Why Should Christians Read the Pagan Classics? – Reason 4: Education - Memoria Press

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REASON #4: Education

A classical education focuses on the study of the classical languages, Latin and Greek, and on the study of the classical civilization of Greece and Rome.  But why is the word classical reserved only for the languages of the Greeks and Romans and only for their civilization?  What really is so special about the Greeks and Romans and why should Christians study them?  After all they were not Christians, they were pagans.

Some have objected to the word pagan and missunderstood its meaning.  Pagan is a word Christians coined in the later Roman Empire to refer to those who, even after the ascendancy of the Christian faith, still held to their beliefs in the gods and goddesses of mythology.  In time the Greco-Roman civilization came to be called pagan with respect to its religious foundation.  The classics of Greece and Rome mostly predated the coming of Christ and are thus the product of this “pagan” civilization.

There are also Christian classics from the ancient world, St. Augustine, Boethius, etc.  But it is the classics of the “pagans”, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Vergil, that can be a  stumbling block for Christians.  It is to these that I refer when I use the word pagan to distinguish them from the Christian classics of the later Roman Empire.  The Christian classics, which are included in secular collections such as the Harvard classics or Penguin Publishers, are, generally speaking, works on the Christian faith whereas the “pagan” classics are all secular- literature, philosophy, science, architecture, grammar, etc.

This is the fourth in a series of articles that I hope will help you understand why Christians should read these pagan classics.  If we don’t understand the importance of these classics our project of bringing back classical education will ultimatly fail.  The three reasons covered in previous issues were architecture, virtue and science.  The Greeks laid the foundation of nearly every area of human knowledge, including the field of education.

Why do we include literature and history and mathematics and science in our curriculum?  Because of the Greeks—because they were the first to develop these fields.  Herodotus is the father of history, Homer is the father of literature, Plato is the father of philosophy.  It has often been said that all literature is a footnote to Homer, all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.  Overstatements, yes, but they illustrate my point.

The very model that we as classical educators use comes from the Greeks:  grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Some classical educators want to go to the Bible to look for the classical education model.  Paideia is the word used for the Greek ideal of education and, surprisingly, the word paideia was used many times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was, in fact, the Bible used by the apostles.  But the divine Paideia is the chastisement of the sinner that brings about a change of heart. Yes, Scripture does address the education of the young, as regards moral and spiritual development, but the development of the intellect by the liberal arts is not in Scripture. The divine Paideia we learn only in Scripture; the human Paideia God let us figure out for ourselves.  And who figured it out first? The Greeks.

Let me give you an example.  Where did grammar come from?  Who came up with the eight parts of speech?  Once you learn them, they make sense; but it wasn’t that easy to figure out.  Plato himself began the analsis of language with his tripartite system of nouns, verbs, and everything else.  Aristotle continued with a more complete analysis of the kinds of words, adding conjunctions, adverbs, and prepositions.  Aristotle, by the way, did not distinguish between nouns and adjectives because adjectives can be used as nouns (the poor you have with your always), and nouns can be used as possessive adjectives.

It took a lot of hard thinking to come up with the eight parts of speech and the complete analysis of language that culminated in the Art of Grammar by the Greek, Dionysius of Thrax, about 100 B.C.  But it is something we just take for granted.  How about the whole idea of dividing every sentence into two parts, a subject and a predicate.  The subject is who or what the sentence is about, and the predicate asserts something about the subject.   A summary of every sentence.  Period.  No exceptions. And what is a sentence? A complete thought.  Every sentence originates where?  In a human mind. Brilliant, once somebody came up with it!

And what about logic?  Where did that come from?  Aristotle explains the syllogism in his Prior Analytics.  Brilliant again.  Stunning. Ever since creation, men had been thinking in sentences and arguing in syllogisms. But somebody had to stop and think about thinking.   Not an easy thing to do.  But this is what the Greeks did.  They thought about, explained, and described the natural order.  And who do we look to for the principles of rhetoric?  The Greeks, of course.

Language is the gift of God. The Greeks studied His creation of human language, and we study the Greeks.  In the providence of God, that appears to be the plan. The Greeks are our first teachers in the natural order.

Reading Assignment: I won’t ask you to read the Art of Grammar by Dionysius, Donatus’ Latin Grammar, or Aristotle’s Organon. Instead, I will give you an easier assignment: Martin Cothran’s Traditional Logic I and II and my Latin Grammar for the Grammar Stage.


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2013 edition.

Reason 1 Reason 2 Reason 3 Reason 4 Reason 5 Reason 6 Reason 7 Reason 8 Reason 9 Reason 10

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