What have the ancient Greeks done for us lately?

Sunday 31 October, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Courtyard Gallery

This year, cinemas screened Clash of the Titans and Agora in the wake of 300, Troy and Alexander. Historical novels set in Greece - let alone its myths - remain popular with all ages. Politicians call for the classical languages to be restored to the school curriculum. Is a classical revival underway? Certainly the classics retain a wide popular appeal. Merely scratching the surface of the glories of ancient Greece reveals how much they managed to create: drama; poetry; science and mathematics; history; architecture; philosophy and politics. The continuing ability of classical civilisation to speak to us can be reassuring in what are fearful times. We are uncertain about the value of many things - education, the arts, our humanity, truth itself - and the sense that there are giants in the past who grappled with these issues too is comforting maybe. Newton, after all, relied on three friends: Plato, Aristotle, and the truth.

When people reach back to Greece for inspiration, it is because of a sense that something is missing. Critical re-engagement with the Greeks has moved humanity forward through the Renaissance, Enlightenment and into Modernity - from Machiavelli to Rousseau to Marx - as people have taken inspiration from the breadth of their achievements, their universalism and their demonstration of the permanence of human nature. What though is the nature of today’s relationship with the Greeks? Do we value their rationalism, love of beauty, and freedom of expression? Or do we rather find in them what we look for? Neo-Aristotelians, including the think tank Demos, seem to view Aristotle as a precursor of today’s happiness economists: a psychologist of subjective well-being; Lord Layard in a robe. What then of the moral philosopher who thought ‘the life of the mind divine in comparison with mere human life’ and would surely have rejected today’s instrumental approach to knowledge? Is there a danger of treating the classics as a pick and mix grab bag of contemporary relevance?

To study the classics in depth can be an unsettling process in which, what appears so familiar at first sight, soon reveals itself as quite another, and very distant, world. The appeal, however, is that it can have the same effect on how we view today: forcing us to examine it from a fresh perspective. Is it once again time for us to rejuvenate human civilisation by drinking from the source?

Listen to session audio:


Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Tom Holland
award-winning historian; author, Rubicon: the triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic; winner, 2007 Classical Association Prize

Bettany Hughes
president, Joint Association of Classical Teachers; broadcaster; author, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the search for the good life

Edith Hall
research professor of classics and drama, Royal Holloway University of London; author, Greek Tragedy: suffering under the sun

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Produced by
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
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