"If you pull an inscription out of the ground, you have in front of you a text that was written at an exact historic moment. That's as close as you can get to shaking hands with an ancient person."
Kevin Daly was majoring in biology and expected to become a doctor when the classics fired his imagination and detoured his career plan.
Today, the associate professor of classics is just as intrigued reading ancient Greek and Latin literature as he is working an archeological dig in a once-thriving market in ancient Athens.
Thousands of years separate the ancient and modern times, but Daly believes there is a relevance that bridges both worlds. "Santayana has a quote that says those who don't know the past are doomed to repeat it. That, perhaps, is a little too easy, but I think there is something to learn from the ancient world," Daly says. "That something is the human experience. The highs and lows of the human condition are in many ways the same. That doesn't mean that people think the same way. That means that people live and love and die and suffer, and the way that we can think about that is transcendent."
Does history repeat itself? "Yes and no," says Daly. "Some things repeat in history. That does not mean that if you know history you can predict the future. If history only repeated itself, it would be stuck in a box and there would be no surprises. Patterns are set but one thing we know is that those patterns change and evolve and are broken. As Kurt Vonnegut said, 'The one thing that history teaches us is that it is full of surprises and all we can do is wait for the next surprise.'"
But with any analysis of history, there is a risk of what Daly calls "privileging."
"One of the things I try to get across to my students is that these are slaveholding, sexist imperialists and because they write interesting literature and because they have beautiful art does not mean they're necessarily good people," he says. "Just recognizing that makes people look deeper into culture of every era, including our own."
A concept like beauty can take on new dimensions when viewed from different perspectives. "There is this vision of beauty in the modern world that, for example, creates huge social pressure on young women in our society," says Daly. "If you go back into earlier periods, the model of beauty was not being thin or tanned. That was a mark of the working class. Beauty was self-defined by the wealthy, who were pale and heavier."
For him, the classics are full of "eureka" moments. "It's as close as you can get to discovering a new world. I, in particular, work on inscriptions. If you pull an inscription out of the ground, you have in front of you a text that was written at an exact historic moment," he says. "That's as close as you can get to shaking hands with an ancient person."
Posted Sept. 20, 2011
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