Posted by: Nathan | January 25, 2007

Classics and Contemporary Society

Pimpin’ Kyle sent me an interesting op-ed piece that appeared in Tuesday’s edition of the New York Times (maybe you’ve heard of that newspaper). The article is entitled “Et tu, George”* and it’s written by Nicholas Kristof. I wish I could give you a link to it, but I don’t subscribe to the Times, so this is only link I have.

In this piece, Kristof compares the current situation in Iraq with classical literature, specifically Thucydides’ histories, The Aeneid, and Moby-Dick. His two main points are: 1. George Bush should’ve learned anti-war lessons from classical literature (as should we), but he didn’t so he resembles Aeneas and/or Ahab; 2. Classical works are still relevant. I’ll address these points one-by-one.

Kristof in this article commits a major error in my view, and it’s one that plagues the literati right now: he’s too eager to make comparisons using current events and literature. Kristof already thinks Pres. Bush is irrational and foolish for going into Iraq, and he wants to find a work that also makes this point and draw parallels. My critique is going to be a pretty fine one, but comparison in literary studies ought to be done carefully and with a mind towards one’s biases. There are many ways in which Pres. Bush does not resemble Ahab (and especially not Aeneas, which is such a weak paragraph in the article that I don’t know why Kristof included it), so the comparison should only be extended so far. It seems to me that Kristof wishes to find an example of obsession in literature so he can compare Mr. Bush to it, so he chooses Ahab. This is poor scholarship.

Which is not to say that literature does not comment on or is not relevant to our situations and problems now. It is!! In fact,  classics are extremely apropos to life in the 21st Century. Why? Literature addresses the big issues, the underlying problems, and the important thoughts and ideas of human existence; if a work does not rise above itself and make a profound comment about life, it is not literature. However, part of the work of interpreting literature and applying to life is to know how far a comparison is useful and to realize that each parallel has something limit its effectiveness. Thus, literature is always reminding one how a certain story/character/plot/idea/setting is very much like and yet very much unlike a given current situation. We read to augment our understanding of past and current events (not to mention hypotheical ones), but the hermeneutics are never simple.

Example. Right now in my Renaissance Literature class, we’re reading Thomas More’s Utopia. Book one is basically More’s “dialogue” with a character named Raphael Hythlodaeus about the social problems facing England in the sixteenth century and the way sovereigns abused their power. Many of the issues raised here echo our situation 500 years later: capital punishment, homelessness, unequal distribution of wealth, war, justice, etc. It’s important to see how these issues resonate through the centuries and have lasted into our civilization; it’s equally important to realize that 1500s England is a very different world than we inhabit in 2007. The reader’s work is to examine what are overarching issues, and what factors are situational only.

Finally, we must not make the error of reducing literature to social commentary. It is art, and we must keep it as such. Good art is both beautiful and relevant, and it can and often does reflect or comment on a phenomenon in our world; however, we must not make the mistake of reading only to find modern parallels. Literature is to be enjoyed as art as well as studied for knowledge

Thanks for the interesting article, Kyle.

*This joke mimicking a passage from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is becoming a cliché in my opinion, especially because Kristof isn’t even referencing the Bard.


  1. Interesting post. Thanks!

  2. A great response–very well-articulated. You should be a professor of literature 🙂

  3. I think you already *are* a professor of literature. I learned a lot about appreciating (but not abusing) literature by reading this post. Maybe I should have paid tuition to be able to read it. 😉

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