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Why Classical Studies is important

By news editor, on 9 May 2012

Annette Mitchell writes about Professor Miriam Leonard’s inaugural lecture.

Is Classics important today? After studying ancient history for more than 10 years, many people ask me what can you do with it? And it is a question I often asked myself until I started reading Freud and got curious about all the references he made to antiquity. By sheer coincidence, when I was accepted for a PhD on this subject in 2007 Miriam Leonard was joining the Greek and Latin Department and she became my supervisor.

I had heard of her before, but I thought it would be a good move to read more of her work and rooted out a copy of Athens in Paris: Ancient Greece and the Political in Post-War French Thought (2005). This was the first time I really got a sense of ‘Reception Studies’.

‘Reception Studies’, as a sub-discipline of Classical Studies, not only covers how antiquity is received in future times, but also considers how antiquity is used to express important political, social, cultural questions in future times.

Professor Leonard’s inaugural lecture on 1 May, entitled ‘Tragedy and Modernity’, squarely honed in on this latter aspect. She explained how specific German philosophers have used Greek tragedy, in particular Sophocles’ play Oedipus Tyrannos, to express certain conditions, since the mid-1700s.

Professor Leonard mainly concentrated on Hegel and Freud, explaining how both used Oedipus Tyrannos to encapsulate what they believed to be the modern condition.

Hegel and Freud
Professor Leonard then went on to explain how Hegel’s views influenced Freud’s.

Hegel used Oedipus to demonstrate man taking responsibility for his actions through self-knowledge. Hegel, thus, led the way for Freud to develop Oedipus as the central paradigm in psychoanalysis that symbolised the quest for self-knowledge.

Freud’s idea of self-knowledge was a lot darker than Hegel’s, but Professor Leonard’s lecture placed Freud centrally in a Hegelian philosophical tradition and offered a new interpretation of his use of Oedipus.

This lecture demonstrated the importance of classical studies today. Freud, and the German philosophers who influenced him, have had a crucial role in defining our ‘modern’ condition.

Freud’s Oedipus drew attention to the dark, unknown unconscious in man and, thus, led us into an age where we have started questioning ourselves and our unknown motivations.

The modern condition
Freud was powerfully influenced by antiquity, and by the philosophical tradition’s use of antiquity, in constructing this meaning of man.

That Freud’s thought has shaped modern ideologies, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, is an example of why studying classics is worthwhile. It allows us to understand ancient themes in later historical periods that reveal fundamentally relevant dynamics and meanings.

Professor Leonard’s work generally concentrates on the meanings, expressed through reference to antiquity, that have influenced the construction of our modern way of life.

Her upcoming book, Socrates and the Jews: Hellenism and Hebraism from Moses Mendelssohn to Sigmund Freud (2012), investigates the conflict between Hebraism and Hellenism in the philosophical tradition and the impact this has had on classical philology.

She reveals how this collision between Athens and Jerusalem is important in the construction of modernity. This differential focus on Judaism is especially important in today’s world.

Charles Martindale, the Professor of Latin at Bristol University, spoke at the end of Miriam’s lecture. He said that she was a brilliant scholar, a leader in her field and an exceptional talent.

Professor Maria Wyke, Head of UCL Greek and Latin, spoke before the lecture and commented on how Miriam Leonard had gained a Professorship only 10 years after completing her PhD at Cambridge.

Miriam was praised like this because she is pushing forward a new way of studying classics, which not only makes it relevant today, but essential.

Annette Mitchell is a PhD student in UCL Greek and Latin

Image: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Oedipus and Sphinx. 1808. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, France.

Professor Leonard’s lecture was one in a series of inaugural lectures organised by the UCL Faculties of Arts & Humanities and Social & Historical Sciences running until the end of May 2012.

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