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The Oldest Dead White European Males & Other Reflections on the Classics

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A reexamination of the importance of the classics reminds readers of the contributions those early thinkers made to present-day society, including philosophy, theater, rhetoric, oratory, biology, zoology and other arts and sciences.


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A reexamination of the importance of the classics reminds readers of the contributions those early thinkers made to present-day society, including philosophy, theater, rhetoric, oratory, biology, zoology and other arts and sciences.

30 review for The Oldest Dead White European Males & Other Reflections on the Classics

  1. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    Much as I love Knox, this is actually inessential. A little defensive in parts and doesn't say anything you didn't already know. Why should we read the classics? Because they have awesome fight scenes, shut up. Much as I love Knox, this is actually inessential. A little defensive in parts and doesn't say anything you didn't already know. Why should we read the classics? Because they have awesome fight scenes, shut up.

  2. 4 out of 5

    jessica

    this just kinda annoyed me? a book about the oldest dead white european males by a old dead white european male i was gonna look the other way until he starts talking about "millitant feminists" and "multiculturism" effectively destroying the classical sphere and doesn't even give sound reason to justify it apart from the fact that the classics are great and part of our history. one wording really got me when he said we are in "debt" to the ancient greeks for all that we have.... i mean we are i this just kinda annoyed me? a book about the oldest dead white european males by a old dead white european male i was gonna look the other way until he starts talking about "millitant feminists" and "multiculturism" effectively destroying the classical sphere and doesn't even give sound reason to justify it apart from the fact that the classics are great and part of our history. one wording really got me when he said we are in "debt" to the ancient greeks for all that we have.... i mean we are in debt to all of history for how we are here but that doesn't mean a lot? ancient greece was just a time where we have a lot of evidence for the development of the 'civilised' (western) sphere. also another argument was that we should study texts written by dead white old men because it is a "Waste of effort" not to and "for great literature always reaches beyond". I mean, yes, but "great literature" is so much and with the scope of today's literary field and accessibility to books, subjects, this still does not hold as an argument to study the classical field it simply just is saying: Well, the old white male classical world is good so we might as well study them, which isn't really an argument as you can say this about anything......ever........and then just read a book which is by "militant feminist" or about "multiculturaism" Anyway it just kinda ended up being his ramblings about how "multiculturalism" and "militan feminists" are destroying the classical world. If anyone wants to read a defence of classics in the modern world I recommend any mary beard (confronting the classics and woman and power swayed me). This book kinda made me wanna stop studying classics rather than continue because it reminds me of what the field if full of : old white european men defending old white european men while studying the intrinsics of grammar and how we "owe" them everything for this. For me, classics is just some magical time period full of fun myths and stories. Thanks for reading my rambles lol I just read this book in 2 hours. i've heard bernard knox is great in other ways for the classical field, this just wasn't it. great essays, not on the defence of classics though so do not make that the title of the works:)

  3. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    I don't know why I was expecting a more nuanced argument; Bernard Knox is, after all, an old white male. You know what I was hoping for? Concession that the reverence in which these old white males are held are partly due to their old white maleness. I was hoping for at least a brief summation of WHY "militant" feminists (and people of colour, queers… hell, every minority demographic) may have issue with the canon of Western Civilization and then be convinced (maybe) that despite these issues, t I don't know why I was expecting a more nuanced argument; Bernard Knox is, after all, an old white male. You know what I was hoping for? Concession that the reverence in which these old white males are held are partly due to their old white maleness. I was hoping for at least a brief summation of WHY "militant" feminists (and people of colour, queers… hell, every minority demographic) may have issue with the canon of Western Civilization and then be convinced (maybe) that despite these issues, the preserved texts of Ancient Greece have value in today's society. Then I was hoping for acknowledgement that said texts *are* held in greater esteem that texts of comparable civilizations (like Ancient China). That even if you'd never read Homer or Virgil that you'd still know the stories of Achilles and Odysseus and Oedipus and Medea and creepy Zeus because their stories are re-created in children's books and television shows and Hollywood movies; these old white dudes and their stories are EVERYWHERE. Don't get me wrong, I like the Classics, even love some of them. But saying “the Classics are amazing, ergo they are relevant in today’s society” isn’t making an argument, especially if you ignore how the popularity of the Classics can be problematic and even alienating to those who are not old white males.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ben

    What an interesting short collection of lively lectures on the contemporary worth of the Classics. Well worth a read for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    A brilliant collection of essays, particularly the last. I'd read two of Knox's other papers for uni, one on Medea and one on Ajax, and loved them also. He is just too cool for school. A brilliant collection of essays, particularly the last. I'd read two of Knox's other papers for uni, one on Medea and one on Ajax, and loved them also. He is just too cool for school.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jonathon McKenney

    This is what I wanted the Italo Calvino book to be. 3.5 but rounded down for being awfully dated in some sections. The last essay was excellent, a real take down of the classical establishment way of thinking. The first one was needlessly provocatively titled, it wasn’t the rant against “””PC culture””” the title made it out to be. A few dicey lines however. “The stable cultures of Asia Africa and America “ ........

  7. 4 out of 5

    Julia

    v simple slight book read as salve for post-quarter exhaustion. but still disappointing! which is why i went out of my three-stars-for-all rule to give this ~two stars~. i had a very pleasant time i think a couple years ago reading through a lot of knox's essays/reviews about classics-related stuff in the nyrb, but it seems he may be better when he has a specific work to write from rather than this general defense of the classics/humanities bather, which is SUCH a pitfall. i suppose i also thoug v simple slight book read as salve for post-quarter exhaustion. but still disappointing! which is why i went out of my three-stars-for-all rule to give this ~two stars~. i had a very pleasant time i think a couple years ago reading through a lot of knox's essays/reviews about classics-related stuff in the nyrb, but it seems he may be better when he has a specific work to write from rather than this general defense of the classics/humanities bather, which is SUCH a pitfall. i suppose i also thought the title 'the oldest dead white european males' indicated a nuanced, rueful self-aware take rather than one whose foreword, alas, looks askance upon "multiculturalism and militant feminists" and "academic radicals." (my favorite thing about academic debates of the eighties and nineties is the term "multiculturalism," because i don't know how this could be the term they chose to use and still position themselves against! how do you decide to be the on the side opposing the study and prioritizing of multiple cultures! wild.) that foreword is so upsetting, so willful in its misunderstandings—"it is strange to find the classical Greeks today assailed as emblems of reactionary conservatism, of forced conformity. For their role in the history of the West has always been innovative, sometimes indeed subversive, even revolutionary." sure this opens up into v interesting information about greek versus latin reception in the medieval period, the "aristotelian" medieval vs the "platonic" renaissance, but classics as the emblem of conservatism is not at all strange! man. he's not willing to really engage with the problem of what classics can be, which is why he thinks he's resolved some kind of argument here: "And though it is true that Athenian democracy allowed women no scope for public or political activity, Attic tragedy has given us a wealth of impressive female figures—Antigone, Electra, Medea, Hecuba, Clytemnestra‚ who still, on our screens and stages, in translation or modern adaptation, challenge us with disturbing visions of women's heroism and suffering." would that ~academic radicals~ were satisfied by these female characters created and originally performed by men. not everything in the essays is bad—from the third it seems like knox was among the first classicists to realize modern greece is useful to the study of classics (modern greek still needs its defenses these days, so), though his characterization is somewhat exoticizing, and everything is still always pleasant and leisurely to read. but it's not, you know, satisfying. i'm so tired of the humanities-defense argument about totalitarian rulers being scared of poets or whatever. it might not be true anymore. it's so feel-good. the feel-good classics/humanities don't like scholarship that emphasizes how unlike us classical societies were, though it's notable that one of the few classicists with popular traction today, anne carson, centers this in her poetry, the ways in which they are like us only glancingly...i've been thinking about this a lot lately. a passing ultimately dismissive reference to froma zeitlin made me think of another big-name woman classicist, helene foley, who i could have studied with if i'd gone to columbia, something i occasionally kick myself over as if my investment in the classics isn't altogether muddled and ambivalent. i read dumb books like these hoping they will help me figure out why i am a classics major, i suppose. i used to like that pat answer about how these stories are at the foundation of western civilization, which is obviously something knox subscribes to. it felt important. but now what engages me—especially as i read more ancient literature—is how silly and weird and ultimately coincidental that feels. homer's at the foundation of western civilization or whatever but it wasn't meant to be and it is the natural response to find a lot of this literature strange and alienating! (paul veyne's book on roman elegy was astoundingly eye-opening in this regard; he is like the little devil on your shoulder.) so it's an empty answer. thinking also of this bit from an eidolon piece: 'When you hear someone —be they a student, a colleague, or an amateur — say that they are interested in Classics because of “the Greek miracle” or because Classics is “the foundation of Western civilization and culture,” challenge that viewpoint respectfully but forcefully. Engage them on their assumed definitions of “foundation,” “Western,” “civilization,” and “culture.” Point out that such ideas are a slippery slope to white supremacy. Seek better reasons for studying Classics.' i liked this & didn't like this; to call such a widely used reason a slippery slope to white supremacy means you must offer, well, if not an explanation (the whole piece is an explanation) an alternative. what are people trying to say when they say classics is the foundation of western civilization. it's not totally untrue, after all. what do they really mean when they say this; what else could they mean when they say this. anyway here i am waiting & hoping for writing that doesn't end here, either as solution or as solution-to-be-dissolved.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    Why have I devoted so much time to the study of classical antiquity? Indeed, in a similar vein, why have I spent so much time--and money, considering the degrees I've paid for--on studying Near Eastern religions? Knox addresses these questions, the kinds of questions his students may have approached him about, with his own answers. My hypothetical answers here are more personal and certainly less thought out. My interest in studying in general arose from the usual sense kids have of wanting to gro Why have I devoted so much time to the study of classical antiquity? Indeed, in a similar vein, why have I spent so much time--and money, considering the degrees I've paid for--on studying Near Eastern religions? Knox addresses these questions, the kinds of questions his students may have approached him about, with his own answers. My hypothetical answers here are more personal and certainly less thought out. My interest in studying in general arose from the usual sense kids have of wanting to grow up, to develop competencies and to be recognized for them. I was small, unathletic, socially insecure, but I did all right in school and school provided regular encouragements and feedbacks. School offered compensatory achievements. A significant portion of the teachers and of the schooling itself concerned the classics and history. Why classics became outstanding for me by age fifteen as regards the broader fields of history also had something to do with language study. Moving around a lot, I'd studied Norwegian, German, Spanish and French in different school systems, learned little and wanted a fresh start in high school. Latin, being an older language and the source of both French and Spanish, seemed a clear choice. I stunk as regards the grammar, but I shone as regards understanding Roman history and culture, enough so that I got through two years of it without total disaster. Meanwhile, throughout secondary school, it was the history and literature classes and teachers I enjoyed the most, both of them areas in which the classics and ancient history were relevant. Being quite a reader throughout childhood and tending, when not indulging in science fiction, to read the more serious books to impress others and myself, it naturally became apparent to me that there were books and authors that other books and authors mentioned again and again, more than others: the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine etc. Deserved or not, the fact was that there was something like a cultural canon and that knowing it was important in understanding what was going on in the world of learned discourse. By high school I was spending increasing time with older people in social circumstances and would often argue with them. Knowing the stuff they'd refer to better than they did was important in attaining respect, particularly if the argument was about politics where my leftism was suspect, but my erudition about the "Great Books" was sometimes disarming. Finally, there was the torture of not knowing why I should stay alive while I, and apparently much of the world even moreso, suffered. I had deep questions about ethics, about the freedom--or thralldom--of the will and classical philosophy and religion ostensibly dealt with those matters more directly than most modern stuff I read. Indeed, this got me into both studies, into religion and philosophy programs by college and graduate schools. And, as ever, wanting to know what the authors we read were referring to again and again, I gravitated towards the old stuff, the foundational (and, conveniently, simpler) material. So, I read the bible from cover to cover in college, took some courses about western and eastern religions, got into their histories and their classics and found that I was covering the same time periods I'd studied in learning about the Greeks and Romans. Indeed, knowing both the western classics and the Near Eastern religions, particularly the Hebrew, saw me in very good stead throughout seminary. One has to start somewhere. Given my time and place of birth, my progress made sense, though not as much sense as it should have. I should have read more of the ancient stuff first rather than to have been brought up short by later authors making what to me were obscure references and then backtracking. So, too, I suppose would be the stories of many a Chinese kid, or Japanese, or Indian or whatever. Suffice it to say that I will make a claim for an historical approach to learning and some defense of the Western classics. Hopefully, however, future pedagogues and the kids subjected to them will adopt a more global approach so that the history and literatures taught early on are less parochially Western than mine were.

  9. 4 out of 5

    max

    This is a marvelous book by a world class Greek scholar. It is a sane, eloquent, and compelling argument in favor of classics (Greek studies in particular). Knox writes in a lucid style and puts the whole history of Greek scholarship in context, reminding readers that Greek was not offered at Oxford until 1516, where it was greeted with suspicion by those who felt it threatened Latin-based scholastic studies. He addresses effectively those who have attacked the "canon" of DWEMs. "The primacy of t This is a marvelous book by a world class Greek scholar. It is a sane, eloquent, and compelling argument in favor of classics (Greek studies in particular). Knox writes in a lucid style and puts the whole history of Greek scholarship in context, reminding readers that Greek was not offered at Oxford until 1516, where it was greeted with suspicion by those who felt it threatened Latin-based scholastic studies. He addresses effectively those who have attacked the "canon" of DWEMs. "The primacy of the Greeks in the canon of Western literature is neither an accident nor the result of a decision by higher authority; it is simply a reflection of the intrinsic worth of the material, its sheer originality and brilliance." Instead of trashing his academic adversaries in a polemic, he defends Greek with great grace and dignity. He also highlights some of the important recent contributions that have been made to Greek studies by anthropologists, and explores at length one of the great paradoxes of Greek literature: while keeping women cloistered, nearly invisible in public life, the Greeks nevertheless created literature with some of the most famous of all female characters: Penelope, Helen, Nausicaa, Calypso, Clytemnestra, Electra, Antigone, Medea, Alcestis, and others. He also responds to those who question the value of Greek studies today, pointing out that even the Romans were at times suspicious of the Greeks, and that the humanities were, as a practical matter, the invention of the sophists, whom Plato consistently scorned. In the end, Knox makes the case that we need the Greeks and their extraordinary body of literature because these were the people who raised the fundamental questions from which we cannot escape: "What is a human being? What is the good life? The good society? What limits are there to individual loyalty to the state? To human exploitation of the universe?"

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Bernard Knox was an interesting man. Reformed Marxist, "premature anti-fascist" who fought in Spain and France before teh entry of the USA into the war. etc. These 3 lectures given between 1981 and 1992 are witty, erudite and make a good case for the value of the classics. Bernard Knox was an interesting man. Reformed Marxist, "premature anti-fascist" who fought in Spain and France before teh entry of the USA into the war. etc. These 3 lectures given between 1981 and 1992 are witty, erudite and make a good case for the value of the classics.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Colin

    A nifty little book on the Classics, reminding me somewhat of the apologia offered by Hanson et al. Worth consideration by anyone who values the classics, I'd say. Borrowed from the Providence Athenaeum. A nifty little book on the Classics, reminding me somewhat of the apologia offered by Hanson et al. Worth consideration by anyone who values the classics, I'd say. Borrowed from the Providence Athenaeum.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Marc

    Collection of lectures. Fascinating and interesting, but I had expected much more.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Mitchell

    I read this book when it first came out, just as the culture wars surrounding the 'Western Canon' were heating up. The playful title that Knox gives his book would not be found amusing in today's non-nuanced academic environment, and might even get him lynched if he weren't already dead. So much has changed in 28 years and the saddest change is that humor about anything has been side-lined in place of diatribe on both sides. The book consists of three essays that were originally written as academ I read this book when it first came out, just as the culture wars surrounding the 'Western Canon' were heating up. The playful title that Knox gives his book would not be found amusing in today's non-nuanced academic environment, and might even get him lynched if he weren't already dead. So much has changed in 28 years and the saddest change is that humor about anything has been side-lined in place of diatribe on both sides. The book consists of three essays that were originally written as academic presentations, and they are mostly concerned with affirming the centrality of Ancient Greek thought to today's world. Imagine. That anything so obvious is now a bone of contention.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Valerie San Filippo

    Admittedly, I know very little about the ancient greeks. It was nice to get to know them from a reasonable perspective. I kind of wish Knox had panned them more, but his appreciation is genuine, and he makes some excellent points regarding their legacy, if not their relevance. Overall I found it an enjoyable read. Enough substance to make me think, but not so much as to overload me with information. I think I’ll check out Knox’s other works. He’s got a great style, and seems a decent guy.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Perry Willis

    Fabulous. I've read it twice. Fabulous. I've read it twice.

  16. 5 out of 5

    James Henderson

    The phrase "dead white males" criticizes the emphasis on high culture in Western civilization in academia (especially those in the United States). Critics of the traditional curriculum argued that it enshrined a world view that valued older European history and ideology, for example, over non-European achievements. Users of the term also argued that the traditional curriculum was praising one's own culture; proponents of this type of curriculum, however, argued that "one's own culture" is the lo The phrase "dead white males" criticizes the emphasis on high culture in Western civilization in academia (especially those in the United States). Critics of the traditional curriculum argued that it enshrined a world view that valued older European history and ideology, for example, over non-European achievements. Users of the term also argued that the traditional curriculum was praising one's own culture; proponents of this type of curriculum, however, argued that "one's own culture" is the logical aspect to place emphasis on in any one nation-state. In this book the renowned classicist, Bernard Knox, takes on these critics and argues in three essays (originally delivered as lectures) for the importance and relevance of the clasics. In his view the primacy of the Greeks in the canon reflects the intrinsic worth of the material, its sheer originality and brilliance. The culture that we have today is not only richer but would not exist were it not for these classics.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    Super interesting book. I especially liked the essay that discussed the humanities in education, which made several brilliant points about why exactly the humanities were started in the first place (basically, democracy) and why they are still important today. It spoke to me on a personal level, having acquired a humanities education in an increasingly tech-focused society, and I don't mind saying that it made me feel better about my choice. The real jewel in this book is the final essay, "The Co Super interesting book. I especially liked the essay that discussed the humanities in education, which made several brilliant points about why exactly the humanities were started in the first place (basically, democracy) and why they are still important today. It spoke to me on a personal level, having acquired a humanities education in an increasingly tech-focused society, and I don't mind saying that it made me feel better about my choice. The real jewel in this book is the final essay, "The Continuity of Greek Culture." Insightful and delightful - the pages melted by and it was over before I was ready.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Cooper Ackerly

    There is a language, someone once told me, spoken by those who have submerged themselves in the language, works, and culture of the Greeks and Romans. It is a language of joy and of depth and of beauty. It embraces far more than that thin almost-millenia-long strip, but it always reaches back to that world as what can only be called a spiritual foundation, Matthew Arnold's secular religion for the aristoi. It is this language, unsuprisingly, that Professor Knox speaks. There is a language, someone once told me, spoken by those who have submerged themselves in the language, works, and culture of the Greeks and Romans. It is a language of joy and of depth and of beauty. It embraces far more than that thin almost-millenia-long strip, but it always reaches back to that world as what can only be called a spiritual foundation, Matthew Arnold's secular religion for the aristoi. It is this language, unsuprisingly, that Professor Knox speaks.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Cassidy

    I confess I only read one of the three essays included in this book, but the one I did read was very good. It's important that we acknowledge the base that the classics gave Western culture, but equally important to remember that not all of that base was necessarily sound. I confess I only read one of the three essays included in this book, but the one I did read was very good. It's important that we acknowledge the base that the classics gave Western culture, but equally important to remember that not all of that base was necessarily sound.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    perceptive set of lectures by a erudite classicist.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Bill

  22. 5 out of 5

    Pat

  23. 4 out of 5

    Robby

  24. 5 out of 5

    Alexandra

  25. 4 out of 5

    Σωτήρης Αδαμαρέτσος

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

  27. 4 out of 5

    alexandra scarf

  28. 4 out of 5

    Erik Segall

  29. 5 out of 5

    Joshua

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ann

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