Reason #10: Literature
What is literature, and what is it for anyway? Have you ever wondered that? It’s not practical like science and math, so what is its purpose? Why do we include literature in our curriculum, how do we choose it, and what do we hope to achieve by reading literature? These are some of the questions that puzzled me most in my own education.
The ancients thought about all of these questions too. Plato brings up the question of poetry, by which the ancients meant literature, and he famously bans the poets from his ideal Republic. Because, he said, the poets inflame the emotions at the expense of the intellect. And, furthermore, the gods did all kinds of scandalous things and weren’t very good role models. So Plato was the first “book banner,” which I wish parents would use as a defense when objecting to The Catcher in the Rye or some other clearly inappropriate book their impressionable child is being forced to read in school.
Yes, the ancients were concerned about the effects of literature on children. Quintilian recommended a grading of literature according to age, and Plutarch devoted a whole treatise to the sort of guidance needed for the young when reading Homer and the other poets. Wouldn’t we parents like to have Plato, Quintilian, and Plutarch on our sides when advocating for our children? We could—if we had had a classical education.
But was Plato right to ban the poets? He raised the question of the purpose and value of literature and there have been many to answer his objections, beginning of course with Aristotle, who, in his Poetics, defends and explains the nature and purpose of literature. Literature, Aristotle says, holds up a mirror to man, so that he can see himself more clearly, see beyond the surface to the meaning of life. For the Greeks, the unexamined life, the life of a slave, was not worth living.
The point I’m trying to make here is that there isn’t much the Greeks didn’t think about, and you will find what they had to say is as relevant today as it was 2,500 years ago. And if you are concerned about the effects of literature on the young, so were they.
For many Christians, a serious objection to classical literature is one echoed by Plato: the necessity of learning about the pagan gods. Let me make two quick points about Greek and Roman mythology:
1. Chesterton explained in The Everlasting Man that there were two kinds of pagans in the ancient world: the good pagans (the Greeks and Romans) who had beautiful, benevolent gods that did not require human sacrifice or temple prostitution, and the bad pagans of Baal, Tyre, Carthage, and Canaan, described so vividly in the Old Testament. The battle between these two religions culminated in the Punic Wars, in which Rome destroyed Carthage and the religion of Baal once and for all. The Romans, then, actually accomplished what the Hebrews were unable to do in the Old Testament. God works in mysterious ways.
2. The gods are really archetypes for human character traits and as such provide stories that have proven to be classic and eternal. They describe the human condition so well that we have no real substitute for them. Knowledge of Greek mythology is necessary for a study of English literature and Western art, because writers and artists can’t seem to do without it, and neither can we. Even today, if we want a symbol for beauty, what do we use? Venus.
Like everything else in my “Ten Reasons to Study the Pagans,” literature begins with the Greeks and so must we. Without the foundation of the pagan classics, our study of literature will always be superficial and incomplete.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2014 edition.