Love, Sex & Tragedy


By Simon Goldhill

Back in 1693 John Locke, someone with a sharp eye for the bottom line, openly questioned the value of learning Latin. “Can there be anything more ridiculous,” he asked, “than that a father should waste his own money, and his son’s time, in setting him to learn the Roman language, when, at the same time, he designs him for a trade, wherein he, having no use of Latin, fails not to forget that little which he brought from school, and which it is ten to one he abhors for the ill usage it procured him?” The Renaissance re-introduced Classical learning to Europe. The Enlightenment began to phase it out. Hence Joseph Priestly 70 years after Locke:

Time was when scholars . . . would have been ashamed to have expressed themselves in bad Latin, but not in the least of being guilty of any impropriety of their mother tongue, which they considered as belonging only to the vulgar.
But those times of revived antiquity have had their use, and are now no more. We are obliged to the learned labors of our forefathers for searching into all the remains of antiquity, and illustrating valuable ancient authors; but their maxims of life will not suit the world as it is at present.

The question of “Why the Classics matter” has stayed with us, though the universal elimination of high school Latin and Greek and shrinking university Classics departments are evidence that the battle has not been going well for the Ancients. In Love, Sex & Tragedy Simon Goldhill tries yet again to explain why the study of antiquity is important today.

According to Goldhill the classics play “an essential role in answering those central questions about what it means to be a human being in today’s society” and “the modern self cannot be fully or properly appreciated without its buried life, its ancient grounding, its formation through inherited ideas and images.”

This is rather vague. Goldhill picks and chooses from a very loose selection of historical topics (Greek love, the translation of the Bible, Roman gladiators) to show how our ideas of the perfect body or democracy or mass entertainment actually have roots in the classical world. There’s not much new about any of it, and Goldhill’s repetitive banalities about the importance of it all grow tiresome. This is just a small sample:

There’s a Greek history inside us all, which makes us who we think we are.


We need the past to tell the story of the present.


Stories, stories from the past, mould how events are lived and told.


Looking back critically at where we come from is a revelatory education about the present.


The history inside us makes us who we are.


Looking in the mirror of the past will help us see ourselves more clearly.

The more specific discussions of particular topics and personalities are no better. On Sappho: “Sappho has no one physical form – but the idea of Sappho provides the shifting mirrors on which a kaleidoscopic range of expressions of desire is produced. Sappho lets the modern world articulate and feel desire.” On democracy: “Conflict is integral to democracy. Democracy depends on people having different and competing views within society and about society.” On Freud: “As Freud recognized, there is an Oedipus inside everyone.” “Without Oedipus, psychoanalysis would look very different indeed.”

Indeed indeed. Goldhill’s ability to belabor the obvious is amazing:

Theseus was the king of Athens, the good king, the man who had brought all the villages and homesteads of Attica together into the city-state called Athens. He was the founder of the city. That’s why Athens is Athens.

Modern analogies are either strained, obvious, or just plain bizarre:

In the next generation, the Emperor Trajan celebrated a military victory with games that lasted 123 days, when 11,000 animals were killed and 10,000 gladiators fought. It is the equivalent of every current professional American Football player, every current professional American basketball player and every current American professional baseball player all together fighting with lethal weapons in the same event. The thought is staggering.

What is staggering is how such a thought ever came to mind.

The acceptable form of gay sex in ancient Greece was neither anal nor oral. It was intercrural. This technique involved a man leaning over a boy’s shoulders and positioning his penis between the boy’s thighs. I mention this because it is one of the very few things I learned from this book that I didn’t already know (and I am not a classicist). This is too bad, since I agree with the proposition that the classics are still important. But our modern Lockes and Priestlys will likely remain unconvinced.

Review first published online July 21, 2004.

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