Living better

‘Knowledge is dynamic’

In this sense knowledge is always active; new research keeps shifting its frontiers.

‘Our culture remains in dialogue with the classical world’, insists Mary Beard FBA, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University and popular guide to the ancient world through her television programmes and newspaper articles. ‘You couldn’t take classics out of Western culture and leave anything behind but a torso. It would no longer make sense.

‘You cannot just say “We do not need people studying classics any more, because we have got everything translated, we have got a library; that will do”. Knowledge is dynamic and changing. You can easily see that if you go back to translations of Greek tragedy from the early 20th century. They are now close to unreadable – because we are now engaging with Greek tragedy in a different way. Translation is always about rediscovery that changes all the time.’

Our research and interpretation, she adds, ‘are laying foundations for what is going to happen in fifty or a hundred years. Judging it by what happens next year is foolish. When you say to people, “Do you want there to be a London stage in which we never see Greek tragedy? Do you want there to be a world in which nobody knows who Virgil was?” of course they say no.’ A vital characteristic of knowledge is that it is active, ‘because if we want to have these things, it is not a question of just putting a preservation order on them; it is a question of going on doing them.

‘We do not want a world without the history of western culture still present in it; we do not want to go to art galleries where nobody knows what the Renaissance painters were painting, because nobody knows what Ovid’s Metamorphoses said.’

The cultural economy is a vital part of our fast-expanding creative and digital industries, generating prosperity in a direct economic sense. Just as important, for a great many people, is the way in which cultural life and inheritance is central to their personal sense of well-being. Humanities research often feeds both people’s innate human curiosity and their need for fresh intellectual or cultural satisfaction. As Professor Peter Hennessy FBA (whose books on post-war history tap into our sense of ‘generational kinship’) puts it: ‘There is a tremendous appetite for history, which is very heart-warming. It meets the human desire to make sense and to put a bit of a pattern on your own experience, the times you live through. As well as the individual patterns there are collective patterns – that is the nerve we touch. And that is a high utility, a very high utility.’