Saturday, December 4, 2021

Meet Dr. Thomas Hercules Davies, who knows more dead languages than you can name: Yale-NUS Community Connect #3

“Yes, my middle name really is Hercules,” Dr. Thomas Davies laughs. “And please call me Tom.”

Story | Evan See, Guest Writer
Image | Provided by Dr. Thomas Davies


“I had a very difficult birth, where my breathing was cut off for a long time,” he explains. “You know, the story of Hercules’ birth was that the goddess Hera put snakes in his crib because she was jealous of Zeus’ affair with his mother.”

“But he strangles the snakes anyway,” Tom adds. “My mother thought it would be a good allusion to use as my name.”

It seems natural to look up Tom’s education and find that he read Classics at the University of Otago in New Zealand for his Bachelor’s. Posh parents? I hazard a guess.

I literally couldn’t have been more wrong. “They aren’t formally educated people; neither of them graduated high school. But they were well-read, interested in education, and interested in reading to me from an early age,” he explains.

But the origins of his name aren’t the only fascinating thing about Tom’s childhood. He recalls growing up in a “very, very left-wing, primarily Marxist environment,” while his parents were involved in political activism in New Zealand. “We had a bust of Lenin on the mantelpiece, and Capital [by Karl Marx] was a sort of scriptural text,” he continues.

As it happens, Tom is teaching a class this semester on Marx’s life and theory, and I’m one of the fifteen Yale-NUS students enrolled in his class.

Turn the clock back to August 2021, and I find myself stumbling into a Historical Immersion class called “Karl Marx and the Age of Revolutions.” We go around the class introducing ourselves; and I call myself out as a “self-aware champagne socialist type.” Our lecturer Tom, however, introduces himself as a philosopher who studies the ancient world (particularly the Greeks). Ancient Greeks and Romans, ancient Indians, ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, and… Karl Marx. It’s a strange combination that raises a couple eyebrows for sure.

A Man of Eighteen (!!) Languages

The more I speak with Tom about his research, it becomes clear that his title “Lecturer of Humanities (Philosophy)” alone doesn’t quite fully describe his unique interests.

His language skill alone should hint at this fact. He boasts an impressive arsenal of languages under his belt—six fluently, with basic comprehension of another nine—and that’s just the dead languages. Tom also speaks French, Italian, and German, and mentions that he’s picked up some Malay since moving to Singapore.

Tom’s impressive array of languages on his CV

Sure enough, a lot of the research he does requires him to understand a wide range of ancient textual traditions.

“Cultural exchange in the ancient world” is the descriptor that we eventually settle on. “I’m interested in how a number of different ancient traditions interacted with and had mutual influence on one another. I suppose what I do is mainly the history of philosophy and science, and a little bit of literary history as well,” he elaborates.

This is where the interest in Marx comes in. With the environment he grew up in, and always having been involved in politics, the Marxist tradition was a natural fit into his research interests. “But I didn’t really engage with Marx until I was much older,” he noted. “It was only after I got involved with trade union organizing in the United States that I returned to the text and found it interesting in ways that I had never seen before.”

Currently, Tom is working on a couple of fascinating projects. One of them, a book project based on his dissertation, will argue that early Greek philosophy was significantly shaped by dialogue with certain non-Greek philosophical traditions, particularly the Egyptian and Iranian traditions.

In the longer term, he is working on a book about the theory of race in pre-modern societies.

“Many people believe that racism is an ideological formation that originated with the capitalist system after around the 16th century, but scholars argue about that. I think that race-like ideological formations have certainly taken shape in the past, and we can learn about the genesis of race in the modern period by comparing it with these formations. So, I’m looking at things like ancient Greek ethnography and medical science, Egyptian Imperial propaganda, Hindu and Buddhist philosophy of caste as instances of that,” he explains.

Sounds exciting, I say. When’s it gonna be out?

“Let’s be optimistic and say five years,” Tom laughs.

Coming to Yale-NUS

Tom joined Yale-NUS College as a Lecturer of Humanities (Philosophy) at the start of AY 2021/2022, and has been teaching the Common Curriculum modules Philosophy & Political Thought 1 (PPT1) and Literature & Humanities 1 (LH1) as well.

But his association with Yale-NUS actually dates back several years to 2018, when he participated in a conference on Comparative Global Antiquity organized by Yale-NUS while he was a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University.

“I was just extremely impressed by the intellectual culture here and the Common Curriculum. It really is like nothing else in the Anglophone world, in terms of the breadth and the coverage,” he says. “It was really in my wheelhouse of looking at the ancient world as a highly interactive network, rather than siloing it into individual disciplines.”

I ask him whether it’s lived up to his expectations. “I love it even more than I expected to,” he says. “I’m really sad to see it close down.”

Teaching is one of the great joys in life for him, Tom tells me. I’m glad to hear, then, that his experience with students at Yale-NUS seems to have lived up to the expectations that attracted him here in the first place.

“My office hours fill up and overflow every week! That would never happen when I was teaching in Princeton,” Tom laughs. That’s news to me—I, for one, have not been quite diligent enough to stop by his office yet this semester. Good job, freshies.

One thing he’s particularly enjoyed teaching is the Chinese philosophical tradition that students begin the PPT1 syllabus with. First-year students are exposed to the thought of Ancient Chinese philosophers such as Mozi, Mengzi (Mencius), and Zhuangzi at the start of their first semester at Yale-NUS. For many students, these texts are the very first works of philosophy they have been exposed to.

“It’s a really fascinating and useful introduction to an extremely rich period in the history of philosophy,” he explains. “Also, I had to teach without relying on expertise built up over years of study and familiarity with the language. It forced me to think about a skills-focused teaching much more than I had in the past.”

“I feel like I was incentivized to focus on teaching philosophical analysis and writing. It’s different from when I’m teaching Greek material, for instance, where I tend to talk about other things that aren’t as focused on the skills needed to be a philosopher.”

The Classics

It’s difficult, however, to speak about the study of the Classics and antiquity (or the liberal arts, for that matter) and to avoid the elephant in the room. Often associated with preppy private schools and the elite upper class around the world, studying Homer or Aristotle is often seen as an exclusively privileged pursuit for those who have no need for a more vocationally focused training.

Tom definitely understands this critique. “It doesn’t help that you see the Yale-NUS campus blocking off the rest of NUS with these massive metal gates,” he admits.

“I think the value of antiquity has less to do with the content of canonical texts than with the general strangeness of the ancient world. It’s about studying the historical variety of human culture, not just a narrowly conceived vision of ‘the classics.’ For me, ancient materials are one of the quickest ways to extricate yourself from the assumptions and the blind spots you develop from your position in just one part of the history of humanity.”

“The kinds of economic and political organizations that we live under are very uncharacteristic of the vast majority of human history,” he goes on. “So, it would be a real shame to only experience the world as an inhabitant of the 21st century.”

“I’ve taught at a few state prisons in the United States to people who are certainly not holding a position of privilege in American society,” Tom adds. “I’ve seen that be of enormous benefit to a broad variety of people, including myself, because I grew up in a strong welfare state that subsidized my education and gave me time to commit to learning these kinds of things,”

To him, that’s the way to increase inclusivity in education. “My ideal solution would be to increase the resources and to remove the barriers for everyone to access these modes of education. We shouldn’t just remove what’s good about it.”

Epilogue

Apart from studying the ancient world, Tom enjoys taking walks in nature, and has spent some time looking for wild animals in Singapore. I’m confident that he’s seen more of Singapore’s nature in a few months than I have in 20 years. He also plays blues music on the guitar, and is looking forward to teaching two sections of PPT2 next semester.

Tom (right), observing a sloth.

“Are you a morning or night person?” I ask him. I think I already know the answer, having received at least one 3 am Canvas notification from him this semester. “I’m still awake at that time too,” I tell him. “I got like four hours of sleep last night.”

“Same,” he replies.

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