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Message from the Acting Head of the Department

Ancient Studies is a fascinating area of study, rich in wonderful stories of human endeavour, achievement and disaster. The history of humankind from the very earliest of times is part of everyone’s heritage and the study of the Ancient World ensures that this heritage is not lost.

What can we learn from studying ancient societies?

We’ve all asked the big questions at some stage in our lives: How do I fit into human society? How did we get here in the twenty-first century? Why do we live in the kind of commercial society that we do? What is the genesis of that? It is important to recognize that the kinds of social concerns we have now have a history. Throughout the last 2 500 years, we’ve reshaped our society from its origins, but many of our principles are organically connected with the societies of the ancients. The choices we make today are the results of choices made hundreds of years ago, and those, in turn, are the result of reflection upon what occurred in human society before then. Without going back to that history you can’t understand why we are here now. History is a record of the possibility of human behaviour, and that is a very important concept to understand for the social thinker, politician, economist and general human being.

Someone once said that what we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. The study of ancient societies helps us to understand our own. We can compare them and draw out the similarities and differences. By doing so, we have a blueprint for understanding what went wrong so that we can avoid the mistakes of our past. What could be a more important message than that for our own time?

Do we study these cultures because, to some extent, all cultures share certain characteristics? Does our own culture reflect aspects of these other cultures? The answer to the first of the two questions has historically been found in a discussion of universality. The differences among cultures are of great interest here and reading about ancient cultures is thus reading about other people whose lives were surely different from our own. Interestingly, these differences may help us to better see – and know – the limits of our culture and the limits of our language and experience. The problem with the second question lies in its formulation. What is a culture after all? Most people would ascribe an abstract value to culture – that which produces good art, great literature, right behaviour, etc. Yet the criteria of quality are scarcely international or inter-cultural. Cultural achievements are considered great in the context of their home cultures. Is culture then something that can be taught, or is its constituent parts more sweeping and pervasive than what can be learned from books or lectures? 

Many people would like to conceive of history as a succession of movements or stages in an on-going (and, generally) ever-improving cultural novel of human life. For these people, the Romantic period is definable; its gifts to the human spirit are calculable. Yet, how can any culture speak for all its practitioners? Do all people share equally in the culture of which they are a part? So, a culture includes both the dominant tradition and its transgression.

As you begin your study of ancient cultures, you might want to recall these questions as you forge for yourself a meaning for the term culture. In the process, try not to measure others against your own cultural standard, which has, in many ways, formed you and your apprehension of the world. Instead, try for a moment to see the world through the ancients’ eyes.

Our motto is “per praeteritum ad futurum”: “To the future through the past”

Come and take a quantum leap with us!

Phil J. Botha

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