Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics – Reason 1: Architecture


Reason #1: Architecture

The power of the word classic cannot be underestimated, communicating as it does the idea of excellence, truth, order, discipline, and beauty.

The word “classic” brings to mind something that has withstood the test of time, and by virtue of this fact, participates in some way in the timeless and the eternal. And what is the only thing we know of with these attributes but God and His Eternal Word? When looked at this way, every Christian should want a classical education for their children: It has everything we instinctively want.

But when we examine this word “classic,” we find that there is one, and only one, civilization in all of human history that we call classic—the classical civilization of Greece and Rome, the world that Christ was born into, which was not Christian, but pagan. And there are two, and only two, languages that we call classical: Latin and ancient Greek. And furthermore, the original classics, the real classics you might say, were the works written in these languages by Homer, Plato, Vergil, and Cicero—non-Christians all; and this is what we mean by pagan literature.

So now we have a conundrum. Why do we have to read these pagan classics? After all, they did not know the true God. Their works are full of references to their own false gods. Hasn’t all of the ancient wisdom been surpassed anyway? Isn’t it all out of date? Why can’t we just read modern classics like The Great Gatsby or Huckleberry Finn? Why not read the Bible and good books written by Christians—modern classics?

Looking for justification, then, we have latched onto the Biblical metaphor, “spoiling the Egyptians,” given to us by no less a personage than St. Augustine himself. Like the Israelites who grabbed some Egyptian gold on their flight from Egypt, we Christians too can grab some useful tidbits from those pagans. They got some things right, and since all truth is God’s truth, it belongs to us Christians anyway—or so the argument goes.

This version hardly does justice to the riches of classical wisdom and, what is worse, many classical Christian educators use the pagan classics mostly to emphasize their errors, rather than mine them for their gold. All of this leads the thoughtful Christian educator to ask again why we are reading these classics in the first place. We can find plenty of bad examples in the modern world.

Obviously this approach to the pagan classics is weak and wholely inadequate to sustain, much less advance, the classical Christian education movement. We need to give our parents and teachers a robust rationale for why we study the pagan writers, and we need to give them, in addition, the knowledge and tools they need to understand and recognize their significance.

What I hope to show is that the pagan classics provide the foundation for all human knowledge and that, without them, we have no hope of making sense of history or our modern world. The pagan classics are the indispensible foundation of a classical education and, what is more, they provide the key to unlocking the errors of modernism. For the Greeks did more than get some things right; they asked all of the important questions and either gave us the right answers or laid the foundation upon which answers could be found. It is not too much to say that the providence of God prepared two sources of light—one human and one divine—and both are needed to defend and preserve our civilization and our faith.

As with my top ten reasons for studying Latin, I have assembled my top ten reasons for reading the pagan classics. For each of these ten points, I will give a reading assignment, usually a Greek or Roman classic (in translation). While I advocate learning the classical languages themselves, I also believe we should take advantage of the good English translations we have today and start these classics early in the education of our children and ourselves.

Of all of the points that I will make, this is the easiest to understand because it is so visible: we see its evidence every day. The power and beauty of classical architecture is everywhere, from grand buildings like our Supreme Court to our humble everyday homes. The Greeks discovered the proportions that are most pleasing to the human eye which, they tell us, are based on nature’s greatest work of art: the human body. Scale, mass, proportion, and symmetry—the principles of classical architecture—were worked out by the Greeks in great detail and built upon in succeeding generations. They still apply today, and regardless of the style of architecture—whether you are building a farmhouse or a church—these ratios will be the most pleasing to the human eye, and observing the principles first laid down by the Greeks will ensure that your building will be most beautiful. The principles of classical architecture can be applied to any style, whether Tudor, Cape Cod, or Asian pagoda.

The principles are true, and they have never been overturned. Today, they are mostly ignored, which is why we have such ugly buildings. Modern architecture, for the most part, is soulless because it has rejected the principles of classical architecture—not because they are untrue, and not because they are outdated, but for no reason other than that they perhaps are inconvenient. This, I submit, is the pattern that applies to all of the errors of modernism—a pattern of a wholesale rejection, not only of divine wisdom (we know that), but also of human wisdom (the wisdom of the creature made in God’s image), and for apparently no reason other than that modernism spurns the restrictions of truth. This pattern, moreover, illustrates why a careful reading of the pagan classics is so important for a classical education that aspires to give a firm foundation in wisdom and truth.

De Architectura, written by Vitruvius around 15 B.C. and dedicated to the emperor Caesar Augustus, is the only work on architecture that has survived from the ancient world. Vitruvius was a Roman and, like all of the Romans, his work was not especially original, but rather based on the Greeks. De Architectura was a compilation of Greek principles and Roman engineering, accompanied by his detailed drawings, which unfortunately have been lost. Vitruvius’ second life began after he was rediscovered in the Renaissance, where he became the authority on all things architectural, rather as Aristotle was considered the authority on everything else. De Architectura became the basis for the second most influential architecture book in history, The Four Books of Architecture by Andrea Palladio, published in 1570. Palladio (as in Palladian windows) called Vitruvius his master. Palladio went to Rome, studied the remnants of Roman architecture, studied Vitruvius, and thereafter designed churches, villas, palaces, and other public buildings, all in Venice. When he published his great work on architecture, his principles of neoclassical design spread all over Europe and the New World and have had immeasurable impact over the last 500 years. Thomas Jefferson called Palladio’s book his bible. You can see the influence of classical architecture everywhere in this country (the White House, the Capitol, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and his design for UVA), and indeed throughout the whole world. In fact, one of the world’s most famous drawings, Vitruvian Man (on the facing page), was created by Leonardo da Vinci to replace Vitruvius’ original lost drawing. The drawing illustrates the insight of the Greeks that the proportions that are most pleasing to the human eye are based on nature’s greatest work of art, the human body.

Is there a pattern here? I think so. God is the creative mind; the Greeks studied His book of nature, and we study the Greeks. In the providence of God, that appears to be His plan. Whether we realize it or not, when we study the Greeks, we are, if only indirectly, studying the mind of God.


Reading Assignment: Your first assignment, while not really a “reading” assignment, is to begin to pay attention to architecture, and if you are doing any remodeling or building, find an architect with classical training (unfortunately not an easy task). And if your child is interested in architecture, the only architecture school I know of that still emphasizes classical principles is Notre Dame.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher,  Summer 2012 edition.

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