Speaking with the studied understatement of a Cambridge professor, classics scholar Mary Beard says of Plato, “if he was here, I’d want to give him a good talking to," noting that his Republic has served for centuries as the textbook for repressive governments. But Beard, in the U.S. to promote her newest book, Confronting the Classics, is too smart for facile generalizations. She says, too, of Socrates's pupil: “we can’t think about the self without going back to Plato.”
That is the essence of Beard's confrontation with antiquity: a reverence that does not spill over into adulation, criticism free of vitriol or condescension. "We have to be engaging and conversing with it, not just putting it in a glass case,” the classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement says to me of Athens and Rome as we sit in thoroughly un-classical Manhattan, in the offices of her publisher W.W. Norton.
Of course, sparing with Aristotle and teasing out the hidden meanings of Marcus Aurelius is easier to do when you're a professor of classics at Cambridge, run Great Britain's most popular academic blog, A Don's Life, contribute frequently to The New York Review of Books, and are a television personality. Oh, and have 50,000 followers on Twitter. So when she calls the language of the Greek historian Thucydides contorted, as she does in one of the short essays in Confronting the Classics, there are many who are willing to listen.
Confronting the Classics — which collects Beard's previously-published reviews and essays; there are, unfortunately, no new works here — is part of her longstanding project to popularize the classics without dumbing them down. In an essay published in The New York Review last year (and reprinted here as the introduction), Beard wondered, "Do the Classics Have a Future?" She went on to write:
To put this as crisply as I can, the study of the classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. It is not only the dialogue that we have with the culture of the classical world; it is also the dialogue that we have with those who have gone before us who were themselves in dialogue with the classical world.
There is a cautious optimism here, a sunny disposition that recalls the equally sunny September day outside the windowless conference room in which we sit. With her long gray hair and animated hand gestures, you begin to suspect that Beard is having fun. That's at least in part because she has none of the supercilious manner one might associate with a Cambridge scholar. “People are over-impressed by the likes of me," Beard says with no false modesty. "Academics don’t actually own the classics. They really don't," she adds with obviously genuine emphasis, pointing out that it would be foolish to dismiss, for example, Robert Harris's novel Pompeii or the HBO series Rome just because these are intended for popular audiences.
That's why, in an essay in Confronting the Classics on the Roman orator Cicero, Beard references Francis Ford Coppola, Congolese politics and Oklahoma! Her essay on the Greek historian Thucydides alludes to James Joyce, Jane Austen and JFK's senior thesis at Harvard. These aren't attempts at relevance but, rather, reminders that the classics still "matter hugely," even if, as Beard acknowledges, “Western culture has been enriched by many things having nothing to do with the Greeks and Romans." Then comes the kicker: "Thank heavens.”
Beard further bucks convention by keeping an active digital life. Her A Don's Life blog, published on the website of The Times Literary Supplement is both lively and frequently updated, a mix of scholarly notes, personal reflections and social commentary. It is a rarity — an academic blog that isn't boring. That's likely why it was made into a book.
Twitter has proven more perilous terrain for Beard. Her own tweets, by all means, are nothing inflammatory. Yet she has been the subject of rather vitriolic Twitter abuse. Earlier this year, for one, Beard was the victim was a misogynistic Twitter troll. Then, someone sent her a bomb threat over Twitter. And before both of those incidence, Beard had already been the subject of online hatred.
None of this, however, will stop her from tweeting or blogging. "I'm not going to be bullied," she says defiantly, noting that not only did the Twitter troll apologize to her, but she ended up actually meeting him. “Most of the people who are horrible are just learning,” Beard says, confident that, despite evidence to the contrary, civility will eventually preside over the digital world.
Civility, of course, derives from the Latin for civitas — the people of the Roman state. It always comes back there, doesn't it?
Photo courtesy of W.W. Norton.