Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How Classics Saved My Life

"I am a college-educated American.  In all my years of formal schooling, I never read Plato or Aristotle, Homer or Virgil.  I knew nothing of Greek and Roman history and barely grasped the meaning of the Middle Ages.  Dante was a stranger to me, and so was Shakespeare.

"The fifteen hundred years of Christianity from the end of the New Testament to the Reformation were a blank page, and I knew only the barest facts about Luther's revolution.  I was ignorant of Descartes and Newton.  My understanding of Western history began with the Enlightenment.  Everything that came before it was lost behind a misty curtain of forgetting."  The Benedict Option, p. 154, Rod Dreher

As I read these words, I was struck by the realization that there, but for the my chosen field of Classics, would have gone I.  Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Virgil...why, of course, I thought, but then I paused.  Had I actually encountered them in any class not of my choosing?  I thought long and hard about it, and the answer was no.

In my high school senior English class we read a bit of Chaucer, and I will always be grateful for the introduction I received to Pope, Donne, and Keats from that teacher, Mr. John Richardson.  I also got from him Shakespeare's sonnets to go along with Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar, the only Shakespearean plays I would ever be required to read throughout my educational career.  Somewhere there were bits of Homer's Odyssey.  There was no significant world history class for my high school diploma.

As an undergraduate at Indiana University, I took only two English classes.  Through one, a survey, I was introduced to Dante, though only parts in the Norton Anthology that included glimpses of the Old Testament as literature.  I took only one history class, and that was in ancient history for my major in Classical Studies.

Only in classes that I chose to take as a high school Latin student or undergraduate and graduate student in Classics did I encounter any of the following:  Caesar, Cicero, Horace, Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Plato, and Herodotus.  I was introduced to Montaigne and Hume in an elective freshman honors seminar.  Although we read part of Augustine's Confessions in that class, I had never heard of the church fathers until I casually encountered them through friends in graduate school, and then it was not in any class.  All that I know of Aquinas has been acquired on my own.  The same goes for Anselm, Descartes, and Milton.  Alexis de Tocqueville, The Federalist Papers, and The Constitution of the United States of America...if I had not read them of my own accord, they would hold no place in my knowledge.  In fact, as I survey the significant authors on my bookshelves, I find that at best I know of a few from any required class in my schooling.  Most I learned about on my own, and almost all I have read solely outside the classroom.

My encounter with Latin in high school sparked an interest in me that led me to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in Classics, and it was through that interest and study that I have come to know most of what I know of any importance.  Friends, such things ought not to be.  The human heritage bequeathed to the world through the history, literature, and theology of the West should not be a curiosity available only for a kid who studies Latin to discover.  Should everyone become a Homeric scholar or an expert in Dante?  Of course not.  But everyone should be introduced to the true gems of human discovery and achievement.  Whether or not a person picks up one of those gems and makes it his or her own is up to that student.  This much, however, is true.  Any school or system of education apart from a program of specific skills training that does not, as Benjamin Jowett wrote in the preface to his translation of Thucydides, "present that old life, with its great ideas and great actions, its creations in politics and in art, like the distant remembrance of youth, before the delighted eyes of mankind," stands convicted of dereliction of duty and betrayal of its true mandate.


  1. My social sciences department continues to shrink because there is no overall drive that requires students to take history classes. The cultural sciences, by contrast, continue to do a booming business as it replicates "studies" programs ad nauseam.

    The students I do get in my few, remaining history classes are nearly ignorant of basic history, of the great men and ideas who made possible the world in which they live. Instead, the great books and ideas are actively discredited, or worse, ignored as if they didn't exist.

    This is the state of education, both primary and secondary. The trend is to discourage history. What history that is being taught is filtered through a small lens in high school English classes. It is anti-historical and actively sets a bias against the great ideas.

    We are now three generations into creating a people who have no real concept of democracy and the value of the individual.

  2. "...or worse, ignored as if they didn't exist."

    We have become the Eloi in The Time Machine. Asong as the wisdom of the ages sits mute upon our shelves, the present age can hear nothing but its own voice.

    Your last paragraph is deeply disturbing and puts me in mind of this passage from Cicero's Pro Archia 14:

    Sed pleni omnes sunt libri, plenae sapientium voces, plena exemplorum vetustas: quae iacerent in tenebris omnia, nisi litterarum lumen accederet. Quam multas nobis imagines--non solum ad intuendum, verum etiam ad imitandum--fortissimorum virorum expressas scriptores et Graeci et Latini reliquerunt? conformabam.

    "But all books are full, the voices of the wise are full, age is full of examples, all of which would lie in darkness of the light of literature did not shine on them. How many models of the bravest men have the both the Greek and Latin authors left clearly for us, not only to gaze upon but to imitate?"

    It is all right there, waiting for this generation to discover.

  3. Let's hope someone does before we all lose our heads, so to speak. The worst thing I can imagine happening to the American experiment is for us to die a long, slow death mirroring the Roman Republic.

  4. Euripides, my friend, I am more afraid that the death will be swift.


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