For the past few weeks, my Mondays and Wednesdays have been spent in ancient Greece. I wake up, study ancient Western philosophy, and after a quick break for lunch I learn about the literature of antiquity in my College of Letters colloquium in the afternoon. When I finally reenter reality at around2:45 p.m., usually as I’m grabbing coffee at Pi, my world certainly looks different than that of ancient Greece. But lately I’ve noticed that in many ways, these worlds are not quite as distant from each other as they might seem.
When my classes read ancient texts, we do not just study their historical relevance. We also talk about life, love, passion, and anger; we learn about war and grief and conflict. Reading these texts, many of the themes seem easily transferable to a popular soap opera or a work of contemporary fiction. When I imagined what my antiquity colloquium in the College of Letters this semester would be like, I had thought that the texts would feel outdated and perhaps even somewhat irrelevant. But the more I read, the more I realized that the emotions and the relationships described in these texts are, more often than not, completely timeless. Many of these ancient texts are alive with real passion, emotion, and storytelling, and this makes them continuously relevant and enjoyable to generation after generation of readers.
The timelessness of historical texts is exciting for us as readers, but it can also be easy to get carried away in our quest for relevance in the texts that we read. When reading a historical text, many of us try to remove any hint of the outdated by placing our modern sensibilities onto these texts. I’ve been guilty of this habit myself, and I’ve seen it happen in many of my classes here at Wesleyan. You start reading “Robinson Crusoe” for a literature class, for instance, and you’ve been enjoying the novel until it hits you just how prevalent the theme of slavery is in the text. Now you aren’t quite sure what to do; can you continue to enjoy the novel even though you’re disgusted by some of its central themes? Either way, you feel that you have to do something to act on your disapproval of the values that you are reading about. When we’re unable to recognize any of the values that are so intuitive to us today in the historical texts that we read, we immediately become uncomfortable. Many of us resort to one of two tactics: either we quickly criticize the text and denounce it for its immoral messages, or we do our best to comb through the text and find some hint of our modern-day values in order to make our own reading of these texts a bit easier and more comfortable.
This tendency is natural, and our desire to make connections between our modern way of life and the past that we study is not a negative one. After all, there is a limit to the extent to which we can place ourselves within a foreign context without inserting our own points of view. When we read a text from thousands of years ago, we often picture the characters in modern dress, or else we project onto them images that we’ve seen in movie depictions of the time period, because these are the contexts that are most familiar to us. Complete abandonment of our own worlds in favor of the world of the past seems impossible.
But we also must be careful that in connecting past worlds with our own, we do not become too comfortable. Part of the value of our reading these ancient texts is our developing the ability to encounter and to fully understand points of view that are vastly different from our own. Studying texts that promote outdated, or even immoral, points of view doesn’t mean that we are endorsing these values; instead, it is an exercise in comprehending diversity and in expanding our worldviews. But by continuously framing our conversations about these texts within the values and norms that are relevant to us today, we limit our opportunities to truly immerse ourselves in a universe that might actually look nothing like our own and to learn from all that it has to teach us. The only way to truly immerse ourselves in our studies of other worlds is to look at these texts on their own terms, to let them speak to us from the time that they are in, however imperfect that time may be.
But this approach to historical texts isn’t just relevant to our ability to understand other world-views. It is also the only way for us to truly understand our own current values and beliefs. We have only risen to the age of progress of today through the long, difficult journey that is the past. We fight for the causes and values that we believe in for a reason: there were times when these values may have been seen as unimportant, and it is our responsibility to make sure that the world we live in never reverts back to such a time. When we attempt to fully immerse ourselves in these other time periods instead of trying to pretend that a time when the values that we care about were not cherished did not exist, we are reminded of just how far we have come, and also of how far we may still need to go.
We have the opportunity to study both the past and the present simultaneously; we can analyze modern politics in one class and delve into ancient societies in the next. But it’s not just the individual classes that give our education its richness: it is our ability to make connections among these different classes and worlds; to witness both the parallels and the discrepancies among them, and through this process, to map out for ourselves the generations-long journey that we as the human race have undertaken to find meaning and purpose in life. This will only be possible, though, if we can leave our current selves, values, and comforts behind for just a moment and commit to doing some time travel. The present will always be here for us when we get back.
Fattal is a member of the class of 2017.