On Antigonising

Around 15 years ago, I was sitting in a lecture theatre, listening intently to a debate that was going on between the speaker and several academics who had come to hear the talk. I forget the precise topic of the talk that day, but the general theme was the idea of ‘faith’ in the different religious traditions of the ancient Graeco-Roman world. I had an experience of zoning out completely from the discussion that day and imagining what it would be like for debate of the sort I was hearing – articulate, careful, respectful of difference and alternative viewpoints, yet wholly trenchant and intellectually honest – to be the ‘norm’ in our public debates in the world at large.

This thought left me sad. Here I was, together with just a few dozen people, hearing a fascinating debate – yet I had a clear sense that exchanges of the sort I was hearing would be so fruitful for so many more people to hear and be inspired by. What exactly was it that might inspire? Well, perhaps a sharp sense of the high standards one might hope for – or even come to expect – in debate, the (deep) level of questioning to which one can subject an important topic, the deep level of respect one can give fellow debaters who hold positions opposed to your own, even as you subject their ideas to question; and the sense that, at the end of it all, everyone can meet for a coffee and chinwag in the foyer.

No doubt there are many good reasons not to open all university lectures to the general public. But practicalities aside, a sense of lost possibilities remained with me. There was a role, I started to feel, for serious intellectual engagement to be brought more directly to the general public at large. There needed to be a more direct bridge between the lecture theatre, the seminar room and public discourse. If this could be done, I felt strongly, the results would be good – for individuals, for society, for democracy. Perhaps, unconsciously, I was channeling something I had picked up from my own father here: he had wanted to bring education in his subject – Economics – more directly to young people, and had started a magazine in the 80s (the Economic Review) to do just this.

As fate would have it, when the idea for a public forum for doing Classics was being mooted among some friends back in 2020, the chance to make concrete the sense I had had all those years ago that something important could come out of bringing Classics-related debate alive in public came into view. I had already been doing some public writing on my own blog, which I had been motivated to start while teaching Classics at Bedford school. I had been amazed by the viewing figures I had been receiving for the blog: there seemed to be so much interest from around the world in what a teacher of Euripides, Sophocles and Virgil had to say. I had mainly been writing the blog for my students and friends, but the experience of writing it showed there was an interest in what I was doing beyond this limited sphere. The presence of other, established Classics websites confirmed there was a big worldwide appetite for the Greeks and Romans, and it wasn’t long before I connected with some like-minded fellow enthusiasts to bring something bigger than my little blog into being.

Classics, as I and my fellow editors of Antigone wish to see it, is an ennobling, humane and multifaceted discipline. It consists in the scrutiny of all areas of human life in the ancient Mediterranean world, and how the ideas and practices of subsequent history – and indeed our own era and lives – are touched by this inheritance. For the past 2 years it has been a thrill to share our love for the subject as conceived along these lines with the public at large.

For me personally, there remains a strong sense that Antigone is there to improve things: to help people improve their understanding of Classics, certainly, but also to encourage high standards in the practice of public reasoning and debate. We are an ‘open forum’ precisely in the sense that we want anyone to feel they can write for us, and that they can address any topic under the Classical sun when they do so. We welcome civil, articulate, respectful, yet trenchant disagreement – and this is something that any contributor to Antigone should feel emboldened to engage in. It’s in our mission statement for a reason: because it’s the good stuff – and if it happens in lecture theatres and seminar rooms, it should happen also in the world at large, and certainly in academic fora for the general public.

Editing Antigone has been an extraordinary learning experience, at least for me – as well as a lot of work. It has put me in touch with many good people across the world, and has made me aware of the sheer quantity of goodwill which exists out there for the subject and its practitioners. Many eminent people have supported the project, but so too have many schoolchildren, students and non-specialists – and this is equally important, if not more so, to all of us who edit the site. The presence of all these groups seems like a decent indicator that the bridge between the lecture theatre and public discourse is being traversed, with positive results – and hopefully increasingly positive results – for all concerned. The world at large needs high quality discourse, debate and respectful exchange of ideas, as well as a strong understanding of what the ancient Mediterranean world was like and how it influences our own. Antigone will continue to make this happen!

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