Why Study the Classics?
Why study the Classics? Classics offers, at least on a superficial analysis, little in the way of short-term gains or practical real-world benefit. Have you heard about all of our major institutions and nonprofits throwing obscene amounts of money at those who can dicere Latine?
In our current educational climate, the focus rests almost exclusively on job preparedness, with the result that STEM education is the preferred method for our pragmatic moment. This focus often forces advocates of learning Latin and Ancient Greek to proffer utilitarian reasons for the study of antiquity: it trains you to think logically, to read carefully, to pay attention to detail and to solve complex problems!
These are all true, but with something of the whiff of apology about them. And self-justification is almost always unbecoming.
Let me instead suggest a much more Epicurean reason to learn to read Latin and Ancient Greek and to study the literature and culture of Greco-Roman antiquity: It is enjoyable and intrinsically worthwhile to do so.
Pretend for a moment that you are going to devote four (or more) years to the study of something that is, according to the popular conception, dead, and getting deader. Pretend further that you will receive no extrinsic benefit from doing so. It will not make you rich. It will not make you famous. It may not even make you gainfully employed. Given all of these hypothetical conditions, can a case be made to do it anyway?
To ask such a question is roughly equivalent to asking, “Given the same set of hypothetical conditions, can a case be made for being human anyway?” Putting it that way brings the issue into sharper focus, and will doubtless raise not a few eyebrows. So why do I say it? Am I equating all that is human (or humane) exclusively with two cultures now a couple of millennia in the rearview mirror? No, of course not. That would be absurd.
Yet even if no clear-thinking person would deny that we can learn much of significance from other literature and cultures, it cannot be gainsaid that the Greeks and Romans too were “men, take them for all in all,” to paraphrase Prince Hamlet speaking of his father. Not only so, but one could add that they were men, take them for good or ill, and they had plenty of both, to a perhaps uncommon degree. The Greeks could invent philosophy – and execute Socrates for practicing it. The Romans could construct the foundations of legal order – and crucify Jesus Christ as a common criminal. The Greeks were capable of sublime expressions of human sympathy (think of the poetry of Sophocles) and—simultaneously –of blood-curdling brutality (think of Thucydides’ account of the slaughter of all the men of Melos and the enslavement of their women and children). The Romans likewise could produce a statesman like Cicero and the gory proscription lists that led to his death.
All of this is to say that the study of the Classics teaches us something about what it means to be human, both in terms of the ideal of what we would like to be and, at least as importantly, in the much more somber sense of what we all too often are. And what is it that opens—really opens—that world to us, with all its adornments as well as its warts? The study of Latin and Ancient Greek. The particular languages of the Greeks and Romans are our gateway into their particular world, just as language, in general, is an infant’s gateway into the world of human affairs in general, as Augustine teaches us.
I said above that the case I would make for the study of the Classics would be Epicurean, but that was only (if I may refer once more to Hamlet) “indifferent honest.” The case put forward here is really rather in the tradition of Socrates, who took the Delphic injunction “know thyself” as his life’s marching orders. And if it is the case that a significant part of knowing ourselves is knowing others—or, to put it somewhat differently, if we know ourselves to a great degree through knowing others—then one could do worse than getting to know the Greeks and Romans.
Eric Hutchinson is an Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.