Why the classics are needed



Opinion columnist Kevin Wiggins discusses the work of Dr. Donna Kuckerberg. Her journal, “Eidolon” seeks to “make the classics political and personal, feminist and fun.”


When it comes to the Classics, there is a general perception of a stodgy, old British intellectual named Sir Bertrand Merriweather scribbling notes in cuneiform script while smoking a pipe. This pervasive image is changing with more and more new blood entering the field.

One of the rising stars of classical studies is Dr. Donna Zuckerberg (sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg). Her cause célébre is her infusion of identity politics with the Classics and also from her founding of the journal “Eidolon.” “Eidolon’s” mission statement is to “make the classics political and personal, feminist and fun.”

The journal is unabashedly conscious of its “progressive” bias. The articles it publishes come in two flavors. The first is political/feminist/critical readings of classic texts such as the Iliad or Aeneid. The second is the infusion of fun and accessible analysis of classical culture and pondering how it can be useful to us today or help us place ourselves in our own times. The latter is the most brilliant thing the journal does: imbibing real, striking readings of books which college students are forced to read in Humanities courses.

Articles like “Reading Consent into the Iliad” and “A Bigger, Sexier Ancient World” offer an entrancing, vivid and wholly relatable interaction with our current political landscape – but more importantly, ourselves.

The classics only have value if we continue to see ourselves in them. They’ve survived the test of time specifically for this reason. They are windows to the past, communication with not only the authors but every single person who has ever engaged with the texts. The Iliad was composed orally. The result is that it has changed over generations before it was written down. What we see of ourselves in a text is an interaction which can go back millennia. What Sophocles, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Hildegard of Bingen, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and any UNI freshman in Humanities will get from the Iliad is dramatically different. Yet, we can see the effects of the classics on the lives of each and every one of these people.

The Greeks were right. Life is struggle, life is a tragedy, but above all, life is beautiful and should be lived. Their call to live is to be in our own lives as fully as possible, just as people facing the same struggles we are have done for millennia. Hector and Hamlet are both exceptional people whom bad things happen to. But what they do with this reality is live as truly as they can, and this is what makes them inspiring. The Greeks had a word for this sôphrosuné, (soundness, clarity of mind) in facing the world. Something which both Hector and Hamlet had. It’s what makes them truly heroic.

Faced with the “Twilight” of the classics, we stand to lose more than, in Dr. Zuckerberg’s words, “a few old dead white men.” We lose out on communication with how the tragedy of existence has always been navigated. This is why I find Eidolon and Dr. Zuckerberg so necessary.

The classics have offered humanity not only a window into how we have gotten to where we are now, but a means of preserving ourselves at this moment for the future. Hector was faced with the greatest odds imaginable, yet he excelled as best he might. There is oppression in this world. There is evil in it too, but what does it matter to overcome oppression if our heirs know nothing of the past? If they know nothing about whom they inherited their world from, then the evil which was defeated will simply rear its head again. If we don’t remember how we got to where we are now, we can never move forward. We should think twice before refusing to look over our shoulders and see where people have trod before us. For inspiring others to do just that, I applaud Dr. Zuckerberg.