History: Wells of Wisdom

History and Geography in Classical Education

If a classical education consists of the seven liberal arts and includes the classical languages, one might wonder: what about history and geography? May we simply tack on subjects as we see fit, or must we limit ourselves to the arts?

Neither. First, adding subjects to a classical education is rather like the trend of families adding extracurricular on top of extracurricular until no one enjoys any of them and the members of the family hardly know each other, like so many dissociated roommates who can’t remember what it’s like to think or breathe. In an effort to create well-rounded children (whatever that means), we end up with hamsters who only know life on the wheel. There’s something to be said for doing a few things, doing them well, and enjoying them. This is the attitude that permeates classical education.

But second, the liberal arts are not in the least bit limiting. They’re the liberal arts – the arts of the free person. Certainly there’s a place for history and geography: this is part of the content of the Trivium (as are the classical languages). Recall that the three arts of the Trivium are Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Yet all three of these are taught and learned by examples. Students must hear what good grammar, logic, and rhetoric sound like, and this means drinking deeply from the cup of classical literature.

Now this may sound odd, but some of the best pieces of classical literature are histories. And the reason this might sound odd is because, generally speaking, history class calls to mind the tedious business of memorizing names, dates, and places (likely connected by some event, I think), voiding them onto an exam, and then turning to a completely different and seemingly unrelated set of names, dates, and places. Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria! Fourteen ninety two! Christopher Columbus! America! Native Americans! What do I remember? Facts. And what do those facts mean? I don’t know. No one ever taught me.

What Is the Purpose of History?

This leads to the question: what is the purpose of History? This is as broad as asking, “What is the purpose of life?” And both questions assume that there is some overarching purpose: that there’s not only the historiographer (the writer of histories), but also an Historiokrator – a Lord of History. Now if this is correct, then truthfully written histories will teach us something about history’s Lord. What sorts of actions does the Historiokrator reward? Which does he punish? What sorts of traits or behaviors should we consider virtues? Which are vices? Or, most basically, what is right and what is wrong?

Now one could assume that there is no Lord of History. In that case it’s up to mankind to define right and wrong, whether corporately or individually, provided the plebs or partisans think it’s right to believe in right and wrong. But this is a tricky position to maintain. How does one explain why every proud ruler in the history of the world has been humbled before dying (or met a very wretched end)? How does one explain why those who live by the sword die by the sword? Why do societies that pervert marriage (the union of one man and one woman, permanent and exclusive) always suffer societal collapse? One can believe there’s no such thing as objective right and wrong. One can believe there’s no Historiokrator. One can also believe that the sky is green and grass is blue, as long as one is willing to blind oneself to the facts.

The classical historians held that there is such a thing as objective right and wrong. They did not worship the one true God; nevertheless, the sole fact that they saw themselves as subjects to a moral law that held true for everyone the world over meant that they could rightly interpret the course of human events – insofar as their understanding of the moral law coincided with God’s Law. And even when the ancient historians diverge from a proper understanding of right and wrong, they still report the facts with eloquence, leaving us to draw our own conclusions, and to improve our rhetoric while we’re at it.

Isocrates and Tacitus

But the ancients can tell you themselves how they regard the purpose of History. Isocrates was a famous Athenian orator who wrote to Nicocles, the young king of Salamis, in the early fourth century BC. Isocrates advised Nicocles what he should do in order to be a good king and live up to that high office. Part of Isocrates’ advice was this: “Consider the things that take place and befall both common folk and kings, for should you be mindful of what has been, the better you will plan for what will be” (Isocrates, To Nicocles, 2.35). Or in other words: Pay attention to the outcomes of past deeds. Take them to heart, and do your deeds according to the outcome you desire.

In the early part of the second century AD Tacitus wrote his Annals of Rome. When commenting on some of the actions of the Senate he slips in a wonderful note about the purpose of his writing: “I have by no means taken upon myself to relate decisions except those remarkable for honorable conduct or for notorious shame, because I regard as the principal duty of histories that virtues should not be unspoken, and that against crooked words and deeds should stand the fear of posterity and infamy” (Tacitus, Annals, 3.65). And so Tacitus extols virtue and condemns vice in the course of relating events. Indeed, this is his purpose: to read the past as a moral catechism.

Story Time with Herodotus

But even better than listening to the ancients talk about history is listening to the ancients relate history. We turn to Herodotus, sometimes called the Father of History. Herodotus’ Histories document the rise of the Persian Empire and the war between the Persians and the Greeks. But he’s not spewing propaganda – “Go Greeks!” Rather, he’s teaching mankind by way of a broad sample of mankind’s collected experiences.

Let’s listen to one of his stories, shall we? Ah, but which one? Shall I recount how Cyrus, king of Persia, became angry at the Gyndes River and divided it into 360 streams? Shall I tell of the little coffin that the servant would take around to the dinner guests after supper in Egypt? Shall I speak of Cambyses, who became enraged with the Ethiopians and forthrightly led the army to journey to that country without making any provision for his troops? Or what about Polycrates, who threw a gold ring into the sea and later received it back in the belly of a fish? Or the Psylli, who made war upon the south-wind? What about the time the Athenians fined the dramatist Phrynicus for staging the Capture of Miletus? Or perhaps something that relates to Scripture. Shall I tell you how Cyrus captured the city of Babylon? Or how Sennacherib invaded Egypt? Or shall I give the Egyptian account of Pharaoh Neco’s war with King Josiah, followed by the Battle of Carchemish?

So many stories from which to choose! But I must pick one. Let’s hear about the time King Cyrus of Persia captured the city of Sardis. Sardis was the capital of Lydia, and Croesus was its king (of “rich as Croesus” fame). Croesus had gone to war with the Persians because of an oracle he had been given, which said that if he attacked the Persians he would destroy a mighty empire. And in the end he did destroy a mighty empire by attacking the Persians, just not the one he was hoping to destroy.

The armies of Croesus and Cyrus clashed in a district of Cappadocia called Pteria. Croesus was outnumbered, and though he survived the day’s battle he decided to withdraw to Sardis, take some time to find allies, and resume the war in the spring.

But Cyrus guessed at Croesus’ plan, and decided to pursue his troops back to Sardis and engage them again before they could regroup. There was a second battle on the plains before Sardis, and though the Lydians fought valiantly they were forced to retreat into the city. “Thus the siege began.”

Sieges are a miserable business. The besiegers cut off the flow of food and water into the city, and prevent communication from leaving the city. Then they wait, and wait, and wait until either the city surrenders or they have opportunity to mount a decent attack. Meanwhile the besieged ration food and water and try to sneak a messenger out so that he can go get their allies. The besieged have the advantage of being at home, and the high ground of the walls from which to attack, and the hope that the sojourning enemy will run out of provisions first and have to leave. The scene thus being set, we’ll leave the rest of the story to Herodotus:

“Now Sardis was taken in this way: After Croesus was besieged for fourteen days, Cyrus sent horsemen throughout his army and promised to give a reward to the first man who scaled the wall. After this the army tried without success. Then, once the others had stopped, a Mardian man named Hyroeades attempted to climb up by a certain part of the acropolis where no one had posted a guard. For no one was fearful about that place, thinking it could never be taken; for there the acropolis is sheer and impregnable. And it was the only place where Meles, the former king of Sardis, had not carried around the lion that his concubine had borne, the Telmessians having determined that after carrying the lion around the wall Sardis would be unconquerable. But when Meles carried it around the rest of the wall where the acropolis could be assailed he disregarded this place as it was impregnable and sheer. It is the part of the city that faces Tmolus. Now this Hyroeades, who was a Mardian, having seen the day before a certain man of the Lydians at this place of the acropolis descending after a helmet that had rolled down and picking it up, considered this and took it to heart. Then he himself also climbed up, and after him others of the Persians began climbing. And when many had ascended in this way then Sardis was taken, and the whole town plundered.”

And those are the facts surrounding Cyrus’ capture of Sardis. Ah, but those are more than just facts, aren’t they? Are the Lydians the only ones who are blind to their weakness, who have false security and overconfidence? The story asks: Are you like the Lydians? The moral of the story is very much like the point that St. Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 10:2, “So let he who thinks he stands watch lest he fall.”

Now history like this can be uncomfortable. It makes you take a look at yourself and the society around you, and sometimes you won’t like what you find. But the result of studying history in such a way is a useful introspection that takes the place of our inherent narcissism. History is a trove of wisdom, and its gifts are all good for you. So unless being a better person scares you, there’s nothing to fear.

Geography: The Places Where History Happened

Notice also how naturally the study of geography follows the study of classical history. Where is Lydia? How big was that kingdom? Was Sardis centrally located in it? Which direction is Persia from Lydia? How big was Cyrus’ kingdom? Where is Pteria, or Cappadocia? What is the terrain like around Sardis? What makes something an acropolis? One can’t read more than a page or two of a classical history without feeling a strong desire to look at a map.

And then when this sort of student of history looks at a map he actually retains geography, because the places have stories that accompany them. This is how we learn geography in everyday life. If I’m new to an area I don’t sit down and try to memorize where everything is at in town. Instead I’ll visit different establishments and things will happen at them. I will remember those happenings as stories. Then when my friend says, “Hey, do you want to go to Blue’s Diner for lunch?” and I say, “What diner?” my friend can say, “You know? The place where we sat outside and I dropped the ketchup bottle on the cement and it shattered.” And then I know, “Oh, the one over on 2nd Street by the courthouse!”

Look at these two maps. One gives a broad view showing where Asia Minor is located on the globe; the other pinpoints Lydia (which was in Asia Minor), Sardis, and Cappadocia:

Now you know where Sardis was, and you know a story that happened there. Strange as it may seem, even if you had never heard of Sardis before, you very well may be able to find Sardis on a map for the rest of your life – because as human beings when we think of geography we want a story to go with it. We remember geography as The Places Where History Happened.

Multiculturalism: History’s Archnemesis

How does modern education’s approach to history differ from the classical approach to history? First of all, modern education has no “history” class. It has been renamed “Social Studies,” and has a far different purpose and approach. Social Studies divides the world into cultural units. Each cultural unit receives a bit of time: the Egyptians, the Middle East, Japan, Native Americans. However, the units remain largely disconnected from each other, and bare facts receive much more emphasis than morals. Social Studies leaves the student wondering, “Why does someone think I need to know this, and how does it all fit together?” And since the student never receives a big picture that brings the whole world together, he’s eager to clear his mind of the dusty old facts. Frankly, who can blame him?

And yet modern education does have an overarching goal to its Social Studies. The goal is Multiculturalism. Now this word gets thrown around quite a bit, so I suppose I should define the word before using it any more. A dictionary is going to prove useless at this point. A dictionary will tell you that multiculturalism merely means “of or relating to different ethnic groups.” If that’s all it means then Herodotus is more “multicultural” than even the most progressive school.

But that’s not what the word means in modern education. In modern education Multiculturalism means highlighting the unique differences in various cultures and then as a blanket statement saying, “Good for them.” These Egyptians built pyramids and worship Ra. Good for them! These Middle Easterners speak Arabic and are Muslim. Good for them! These people over here had a Shaman. These people believed everyone goes to the same place when they die. These people thought eternal life meant living on in the memory of others. Good for them! These people had multiple husbands. These people held their spouses in common. These people were led by matriarchs. These people had the women do the hunting and the men do the gathering. Good for them!

Multiculturalism fixates particularly on religion and traditional morality (especially as regards sexuality), and espouses, “The only truth is that there is no truth. What’s true for these people is true for them, and what’s true for these people is true for them. Neither has the right to say: This must be true for everyone.”

Except Multiculturalism cheats on itself. It holds the premise, “No one can say: This must be true for everyone,” but in so doing it’s saying, “This must be true for everyone.” Multiculturalism cries, “Tolerance!” and demands it of everyone, yet refuses to exercise even a modicum of tolerance itself. Multiculturalism cries, “Diversity!” and will require students to memorize the five pillars of Islam, but will lynch anyone who thinks the class should also memorize the Ten Commandments.

And so Multiculturalism grabs whatever historical anecdotes fit the progressive agendas of the day, marshals them in support of tolerance and diversity, and silences anyone who so much as whispers anything contrary. To the student, Social Studies may seem like a string of boring facts. Yet history is still being used as a moral catechism, only piecemeal, and with no regard for the outcomes of practices, merely that the practices were.

I’ll note briefly that because Social Studies uses history merely for facts or anecdotes, geography need play no great part. The anecdotes might as well be History That Happened Nowhere. And if geography is taught (as a separate and unrelated class, of course), then the student will study the Places Where Nothing Happened.

And what is the final result of this pseudo-history called Social Studies? In the end Social Studies bestows a vague and perhaps fearful sense of “live and let live,” in which case Multiculturalism has done its work.

The Historical Use of History

I could waste great amounts of ink and expound the harmful effects of Multiculturalism even further. But honestly the best way to defeat evil is to call it a liar to its face and then occupy oneself with something good. So… Multiculturalism, you lie! And now let me sum up Herodotus’ approach to history, which will hopefully come as a breath of fresh air after all the nonsense of Multiculturalism.

Herodotus writes a world history, and not only shows how various nations and peoples functioned among themselves, but documents how they interacted with one another. He is himself a Greek, but does not limit his history to the Greeks, or even to peoples with whom the Greeks had direct dealings. Reading his work one gets the sense that he was simply fascinated with human cultures and customs, their uniqueness and variety, and was eager to learn and report as many of them as he could. He was a philanthropist in the truest sense of the word: a lover of man.

Yet Herodotus does not approve of every practice of every nation, but judges by a standard of right and wrong. He will grant that everyone prefers his homeland’s way of doing things; nevertheless this preference doesn’t make everything right. He is tolerant in the truest sense of the word: enduring that which he knows to be wrong, and recording it, and, out of love for justice and for future generations, recording the wretched end with which wrongdoing meets.

Herodotus doesn’t present only one side of a story when he’s heard two, and when accounts of causes differ he offers all he knows, leaving judgment to the reader. Herodotus tries to base his accounts on the testimony of a nation’s best, preferring eyewitnesses, and understanding that people lie to preserve national pride or the reputation of their gods, yet generally trusting people who would know better than him, and not giving himself over to speculation. He shows by example what a fine time history and humility can have with each other.

And the most significant point: Herodotus does not ultimately show how different nations are from each other, but for all the superficial differences in culture and practice human nature remains a common human nature, given to hubris, envy, anger, ambition, passions, impatience, greed, cowardice, revenge, madness, pride, and rashness. And both our common human experience and the annals of history show how harmful these are.

For Herodotus, as for all the classical historians, history does not merely impart information, but allows us to learn from the mistakes of others, and sit at the feet of wise fathers, and answer questions of right and wrong, and have a rollicking good time while we’re at it. So why not have some fun and open a classical history book? Why not study it with some friends, or begin a little school where the study of ancient history hasn’t become ancient history? You’ll be glad you did.

Painting: An Architectural Capriccio of the Roman Forum with Philosophers and Soldiers among Ancient Ruins…, by Giovanni Paolo Panini, c. 1745-1750

Translations are my own

The Classical Languages: A Tale of Two Cities

Olympia and Bluffton

If there’s one thing that makes classical education “classical,” it is the study of the classical languages: Greek and Latin. Classical education also involves reading the famous literature written in those languages, and studying the times when those authors lived. But a classical education is made classical with the classical languages. Maintaining the Trivium and the Quadrivium without teaching the classical languages can still prove very beneficial, don’t get me wrong. But a liberal arts education loses something when Greek and Latin are wanting. Unfortunately, that “something” can be difficult to identify; nevertheless, I’ll try my best to put my finger on it.

I can give four good reasons why students should study Greek and Latin. Someone more learned could likely come up with several more. I’ll give my four reasons as a comparison of two cities, the English city and the Greek and Latin city; let’s call them Bluffton and Olympia, respectively.

Olympia is easier to navigate, has clearer skies, serves better food, and boasts nobler citizens.

Easier Navigation

First, Olympia is easier to navigate, because Greek and Latin are inflected languages. This is in contrast to English, which is an analytic language. In analytic languages meaning depends greatly on word order. Take, for example, the simple sentence, Theagenes threw the javelin. If I change the subject and the object then we have, The javelin threw Theagenes, which – while good for a laugh – no longer communicates what I was trying to say. Or consider this arrangement: The javelin Theagenes threw. Is it saying something about a certain javelin that Theagenes threw? Is it saying that a javelin named Theagenes threw something? Is it saying that Theagenes threw the javelin? Using some common sense we could probably narrow it down to this last one, but I think I’ve sufficiently illustrated what an imprecise language English can be.

While an analytic language like English relies on word order to determine meaning, inflected languages (like Greek and Latin) have a different way of arranging words into meaningful sentences. I suppose the easiest way to introduce an inflected language is to point out the remnants of inflection that we have in English. See if you can identify what’s wrong with the following sentences: ‘Theagenes threw him javelin into the air over he head. The javelin fell back down on his.’

The pronouns are wrong! It should read, ‘his javelin,’ ‘his head,’ and ‘down on him.’ Thus we see in English that the masculine singular pronoun is inflected, meaning it changes its ending based on its role in the sentence: ‘he’ is the subject, ‘his’ shows possession, ‘him’ indicates direct object and pairs with prepositions (e.g. ‘to him,’ ‘from him,’ ‘through him’).

In inflected languages every noun, pronoun, and adjective works this way. They have separate endings for subject, possessive, indirect object, direct object. One almost cannot be imprecise without being flat out wrong.

An Example

Consider this sentence from Cicero’s De Divinatione: Quod enim munus rei publicae adferre maius meliusve possumus quam si docemus atque erudimus iuventutem? Here’s a word-for-word translation that keeps the word order: What for gift thing public bring greater better or can we than if we teach and instruct youth? If we read that sentence a couple of times we might get the gist of it, though as the translation stands we can hardly call it communication.

I’ll go through Cicero’s sentence word by word and demonstrate how the mind works through an inflected language. I glance at the first few words: Quod enim munus. Enim means ‘for,’ and is used in continuing and explaining a prior statement. Enim is also what’s called ‘post positive,’ meaning that even though it sets the tone for the sentence, it appears as the second or sometimes third word. In English, then, it would make sense to translate ‘for’ as the first word. While English has some words that can function as post positives (see the placement of the word ‘then’ in the previous sentence), the word ‘for’ is not one of them.

Next I see that Quod is a relative pronoun – ‘who, which, what.’ It is neuter in gender (nouns, pronouns, etc. in Latin can be masculine, feminine, or neuter). It is singular in number. It is in either the nominative or accusative case, and therefore I know that the ‘what’ is either going to be the subject of the verb or the direct object.

Since the relative pronoun Quod must refer to a noun, I go looking for a neuter, singular, nominative/accusative noun. And there’s munus! Munus can refer to a position, office, or duty. It can also mean ‘gift.’

But I need to figure out what role this munus plays in the sentence, and that means I need to find the verb. Possumus! There it is. Possumus is first person plural, present tense, from the verb possum, ‘be able.’ Here it means ‘we are able’ or ‘we can.’ This leads to the question ‘able to… do what?’ We need an infinitive: to read? to sing? to sculpt? There’s adferre, which means ‘to bring’ or ‘to offer.’ Now if ‘we’ is the subject then munus can’t be. It must be the direct object. I can begin translating, ‘For what gift can we offer…’

Next I notice that maius and meliusve are both neuter, singular, and nominative/accusative (I’ve narrowed it down to accusative, the direct object). Maius and melius are both comparative adjectives and describe the noun munus. The –ve on the end of melius is called ‘enclitic,’ meaning it sticks on the end of the word, but will get translated in English as if it comes before the word. Maius means ‘greater,’ melius means ‘better,’ and –ve means ‘or.’ Cicero writes about a gift that is ‘greater or better.’ I fit this into my translation, ‘For what greater or better gift can we offer…’

Offer to what, or to whom? There’s rei publicae. Rei is a noun that means ‘thing’ or ‘matter.’ Publicae is an adjective that means ‘public.’ Rei and publicae are both feminine, singular, and in the dative case (which marks indirect object, or in this sentence the beneficiary of the gift). The translation ‘public thing’ doesn’t make much sense, but I note that the two Latin words together give us the English word ‘republic.’ I add this to the translation, ‘For what greater or better gift can we offer to the republic…’ (Latin has neither the definite article ‘the’ nor the indefinite article ‘a, an,’ and therefore we can supply them where needed in translation).

Now we come to the second part of the sentence. Quam translates in a comparative sense, especially given that we had comparative adjectives in the first part. I’ll translate it ‘than.’ Si usually means ‘if,’ though here with quam I’ll translate it ‘than that.’

I look at docemus atque erudimus. Atque is easy: it means ‘and.’ Docemus and erudimus are both first person, plural, present tense from the verbs doceo and erudio. Docemus means ‘we teach,’ Erudimus means ‘we instruct.’ So: ‘…than that we teach and instruct…’ Iuventutem. This is a feminine noun, singular, and accusative, from iuventus. It’s the direct object of the verbs. It’s also the word from which we get the English ‘juvenile,’ and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that in Latin the word means ‘youth.’

And now I can understand the whole sentence, ‘For what greater or better gift can we offer to the republic than that we teach and instruct the youth?’ Once someone is proficient in Latin or Greek he can fly through this whole process rather quickly and naturally.

The Roads of Bluffton and Olympia

You see how hard the mind must strain to read a language as foreign and inflected as Latin. It gets even more fun with Greek when there’s an entirely different alphabet. These languages form the mind, and we might think of it like designing a roads system for a city.

The roads system in the English city of Bluffton is the work of several different contractors: Sir Anglo Saxon, Monsieur French, a Germanic gentleman. The contractors did not collaborate. Each did his work having inherited one thing from his predecessor and handing on something more or less altered to his successor – when there weren’t two different contractors trying to do the work at the same time.

English had been an inflected language. Through the years reliance on word order has mostly replaced case endings, though, as noted, we still have inflected pronouns. English usually conjugates verbs by adding words to the beginning of the verb rather than changing the ending of the verb itself, e.g. I walked, you walked, he walked, we walked, you walked, they walked. Yet in the present tense we get, I walk, you walk, he walks. And good luck telling if ‘you’ means ‘you’ singular or ‘y’all’ plural.

The centuries of construction and reform have left the Bluffton roads system with a good deal of internal inconsistency, which in turn offers great opportunity for confusion. Randomly a lane becomes right-turn-only, some streets suddenly strike a dead end, the roads angle and curve and meander about – so much concrete and so difficult to get where I want to go! Theagenes used to go with his friends to the stadiums with the javelins in order to throw them. Whether he threw the javelins, the stadiums, or his friends, no one knows.

Olympia has a far better roads system. The case endings form an elegant series of parallel north-south streets. The verb declensions form a complementary set of east-west streets. The intersections follow orderly syntax. Overall the roads of Olympia are predictable and consistent. As foreign as they may seem they are simpler to navigate because they make sense as a cohesive whole.

The student’s understanding of language – and I don’t mean a specific language, but the very essence of language – the student’s understanding of language will become more and more precise and orderly the longer he spends navigating the streets of Olympia. Or in other words, the Greek and Latin languages form the mind of the student in their image: they are straightforward to navigate, and they train the mind to navigate language in a straightforward manner. They are orderly and precise and they train the mind to be orderly and precise. This formative benefit of Greek and Latin is their chief benefit.

Clearer Skies

The second advantage of Olympia over Bluffton is that Olympia has clearer skies, that is, a more lucid vocabulary. I’m going to list a few English words. As you look at each ask yourself, ‘How would I define this word if someone asked me to do so?’ 1) Reconciliation, 2) Ostentatious, 3) Metamorphosis, 4) Catastrophe.

In Olympia this is an easy business:

1) Reconciliation, from the Latin verb conciliare, which means ‘to bring together.’ The prefix re– means ‘back, again.’ Put the prefix on the verb, and reconciliation means ‘bringing back together.’

2) Ostentatious, again Latin, from the verb tendo, which means ‘stretch,’ plus the preposition ob, ‘in front of.’ Put them together and you have ‘stretching in front of,’ or more simply, ‘displaying.’ An ostentatious person is showy, stretching and craning (sometimes literally) to get within sight of others.

3) Metamorphosis, this time from Greek: the preposition μετά (meta) ‘change,’ plus the noun μορφή (morphe) ‘shape, form.’ Hence metamorphosis means ‘a change in form.’ The Greek verb μεταμορφόομαι (metamorphoomai) comes up in Matthew at the Transfiguration of Jesus. (Interestingly ‘transfiguration’ is the same combination of ‘change’ + ‘form,’ except from Latin instead of Greek).

4) Catastrophe, which we know means something bad that happens. In the Greek, catastrophe comes from the preposition κατά (kata) ‘down, against,’ plus στροφή (strophe) ‘turning,’ hence a ‘turning against,’ or a ‘downturn.’

This practice of analyzing English words according to their original language roots is called etymology. Most dictionaries include a brief etymology of each word. If you want to have some real fun go to etymonline.com. The benefit of knowing Greek and Latin is that etymology becomes second nature. One sees an abstract word and can put some form to it by recalling Greek and Latin roots. These roots give concrete imagery to otherwise unclear words (consider again ‘ostentatious’). Therefore Olympia has this advantage over Bluffton: there are fewer clouds and clearer skies.

Better Food

The third benefit of Olympia is that the city serves better food. There is a great feast: the best literature that has ever been written. This feast is not consumed with the mouth, but with the eyes and ears and mind and heart. Nor is this feast gone once it has been consumed. Contrast this with most of our modern English literature (if we can call it that): electronically delivered, only ever half-digested, written with the assumption that it will quickly be forgotten and replaced with more salty, sugary, deep-fried mind-fat. Not so with classical literature. Reading Homer’s Odyssey once is like eating a salad at a seventy-five course meal. This literature is meant to be read, and re-read, then read again, without ever being exhausted.

Allow me to list some of the types and names of dishes served daily in Olympia. Broadly speaking, this is the best political, philosophical, moral, historical, poetical, theatrical, and all around beautiful literature the world has ever known. More specifically, here are Aesop’s Fables and Plutarch’s Lives, Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Herodotus’ Histories and Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Aeschylus’ Orestia Trilogy. And here are the accounts of the Holy Gospel, and the Epistles of St. Paul, a wonderfully nuanced board: in many ways simple compared with classical Greek literature, yet with such depth and flavor that they are always new, like freshly baked bread. And this list doesn’t represent a tenth of the hearty fare of Olympia.

The food is rich, and vastly different from the pseudo-romantic, emotionally-manipulative, and sex-crazed word salad that characterizes our day. At first we might not know what to do with the literature of Olympia. “What? Odysseus’ wife Penelope waited how many years for her husband to return from the war, she has a house full of eager suitors, and she doesn’t take up with any of them?” But then we realize that Olympia doesn’t know what to do with us. “Seriously? ‘Follow your heart’? ‘Live, laugh, love’? These are the great philosophical and ethical teachings of your day? What about duty, friendship, self-sacrifice, good, evil, right, wrong, the depravity of man, mastering the appetites, contemplating the afterlife, and the million other things that human beings were made to learn about and ponder?” So yes, the food is rich, it fills to the full, and Cicero is ordering for you. But most of us could use just such a mind-diet.

Nobler Citizens

Finally, Olympia has an extraordinarily illustrious populace, nearly the greatest of any city that ever was, second only to that of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven (and many are citizens of that city too). The citizenry have all learned at least something of the classical languages, many have mastered them, and they are all well-versed in classical literature. Olympia has such people as St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, Gregory the Great, Dante, Geoffrey Chaucer, Martin Luther, John Milton, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton.

They are all part of the same community and conversation. They reference great classical works and expect everyone else to know what they’re talking about. They have inherited a rich tradition, been formed by it, and have added to it. Some call this the Great Conversation: great for its temporal length, great for its subject matter, great for its esteemed participants.

In this conversation it seems that every deep question has received thorough treatment, every hard matter concerning human nature and relations has been asked and debated. Much has been answered, much remains a mystery. But you can bring up anything you like, so long as you come with an open mind and leave the thought police of your day outside the city gates. The population of Olympia is wise, not politically correct.

Olympia, or Atlantis?

So there stands Olympia with her orderly roads, clear skies, delicious food, and noble citizens. Participating in the life of this city forms one’s mind, clarifies thought, and sharpens expression. This mental formation is Olympia’s chief benefit, though also the most difficult thing to prove by argument.

The world used to be full of trustworthy people who could vouch for the great benefits of studying the classical languages. But those eloquent voices have faded. Parents and teachers used to urge at least Latin on their children in the same way they made them eat their vegetables: “It’s good for you.” And the parents and teachers were right. I could extol Greek and Latin until my breath would blow no longer, but the fact remains: no argument can convince someone to take up the classical languages. And that’s because, as with any city, you can never realize how wonderful it is until you go there and see it for yourself. The benefits of Greek and Latin are only grasped when those benefits are yours.

One generation used to pass down the classical languages to the next, knowing children and grandchildren would thank them later. Yet Olympia has become the lost city of Atlantis. How do we recover this city? Learn the classical languages. Walk up and down the conjugations and go back and forth along the declensions. Breathe the clean air and bask in the clear daylight. Nourish your mind with ancient nectar. Pull up a stool and rub elbows with giants. Study Greek and Latin. Become a citizen. And bring your children with you.

 

The book “Climbing Parnassus” by Tracy Lee Simmons was a great inspiration for this article, particularly his emphasis on the formative value of the classical languages. You can learn more about the book and purchase it at this link: Climbing Parnassus. I highly recommend it.

Painting: “Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens” by Leo von Klenze, 1846