The Classics

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April 21, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

On a blustery evening in November, more than 2,000 people flocked to Central Hall in Westminster, London, to watch a debate between Boris Johnson and Mary Beard about classics. The “Greece v Rome” debate was never supposed to have been that big. When the discussion forum ­Intelligence Squared announced the event in March, it planned for 1,000 tickets at £50 each. They sold out in three weeks. Relocating the debate from a smaller auditorium to the large hall at Westminster, the company released a further 1,200 tickets. When these, too, were snapped up three days later, an arrangement was made to stream the event on Curzon Home Cinema.

Forty years ago, the idea that classics would become so embedded in mainstream culture that crowds would turn out for this debate as if it were a pop concert would have been ridiculous. Latin, already unfashionable by the 1960s, was squeezed out of many schools with the introduction of the National Curriculum from 1989. By the early 1990s, classics was commonly being dismissed as a stale and arcane subject, beyond the reach or interest of anyone outside the old public schools or Oxbridge.

Now all that has changed. For classicists, that the Boris v Beard contest was taking place at all was proof that their subject is thriving. The Greeks invented the agon (contest); the Romans prized oratory above almost anything else. Both Beard and Johnson knew they owed a significant debt to the rhetoric of Demosthenes and Cicero.

This was, in fact, the second chance the public had had in recent months to ponder the merits of two extinct cultures. The Bloomsbury Institute staged its own agon to a full house in October, as the writers Harry Mount and Harry Eyres debated the superiority of Greece (Mount) and Rome (Eyres).

The debates followed a season of Greek drama, talks and 12-hour readings of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, hosted by the Almeida Theatre in London, out of which came a West End transfer for Robert Icke’s version of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Plays inspired by the same tragic trilogy were performed in the past few months at Shakespeare’s Globe and HOME in Manchester. On the Roman side, books by Tom Holland, Robert Harris and Mary Beard have become bestsellers.

The mystery is, why now? That Boris, Beard and others have achieved a platform from which to popularise the ancient world can’t be the only explanation for this revival. Tristram Hunt has a thing for Victorian architecture. So far, there’s no fan club for portes cochères.

Although classics also peaked under the Third Reich, the Nazis championed Rome, Sparta and Greek figurative sculpture because they considered them worthy of emulation, rather than as entertainment. Taken to represent the ideals of human virtue and beauty, Greek statues (white, as the original colour paint did not survive) were placed in stark opposition to modern “degenerate” art, which was purged from German museums and held up to public censure at the notorious exhibition of 1937.

The following year, Hitler purchased an ancient Roman sculpture of a discus-thrower, based on the bronze Discobolus of the Greek sculptor Myron, as a gift to the nation. Urging the German people to visit it at the Glyptothek museum in Munich, Hitler spoke of achieving progress “when we have not only achieved beauty like this, but even, if we can, when we have surpassed it”.

A version of the same sculpture went on display at the British Museum in London this year as part of an exhibition dedicated to the Greek aesthetic. “Defining Beauty” provided a showcase – visited by more than 100,000 people – of Greek and Roman craftsmanship, as well as of contemporary thought about the past. In a broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Edith Hall of King’s College London challenged the curator Ian Jenkins’s decision to display Persians and Africans in a section of the exhibition tagged “Characters and Realism”, rather than “Beauty”. This division, she felt, carried an uncomfortable echo of Aryanism. But was that to impose too modern a view upon it?

There is a growing school of thought that says that classicists have been too binary in their approach to the ancient world. What if it is never about Greece v Rome? What if the dividing line between Greeks and “other” people – Persians, Africans – was not clear enough for us to value “Greek” beauty or “Greek” anything else so exclusively?

In a debate between Greece and Rome, Boris might delight with his wit and intellectual gravitas. Beard, marshalling the techniques that made Cicero and Quintilian famous, might dazzle with her elocutio (rhetorical style) and glitter-flecked cardigan. But if ­either side gives the impression that the competition stops with Greece and Rome – or, indeed, with Greek and Latin – it runs the risk of being distinctly unfashionable.

Adapted from Newstatesman.

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Jack Westin
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18 Comments


  1. MI: Greek & Roman classics valued by Nazis and is popular today (CW) is it an exclusive binary?

    Reply

  2. debate on classic important, classics recently popular, classicists too binary

    Reply

  3. classics = reviving ex. boris vs beard

    Reply

  4. Classics is becoming popular, example=debate between Johnson and Beard.

    Reply

  5. MIP: Greek vs Rome debate popular = present; past= unpopular; maintain debate = pop (CW)

    Reply

  6. classics flourishing? Past meaning, and how we see it.

    Reply

  7. MIP: Classics = popular; tone=neutral

    Reply

  8. MI: Classics=popular as compared to recent past; some are critical of classics
    tone: neut

    Reply

  9. Classics debate= popular
    May not just be about Greek vs. Rome (others may be involved)

    Reply

  10. Classics debate thriving (Boris)

    Reply

  11. MIP: Greece = emulation, incl. art (ex. Nazis); Classics =/= just Greece + Rome

    Reply

    1. MIP: classics = popular now; Greece=emulation incl art (ex. Nazis); Classics =/= just Greece + Rome

      Reply

  12. why ancient classic popular? fascination with Greeks being best+ admired. Greek supposed superiority= what keeps debates interesting.

    Reply

  13. increase popularity among classics; division within classics creates tension d/t “binary” world

    Reply

  14. A grand revival of enthusiasm towards “The Classics” being Greece v. Rome in aspects of not just art but in their impact of the societies we live in today. But, the debate of the Classics does not end with these two entities, there are many more classics which must be discussed.

    Reply

  15. Classics : popular nowadays, even supported by Nazis, but should not only focus on Greece vs Rome

    Reply

  16. MIP: Classics = Popular, Greeks role model for Nazis, Classics more than Greeks and Romans , Tone = Positive

    Reply

  17. Classics, once popular, regained popularity after viewed as stale.
    Nazis and Hitler valued classics.
    The popularity of classics depends on its topics (too binary).

    Reply

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