Mt. Parnassus was considered by the ancients to be the dwelling place of the Greek god Apollo and the nine muses. They were the inspiration for almost all knowledge and expression: science, philosophy, art, music, etc. The ancients constantly looked towards Parnassus as a symbol of “poetic inspiration and perfection.” These last words are author Tracy Lee Simmons’, a man who was classically educated himself. As he put it,
“Climbing Parnassus” eventually became a code for the painfully glorious exertions of Greek and Latin. The hard, precipitous path of classical education ideally led not to knowledge alone, but to the cultivation of mind and spirit.
Thus begins the analogy he uses to write one of the most unapologetic apologias for classical education.
Contrary to other works on education, Climbing Parnassus is an enjoyable read. The language is polished and eloquent, and the arguments are as clear as a sunny day atop a mountain. Simmons starts with an exhortation about why we would even want to climb Parnassus. What are we looking for at the top? He asks several perfect questions, just as the Greeks constantly asked the right questions time and time again:
If education is not to promote material success, what should it do? Must we lend any legitimacy to an older idea that education exists primarily to form the inner man as well as to impart those all-important skills for making a living? Have we in fact grown out of that ideal? Or have we fallen so far short of it that we cannot even spy its majestic peaks?
From there he draws distinctions between different understandings of “culture” and “knowledge,” key elements to any discussion of classical education.
Once we have our motivation, we are led to do our research: we see step by step how Parnassus was scaled in ancient times and how that has changed through the centuries, whether for better or for worse. Finally, we find ourselves at the summit, seeing the “realms of gold.” Simmons shows us what education once was and the beauty that training in Latin and Greek wrought throughout the centuries. Of particular note, he shows the influence of classical education on America’s Founding Fathers.
This book is truly Good and Beautiful—an enjoyable read for those seeking to walk out of the cave of modern schooling and behold the sun from the top of Mount Parnassus.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2015 edition.