The Case for Studying the Classics

You can argue the case for studying the Greek and Roman classics on the basis that the old authors, philosophers, and statesmen have “been there.” Their observations have survived the filter of time, not for one year or a hundred but for two thousand. It’s as though you wanted to consult some mountaineers: If you camped on top of the Everest and talked to the climbers who made it, you would get better advice than if you consulted random climbers you encountered at ground level.

Another aspect, though, may be just as important. In school the subjects you learn are less important than developing character and learning how to think. You need to develop your mind into a powerful and flexible instrument that can grapple with very hard problems in many areas and can then express your conclusions. Working your way through classical texts forces you to be accurate in a way not required in any other study except math. But there are literate people and numerate people. “If a man’s wit be wandering,” said Bacon, “let him study the mathematics.” But I share with Jung the conception that math doesn’t help much if you aren’t numerate. You have to exercise the brain in what it can handle naturally. For verbal people, the classics are a prime training in exactness.

And on the dinner, with the classics, come not only a vast breadth of wisdom and experience but the moral conclusions. I find that students impregnated with the classics are unlikely to have a trivial point of view. So with luck you become a virtuous, powerful, exact thinker, and wise. Not bad! Then you can learn about specific things.

A while back I noticed two suggestive references in the same New York Times Sunday Book Review. In reviewing “Founding Father,” a biography of George Washington, the author referred to his “eerie ability to know where history was headed.” How did Washington do this? The second half of the biography is a meditation on that question. We learn that Seneca’s “Morals” and Joseph Addison’s “Cato” were profound influences on Washington’s thought. (Another intriguing influence is “teachings” by 16th century Jesuits, which Washington copied out when he was 16.)

On the next page of that Book Review, speaking of “A Struggle for Power,” a book on the American Revolution by Theodore Draper, the reviewer mentions, “Among the epigraphs to the text is one by Thucydides, to the effect that the Peloponnesian War broke out because of the growth of the power of Athens and the alarm it aroused…in keeping with Thucydides, Mr. Draper is less interested in justifying the Revolution than in explaining it, examining ultimate causes and conditions that go deeper than immediate quarrels and grievances.”

As a columnist, I have often commented that a good way to understand NATO is by reading Thucydides. I have also pointed out (in “The Craft of Investing:” that the classics give a fine background for the investment business, by sharpening the mind and enlarging its perspectives. (Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics also gives us the case against the investment business!) To understand our times, I believe that the eighth book of Plato’s “Republic” offers indispensable insights. I translate and condense freely.

Democracy, like plutocracy [which is determined by the lust for wealth] is destroyed by its insatiable craving for what it considers the supreme good good…freedom. The father gets into the habit of acting like a young person, and defers to his son. The son is on a level with the father, and does not respect his parents. Resident aliens and foreigners are as good as citizens. The teacher is afraid of his students and indulges them, while the students disdain the teacher. Young and old are the same. The young man is a rival to his elders in talk and in action. The old man kowtows to the young man and adopts a jocular manner in order not to seem heavy or domineering. The citizens become so touchy that they get irritated by any trace of authority at all and eventually ignore both law and custom. This is the handsome and cheerful starting point from which arises dictatorship.

My point in this citation is that Plato and other classicists give us the perspective to see where we are, and to realize that. The way we are used to thinking may not be the way things truly have to be, but just the ideas we happen to have right now, at a particular stage in the evolution of our society.

Plato’s substantive point is simply that society, like a ship, works best if there is a readily accepted structure. If everybody is squabbling over their position, things get jammed, and, in due course, order is imposed. (In some countries, the sheer mass of bureaucracy builds into an inert tyranny.)

All this is an illustration of the idea of “been there.” But fully as important is the power of the classics as art. Will not someone who reads these lines from the “Iliad” always remember them? Hector speaks: “…Well do I know this, and I am sure of it: that day is coming when the holy city of Troy will perish. But my grief is not so much for the Trojans, nor for Hecuba herself, nor for Priam the King, nor for my many noble brothers, who will be slain by the foe and will lie in the dust, as for you (Andromache, his wife), when one of the bronze-clad Acheans will carry you away in tears and end your days of freedom. Then you may live in Argos, and work at the loom in another woman’s house, or perhaps carry water for a woman of Messene or Hyperia, sore against your will: but hard compulsion will lie upon you. And then a man will say as he sees you weeping, ‘This was the wife of Hector, who was the noblest in battle of the horse-taming Trojans, when they were fighting around Ilion.’ This is what they will say: and it will be fresh grief for you, to fight against slavery bereft of a husband like that. But may I be dead, may the earth be heaped over my grave before I hear your cries, and of the violence done to you.”

So spake shining Hector and held out his arms to his son(little Astyanax). But the child screamed and shrank back into the bosom of the well-girdled nurse, for he took fright at the sight of his dear father—at the bronze and the crest of horsehair which he saw swaying terribly from the top of his helmet. His father laughed aloud, and his lady mother too. At once shining Hector took the helmet off his head and laid it on the ground.

(Having kissed Astyanax and held him in his arms, Hector prays that he will be eminent in his turn…in vain, for the victorious Greeks, fearing any son of such a father, let fall the infant from Troy’s smoking battlements.) ■


This piece originally appeared in the June 23, 1999 issue of the Groton School Quarterly.