From Academic Questions (Spring 2004), 59-66, reposted here with the author's kind permission

Postmodernist Classics

Steven J Willett



he death of postmodernism has been prematurely announced many times in the past few years, but it continues to exert a destructive impact on the study of the Classics. Despite the many confident assertions within our discipline that the postmodernist body has long been interred or is so decayed as to present only a mere nuisance, the inaugural speech of this year's president of the American Philological Association provided a superb example of its tenacious reach and influence. The president serves for one year and represents the public and administrative face of Classics. What he says matters to the future of the profession, and he took the occasion in 2004 to announce his allegiance to postmodernist ideology in the strongest possible terms.

President-elect James J. O'Donnell, Provost of Georgetown University, delivered his address, entitled “Late Antiquity: Before and After,” to a packed audience on the 4th of January at the San Francisco Hilton. In a glib, rhetorically adroit performance, he called for Classicists to embark on a heady form of self-demolition: they should as professionals and teachers disavow their own discipline because it was based on false premises about the origin, content, and history of Greco-Roman culture. Indeed, they should abandon the notion that Greece and Rome are the foundation of the West or even that a West exists as some sort of coherent cultural entity. Sometime later he posted the text of the speech, now substantially rewritten with many of its more outrageous postmodernist claims erased or moderated, on the APA web page.1 The printed version of the speech, complete with a massive appendix of 75 detailed and largely redundant notes provided for some reason by Professor J. Ebbebler, is essentially a new document that, in Professor O'Donnell's words, “resembles the spoken as Cicero's manuscripts resembled what he said in Senate or forum.” In the remainder of this paper I would like to explore the full implications of what the current president of the APA proposes as the proper direction for the Classics profession.


Let me begin with some pertinent background information. Professor O'Donnell is a Latinist specializing in the literature of the fourth and fifth centuries AD. His principal works in chronological sequence are a study of Cassiodorus; a general introduction to Augustine; a three-volume commetary on Augustine's Confessions, and most recently Avatars of the Word, a loosely-organized series of essays about the impact of today's communication revolution on books, teaching, and research.2 He has, in addition, done groundbreaking work in the development of online university courses, databases, and journals like the invaluable Bryn Mawr Classical Review and its sibling The Medieval Review. His relish for postmodern cant first emerged prominently in Avatars of the Word, where he sometimes states personal prejudices as fact, the most serious example occurring in chapter 1 with the assertion that we need not see Jesus, Socrates, Confucius, and Buddha “as extraordinary manifestations of charisma and wisdom,” since the real message of their teachings lies in the “platitudinous and benignly impractical nature of them.”3   Anyone who calls the messages of these four “platitudinous” cannot possibly understand anything about them. In good Derridean style, he often substitutes caricature for analysis, notably in chapter 5, where his description of the “master narrative” of Western culture is a crude parody set up only for swift demolition. Avatars of the Word contains in nascent form many of the themes that emerged more starkly in the APA address and its printed incarnation.

The postmodernist term “narrative” occurred frequently in his spoken address and some 27 times in his written speech including the notes. It was clearly an important word to him, but what did he mean by it? I found the answer a few days after the APA conference when I stumbled by sheer accident across a survey in the electronic journal Edge with the title, “What's Your Law?” There I discovered that Professor O'Donnell had encapsulated his APA address in a Law of History.4   O'Donnell's Law of History states that

 There are no true stories. Story-tellers are in the iron grip of readers' expectations. Stories have beginnings, middles, ends, heroes, villains, clarity, resolution. Life has none of those things, so any story gets to be a story (especially if it's a good story) by edging away from what really happened (which we don't know in anywhere near enough detail anyway) towards what makes a good story. Historians exist to wrestle with the story temptation the way Laocoon wrestled with the snakes. But at the end of the day, to tell anybody anything, you'll probably tell a story, so then be sure to follow Luther's Law:  Pecca fortiter. Literally, “Sin bravely.” His idea was that you're going to make a mess of things anyway, so you might as well do so boldly, confidently, with a little energy and imagination, rather than timidly, fearfully, half-heartedly.

The implicit nihilism of this Law is perhaps belied by its lighthearted tone, but no one should doubt the meaning of the phrase, “There are no true stories.” This is not a statement about history or narrative technique, but a statement about the impossibility of discovering truth. The word “story” here is a substitute for the more common postmodern term “narrative” or “metanarrative.” Jean-François Lyotard defined postmodernism “as incredulity toward metanarratives” in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.5    A “narrative” is a term that conveys settled doubt about the value of grand theories, universal truths, global explanations, totalizing practices, or master-codes that try to explain and understand everything. “Narrative” and “metanarrative” are frequently used interchangeably to describe the same phenomenon. These totalizing narratives are sometimes called “master narratives” (as in Avatars of the Word above) to distinguish them from narrower micro-histories or mini-narratives that don't attempt such global explanations. To a greater or lesser extent, all are suspect.


It is no accident that Professor O'Donnell used “narrative” so frequently in his spoken and written speech. He was declaring himself to be a dedicated postmodernist. But he gives us even more evidence: the terms “construction(s),“ “construct,” and “constructed” are woven into the text 22 times including the notes, always in the postmodernist sense of the social, psychological, or linguistic process by which we create and maintain our beliefs in ordinary concepts such as mental illness, gender differences, truth, empirical facts, and virtually everything that falls under the accusation of “naive realism.” In constructivism, all actions are performances that we process in our mental bias laboratory to create—construct—fictions with varying degrees of potential for aggression across the social, cultural, or psychological landscape. We know from his Law of History that all stories (=narratives) are false. Thus, at every single point where Professor O'Donnell wants to eliminate a narrative, he must construct another narrative to supplant it. Those who live by the narrative will infinitely regress by the narrative.




Professor O'Donnell applies postmodernist narrative theory to mount two main arguments against our current understanding of the Classics profession.


The first is designed to cast doubt on its validity as an empirical discipline that can objectively sift evidence for truth. In a key passage, we learn that “The traditional construction of 'classics' as a domain of study depends on a narrative. We are not like philosophers or theologians or economists, who have a body of subject matter and a set of techniques; or like biologists or chemists or physicists, who divided their tasks by the scale of the natural phenomena they studied; or like historians or political scientists, who have a potentially unlimited domain of inquiry but a collection of disciplines and practices.” In good postmodern style, he never provides an exact definition of the Classical narrative. He chooses to leave it vague because an open statement would show the full scale of what he wants to remove. Talk in postmodern codes is much safer.


We may, however, conceive the unnamed narrative to be triple-stranded:  one strand is the evolution of the Greco-Roman literary heritage as detailed by some two centuries of critical study; a second strand is our increasingly precise understanding of the Greco-Roman world that has emerged from cross-disciplinary research in social, political, economic, administrative, and military history; and a third strand is the sense of a shared Western cultural identity based, overtly or covertly, on the first two strands. All three strands are woven closely, but I suspect it's the third that he thinks is the most erroneous, especially the pervasive myth of Rome's rise and fall, which has exercised a powerful influence on both the ancient and the modern world. Now I would certainly agree with him that claims of cultural identity can be misused, but to deny that the West is largely what it is due to our Classical heritage requires him to show that the first two strands are devoid of hard empirical evidence, which he never attempts to do. The direct, formative influence of Greco-Roman culture on the West is patent in our literary genres, all of which stem from Greece, in philosophy, law, political science, mathematics, science, literary criticism, architecture, city planning, anthropology, and many other areas.


It is virtually impossible to understand the main line of European literature from Petrarch to Pope without deep familiarity with Classical culture. Most importantly, the Classics continue to revivify modern thought and art in the most striking and unexpected ways. The triple-stranded discipline that Professor O'Donnell takes for a narrative actually constitutes a clear body of subject matter that we can only discard by an act of cultural suicide.


Over and above the thoughts and writings that have been passed down, Classics equally has a core of techniques as much as history or political science: papyrology, textual criticism, philology, numismatics, archeology, and of course history itself. The domain of their application is also potentially unlimited, especially if we extend its purview down to the Renaissance. Classics certainly has a far more empirical set of techniques on which to ground its research than theology and philosophy. The death of metaphysics and the retreat of philosophy into language analysis or Heideggerian obfuscation highlight the comparatively greater health of Classics. The conclusion he draws from this subjectless and techniqueless narrative is, then, patently false: 'We share features of self-definition with each of those groups, but our work has been critically defined, for at least the last two hundred years, by a story.”


All the work that's been done the past two centuries to recover and understand the Classical heritage is no more defined by this undefined “story” than the effort to recover the texts of Akkadian or Old Norse literature are defined by some other equally specious “stories.” We want to restore the literature of many different cultures because it's inherently worth preserving in the most accurate form possible. Professor O'Donnell would make a better case for himself if he simply came forward and said straight out, “The scholarly attempt to recover Greco-Roman culture is motivated primarily by the false ideological narrative that Greece and Rome are the foundations of the West. Foundations don't exist and the high aesthetic quality we attribute to Classical texts is strictly relative. Take away the defining narrative, and the pseudo-discipline collapses.” Instead, he exudes epideictic confidence as no postmodernist should by declaring the story dead: “The message from late antique scholarship to the classical disciplines today is that the old story won't work any longer.”


Professor O'Donnell now turns to his second argument against the traditional study of the Classics. He wants to inaugurate drastic changes in Classical education and pedagogy with a three-part agenda of things we need to keep in mind.


He announces the initial item on his agenda in full schizophrenic mode:


“First: the traditional narrative will and should persist, even as we withdraw our allegiance from it.” The three sub-reasons he gives for this argue that the old narrative will persist not because it has any innate truth, but solely because of (1) its ideological influence in shaping the ancient world, (2) its hold on us through our research tools and scholarly literature, and (3) its sheer longevity as an aesthetic criterion, since “The notion of the 'classic' that shaped the emergence of tastes and styles may be factitious in its genesis but is indubitably real in its effect.” That is, the persistence is essentially an illusion. The “truth” it does contain is a fetching lie. The only reason to continue teaching the Classical curriculum from Homer to the Silver Age is pragmatic and prophylactic. We don't want to commit the mistake of dismissing the old narrative—it's too dangerous—any more than attributing anything substantive to it. The language used in this section is again pure imperative. He is without doubts about his own newly-devised master narrative: “A narrative so powerful will always deserve to be taught, even if it must then be untaught.”


Exactly how one is to unteach the false narrative of Classics and its foundational importance for the West is never explained, though he does suggest that “The line of least resistance leads to teaching [students] about golden and silver ages, to be sure, and so it will take patience to teach and unteach the old stories at once, but it must be done.” The line of least resistance is to continue teaching the phony golden and silver ages because they are so embedded in our cultural assumptions, but somehow to undermine them in the process. Imagine the confusion that could result from giving students both the old and new narratives simultaneously. Imagine what misunderstanding we might sow by teaching the Classics as nothing but a failed narrative that must be remembered for practical reasons, while teaching a new narrative of presumably truer but ephemeral antecedents. These are the serious pedagogical consequences of “narrative” talk. Their very absurdity is a testament to Professor O'Donnell's membership in the Grand Academy of Lagado.


The second of the three things we need to keep in mind while changing the intellectual program of the “classics” is a straw dog: “As we make our message new and as we stand apart from the traditional narratives, we run real risks of competition from the representatives of an audience that doesn't want to let go of the familiar.” I would agree completely with the claim that we need accurate popularizations of Classics. New scholarly approaches are in fact bubbling everywhere, some making their way into decent popularizations, but I don't see a vast reactionary movement by representatives of the audience—unnamed1 but presumably media moguls—to restrict reading and analysis to the “familiar".  What Professor O'Donnell doesn't like is the popular dominance of that old, persistent narrative. Interest in the Classics is actually enjoying something of a mini-renaissance in the electronic and print media these days, but I can predict with certainty that no new popularizations will ever try to teach and unteach the Classics at the same time. This fails as pedagogy and as entertainment.


The third thing we need to keep in mind while reforming the “classics” is never identified by a rhetorical or syntactical marker. This is hardly surprising. Professor O'Donnell's English rarely indulges much logical clarity, swinging as it does from hyperbole to opacity, from cliché to aphorism, from clotted reference to sharp imperative. But I would guess that it begins with the implied reminder here: “In the end, the opportunity that offers itself to us is too important and too powerful to neglect. The deepest unease I have about our traditional story is the way in which it has led us into connivance with Rome and its empire. It has mattered whether Rome declined and fell or not for reasons that go beyond simple human compassion for the people who lived and either prospered or suffered in the course of large movements in public affairs. We root for the Romans—or we root against them, and both are inappropriate. We let our sentiments be shaped by the people we study far too easily.” I am sympathetic to the argument that we have become so deeply engaged with Rome and its fate—whether it declined and fell or not—that we automatically tend to view ourselves as Roman and our superpower status as a kind of revived imperium. But this unease does not provide a sufficient motive for renouncing the old narrative tout court. And in fact the latest historiography of the empire, which now extends through Byzantium to its fall in 1453, is constantly refining our old conceptions without discarding the valid ones. Most historians I've been reading lately are interested in getting as close as they can to the truth, and the truth also includes the undeniable political, iconographic, religious, and cultural influences of Rome on the modern world.




Having dispatched the old defunct narrative, advocated a new narrative that we are to teach simultaneously with the old, and reminded us what we need to remember in changing the intellectual program of the “classics,” Professor O'Donnell then explodes his own carefully-laid argument with a bravura display of illogicality. In the coda of his address he draws the following fatal conclusion from his analysis: “I do believe that scholarship learns as it goes, if only by remembering the errors that have been left behind, and that each generation tells better stories than the last—but also, in consequence, each generation has an obligation to tear down the old in order to build the new.” The cardinal issue raised by Professor O'Donnell throughout his APA address is the need to abandon an old narrative and replace it with a new one. But now we are told that this is strictly a provisional replacement. Every generation has a moral obligation to destroy the old stories so new ones can flourish. Taken literally, such a duty invalidates Professor O'Donnell's message from late antique scholarship to the modern discipline of Classics: “the old story won't work any longer.” The new narrative has no more veracity than the old, though it may be “better” in some vague ideological or pedagogical sense. After its 20-or 30-year lifespan, the new narrative he's taken such effort to build will land on the intellectual midden and other stories will assume a little temporary credibility. The destructive whirl of constant narrative replacement leaves no place for truth. Professor O'Donnell refuses to acknowledge the existence of objective truth for the simple reason that it places distinct limits on incredulity toward narratives, the very things we are to demolish and build. Thus Classics becomes a vortex of stories—all of which, remember, are false—spinning into nihilistic regression.


What we as Classicists require, however, is not constant fabrication of narratives but constant vigilance in the deployment of our conceptual schemes for analyzing, synthesizing, and organizing knowledge. Each generation has an obligation to tear down the old intellectual paradigms only if they are false, inaccurate, one-sided, or destructive. More seriously false is Professor O'Donnell's belief that each generation tells better stories than the past. We have plenty of evidence for what I might call entropic narratives. China and Japan are full of them, as is the West. Entropic narratives embody nationalistic or cultural fancies that attack and dehumanize the holders by the very fact of their acceptance. If narratives are always to be viewed with disbelief, as Lyotard said, then it doesn't matter in the least if every generation tells better stories than the past, because they are all devoid of factuality. It is equally impossible for scholarship to learn from narratives merely by remembering the errors of the past, as Professor O'Donnell believes, since they cannot of themselves rise to anything like a stable, conclusive aggregate without the guidance of objective empirical standards.


There isn't much of a likelihood that Professor O'Donnell's educational agenda will ever engage our contemporaries so effectively that they rush to study “classics” rather than Classics and fund “classicists” rather than Classicists. The agenda would in fact have the opposite effect, driving one more nail into the coffin of Greek and Latin studies. But if he actually persuades some “classicists” to carry out his educational program, I hope they will “ask themselves whether adding to the quantity of confusion and untruth in the world is a good use of the gift of life or an ethical way to earn a living.”6




1.       The URL for the speech is All further quotations are from it. Please note that Professor O'Donnell consistently prints Classics as 'classics' in the written address to indicate his belief that there is no such coherent, historically valid discipline as Classics.

2.       Cassiodorus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979); Augustine, Twayne's World Authors Series TWAS 759 (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985); Augustine. Confessions, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Avatars of the Word (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

3.       Avatars, 16. For a balanced consideration of the book's strengths and weaknesses, see my review in Phi losophy in Review 19 (1999): 210—272. Many who reviewed the book positively avoided any engagement with its postmodern substratum.


5.       Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Theory and History of Literature) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), 72.

6.       This is the question raised by Dr. Raymond Tallis in “Sokal and Bricmont: is this the beginning of the end of the dark ages in the humanities?” originally published in PN Review 198 (1999) and now available at tallis.html. The article is a review of Alan Sokal and Jean Briciinont's Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers' Abuse of Science (New York: Picador USA [St. Martin's Press], 1999).


Steven J. Willett is Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture in Japan: <>.