Elysian Fields: Why Students Should Learn Greek

Why should the student learn Greek? No shortage of pragmatic reasons comes to mind, and parents and teachers will delight to know that Greek has utilitarian value, although it seems uncouth to speak of it as such. While usually a hybrid of Greek and Latin influence, most existing English words come from the Greco-Roman vocabulary. Even though Medieval and Renaissance scholars wrote in Latin, they largely relied on a Greek vocabulary to communicate technical terminology. As a result, most technical and scientific terminology derives from Greek—no lawyer, doctor, or scientist will ultimately escape the clutches of the Greek language. Also, English prefixes like pro-, proto-, poly-, hypo-, hyper-, micro-, macro-, chrono-, and photo-, and suffixes like -ology, -thesis, -meter, -nomy, and -ism developed from Greek influence on English. Therefore, students who learn Greek vocabulary also grow in their knowledge of English vocabulary.

And if we’re talking utilitarian value, the student with a knowledge of Greek possesses the capacity to learn from the greatest canon of literature the world has ever produced—authors like Aristotle, Homer, Plato, Plutarch, Thucydides, Xenophon, and many others from the Hellenistic heritage. Mathematics, philosophy, politics, literature, science, medicine, and art have all been parsed, categorized, and analyzed by the ancients, and modern contributors to these fields must interact with the Greeks and the intellectual bedrock upon which the Western world was built. For example, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and John Milton’s Paradise Lost follow the structures that were already established by the grand epic poems of Homer and Hesiod. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales bears a remarkable resemblance to Aesop’s Fables. Many of these later authors feasted at the table of their Greek progenitors and carried Greek influence through the centuries.

While translators have brought some of the Greek masterpieces into English, history reminds us that every translation will betray the original, and the translator is always the betrayer. During the Renaissance, the French and Italian intelligentsia engaged in arguments over who had the best opéra, among other things. Rich, bourgeoisie Italians criticized French translations of Dante, claiming the translations concealed the beauty of the original. A disdainful phrase emerged to describe these French dissenters, traduttore, traditore: “Translator, traitor.” Greek authors often wrote about an Edenic, heavenly country called Elysium like this from Pindar’s Odes: “There, the ocean blows a breeze over the island of the blessed and the golden flowers are radiant.” However, the English conceals Pindar’s artistic prose, which depicts golden flowers blowing in the wind like a flickering wildfire across the countryside. Hesiod also describes Elysium in his Works and Days: “Dwelling without sorrow or frustration, happy heroes live on the island of the blessed, alongside the deep edge of the outward sea.” Even the best translation would fail to capture the sophisticated wordplay and the creative poetic tempo of the original dactylic hexameter—indeed, poetry is almost untranslatable. While both Christian and classical literature can be read in translation, a translation will inevitably betray the original.

Christians, especially, will benefit from learning Greek. Hellenized Jews in Alexandria translated the Jewish scriptures from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek around the third century B.C., and their translation dominated the Jewish and Christian world until Jerome’s Latin translation in the fourth century A.D. The New Testament authors wrote entirely in Greek, and they most frequently quoted or referred to the Greek Old Testament, called the Septuagint. Early Christianity developed a theological and liturgical vocabulary based entirely on the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament.

For example, in the Septuagint the Hebrew term for “covenant” (bireth) was most often translated by the Greek word diathēkē (διαθήκη), a term which later came to mean “covenant” but more closely refers to a “last will or testament.” The use of diathēkē to translate the Hebrew bireth meant that the Greek term became synonymous with the Hebrew term denoting the covenants of God, and that diathēkē began to communicate more the idea of “covenant” than “last will” or “testament.” Both the author of Hebrews (in Hebrews 8-10) and the Gospel of Luke (in Luke 22) play with this double meaning to portray the death of Christ as a new covenant and new testament, in contrast to the old covenant and old testament. Only Greek students will recognize this subtle conflation of “covenant” and “testament” because it comes from the New Testament’s adoption of the Septuagint term diathēkē, which eventually led to the nominal division between the Old and New Testaments.

Nevertheless, Greek is not primarily a descriptive tool, but a creative instrument that shapes and forms for its speaker how the world is seen, felt, tasted, and touched. As students grow in their understanding of Greek, it begins to shape their understanding of the world and change their expression of it. Arthur Schopenhauer explores the capacity of language to create new ways of perceiving the world in his essay “Über Sprache und Worte” (“On Language and Words”). In this essay, he explores the many ways a new language requires the mind to map new conceptual worlds and new ways of understanding the relationship between things, all of which previously did not exist. He explains, “Now from this it follows that a person thinks differently in each language; therefore, by learning each one, our thinking receives a new modification and coloring.” By learning a classical language, the mind learns multiple perspectives on the same phenomena.

As an example, unlike English, the tense of a Greek verb is less important than its aspect. Aspect refers to what kind of action occurs (e.g., ongoing or completed), but tense communicates when an action occurred (e.g., in the past). A student who learns Greek understands reality and his own language better. He learns that English also has grammatical aspect (he walked vs. he was walking), and that verbs convey intrinsic aspect (hit vs. sing are two present tense verbs, but hit has a completed aspect and sing an ongoing aspect). Aspect is an important part of any language, but without exposure to a language like Greek, one might never grasp it.

Similarly, in “Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens” (“On the Different Methods of Translating”), Friedrich Schleiermacher develops the idea that languages frame how the world is perceived: “Every human is in the power of the language he speaks; he and the whole of his thinking is a product of it.” Greek, and the learning of Greek, constitutes a new way of seeing and understanding the world because it employs a new taxonomy that organizes the world differently than other languages. And, unlike any other language in the history of civilization, Greek carries with it a lexicon of the best of human knowledge and wisdom, and the student of Greek benefits from this articulate culture when he learns Greek’s contours.

So why should the student learn Greek? Because by acquiring Greek, the student learns grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. He receives eyes with which to see a new world, and he acquires a rich corpus of literature. In this collection, the student will read tales of exotic adventures in Xenophon, plays saturated with irony in Sophocles, and lyric poetry in Sappho and Pindar—the likes of which the world will never see again. The student will also discover Elysium, the pristine paradise of Peloponnesian poetry, “where the things of life come easiest for mankind. There is no falling snow, heavy storms, or even rain, but there is always a whistling blast of west wind—Ocean reaching out to refresh mankind” (Homer, Odyssey 4.565-68).

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