Why Classics?

Daniel Walden |

The first installment of the magazine's new series of reflections on teaching and learning in the classical humanities.

The opulent chaos of Giovanni Paolo Panini's Ancient Rome (1757) might be a fitting analogy for the "poorly-organized mess" of Classics.

A note from the Editor:

Given the mission of Paideia to revitalize the teaching of Classical languages and literature, it’s worth reminding ourselves frequently, perhaps continually, of why they matter. With this in mind, as new editor of IMR, I want to issue an open invitation for submissions on the topic ‘Why Classics?’, and offer as first installment in the series, a reflection by scholar, and incipient public intellectual, Dan Walden, that is as funny as it is provocative. Our ongoing interviews with teachers of Latin and Greek give a wonderful sense of how Classics is being taught. I hope to complement them with the thoughts of classicists on how they got ‘hooked on Classics’, and the varied intellectual delights of the field. Send them in!

There are a lot of good reasons that a person might choose to study Classics. If, however, you take the plunge relatively early, as I did, it is in fact almost impossible to have good reasons for doing so, because at 18 years old you are acting not on solid reasons but on gelatinous impulses that, though they have the general shape of reasons, are prone to metamorphosis or implosion when tested. At that age I had very few actual reasons for anything. What I did have were aspirations: I wanted to be a particular kind of educated person, at home in multiple languages and in many different literary eras. I had a conservative disposition that valued big questions and permanent things and the air of cultural importance, and I imagined that those things were to be found most readily in the oldest literature, a literature that seemed necessary to master if one was to think sensibly about anything else. I was, in other words, an ignorant social-climbing little shit.

To amend my faults somewhat, I had the examples of excellent teachers. I was fortunate in my schooling, as both of my high schools had seasoned grown-up classicists on the faculty, all of whom seemed to me to be interesting and eccentric people, widely read and with rich inner lives that we students rarely got to see. There was a lanky man with an infectious laugh who ran a D&D group for students and reenacted the death of Caesar in the student center on the Ides of March; there was a soft-spoken younger man with a doctorate who graded severely but got dreamy-eyed when talking about the lyric poets; there was a very old man who chain-smoked outside the dining hall, routinely threatened his classes with dire and elaborate methods of execution, and occasionally lost track of what he was writing on the board and wrote Sanskrit instead of Latin or Greek. Others were not classicists but plainly knew their classics well: a kind Midwestern woman who loved the theatre and introduced a bunch of 16-year-olds to Kant and Rawls; a retired minister who dragged students through Kierkegaard; a gay ex-Jesuit economist who would talk Plato or Hegel after class. These were all admirable people of deep intelligence who seemed to be grounded in something that I lacked, who could speak a shared intellectual language even as they had such variegated interests and personalities. I wanted that for myself, and it seemed at the time that the way to get it was to start at the (chronological) beginning.

I also had a certain kind of intellectual hunger that flatterers would describe as “omnivorous” and detractors as “indecisive.” This was one of my few genuine virtues: I did want to know everything, even when the work of getting to know something was stymied by the instinctive laziness endemic to clever children, and my youthful naïveté was able to see the fundamental unity of human knowing with a clarity that has often eluded my present, more seasoned eyes. One of the greatest appeals of Classics is the opportunity to study the ancient world in its entirety, moving between art and drama and history and philosophy via the historical persons and events that tied all these things together. If you are willing to work on the ancient Mediterranean world, you can enjoy an intellectual freedom, a space of methodological play and interplay, that scholars in other fields have not had for nearly a hundred years. You get to have something like a liberal education, a marvelous thing that most American colleges have not even bothered attempting within living memory. You aren’t going to know everything by the time you’re done—indeed, if your education has been effective you will feel your ignorance all the more acutely—but you will have a sense of the beginnings of things and some of the tools for moving forward and a common intellectual language with many people who did move forward. You will not know everything, but you will feel that, given enough lifetimes, you could.


The part of my studies that probably did me the most good was language work. Americans are among the most intellectually provincial people in the world, because we are raised as native speakers of a language backed by an economic superpower that, about a hundred years ago, forcibly excised linguistic pluralism from vast parts of the country in a wartime patriotic fit, and we have since become accustomed to having everything served to us in translations. This has not been to our benefit, and sustained work in other languages is indispensable for serious thinking: one learns to navigate new categories of thought and the necessity of understanding other people in their own terms rather than the impositions of a foreign observer. And the literature itself is magnificent: the stylistic abundance and exquisite balance of Ciceronian prose, which Cicero himself owed to his command of Demosthenes and Plato, contrasts brilliantly with the laconic ironies of Sallust or Tacitus, the rhetorical and intellectual disciples of Thucydides. Elegant Ovidian couplets and immortal, immortalizing lines of Homer are within easy reach after just a year of college-level instruction. This is no small bonus: in middle and high school I took six years to acquire enough Spanish to start reading serious books. Beyond the obvious benefits of expanding one’s horizons by reading literature written by people far removed in time and space, technical subjects like meter and stylistics are often easier to approach in a foreign language: being forced to read slowly allows us to see details that we would not see moving quickly, as people are accustomed to do in their native tongues.

In the end, it was the languages that most thoroughly enchanted me. Despite Cicero’s copiousness, Latin in most other hands is terse, clipped, direct: its comparatively small vocabulary favors concrete images and vivid metaphors over abstraction. Greek, with its vast trove of words and elaborate verbal morphology, affords endless choices about exactly how to say what you mean. In Greek’s easy morphological transition between the everyday and the abstract, one feels as if one can see traces of the train of thought that led Plato from seeing a beautiful young man to contemplating the beauty that made him beautiful and finally toward a vision of Beauty itself. And the story of these languages themselves is equally enchanting: their ultimate unity with our own English, along with the languages of Ireland and Germany and Russia and Iran and India, and the tremendous intellectual vistas opened up by the reconstruction of their common ancestor, Proto-Indo-European. There are real links—not “thematic,” not coincidental, but historical and reconstructible relationships—between the poetry of Ireland and the poetry of India that reveal themselves through close study of poetic language and structure. People far removed from one another are linked in unseen ways by the languages they speak every day.

There is great beauty in this, as there is great beauty in the archaeological and architectural history of the ancient Mediterranean: in the development of spatial and visual languages that expressed people’s relationships to their community and the community’s relationship to the world, and the spread and intermingling and repurposing of those same spatial and visual languages through time and space. Archaeology is not my passion—I have always been more at home with words than with things—but one of the joys of working in Classics has been working alongside archaeologists, because their work is essential to fully realizing my own. The ξίφος ἀργυροήλον, the “silver-studded sword,” is a well-known formula in Homer, but such swords are not found in the Archaic period in which the Homeric poems are thought to have reached their present form. Such swords are found, rather, in the tombs of Mycenaean warriors four or five centuries prior, demonstrating just how far in the past these poems must have begun to take shape. Because I worked in a Classics department, I have shared office space and meals and drinks with people who work in Mediterranean archaeology; we go to the same conferences and guest lecture in one another’s courses, and asking one another for help is as easy as walking across the hallway. The same applies if I have a question about Plato’s use of Homeric quotation, or about the Ilias Latina through which literate medieval people knew Homer after they had lost the ability to read Greek, or about visual depictions of the sack of Troy: the people who can answer such questions have been my friends and colleagues, not sequestered off from Greek literary studies in another corner of the university, and they are a quick email or phone call away. In an era of hyper-specialization, when scholars who work on periods only decades apart can pass an equal number of decades without talking to one another, the ability to have these conversations is rare and precious. It has enriched my intellectual life far beyond anything I could have imagined when I was younger, and hopefully it has channeled my indecision and dilettantism into appreciation for the colleagues that I have been so fortunate to have. Classics is a poorly-formulated and poorly-organized mess, and this is what makes it, despite its many faults, a wonderful field to be in.


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Daniel Walden

Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Christian socialism, musical theatre, and the Michigan Wolverines. He currently lives in the midwestern United States.


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