Play in Ancient Greece: An Interview with Simon Goldhill

American Journal of Play, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Play in Ancient Greece: An Interview with Simon Goldhill


American Journal of Play: How did you come to be attracted to the ancient world? Did your early play experiences lead you to an interest in ancient Greece?

Simon Goldhill: I am the last of a generation to have had what could be called a Victorian education. Despite growing up in super-cool Hampstead in the 1960s and 1970s and going to a school that had active jazz and theater at a high level, my school still was structured intellectually around a classical ideal. I studied Latin from age nine and Greek from age ten, and we were streamed according to our ability in classics. Science was very much B stream only. Even when I did nothing else but misbehave and was threatened with expulsion, I loved Greek and studied it as if I were with an old friend. Greek has been with me since childhood.

AJP: Which aspects of the ancient world do you find most attractive?

Goldhill: I am first a philologist. I love language, how things are said, how stories get told, and seeing how language articulates the world. Second, I have become a cultural historian, first through an interest in the production of theater-how words and stories change the world. My most important work involved Greek tragedy and has moved now into the way tragedy has been read over the centuries. My scholarship ranges pretty widely to include nineteenth-century cultural and literary history, particularly dealing with the Bible and antiquity as competing models of understanding the past. I guess with two or three books in each area and articles and reviews, I could make up a tenure portfolio in Victorian studies and Jewish studies as well as the classics. But I am really a classicist-that is how I would most simply and most often describe myself.

AJP: How do the literature and philosophy of ancient Greece continue to influence us?

Goldhill: I have written a book on this question, called Love, Sex, and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives. I am fascinated by the long-lasting influence of things Greek. This for me is not a question just of literary references, or architectural columns, or even the kind of myth still alive and kicking in Disney. Rather, for me, it is the way in which fundamental aspects of our being are constructed through inherited models of which we are largely unaware. So, of course, Greek homosexuality, as it is often called, is fundamental to understanding the fantasies, projections, and practices of modernity, but equally important is the modern Western idea of a good body-still based on Greek ideals. Why do we not think that a lean, muscular, trained body is a sign of narcissism and wasted time in the gym? Platonic philosophy established the terms on which we understand the very construction of knowledge itself, and, for that matter, the complaints about and longings for democracy that dominate modern Western politics. We should not idealize the classical past, nor should we see ourselves in a simple genealogy with it-but as Cicero said, if we fail to understand the role it continues to play in our most basic thinking, we are destined to live our lives as children.

AJP: Did Greek adults take pleasure in watching children at play? If so, how do we know?

Goldhill: There are pictures on pots of children playing and statues of children at play. One of the most charming literary portraits is of Eros-Cupid, as it were-playing dice and tricking his youthful chums. Ancient Greeks did not talk much about children playing, though, and you may have noticed that all my answers so far have assumed that play is a serious business for adults.

AJP: Why should knowing about play and playfulness in classical Greece matter today?

Goldhill: Ancient playfulness can certainly help us understand something about modernity. It can do so ideologically-there was extensive discussion in antiquity about why play and playfulness are a crucial and integral part of the relaxation that makes life bearable. It can do so by contrast, which was why ancient plays-by which I mean dramas-were a crucial part of politics and the citizens' education. …

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