Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Ancient Modernisms: "Make it old!"

Dee L. Clayman.

This paper investigates the dynamics of cultural change by exploring parallels between Modernism and the literary revolution in the period following the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE) when the Classical period turned into the Hellenistic Age. Both were inspired by an avant-garde of immigrant artists and writers moving through loose social circles in the cultural capitals of the time. Pound wrote “Make it New” and Callimachus of Cyrene had the same thought when he wrote that manifesto, as passionate as any modernist tract, which we call the Aitia prologue. Each group defined itself against an older tradition, and both re-made the literary forms of the previous age by fragmenting older, canonical texts and re-assembling them in their own work. Both depended on an educated public to recognize their sources and make sense of their collages.

The agent that swept away the past both in Paris and Alexandria was Skepticism. The apostle of skepticism among the Moderns was Nietzsche and in the Hellenistic Period, it was Pyrrho of Elis. Nietzsche was the first great modernist author, but Pyrrho, who was the first great Skeptic, spoke through his student, the poet Timon of Phlius. Both Nietzsche and Timon used irony, parody and other ways of “saying without saying” to attack dogmatism of all kinds and to suggest a skeptical truth that could not be spoken directly. Their literary expression of the Skeptic’s worldview defined a skeptical aesthetics evident in the most important work of both periods.


Dee L. Clayman  (United States)
Professor of Classics
Ph.D. Program in Classics
The Graduate Center, City University of New York

Prof. of Classics and Executive Officer of the PhD Program in Classics, Graduate Center, CUNY. Founding Director of the Database of Classical Bibliography. Educated at Wellesley College and the Univ. of Pennsylvania. Member of the Board of Directors of the American Philological Association and former Vice-President for Education. Author of Callimachus’ Iambi (Leiden: 1980) and 32 articles and reviews on Greek poetry, especially of the Hellenistic period, and the quantitative analysis of style.

  • Modernism
  • Skepticism
Person as Subject
  • Nietzsche, F. Pyrrho of Elis

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)