We have begun to see a world in which the classics have virtually disappeared—though they have been woven so tightly into the patterns of our culture that meaning, for us, is hardly separable from them. For a while we may be able to get by on the echoes of their past glory; but when they finally have become perfectly silent, what sort of world shall we inhabit? To lose the classics is to lose a long heritage of wisdom concerning human nature, something not likely to be acquired again. Yet most college curricula now remain sadly untouched by their august presence, or at best make a gesture in their direction with a few samplings for select students. Such neglect is one of the most serious threats our society faces today.
The two fountainheads of poetic wisdom for the West have been the Greek and Hebrew writings. One speaks of nobility, the other of humility. Both are necessary. And in both it is primarily in poetry that they communicate their hearts and enable us to find our own. The Hebrew heritage looks inward, seeking the hidden God; the Greek heritage looks outward, aspiring to divinity. Greek poetry thus shows forth—in symbol, in mimesis, in the eikon—what it is that lies behind appearances.
For it was unmistakably the Greeks who discovered eros, desire and aspiration, as the path toward the highest good. It was the Greeks who saw both the poverty and the profundity of the soul, and who proclaimed, as Aeschylus put it, that we must “suffer into wisdom.” It was the Greeks who intuited the underlying generic patterns of poetry: who gave us epic, tragedy, and comedy. Homer, in inventing the epic, invented an entire civilization; and Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides produced the most profound tragedies in existence at the moment of that civilization’s greatness, just before the decline. It was an encounter with the Greeks (through Rome, and later, Constantinople) that led diverse European peoples to know themselves and that taught the American founders the meaning of the polis. It is a return to the Greeks from time to time in history that reanimates those same peoples and allows them to remember who they are.
This body of writing, until recently considered the very center of European and American education, has stood guard over the march of Western civilization, preserving its ideals of truth and justice, whatever its lapses may have been. And the later writers included in this remarkable group of texts have continued the unsparing examination of conscience that the Greeks inaugurated three thousand years ago. Hence, the Greeks make up the unmistakable foundation of our body of classics. To be ignorant of Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles is to be ignorant of the range and depth of human possibility.
The primacy of the Greeks in the Western curriculum, then, as Bernard Knox, one of our foremost classical scholars, insists, is not a result of any decree by a higher authority; neither Church nor State has imposed them, nor even men of money and power. The Greek texts hardly compose a “master narrative” enforced by conservative tradition. Nor has any ethnic group gained power or prestige from their study. They have had their effect, quite simply, from their intrinsic quality: and it is that quality—to which the classics call us all—that makes them immortal.
The late Professor Cedric Whitman of Harvard maintained that it is from the ancient classics that our culture inherited its idea of the heroic. “The notion of the hero,” he writes, is “the center of one of the most powerful clusters of ideas that ancient culture has bequeathed to Western literature and art.” We could probably with justice maintain that without poetry, we would have no real notion of the heroic. Admittedly, in America we are heirs to multiple traditions of the hero. Every group of people migrating to this continent brings with it legends and myths of heroes; and these imported stories and ideals have combined with the myths and tales of the native Americans to make up a complex mixture perhaps unique in human culture. But two major strands of heroic ideals composed the Founding Fathers’ heritage when our nation came into being, the Greek and the Roman, and these, along with the Biblical view, have shaped the fabric of our society for more than three centuries.
The Roman view of the heroic life had immense influence on the West. The Aeneid was for centuries the most popular book in Europe, the book for the formation of Europe during the development of Christian culture. T. S. Eliot considered it “our classic”; it has been woven into Western thought and institutions. The Aeneid’s two great features are pietas and fatum, duty and mission, as we might translate the Latin. No two words could more accurately describe America’s deepest sense of what some have pejoratively called “manifest destiny,” but which others have believed to be a true mission.
In America, as in Europe, the Aeneid has been our dominant classic; until the 1920s it was taught to every schoolboy and schoolgirl. It offers us the image of the person of duty, of pietas, who lives not for his own self-fulfillment but for others: for the gods, for the city, for family. Aeneas loses city, wife, father, and the beautiful Queen Dido in his quest to do the will of the gods—to found a new Troy, which will be the great Rome. Virgil does not spare us Dido’s suffering; she is a noble queen, with her own city, tricked by the cruel goddess Aphrodite into an infatuation with Aeneas. Yet Aeneas is a man of duty and responsibility who cannot relinquish his god-given task of founding Rome. Part of the poem’s power lies in its ability to own up to the dreadful cost of civilization: the damage that has to be done to the family and to women in order to move on to the new: “Such hard work it was to found the Roman city.” As his father’s shade tells him in the underworld, his is a demanding calling: “Remember, Roman, these will be your arts/ To teach the ways of peace to those you conquer/ to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.”
Hence, as Thomas Greene wrote in The Descent from Heaven:
“The loss of Virgil to the modern world is an immeasurable cultural tragedy … [F]ar more than Homer, Virgil has been the classic of Western civilization. This has been true partly because he is more fitly a poet of maturity than of youth, because his work continues to educate as the understanding ripens. Fully to know him one must know him long. If he teaches the schoolboy style, to the man he imparts nobility.”
Western man has found his ideal of the public virtues in “pious Aeneas,” the man of destiny chosen for a great task: strong, brave, generous. He is resolute enough to turn his back on personal happiness; he fights skillfully and bravely; he is in fact a great hero. But he is a hero for a cause, for others, having accepted his role in life, his duty. Virgil taught the Western world the civilizing arts and incorporates the softness of our hearts (our Trojan ancestry) into the dynamism of civilization. As T. S. Eliot has reminded us, the prophecy of the Aeneid has not failed; we are still in a sense citizens of that city, the eternal Rome. But many current readers cannot accept the poem’s ambiguity; perhaps the loss of the ability to bear subtle distinctions stems from the loss of the poem itself in our culture.
But there is another strain of the heroic that we inherit from antiquity: the Greek, which, as Cedric Whitman writes, gives us that “inviolable lonely singleness, half repellent because of its almost inhuman austerity, but irresistible in its passion and perfected selfhood.”
The choice of a short life lived in pursuit of heroic achievement is a twentieth-century parallel to the classic decision of Achilles, chief protagonist in Homer’s Iliad, to enter the Trojan war and risk everything on a short but glorious life. It is this tragic choice that makes his situation so unendurable when, at the beginning of the poem, Agamemnon insults him and engenders the famous “wrath of Achilles” which is the focus of our horrified admiration. Achilles becomes so merciless in his wrath that many readers cannot forgive him; in fact, they find it hard to consider him noble when he puts his own honor above the good of his fellow men. But it is an interior quality above all else that concerns Achilles: that arete, excellence of soul, which is the mark of the Greek hero—a heroic achievement sought not for mortals but for the gods. And readers are led into enduring the almost unbearable contradiction in Achilles’ choice, the “terrible beauty” of his monstrous wrath.
Despite whatever inordinate deeds the hero commits, the poet knows that true heroism is the most glorious thing that can be passed down in memory through poetry. The novelist Caroline Gordon has commented that the writer has his eyes fixed on the hero, sees him when he is about to take that fatal step—the step that will hurl him into the abyss. For the hero as Homer conceived of him (and then the later Greek dramatists) is too large to be contained by the civic order; he is excessive, must go beyond codes. The other warriors in the Iliad fight bravely and nobly, but they do not enter into that realm of heroic paradox that is the true abode of the hero. Nor will they, we feel, enter into kleos, heroic memory, the only immortality known to Homer’s readers. The basis of the Greek heroic paradox is that human beings must aspire to divinity and yet because of their mortality fail to achieve it. “No Greek ever became a god, and no true Greek ever gave up trying,” Professor Whitman observed.
Heroism is one of the fundamental patterns built into all of us, a universal potentiality that must, however, be ignited to be realized. America has been steeped in the classical heroic tradition. But it can easily remain merely latent if each generation simply starts over again without the guidance of the classics. Admiration for the heroic principle will surface from time to time in surprising ways; but without a tradition of reverence it is likely to be deformed and misplaced. A godlike aspiration, a selfless desire for a commitment to a calling, a sense that honor is far more valuable than life—these are aspects of the soul that must be awakened by a vision of the high and the noble.
And herein lies one of the great values of studying the classics: our poetic heritage gives imperishable form to the heroic aspiration. Shakespeare’s Henry V, Melville’s Moby Dick, Conrad’s Lord Jim, Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises—these and other works enter into a dialogue with the Greek and Roman classics to kindle the image of the hero within the individual soul. The heroic thus becomes not a set of rules but a living ideal, incarnated in the lives of us all.
Our loss of the Greeks and Romans is symptomatic of our loss of the idea of quality and of aspiration, our loss of the heroic which is known in poetry. Yet we need the classics as never before in our history. For what is happening in our time is the making of a new synthesis, much like that large encompassing pattern of culture constructed in the High Middle Ages or in the period we know as the Renaissance. Ours is a time when the human schema and indeed the total world picture are being redefined. Ours is a “postmodern” age, and we live in a time of “globalization.” We are called to respond to our fatum: to begin the task of sifting from the poetic traditions of the whole world those works that reflect and extend the meaning of our literary tradition.
This process has gone on at various junctures in civilization: European writings have been added to the Greeks and Romans, as have those representing America. Now that there is indeed one world for us, in which economic, educational, and cultural systems are linked as closely as were the different countries of Europe from the Renaissance onward, we are obligated to include writings from the rest of the world in our curricula and our concern. We need not be afraid that by extending generosity to worthy things outside the Western tradition, we shall be debasing our heritage. As Bernard Knox wrote, nothing short of totalitarianism will admit unworthy things into the canon. Placed beside the works that have long been there, the shallow and merely political pieces will gradually fade away, as did the minor works of the past. But we need an active and lively sense of our own heritage if the widening of the Western heritage to the world is to occur. When our society does indeed become “globalized”—when West and East do stand together as equals in the exchange of ideas as well as goods— we had better be ready by having something left to preserve.
Our need for the classics is intense. Yet any defense of them in our time must come from a sense of their absolute necessity— not from a desire to inculcate “cultural literacy,” or to keep alive a pastime for an elite, but to preserve the full range of human sensibility. What is needed is to recapture their spirit of high nobility and magnanimity, of order and excellence, but to recapture that spirit in a framework of democracy engendered by a Biblical culture of radical openness. The things worth preserving, the things we ought to be passing down, far transcend any single heritage: they partake of the fundamental structures of being itself. Melville called them the “heartless, joyous, ever-juvenile eternities.” And if our children do not encounter these realities in their studies, they are not likely to encounter them at all. Greatness of soul is an aspect of human being as such, but it is not a quality that comes naturally. It must be taught. The classics have become classics because they elicit greatness of soul. Far from being a particular province of the specialist, they are the essential foundation of our educational process and the impulsion toward that forward movement of the human spirit for which schools exist. In an unpoetic age, we have to learn all over again what and how to teach our own children. We need to re-read the Greeks.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2011 edition.