Greek Ruins

The following is an essay featured in Tracy Lee Simmons’ On Being Civilized from Memoria College Press.

Once a common possession of the well educated,classical knowledge now bobs like flotsam amid the wreckage wrought by a century of educational scuttling. And with the passing of Greek and Latin we have lost part of the soul of our civilization.

Our Founding Fathers saw in education the key to national prosperity, both as an insurance policy against political tyranny and as an investment for worldly success—although even then dissenters disputed the premium placed upon classics. Benjamin Rush, a physician and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, dallied in 1789 with the idea of a Federal University built on a new model. Expelled from the new university would be those “tyrants” of the old curriculum, Greek and Latin, along with their cornucopia of poetry, drama, history, and philosophy, which had nourished minds and spirits for centuries. Rush’s proposal sounds a modern note, confirming a cherished view we hold of ourselves as makers of a novus ordo seclorum (a new order of the ages).

Yet most educated men of the colonial and federal era were not beguiled by this rash form of cultural independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote to his grandson, just setting out for college, “Your Latin and Greek should be kept up assiduously.” John Adams, keeping close tabs on the education of his sons, wrote to young John Quincy in 1780: “My wish at present is that your principal attention should be directed to the Latin and Greek tongues.” And Jefferson and Adams were not mere savants; they typified their class and generation. Greek and Latin furnished their minds, formed their taste, and perfected their style. Allusions to Greeks and Romans run as a constant motif in colonial correspondence and public documents.

Classical education continued to define the standard curriculum for the elite through most of the nineteenth century as well—although in proper American fashion, plenty of others joined them in aspiring to pry open its vast treasure trove. James Garfield took his early education at a modest school in Ohio where he drank heady draughts of Homer, Herodotus, Livy, Tacitus, and Virgil; it was said that, years later, the ambidextrous Garfield, on hearing a sentence in English, could translate it onto paper, one hand into Greek, the other into Latin. Theodore Roosevelt, the quintessentially American man of action, is said to have maintained his Greek and Latin reading amid trust-busting and big-game hunting till the end of his life.

Why were generations of students made to suffer the inky travails of learning two difficult languages they would never speak? With concerns about education figuring prominently in the public mind today, we might well ask. After all, if another Constitutional Convention were convened next year, it’s not at all clear that the current generation could bring to the chamber the same blend of practicality and learned wisdom—or want of cliché and jargon—that armed the delegates at Philadelphia in 1787.

Classical education has always signified more than Greek and Latin. The two languages secured the basis for a humanistic training, being the necessary preconditions to access Greek and Roman writings. But they were means, not ends; the text was the thing. Implicit in classics was the Virgilian dictum of Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas: Fortunate the man who can understand the causes of things. A classical education conferred full citizenship of the West, forcing its students to plumb the depths of their origins and tap into the vigor of their civilization, to understand it from within by the direct witness of men and women who had presided over its beginnings.

Classics as a discipline, in fact, reigned as the queen of the “humanities” before they became soft, soulless, and politicized—when, in other words, they were still the exacting study of man and his achievements. Classical study opened the student’s eyes to another world both like and unlike his own, affording him multiple images of historical exempla, philosophical axioms, and phrases that shone like gemstones and lent poignancy to the world he knew.

It is no accident, then, that so many who gathered at Philadelphia to declare independence and a decade later to draft a constitution were men who had apprenticed themselves to Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, and who could debate at length on the various constitutional forms of the classical world before they chose one for the new American nation. We owe our very existence as a people in great part to classical learning.

But are classics useful today? Probably not, at least not useful by the lights of anyone prompted to ask the question. Like all humanistic learning, classics are not so much useful as they are supra usum, beyond use. The classical pursuit contributed not so much to bodily survival as to intellectual and spiritual sustenance—like scaling mountains or surmounting the Goldberg Variations. “To seek utility everywhere is most unsuitable to lofty
and free natures,” Aristotle observed. Or, as Emerson put it, the unchecked lust for utility “would abolish the rose and exalt in triumph the cabbage.”

The best education isn’t confined to the Three Rs; it instills the ineffable. In the words of Phillips Academy’s Alfred Stearns, true education aims to develop a human being who is “something bigger and finer than a mere  piece of mechanism designed to fit into place in a practical world but devoid of aspiration and idealism, bereft of vision and imagination, forever denied the privilege of tasting the things of the spirit which alone is life.”

But what about the Rubicon of Greek and Latin? Why, in a time teeming with good translations, should anyone expend time and energy pounding paradigms, memorizing vocabulary, and mastering obscure points of syntax? The short answer is intimacy. Classical knowledge does not consist only of discrete facts amenable to quick swallowing. Such knowledge is also freighted with thought and expression, exuberant and penetrating utterances not always easily rendered in another tongue. Imagine paraphrasing a poem by Keats or Shelley in contemporary lingo: We know instinctively that the result would be lacking. For literature isn’t just ideas; it’s sound and sense together. Epic and lyric poems are more than plot lines and naturalistic images; they’re products of the human imagination which must be heard and felt in a certain manner.

Furthermore, long after proficiency with the languages had lapsed, the pains taken early on kept those who had learned them aware that words grant keys to the precincts of the mind. Reading or writing Latin is an exercise in brevity; not even the taut suppleness of Greek matches for economy the lapidary quality of the Roman tongue. Long exposure to its syntax may well account for some of the finest prose of yesterday, for even those who never had Latin inhabited a culture where its drive for the mot juste was felt and emulated.

The decline of classical studies leaves a vacuum within American culture which is more discomfitingly apparent every year. And the real loser is the educated public at large: the people who vote, who read books,  newspapers, and magazines, who watch clever talking heads spouting opinions on cable news networks with exquisite inarticulation and then imitate them—the people, in short, who can’t retain disciplined habits of expression because they never learned them. Perhaps the most telling legacy of the passing of Greek and Latin isn’t the college freshman incapable of declining Latin nouns; it’s the schoolteacher unable to distinguish can from may.

Once a classical education could be rejected; now it can’t even be described. Yet classics still march under the tattered standard of hard learning. They are the fifth column of the last legion. “Classics, in spite of our friend Rush,” Adams wrote to Jefferson, “I must think indispensable.” “It sticks,” Kipling’s Mr. King says to Stalky. “A little of it sticks among the barbarians.”

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