Twenty-five dead, an undisclosed number of artifacts destroyed. I overhear a beloved professor sigh, “The world I study is quickly disappearing.” The table shares a moment of silence.
When terrorists destroy mosaics and statues along with human lives—as occurred in the attack on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis on March 19th—which loss do I feel more keenly?
It isn’t the people, at least not at first. God commands me to love my neighbor as myself, and I strive to do so. However, the less I know of any one person’s intricate beauty—the lilt of their voice, the pathways of their mind—the less I feel moved to love them. Perhaps loving doesn’t always require the right feelings. If I donate time and money to at-risk communities, who cares if my heart’s really in it? But I don’t do those things, at least not the way I would if I were to grasp fully the value of a human life, to feel in my bones the cost of its abuse.
Through my study of the classics more than anything else, I teach my heart to love its neighbor. With my head in a book, I come face to face with the dead. Though they may not know it, I am with them, celebrating their victories, lamenting their downfalls. During spring break, I stood in a quarry where 10,000 Athenian soldiers once were starved to death. I couldn’t save them when they needed it, but I could put my hands on the walls that enclosed them. My attempt at saving the lost is a tribute, even if it is futile. My hand feels the stone. Their hands felt the stone. Apart from the span of two millennia, we’re practically kissing.
Like every relationship, these have their pitfalls. Sometimes I wonder why I bother to love the people who can’t love back. Sometimes the barrage of feigned understanding puts a strain on this long distance bond: “Oh, you study Latin? That will be so helpful in learning medical or legal terms (so you can do something in the world of the living, you know, the only one that matters)!” In time, I’ve learned to forgive my fellow man for misunderstanding a love he does not inhabit.
Sometimes cultural differences flare up. To borrow Eve Tushnet’s phrasing, we study history best when we manage to do so with “a humble willingness to take dead people on their own terms.” Speaking from experience, that’s incredibly difficult. How do you take a misogynistic slave-owner on his own terms? And yet, without attempting to do so, there is no study of history. From learning how to accept the ancients for who they were, I gain empathy, which brings me around again to the point I’m trying to make: Studying classics teaches me how to love strangers.
When 25 people whom I have never met die, I am sorry. Having peeked into the lives of so many irreplaceable souls, I know how to gesture so as to make out before my eyes a rough sketch of the 25 faces I will never know. And as I come to better understand the visage of the lost, I hope this article sheds light on why, for me, human lives are not the only casualty of this attack. These objects, they do something. They allow for study of the dead, and the study of the dead unlocks the heart to persons unknown.
Veronica S. Wickline ’16, an ancient history concentrator, lives in Kirkland House.
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