The Paideia Institute's 2024 High School Essay Contest Winner

Mehmetali Mamedov |

Why should we study Ancient Greek?

Faint fragments of Ancient Greek speech hang between Achilles and Ajax on Exekias' magnificent black-figure representation (circa 530 BCE) of the Homeric heroes' game of dice.

Echoes of Antiquity: Exploring the Literary Landscape of Ancient Greek

My involvement with ancient matters began not in a university classroom but as a teenager, lying atop ancient ruins, lingering silently at the back of my tour group, and looking upward into what was once a breath of mortal life. The presence of the past found me there, almost in passing, in the mild Greek air, whispering a mystery that was almost too big for understanding. This was a call to adventure I could not resist. I had to know the heart of these people.

So, why study Ancient Greek? As with so many of its other legacies, the complex weaving of answers to this question is as much a part of the powerful appeal of the ancient Greeks as the pottery they left behind. The kernel, the very essence, worn by all of the varied reasons, is surely the capacity to engage directly with the minds that laid the very foundations of so many facets of our own contemporary society—from democracy to drama, philosophy to science. Surely, there is a difference between reading the Odyssey in its original Greek melody and in a prose translation by Samuel Butler. Reading an epic for its themes in prose simply eliminates the beauty of its particularly measured spans.

Not only does the study of ancient Greek give us a better understanding of some aspects of our own language, but learning Greek can also give you an understanding of a different outlook on life. When the Greeks studied mythology, they didn’t study it in the way we do today. They didn’t study what the stories said about Greek culture. They studied what the stories said about people. What the stories said about people then, their way of thinking, is still true today. The Greeks looked at their language and their literature and their art and their philosophy as a way to figure out what it prepared them to do and to tackle the world around them. They would look at myth and look at every Greek text and see a challenge to exert judgment. They would ask, “What if?” All of what they did, through all those words and through all the forms of their art, was to encourage Greeks to ask “What if?”


The journey I have been on with ancient Greek has been astounding, altering my views on language, history, and human nature and allowing me to understand the incredible power words have to shape ideas, challenge assumptions, and connect with those who lived thousands of years ago. Learning Greek, the most perfectly logical, mathematical, and yet most complex of languages, has challenged and humbled me, a reminder that understanding does not come from learning a language but from studying it, reading it, and never entirely getting it.

Furthermore, the examination of Greek has represented an appreciation of learning for its own sake. In a society that is experiencing a more and more rapid rate of practicality and application, Greek provides a different kind of core values that emphasize the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. This includes an appreciation for liberal arts education, where the focus is on gaining knowledge and understanding across various disciplines rather than purely on practical skills. Greek studies encourage a deep dive into subjects, prioritizing depth of understanding over breadth of knowledge. Additionally, it gives a continuous joy in lifelong learning, creating a sense of curiosity and intellectual exploration that go beyond the boundaries. These core values display a commitment to intellectual growth and the ongoing pursuit of truth and wisdom, enhancing both individual lives and societies.

So, to study ancient Greek, you will have to take some risks. You will have to spend many hours looking things up, following them up, thinking them through, then perhaps laying them aside and returning to them later. You will have to be ready to do battle with your own ignorance and accept that sometimes a problem will defeat you—at least for the time being.

I invite you to think of the Greek language not just as a cobwebbed linguistic apothecary for Mediterranean history but instead as a window into a vibrant, living discussion with our shared cultural legacy. Whether you find yourself sojourning toward the majestic sagas of heroes and divinities, the intricate capers of philosophers both solvable and unsolvable, or simply the pure desire for the rich-sautéed melodic flavor of its phonetics, the Greek language opens itself to the adventurous scholar as a series of rich frontiers within the human saga, waiting to be explored.


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Mehmetali Mamedov

Mehmetali Mamedov is a senior at The Triangle Math and Science Academy of Apex, North Carolina, and the winner of Paideia's 2024 High School Essay Contest.


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