Glenn Warren Most

Glenn Warren Most

Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought and the College, University of Chicago, USA; Professor for Greek Philology, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Italy

For centuries, Europeans often idealized and misunderstood Ancient Greece as an isolated miracle, as the uniquely seminal culture that provided the foundation of all  that was good in Western civilization. But some people have always questioned this notion and in the past decades a number of scholars have begun to substantially revise it, emphasizing for example the degree to which ancient Greece was actually an Asiatic fringe-culture. Our conception of the ancients, their mentality and philosophy can, if reconfigured, redefine our contemporary world, argues Glenn Warren Most (1952), the first Classicist to win the prestigious Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize. He argues that we can be certain that this reconfiguration will continue in the coming years in two ways, and that we can be hopeful that it will begin in a third way. Most’s approach both challenges and enriches our common conception of ancient culture and philosophy.

Breaking the Wall around Ancient Greece. How to Imagine the Classics in the 21st Century


On November 9th I was weeping like a child for fear and for joy.

Ladies and gentlemen, please close your eyes for a moment and think of ancient Greece. What do you see? Now you can open your eyes. This is what Raphael saw around 1510 in the School of Athens, and for four centuries since then many Europeans have seen much of the same thing. These men – stately, dignified, yet filled to bursting with intellectual passion, and seemingly capable of inspiring the very same passion in anyone who encounters them: we seem always already to have known them. The most prominent among them are for the most part easily identifiable as some of the most distinguished philosophers and scientists of ancient Greece: Plato and Aristotle in the centre, Diogenes sprawled in front of them, Socrates to the left, Pythagoras writing in a book in the left front, and Ptolemy holding a terrestrial globe and wearing a crown in the right front.

On the traditional view of classical antiquity, which Raphael’s fresco exemplifies and transmits to us successfully, the ancients are older than we are; they are, after all, the ancients. They possess unquestionable authority and command our sincere respect; hence, they are all men. They have reaped the harvest of considerable practicable experience and a philosophic or scientific wisdom; hence, they all have beards. This is a view with which at least the older amongst us were raised and has much to recommend it, not least in the form of Raphael’s splendid visualisation. But it is going to be profoundly modified in the next twenty years, and there is little doubt that the picture of Ancient Greece that will emerge will be very different- at least in three ways.

The first change that we can be certain will happen in the coming decades is that numerous texts and authors who were lost for many centuries will be rediscovered. To understand this, you must bear in mind that the total corpus of ancient Greece and Latin texts we possess represents only a tiny fraction of all those that were produced in antiquity. Books had to be copied by hand, laboriously and expensively. At times of crisis, not only were there other ways for people to spend their money, but there were other more practical uses to which papyrus and parchment could be put.

The history of ancient and medieval culture alternates between some periods in which many texts were produced and others in which fewer and fewer were copied. The texts that had the best chances of surviving were the ones that were anchored as school books in ancient educational institutions: Homer, Hesiod, and only a very few of the numerous later mythic and historical epics; the lone comic poet Aristophanes, and the three tragic authors Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and only a tiny fraction of their output (to say nothing of that of their numerous colleagues and rivals); Plato and Aristotle, and none of the pre-Socratics, and virtually none of the Hellenistic philosophers; Herodotus, Thucydides, a very few later historians; and various technical handbooks. All the other books written by all the other authors of ancient Greece were entirely lost, except for fragmentary quotations by later writers and the rarest of stray chances.

That is why in Raphael’s painting, there are so few ancients after all. Despite the impression that it gives of a bustling crowd, in fact, only about six bearded ancients in total can be identified as individuals in it. Most of the rest of the figures who fill the huge building are admirers and listeners- emblems of reception rather than of production.

Already in the 19th century, some of the holes in our knowledge of ancient literature started to be filled as papyri began to be discovered in Egypt. The books that the ancient Greeks threw away there were very often the ones that did not go on to survive to modern times.

The texts that papyrologists unearthed in the rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus and the Fayum have enormously enriched our understanding of ancient literature and history. Within the last several decades alone, there has been an astonishing outpouring of new texts on ancient papyri and on recycled medieval parchments called palimpsests: papyri of the Latin poet Cornelius Gallus and the Greek poets Archilochus, Sappho, and Poseidippus, and of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, and of a post-Socratic Orphic philosopher at Derveni in Macedonia, and perhaps of the geographer Artemidorus together with extraordinary drawings, and the Codex Tchacos containing, among other texts, a Gnostic gospel of Judas, and palimpsests of the Greek comic poet Menander and of the mathematician Archimedes.

We can be quite certain that this flood of startling new texts will continue and increase in the coming decades for two reasons. First, the rapid and rapidly increasing pace of building in Greece and in Egypt, as in China too, means that the underground hiding places where textual documents and archaeological artefacts could sleep undisturbed for centuries are increasingly being obliged to surrender their treasures to modern curiosity. To be sure, most of the finds will be destroyed as soon as they are discovered, for the last thing that builders need is for their construction sites to be declared off limits by archaeologists. But, there will always be enough clever and greedy construction workers who can recognise a buried treasure when they see one to save at least some of their finds for the insatiable thirst of modern classical studies.

Second, the technology of digital enhancement of visual images, developed by the American military to render more legible photographs made by satellites and spy planes, has turned out to have enormous peacetime usefulness for deciphering hard to read texts. It used to be that palimpsests could only be made to yield up the bottom erased layer of their texts if one poured chemical reagents onto them, which ended up destroying the very texts they were supposed to rescue. It used to be that papyrologists spend decades piecing together, painstakingly, the hundreds of tiny fragments to which an ancient papyrus text had usually been reduced.

Now, both operations can be performed in a moment’s time on a computer screen without damaging or even touching the material supports of the text itself. In coming decades, not only will many new texts continue to reach the market from legal and illegal excavations. What is more, many old texts that earlier generations despaired of ever reading will become legible on computer screens throughout the world- perhaps the best justification that can possibly be offered for the incredible amount of money spent by America on defence technology.

There is no doubt that the result will be lots of new texts and new authors to fill the many gaps in our knowledge of antiquity. Next to Raphael’s six bearded ancients, there will appear dozens of other ones, some with familiar old names, but unexpected new faces- others without any names at all. They will crowd out some of the astonished listeners whom Raphael has had to introduce to occupy his School of Athens. This will doubtless be an important addition to our knowledge of the ancient world. But on the other hand, it is not likely to change our idea of antiquity altogether.

The new discoveries will fill holes, but they will probably not transform our whole understanding of what antiquity was. For that to happen, two other developments in the coming decades will play a decisive role. The first regards the question of the sources and origin of Ancient Greek culture. Where did the ideas of the ancient Greeks come from? Take another look at Raphael’s painting. In its centre, Plato and Aristotle stride mightily towards us in our present time. But where in the past are they coming from? Above and behind them is nothing but an opening, an arch, revealing a brightly lit sky with a few clouds. Between them we can glimpse in the distance a spot of green. Evidently, they are coming to us directly from nature. There is no human source to their thoughts prior to them. To understand them and the other Greeks, we do not have to study any other culture; it would be enough just to study Greek.

The myth of the Greek miracle, the notion that the Greeks were originals and produced out of themselves alone all the wonderful things that they bestowed upon western culture, is one of the strangest and most persistent illusions of modern times. But it was not always this way. Already the Ancient Greeks themselves had no difficulty assigning to foreigners numerous cultural discoveries, from astronomy to the alphabet. In late antiquity, pagans happily joined Christians and Jews in eagerly inventing even the most absurd non-Greek sources for all kinds of Greek scientific and philosophical doctrines.

Even in Raphael’s fresco, if you look closely at the bottom right, you will see a bearded man with a turban holding a celestial globe. He may well represent Zoroaster, who was thought by many ancient and renaissance scholars to have been the ultimate source of ancient Greek sorcery and astrology. It was only at the end of the 18th century that a number of German scholars, especially Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich August Wolf, and Wilhelm von Humboldt, developed the idea that the Greeks had not received any important cultural influence from other people but instead had developed entirely on their own, following their own immanent nature. Why the first generation of German philhellenists should have so emphatically asserted Greek originality is not hard to understand.

True art had always been taken as an imitation of nature, and in the 18th century this came to mean that any art which did not imitate nature directly was not true art, so that many enlightenment authors could suppose the Greeks both to have represented nature immediately and to have been identical with nature. What is more, in the context of the institutionalisation of the new German university science of Altertumswissenschaft, defining ancient Greek culture as original and purely natural supplied a ready answer to anyone who might ask why one should not study other ancient cultures in preference to the Greeks. The problem, of course, was that such a radical claim for Greek priority and originality was patently false. Though it was occasionally repeated as late as the early 20th century, it flew in the face of what was already known in the late 18th century about Greek cultural contacts with the ancient Near East, to say nothing about the enormous increase in knowledge of such contacts as was brought during the 19th century by Indo-European linguistics, Assyriology, Egyptology, and other disciplines.

Over the last decades, a number of scholars of ancient Greek literature and culture have emphasised the degree to which ancient Greece was actually an Asiatic fringe culture. Within in the past few years, two of the most prominent English and German Hellenists have published books entitled The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth, and Die Griechen und der Orient. It is no longer news to claim that much of what we think of as being most Greek was either shared by the Greeks with little or no variation with numerous other cultures around the Mediterranean rim or on the ancient Asian continent, or else can best be understood as an interesting local inflection of a much more widespread ancient cultural idiom.

In the coming decades, research along these lines, both into the ancient cultures of the Near East and into the relations between them and ancient Greece, will certainly intensify, increasingly enormously not only our knowledge of the world that surrounded the ancient Greeks, but also our understanding of how the ancient Greeks became the Greeks that we know. We can be certain that this will happen, not only for the same reasons that will ensure the continuing supply of new Greek texts in the coming years, but also because evident political considerations will make the cultural heritage of those parts of the world of ever greater importance as objects of study for themselves and for us.

We can already imagine an updated version of Raphael’s fresco, in which, in the very farthest back regions of the palace, ancient Assyrian Monarchs and Hittite kings mingle with Egyptian Pharaohs and Jewish prophets, most of them with long flowing beards- all of them dignified and wearing stately robes, developing their own scientific and religious doctrines, and watching with a mixture of fascination and horror at what the Greeks were going to do with them.

In this way, our image of the ancient Greeks will certainly change. But the new discoveries and theories that we can look forward to with confidence will most likely deepen a line of research that is already well established, rather than creating a whole new research paradigm. For that, we need to wait for the third step forward that we can envision for the coming years. That step will involve understanding the whole Greek and Roman classical tradition as only one of a number of such classical traditions throughout the whole world.

Take a look at Raphael’s fresco again. In the bottom left, behind the figure of Pythagoras who is writing in a book, stands an Arab in a turban, crouching to catch a glimpse of what Pythagoras is writing. He is an image of one conventional European caricature of Arabic culture, according to which the Arabs derived all of their science, medicine, and philosophy from the Greeks, misunderstanding them completely along the way. We know now that the Arabic tradition both understood its Greek sources much better than used to be thought, and they also felt free to deal with them creatively within the terms of their own cultural tradition.

What is true of the Arabic tradition is true of certain other ones as well. For the European tradition that begins in ancient Greece and continues through Rome, the Latin and Byzantine Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and early modern period, and into the 19th and 20th centuries in our own day, is only one of a number of classical philological traditions in the world: among them, the Arabic, Jewish, Indian, and Chinese ones- to mention only these- that have developed numerous scholarly procedures, a remarkable sophistication and complexity of methods of intense study, in part independently of the Western tradition, in part in fruitful and mutual interrelation with it.

One of the lessons we have learned over the past century is that Europe is only one part of a complex and interlocking world, so that we are now in a better position to recognise that Europe’s cultural heritage can be understood fully only by being replaced within the larger context of other cultures of which it has in fact always been part.

What are the relations in different religions and cultures between sacred philology and profane philology? How have various philological traditions been inflected and enriched by understandings of one another? What is it in the end that makes a classical tradition classic? Such questions can only be answered by a truly comparative history of classical, philological traditions.

This is a field of study whose dim outlines we can only now glimpse at the horizon, but it promises to completely transform our understanding, both of our own place within the history of European culture, and of the ways in which such cultures have operated over the past millennia. It will help us to recognise what it means to live within a historically vital culture in which old and new are constantly competing with one another for validity, and it will help us to understand how the rules of that competition have varied throughout the world over time and over space. This is how ultimately Raphael’s vision of the Greeks will be transformed, for we will learn to see his school of Athens as only one panel in a whole series of frescos still to be painted on which we will see other sets of venerable bearded men: one group in a Mosque, another in a Synagogue, another in a Pagoda, and another in a Confucian temple.