Why Should Christians Read the Pagan Classics?

Pagan ClassicsThe power of the word “classical” cannot be underestimated, communicating as it does the ideas of excellence, truth, order, discipline, and beauty. It brings to mind something that has withstood the test of time and by virtue of this fact, something that participates in some way in the timeless and the eternal.

When we examine this word, “classical,” we find that there is one, and only one, civilization in all of human history that we call classical—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, are the works written in these languages by Homer, Plato, Vergil, and Cicero—non-Christians all.

So now we have a conundrum. Why do we have to read these pagan classics? After all, the pagans did not know the true God and 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 Isn’t it all out of date?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?

Looking for justification, some 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.

But this reasoning 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. This approach to the pagan classics is weak and wholly inadequate to sustain—much less advance—the classical Christian education movement. All of this leads the thoughtful Christian educator to ask again why we are reading these classics in the first place.

The pagan classics provide the foundation for all human knowledge and, without them, we have no hope of making sense of history or our modern world. The pagan classics are the indispensable 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.

Reason 1: Architecture

Of all of the points that I will make, this is the easiest to understand because it is so visible: We see the 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 are based on nature’s greatest work of art: the human body. The principles of classical architecture—scale, mass, proportion, symmetry—were worked out by the Greeks in great detail and built upon in succeeding generations. Regardless of the style of architecture, observing the principles first laid down by the Greeks will ensure that your building will be beautiful. The principles are true, and they have never been overturned.

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 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 five hundred years.

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, glimpsing the mind of God.

Reason 2: Virtue

We hear a lot about “values” today but not much about virtue. The word “virtue” seems quaint, even archaic. We hardly know how to define it. Aristotle tells us that virtue is excellence at being human. The virtues are the powers or moral habits that enable us to be what we ought to be, to achieve our telos (our end or purpose).

Our modern world has reduced all virtues to one—tolerance. Our standards are unbelievably low. We have absorbed the philosophy of materialism, and we care more about comfort and happiness than about excellence. We are not only soft, we are wimps. But we can learn something from the Greeks and Romans that our Christian forebears knew and practiced—virtue, what the Greeks called arête.

Socrates was the first to talk about virtue. While the pre-Socratics, like Thales and Heraclitus, were interested in the material world, and the Sophists were interested in winning arguments, Socrates was interested in virtue. We honor Socrates because he teaches us to think about first things first. Nearly all of Socrates’ dialogues are about virtue: what it is and how we get it. Socrates asks everyone he meets, “What is virtue? What is justice? What is piety?” He didn’t know, and he came to realize that nobody else knew either. Socrates was after definitions, after essences, after first principles.

In the Republic, Plato was the first to formulate the four cardinal virtues and to map the human soul. The four cardinal virtues are: Temperance (moderation), Prudence (wisdom), Fortitude (courage), and Justice. Why are there four cardinal virtues? The word “cardinal” comes from cardes, meaning “hinge.” If you don’t have these four, you can’t have the others. The other virtues, such as patience, humility, honesty, chastity, and loyalty, hinge on the cardinal virtues.

How did Plato come up with these four virtues? They follow logically from his analysis of the tripartite soul, a soul which has three parts: the appetite, the will, and the intellect. Temperance is the virtue of the appetites; fortitude is the virtue that strengthens the will (the heart); and prudence or wisdom is the virtue of the intellect. And the fourth virtue, justice, is the right ordering of the other three. Justice is the harmony of the soul, where the intellect guides the will and the will guides the appetites. Justice begins with the individual soul. There is no justice in society unless individual men have justice. To have harmony in society, we must have harmony in individual souls.

Aristotle addresses the virtues in his Nichomachean Ethics, one of the most influential works of all time. He shows us how the virtues are means between two extremes. For instance, courage is the mean between being rash and foolhardy on the one hand and timid and fearful on the other.

Aristotle based his ethics on the telos of man. He described man as he is, but also man as he is meant to be. Man’s end is to fulfill his own nature, which leads to a true, lasting state of happiness. But man alone, of all God’s creatures, fails to achieve his telos. Every other creature does what it is supposed to do, except man. What is wrong with us?

Plato said the cause of man’s failure is ignorance, for man would not knowingly do what is not good for him. In the abstract, Plato may have been right, for human reason is limited and we do not understand the full consequences of our actions. But in reality, Plato’s answer, while it preserves the logic, seems very wrong. It fails the test of experience. For we all know that we fail every day to do what we know is best. It’s not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of virtue, the moral habits that enable us to do what we ought.

And here we see another value of studying Greek wisdom: It leads us to Christ. It is right where human reason reaches its limit that revelation gives us an answer that satisfies the mind and the heart. We fail to achieve virtue because we are fallen. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Greek reason had no solution for the problem of sin and man’s need of salvation. The whole salvation story of Scripture explains how and why we are not what we are supposed to be, and what we can do about it.

Read the Apology of Socrates and you will be impressed with his incredibly high ideals. I admire Socrates for expressing so eloquently the true purpose of life and his unrelenting search for truth. But the Apology is also defeating because I could never live up to Socrates’ ideal of a soul that is truly worthy of immortality. I think his Apology must have haunted the Greeks and all subsequent generations in the ancient world. Who could live up to such an ideal?

Rereading the Apology of Socrates has made me realize why the gospel is called the good news, and how good it was to the Greeks, as well as the Jews. The Jews couldn’t live up to the Law, and the Greeks couldn’t live up to Socrates. Scripture shows us our true human condition in a way the Greeks did not and could not—shows us our relationship to God, that we are sinners, that we are a fallen race in need of redemption, that sin separates us from God, that God loves us and offers us grace and salvation. This is the good news that has been revealed in Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ and nowhere else. Right where the Greeks went wrong, Scripture sets us right. The answer in Scripture accords with experience—it makes sense and our hearts assent to its truth.

Reason 3: Science

Because we live in the aftermath of what has been called the “scientific revolution,” we modern people consider ourselves quite superior to the ancients in regard to the study of the natural world. We are polished practitioners of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” We think ancient people were ignorant of the natural world and that we, with all our advanced scientific knowledge, have little to learn from them. But one of the problems with having your nose so high in the air is that you can miss the thing right in front of you.

“Science,” as we use the term today, is the study of matter. But the abstract investigation of the natural world began with philosophy, for the ancients had to get first principles settled first before science could really get off the ground. The Greeks were always looking for first principles. What is the unity behind the diversity of life? What is the fundamental reality—change or permanence, the material or immaterial, the one or the many?

Thales, an ancient thinker whom we could consider the first scientist, thought that everything was made of water. Pythagoras thought number is what unified all things. Heraclitus said that all is in flux. Parmenides believed the senses are wrong, that change is an illusion. What is the true source of knowledge—the senses or the intellect? Empedocles said that matter was composed of earth, fire, air, and water, and Democritus that matter was composed of small indivisible particles called “atoms.”

Later philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, began to clean things up and to establish first principles by which we could better think about these issues. While it is true that science has advanced far beyond the initial beginnings of the ancient Greeks, these thinkers laid the foundation for that progress.

But, you may be thinking, since modern science has made these humble but important beginnings obsolete and outdated, surely there are no classics in science from the ancient world that we need to read. Sorry, but there are. In fact, the modern war between religion and science can be largely solved by returning to Aristotle’s first principles. Here is Aristotle’s first principle about first principles: “The first principles proper to a science cannot be demonstrated within that science. If they could, they would not be genuine first principles. They can, however, be defended by dialectic.” In other words, science does not justify itself. There are assumptions it employs but that it cannot prove, which must be proven outside of itself. Science rests on something more fundamental than science, first principles which science itself cannot establish. They must be established by philosophy—or theology.

Over the last several hundred years, modern thinkers have abandoned many of the first principles of classical thought—most earth-shatteringly, two of Aristotle’s “four causes,” or the four questions that can be asked about anything:

Material cause—What is it made of? (wood)
Formal cause—What is its form? (table)
Efficient cause—Who made it? (carpenter)
Final cause—What is it for? (to set things on)

Many of our debates today­—about political philosophy, ethics, and the nature of reality itself—are determined by whether or not we think things have real essences (formal cause) and whether they have intrinsic purposes (final cause). These were never disproven; they simply went out of intellectual fashion. Is there such a thing as “human nature”? Should we treat animals the same way we treat humans? Are men and women really different? All of these questions depend on one’s belief in formal and final causation.

The two first principles of modern science, on the other hand, are that matter is all there is and that there is no purpose in the universe. These are assumed but not proven. If they were subjected to dialectic (arguments) they could not be defended because they would be shown to result in contradictions and absurdities. The most obvious result of this difference between the classical and modern view is the false battle between science and religion. We could cut right through if we demanded that modern science establish its first principles through dialectic. And we could do that if we knew how—which we could learn from Plato and Aristotle.

Reason 4: Philosophy

Philosophy is a subject that can be quite intimidating. And while it may seem abstract and unrelated to the real world, quite the opposite is true. We are all philosophers; we all have a view of reality—a worldview, as we say today. Our philosophy trickles down and affects everything we believe and do.

Modern philosophy is so esoteric that few can understand or relate to it, but classical philosophy is different. As with so many things, if you go back to the beginning and learn first principles, you can develop a deep and satisfying understanding of a subject that is baffling in its modern form.

In the beginning, there was no separation between scientists and philosophers because both were asking the same questions: How do we know what we know? Do our five senses give us accurate information about the world, or are our senses unreliable and our knowledge only an illusion? Are we discrete unrelated beings, or are we all really subsumed in the one? What is more real, the material or immaterial, permanence or change, the senses or the intellect, the one or the many? Are there any principles that underlie the staggering variety of the physical world? The early Greek philosophers asked all of these questions, trying to make sense of their world.

Physics is the study of the material (physical) world and metaphysics is the study of what is beyond (meta) the material world—the world apprehended by the mind. Without a proper metaphysics, science is impossible. Classical metaphysics began with Plato and Aristotle and was expanded and perfected by the Christian philosophers Augustine and Aquinas. Reason alone, of course, could not arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity and other supernatural truths of our Christian faith, but even without the light of divine revelation classical metaphysics is consistent with revelation. It supports the existence of God, the supernatural, the immortality of the soul, monotheism, natural law, traditional morality, and ethics.

Classical metaphysics is the foundation of Western civilization. It is rational, systematic, internally consistent, and it can be defended by dialectic. It has never been disproven, just dismissed because it is inconvenient to the modern project of human progress through science alone. Or even worse, classical metaphysics has been distorted and exploited by modern philosophers.

The aforementioned war between religion and science is really a war between two philosophies, the classical metaphysics of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, and modern philosophy, which is based on unexamined assumptions of materialism and atheism. Materialism says that the material world is all there is, an assumption that is clearly falsified by the existence of the mind. Even though materialism cannot be defended by dialectic, it has become the religion of our time. It provides the framework within which questions can be asked and answered, and thus serves as an orthodoxy as narrow and superstitious as any religion has ever been. Studying classical metaphysics teaches us the first principles of philosophy, with which we can expose the prodigious errors of modernism.

Reason 5: Education

A classical education focuses on the study of 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 is so special about the Greeks and Romans and why should Christians study them?

Some have objected to the word “pagan” and misunderstood its meaning. “Pagan” is a word Christians used 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 predate the coming of Christ and are thus the product of this pagan civilization.

There are also Christian classics from the ancient world (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 are, generally speaking, works on the Christian faith, whereas the “pagan” classics are all secular—literature, philosophy, science, architecture, grammar, etc. If we don’t understand the importance of these classics, our project of renewing classical education will ultimately fail. 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 and all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. Overstatements, perhaps, 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 the word paideia was used many times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was the Bible used by the apostles. The divine paideia does address the education of the young, in regard to 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.

Reason 6: Natural Law

The concept of natural law was first articulated by Aristotle in Rhetoric, where he notes that, aside from the particular laws that each people has set up for itself, there is a common law that is according to nature, and is thus universal and binding on all men. This natural law is contrasted with the positive (particular) law, which is man-made law of a given political community. Natural law thus serves as a standard by which to critique positive law. Aristotle gives the example of Antigone in Sophocles’ play, who defied King Creon and buried her brother Polyneices even though he was a traitor. She appealed to a higher law that required her to bury her brother. This higher law, she says, “does not belong to today or tomorrow. It lives eternally: No one knows how it arose.”

Cicero is the great exponent of natural law. In On the Republic he explains the practical problem of how Rome could rule so many nations with so many different customs and laws. The Romans allowed each nation to enact positive laws that were a reflection of their own customs, while Rome ruled in accordance with the natural law that was universal for all peoples.

There will not be one law at Rome, another at Athens, one now, another later, but one law both everlasting and unchangeable will encompass all nations and for all time. And one god will be in common as though he were a teacher and general of all people. He will be the author, umpire, and provider of this law.

To Christian thinkers, natural law was the moral aspect of what the Greeks called the Logos, the rational order behind the universe. In the fourth century, Church father Athanasius called it the “impress of Wisdom [that] has been created in us and in all his works.” In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most famous of the Christian advocates of the natural law, saw it as the “participation in the eternal law.” But man is the only creature who freely wills to follow it. It is the thing that some “may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason,” says C. S. Lewis. “It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained.” You see how reading the pagan classics can help you understand the modern world. Natural law, like principles of classical architecture, education, and metaphysics, is still true.

Reason 7: Government

American government and political science will come alive when you read the Greeks and Romans, in the same way that English words come alive when you study Latin and Greek. There were many influences on the Founding Fathers, but separation of powers, mixed government, and checks and balances are the principles that first come to my mind when I think of the genius of the American political system. And where did these concepts come from?

In his Republic Plato describes five types of government and says they are all flawed. Aristotle in his Politics gives a slightly different scheme, the true and the perverted forms of government. Aristotle prefers the republic, but gives the caveat that all forms of government are unstable and cycle through these different forms with abrupt and often violent changes.

The ideal of a mixed government was popularized by the Roman Polybius, who saw the Roman Republic as a manifestation of Aristotle’s theory. Monarchy was embodied by the consuls, the aristocracy in the Senate, and democracy in the assemblies. Each institution complements and checks the others. Sound familiar?

Just as Palladio rediscovered Vitruvius and made classical architecture the standard for the last five hundred years, the Frenchman Montesquieu read and studied the ancients, especially Polybius, and helped to make the republican form of government—especially separation of powers—the standard for our time in his work, Spirit of the Laws, which, after the Bible, was the most frequently quoted work by the pre-revolutionary Founding Fathers.

Reason 8: Religion

As believers we give our children the answers before they have the questions, which is only natural and good. We have the answers that God gave us in His Word. However, when young people reach high school and college, they start to ask questions about their faith and the values we have tried so hard to instill in them. As parents we worry about our children asking questions and experimenting with the wrong answers. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to ask fundamental questions about life and explore answers in an orderly, safe academic setting? There is: the pagan classics.

St. Augustine in his Confessions tells us that, after many years of wandering in the desert of indecision, it was Cicero who led him to Christ. Cicero’s Hortensius set him on the path to Christian conversion by implanting in him a longing for the immortality of wisdom. The text of Hortensius did not make it to the modern world, and thus is probably the most famous lost treatise in world literature. Wouldn’t we all love to read this work that Augustine praises so highly? Well, I have read a lot of Cicero and, like most writers, he repeats himself a lot, so I can assure you that if you read Cicero, you too can read many of the same thoughts that so inspired Augustine.

In Cicero’s work On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero lets the Epicurean Velleius expound on his philosophy at length. Here are some of his “brilliant” ideas:

    • Religion is the oppression of the human race.
    • Our lives are ruled by chance, not the gods.
    • Everything can be explained by natural causes.
    • Nothing exists by the design of a superior being.
    • All things are made of atoms, and the material universe is all there is.
    • When man is finally freed from religion he will be able to enjoy life.

Sound familiar? Notice that the Epicureans, unlike modern atheists, were not impious enough to suggest the gods did not exist, only that they were irrelevant. And to give them credit, they did get one thing right—the world is made of atoms.

But then Cicero devotes page after page to rebutting, ridiculing, and generally showing, through reason, the shallowness of the Epicurean worldview. What a great benefit to the young to see that the trendy, chic ideas of our celebrity atheists are not new, but rather old, recycled, unoriginal, and wrong, already rebutted, ridiculed, and dismissed by the giants of the human intellect. Let Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle do the work for you. When it comes to the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, they are on our side. Human wisdom can be used as a defense of divine revelation, for it is all God’s wisdom.

Reason 9: The Human Condition

It was Vergil, using Homer as his model, who led Dante up to the gates of Heaven. The pagan classics can do the same for us.

Scripture shows us our true human condition in a way that the Greeks did not and could not: our relationship to God, our sin and need of redemption, God’s love for us and His offer of grace and salvation. But the human heart in all of its complexity, diversity, and perversity is not the sole focus of Scripture. For a fuller exploration of the human condition we must go to our own literature, which begins with the Greeks.

Homer explores our longing for adventure and glory in the Iliad, and our longing to come home again at last in the Odyssey. He gives an unforgettable picture of the destruction of a great city and the tragedy and senselessness of war. The Iliad is the book of all wars, for it teaches us about its glory and also its human cost. When Priam comes to beg for the body of Hector and kisses the hands that have shed so much blood, and when Achilles and Priam both weep together—Achilles for his father and his fate, and Priam for the loss of his noble son—there is no more moving scene in all of literature.

By contrast, in Scripture the human personalities are in the background, muted; the human story is used to reveal the nature of God more than the human condition. I have always thought this to be convincing evidence of the divine origin of Scripture, that the nature of God is always in the forefront and the human characters are in the background. The purpose of Scripture is to reveal the nature of God, and the purpose of literature is to explore the human heart and the human condition. God has given us the ability and high calling to explore this ourselves. And as usual, it all began with the Greeks.

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? These are some of the questions that puzzled me most in my own education.

The ancients thought about this 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 they inflame the emotions, he said, at the expense of the intellect. And, furthermore, the gods in poetry did all kinds of scandalous things and weren’t very good role models.

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 was not worth living.

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. First, G. K. Chesterton explained in The Everlasting Man that there were two kinds of pagans in the ancient world: the good pagans (the Greeks and Romans) whose mythology pointed toward virtue, 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. God works in mysterious ways.

Second, the gods are archetypes for human character traits and as such provide stories that have proven to be 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. 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.

We are all Greeks when we come to God: searching, asking, debating, questioning, doubting, wondering. The Greeks are our guides because they asked all of the right questions, and asking the right questions is half the battle. And they explored answers with a depth and insight that is astounding. It was Cicero, building on this Greek inheritance, who led St. Augustine to Christ. It was Vergil, using Homer as his model, who led Dante up to the gates of Heaven. The pagan classics can do the same for us.

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