To what do we refer exactly when we evoke our cultural “roots”? By conflating private remembrance and collective memories, anthropology and nostalgia, history and politics, we are simply expressing the idea that we would like our world to remain the one with which we are familiar. We resist change. That’s why we emphasize the importance of our roots even as we ignore other people’s. The word “roots” suggests authenticity and purity, even though cultures are ever-changing and complex; a culture is not a museum celebrating mummified survival. Our appeals to the Hellenistic roots of Europe (entangled in the crisis of contemporary Greece) and the mention of Christian roots in the preambles to the constitutions of several European countries are fundamentally misleading. In this measured, persuasive essay, Bettini warns his readers to be suspicious of the increasingly widespread obsession with identity and tradition that has arisen as a reaction to cultural homogenization throughout the world, both in the West and elsewhere.
Maurizio Bettini teaches Greek and Roman Philology at the University of Siena.