The ragged trousered Classicists

The Athenian Agora

Whenever Boris Johnson makes a reference to the Classics he hopes to demonstrate his membership of the intellectual elite. At the same time, however, he also provides evidence of the way that the Classics have been appropriated by the ruling clique. Indeed, it seems as though the Classics are largely confined to expensive private schools and, perhaps, surviving Grammar schools but have been eliminated from vast swathes of State schools as being in some way irrelevant.

But in a remarkable new book by the historians Edith Hall and Henry Stead called A People’s History of Classics it is argued that this was not always the case. The authors write: “Our book refutes wholesale the argument that classical education must be intrinsically elitist or reactionary; it has been the the curriculum of empire but it can be the curriculum of liberation.” It is their contention that it was fear of the rebellious influence of the Classics that led it to be suppressed among the working class. So, while Edmund Burke feared that the ‘pearls of intellectual culture would be besmirched by the swinish masses’, Thomas Hobbes ‘frets that classical literature inspires people to revolutions’.

In the early part of the book the authors show how the Classics helped to construct the identity and ‘psychological experience of substantial groups of working class Britons’, which inspired educational institutions like the Workers’ Educational Association, the Council of Labour Colleges and the Plebs League. But the authors also point out that the Classics have been inspirational for individual members of the working class and that Classical material features in ‘poor people’s expression of class dissatisfaction and frustration, disaffection, anger, deprivation, psychological trauma (even diagnosis of insanity) and dispossession’. Many British radicals were inspired and motivated by the Greeks and Romans between the ‘American and French Revolutions and the collapse of the Chartist movement’. Thomas Paine, author of the Rights of Man, for example, while critical of the use or Classics by the ruling clique, nevertheless thought that a ‘grasp of human history, including the markedly political history and developed secular ethics of ancient Greece and Rome, were essential to modern democrats’ understanding of the past’. And for Paine the Greek philosophers needed to be read ‘because they recommended benevolent moral systems’. In short Hall and Stead claim that the ‘democrats of the 1790s…were immersed in and inspired by ancient philosophers and history read in translation’.

Anyone who has been involved in the trade union movement will know about the influence of the Classics on the multifarious and colourful banners paraded on marches – the Tolpuddle Festival, normally held in July, is a good place to see many of them from all over the country. Indeed, the authors themselves trace the ‘proud and colourful use of figures from classical mythology and history in Trade Union banner art and in emblems of positive self-definition amongst craftspeople’ including the ‘ironies of the intense relationship between mining and the ancient world’.

This is a serious and scholarly work of history designed to liberate the Classics from the ruling clique for ‘progressive and enlightened causes’. “Our book, therefore, is not just about the past, but a rallying cry to modern Britain to support the case for the universal availability in schools of classical civilization and ancient history’.

One of the most obvious examples of how the Classics have influenced working class culture is the remarkable book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by the Irish author Robert Noonan, writing as Robert Tressell, and drawn from his experiences as an underpaid painter and decorator. But at a higher level the book is clearly based on Plato’s allegory of The Cave in The Republic, which is used to explore the idea of workers’ false consciousness.

Plato’s The Cave allegory

Tressell’s book starts: “The house was named ‘The Cave’,” and it is where much of the action takes place. The book essentially adapts Plato’s allegory to analyse the workmen’s ‘sedation by alcohol and unthinking reproduction of the false ideas required to perpetuate their oppression’.

The ancient Greek philosophers were renowned for their clear-sighted take on humanity and, in the case of the Stoics at least, promoted the idea that a ‘decent life is about cultivation of one’s character and concern for other people (and even Nature itself) and it is best enjoyed by way of a proper – but not fanatical – detachment from mere worldly goods,” as Massimo Pigliucci has it in How to be a Stoic. In this sense the Greek philosophers could be seen to counter the extreme individualism of neoliberalism, its insularity and its tendency to turn citizens into consumers. However, it is something of a stretch to conclude that the study of the Classic could have had the sort of revolutionary implications so feared by Hobbes. And it is thin gruel indeed when compared with the red meat of Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto in which they declare: “The proletarians have nothing to lost but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”

Marcus Aurelius – Roman Emperor, general and Stoic philosopher, but hardly a revolutionary!

But if Hall and Stead over reach themselves with regard to the revolutionary aspects of the Classics, they make a very good case for bringing classical education into mainstream education and wresting it from the clutches of people like Johnson.

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