for himself, his journey to discover where he comes from, is the paradigmatic example of how we must look back for self-knowledge, but also of how disturbing and painful that necessary process can be” (p. 298) and “Most shocking is the play’s insistent and disturbing claim that is it exactly at the moment you think you know where you come from and who you are that you are most open to a tragedy of self-deception” (p. 306). Goldhill sees Oedipus as particularly important in the 21st century when Western civilization struggles ever more desperately to know and to control but only seems to discover ever more uncertainty and ever less control.
I would recommend the book. Even if you don’t agree with the author’s conclusions in parts of the book, it’s still an interesting look at the influence Greece and Rome had and continues to have over our lives.