Why Classics?

Frank Breslin |

Reflections from a Retired High School Latin Teacher on Reading Widely and Thinking Deeply.

The Young Cicero Reading, by Vincenzo Foppa, 1464

When I first read Cicero’s De Amicitia, I was a high-school senior in the late 1950s. I thought it an inspired choice to begin Latin IV. Friendships are important at any age, but especially during one’s teenage years, and as a 17-year-old I naturally read it as all teenagers do in terms of their own teenage experience. Cicero, of course, didn’t write it for teenagers but for adults, and so reading this book was like eavesdropping upon the concerns of adults in their dealings with one another.

We didn’t finish the entire text, if memory serves, as several of Horace’s Odes, Epodes, Epistles, and Satires were impatiently awaiting us in the wings, and thereon hangs an interesting tale. Our teacher, a gentleman about 70 who had served in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Army in the First World War, thought it essential as part of our training to read Horace, who had a different worldview altogether from that of Cicero, some of whose orations we had already read as juniors.

We were simply told that we should read both Cicero and Horace as each was, as he ominously put it, “the antidote to the other.” That comment alone gave us a lot to chew on for the next few months. In fact, in one of his extended asides, he mentioned that while young and still open-minded, we should read every author we could lay our hands on, especially authors of novels, plays, history, and philosophy.

It was dangerous to spend too much time on any one author lest that author have too much power over us, whereas carefully reading several authors with their different worldviews would broaden our perspective, which was “the essence of a first-rate education.” Reading widely and thinking deeply about what we had read was as important as all the courses we would ever take. That, too, struck us as worth noting. It was precisely this broadening outlook that was needed at our age, since we still lacked the critical discernment and life experience that could protect us from any one author’s bias.

However, this wouldn't matter if we read several authors, since each bias would offset the other, make things more interesting, and force us to sort things out for ourselves, which was the only real way of getting an education in the rough and tumble of the world. We had to sort out all the contradictions ourselves, for this kind of confusion was essential as the only way an education would “take”. Struggle toward clarity, but not too much clarity, was good, because absolute clarity could lead to certainty, which could be a subtle form of closed-mindedness.

It was important that we educate ourselves and not surrender our autonomy to any school, college, or university, whose teachings we should naturally consider, but not necessarily accept until we had first thought those teachings through for ourselves but, even then, hold them only provisionally because we were still young and in transition.

From that point on, we began to see school, teachers, and education in an entirely new light. This is what happens when you’re taught by a war veteran who by thirty, it was rumored, had read everything and endlessly thought about everything he had read while serving four tumultuous years in that most hellish apprenticeship in that most terrible of all schools — the trenches as described in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

Our discussions about taking responsibility for our own education, reading as many authors as possible when young, the importance of continually broadening our outlook, and antiquity’s "dark world" would put us in contact with a much broader universe of concerns and perspectives that gave us a far different outlook from others our age. No matter how insightful Cicero was, we could only see in this text what we ourselves brought to it, and we were just beginning to sense life's enigmas and to savor their mystery.

Reading Cicero, Horace, and the other Roman and Greek authors in high school, college, and later ushered us into a dimension of philosophical inquiry virtually non-existent today except for a small number of teenagers in every generation privileged to be enrolled in a classical humanities program.

What may have struck us at first about the classics as somewhat irrelevant to teenagers’ lives gradually loomed up before us as immensely relevant by preparing us with an endless number of recondite insights that popular culture could never bestow since it dealt only with the surface of life, the non-essential, immediate, and distracting Realm of Appearance that was blind to the Enduring.

The classical authors, by contrast, taught us the intangibles, the imponderables, and life’s transcendent lessons that were perennially timely and timeless by opening up contemplative vistas that guided us amidst life’s perplexities and taught us how confused the world was being obsessed only with the Now.

The classical spirit transformed our minds, imaginations, and sensibilities forever during those impressionable years we spent marinating in the hundreds of wise quotations about virtually every conceivable aspect of life as well as the wondrous tales and anecdotes told by our teachers. To be sure, they taught us grammar, vocabulary, and unraveled the byzantine passages of translation with us, but they did much more than that by opening up antiquity by discussing an endless procession of questions about how the Greeks and Romans saw the universe, which was totally alien from that of our own and even more from each other.

Those old-fashioned teachers explained to us the respective psychologies of the Romans and Greeks, their beliefs about death and the Underworld, Fate and the Gods. What fascinated us about the Greeks was how they always strove to do their best even when no one was looking; how they fell in love with the beauty of struggle, and accepted reality no matter how painful. The only problem was that the more they tried to explain them to us, the more elusive they became while capturing our imagination by their view of Fate, more powerful than the gods; their view of the myths as the great symbols of life; and how they made their peace with life's tragic brevity.

Did they think that their lives had any ultimate meaning and purpose beyond this world? Or was this world all there was? Why were the gods depicted as anthropomorphic in every way that only insulted their majesty? Why did they make humans suffer, especially infants and innocent animals? Where did they find the strength to endure life? Did too much success really anger the gods, and didn’t that seem petty as though they were jealous? Did the gods really want women to be subject to men? Is wisdom found by following tradition, authority, reason, emotion, or suffering alone? And should the dead rule the living by following the ancient ways?

The more we discussed the Greeks and their passion for thinking, their childlike curiosity and Faustian yearning to know, their irrepressible joy in living, their playfulness and love of games, and their eternal yes to the universe no matter what befell them, the more were we astonished that they also possessed an undeniable dark side, a deep pessimism, a profound despair and melancholy that hung over them. Was having too much insight a curse? Why did their lives fall so short of their wishes? The ideals of youth were shattered by middle age, which found wanting all that life had to offer. They seemed to touch every note of human existence, refusing to sugarcoat anything.

And yet this was their mystery: that despite all their melancholy, they continued to love life with a passion and exuberance that defied comprehension. In some miraculous way, they internalized all of life’s misery, overcame it, and transformed it to joy. This was the paradox of the Greeks -- how did they do it? The more we read and thought about them, the more confused we became, and this confusion only deepened our fascination.

Their insatiable curiosity about everything startled the ancient world since all other cultures had their religions to answer their questions, but weren’t as half alive to the ecstasy of living. However, those religious answers were not enough for the Greeks, for the search for Truth was their only religion. The questions they posed were very simple yet dealt with the essentials that gave instant perspective on the meaning of life and on what it means to be human. They were the grand universals that speak to all times, conditions,and cultures. They were both timely and timeless as was their courage in answering them by reason alone.

Then we discovered Greek drama that still continues to enthrall audiences after almost two and a half millennia. Imagine the plots we found: a wife slaying her husband who had killed their daughter; a son murdering his mother who had slain his father; a man killing his father and marrying his mother; a mother, abandoned by her husband, killing her children; a wife going to her death in place of her husband; a sister sentenced to death for burying her brother. From these grisly tableaux of indescribable anguish, we read them in the hope of finding their meaning and answers, but instead of answers, found even more questions.

And these plays were their religious service. You can imagine the emotional impact these plays must have had on their audiences? Did we have a broadened humanity exposed to their characters? Wider horizons in struggling with the chilling questions posed by their plays? After discussions like these, we needed no teacher incentive to read all that has come down to us by this trinity of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides who transported us beyond ourselves.

We had fallen in love with these Greeks and their playwright theologians and their questions, their courage in raising them, and their honesty in making their peace with their unanswerability. Of these three dramatists, Euripides was what we today would call modern in his iconoclasm and thoroughgoing skepticism. Not that we accepted his or any of their answers as our own, but only considered them, for the last thing they wanted was to be our masters who did our thinking for us.

We learned various names that at first meant little to us — Jacob Burckhardt, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff, Friedrich Nietzsche, Werner Jaeger, John Pentland Mahaffy, Gilbert Murray, Gilbert Highet, and Theodor Gomperz, among others. If interested, we could find out more by reading their works, and our teachers simply left it at that. What we did with this learning was our affair. Our teachers merely pointed the way, and that was all we wanted from them.

They gave us the facts, but conveyed the living spirit behind those facts, without which those facts would have been pointless, for what was the point of the classics if they didn’t change us as human beings and discover the mystery around us? Antiquarian knowledge for its own sake didn’t interest us teenagers. If what we were learning didn’t help us live more fully, insightfully, and intensely, such learning was useless. This is how we teenagers thought.

It was a different time back then. These teachers weren’t concerned with what we would be majoring in come graduation, but simply wanted to pass on their fire, as their teachers had doubtless done for them a generation or two in the past.They seemed to intuitively understand that creating enthusiasm for the classics was all that mattered, and the future would take care of itself. If students wanted to major in the classics later, they would, but only because of an emotional attachment to them, which they tried to instill by teaching in a way that spoke to students as teenagers who had those three gifts crucial for learning — passion, excitement, and love.

They never taught us as young classicists-in-training, but as young people who longed to be swept away by a love for knowledge to help them grow and experience the sheer joy and wonder of being alive, and not just to master abstruse grammatical nuances, for that kind of preparation was the kiss of death for any meaningful life of the mind. Reading our way through these ancient classics works taught us that here was an entire universe of discourse and philosophical repose that still existed and would always exist for those who wanted to enter it on their own by going aside and not allowing themselves to be carried away by modernity.

And for those who later made classical antiquity a lifelong pursuit by either profession or hobby, this habit of reading these classics opened up vast stretches of the ancient world and its concerns that endure to this day among those who partake of the Great Conversation with the past. These works have sustained generations of readers, some of whom may read these authors only once, while others keep reading them again and again, for the longer they live, the more these authors will say to them.

That said, however, let me be Frank. The unholy trinity of the professionalization, standardization, and bureaucratization that has taken over the teaching of the classics is part of the reason why enrollments have so precipitously declined in recent decades. Everything is now about the Holy Grail of employability, but in the process we have lost our souls as teachers of the classics, who should be devoting much more of our time to our classes and less on articles for professional advancement rather than by exceptional teaching that could inspire our students. What we should be solely about is embodying that old-fashioned fire of emotional involvement with the classical texts, for they alone matter. Nemo dat quod non habet also applies to the teaching profession. You have to have that fire yourself to give it to students, fire that is now hard to keep alive when it should be raging.


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Frank Breslin

Frank Breslin is a retired high-school teacher in the New Jersey public school system, where he taught English, Latin, German, and History for forty years.


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