Faculty Spotlight: John Heath
Forewarned by an oracle that predicted their first-born son would become a professor of classics, my parents abandoned me on a mountain. Fortunately, I was suckled by wolves, or perhaps a band of feral basset hounds—the legends vary—in a Los Angeles suburb. I am told my first words were “et in Arcadia ego,” and I have been pretty much left alone ever since. I graduated in a class of 830 from an LA public high school and adventurously went to college 20 miles away. My love-hate relationship with higher education is well-documented, as I never fully recovered from the disturbing memories of my college and graduate institutions’ mascots (Cecil the Sagehen and a dancing tree).
I taught at UCSD and Rollins College (aka “Babylonian Exile”) before coming to SCU in 1991. I was hired as a Latinist (“mistakes were made,” as Greenwalt frequently notes), but my classes and publications have covered both Greek and Roman authors, primarily poets. I have the intellectual attention span of a golden retriever in a park full of squirrels. But one common denominator has been my interest in various ways the modern world (and Western culture in general) has gone astray by not paying closer attention to what the Greeks and Romans have to teach us, for both good and ill. I have co-authored two books on how many elite Classicists betrayed their own material. Another book suggests that much of Western culture’s thoughtless treatment of “others” derives from the misplaced value the Greeks put on speech. And most recently I have argued that we would all be in much better cultural shape if we had adopted Homer’s gods rather than the biblical deity. This past winter I taught a (real live in-person) course on the Roman legacy in America (“What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?”) which I enjoyed so much that I have turned it into my next research project, an effort to determine 1) how the Founders were influenced not just by Roman politics but by Roman religion; 2) how remarkably revolutionary were the ideas that the Founders derived from their study of the classics (as well as the Enlightenment) as they came to deal with the place of religion in a new state; and 3) why we have made so little progress in keeping religious fancy out of public life since that great advance in the late 1780s. As for a good classics-inspired summer read, I’d suggest the U.S. Constitution (catch it before it completely disappears).