“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” thundered the church father Tertullian at the end of the second century AD, and the answer implied was: Nothing.

This year’s Humanities Day keynote address by Shadi Bartsch, the Ann L. and Lawrence B. Buttenwieser Professor in Classics and the College, offers an intriguing look into the impact Christianity has had on our relationship with classical texts. Bartsch’s lecture, “The Wisdom of Fools: Christianity and the Break in the Classical Tradition,” will take place at 11:00 a.m. in Mandel Hall.

Spanning late antiquity to the Renaissance, Bartsch’s talk will examine the clash of classical philosophy and Christian doctrine and its long-lasting effects. “I think one could argue that there is an effect on the individual as well as the history of society,” says Bartsch. “One of the things Christianity brought about was an obscuring of our relationship to ourselves and the idea of self-knowledge.”

Within the ancient philosophy of the Greeks and Romans, most of what humans did was motivated by reason, says Bartsch. However, Christianity introduced not only faith but also the idea of “a grace or will that comes from God.” Hence, people are not necessarily guided by reason alone and may base their actions on what they believe is God’s will. “The whole idea that we were rational creatures and that reason is our greatest attribute — the thing that makes us more like gods and not animals — was discarded.”

Further, some of what we find in classical philosophy was not only disowned but even considered by some zealots to be a form of temptation held out by the Devil. Bartsch points out that other societies did not experience this break in tradition and therefore have a different relationship with their own classics. “In China, the religious, intellectual, and ethical tradition existed in more or less an unbroken line from the time of Confucius [551–479 BCE] until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.” The result is that in China it was more or less expected that people have a thorough knowledge of the Chinese classics.

Bartsch has been a Chicago faculty member since 1998 and teaches courses on Roman novels and comedies, Greek thought and literature, and the history of rhetoric. The author of five books, she is currently working on a book entitled Persius: The Satirist out of Joint.

A winner of both the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2000 and the Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching in 2006, Bartsch received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007. She served as chair of the faculty board of the University of Chicago Press from 2006 to 2008 and was editor in chief of Classical Philology from 2000 to 2004.


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